History Comes To The Plains


They learned how eyelashes could freeze together on a trail and how a muffler moistened by breathing could freeze fast to a man’s beard and face and threaten to smother him. They learned to be wary about turning a tangent screw with the bare fingers, for the brass burned as if it had been white hot; if the hand that touched it was moist, the metal froze fast and could only be removed with the skin. Tenderfeet who made the mistake of drinking out of unwarmed metal cups in the morning left the skin of their lips on the rim. The eyes of all the surveyors were painful from the constant, dangerous contact with the eyepieces of their instruments, whose lurking frost could seize an eyelid and hold it fast “as experienced by Russian officers in Siberia.” After long exposure the eye would leak tears that froze instantly into beaded icicles on the lashes “and gave the face a comical look, somewhat like that in children’s pictures of Jack Frost.”

It was not a game for children. The British party in the winter of 1873 had cause for pride in their job when they finished it up and brought the line out of the woods and into the Red River Valley. Before them lay the true Plains through which they were to sight a beeline for 800 miles.

April and part of May, during the spring breakup, were not surveying weather. The British Commission spent six weeks under roofs at Red River planning for the season ahead, and they were already in the field when the American party reassembled on the first of June, 1873, complete with an escort of a company of the 20th Infantry and two companies of the 7th Cavalry under Major Marcus Reno.

Working alternate stations—each commission divided into several parties—they closed the line from monument to monument. As far as the western border of Manitoba they would plant eight-foot iron pillars four feet in the ground at mile intervals; in the empty country beyond all settlement their progress would be marked every three miles by a cairn of stones or mound of earth. Ahead of them, thirty métis scouts commanded by an engineering officer reconnoitered the country for camp and supply depot sites in the boundary zone. The measuring worm began chaining itself out toward the buffalo country, toward the Blackfoot country, toward the lost hills where only a couple of weeks before the conflict of cultures had come to bloody war between the wolfers and the Assiniboin on Battle Creek.

The climate of the Red River Valley is cold, and spring comes slowly, but when it comes, when one warm day is followed by a single night without frost, the whole prairie can be misted with sudden green. Out of that same abrupt loosening of winter came the mosquitoes in clouds and fogs to drive men and animals wild. The tender skin around the eyes of horses and oxen gathered moving crusts of torment; a rider rubbing a hand across his mount’s face brought up a pulpy mass of crushed insects and blood. Horses flinched sometimes from a horsefly bite as if they had been nicked with a knife blade; their dung was full of bots. Even the strongest animals were kept thin, and if one was too poor or overworked the constant attacks of flies and mosquitoes might literally kill him.

Chain by chain, mile by mile, stake by stake, astronomical station by astronomical station, they measured their true-west line, each party surveying as it went a belt five miles wide on its own side. The Red River Valley’s fertile prairie was back of them; they mounted the ridge known as Pembina Mountain and were on the Second Prairie Steppe, one mighty grassland marked by the skulls and bones of the vanished buffalo and by the mounded burrows of innumerable badgers.

Crocuses gave way to wild roses, but the mosquitoes and the flies did not disappear as the summer heat came on. They ceased their biting only for an hour or two during the blaze of noon, and that was precisely the time when work could not go on because “over the whole prairie surface the air was in constant agitation, and in looking through the telescope at a distant flagstaff it was seen to dance with persistent contortions, and no observations on terrestrial objects could be made from point to point with accuracy, except in the early morning or late in the evening.” They learned to like cloudy days; they blessed their luck when they were sighting across a valley, for only in the lower thirty or forty feet of air did the heat dance.

Seventy miles of plains brought them to Turtle Mountain, straddling the line. Here was relief from heat and glare, plenty of timber for fires and smudges, plenty of water more potable than the sloughs of the prairie. But Turtle Mountain brought also a sharp increase in difficulty. A group of British axmen and surveyors was all summer cutting a fifteen-foot way through twenty-four miles of Turtle Mountain to meet an American party which worked ten miles in from the other side. In the thirty-four miles of their mutual effort, before they met on opposite shores of a mile-wide lake, they had crossed sixty-five pieces of water, across many of which the line had to be surveyed by triangulation. Also they discovered what havoc a sudden hailstorm, with stones as big as bantam eggs, could create in camp and among the horses. Nevertheless, Turtle Mountain had advantages for them. They established a supply depot in it and chained on. The Americans had already set up a depot on the Souris, or Mouse River, still farther west.