One hundred years ago the whole Red River Country, including the rolling country on its eastern border, and also including the country about the headwaters of the Mississippi and Crow Wing Rivers, was a paradise for wild animals. This country at that time was the principal field of operations for the Northwest Fur Company, and there was also an opposition fur company doing business in the same territory at the same time.
The headquarters of the Northwest Company was then at the junction of Park River and the Red, about half way between where Grand Forks and Pembina have since been built. At this trading post, Alexander Henry, the resident general manager of this Fur Company, had his headquarters. There were also branch trading posts at the forks of the Red and Red Lake Rivers, one at the mouth of the Pembina River, one at Red Lake and one at the White Earth'in what is now Becker County.
Immense numbers of furs were taken every year by the Indians and half-breeds for this company and shipped by them to Montreal in Canada. They were taken in birch-bark canoes down the Red River to Lake Winnipeg, thence up the Winnipeg River to the Lake of the Woods, thence via Rainy River, the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence to Montreal.
In the year 1798, according to the official report of the Northwest Fur Company, they shipped to Montreal by way of Lake Superior the following list of skins in round numbers.
Dressed deer skin
The opposition fur company must also have secured nearly as many. Of these furs the territory now included in Becker County furnished a fair proportion.
Neil's History of Minnesota has this to say of Alexander Henry, who during the year 1800 and for several years afterwards was in charge of these trading posts.
Alexander Henry, the second, was a nephew of Alexander Henry, one of the first subjects of Great Britain who traded at Lapoint before the Revolutionary War, and whose book of travels is well known to the literary world. The nephew was a partner of the Northwest Fur Company, and although his education was limited, his perception was quick, and his pen that of a ready writer. He kept a journal for several years duringhis residence in the Red River Country, and but few journals contain so many important statements. His notes ought to be published.
The Hon. Norman W. Kitson, once a member of the Legislature from the Red River Country was a relative of the writer of this journal.
E. D. N.
Since the above was published the journal of Alexander Henry has been published in full by Professor Elliott Coues. As I have used numerous quotations from the above mentioned journal, I deemed it appropriate that I should give a brief account of the author, as I have here done.
I have included in these articles all the wild animals that ever inhabitated [sic] Becker County as far as my knowledge extends, although some may have been omitted that I know not of.
The information given in the following pages is largely my own experience, together with incidents and adventures that have come under my own personal knowledge, with a few extracts from competent authors to help out where my personal knowledge is insufficient to convey a fair conception of the character and habits of certain species of animals. I have not undertaken to arrange them in any scientific order, although I have endeavored to keep the different families together.
I begin my history of Becker County animals with the buffalo, because it is the largest and most distinctly American of all the wild animals inhabiting this continent. In my opinion it would have been a more fitting emblem of our national flag than the piratical eagle. The western part of Becker County was formerly a favorite summer range for the buffalo, and their skeletons have been found in all parts of the county.
In 1870 while engaged in surveying for the Government, I found a great many of their bones scattered over the prairies in the townships of Hamden and Cuba. They were particularly plentiful near the Buffalo River on sections 9, 10, 15 and 16 in the latter township. Buffalo River was so named from the immense herds of buffalo that formerly roamed along its banks.
Many years ago I found a buffalo skeleton, which still had some of the hair on its head, in a spring hole on the west shore of Long Lake, on section 27 in the town of Erie, near where Millard Howe has since resided, where the buffalo had incautiously ventured, and was unable to extricate himself.
I have found buffalo skulls as far east as the Crow Wing River in Hubbard County, and Lieutenant Pike, the first Government explorer of the upper Mississippi River in 1805, found several good sized herds of buffalo on the ,east side of the Mississippi, near where Little Falls now stands.
Major Long, while exploring the Red River Valley in the summer of 1823, met a large herd of buffalo a little east of where McCauleyville, in Wilkin County, is now located.
In the spring of 1862, the writer of this article ascended the Missouri River on a steamboat belonging to the American Fur Company from Sioux City, Iowa, to the Great Falls, near the Rocky Mountains. The last sign of civilization at that time was at the northern border of Nebraska. On the 27th of May we stopped to cut wood on the east side of the river, in what is now South Dakota near its present capital. In a little opening immediately above where we landed, six bull buffaloes were feeding, apparently unconscious of our presence. Six of us started out to surround the bulls. This was a difficult task, because the little opening of about half an acre was surrounded by timber and a dense undergrowth of willows, rose bushes, ripshins and bullberry bushes, which were covered with sharp thorns. Our scheme, however, worked to a charm and before they knew it, we had them completely surrounded. A well beaten trail ran from the river through to the little opening, and from there on through the thickets to .the open prairie beyond. When all was ready, three or four of us fired, and two bulls fell to the ground. One of them, however, succeeded in getting on his feet again. The four bulls that were unhurt made a break for the open prairie along the trail while the wounded bull took the trail for the river. My station happened to be on this trail. When I saw the bull coming with eyes distorted, and blood flowing from his mouth and nostrils, I started for the river, too. My gun was empty, and the trail was walled in with brush so dense as to be almost impenetrable, and the bull was gaining on me at every jump. A wounded buffalo, when enraged and driven to desperation by the hunter is of all animals in the world the most diabolical in appearance. He was the very image of ferocity and horror. It did not take me long to reach the river bank, which was one of those perpendicular-cut banks, peculiar to the Missouri, with a torrent of deep muddy water running at its base. I now gave a last farewell glance over my shoulder at the bull, and just then to my surprise and infinite relief, he tumbled headlong to the ground. We took him on board the boat and everybody had beef for a while.
At two different times our steamboat was obliged to stop, and tie up alongside the shore to avoid the immense herds of buffalo that were floating down the river. The first drove we encountered was near where Bismarck in North Dakota is now located. The river was nearly half a mile wide and was filled nearly its entire width with live buffaloes, and they were at least half an hour in passing. We encountered the other drove a little above the mouth of the Yellowstone and it must have contained at least 20,000 animals.
There are two peculiarities of the buffalo, which I will mention. One is the thickness of the hide on the skull of the animal, which is at least an inch thick. The old muzzle loading rifle ball could not penetrate it, but the modern breech loader probably could. I worked hard for ten minutes, with a sharp ax, trying to cut a dried scalp in two that came off a buffalo bull's pate. It was more than half an inch thick when dried, and nearly as hard as sheet iron. The hides of all bulls were very thick and heavy, and it took a good strong man to handle one. N early all the robes were made from the skins of cows. The Indians always tanned buffalo robes by using the brains of the animal, and they tanned buckskins the same way. The other peculiarity is the ease and quickness with which it springs to the ground when suddenly alarmed. Instead of raising itself first by two legs, and then by the other two, like the ox or the horse, the buffalo springs to the ground with its four feet all at once and in an instant, with but little effort. Buffaloes live to be thirty or fory years old and are not full grown until six.
The following extracts from the journal of Alexander Henry, will show that the buffalo formerly existed in the Red River country in immense numbers, and that their visits were not confined to the summer season.
Mr. Henry says:
Sunday, May 6th, 1800.
At Bois Prere, near where we are camped, has been a great buffalo crossing for many years. The ground on both sides is beaten as hard as a pavement, and the roads leading to the Red River are a foot deep, and I am at a loss and bewildered in attempting to form any idea of the numerous herds of buffalo which may have passed here.
Sept. l1th, 1800.
I climbed up a tan oak tree which I trimmed for the purpose, and from the top of it I had an extensive view of the surrounding country. Buffalo and elk were everywhere to be seen passing to and fro. Four of my men returned today having killed fourteen bears.
I shot a wolf that was passing by and killed him dead. Buffalo come down to drink, both day and night, near our camp but we seldom molest them.
Sept. 18th, 1800.
I took my morning view from the top of my oak tree and saw more buffalo than ever before. They formed one body, commencing about half a mile from camp, from whence the plain was covered as far as the eye could reach.
November 7th, 1800.
We saw a great herd of cows going at fun speed southward but on coming to our track, which goes to the salt spring, they began to sme1l the ground, and as suddenly as if they had been fired at, turned towards the hills in an easterly direction. It is surprising how sagacious these animals are. When in the least alarmed they will smell the track of even a single person in the grass, and run away in a contrary direction. I have seen large herds, walking very slowly to pasture, and feeding as they went, come to a place where some persons had passed on foot, when they would instantly stop, smell the ground and draw back a few paces, bel1ow, and tear up the earth with their horns.
Sometimes the whole herd would range along the route, keeping up a terrible noise, until one of them was hardy enough to jump over, when they would a1l fo1low and run some distance.