Section 3: The Métis Bison Hunt

In 1845, Father G. A. Belcourt went on bison hunt with the Métis (MEH tee) people of the parish where he had established a mission 13 years earlier. (See Image 7.) Soon after the hunt, Belcourt wrote to a friend in Quebec (Canada) and described the hunt in great detail.

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Image 7: Father George Antoine Belcourt was a French Canadian priest who established missions among the Chippewas and Métis of the Red River and Turtle Mountains. His letter on the bison hunt describes the method of the hunt and the processing and preserving of the meat and other parts of the bison. Father Belcourt’s letter of 1845 also tells how European American culture is beginning to have an impact on Métis culture. SHSND 0986-04.

The hunters gathered at Pembina where the 55 hunters assembled a train of 213 carts, 300 horses and 100 oxen. Their families, 309 people in all, went along, too. (See Image 8.) Carts carried a thousand pounds of gear including firewood, lodge poles for their tipis, drying frames, and hide stretchers, as well as food. They were heading into the “boundless prairies” of Dakota where they would have to bring everything they needed, including firewood.

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Image 8: The whole community participated in Métis summer and fall bison hunts. They left their homes and spent the weeks of the hunt in tipis. However, they used the large two-wheeled carts, drawn by horses or oxen, to carry the loads of dried bison meat, hides, and fat back to their permanent homes. The ox-carts were part of the distinctive Métis culture. The carts did not use grease in the wooden axles. As the caravan traveled the squeaking wheels could be heard at a great distance. SHSND C0621.

Their route took them south of the Turtle Mountains towards Devils Lake, the Sheyenne River, and Dogden Butte (Maison du Chien). Scouts traveled ahead on horseback looking for good places to hunt and camp. The scouts rejoined the main group in the evening, bringing information on bison herds ahead. Soon, two young men returned to camp with fresh bison meat. Father Belcourt was offered the tongue, a delicacy, rather than the meat of the bulls which was more abundant, but likely to cause “mal de boeuf,” or indigestion.

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Image 9: Metis hunters rode to the hunt with a loaded muzzle-loading gun and four more lead shot balls in their mouths. They re-loaded in the field by spitting the ball into the muzzle of the gun. Rapid re-loading meant that the hunters brought home more game and were able to protect themselves from charging bison bulls. Drawing by Vern Erickson, North Dakota History 38:3, page 340.

When they spotted a herd of bulls, Belcourt and a group of hunters approached to within 500 yards. They slowed their horses to a quiet walk so they could get near the animals without scaring them. The bulls noticed the hunters and began to threaten them, stamping and tossing the earth with their horns. Other bulls watched the hunters and bellowed.

When they were close enough, a hunter gave the signal to ride their horses rapidly toward the herd. The bulls took off running “with surprising speed.” Using guns, the hunters fired into the herd, killing some animals and wounding others. A half-hour later, the hunt on this herd was over. But a cloud of dust on the horizon signaled the presence of bison cows, and the hunters took off after them.

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Image 10: Once the bison cow or bull had been killed, it was set up on its stomach and the hind legs stretched out behind. Women then skinned the carcass and removed the meat, fat, bones, and organs that were useful to them. The meat was dried for long-term storage. The fat was mixed with powdered dried meat and dried berries to make pemmican. In 1845, when Father Belcourt attended the hunt, Metis hunters brought home the meat and by-products of 1,776 bison cows. Drawing by Vern Erickson, North Dakota History 38:3, page 344.

The hunters were excited and their well-trained horses wanted to charge into the cow herd, but approaching the cows was the most dangerous part of the hunt. The hunters had to ride through the bulls that were bunched near the cows. If a bull gored a hunter’s horse and knocked the rider to the ground, the hunter would be killed by the bull’s horns or feet.

The hunters carried muzzle-loading guns. They approached a herd with one shot prepared and carried 4 other balls of lead shot in their mouths. (See Image 9.) They re-loaded their guns while riding their horses at great speed.  They dropped the gunpowder into the muzzle and then spit a ball down the muzzle. A good hunter could load and shoot five times in the time it took to ride 100 yards.

On the first day, the hunters in Belcourt’s group killed 169 cows. In four days hunt, they killed and butchered 628 bison. By the end of the hunt, 1,776 cows had been killed.

Men and women worked together to butcher the carcass. (See Image 10.) After removing the hide, they took the hump (part of the back bone just below the neck) which was considered to have the best meat. They also took the meat from the ribs and back bones, hips, and shoulders. They removed the fat, the paunch or rumen (stomach), the kidneys, the bladder, and the tongue.

The women cut the meat into strips about a quarter of an inch thick. These strips were hung on the drying frames for two or three days. By then, the meat was so dry it could be rolled up and packed into large bundles. Some of the less desirable pieces of dried meat were laid on a tanned hide and pounded into a powder. The meat powder was mixed with fat and poured into a rawhide bag called a taureaux (a French word for “bulls”). The mixture was called pemmican. The Métis often added dried fruit into the mix. The resulting food was rich in nutrition and would keep almost indefinitely.

By the middle of October, the hunters were ready to pack for the return home. The hunt resulted in 228 taureaux, 1,213 bales of dried meat, 166 sacks of fat (weighing 200 pounds each), and 556 bladders of marrow (12 pounds each). Belcourt estimated the bison products to be worth £1700 ($218,179 today). The people had enough meat and pemmican for their winter food supply.

Father Belcourt concluded his letter with a commentary on the discipline of the hunt. If a hunter started out alone, he might kill three cows and scare away the rest of the herd. He noted that in recent years, Métis hunts had lacked organization and leadership. An organized, well-disciplined group of hunters could take 300 cows. Belcourt believed that religious leadership led to harmony and productivity on a bison hunt.

Why is this important?  The Métis hunted bison in much the same way that their Chippewa relatives did, though they apparently lacked the tightly controlled organization that was necessary for a successful hunt. Father Belcourt encouraged other priests to hunt with Métis of their parishes because, he believed, a priest could encourage the hunters to work well together. Father Belcourt recorded an important part of Métis culture, but he also recorded the ways in which European American culture was bringing change to the people of the northern Great Plains.