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Posted: No Trespassing. The Blackfoot and The American Fur Traders

A paper on the fur trade by Paul Raczka

Subject: Ethnology, Fur Trade, Elder, Beaver man, History, Raczka, Paul

Transcript: This paper was written by Paul Raczka from Choteau, Montana. Paul has worked with the Aamskaapii'piikunii (Blackfeet) in Montana for many years. Paul is a Beaver man and a well respected elder. Although Paul is not originally Blackfoot he has adopted the Blackfoot way of life and thus is accepted by the people as being Blackfoot. POSTED: NO TRESPASSING: THE BLACKFOOT AND THE AMERICAN FUR TRAPPERS Paul M. Raczka First published in "Selected Papers of the 2010 Fur Trade Symposium at the Three Forks", Three Forks Area Historical Society, Three Forks, Montana. Until 1831 Blackfoot/American relations were strained at best and hostile at worst. American trapping expeditions into Blackfoot territory were met with plundering or outright elimination. These "Blackfeet marauders", these "treacherous savages" met every incursion into their territory by relieving the trappers of their goods and setting them afoot, or killing them on sight. Yet to the north, the Hudson Bay traders traveled and traded [and even trapped] in relative safety in Blackfoot territory. Why this dichotomy in dealing with non-Blackfoot? Most historical records deal with this conflict from the viewpoint of the American trappers. Here were men trying to make a living exploiting the natural resources of an untamed and "unclaimed" land, and perhaps, seeking their fortunes in the process. However, from the Blackfoot viewpoint they were arrogant poachers plundering their country without permission, and taking food from the mouths of their families. To understand this viewpoint it's necessary to understand the Blackfoot, and indeed Native American, concept of "ownership" and use, of the land. For this we go to the oral history of the people, and the cultural "marking" of their territory. It was a large territory that allowed for internal movement with utilization of the resources wherever and whenever they became available. Its boundaries were well marked, and recognized by surrounding tribes [but not unchallenged]. Figure 1 Blackfoot Marked Traditional Territory, Author's map IN THE BEGINNING Two very early stories have survived that tell of the arrival of people to Blackfoot country. At this time they were not yet "Blackfoot", but just "people". They tell of a family of human beings that came from across the mountains through a southern pass. "Very long ago there was a tribe of people living far to the south, on the other side of the mountains. Somehow game became very scarce there, and the people began to starve. In this tribe there was an old man who had three sons, all grown and married, and he felt very sad to see them and their little children starving and growing thinner every day�" The old man received a dream that told him of a plentiful land the other side of the mountains and the family decided to follow the advice of his dream. Traveling for days in a starving condition they thought they would never get out of the mountains. So one day they talked of giving up, they were so weak, when they suddenly saw that they had passed the last peak. Beyond was the great prairie, reaching to the end of the world. By sunset they reached it, and camped beside a little stream. Already they had seen plenty of game, great bands of buffalo, elk, and antelope. Early in the morning the sons started out to hunt, but they had bad luck. They could not get near enough game to kill it. But their father was a powerful person. He made a black medicine, a very wonderful medicine, and rubbed it on his oldest son's feet, and it enabled him to run so fast that he got right up beside a fat cow and killed her with one arrow. The old man gave his eldest son a new name. �Hereafter,' he said, �your name is Siks-i-kaho[Blackfoot] (Blackfeet, ed.). It shall be the name of your children, too,' "Now the other sons were jealous. They said, �Is our elder brother better than we? Why may we not have some of this black medicine, too?' "'Wait,' said their father. �You shall each have a new name. First go to war, and when you return I will give you new names for yourself and your children. Here we will found three tribes, and this shall be their country.' The young men soon got ready and started, one going south, the other east. "It was winter when the one who went east returned. He brought scalps with him, and also some weapons which he had taken from the enemy. His father named him Kai-nah [Bloods]. From him and his children this tribe started. "The other son did not return until the middle of the winter. He also brought scalps and weapons, and some wearing apparel of curious make; so the old man named him Pi-kun-I[Piegan]. He was the first of this tribe."[Crazy Dog, Blackfoot, told to J.W. Schultz, to Grinnell; Grinnell, 1892; 154-156] [A similar story was told to Clark Wissler in the early 1900's.] Two other very important events are also mentioned in these stories. The first is the second dream of the black root given the old man. In it he has reached accord with the animals of this new land. They have given him the new methods to hunt the animals of the Plains [persistence hunting]. It was the black root, and the ceremony that accompanied it, that allowed the people to be successful in hunting the large animals. It was the animals themselves that had given permission to be utilized, and had shown the method to do it in a spiritual and respectful way. Other spiritual gifts, like the Beaver Bundle, Sun Dance and Thunder Medicine Pipe, would be given with methods of contacting and using the animals and land, and the spiritual power that went with them. Physical locations where spiritual events occurred were the symbols of contracts between the spiritual realm and the people. In each of these the covenant and integration of the people with all the animals and spirits was established, and the possession of the land reinforced. And in the ceremony of each bundle it is repeated and renewed during every opening to the present day. Secondly, boundaries were marked by the sons with pictographs, markers and stone effigies which notified any other group of people the land was occupied. These markers also were a "spiritual gate" of sorts since they negated, or weakened, any spiritual power the intruding group might have. Blackfoot spiritual and pictographic markers are found at each pass coming from the west, and along their borders north, south and east as well. Figure 2 Sun River Pass markings at head of "Raising Dust Trail", author's photo Figure 3 Sun River markings 2, author's photo Each added to the power of the people and their claim to the land, and in effect, posted the land as belonging to the Blackfoot. The Blackfoot people completed their covenant with the Above People, Earth People and Underwater People, and this land was theirs. CONFUSION "Our tribes came southward out of the wooded country to the north of Bow River. We began to make short excursions to the south, and finding it a better game country and with much less snow, we kept coming farther and farther, and finally gave up altogether our old home. This happened before my grandfather's [Sistsawana, Bird Rattle, ed.] time. We call that former home �Ishtssohatsi' [�in the brush']. The Peigan led in this movement and were followed by the Bloods and later the Blackfeet [Siksikai, ed.].We all hunted in the plains between Milk River and the Yellowstone, the Peigan finally wintering on the Musselshell or the Upper Missouri, the Bloods on Belly River, south of the site of Fort Macleod, the Blackfeet on Bow River, or its tributary, High River. Of course, individual families and small bands of the Blackfeet would sometimes spend the winter among the Peigans."[Tearing Lodge, 1898] Figure 4 Tearing Lodge and his wife, Edward Curtis Photo "Tearing Lodge further states that Bird Rattle used to say that through the forest country ran a big river, which informant thinks was larger than the Missouri. After the Peigan had begun to make short trips into the prairies, they one winter returned to the big river, to find white men on the other side. These men traded with them, and as the people began to go further south the white men followed them with their goods. Later, when they returned to the big river, they found a fort built on the other side, which Tearing Lodge believes was Edmonton House." [Tearing Lodge, South Peigan-Blackfoot, 1898, at the age of ca. 68, to Edward Curtis, Curtis mss; Seaver Center for Western History, L.A.] From this information, and the opinion of George Bird Grinnell who was with him interviewing Tearing Lodge in 1898, Curtis formed the conclusion that the Blackfoot people originated and migrated from the north near Lesser Slave Lake, Alberta, in fairly recent time, and the big river referred to was the Peace River. Both published that conclusion, and thereafter other researchers quoted their findings as fact. Grinnell tried to add to the strength of his conclusion that the Cree name for the Blackfoot was "Slave Indians". Slave Lake bears the same name therefore it must be the home of the Blackfoot. He adds that Henry's Cree guides stated that the "Knisteneaux" [Slave Indians] and Beaver Indians made their peace at Peace Point from which the river gets its name. [Henry-Thompson Journals, Vol. II, page 510, N.Y. 1897] However, he would not be the first to face confusion with Cree names for various other groups. David Smyth covers this name confusion thoroughly in his thesis, "The Niitsitapi Trade" [Smyth, 2001] and shows other tribes were also called "Slave Indians" and misidentified as Blackfoot. Both Curtis and Grinnell were stretching parts of the information to fit their theories. Going back to the original notes we find that the big river that Tearing Lodge refers to is actually Big River [Omakati, in Blackfoot], the Saskatchewan River. All other historical accounts of meetings with the Blackfoot place them along the Saskatchewan at various times. None show them near Lesser Slave Lake or the Peace River. Another clue given by Tearing Lodge is that when they went back north they found "a fort built on the other side" [of the river]. This would probably be Buckingham House built on the North Saskatchewan River in 1780. [Bull Plume winter count for 1791.] There is no historical record of a trading post being built on the north side of the Peace River above Blackfoot territory at that time. Some of this confusion can be due to the interpreter, and some can be interpretation of the story by researchers with preconceived theories. For example quoting from the Curtis manuscript again; Their genetic legend is so modernized that the creation is placed on the Teton River in Montana. The aged wiseman [Tearing Lodge, ed.] who gave the story of the creation on the Teton, the following day told how his paternal grandfather had discussed the life of the people when living at the lesser Slave Lake [Curtis and Grinnell's opinion as to the location, ed.] hundreds of miles north and generations before they moved south to Montana. When asked to reconcile his historical statement with the legend he merely smiled, shrugged his shoulders and said, "That is the way the people tell it". [Curtis Mss., Seaver Center for Western History, L.A.] To this we can add the story that after Napi created the Blackfoot people he rested on a butte where he made a stone image of himself. This stone outline, of Napi lying down, on the Teton River just west of Choteau, Montana, was recently destroyed by vandals. If we are to accept this story of the Blackfoot originally being in the south what would be the reason they were found along the North Saskatchewan River? One answer may come from the far southwest United States. We know as a fact that one of the smallpox epidemics that hit the Blackfoot people came through the Shoshone people to the south. [Bull Plume's 1764 winter count.] If an earlier [and possibly "first"] epidemic had hit the Blackfoot from the same source, they would have fled as far away from the source as possible. And that would be to the far northern border of their land. Is it possible such an event occurred? From the journals of fray Juan de Prada of 1638 we may find an answer, and source of this disease. As the Franciscan Commissary General of New Spain [New Mexico, etc.] he reported Pueblo Indian numbers declined due, "to that extent on account of the very active prevalence during these last years of smallpox and the sickness which the Mexicans called cocolitzli [typhus, ed.]" From 60,000 they were reduced to 40,000 people during the years 1636-1641. [Hackett, p109-111] This, along with forced slavery, and abuse by the Spanish, caused a great flight of Pueblo Indians from the Spanish country to the Plains Indians. Some fled to the Plains Apache country to the east, while others escaped to the Utes in the north. Since the Utes, as well as the Comanche and Apache to the east, were old trading partners among the pueblos, there would be a favorable welcome for them. Both the Comanche and Utes were related to the Shoshone and were frequent trading partners. It would take only one infected individual to spread the diseases among them and on to the Blackfoot southern border. The time-line would be right for the Blackfoot to have fled north, stayed until they were comfortable the disease to the south had run its course [one or two generations?], recovered their numbers and strength, and discovered enemy tribes [already recovered from the epidemic] were beginning to move into their original country. This would be about the time first contact with European traders placed them on the north boundary of their country and moving back to the south. Based on Blackfoot oral history [and Euro-historical documents] concerning wintering, war expeditions, and hunting camp sites, the area considered by the Blackfoot Confederacy to be theirs runs from where the North Saskatchewan River comes out of the mountains above Rocky Mountain house, south along the edge of the mountains to the Helena/ Three Rivers area; east to Livingston, then following the Yellowstone River to the Forsyth/Miles City area; north to Glasgow near the mouth of the Milk River and from there north into Saskatchewan, east of Swift Current, to North Battleford [passing east of the Eagle Hills, site of the first contact], to the North Saskatchewan River and following that to Rocky Mountain House. These borders were, of course, contested by enemy tribes and, as the Blackfoot became more horse orientated they shifted closer to the foothills where the environment was more conducive to wintering their horses. In later years the location of trading posts would also be a factor in the moves. Figure 5 Drawing, rock by rock, of the "Napi" creator figure. Probably erected by the Blackfeet Indians some 600 years ago. [1350, ed.] Drawing made by Professor Carling Malouf, University of Montana, 1958. Located on the Madison River bluffs west of Bozeman. This concept of ownership via a spiritual covenant [or contract, if you will] was common among other tribes on the northern plains, and recognized as a valid claim. It was a totally foreign and unknown concept of ownership to the intruding Euro-culture. The Hudson Bay Company had early, first hand experience with this when their company trappers were sent home naked and afoot from Blackfoot country. After several other attempts, with similar results, they realized the need to seek permission for their trappers to hunt in Blackfoot country. [Thompson, 1880] Once they were granted permission the depredations came to a halt by and large. It was a lesson the American fur companies were slow to learn. The punishment for this trespass varied from stripping the transgressors of all they had and sending them home naked as a warning, to outright killing them. "Permission to hunt" extended as well to other tribes seeking buffalo in the Blackfoot territory. The "Across-the-Mountains" tribes, such as the Flatheads, Kootenai and Pend d'Orreille were often granted access for their buffalo hunts. Of course, if they thought the Blackfoot were not anywhere in the vicinity they would try to hold a hunt and leave before being discovered. In these cases, if they were discovered, they were considered as "stealing" Blackfoot buffalo and an attack was imminent [Ksiem siso, Revenge Raid]. Figure 6 Ksiem siso, Revenge Raid, Night Shoot, South Peigan, Fort Macleod Museum, Alberta Another factor creating hostility between American trappers and the Blackfoot can be considered "guilt by association". By aligning themselves with tribes such as the Crow and Flathead, and providing them with guns, they in effect "became Crows and Flatheads", enemies of the Blackfoot. This view extended to encounters outside Blackfoot country as well. Not limited to the Americans alone, this led to the Hudson Bay Company and North West Company being blockaded from trading with the Kootenai and Flathead and providing them with arms and ammunition. [Thompson & Henry Journals; Coues, 673-675, 1897] In contrast, when Blackfeet traveling in the southwest met Josiah Gregg's 1831 caravan on the Santa Fe Trail a totally different outcome occurred. Five hundred lodges and 2-3,000 North Blackfeet [this, no doubt included some Gros Ventre] encountered Gregg's caravan on the Cimarron River with both parties uncertain of the other's intentions. With both lines of fighters facing each other Gregg, deciding to try and push the Blackfeet back in order to attain a more favorable fighting position, unknowingly averted hostilities. "Our company was therefore mustered and drawn up in line of battle; and accompanied by the sound of a drum and fife we marched towards the main group of the Indians. The later seemed far more delighted than frightened with this strange parade and music�". [Gregg, 1967; 65] For the Blackfeet this was the traditional procedure between strange tribes to initiate peace. Each group of warriors would face each other, and led by a Medicine Pipe owner carrying his pipe, would advance toward each other, stopping four times and singing their peace songs. Thus, peace was made between the Blackfeet and the Americans, albeit an uneasy one on the part of the Americans who knew of the conflicts in the north, and reputation of the Blackfeet. But in this case no enemy tribal members traveled with the Americans, nor were they supplying their enemies. This trip by North Blackfeet to the southwest is well known in Blackfoot oral history. Figure 7 Petroglyph, Writing On Stone Provincial Park, Alberta. Meeting of Medicine Pipe carriers from two tribes. Figure 8 "When the whites from the South & North met." pictograph from Bull Plume Winter Count, author's collection. It was 1830, when Jacques Berger, a former trader from the Hudson Bay Company who spoke fluent Blackfoot, convinced Kenneth McKenzie, superintendent of the Upper Missouri Outfit of the American Fur Company, he could establish trade with the Blackfoot. With four men and a trading outfit provided by the Company, he traveled to Blackfoot country on a mission many thought was suicidal. Meeting with several Piikani who recognized him, he was invited to the main camp and spent the next twenty-two days distributing liberal gifts and reciting prices the Company would pay for furs. He managed to convince ninety-two men and thirty-two women to return to Fort Union with him. There, after being treated royally by McKenzie, they invited him to establish a trading post in their country. Traders, who would be invited guests and protected, were welcome but poaching trappers would never be allowed. Figure 9 Father Nicolas Point Drawing, The Archives of the Jesuits in Canada, Montreal. Figure 10 American Fur Company Fort, drawing by Thunder Chief, Blackfoot Indian, Point Collection, Jesuit Archives, Montreal. Figure 11 Gifts of alcohol by traders to the chiefs on their arrival at the fort, Thunder Chief, Blackfoot Indian [Thunder Chief's name glyph is above him at lower left quadrant], Point Collection, Jesuit Archive, Montreal. Figure 12 Traders preparing the feast for the chiefs on their arrival at the fort. [Thunder Chief's partial name glyph is just above the traders at the bottom.] By this time the Company had determined that free trappers working the countryside was a losing proposition, and a more profitable solution was needed. If trade could be established, the Blackfoot could provide the furs, and company expenses would drop considerably. This proved to be the case when McKenzie sent James Kipp in the fall of 1831 to establish Fort Peigan along the Marias River in the heart of Blackfoot country. Paying 3-400 percent higher than the Hudson Bay Company, Kipp took in 6,450 pounds of beaver which yielded $46,000 for the American Fur Company that year. The American Fur Company had finally figured it out. Seeking permission to trade in Blackfoot lands, rather than forcing their way in, solved their problems. Blackfoot ownership of the land was recognized and their sovereignty respected � for a time. BIBLIOGAPHY Bradley, James H. Affairs at Fort Benton from 1831 to 1869, From Lieut. Bradley's Journal, Historical Society of Montana, vol.3, Helena, Montana, 1900 Coues, Elliott 1965 The Manuscript Journals of Alexander Henry and David Thompson; 1799-1814, Vols. I & II Ross & Haines, Minneapolis, Minnesota, Curtis, Edward & Grinnell, George Bird Manuscript, Seaver Center for Western History Research, Los Angeles, CA. Hackett, Charles Wilson, ed. Historical Documents Vol. 3; Carnegie Institute of Washington Raczka, Paul Winter Count; a History of the Blackfoot People, Old Man River Cultural Centre, Brocket, Alberta, Canada.1979 Smyth, David 2001 The Niitsitapi Trade: Euro-Americans and the Blackfoot-Speaking Peoples to the mid 1830'S, PhD. Thesis, Carlton Univ. Nov Tyrrell, J. B. ed. 1916 "David Thompson's Narrative of His Explorations in Western America", The Champlain Society, Toronto,


Publisher: Blackfoot Digital Library


Asset Date: 2012-03-08

Format: Document


CONTENTdm file name: 267.pdf

CONTENTdm number: 361

Date modified: 2014-02-28

Origin Location Name: Choteau

Pointer: 361

Origin Location Name: Choteau