Surveying the forty-ninth parallel.
The United States Commission, consisting of some 250 civilians, was under Mr. Campbell, Commissioner, Major Twining, aud Lieut. Green, U.S. Engineers, two troops of the 7th cavalry and five companies U.S. Infantry were on the same line, though doing every alternate tangent. The consequence was, though we were in close proximity we did not see very much of them, except when travelling, when we generally used the same trail. The commission, was, I think, without doubt the best organized and conducted expedition that ever went out in this country.
The first season's work commenced in the fall when the line was run east from the Red River to the North-west angle. The 49th parallel runs due east for a distance of about 160 miles till Lake of the Woods is reached, where the boundary turns northeast to the North-west angle, and from mat point it runs southeast to the mouth of Rainy River.
The commission returned to Dufferin in the end of February, 1873, and in April, preparation commenced for the big trip west. In May, the writer left with Col. Forest's party for the front, in the rear of the astronomical parties ... At Turtle Mountain we established a large depot, with George Hill in charge. The line ran right through the mountain, and the lakes and creeks were literally filled with wild fowl.
In the winter of 1873 and 1874 a large party left Dufferin with dog trains and built a large mound on the westernmost point of the mountain. From here we travelled over a level prairie till the first crossing of the Souris is reached. This stream was bridged in three days, the timber was all cut and coffer dams built which were floated out and filled with stones and sunk. A good substantial bridge was the result ... Wood End was our next most important place and where our camp was pitched it was remarkably pretty. The camp occupied a level piece of prairie almost surrounded by hills with the Souris River in close proximity ...
Frenchman's Creek was the prettiest sight we had seen for many a long day's travel through cactus and rattlesnakes. But alas there was no way we could get our wagons, etc., down the treacherous banks and we had to make a big detour. It was late that night when camp was made in the valley, and the word was passed around to the delight of all, that we should remain there for two or three days for the benefit of our horses, etc.
Here it was that the writer first saw the red man in all his glory. Some miles below where we were camped was a trading post kept by Frenchman named Juneau and between us and this post were camped about 40 lodges of Sioux Indians. Some two or three of us took guns the next morning and went down the stream. On turning one of the many abrupt bends we came all at once in sight of the camp of the aborigines. At first we made up our minds to turn back, but curiosity got the better of us, so we put on a brave front and marched on. As we neared their encampment some two or three hundred curs set up a most awful howling. All the children rushed away like rabbits into their holes. We could see a few dusky faces peering at us from the entrances of the tepees but no one came near us for a few minutes. Then a tall fine looking Indian accompanied by half a dozen others, only two of whom were armed, came out and commenced talking to us. Of course we could understand nothing, but amongst the Indians was one who asked if we were King George's men, to which we answered, "Yes," and immediately we were handshaking all round and the chief asked us into his lodge.
Here we were treated with the utmost courtesy and hospitality. Buffalo tongues were cooked for, and eaten by us, with an especial relish and each came to the conclusion that the Indian had the courtesy of a thoroughbred gentleman as a host, whatever his ideas might have been between meum et teum. Of course the proverbial pipe was passed around after which we shook hands with our friends and returned to camp, meeting on our way numerous Indians who had evidently been paying our camp a visit from the number of articles they were carrying back with them. (We had a large stock of presents for the Indians.)
In the afternoon our friend, the chief, accompanied by a number of his braves rode over to see our chief. They were got up in all their finery and some were really handsomely dressed. They brought some squaws with them who were very gorgeous, and a few of them very pretty, but both men and women were daubed with paint. On coming close to our camp they fired a volley straight up into the air and then rode solemnly in. When they left they carried away a quantity of provisions, clothing, etc. We stayed another day here and again started west, the Indians telling us that in two days we should see buffalo thicker than ever.
On. leaving the creek the next big stream is Milk River which also is surrounded by badlands, and the bed of the stream is frill of quicksand. Here one day I had the luck to kill what is called a mule deer. Buffalo were very plentiful, but of Indians we saw few and those we did see were at a distance. This stream, Milk River, is crossed three times, I think, by the line. West of us was to be seen a blue line on the horizon, which we took to be the Rocky Mountains, but which proved to be the Sweet Grass Hills, three distinct and separate buttes having an elevation of 3,000 feet, and celebrated for being the greatest fighting ground for the Indians of the Northwest.
The prairie is greatly broken up around these hills by coulees, and in one of these we saw a curious sight. One day some of us were out shooting, the doctor amongst the party, when in going down a coulee we suddenly came upon the bodies of seventeen dead Indians. They were all stretched a little below the top of the coulee bank, all had been shot, one body having no less than sixteen bullet holes in it. Strange as it may appear, these bodies had never been touched by wolves, coyotes, etc., nor had they decomposed; the skin was a hard parchment and near each body was a pile of empty cartridge shells. They had dug small rifle pits with their knives and had evidently been butchered after having run short of ammunition. One revolver was found near the body of one of the Indians containing four shells which had not been used. There was not one in the whole lot that had been scalped, a very curious circumstance.
The writer found out some years after that these Indians were a band of Crows who were on a horse stealing expedition, and, like all Indians when engaged in this praiseworthy business, were on foot, trusting to their luck to ride home. They were caught by a band of Bloods and had evidently died like men.
On coming to the top of some rising ground which extends from the westernmost butte in a northerly direction, we first had a clear view of the Rockies, with that grand old landmark, Chief Mountain, standing in bold relief from the main range, distant about 100 miles.
Buffalo from here to the mountains were innumerable; you could get a shot at them anyhour of the day. Near here we crossed the Milk River for the last time and followed the Milk River ridge, supposed to be the coldest spot in the Northwest. A small stream called Red River is crossed here and shortly afterwards you get into the foot hills of the mountains.
St. Mary's River is the next big stream and where we struck it we certainly saw the prettiest place we had seen on our long trip west. Here we found coal and used some. (It must be mentioned that we had found any number of coal exposures).
Any number of beautiful trout could be got here. Our camp was almost at the base of Chief Mountain and many of us tried the ascent, but though we got very near the top, none of us, I think, succeeded in gaining the summit. Our work from here was much slower, as the axemen, almost for the first time since leaving Turtle Mountain, had work for their axes, innumerable little streams had to be bridged, and our trail was taken some miles north so as to get the wagons, etc., through.
The next camp of importance was made on the banks of the Kootenay [Waterton] Lakes, the line running right across them at nearly right angles. Here Captain Featherstonehaugh caught, with an artificial fly, a trout weighing 27 pounds. These lakes, as also the streams, teamed with fish and the woods were full of game. The Kootenay [Waterton] Lakes, on this side of the mountains, consists of three, the north easterly one, from which the Kootenay [Waterton] river flows being almost on the prairie. The second one is surrounded on one side by the mountains, but the third and largest is quite inside the range, the mountains towering up on each side to the height of several thousand feet, We tried to get soundings in this lake but did not succeed; it must in places have been several hundred feet deep.
From here pack horses were used till the monument established by the British Columbia Boundary expedition was reached. This took quite a few days and the cold was sometimes intense. Snow was encountered. At last one day the monument was found and the work of the Boundary Commission came to an end. From first to last it had been most successfully carried on; every man was pleased with those placed over him and the officers had the respect of all.
Nearly everyone had hoped to winter in the Rockies and we had left Dufferin fully prepared to do so, having brought window sashes, lumber, etc., for that purpose, but as it was only August, orders were given for the homeward march and we all returned to Fish Lake, situated on the prairie a few miles from Chief Mountain. Here we remained two or three days and some of us rode over to a camp of Whoopupers who had a lot of ponies for sale and also "brandy peaches," the latter article being purchased largely by many. Nearly everyone bought a pony to return on, and we found these desperate desperadoes not half such bad fellows as they were painted.
One fine morning in September, the orders were given to commence our homeward and great were the feats of horsemanship displayed --ponies bucking, men hanging on by the animal's neck, several embracing mother earth, and at least half a dozen animals off on their road back to Whoop-up.
When we arrived at Sweet Grass Hills a camp was made for a day or two and here it was we met the NWMP who had left Dufferin that summer and followed our trail out. Mr. Charles Conrad, of Benton, had arrived with a train load of oats for us, which we sold to the police. He acted as guide for the latter, took them on to Old Man's River, and there they built Fort Macleod.
Whatever credit there is to be attached to crossing the plains at this time, must thereof be given to the Boundary Commission and not to the NWMP who had a good trail to follow as discernable as it is possible to make, many of the bad streams bridged, and every facility for an expedition's march, whilst we, the pioneers, had all the difficulties, the chances of an encounter with these supposed 30,000 hostile Indians and a hundred and one things that may occur in travelling over an unknown country.
Owing to the good management, the plucky behaviour of one and all the esprit de corps and the cheerful manner in which everything and anything was done, the Boundary Commission succeeded in a little more than two years and a half in establishing the line from the Lake of the Woods to a point in the Rockies, making a typographical survey of all the country for four miles north of the boundary.
I have in the earlier pages of this paper referred to the countless hordes of buffalo, but the picture of the Boundary Commission being "held up" by these animals for 24 hours will probably convey more to the reader who has never seen than any other illustration I could give. Buffaloes in the neighborhood of the Sweet Grass Hills were very numerous, but they were simply feeding. Scattered here and there could be seen the black spots on the prairie indicating to the hunter that the king of that region was camped here for a few days accompanied by his numerous retinue.
When these animals start on a march they appear to have a regular system, the cows, calves, etc., are all in the centre, guarded on each side by the bulls, whilst at the head marched some magnificent old bulls. The column would be from thirty to forty deep in the ranks, and fully a mile long. (Lt. Greene of the U. S. Engineers told the writer he had estimated a herd, by timing them passing a given point, that he was sure they were over three miles long and that the herd contained from 75,000 to 100,000.)
When on the march they appeared to turn from no obstacle, seemingly believing that it would overcome by force of numbers, and I have been told by half-breeds that they have seen the Saskatchewan River bridged by the carcases of the drowned buffaloes, the ones in the rear having forced them on to the insecure ice till the river was blocked, and the living ones passed over on the bodies of their drowned friends. The Rev. Mr. Cook, who lived at the first crossing of the White Mud River told me he had seen this. How true the story is I cannot vouch for, but from the way they stopped the commission, and other instances mat I know it seems quite possible.
The United States Commission had started to Fort Benton, in Montana, and to the SE of the Sweet Grass Hills, some hours after they left, was seen an immense mass of dust apparently moving in a northerly direction. Soon the practiced eye of one of the scouts declared it was the dust caused by a large herd of buffaloes. Forty mounted men were sent out to try and turn them, but they were unsuccessful. They were then ordered to halt and fire into the herd, in consequence the column was split, one herd going to the northeast and the other to the north-west. The wagons were stopped on the line of march, the whole commission blazed into them. Some of the buffalo broke ranks and charged headlong into the wagons. One was shot by Ed. Marston who had its horns jammed into the wheels of a wagon. Another was killed close to the wagons by H. H. Smith and Bill Burgess. Just before it fell it switched his tail round and caught the former fair across the cheek knocking him down. They detained us till night and in consequence we had to remain till the following morning, thus losing 24 hours by the buffalo ...
In travelling over this vast extent of prairie, wood for fuel was hard to get, as it was impossible to carry all that was necessary for cooking and other purposes on the wagons. Here again the buffalo supplied the necessary article. "Buffalo chips" were collected at all the camps in large sacks, and made excellent fuel. Even after a shower of rain the under part was always dry. Of course it was necessary to have a small supply of wood to start your fire, but once it was lit and fairly started there was no more trouble. One day in collecting these chips a tarantula was found under one, proving that even in this northern: latitude they exist.
Near the Sweet Grass Hills we came on a large camp of half-breeds making pemmican. The old North Wester will remember with what an excellent dish this was and how easy to convert it into a dozen different, palatable dishes. We used to rejoice in curried pemmican, rubber boo, and rushou pemmican stewed in onions, then pemmican piet. Another way was to shred it very fine, mix it with flour, baking powder, pepper, and salt, and then make bannocks of it. These could always be warmed up by placing them in front of the fire when you arrived in camp.
The making of pemmican in the old days was one of the industries of the country. The meat was cut off the animals in strips, dried in the sun, then pounded into shreds. Sacks were made of the hides of the buffalo sewn with sinew, then the meat was poured in, and to this added (to the best pemmican) the marrow extracted from the bones, after breaking and boiling them in a boiling state. When pouring the marrow into the sack, the meat was constantly stirred so that it should be thoroughly mixed. Occasionally saskatoon berries or some other were mixed with the meat and marrow, then the sack was sewn up and in this state it could be kept for years.
There were no dangerous animals met with on the trip. A few bears of the smaller kind were seen, though occasionally grizzly bears had been known to travel over the prairie to some distant hills. The only reptile of a dangerous and poisonous character that was seen in any quantity was the rattlesnake. Wherever there was a prairie dog village, these reptiles were sure to be found and a small owl seems always to be numerous were these funny half dog and half gopher animals abound. It is said that the rattlesnake, the owl, and the prairie dog all live in the same hole.
Their villages contain many thousands. It is always in sandy soil, and the little round hills formed by the earth scratched out of the holes with the sentinels sitting on the top has a funny and peculiar look. The moment a stranger appears the sentinel gives a warning bark and all the villagers rush pell mell for their homes. Strange about them is the sudden way in which they migrate. A week previously you may have passed through a village containing thousands, and at the time there will not be a solitary prairie dog left. All there is to be seen will be the deserted conical hills with perhaps a few rattlesnakes and an occasional owl left.
Rattlesnakes in the N.W. seem confined to certain districts, and it is only when you get within 150 miles of the mountains that they are to be found at all. The neighborhood of Medicine Hat used in the old days to have numbers of them, but I believe they are gradually becoming less.
One member of the United States Commission shot in the neighborhood of Chief Mountain, a mountain lion. This animal is of the panther tribe, very long in the body with short legs. It is said that they will attack a man if very hungry and if they can take him by surprise. Some of the commission saw in the mountains grizzly bears but none were killed.
Near Chief Mountain a grizzly bear was seen by some of the commission, and if my memory is correct, Ed. Marston, H. H. Smith, and McNichol of the engineers were in the party. As Mr. Bear did not appear to see them, they promptly started to load their rifles, and discussed the best way to approach his lordship. Considerable discussion took place as to how the animal should be divided and who was to have the robe, etc. Some one of the party mildly suggested that it would expedite matters to catch the bear first, and a general forward movement was made. Two of the party were in a light cart and the third on horseback. As they approached the huge, unwieldy creature, he lazily turned his head, then raised himself on his haunches and let a roar out of him which re-echoed from the mountains in a more awful manner than the most tremendous clap of thunder.
They said, the result was, the horses were dreadfully frightened (for the honor of the boundary commission I am glad to say it was not the men) and though the sportsmen tried everything in their power to restrain these animals from running away they did so, the bear for some distance keeping up with them. Rifles by a strange coincidence had got to the bottom of the cart, but the driver and his assistant were belaboring the unfortunate horse with clubs, while the rider's rifle was of great assistance to him in urging his horse into camp. From the description of the encounter the bear must have been terribly scared, as his yells will conclusively prove.
Timber wolves were plentiful and very large, An immense herd of elk were seen near Chief Mountain. Moose also and many small deer. Both elk and deer were shot, but I do not think a moose was captured. The streams and lakes abounded with fish, brook trout, grayling, whitefish, jackfish, and many others could be caught in large quantities. Often two or three would go to a river or brook and in half an hour would catch a supply sufficient for fifteen or twenty men. In the lakes, salmon trout and a large fish of a coarser kind was also to be had, called a bull trout. Pickerel, bass, and rock sturgeon were numerous.
Small game were in abundance, the pine grouse, to my idea the finest table bird in the N.W., were plentiful, but were not in such quantities as they are further to the south. Prairie chicken, partridge, jack rabbits, cotton tails, and a rabbit that burrows could be shot in large numbers and with little labor. Some heather was found.
Amongst the game I have forgot to mention are the mountain sheep and mountain goat. The latter is seldom found without a great deal of climbing as he inhabits the most inaccessible points in the mountains, and when shot the meat is poor, having a strong flavor. His skin, however, is very handsome. The mountain sheep or "big horn" resembles a sheep is nearly every way except his fleece, Here the resemblance ceases, for this animal's skin is very similar to that of the antelope, which consists of short brittle hairs, standing nearly straight up and with no wool. The head of the big horn is that of a handsome domestic sheep, but added to this he has a pair of enormous horns, which 1 have seen in some instances measure a circumference at the base of 18 1/4 inches, the head weighing with the horns, dry, 78 lbs. One that was in the writer's possession weighed 74 lbs., after being stuffed. It is said that they sometimes when pursued jump from great heights, and strike fair on the horns a short distance from the base. The meat of the sheep is good eating and he is not as difficult to get at as the goat, as they feed much lower down the mountains. The writer shot one within 200 yards of the shore of the third Kootenay [Waterton] lake.
The flora of the mountains is beautiful. In spring, just before the snow goes off the ground, a beautiful flower is to be seen, which resembles the famous edelweiss. Orchids are also to be found and innumerable other handsome flowers. Flowering shrubs abound and small fruits can be had in abundance. The neighborhood of Chief Mountain with Mary's lake and river, the Kootenay [Waterton] lakes and the surrounding country was as beautiful a spot as can be found in the North-West Territories, and for sport in the old days you could not go to a better place.
But to return to the commission, I have, I think, briefly told some of the main incidents of the trip, though there are many which I have no doubt could be related with those I have told. My own experience is, that it was one of the best equipped, best managed and pleasantest trips into a comparatively unknown country that ever took place, and the credit of this is due to the commissioner and officers, who were thoroughly liked and respected by all. A spirit of esprit de corps and bon camraderie existed which tended greatly to this result ... The commissioner was like the motto of his old regiment "ubiquitous." He, accompanied by one man driving an old buckboard with a pair of ponies, would turn up everywhere and at any hour. The difference between his mode of travelling and that of the United States commissioner was very marked. The latter had a retinue of servants, camp equipage, four-mule ambulance wagon, and a guard of the 7th Cavalry wherever be went, which to us, who had so often heard of Republican simplicity, seemed strange.
Editor's Note: This article is drawn from two accounts written by L.F. Hewgill, one in the 1880s and the other a decade later. Both were published in 1894 in a now-rare booklet entitled In the Days of Pioneering: Crossing the Plains in the Early 70s. Hewgill was a member of the British North American Boundary Commission.