Chapter 8. Rupert’s Land and the Northern Plains, 1690-1870

8.11 Environmental Apocaplyse

It may seem melodramatic to describe the situation as apocalyptic. But for the Aboriginal peoples of the region and for the animals on which they depended for survival, it could hardly be viewed otherwise. Famine conditions broke out at Red River in 1816 in part because of a temporary poor climate pattern. But the writing was on the wall even beforehand: the bison herds on which so many Plains cultures (including the Métis) depended were being obliterated in the northeastern Plains. The fur trade, too, was moving farther and farther west. Swans had disappeared from around James Bay by 1785 due to over-hunting (for their skins and feathers);  rabbits, geese, and deer were consumed in prodigious amounts by all of the HBC and NWC posts; partridge were vastly reduced in number and getting harder to find.[1] The signs were everywhere that the situation and many species were no longer sustainable.

Further, the explosion of Mount Tambora in faraway Indonesia in 1815 threw tons of material into the atmosphere, blocking out light and polluting the air, causing the Year Without Summer. A disastrous year for crops and grazing animals in 1816 was only the worst of several successive years of severe hardship. For Aboriginal people, the loss of game was a terrible burden. Faced, too, with measles, smallpox, whooping cough, and tuberculosis in these years, whole communities disappeared while others fled their home territories in search of better prospects elsewhere.

These environmental conditions had a significant impact on bison herd numbers as well. The largest numbers of animals continued to move west. This meant that pursuit of the herds became even more imperative than before. Mounted hunts inevitably increased the radius of individual bands and made conflict over territory and resources inevitable, not least because horseback hunters were more effective in reducing bison stocks. Horse travel also made it possible to move bacteria and viruses long distances in record time. The possibility of quarantining part of the Plains during epidemics had passed. Aboriginal peoples looked at these changing conditions and some decided to explore other strategies for survival, including Prairie farming and treaties with their neighbours and with newcomers.

The beaver population was also in dramatic decline. The NWC system, being more democratic than the top-down business model of the HBC, made it possible for young men to make a fortune as fur traders; but these fortunes could only be made by mining out the very last beaver in any give territory in short order. One response was to look farther afield, to plunder furs west of the Rockies, but that, too, was a short-term solution. More promising still was the advance made into the North-Western Territories by the HBC. The Company’s new licence to these expanded territories extended its monopoly and presence from the Arctic to California and from the Pacific to Hudson Bay, including the whole coastline of what is now northern Quebec. The impact on animal populations was almost immediate.

The cataclysmic changes of the period from 1816 into the 1820s and the unification of the fur trading companies meant that the HBC became the de facto government of the Prairie West (and large parts of the trans-mountain West). While this was not good for the wildlife, it did put the Company in a position to launch an inoculation campaign in an effort to curtail epidemics (which it did), put an end to the trade in alcohol (which it mostly did), and experiment with conservation measures (which it did clumsily). It also worked to limit farming in the West, viewing the possible influx of settlers as detrimental to its relationship with the Plains peoples in particular and to its interest in fur-bearing animals.

Another force stood in the way of a farming frontier across the West, and it stands as a further wrinkle in the story of large mammals thundering across the Plains. As we have seen, the number and size of Aboriginal farming societies had been falling since the 15th century. These higher density settlements would have had an interest in managing bison populations; otherwise attempts at agriculture would be frustrated. Coupled with climate change, the disappearance of the Mississippian farmers and even farming villages as far north as Alberta reduced obstacles to the growth of bison numbers. The massive herds were themselves an historic anomaly, in part a product of changes in the human ecology on the Plains. The bison posed a major challenge to agriculture: they were notorious for trampling crops and a herd could make short work of a farmer or hunter caught in the open.[2] It was only their removal by over-hunting (and the development of cold-steel ploughs) that made the agricultural revolution on the Plains in the late 19th century conceivable.

Disease and Aboriginal Populations

The saga of invasive diseases was far from over in the 18th century. Epidemics continued to take a toll and force change upon Aboriginal societies. Outbreaks of influenza (an exotic disease) struck the Chipewyan and northern Cree in 1748-49. Those who did not die from the sickness faced starvation in its aftermath.[3] Smallpox made a continent-wide appearance in 1781-82, distributed on horseback; it was devastating for Plains and parkland peoples alike. Faced with high mortalities from this outbreak and by a mounted and well-armed Niitsitapi (Blackfoot) enemy, the Shoshoni retreated from what is now southern Alberta. Disease thus allowed the Niitsitapi to extend their range into Montana. Winners in these conflicts were, nevertheless, themselves greatly reduced by epidemics and not all enjoyed a speedy recovery.

We have seen how, in the 18th century, trade networks across the Plains focused on the Mandan-Hidatsa villages. For the Cree and their neighbours, the Mandan villages were the key to survival to the 1830s, the last link to the ancient Mississipian farming cultures. It was their position as a hub of trade that doomed the Mandan-Hidatsa villages and many of the people with whom they traded. Smallpox struck the Mandan in 1837-38 and was thus passed along to many in the trading community. It then spread north to the Assiniboine. Some of the Cree communities fared relatively well because the HBC traders inoculated many people along with numbers of the Anishinaabeg. The Assiniboine, whose population was historically much larger and their individual bands inflated since the arrival of horses if not earlier, however, were easy targets for smallpox. The Mandan, likewise suffered horrendously: they were a village population with no hope of retreat in the face of, first, whooping cough, then cholera and tuberculosis, and then smallpox. The 1837 smallpox epidemic killed 6,000 of the Niitsitapi as well, who were subsequently forced westward. Hundreds if not thousands died in the famines and dislocations that followed the 1830s disaster. Aboriginal communities folded into one another and whole populations fled still farther west.

Smallpox and then scarlet fever pursued these populations even as they pursued one another. Both diseases devastated the Plains Cree of the Qu’Appelle Valley twice in the 1850s and the Niitsitapi suffered from scarlet fever, possibly introduced into the region by the Hind Expedition (see Chapter 14). One historian has suggested that the Niitsitapis’ “recent abandonment of the centuries-old practice of maintaining fresh water supplies by conserving beaver stocks” worsened their situation.[4] The environmental impact of the fur trade and Aboriginal competition cut deep.

The westward exodus of both the Niitsitapi and the Plains Cree culminated in further catastrophe. Nearly a century of raiding by the Cree embittered the Niitsitapi against their northeastern enemies. Although the two nations temporarily worked out an alliance of their own, by the mid-19th century the Cree were determined to secure primacy over the Plains and the remaining bison herds.[5] The Niitsitapi, for their part, had their backs to a wall of mountains. The Kutenai, another historic Plains peoples, had already been pushed across the Rockies (perhaps by the Niitsitapi); the Niitsitapi were not about to follow them. Conflict between the Cree and Niitsitapi increased through the 1850s and 1860s, culminating in the Battle at Oldman River (a.k.a. Battle of the Belly River) in what is now southern Alberta in the autumn of 1870. The Niitsitapi repelled the ambush launched by the Cree, Anishinaabe, and a much-reduced Assiniboine, and the Iron Confederacy suffered extensive fatalities. The two sides agreed to peace soon thereafter.
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Figure 8.23 Piapot (a.k.a. Payipwat, Kisikawasan) became an important Plains Cree leader in his 40s and was influential in Cree politics from the 1860s to the early 20th century.

The cumulative and complementary effects of epidemics, warfare, and the extensive deaths associated with the work of the American whisky traders (who pushed as far north as Fort Edmonton) were truly horrific. Pockets of the Plains turned into genuine boneyards. Desperation was the order of the day. It was in this context of exhaustion and vastly depleted population numbers that the people of the Plains approached the prospect of annexation by Canada and the possibilities held out in the Numbered Treaties of the 1870s.

Key Points

  • The new and expanded HBC adapted many features of the NWC and extended its systems to incorporate trading posts and forts from the Hudson Bay to the Pacific Ocean, around the Great Lakes, and on the Ungava Peninsula.
  • The fur trade proved to be unsustainable, as was the bison hunt, producing food shortages and even famine.
  • The return of epidemics and the arrival of new exotic diseases had disastrous effects on Aboriginal populations.
  • A shrinking resource base, demographic calamities, and fear of starvation pitted Aboriginal communities against one another and challenged the survival of the fur trade.

Attributions

Figure 8.23
Piapot by Sven Manguard is in the public domain.


  1. Laurel Sefton MacDowell, An Environmental History of Canada (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2012), 34.
  2. Olive Patricia Dickason, "A Historical Reconstruction for the Northwestern Plains," in The Prairie West: Historical Readings (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 1992), 53.
  3. J. Colin Yerbury, The Subarctic Indians and the Fur Trade, 1680-1860 (Vancouver: UBC Press, 1986), 39.
  4. James Daschuk, Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life (Regina: U of R Press, 2013), p.75.
  5. Shepard Krech III, The Ecological Indian: Myth and History (New York: W.W. Norton, 1999): 123-49.

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8.11 Environmental Apocaplyse by John Douglas Belshaw is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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