There were many ways to hunt and kill buffalo. For the
Aboriginal Peoples of the prairie province, the circumstances
shaped the method. Before the introduction of horses and guns,
one of the most unique methods involved using a buffalo jump or
‘surround pound’ to take out many animals at one time. These
techniques required physical skill and knowledge of buffalo
behaviour. A few scouts would find a buffalo herd and by
stampeding the animals off of a cliff or into a giant corral,
move them to where they could be slaughtered and then processed
before the meat could spoil. Hunting alone or in very small
groups, the hunters stalked the buffalo as they would other game
animals. After the arrival of horses, the method was altered and
became known as "running" the buffalo.
The Métis took this technique and modified it. They used
muzzle-loading guns, and preferred to hunt in larger groups.
Their use of the Red River cart also allowed them to process and
collect kills over a wider area. Over time, they refined the
technique. The buffalo hunters became practiced at reloading
their guns with one hand. They chose and trained quick footed
and fearless little horses, known as "buffalo runners." A
greenhorn would discover just how well trained these horses
The huge hunts of Red River probably developed as a consequence
of the rapid growth of the area. An aboriginal hunting band
would include relatives and friends of the group leader. In the
inter-related communities in Red River, choosing how to
constitute a hunt, choosing whom to leave behind, must have been
impossible. Given the huge size of the buffalo herds, going out
all together was a strategy that was not only economically sound
but strengthened the community.
The western buffalo hunts were different, following more closely
the original model. Family groups, resembling First Nations
bands in both size and composition, set out from home, met and
joined other groups, and looked for buffalo. As early as the
1840s, hunters going out from Fort Edmonton reported that the
buffalo were further out in the plains. By the 1860s, family
groups were traveling down to hunt buffalo between the Battle
and Red Deer Rivers. Families began to settle on the Battle
River during this time, creating the Battle River Settlement. It
became known as Duhamel after its first priest.
In the late 1860s, settlement began around Buffalo Lake, at Tail
Creek, Boss Hill and the north shore, growing from wintering
camps. Norbert Welsh described life in a winter camp where he
spent the winters of 1863 to 1869. He was working out of Fort
Garry (Red River) and trading in the area known as Round Plain,
north and east of the mouth of the Red Deer River. He described
how he built a log storehouse for his goods, and then a log
house. They did not sleep in the house because they had no way
to heat it. The first year there were only three men there. In
the last years, he described their village as a scattering of
thirty or forty "log huts" made of logs and plastered with mud.
The wintering villages grew. The hunters and traders found a
location where buffalo could still be found, and returned to it,
season after season. The area around Buffalo Lake had long been
a favourite spot for buffalo hunting. It receives more rain than
further east, and has marshy plains around it. The resulting
lush vegetation may explain why it was said to be the last place
in the northern plains where buffalo were found. Old settlers
tell a First Nations story of the buffalo going into the lake
for the winter and not returning.
In Welsh’s last year at Round Plain, the buffalo were very
scarce. The big animals no longer wandered the prairies in herds
of thousands. Food was in such short supply that one trader sold
pemmican back to the hunters. The Aboriginal Peoples scattered
across the province in search of more buffalo.
For the northern plains, that was the last of the buffalo herds.
For the area around Buffalo Lake, the time marked a transition
from hunting to settlement, as had earlier occurred on the
Battle River. Descendants of the some of those buffalo hunters
who settled there still live in the area. Tail Creek had lasted
for about a decade.
Norbert Welsh and his family followed the last of the buffalo to
the Cyprus Hills. Some Métis followed the buffalo into Montana,
but were forced to return. The buffalo hunting days were over.