Lost on the Plains
The following is an excerpt from The Riders of the Plains: A Reminiscence of the Early and Exciting Days in the North West(1905), by Cecil Edward Denny. This work is in the public domain.
Continued from Chapter VI: On the March.
Lost on the Plains
AFTER MEETING THIS party bands of buffalo were often seen, but in small numbers and a long distance off, so we had no chance to kill any for several days after. Some time pre our wood had given out. We had used dry buffalo dung as fuel. This makes a capital fire, but requires considerable quantities to keep it going. We used this for all our cooking during the remainder of the trip, except when we happened to camp near wood, which was seldom. Sundays were not exactly our day of rest, as after church parade in the morning all hands turned to washing clothes, etc., which could not be done on any other day of the week. Most of the water we found was not fit to drink unless boiled, some being salt. However it was the best to be procured, and we had to put up with it. The salt water did the horses much injury and in fact killed many of them.
Aug. 25 we came in sight of the Cypress mountains and camped at a creek of clear cold water with very good feed near it. Some of this hay we cut and carried with us. We camped for several days at the north end of the Cypress hills with plenty of wood and water. Dome deer and antelope were killed. This was the first fresh meat for a long time, and there was not enough of it. We were joined here by Colonel Macleod who had gone back with the best teams for more oats. The horses picked up wonderfully as long as these oats lasted but they were getting into terrible condition. The work of the men was nearly doubled as they had to drive and look after so many exhausted horses. The men had worked splendidly through great and unaccustomed hardships, and well deserved the thanks for their behavior which were issued in general orders on the evening of Aug. 30. In spite of the unusual amount of extra work, with scanty fare very little grumbling was indulged in.
The Cypress hill country was fairly wooded, there being much underbrush loaded with berries of all kinds. It used to be a great country for grizzly bear but although we saw plenty of tracks we did not come across any of the beasts. We crossed the Cypress hills in 1874 not far from what is now the town of Maple Creek, on the Canadian Pacific railroad, but all vestige of game has disappeared years ago. The weather while here was cold, wet and very disagreeable, and more dead horse were left behind.
We had now been out nearly three months and were nearly 700 miles from Dufferin, but we had far to travel yet, and our stock were daily diminishing. What were left were very weak. Our provisions were also getting short, and but for the buffalo we should have been in a bad way. We killed our first buffalo Sept. 1 and a great hunt it was. Nearly every one joined in it. Guns were going off in every direction, and the officers were in the greatest state of excitement. One officer distinguished himself by his headlong chase after an old bull with an unloaded revolver. He had forgotten to load it in the excitement. Away he went alongside the bull, pounding away at it with his revolver slung at the end of a strap, until some one came to his assistance and brought down the game.
We killed four on this first hunt; the robes were carefully taken off and preserved and the meat made a welcome addition to the different messes. From this time on we had no dearth of fresh meat. The further west we went the more plentiful became the buffalo. We came to places where, as far as the eye could reach, thousands and tens of thousands were in sight, the country being fairly black with them. They had eaten the grass very short making food scarce, and all the lakes were polluted by them. These immense bands seemed to be travelling north, but there seemed to be no end of them.
The killing was easy, and many times we killed them from the saddle without going out of the line of march. The robes were not in good condition at this time. It is only in the winter and spring that they are in their prime. The animals shed their coats during the summer season, making the robes useless. It was at this time I shot my first buffalo and cut off the best pieces myself.
One day I was out alone, and my horse got down in a quicksand hole up to his neck, only his head and saddle being in sight. I had to walk several miles in a burning sun to get help to extricate him. That was done by hauling him out bodily with ropes hitched to a team, and he was none the worse for it, serving me for many years afterwards on many a hard ride. By this time our supply of oats was getting very short, the horses being put down to four pounds per head. The country after we left the Cypress hills was hilly, making hard pulling especially with the guns. Twelve horses were often hitched to them, with as many men as could lay hold, to help them up the hills.
September 6 we camped on the South Saskatchewan river, our guide telling us that the Bow river entered into it only 12 miles above where we first struck it. We very shortly found that he knew nothing whatever about the locality, going only on hearsay, never having been in that section before. We travelled from here up the river, but keeping out from it a considerable distance to avoid the deep coulees that sometimes ran back several miles from the river. We found the feed very light and the water scarce. We had a slight snowstorm on Sept. 9, which killed many horses. As we were travelling through sand hills there was little or no feed. We camped at the mouth of the Bow river which runs into the South Saskatchewan at this point. Our guides were completely at a loss, not knowing up which river Fort Whoopup lay, and really not being sure which of the two rivers was the Bow and which the Belly. The South Saskatchewan receives the name of the Belly river after the junction of the Bow. Whoopup in reality lies about 120 miles up the Belly river from the point where we were then camped, at the mouth of the Belly and St. Mary’s rivers. But we were utterly ignorant of this fact. Had we known, it would have saved us going round some 200 miles or more. It was decided that I should proceed up the Bow river on the south side, taking with me three halfbreeds, with only our ponies and sufficient rations to last us three days. We were to go up the river as far as we could to see if any signs of settlement or any white men could be met with. Another officer, Captain Welsh, was to proceed up the Belly river for the same purpose.
One troop was to be detached here under command of Major Walsh to proceed north to Edmonton, but this order was afterwards cancelled, and a good thing it was, as he could never, with the horses in such condition and the season so late, have reached that point. It lies nearly 200 miles north, with a swampy country to go through.
I started up the Bow river Sept. 12 with the three halfbreeds. We had a tough little halfbreed pony apiece. We had our three days’ rations and one blanket each. We made 40 miles that day and saw nothing but thousands of buffalo. We were in a heavy storm of sleet during the night, and had no sleep as the buffalo stampeded our horses, and after we recovered them we had to watch them until morning.
We made a start at daylight, without breakfast. We killed a buffalo during the morning and cut off the best pieces, which we cooked for breakfast on striking a small creek with timber, some distance ahead. On that day about noon while riding along the river, we saw two Indians on foot coming from the prairie, and making for a deep gully running out from the river. We tried to cut them off to get into communication with them, but they got down into the gully before we could get near them. We rode towards the gully and when within about 100 yards of it, up sprang about 50 Indians, all armed, and pointing their rifles at us. We kept our rifles ready and kept on the move round, making signs to them. There was no fear of them being able to catch us, as they were on foot and there were no horses in sight. The halfbreeds spoke to them, but could not understand what they said. They lay down behind the bank, with just their heads and the muzzles of their guns in sight. They did not fire, and showed no signs of hostility. One man stood up and went through a pantomime of signs which the halfbreeds could not understand. The latter were thoroughly scared, and insisted on riding off, as they said they were Sioux Indians, and would kill us if they got a chance. The Indians were uncertain what to do, not knowing but that another party might be behind us. One Indian waved a scalp at us. They were evidently a war party on some expedition. I much wished to get near and into communication with them, but on the halfbreeds riding off and leaving me alone, there was nothing for it but to follow. It took me hard riding to catch up with them, as they were on the back track, making for camp. It took me a long time to persuade them to turn back and resume the journey up the river, which we eventually did, making a wide detour around the gully in which the Indians lay. We found out afterwards that this was a party of Assiniboia Indians out on foot on the war path. They had been up the Bow river over 100 miles from the point where we met them, and had attacked a party of white men who were camped on the river with two or three wagon loads of goods, trading with the Blackfeet. They attacked this party at night, stole all their horses, killed one man, captured and burned the wagons and destroyed what goods they could not take with them.
A. La Chapelle, one of this party, is still in business in this country. It was a good thing indeed for us that they were undecided what to do. They no doubt were at a loss to know what kind of a party we were. My red coat must have puzzled them considerably. After this we travelled at night, as we thought the Indians might follow us, which indeed they did. On our return we found their tracks, they having followed us a considerable distance. We travelled about 40 miles farther up the river, having gone altogether about 90 miles from camp. No sign of any trail or habitation was seen, and we might have gone 100 miles further before we should have met with any. This of course we found out afterwards.
There was no timber on the river as far as we went, and the country was broken and hilly. We saw a fine sight here- some thousands of buffalo swimming across the Bow river, which is at this point a considerable stream and very swift. Our rations had given out and we killed buffalo for food. We returned to camp the third day, on our return journey travelling mostly at night and resting part of the day. We had made a hard and long ride of at least 60 miles a day. The Indian ponies we rode were wonderfully tough and enduring. The last night thousands of buffalo passed us on a stampede going south; their tread fairly shook the ground, and a lucky thing it was for us that we were not in their road. On our arrival in camp we found that Welsh had returned from his trip up Belly river, without seeing any signs of white men or settlement. Had he gone 50 miles further up, or 100, he would have struck camps of traders. This, of course, we did not know at that time.
It was now decided to travel south to the Sweet Grass hills, or Three Buttes, which we could see in the distance, about 80 miles off. We would remain in camp there, whole the commissioner and assistance commissioner proceeded south to Ft. Benton, Montana, about 100 miles from the Sweet Grass, to communicate with Ottawa and to procure provisions and information. We therefore left Belly river Sept. 15, arriving on Milk River, just north of the West Butte, Sept. 18, after a most dismal journey, many horses being scattered all along the trail, unable to travel for want of food. We had one or two snow storms on the road and the weather was cold. On Milk river we had good feed and water. We crossed this stream and camped at the foot of West Butte, near the site of an old boundary survey camp. The boundary line was only half a mile south of us. There was a great scramble for some provisions left in this camp, and one mess was the lucky possessor of a gallon of molasses, a spoonful of which you could not purchase for a fortune, and they were looked upon with envious eyes.
We found some very good coal on Milk river, and signs of iron were very abundant. No doubt some day they will be developed as there is lots of coal there for smelting purposes. At this place it was decided that D and E troops, with Colonel French, should return east. They wintered near Fort Pelly, on the North Swan river, and Swan River barracks was the name given to the place. They were to pick up the wagons and horses left on the road, on their return. We said goodbye to them, and they started on their return journey Sept. 21. Colonel French, after leaving Benton, caught them some distance to the eastward.
The remaining three troops, C, B and F, were to remain at the Sweet Grass hills until the return of Colonel Macleod, who would take command of that force, and we should then proceed northwest to do the work we originally came for. Colonel French and Colonel Macleod proceeded to Ft. Benton Sept. 22, leaving us in camp with good feed and water, with Captain Winder in command.