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The Adventures of Kootenai Brown (5/7)- Living with the Metis

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(Continued from The Adventures of Kootenai Brown (4/7)- The American Frontier)

The Adventures of Kootenai Brown (5/7)- Living With the Metis




On June 19, 1869, Brown’s contract with the Army expired. The frontiersman rode west to Fort Buford, North Dakota, and contracted with the 13th Infantry to operate a military express between Fort Buford and Fort Totten. In the middle of his first route, while in Fort Totten, Brown was requested to undertake a side job that entailed guiding a party, commanded by United States Army Brigadier General W.S. Hancock, on a tour of the region north and west of the fort. Brown accepted, and delegated his unfinished courier business to Metis riders at Fort Totten.

Near the end of the tour, Hancock decided that he and his party should stay for some time in Pembina, North Dakota. During this time, thirty-year-old Brown met eighteen-year-old Olivia D’Lonais, a beautiful French-Cree Metis girl who lived in the village. After a brief courtship, Brown married Olivia on September 26, 1869, in Pembina’s St. Joseph’s Church.

After their marriage, Brown and Olivia settled at Fort Totten and remained there for two years, with Brown resuming his courier work. In August 1871, the couple moved to Fort Stevenson. After a brief hiatus, Brown resumed his work as a mail carrier in November 1871. He continued to work for the Army without event- notwithstanding Olivia’s pregnancy and the subsequent birth of his first child (a daughter)- until June 9, 1874, when he quit his job on account of his salary being reduced by half. Immediately upon leaving the Army, Brown, Olivia and their daughter joined a camp of Canadian French-Cree Metis from the Red River. They would stay with the Metis for nearly three pleasant, carefree years. In later years, Brown recalled his time with the Metis with great fondness.


The Metis Buffalo Hunt


Brown and his family joined the Metis camp just in time to take part in the famous Metis buffalo hunt. The Metis had their own unique style of buffalo hunting that differed significantly from the tradition Indian style, which usually involved herding buffalo over cutbanks or cliffs such as the one at Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump. He described the hunt in great detail:

“When the hunting season opened everybody- men, women and children left the wintering places in carts, wagons, and some even with the old travois. We took all our belongings which sometimes did not mean much, but we took them anyhow. After we had travelled out of range of winter quarters in which we had killed off all buffalo, scouts were sent ahead on horseback to find where the buffalo were in numbers sufficient to move the whole camp. Sometimes these scouts would have to travel a hundred miles before returning to report that it was worth while making camp. Often it would be several days before we would make our first stop, but after that we would not need to travel so far. You understand that a little hunting was done all winter and because of this buffalo did not live in large numbers near the camp.

When the scouts returned they would meet the camp which had been following them up, and when near the point where the buffalo were found in numbers, all the riders- between one hundred and fifty and three hundred in number- would range themselves abreast to give every man a fair chance. With the captain of the hunt about the centre of the line and about three horse lengths ahead, we would advance at a slow walk toward the buffalo who would huddle together and show signs of alarm and finally break into a fast walk. The leader of the hunt would yell “Trot”. About this time we would be three hundred yards from the herd. They would shortly break into a slow gallop and the chief hunter would give his final command “Equa, Equa,” meaning, “Now, Now,” and every one of the long line of hunters would spur their runners into a gallop at full speed. From this time on it is every man for himself. Those who had the fastest horses got their pick of the herd. Sometimes a hunter on a very fast horse would have three, or as many as five, buffalo shot before the main body of the hunters got up. A great deal depended on the horse he was riding. Some of them were the best race horses that could be bought on the prairie. Some hunters in a drive of this kind would kill as many as ten buffalo and the whole camp would probably total one thousand head.

It was some experience for a new hunter- dust flying, horns clashing, buffalo bellowing, men yelling, and all going at top speed. The buffalo dare not stop as the rest of the herd would trample over them. There was hardly ever a drive in which someone was not hurt. It rarely ever happened that a hunter was shot, but sometimes he would be knocked off his hose and another rider would run over him. We had to be very careful and, at the same time, we had only a few minutes to do our execution. And we had to remember the buffalo we killed, for each hunter had to skin and transport his own game. In time of scarcity when there was only a small amount of food in the camp, as sometimes happened in later years, a general drive would be ordered by the captain when everything killed was “Minis-a-wak” (common property).”

Brown, who owned a Hawkins rifle that he had carried while riding for the Pony Express and the United States Army, noted the Metis’ relatively primitive equipment.

“In those days most of us had saddles- I suppose three quarters of us had- but not the stock saddles used in the west today… [most] were what we call pad saddles. They were made of buffalo hides and usually stuffed with antelope hair. They were light, only weighing a couple of pounds. The stirrups were made of wood cut from the timbers in the river bottoms and the stirrup straps were made of a two-ply of good six-year-old bull. We used loose ammunition, black powder and ball and cap. We carried the bullets in our pockets, and for immediate use in our mouths. The powder we had in a horn and it was poured haphazard into the barrel and a ball rolled in. Sometime we overloaded and every season there would be two or three hands blown off or a few fingers mutilated by guns exploding…

In running buffalo a hunter with a good horse would kill only prime animals. No calves or yearling were ever killed- nothing but full grown, three, four, five, and six years old. Buffalo live, barring accidents, to about the same age as domestic cattle. We always preferred front quarters of a buffalo because they were fatter and as we boiled our meat in summer, front quarters made the best food. Of course, it was a rule in all half-breed hunting camps that every part of every animal must be used unless it was diseased. Mange was the principal disease, but we frequently found buffalo with lump jaw and occasionally with wounds inflicted in drives or by the arrows of roaming bands of Indians. These diseased or maimed animals were only killed by accident.

The run of the herd would average about one mile. Some of the slow or long-winded horses might run a couple of miles but most of the killing was done in five hundred yards. It was just a miniature battle but the killed were always of the fleeing army of buffalo. A hunter would occasionally be hurt. I remember once breaking my shoulder blade. I had killed six buffalo in a drive, which should have been amply sufficient for the day, but I was riding a fast horse and was too greedy and rode into a bunch ahead of the slow animals that had got behind. A number of buffalo crowded into my horse and he stumbled and fell. I got free of the stirrups and I don’t know how many animals ran over me. When I was picked up by the other hunters I was unconscious, and when I was taken back to camp in a meat cart it was found that my shoulder bone was broken. I was laid up for a week but was not able to hunt for the remainder of the season.

As soon as the drive was over, the women with the children and old men followed on with the carts to carry the meat back to camp. Immediately after the hunter had stopped shooting, he turns back to find the buffalo he has killed. Dropping his bridle rein, his horse feeds about while he cuts up his game. It is all done with a knife- skinning and quartering, and never an axe used. Each hunter must look after the animals he has killed and his woman is on hand to haul it away with a cart. The drive begins as early as possible in the morning. This gives plenty of time to dress the killing and get it to camp before dark at night. A cow and a half was considered a good load for a cart, which of course, was hauled by only one horse. It was the hardest kind of work, skinning and cutting up buffalo in the boiling sun of a midsummer day, and we were always glad when the carts came back for another load as our women always brought a keg of water. We were always very thirsty. The dead buffalo were as-thack-a-kay (placed on their backs with their heads tucked under their shoulders ready for skinning). It took only a few minutes to skin one. The carving was not done close to the hide because of the danger of cutting the hide. This was particularly so in the winter when the hides were sometimes used for robes or other purposes. After the hide was taken off the flesh was scraped with a “Mick-a-Quaw,” (a macking iron), which was an arrangement with teeth that scraped off the meat or “mick” next to the hide.

The hides of buffalo over four years of age were rarely ever used because it was heavy and coarse. If we wanted a prime hide we went out and killed a two-year-old cow buffalo. Old bull hides were used for lariat or lass ropes and, in later years when we killed for robes of commerce, only three-year-old animals were slaughtered. In summer the hides of bulls were always left on the prairie with the entrails. I suppose I have seen thousands of buffalo hides left to rot on the plains. There was no demand for them, no use for them. The hair was short in summer and we could not use them in our houses or huts and there was no market for them then. I wish I had a few thousand of them now.

As a general rule no hunting was done for two or three days at least, and sometime ten days after a drive. If the buffalo were still in the vicinity in which the first drive took place, the camp remained stationary and another drive was made usually in two or three days, or before they wandered too far away. But if the first drive resulted in the usual slaughter of buffalo, it took a week to get the meat disposed of. The morning after the drive the women started cutting up the buffalo quarters and making dried meat and pemmican. No meat ever spoiled. It was sliced up as quickly as possible and sun dried and if kept from damp, dried meat or pemmican would keep for a thousand years. I suppose our drives in the good hunting season would average one a week but all depended on the buffalo. Sometimes they wandered a long way off and sometimes other hunters came in and disturbed them.”


Metis Spirituality


During his time with the Metis, Brown, who admitted to being largely non-religious, was impressed by the deep religious fervor of the Roman Catholic half-breeds:

“The half-breed hunting camp was a religious and law-abiding institution. I have never been a very religious man any time in my life but I think I was brought into closer touch with religion in the years of my buffalo hunting with French half-breeds than at any other time in my life. It was not my religion though. I was born into the English church and have since embraced theosophy, but I never lived with a people more deeply religious than those French half-breeds of the early hunting days on the plains of Western Canada. Before every buffalo drive, when we got saddled and ready to ride after the herd, the long line of hunters dismounted, and having crossed themselves, knelt on the prairie while the chief hunter made a short prayer. In it he called upon the Almighty to give success to the hunt, to prevent accidents, and to give us food for our wives and little ones. It was an extempore prayer not found in any prayer book and it varied in words and length every hunt. The French half-breeds were Roman Catholics, of course, and I was the only man in the camp who did not cross himself very devoutly before meals. There was mass every Sunday conducted by the chief hunter.

Sunday was always a day of rest in the half-breed camp. No hunting nor any kind of work was done on that day. It was quieter by far than any western village on a Sunday in these times. There was a fine of $10 for any man who would shoot a gun on this day of the week. I usually went with my wife to mass as it was one of the rules of the camp that everybody should attend. But one Sunday I was at home alone and looking out across the camp I spied a find antelope feeding on the hill. The temptation to shoot was very strong because it was a rare thing for an antelope to come near our winter village. So taking up my gun, I stole around the hill, and when I got a good position I let-her-go and dropped the animal in her tracks. The report of the gun was heard by the worshippers at mass and in the middle of the service two “sa-mag-inis-uck” (camp soldiers or police), were sent out to arrest the hunter. Next day I was hailed before the chief hunter and fined $10, which I had to pay, dead sure. There was no such thing as money in camp- not a red cent; everything was trade or barter. I paid in skins or meat or something, I don’t remember what. Oh, no. You couldn’t shoot on Sunday in a French half-breed buffalo hunting camp, and I don’t think I ever did such a thing again.”


Camp Dangers


Brown, in his reminiscence, went on to describe the ever-present dangers of camp life:

“The Blackfeet were scattered over the prairie in the territory where we hunted and every night we made a coral of our carts and kept our horses inside this coral. Two or three men stood guard from the dark to daylight to warn the camp should any attack by Indians take place. Ours was a large camp and we were never troubled because the Blackfeet were afraid to attack us. Our guns were far superior to theirs; in fact, they did not begin to use guns for many years after their use in the hunting camps. They were afraid of them. All young men of the camp had to take their turns as soldiers or policemen, keeping order in the camp, but mostly guarding the camp day and night from possible attack from hostile Indians. At night they patrolled with loaded guns. The tents and lodges of the camp were in the circle made by placing the shafts of one cart on the tail-board of another. One would be surprised today at the immense circle the camp carts would make. There were many carts used for hauling wood as the camp moved from place to place. These remained stationary while the drive was on and while the pemmican was being made and if the carts used for hauling meat were used during the day they were placed in position before the horses were unhitched at night.

Our camp had quite an experience once. It happened on a Sunday morning and I was the only sinner not as mass. It was near what afterwards became Fort [Walsh] in the Cypress Hills and I was nursing a broken shoulder blade. Our camp consisted of about one hundred and fifty lodges and our carts had all been packed for moving on Monday for a new drive and to make a new camp. I was lying in a tent when I heard a great rumbling noise. I knew at once what it was but could not understand why a herd of buffalo should be stampeding into our camp. They were coming pell-mell and to try to head them off I ran out with a Hawkin’s rifle and resting the barrel on one of the carts I shot with one hand. I had only time for two shots when the whole herd came careering into the camp. Nearly half the tents were upset and many of them torn to ribbons. If it had happened at any other time but during mass when everyone as away from their tents, who knows how many would have been killed. As it was, only two dogs fell victims of the stampede. But carts were overturned and many shafts and wheels broken. They went right through the camp leaving a trail of destruction in their wake. Behind them were a party of white hunters who, when they saw what they had done, rode off at a full gallop and we never saw them again.”


The Metis Winter Camp


After the autumn hunt, the Metis hunting camp would break. Some of the Metis returned to their homes in the Red River Valley, while others built and wintered in a temporary residence. Brown and his family, who had no permanent home along the Red River, were forced to stay on one of these camps. Brown recorded his recollection of the Metis winter camps thus:

“Their winter camps were chosen with care. They had to be near a wood for building purposes and fuel, close to a stream or river, and not too far from the favorite haunts of the buffalo for the next spring’s hunt. The construction of log huts gave the camps an air of solidity and permanency, which indicated the possibilities of a definite settlement. Winter after winter the Metis returned to the same districts and gradually, through the efforts of missionaries and the diminution of the chase, these became the sites of permanent villages. The most important of these hunting communities were to be found between the lower reaches of the North and South Saskatchewan Rivers near Duck Lake and Fort Carlton, and in the Qu’Appelle valley…[The Metis] cabins had large fireplaces and, usually, puncheon floors. These were made by split logs from the river bottoms, smoothed with an axe on one side and the round side lay on the ground. The large chimneys were made of rocks picked up on the prairie and plastered with mud. As a matter of fact, the chimneys were mostly mud, but it is wonderful how they stood up. Of course, they were hardly ever used two winters in succession. The wood was put in them on end and was cut five feet long. They gave out an immense head even though half of it went up the chimney. It was a common thing at night to see flames seven and eight feet high shooting out of a score of chimneys in a half-breed camp. Cooking was done in this fireplace. There was no such thing as a stove for many a year after this time. We didn’t even have candles for light. The fire usually gave all the light that was needed but this was sometimes helped out by bowls of grease in which were set twisted rags. In summer no lights were needed for we were in bed before dark and up at sunrise. As a rule the village used for winter quarters was built in November or December and was deserted for tents about May. French half-breeds are very gay people and as there was not much to do in the long winter evenings, had a dance nearly every evening. Sometimes this would be in a private house and friends and neighbors invited. Other times it would be held in a hall in the half-breed village always built for the purpose. In the camps where I was there would be about one hundred and fifty lodges or houses and averaging them at seven persons to a house there would be a total of about one thousand souls in a half-bred hunting camp.One thousand people of nomadic proclivities would require a great many horses. We had between four and five thousand. Of course, we did not cut any hay for horses and they had never known was grain was. When we were through with them in the fall they were turned out to rustle for themselves and sometimes we never saw them until spring. The camp knew where they were, however, for there was always a chance of wandering bands of Indians picking them up and taking them off. We always lost horses this way every winter. These horses were used for carts which women and old men and children drove while the men hunted. You must remember that when we pulled stakes in May we took everything we could load up for we never knew for sure that we would ever see the village again. There would be between one hundred and fifty and three hundred buffalo hunters and each of these would have at least wo buffalo runners, that, is fast horses for running down buffalo. I had three runners and two four-horse outfits besides; and I had the only light wagon in camp. It was used by my wife and the children [Olivia had given birth to Brown’s second daughter during their stay with the Metis] when changing camp and hunting.”


The Metis and the Buffalo


Brown, like so many others, reiterated the importance of the buffalo to the Metis and other people of the plains:

“Buffalo meat was the staple food and ninety per cent of all the food eaten was either this meat dried and cooked in various ways or made into pemmican. Occasionally for a change we killed antelope, ducks, geese, and sage hens and in the fall the women and children picked wild turnips and berries of various kinds. Pemmican was all made in summer and used for food in winter of perhaps some of it sold to the few post stores along the frontier. It was from the flesh of bulls killed in August, September, October, and November and sometimes in May and the first week in June. No meat was killed in the rutting season which was June and July.

It was a rare sight in rutting season to look out at the great cloud of dust in every direction thrown up by the pawing and rolling of thousands of bulls in every large herd. All over the prairie today are to be found depressions, some now containing water, made by the feet of bull buffalo, the earth out of which was thrown into the air and carried off by the wind. They are known as wallows, and will stand out for many years to come as reminders of the “once mighty herds which shook the earth with trembling sound.”

Buffalo were harmless to one on horseback. We rarely ever heard of a buffalo attacking a horse and rider unless severely wounded. They would not even attack a person on foot but would crowd around out of curiosity and the pedestrian was liable to be trampled down… There were countless thousands of buffalo in those days, thicker than even range cattle were on any range on earth. I have stood on the top of the Cypress and Sweet Grass Hills in Alberta and Saskatchewan and, as far as I could see in all directions, was a living mass of buffalo…

In the course of human events and in the march of civilization the buffalo had to go. We couldn’t have settlers and buffalo… I am sorry as a lover of sport that the buffalo had to go; sorry as a humanitarian that they are gone; but they had to go.”

(Continued on The Adventures of Kootenai Brown (6/7)- Fort Benton)



  • Kootenay Brown: The Unknown Frontiersman, 1996, William Rodney


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