Paul Kane’s Buffalo Hunt

Bison hunt

This is image na-1406-189, Glenbow Archives, and used with their permission. While this is a later bison hunt, those York Factory Express men who took part in the bison hunts on their way down and upriver would have not differed from these men.

Paul Kane is now leaving Carlton House, on horseback, with some of the gentlemen of the incoming Columbia Brigades. The year is 1846, and Mr. Rundell is Reverend Robert Terrill Rundle, the missionary at Edmonton House. Here is how Paul Kane’s journal continues:

Mr. [John] Rowand, myself, and Mr. Rundell, having determined to proceed to Edmonton on horseback, as being the shortest and most agreeable route. We procured horses and a guide, and on the morning of the 12th September, we arose early for our start… We were accompanied by a party of hunters proceeding to a buffalo pound about six miles off. These pounds can only be made in the vicinity of forests, as they are composed of logs piled up roughly, five feet high, and enclose about two acres. At one side an entrance is left, about ten feet wide, and from each side of this, to the distance of half a mile, a row of posts of short stumps, called dead men, are planted, at the distance of twenty feet each, gradually widening out into the plain from the entrance.

This is a First Nations — likely Cree — pound, and it is First Nations men who are driving the bison into this pound, and who are killing the trapped animals. Paul Kane’s story continues:

When we arrived at the pound we found a party there anxiously awaiting the arrival of the buffaloes, which their companions were driving in. This is accomplished as follows: — A man, mounted on a fleet horse, usually rides forward till he sees a band of buffaloes. This may be sixteen or eighteen miles distant from the pound, but of course the nearer to it the better. The hunter immediately strikes a light with a flint and steel, and places the lighted spunk in a handful of dried grass, the smoke arising from which the buffaloes soon smell and start away from it at the top of their speed. The man now rides up alongside of the herd, which, from some unaccountable propensity, invariable endeavour to cross in front of his horse… The hunter thus possesses an unfailing means, wherever the pound may be situated of conducting them to it by the dexterous management of his horse. Indians are stationed at intervals behind the posts, or dead men, provided with buffalo robes, who, when the herd are once in the avenue, rise up and shake the robes, yelling and urging them on until they get into the enclosure, the spot usually selected for which is one with a tree in the centre. On this they hang offerings to propitiate the Great Spirit to direct the herd towards it. A man is also placed in the tree with a medicine pipe-stem in his hand, which he waves continually, chaunting [chanting] a sort of prayer to the great Spirit, the burden of which is that the buffaloes may be numerous and fat.

As soon as all the herd are within the pound, the entrance is immediately closed with logs, the buffaloes running round and round one after another, and very rarely attempting to break out, which would not be difficult, from the insufficiency of the structure. Should one succeed in doing so the whole herd immediately follow. When once in the enclosure the Indians soon despatch them with their arrows and spears. 

After he describes this bison hunt, Paul Kane’s journal continues with the HBC men’s encampment near the pound. They may ride to Edmonton from Carlton House, but they still stay close to the boats — at least for a while. Paul Kane writes: 

We selected a comfortable place on the banks of the river, and, on the boats coming up, we formed our encampment for the night. 

September 13th — In the morning we passed a small island on which we saw a herd of eighteen deer. Our hunter went round to the other side, the water being shallow enough to wade across, and, getting behind the bushes, fired twice at them before they could escape, and brought down two. The rest crossed over to our side of the river, and, as a noble buck was ascending the bank, we all fired at him. He escaped, notwithstanding, into the woods, and I hobbled my horse and pursued him on foot, tracking him readily by the blood which flowed from his wounds. I soon saw him lying down, apparently so exhausted that I forebore to fire again. This forbearance cost me the deer, for on my coming up, he made a sudden plunge into the thicket and escaped. I followed his track a long distance, but could not come up to him. On my return I found two wolves making a dead set at my poor horse, who was trembling with fear. One of them was in the act of springing at him. It was impossible for him [the horse] to get away, as his fore feet were tied together. I instantly levelled my double-barrelled gun and killed both, one after the other.

On my coming back to the party, I found them hanging up the two deer for the use of the crews of the boats, having taken what they wanted for themselves. This they did by forming a triangle with poles about twelve feet high in a conspicuous place on the bank, so that the wolves could not reach the meat, and fastening a red handkerchief above it to keep off the crows.

I wonder if this is what the HBC men would call a scaffold? Thomas Lowe talks of a meat scaffold that stood inside the walls of Fort Vancouver, and both Edward Ermatinger and James Douglas mention large and small scaffolds north of Edmonton House. Paul Kane’s story continues, here:

Towards evening, as we were approaching the place where we were to cross the river, I saw some buffaloes idly grazing in a valley, and as I wished to give a general idea of the beauty of the scenery which lies all along the of the Saskatchewan from this point to Edmonton, I sat down to make a sketch, the rest of the party promising to wait for me at the crossing place… On coming up to Mr. Rowand, we prepared to cross for the purpose of avoiding a strong bend in the river. Our ammunition, and other things that required to be kept dry, were put into a sort of basket made of a few willow twigs, with a buffalo skin drawn by a running string over them, something in the form of large bowls. This basket was floated in the water, and dragged by a string held in the teeth. The horse was then driven in, and the traveller, holding on on by his tail, was safely ferried to the other side with his baggage. 

September 14th — Saw an immense number of cabrees, or prairie antelopes. These are the smallest of the deer tribe, amazingly fleet, and very shy, but strange to say, possessed of great curiosity, apparently determined to look at everything to do not understand, so long as they do not scent it. Our hunter set off into the valley, to show me the manner of shooting them, while I made a sketch.

These animals are the pronghorn antelope, which were all over the prairies before the settlers arrived here. In their journals the HBC men often mentioned cabri, or cabree. Sometimes these were the mountain goat, and sometimes the pronghorn antelope. These two animals are not in any way close relatives — mountain sheep are members of the caprini family, which includes (surprisingly) muskoxen, mountain goat, mountain sheep, big horn sheep, and thinhorn sheep such as dall’s sheep and Stone’s sheep. (Mountain goats and mountain sheep are in the same family, but not very closely placed in that family).

Pronghorn, however, are Antiocapra americana, and are only called antelopes because they closely resemble the true antelopes of the Old World. Nevertheless, the HBC men called them cabri — along with the other animals in the caprini family — because of the white hair on their rumps, sides and breasts. Pronghorn can run very fast and are built for maximum predator evasion. Although it can’t run as fast as a cheetah, it can maintain its high speed for a longer time than a cheetah can (That is, of course, a non-issue, as there were no cheetahs here. But it is a statement that lets you know how fast these animals could run!)

So, let’s continue with Paul Kane’s story of the hunter stalking “cabree.”

The Hunter stole forward and hid himself behind a small bush, so as to have the wind blowing from them [the cabree], and gently waved a piece of rag tied to his ramrod; as soon as the cabrees perceived this, they gradually came up to him, until within shot, when he knocked one over; this was of course all he could expect, as the rest were off in an instant. 

In the evening we saw smoke in the distance, which we supposed to proceed from a camp of Indians; we waited, therefore, till the boats arrived, with a view to our mutual protection, should they prove to be a hostile tribe. The boats arrived after a short time, and we remained with them all night without molestation.

September 15th — About an hour after leaving our encampment, we crossed the river again in our boat, and found a large camp of Cree Indians. They came down to us in great numbers. Mr. Rowand, being acquainted with their chiefs, they were very friendly with us, and we bought a large quantity of dried meat from them… We had much difficulty in getting away from them, as they wished to have a long talk, but our time not permitting, we resumed our journey. They, however, adroitly detained a boat that had not yet come up, and the persons in charge had to give them some tobacco before they would allow them to proceed.

September 16th — We rode on till the middle of the day through a most delightful country, covered with luxuriant herbage, the plains being enamelled with flowers of various kinds, present more the aspect of a garden than of uncultivated land. While roasting some meat before the fire for our breakfast, and allowing our horses to feed, we espied a party of Indians on the opposite side of the river, who were evidently making signals to another party in our rear whom we did not see. Upon this, eight of their young men came down to reconnoitre, and finding we were friends, kindly conducted to their camp. We bartered with them for some horses… I had an unexpected trouble to catch my horse, which had got loose, in consequence of the hungry Indian dogs having eaten the lasso of raw hide with which I had fastened him. 

September 17th — We were aroused in the night by our hunter, who told us that the horses were stolen, and as he would not leave the fire unless we accompanied him, we all started in pursuit. After a run of about a mile, we came up with the horses pursued by a band of wolves; the billets of wood attached to their lassoes having retarded their further escape; the wolves were loth to leave their expected prey, but after a shot or two they took to flight. The horses were evidently much terrified, as they showed by remaining close to the campfires all night afterwards. 

In the course of our ride to-day, we killed a cabree, which was fortunate, as Mr. and Mrs. [Richard] Lane arrived at our camp fire in the evening in a state of severe exhaustion, having left the boats in the morning and walked the whole day without tasting food. The boats had reached the other side of the river, and, for want of a channel, had been unable to cross over and take them in. It was unfortunately a very cold night, and very little wood could be procured; besides which, we were unprovided with either tents or blankets, having dispensed with these luxuries since we left Carlton, where we began our journey on horseback. The greatest sufferer probably from the cold of the night, was a young clerk who had walked with them, and left his coat and waistcoat in the boat. 

September 19th — The boats this morning found a channel and crossed over to take in the party, who had left them the morning before. We reached Fort Pitt in the evening.

We will leave Paul Kane and the other greenhorns here for the present, and continue with their arrival at, and departure from, Fort Pitt in the next post. Greenhorns? Yes. I think in every journal I have read, written by someone new to the HBC, the author has wondered off and gotten himself lost and barely found his way back to the boats. I think the more experienced men probably cursed these greenhorns regularly, because they must have wasted a fair bit of their time.

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Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2020. All rights reserved.