History Comes To The Plains

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And out on the scabby plains beyond the crossing of the Frenchman, out on the flats where exactly forty years later my father would hopefully hunt out the survey stakes marking his half section of wheat land, they met the buffalo for the first time. They chased him and hunted him and blessed his beef and cursed his habit of filling every slough and water hole with mud and excreta, and once their wagon train, headed west for a depot 150 miles beyond Wood Mountain, was all but run over by an enormous herd being driven by Sioux.

The commissary’s métis scouts fired into the onrushing herd and split it, and they watched the terrified bison gallop past on both sides and the stripped brown Sioux on strong buffalo horses who emerged and were gone in the dust. The Fort Benton men in those years were announcing that the buffalo were getting more numerous because of the killing off of the wolves, but the sight of that kind of herd was already a thing of the past in the 500 miles of plains eastward, and after exactly seven years more on this last desolate prairie the buffalo would be gone as if the earth had opened.

Out on those same flats the surveyors saw hunting camps of métis and noted how every day each hunter would kill six or eight buffalo, from which his women would take only the choicest parts—tongues and hump ribs mainly—leaving the rest of the meat and not even bothering to take the hides. Across the “arid cactus plain” between the Frenchman and the Milk the boundary line was pushed through the carrion stink of a way of life recklessly destroying itself.

A few miles from their depot camp they came upon the bodies of twenty Crow Indians, dead and scalped and half-mummified in the dry heat—one more manifestation, belated like the spendthrift camp of métis buffalo hunters, of an ecology still ferociously vital on the very eve of its extinction. As a power, the Blackfeet were almost as dead as this Crow war party they had killed, but they did not yet know it.

The escort for the American boundary commission in these dangerous longitudes included not only the customary two companies of cavalry but five companies of the 6th Infantry based upon Fort Buford, and Major Reno issued orders that the command was not to be divided too much—a precaution that his commander would ignore to the sorrow of many widows and orphans on the Little Big Horn.

Perhaps because of the big escort, perhaps because of their own lack of belligerence, the survey parties of both sides moved on without trouble from the Blackfeet. In the last week of August, 1874, they jointly located the last monument of the 1861 survey which had carried the boundary eastward from the Pacific, and on a remote ridge above Waterton Lake completed the line that now ran from sea to sea.

Behind them, evidence of their own contribution, stretched the line of 388 cairns and pillars and forty astronomical stations, an open fence reaching through the heart of the Indian country to Red River. The surveyors and astronomers and the escort could go back to civilian jobs or to their normal army duties; their work through the field seasons of three years had drawn a line not only between the two nations but between two periods of history. The final signatures of representatives of the two governments would be affixed to the official documents in London on May 29 of the next year. By that time Crow and Gros Ventre and Snake and Blackfoot and Assiniboin and Crée would already know that the “medicine line,” as they called it, was something potent and compulsive in their lives.

The medicine of the line of cairns was very strong. Once it had been necessary to outrun your pursuing enemy until you were well within your own country where he did not dare follow; now all you had to do was outrun him to the line, and from across that magical invisible barrier you could watch him pull to a halt, balked, furious, and helpless.

The seethe of settlement on the American side—miners and cattlemen and army detachments and all the commercial activity of steamboats and wagon trains that supported these—was not matched yet by any counterpart on the Canadian side, where only a few Hudson’s Bay Company posts, a few métis villages, a mission or two, and a handful of former whisky forts like Whoop-up and Stand-off and Slide-out foretold white civilization. From 1876 to 1881 nearly the whole Sioux nation, along with a ragtag and bobtail of refugees from the other driven and desperate tribes—Crow, Snake, Arapaho, Assiniboin, Nez Percé—found their last sanctuary and their last years of starving freedom between Wood Mountain and the Cypress Hills, north of the Medicine Line. From Fort Walsh, headquarters of the Mounted Police from 1878 to 1882, the men in red coats patrolled the mystic boundary between two variants of white law and watched over the death struggles of the plains frontier.