“As some of my readers may not be acquainted with the Red River Settlement I will give a short account of it here,” Augustus Peers wrote in the 1840s, “although it does not lie within the range of my travels.” When Peers heard these stories, he was travelling north with Alexis dit L’Esperance and the men of the Portage La Loche Brigades. His stories are second-hand: nevertheless, they are quite enjoyable. “The greatest portion of the population” of the Red River Colony, he wrote, “is composed of half-castes, offspring of European and Canadian and native women…
They are of too voluble and wavering a disposition to settle themselves down to agriculture, choosing rather to voyage about in the boats of the Company, or in going to the distant forest to cut timber for fuel and house building purposes which they raft down to the settlement on the spring floods and dispose of to the inhabitants.
And here I laugh! When I was interviewed by Metis Nation British Columbia for their Oral History Project, I told them my direct ancestors were loggers. The interviewer queried me about the trapping my ancestors must have done — but no, the generations before me never trapped for furs after they left the HBC’s employ. (And why would the Métis trap for furs on the Pacific coast, where the furs were so inferior to those found in the interior?) Instead, every single one of my direct ancestors logged, and I find that is common with almost all coastal Métis. When it takes fifteen hundred good-sized logs to build one fur trading post, logging was obviously a large part of every Métis man’s experience when he worked for the HBC.
But to continue with Augustus Peers’s story:
Great numbers of these people are employed by the Company as regular servants. They are a well built set of men, rather tall than otherwise . . . From the peculiar swagger in their gait, as they strut down a platform, dressed in their best attire, it is easily seen that they think no small things of themselves; nor am I sure that they overvalue their capabilities, for when taken in a body, I do not think that, for the peculiar service they serve us, there are any equal to them.
Peers would have first seen these well-built men “strutting” down the platforms at Norway House in summer 1843, when he joined the Portage La Loche Brigade. This story tells of a first encounter between a “huge” half-breed
and a no less gigantic Orkney-man. We had put ashore at some steep rocks along which the current flowed fast and deep. The halfcaste wishing to go ashore put his foot on the gunwale and in taking a spring he managed very cleverly to stick his other foot in the folds of said Orkney-man’s kit which stood against the side of the boat, so that, instead of ashore head over heels he went and plunged with a lumbering splash into the river, nothing marking his whereabouts but his hat which floated up. The unfortunate wight soon appeared, spitting and cursing amid the uproarious laughter of the whole brigade. This only exasperated him the more and he commenced “jawing” the unfortunate owner of the kit who not liking the look of the halfbreed said nothing, and I was thus deprived of seeing a halfbreed fight, which I have been told was something after the approved fashion of Billingsgate — tooth and nail.
As an author and a human being, I find that I do not like Augustus Peers very much. His stories are good, but his character, as he displays it, is not very pretty, and his manuscript exposes his deep-rooted prejudices. I avoid the worst of his descriptions of the First Nations people he deals with, and in my own manuscript only use those which show the good or the funny side of the people he choses to describe. He wrote his manuscript for publication in England where it might have been accepted by some readers. But in his work for the Hudson’s Bay Company, my own family member, Chief Factor James Anderson (A), regretted that Peers was so prejudiced. “The latter, tho’ a most estimable character,” Anderson wrote of Peers, “was deficient in energy and he thoroughly detested the Indians. No race is quicker sighted than they are, and they soon perceived and reciprocated the hatred.”
So this is what you need to know about Peers. Nevertheless, he told some good stories, and many of his descriptions are accurate and enjoyable. As you know, he travelled north with the men of the Portage La Loche Brigade, who all came from the Red River Colony, and who were mostly Métis (who he described as half-caste). Whether or not he decided before-hand to write down the stories he heard, he did in the end leave behind an interesting manuscript. And why might he have collected the stories for publication, you ask? Well, at Norway House he had, as a close companion, an HBC clerk named Robert Michael Ballantyne, who DID go on to write at least one book about his experiences. Ballantyne’s book is titled Hudson’s Bay; or, every-day life in the wilds of North America, and many of us are familiar with it and have quoted from it. It is he who described York Factory as “a monstrous blot on a swampy spot, with a partial view of the frozen sea!”
But in this post, we are speaking of the Red River Settlement and the Métis people who resided there in the 1840s. From the men who rowed the Portage La Loche boats, Peers learned quite a lot about the settlement and the lives of the men who hunted the bison:
The vast plains surrounding the settlement are well stocked with bison, affording the inhabitants, particularly the French half-castes, ample amusement and profitable sport. In the early part of the summer they collect and set off in large parties with their wives and families, horses, and carts and everything requisite for a lengthened stay in the prairies.
They are obliged to travel in large parties as they are liable to be surprised and cut off by the Sioux Indians who also hunt bison on these plains.
The “Sioux Indians” referred to here are probably the Assiniboine, or Nakota Oyadebi, who live north of the Sioux peoples in United States, and who speak a Siouan language that is closely related to other Siouan speakers such as the Stoney-Nakota, the Dakota, and the Lakota. Apparently they are considered “rebels” by other Siouan peoples, because they left the Eastern Woodlands for the Great Plains as early as 1640.
Having arrived at the hunting grounds, the wives remain in camp while the hunters, all mounted on horseback, ride pell-mell after the terror-stricken beasts which rush headlong onward. They soon overtake them, and singling out the fat cows deal death and destruction among them. Guns are generally use in these hunts, though the arrow will do execution.
The hunters are very expert in loading their guns. On their right side is slung a powder horn and in their mouths they carry their ball, loading as they ride by merely pouring in an unequal charge of powder, on top of which they drop a ball without any wadding. Riding up alongside of their victim they drop the muzzle of the gun and instantly fire. It often happens however, by the careless mode of loading their guns burst, by the ball sliding down the barrel before they can discharge it.
If you want to know how flintlock guns are SUPPOSED to be loaded and fired, see here: http://nancymargueriteanderson.com/flintlock-guns/
The artist, Paul Kane, wrote of his experiences hunting bison, saying that though the bison bulls did gather in large herds, “they are known in the distance from the cows, by their feeding singly, and being scattered wider over the plain, whereas the cows keep together for the protection of the calves, which are always kept in the centre of the herd.”
The other important thing to know is that the bison cow’s meat is preferred over that of a bull’s, as you see here: http://nancymargueriteanderson.com/provisioning/ I found, however, that the men in the York Factory Express journals also killed young bulls for provisions.
Paul Kane also wrote about his experiences on the buffalo hunt with the Métis from Red River:
Everything being adjusted, we all walked our horses towards the herd. By the time we had gone about two hundred yards, the herd perceived us, and started off in the opposite direction at the top of their speed. We now put our horses to the full gallop, and in twenty minutes were in their midst. There could not have been less than four or five thousand in our immediate vicinity, all bulls, not a single cow amongst them.
The scene now became one of intense excitement; the huge bulls thundering over the plain in headlong confusion, whilst the fearless hunters rode recklessly in their midst, keeping up an incessant fire at but a few yards’ distance from their victims. Upon the fall of each buffalo the successful hunter merely threw some article of his apparel — often carried by him solely for that purpose — to denote his own prey, and then rushed on to another…
In his York Factory Express journal, George Traill Allan wrote that the horses seemed to enjoy the chase as much as the men: “We lost no time in giving him [a bull] chase, nor did our horses require either whip nor spur to induce them to follow, for being broke into hunting they seemed to enjoy it as much as their riders, at least if I may judge from my charger, who was so unwilling to be restrained that in attempting to do so, the saddle, which had not been sufficiently tightened, came under his belly and as might have been expected, down came I full tilt upon the ground…”
Paul Kane’s story continues below:
The chase continued only about one hour, and extended over an area of from five to six square miles, where might be seen the dead and dying buffaloes, to the number of five hundred. In the meantime my horse, which had started at a good run, was suddenly confronted by a large bull that made his appearance from behind a knoll within a few yards of him, and being thus taken by surprise, he sprung to one side, and getting his foot into one of the innumerable badger holes, with which the plains abound, he fell at once, and I was thrown over his head with such violence that I was completely stunned, but soon recovered my recollection. Some of the men caught my horse and I was speedily remounted, and soon saw reason to congratulate myself on my good fortune, for I found a man who had been thrown in a similar way, lying a short distance from me quite senseless, in which state he was carried back to the camp.
Paul Kane was a greenhorn on the prairie, and so the next section of this journal tells of his carelessness in facing a bison bull:
I again joined in the pursuit; and coming up with a large bull I had the satisfaction of bringing him down at the first fire. Excited by my success, I threw down my cap and galloping on, soon put a bullet through another enormous animal. He did not, however, fall, but stopped and faced me, pawing the earth, bellowing and glaring savagely at me. The blood was streaming profusely from his mouth, and I thought he would soon drop. The position in which he stood was so fine that I could not resist the desire of making a sketch. I accordingly dismounted, and had just commenced, when he suddenly made a dash at me. I had hardly time to spring on my horse and get away from him, leaving my gun and everything else behind.
Bison are not to be fooled with! A bison’s speed on land is 35 to 40 miles an hour, and they can turn on a dime! There is no way any man can outrun an enraged bison bull (or cow, for that matter), nor can he dodge it. From what I can see, Paul Kane was darned lucky to survive his experience in the west!
But survive he did, and he left some good art pieces behind him. Peers died at the Peel’s River Post in 1852 or thereabouts. George Traill Allan, whose two journals I use in my book, The York Factory Express, lived a long life and died and was buried in the historic Cathlamet cemetery, alongside my great-great grandfather James Birnie. I find it amazing how many HBC stories are connected: Peers was the older brother of Henry Newsham Peers, who worked under my great-grandfather A.C. Anderson in 1848, and who spent a fair bit of time at Fort Langley and Fort Victoria. As a matter of fact, looking up Henry Newsham Peers in the B.C. Archives files led me to Augustus Richard Peers, who led me on another HBC journey to my great-grandfather’s brother, James Anderson A. We are all connected, one way or another. Or perhaps I should say, all our stories are connected.
If you want to order my book, The York Factory Express, do so here: http://ronsdalepress.com/york-factory-express-the/ It is delayed, but it will be published eventually. With its many maps and illustrations, it is quite a complicated book to put together.
Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2020. All rights reserved.
- Paul Kane’s Buffalo Hunt
- Thomas Lowe at Sea