On 16 July 1851, members of the small Métis settlement of Pembina, North Dakota, departed on their annual buffalo hunt. They halted but a few miles to the west of Pembina at a traditional rendezvous point where they would join the larger Métis hunt parties from Rupert's Land, a region made up of what are now the Prairie provinces and the southern Northwest Territory. The Métis were the offspring of Indian mothers and white, generally French Canadian, fathers. As a people they combined the skills of both civilizations. They were as adept as the Indians in living off the land which in military terms included outstanding fieldcraft and fighting skills. Like their Indian brothers they were superb horsemen but for cargo transport also had their single axle, crude but effective, locally made Red River carts pulled by oxen or ponies. The defining gift they derived from European civilization was that of military discipline and organization. So as most members of the various Métis bands settled into joyful reunion, united again with friends and family for the first time since the previous year's hunt, others embarked on the serious business of organization. They first of all considered the general strategy for the hunt and in 1851 they decided to advance with two parallel columns a few miles apart from each other.

They then elected a captain from each of the two main groups, Pembina and the Red River. These two, in turn, selected up to ten sub-captains, each of whom then chose 10 soldiers to serve under them. This formed the military backbone of the hunt party. The captains then addressed their parties and reminded all of the well-known, time-tested laws of the hunt. All members of the hunt were expected to follow these laws diligently. Discipline, which on occasion included the death penalty, was severe for those that broke the rules. The hunt was, after all, their livelihood, as it gave them meat for the coming year and revenue from the surplus that they sold to the fur traders. No one individual could be allowed to jeopardize its safety.

Departing the rendezvous site for the hunting grounds in North Dakota, each hunt party advanced using security measures developed over decades of experience on the plains: mounted scouts out front and on both flanks of the column under the control of the guide, contact patrols of scouts to keep contact between the two groups, and well rehearsed warning signals (e.g. two mounted scouts charging each other was the signal for approaching war parties). The captain led from the front centre of the orderly parallel columns of wagons that made up each hunt party. From here, he would deploy forces to react to buffalo or Sioux war parties spotted by the scouts. Such measures were taken of necessity for the hunt often encountered the Sioux. The 1851 expedition, however, was to see the Métis tested as never before. By 12 July, both parties were on the Missouri Coteau of North Dakota. One group was near present day Minot and the other, which had veered somewhat southwards, about 50 kilometres southeast of Minot in an area known as Maison du Chien or Dogden's Butte. Both groups were closing in on the concentration of buffalo herds -- but the Sioux were closing in on them. The scouts of the smaller northern column detected a Sioux encampment on 12 July. The column immediately adopted its defensive posture with wagons circled wheel to wheel. Poles used to dry buffalo meat were jammed into the spokes of the carts, goods were off loaded and piled under the carts to enhance protection, and the oxen and cart ponies, their lifeline, were tethered inside the circled wagons. A perimeter of rifle pits was dug outside of the circled wagons. Scouts returned with information that they were facing as many as 2,500 Sioux!

When a head count was made it was determined that the Métis had only 77 men 12 years of age or older who could handle a rifle. The next day, after rejecting a Métis party of truce, the Sioux attacked the encampment throughout the day but superior discipline saw the Métis hold firm without loss except for a couple of oxen. The Sioux left eight dead on the battlefield and carried away many more wounded. The second day, 14 July, the party decided to execute one of the most difficult military operation, a retreat in contact with the enemy: they would try to rejoin the larger hunt party near Dogden's Butte. They had barely advanced three miles when the scouts detected approaching Sioux war parties. They again adopted a defensive posture, this time correcting an error of the previous day: they realized that they had positioned the rifle pits too close to the circled wagons. They were again embattled for several hours. The only losses were three lightly wounded and one fatality: one of a party of five scouts captured the day before (two had escaped immediately in a hail of bullets, and two the next morning, the body of the fifth was found recovered after the battle; it was pierced with 3 bullet holes and 67 arrows). The Sioux losses were the same as the previous day. As a prairie rainstorm gathered on the horizon, a lone Sioux chief approached with arm raised and open palm extended towards them, a sign of truce. He then announced that the Sioux would never again challenge the Métis. The entire party of hundreds of Sioux warriors then circled the wagons at the gallop once, fired a final volley, and departed. Then, above the sounds of the storm, the Métis heard the thundering advance of a party of over 300 hunters. These were men from the other hunt who were finally answering their call for help. The two priests accompanying the hunt, Father Laflèche and Father Lacombe, who participated fully in the organization of the hunt and its defence, dissuaded the Métis from pursuing the Sioux, convincing them that this was a time for forgiveness and thanksgiving, not revenge.

A few months after this battle the Métis and the Dakota Sioux met again, this time in peace: to negotiate and sign a peace treaty. It seems that the Sioux had reacted our of fear that the Métis were overhunting – both parties therefore agreed to share the hunting grounds. By this successful encounter in 1851 the Métis were able to extend for another 30 years their life of limited subsistence farming, reaping the proceeds of the buffalo hunt, and commercial ventures such as freight hauling with their Red River carts to Minneapolis/St. Paul. It left them unchallenged master of the plains, and no doubt gave them the confidence to stand up later to a seemingly insensitive colonial regime in Ottawa that seemed bent on undermining their way of life. This brief encounter demonstrates why the proudly independent Métis were such a potent military threat in the uprisings of 1869 and 1885.

 

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