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The Buffalo Hunt

BuffaloThere 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 were.

 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.

 


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