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History Comes To The Plains

June 2024
19min read

The old frontier began to die as the “medicine line” of the 49th Parallel was drawn

The Forty-ninth Parallel ran directly through my childhood, dividing me in two. In winter, in the town on the Whitemud, Saskatchewan, we were almost totally Canadian. The textbooks we used in school were published in Toronto and made by Canadians or Englishmen; the geography we studied was focussed upon the Dominion, though like our history it never came far enough west or close enough to the present to be of much use to us. The poetry we memorized seemed, as I recall it now, to run strongly toward warnings of disaster and fear of the dark and cold. The songs we sang were “Tipperary,” “We’ll Never Let the Old Flag Fall,” “The Maple Leaf Forever,” and “God Save the King”; the flag we saluted was the Union Jack; the clothes and Christmas gifts we bought by mail came from the T. Faton mail-order house. The games we played were ice hockey and curling; our holidays, apart from Thanksgiving and Christmas, which were shared by both countries, were Dominion Day, Victoria Day, the King’s Birthday.

But if winter and town made Canadians of us, summer and the homestead restored us to something nearly, if not quite, American. We could not be remarkably impressed with the physical differences between Canada and the United States, for our lives slopped over the international boundary, which was the south boundary of our homestead, every summer day. Our plowshares bit into Montana sod every time we made the turn at the end of the field. I trapped Saskatchewan and Montana flickertails indiscriminately and spread strychnine-soaked wheat without prejudice over two nations.

The people we neighbored with were all in Montana, half our disc of earth and half our bowl of sky acknowledged another flag than ours, the circle of darkness after the prairie night came down was half American, and the few lights that assured us we were not alone were all across the line. The mountains whose snow peaks drew my wistful eyes on June days were the Bear Paws, down below the Milk River. For all my eyes could tell me, no line existed, for the obelisk of black iron that marked our southeastern corner was only a somewhat larger version of the survey stakes that divided our whole world into uniform squares. It would never have occurred to us to walk along the border from iron obelisk to iron obelisk; and if we had walked along it, we would have found only more plains, more burnouts, more shallow runoff coulees down which the drainage from Saskatchewan escaped furtively across toward the Milk, more gopher holes, more cactus, more stinkweed and primroses, more hawk shadows slipping over the scabby flats.

There was not a customhouse for miles; in the summers we lived there we never saw a customs officer or a policeman, either American or Canadian. Even yet, between Willow Creek and Treelon, a degree and a half of longitude, there is not a single settlement or a customs station.

We ignored the international boundary in ways and to degrees that would have been impossible if it had not been a line almost completely artificial. And yet our summer world was a different world from the Canadian world of town. The holidays we celebrated were the Fourth of July and Labor Day, and the pièce de résistance of a holiday get-together was a ball game. In summer when we bought anything by mail we bought it not from T. Eaton but from the lavish and cosmopolitan catalogues of Sears Roebuck or Montgomery Ward.


Indistinguishable and ignored as it was, artificially as it split a country that was topographically and climatically one, the international boundary marked a divide in our affiliations, expectations, loyalties. Like the pond that lay on the divide east of the Cypress Hills, we could flow into either watershed or into both simultaneously. Summer and winter were at odds in us; we were Americans without the education and indoctrination that would have made us confident of our identity; we were Canadians in everything but our sentimental and patriotic commitment.

Whatever was being done to us by our exposure to Canadian attitudes, traditions, and prejudices—an exposure made hectic by the strain of the war in which Canada was a belligerent through four of my six years there—we never thought of ourselves as anything but American. And so the Forty-ninth Parallel, though outwardly ignored, divided us. It exerted half-felt pressures upon affiliation and belief, custom and costume. Considering how much I saw of it and how many kinds of influence it brought to bear on me, it might have done me good to learn something of how it came there. I never did—not until later. I accepted it as I accepted Orion in the winter sky, as a phenomenon of the visible world, and I did not know that this line of iron posts was one outward evidence of the coming of history to the unhistoried Plains, one of the strings by which dead men and the unguessed past directed our lives.

In actual fact, the boundary was infinitely more potent in the lives of people like us than the natural divide of the Cypress Hills had ever been upon the tribes it kept apart. For the Forty-ninth Parallel was an agreement, a rule, a limitation, a fiction perhaps but a legal one, acknowledged on both sides; and the coming of law, even such limited law as this, was the beginning of civilization in what had been a lawless wilderness. Civilization is made up largely of limitations.

In May, 1873, a band of angry wolfers pursued Indian horse thieves from Fort Benton northward into the Cypress Hills, where a few days later they slaughtered several dozen drunken and probably innocent Assiniboin in what history knows as the Cypress Hills Massacre. The wolfers undoubtedly knew they were carrying their gun law across the line into Canada; just as surely, the knowledge would not have troubled them. For one thing, there was enough Fenian sentiment and enough Manifest Destiny around Fort Benton to convince most of its citizens that the northern Plains were a natural and inevitable extension of the United States. For another, the boundary was less a boundary than a zone.

There was no telling where the precise line lay: wolfers and traders did not carry astronomical instruments. Even such prominent landmarks as Wood Mountain and the Sweetgrass Hills might lie in either nation, and though the Convention of London in 1818 had established the Forty-ninth Parallel as the boundary from Lake of the Woods to the Rockies, and the Oregon Treaty of 1846 had extended that line to the Pacific, neither the Indians who stole the horses nor the wolfers who pursued them recognized any dividing line short of the Cypress Hills—a line which had nothing to do with international agreements, but was established by topography and a balance of tribal force.

But even while the wolfers were urging their horses northward across the unsurveyed boundary zone, the first line of the geometry of law was starting west from the Red River settlements. By October, 1873, it would be at Wood Mountain; by the end of the following summer it would reach clear to the crest of the Rockies, thus linking the line which had been brought to the northwest corner of Lake of the Woods by a Joint Commission in 1826 and the eastward reaching line that in 1861 had been carried from the Pacific to the Rockies.

Only a little more than a year after John Evans’ wolfers poured their murderous fire into Little Soldier’s charging Assiniboin, the cairn-marked line of the frontier would be drawn accusingly across their track, making very clear the international implications of their raid. The series of trials and extraditions by which Canada would attempt for two years to convict and punish the raiders would so publicize the boundary that thereafter no one could cross it, for any purpose, in ignorance.

Surveyors are not heroic figures. They come after the explorers, they douse with system what was once the incandescent excitement of danger and the unknown. They conquer nothing but ignorance, and if they are surveying a boundary they are so bound by astronomical and geodetic compulsions that they might as well run on rails. The mythic light in which we have bathed our frontier times, when decision was for the individual will and a man tested himself against wild beasts, wild men, wild weathers, and so knew himself a man—that light does not shine on them as it shines on trapper and trader and scout and cowboy and Indian fighter. They do not even acquire the more pedestrian glamour of the farming pioneer, though they make him possible.

Among the chronicles of long Canadian marches, it is the march of Sir Garnet Wolseley from Toronto to Fort Garry to suppress Louis Riel in 1870, or that of the newly organized Mounted Police from the Red River to the Rockies in 1874, which has become folklore. But when the Mounted Police stopped, 590 miles out from Red River, to repair equipment and shoehorses and oxen and rest men and animals in a burned-over, dreary plain within sight of the Cypress Hills, the surveyors were there ahead of them. It was from their depot at Willow Bunch, on Wood Mountain, that Assistant Commissioner MacLeod went to beg surplus oats and provisions for his used-up command. By that time the surveyors were close to completing a journey that might have been called epic if it had not been so well planned, so successful, and so utilitarian.

They may as well be nameless; there were no heroes among them. And they do not need to be separated by nationality, for it was of the essence of their work that it was international, co-operative, mutual. But they are entitled to credit for the swift and efficient completion of a job of immense importance; and though they have never seemed glamorous, a young man seeking excitement in 1872 could have done worse than enlist with them.

Until the transfer of sovereignty over Rupert’s Land to the Dominion government there had been little need of defining the boundary established in 1818. The scare which Louis Riel threw into both Canada and Great Britain in 1869 and 1870 hastened the inevitable, and with the actual transfer in November, 1869, the Dominion, faced with border troubles all the way from the Red River to the Fort Whoop-up country at the foot of the Rockies, was clearly committed to a swift survey to fix the bounds of its jurisdiction and deter the raids and incursions, unofficial and semi-official, from the United States. The inciting cause was a hasty American claim that the Hudson’s Bay post at Pembina, on Red River, was actually on American soil.

It took two years and a half, political action being what it is, for agreement to be reached between the United States and Great Britain. An American Boundary Commission was authorized, with a customarily inadequate appropriation, by an act of March 19, 1872; the British commission, composed of a commissioner and five officers and forty-four men of the Royal Engineers, augmented by a Canadian party made up of a geologist, surgeon, veterinarian, and a group of surveyors, was organized in June. By September they had made their way to Duluth and thence across Minnesota by rail to St. Paul.

On September 18 they met at Pembina an American party made up of the commissioner, four officers from the Corps of Engineers, a body of civilian surveyors, and Company K of the 20th Infantry as escort. There, their first act was to determine just where the Red River did cross the Forty-ninth Parallel; the disputed Hudson’s Bay post was demonstrated to be 250 yards inside Canada. When American and British surveyors came up with a discrepancy of thirty-two feet in locating the line, the Joint Commission set a precedent in international relations by amicably halving it.

Not all problems could be solved by dichotomy. After being baptized by an equinoctial snowstorm immediately on arrival, they had a month of fine Indian summer weather in which to survey the almost impossible terrain from the northwest corner of Lake of the Woods, where the 1826 survey had ended, to the Forty-ninth Parallel. Any land that was not soggy with water was under water; Indian axmen labored in water above their knees, surveyors floundered across bogs whose mossy surface gave way to let them down in cold slime, supplies came in on men’s backs, camps were dreary quagmires. The northwest corner of Lake of the Woods, once marked by a pyramid of logs, turned out to be in a marsh under three or four feet of water. Their due-south sighting line ran through continuous swamp, heavily wooded with birch and tamarack, for sixteen miles and then for ten miles more across the open lake.

They located the Forty-ninth Parallel on the ice, where soundings showed thirty feet of water, turned the corner straight west, and marked the first station on solid ground just at the west shore of Lake of the Woods in November. Again the instruments could not agree as readily as the commissioners: an overlap of twenty-nine feet in the observations was halved. As for the direction of their survey, once they turned the corner on the ice they would not need to deviate again: straight west would serve them all the way. They were almost at the eastern edge of the Plains; across that oceanic land a boundary line could run straight as an equator or a tropic, serene, almost abstract.

With the establishment of the joint astronomical station on the shore of Lake of the Woods the American party was forced by its inadequate budget to retire to St. Paul and fold up for the winter. It left the hewing of a thirty-foot swath through ninety miles of swamps, timber, and prairie to the direction of the British on a shared-cost basis. The British crews, finding the work much easier after the freeze-up, decided to go on with astronomical and survey work through the winter; the American party would not finish its share of that stretch until 1874.

The experiences of the British party in 1872–73, and that of the American party a year later, differ only in degree, though it seems likely that no American officer ever served his country under more severe conditions or with more selfless devotion and endurance than Lieutenant Greene of the Corps of Engineers when he completed the United States work between Lake of the Woods and Red River. If he was not an explorer, he had all the discomforts, difficulties, and dangers of one, and his report deserves republication as one of the great stories of hardship and adventure.

The life of the British party, however, was comparable. All of them, here at the boundary between woods and plains, were in the process of becoming plainsmen while having to retain many of the skills of the woods; they were, with modifications, in the position occupied by Sioux and Ojibwa and Cree, and the machinery of their lives was a bizarre mixture of two cultures. They alternated between mules and dog teams, carts and sleds, skin lodges and brush shelters. Broken up into small parties for maximum efficiency, they were caught out in blizzards that neither horse nor dog would drive against and came in after days of almost constant traveling, half starved, half frozen, and undismayed.

Along with the boundaries of their countries they surveyed the limits of endurance. Sometimes in the still cold the spirit thermometers dropped to forty, forty-five, fifty, fifty-one below. In their icy camps they lay and heard the gunshot reports of willows bursting as the sap froze, and on those nights of windless cold they saw the Northern Lights in their greatest splendor, “vapour-like and yet perfectly transparent, so that even the small stars could be distinctly seen through the illuminated mist,” or spreading in bands and streamers so bright they lighted the sky like dawn.

They learned how eyelashes could freeze together on a trail and how a muffler moistened by breathing could freeze fast to a man’s beard and face and threaten to smother him. They learned to be wary about turning a tangent screw with the bare fingers, for the brass burned as if it had been white hot; if the hand that touched it was moist, the metal froze fast and could only be removed with the skin. Tenderfeet who made the mistake of drinking out of unwarmed metal cups in the morning left the skin of their lips on the rim. The eyes of all the surveyors were painful from the constant, dangerous contact with the eyepieces of their instruments, whose lurking frost could seize an eyelid and hold it fast “as experienced by Russian officers in Siberia.” After long exposure the eye would leak tears that froze instantly into beaded icicles on the lashes “and gave the face a comical look, somewhat like that in children’s pictures of Jack Frost.”

It was not a game for children. The British party in the winter of 1873 had cause for pride in their job when they finished it up and brought the line out of the woods and into the Red River Valley. Before them lay the true Plains through which they were to sight a beeline for 800 miles.

April and part of May, during the spring breakup, were not surveying weather. The British Commission spent six weeks under roofs at Red River planning for the season ahead, and they were already in the field when the American party reassembled on the first of June, 1873, complete with an escort of a company of the 20th Infantry and two companies of the 7th Cavalry under Major Marcus Reno.

Working alternate stations—each commission divided into several parties—they closed the line from monument to monument. As far as the western border of Manitoba they would plant eight-foot iron pillars four feet in the ground at mile intervals; in the empty country beyond all settlement their progress would be marked every three miles by a cairn of stones or mound of earth. Ahead of them, thirty métis scouts commanded by an engineering officer reconnoitered the country for camp and supply depot sites in the boundary zone. The measuring worm began chaining itself out toward the buffalo country, toward the Blackfoot country, toward the lost hills where only a couple of weeks before the conflict of cultures had come to bloody war between the wolfers and the Assiniboin on Battle Creek.

The climate of the Red River Valley is cold, and spring comes slowly, but when it comes, when one warm day is followed by a single night without frost, the whole prairie can be misted with sudden green. Out of that same abrupt loosening of winter came the mosquitoes in clouds and fogs to drive men and animals wild. The tender skin around the eyes of horses and oxen gathered moving crusts of torment; a rider rubbing a hand across his mount’s face brought up a pulpy mass of crushed insects and blood. Horses flinched sometimes from a horsefly bite as if they had been nicked with a knife blade; their dung was full of bots. Even the strongest animals were kept thin, and if one was too poor or overworked the constant attacks of flies and mosquitoes might literally kill him.

Chain by chain, mile by mile, stake by stake, astronomical station by astronomical station, they measured their true-west line, each party surveying as it went a belt five miles wide on its own side. The Red River Valley’s fertile prairie was back of them; they mounted the ridge known as Pembina Mountain and were on the Second Prairie Steppe, one mighty grassland marked by the skulls and bones of the vanished buffalo and by the mounded burrows of innumerable badgers.

Crocuses gave way to wild roses, but the mosquitoes and the flies did not disappear as the summer heat came on. They ceased their biting only for an hour or two during the blaze of noon, and that was precisely the time when work could not go on because “over the whole prairie surface the air was in constant agitation, and in looking through the telescope at a distant flagstaff it was seen to dance with persistent contortions, and no observations on terrestrial objects could be made from point to point with accuracy, except in the early morning or late in the evening.” They learned to like cloudy days; they blessed their luck when they were sighting across a valley, for only in the lower thirty or forty feet of air did the heat dance.

Seventy miles of plains brought them to Turtle Mountain, straddling the line. Here was relief from heat and glare, plenty of timber for fires and smudges, plenty of water more potable than the sloughs of the prairie. But Turtle Mountain brought also a sharp increase in difficulty. A group of British axmen and surveyors was all summer cutting a fifteen-foot way through twenty-four miles of Turtle Mountain to meet an American party which worked ten miles in from the other side. In the thirty-four miles of their mutual effort, before they met on opposite shores of a mile-wide lake, they had crossed sixty-five pieces of water, across many of which the line had to be surveyed by triangulation. Also they discovered what havoc a sudden hailstorm, with stones as big as bantam eggs, could create in camp and among the horses. Nevertheless, Turtle Mountain had advantages for them. They established a supply depot in it and chained on. The Americans had already set up a depot on the Souris, or Mouse River, still farther west.

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.

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.


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