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1. Introduction

2. The Distant Past

3. First Nations

4. The Fur Trade

5. European Settlement

6. Notable People

7. Railway Era

8. Resources

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The Fur Trade Era

The Explorers

The first European to explore this part of the prairies was La Verendrye, who in 1838 made a journey south from the forts he had established near Portage La Prairie and Winnipeg, in search of the Mandan Indians, who were supposed to know a route to the western sea.  His route took him through this region.

In April 1742, his two sons, travelled up the Assiniboine and Souris Rivers, in another visit to the Mandans. There is every reason to believe they camped at Sourisford, as mention is made in their records of the Antler Creeks; called in Cree "He-a-pa-wa-kpa" or "Head and Horus Creek", mention is also made of David Thompson in 1897 and Alexander Henry in 1804, also passed this way

The Fur Trade

In the 18th and 19th Centuries, fur trading posts along the Souris River had access to the surrounding plains - the grazing grounds of the bison. They were key to the production and supply of pemmican, which supported the rest of the fur trade. A total of 18 posts – belonging to companies and independents alike – grew and faded from the Souris River between present-day Souris, Manitoba and Minot, North Dakota.

The area was home to an American Fur Company Trading Post believed to be near where North Antler Creek enters the Souris.

The Metis Hunting Grounds

Beginning around 1820 large hunting expeditions originating in the Red River Settlement set out twice yearly to supply the settlers and the HBC with pemmican and hides. Often the Souris Plains supplied all they needed but as the bison population fell sharply they had to travel for weeks before they came into contact with the animals. 



Metis Hunting Camp

Around 1820 when the hunting expeditions began, 540 carts were involved. The passing of several decades saw these numbers grow to 820 and reach its peak in 1840 with a record of 1,210 carts. There were two organized hunts each year: a larger one in summer and a smaller one in autumn. For days in advance of a hunt the Red River Settlement would shut down as preparations for the expedition were under way. After everyone was gathered the rules and regulations for the hunt were laid down with solemnity. The officials of the hunt were also chosen before the five- or six-mile train (eight to 10 kms) of Red River Carts set off in search of the bison.

Wintering Communities

The hunting communities varied in size; some only several families large, others with populations that reached 1,000. Métis families congregated in these communities for convenience as well as for safety and protection due to the presence of competing First Nations, such as Dakota and Assiniboine. The villages were made up of roughly built but sturdy huts which provided sufficient protection from winter weather and harsh temperatures. It often took no longer than a day or two to construct such a hut with the aid of a single axe and a knife. Wealthier traders would often have multi-room dwellings which were used to house religious services and dances. These social activities were the main source of entertainment throughout the long winter of hunting, processing and tanning hides and making pemmican.

 
The general locations of the some of the wintering communities that existed in southwest Manitoba. CREDIT: Adapted from John Welsted "Geography of Manitoba"


A wintering community generally consisted of hunters and their families and a few Métis fur traders. The leader or chief of each community was often the most accomplished hunter or main fur trader. In the 1850s and '60s, a missionary priest was often present as well, and he frequently assisted in leadership duties in addition to aiding in the relief of social discord, the presence of which could challenge the integrity and effectiveness of the community altogether.
Buildings were usually constructed in late fall in preparation for winter and abandoned in early spring. Sites of past communities were not generally returned to year after year because of changes in the bison's wintering range, and also due to the fact that rival First Nations would often burn the buildings to the ground as soon as they were unoccupied. New camping places were chosen every year.

At least until the 1860s, Métis hunters returned to the Red River each spring to sell their robes before returning to the prairies for the summer bison hunting season. As the bison disappeared in the late 1870s, wintering communities lost their economic function and most of them simply disappeared from the prairies, with the exception of a few that made the successful switch to agricultural communities. Métis hunters either started up homesteads of their own, joined First Nation bands or settled in other established communities.

Métis wintering communities were created in response to social and economic conditions in Manitoba. Though practiced for only a short time, the formation of wintering communities was a crucial element in the emerging Métis identity and pre-railroad prairie culture.