History Comes To The Plains


Now plains again, interrupted by the windings of the Souris, with good camping and good grass, and past Les Roches Percées, with their fantastic badlands erosional forms. For 138 miles the plains swept on without a major break except the river valley sunk 150 feet into the gray prairie face, until after many days the west showed a faint long line of blue. This, which faded almost out of sight as they approached and climbed its flanks, was the Grand Coteau of the Missouri, angling southeastward from the Thunder Hills, on the Saskatchewan, to a point east of the Great Bend of the Missouri in what is now North Dakota.

This was another distinct step in their measuring-worm march; it brought them onto the Third Prairie Steppe, the driest and highest part of the northern Plains, and to the territory where the flow of streams was uncertain and often alkaline. For many miles west of the Coteau escarpment they encountered salt lakes, alkali sinks, creeks that trickled off feebly to one side or other and died in stagnant sloughs.

Late in October, when the westernmost American party was quitting work at Astronomical Station No. 12, just west of the 106th meridian, 408 miles from Red River, and preparing to start for the Missouri and a steamer trip to Bismarck and thence home, the British parties were still strung out across 400 miles of longitude, and they and their commissariat wagons were caught in various postures of unpreparedness by the first equinoctial snowstorms on September 23. They corralled their wagons into a horseshoe shape and lashed canvas sheets on the inside and huddled their tents into the frail shelter. For seven days and nights they could do little but stay in their blankets; their horses, turned loose to graze in lulls of the storm, came back and stood in the shelter of the wagons and did not eat for a week. That the first storm was almost always followed by several weeks of mild Indian summer weather did not much console men who had anywhere up to 400 miles to ride, across prairies swept bare of forage by fires, and who had to watch their horses turn into scarecrows before their eyes.

A few days after the storm, the most advanced British group was near a fly-by-night post called Turnay’s, on the Frenchman, or Whitemud, River just below its crossing of the Forty-ninth Parallel. There was still snow on the ground. They were looking for a métis village supposed to be on Wood, or Woody, Mountain; as a matter of fact, they were looking for Woody Mountain, which rumor’said lay somewhere near the line. Only the passing of a party of Sioux hunters heading south gave them the clue that let them find it: the Sioux said there was a hunter’s camp a long day’s journey northward.

Following the Sioux tracks backward across the snowy plains, the surveyors after 25 miles found the village at what is now called Willow Bunch, hidden among the ravines of the highland, with good wood and water and winter shelter. A few hours of bright sun let them take a shot with the sextant and determine that the village was actually 22 miles north of the line. Balmy weather made the “rude and desolate huts” of the hivernants look attractive enough so that the surveyors selected Willow Bunch as their supply depot for the work of the next season. That was on October 8. By the end of the month they had ridden, almost casually, all the 450 miles to Red River and closed up the work for the year.

The next May the advance commissary train of twenty wagons started west again, accompanied by a road-making and bridge-building party. At the same time a mounted reconnaissance party with Red River carts for its baggage pushed clear on out to Wood Mountain to build depot buildings; when they had that done they were to scour the country for a hundred miles to the west to spot water, fuel, and camp sites. Two weeks behind the advance groups came the main body, 160 officers and men and 70 wagons, and so efficient had the road-builders been that the main party went 200 miles, clear to the Souris River, without an interruption or a difficulty.

There the river was in flood; they sank loaded cribs in its channel and in three days built a bridge. At the Grand Coteau the astronomical and surveying parties broke off south to follow the boundary track to their stations; the wagons kept on the easier cart track toward Wood Mountain, where they arrived on June 22, 32 days out from Red River. There they found that one element at least of the American frontier system was sound: the trader they had engaged in Fort Benton had already delivered sixty tons of oats in a train of huge broad-tired double wagons, each pair drawn by nine yoke of oxen and carrying a payload of eight tons of sacked grain. The British were quite capable of matching the Americans in fortitude and more than able to match them in discipline, but in enterprises of this sort Americans would outdo anybody in the world.

The survey crew had trouble crossing the deep gorge of the Frenchman and found its water unpalatably salty, and on its plateau in early June they made the acquaintance of the crawling locusts whose swarms, once winged, would fly on east to devastate for the second year in a row the crops of Red River.