The Assiniboin were, until comparatively recent times, a part of the Yanktonai, from whom they may have separated while living in the forest region of the northern section of the present State of Minnesota. Leaving the parent stock, they joined the Cree, then living to the northward, with whom they remained in close alliance. Gradually they moved to the valleys of the Saskatchewan and Assiniboin Rivers and here were encountered by Alexander Henry in 1775. Interesting though brief notes on the structures of the Assiniboin as they appeared in 1775 and 1776 are contained in the narrative of Henry’s travels through the great northern country. In 1775, when west of Lake Winnipeg, Henry wrote: “At eighty leagues above Fort de Bourbon, at the head of a stream which falls into the Sascatchiwaine. and into which we had turned, we found the Pasquayah village. It consisted of thirty families, lodged in tents of a circular form, and composed of dressed ox-skins, stretched upon poles twelve feet in length, and leaning against a stake driven into the ground, in tho centre. On our arrival, the chief, named Chatique or the Pelican, came down upon the beach, attended by thirty followers, all armed with bows and arrows and with spears.” 1 Fort de Bourbon stood at the northwest corner of Lake Winnipeg, and the Assiniboin village of Pasquayah was on the present Carrot River, which flows parallel with the Saskatchewan before joining the larger stream. This was in the eastern part of the province of Saskatchewan.
Early the following year Henry made a visit to an Assiniboin village, to reach which he crossed many miles of the frozen wilderness. He was accompanied by a party of Indians and the short account of the journey contains much of interest. They left Fort des Prairies, “built on the margin of the Pasquayah, or Sascatchiwaine,” February 5, 1776, and, as is recorded in the journal, “At noon, we crossed a small river, called Moose river, flowing at the feet of very lofty banks. Moose river is said to fall into Lake Dauphin. Beyond this stream, the wood grows still more scanty, and the land more and more level. Our course was southerly. The snow lay four feet deep. The Indians traveled swiftly; and, in keeping pace with then, my companions and myself had too much exercise, to suffer from the coldness of the atmosphere; but, our snow-shoes being of a broader make than those of the Indians, we had much fatigue in following their track. The women led, and we marched till sunset, when we reached a small coppice of wood, under the protection of which we encamped. The baggage of the Indians was drawn by dogs, who kept pace with the women, and appeared to be under their command. As soon as we halted, the women set up the tents, which were constructed, and covered, like those of the Cristinaux.
“The tent, in which I slept, contained fourteen persons, each of whom lay with his feet to the fire, which was in the middle; but, the night was so cold, that even this precaution, with the assistance of our buffalo-robes was insufficient to keep us warm. Our supper was made on the tongues of the wild ox, or buffalo, boiled in my kettle, which was the only one in the camp.”
On the morning of February 7, “I was still asleep, when the women began their noisy preparations for our march. The striking of the tents, the tongues of the women, and the cries of the dogs, were all heard at once. At the first dawn of day, we commenced our journey. Nothing was visible but the snow and sky; and the snow was drifted into ridges, resembling waves.
“Soon after sunrise, we descried a herd of oxen, extending a mile and a half in length, and too numerous to be counted. They traveled, not one after another, as. in the snow, other animals usually do, but, in a broad phalanx, slowly, and sometimes stopping to feed.”
One week was required to reach their destination, and during the morning of the 12th of February the party arrived at a small wood, in which the Assiniboin village stood. And “at the entrance of the wood, we were met by a large band of Indians, having the appearance of a guard; each man being armed with his bow and spear, and having his quiver filled with arrows. Forming themselves in regular file, on either side of us, they escorted us to the lodge, or tent, which was assigned us. It was of a circular form, covered with leather, and not less than twenty feet in diameter. On the ground within, ox-skins were spread, for beds and seats.”
Later, the same day of their arrival, they were invited to a feast in the tent of the chief. An Indian appeared. “We followed him accordingly, and he carried us to the tent of the great chief, which we found neither more ornamented, nor better furnished, than the rest.” And another feast followed in the evening, “Every thing was nearly as before, except that in the morning all the guests were men, and now half were women. All the women were seated on one side of the floor of the tent, and all the men on the other, with a fire placed between them.”
The village consisted of about 200 tents, “each tent containing from two to four families.” And here “I saw, for the first time, one of those herds of horses which the Osinipoilles possess in numbers. It was feeding on the skirts of the plain.” 2 Such was a great Assiniboin village nearly a century and a half ago.
The entire village was to return to Fort des Prairies, and so, on the morning of February 20. 1776, the tents were struck, and “Soon after sunrise, the march began. In the van were twenty-five soldiers, who were to beat the path, so that the dogs might walk. They were followed by about twenty men, apparently in readiness for contingent services; and after these went the women, each driving one or two, and some, five loaded dogs. The number of these animals, actually drawing loads, exceeded five hundred. After the baggage, marched the main body of men, carrying only their arms. The rear was guarded by about forty soldiers. The line of march certainly exceeded three miles in length.” 3
It is easy to visualize this great body of Indians passing over the frozen plain, camping at night under the scant protection of a small cluster of trees. The hundreds of dogs carrying the skin lodges of the villages, the men and women moving forward on snowshoes, undoubtedly stopping to kill buffalo and thus to obtain food for all. An exciting and animated scene it must have been, but only typical and characteristic, not unusual.
The preceding description of the movement of an entire village suggests a passage in the journal of La Verendrye, treating of the same people a generation earlier. Late in the autumn of 1738 a small party of French, accompanied by a numerous band of Assiniboin, set out from the village of the latter to visit the Mandan, who lived “many leagues distant. La Verendrye, the leader of the expedition, wrote: “I observed to M. de la Marque the good order in which the Assiniboin march to prevent surprise, marching always on the prairies, the hillsides and valleys from the first mountain, which did not make them fatigued by mounting and descending often in their march during the day. There are magnificent plains of three or four leagues. The march of the Assiniboin, especially when they are numerous, is in three columns, having skirmishers in front, with a good rear guard, the old and lame march in the middle, forming the central column. If the skirmishers discovered herds of cattle on the road, as often happens. they raise a cry which is soon returned by the rear guard, and all the most active men in the columns join the vanguard to hem in the cattle, of which they secure a number, and each takes what flesh he wants. Since that stops the march, the vanguard marks out the encampment which is not to be passed; the women and dogs carry all the baggage, the men are burdened only with their arms; they make the dogs even carry wood to make the fires, being often obliged to encamp in the open prairie, from which the clumps of wood may be at a great distance.” 4
The Assiniboin appear to have possessed a great fondness for visiting other tribes, and many narratives of journeys in the upper Missouri Valley contain references to meeting with such parties.
The size of the Assiniboin camps was often mentioned by the early writers. Thus Tanner wrote: “When we came from the Little Saskawjawun into the Assinneboin river, we came to the rapids, where was a village of one hundred and fifty lodges of Assinneboins, and some Crees.” 5 This was a century ago, when the villages retained their primitive appearance and so it is to be regretted that no detailed description was prepared of this large group of skin-covered tipis.
The two associated tribes extended their wanderings to the southward, reaching the Missouri, a large gathering of the allies being encountered by Lewis and Clark at the Mandan towns in November, 1804. In their journal, on November 14, appears this entry: “The river rose last night half an inch, and is now filled with floating ice. This morning was cloudy with some snow: about seventy lodges of Assiniboin and some Knistenaux are at the Mandan village, and this being the day of adoption and exchange of property between them all, it is accompanied by a dance, which prevents our seeing more than two Indians to-day: these Knistenaux are a band of Chippeways whose language they speak: they live on the Assiniboin and Saskashawan rivers, and are about two hundred and forty men.” And on the following day: “The ceremony of yesterday seem to continue still, for we were not, visited by a single Indian. The swan are still passing to the south.” 6
As will be recalled, the expedition under command of Lewis and Clark wintered near the Mandan towns, and on April 7, 1805, proceeded on their journey up the Missouri. On the 13th of April they arrived at a small creek which entered the Missouri about 20 miles above the mouth of the Little Missouri They ascended the creek and at a distance of about 1 miles reached a pond “which seemed to have been once the bed of the Missouri: near this lake were the remains of forty-three temporary lodges which seem to belong to the Assiniboin, who are now on the river of the same name.”The following day, April 14, 1805, after advancing about 15 miles beyond the creek entered on the 13th, “we passed timbered low grounds and a small creek: in these low grounds are several uninhabited lodges built with the boughs of the elm, and the remains of two recent encampments, which from the hoops of small kegs found in them we judged could belong to Assiniboin only, as they are the only Missouri Indians who use spirituous liquors: of these they are so passionately fond that it forms their chief inducement to visit the British on the Assiniboin.” 7
During the days following many Assiniboin camps were discovered.
From these brief statements recorded in 1804 and 1805 it will be understood that when a large party of the Assiniboin moved, or when on a visit to another tribe, they carried with them their skin lodges, but when on a hunting trip they raised temporary shelters of brush and boughs, and the same custom was undoubtedly followed by war parties.
Evidently the establishment in after years of posts of the American Fur Company at certain points along the course of the upper Missouri served to attract bands of the Assiniboin as well as representatives of other tribes. Several interesting accounts of the arrival of such parties at Fort Union, near the mouth of the Yellowstone, are preserved. Thus Maximilian wrote when at the fort, June 29, 1833: “The expected arrival of more Assiniboin was delayed; they do not willingly travel with their leather tents in wet weather, because their baggage then becomes very heavy. On the 30th of June, at noon, a band of Indians had arrived, and twenty-five tents were set up near the fort. The women. who were short, and mostly stout, with faces painted red, soon finished this work, and dug up with their instruments the clods of turf, which they lay round the lower part of the hut. One of these tents, the dwelling of a chief. was distinguished from the rest. It was painted of the color of yellow ochre had a broad reddish-brown border below, and on each of its sides a large black bear was painted (something of a caricature it must be confessed), to the head of which, just above the nose, a piece of red cloth, that fluttered in the wind, was fastened, doubtless a medicine.” Continuing, the narrative recorded the arrival of others. “Another band of Assiniboin appeared at a distance. To the west, along the wood by the river-side, the prairie was suddenly covered with red men, most of whom went singly, with their dogs drawing the loaded sledges. The warriors, about sixty in number, formed a close column. The whole column entered the fort, where they smoked, ate, and drank: and, meantime, forty-two tents were set up. The new camp had a very pretty appearance; the tents stood in a semicircle, and all the fires were smoking, while all around was life and activity.” 8
A painting of the dwelling of the chief, with a broad border at the bottom, “and on each of its sides a large black bear,” was made by Bodmer and reproduced by Maximilian. It is here shown in plate 24c. Several interesting details are represented in this graphic sketch. The dog travois is well shown, both the manner in which a dog appeared when the frame was attached, and the several pairs of poles with the small net-covered frames, standing together to the left of the principal tipi.
The preceding quotation from Maximilian is suggestive of an entry in the journal of the Swiss artist Friedrich Kurz, made some years later. Kurz wrote while at Fort Union: “October 13, 1851. As we were weighing and hanging up dried meat, a lot of Assiniboin came to the fort with squaws and many horse and dog travois. As a whole these trading parties do not show much of interest, but there are always many details to be picked up, of great value to a painter.” 9 Kurz remained at Fort Union until April 19, 1852, when he descended the Missouri to St. Louis, and thence returned to his native city of Bern. While still at Fort Union on March 21, 1852, he made the sketch now reproduced in plate 25b, which bears the legend, “Horse camp of the Assiniboins.” It shows a group of skin-covered lodges in the midst of a grove of cottonwoods, and evidently the Missouri is in the distance on the right. At that time (1851-52), according to Kurz, the Assiniboin then living in the vicinity of Fort Union numbered 420 lodges, with 1,050 men, but “from 2-3000 Assiniboin live far above, near lake Winnibeg.”
The Assiniboin living in the far northwest had another and simpler form of temporary structure, as mentioned by Kane. He wrote, when arriving at Rocky Mountain Fort, a post of the Hudson’s Bay Company, April 21, 1848: “This fort is beautifully situated on the banks of the Saskatchewan, in a small prairie, backed by the Rocky Mountains in the distance. In the vicinity was a camp of Assiniboine lodges, formed entirely of pine branches.” 10 The painting made by him showing the fort and lodges is reproduced in plate 25a.
- Henry, Alexander, Travels and Adventures in Canada and the Indian Territories, between the years 1760 and 1776. New York, 1809, pp. 256–257.
- Henry, Alexander, Travels and Adventures in Canada and the Indian Territories, between the years 1760 and 1776. New York, 1809, pp. 275-289.
- Henry, Alexander, Travels and Adventures in Canada and the Indian Territories, between the years 1760 and 1776. New York, 1809, p. 309.
- La Verendrye, Journal of. . . 1738-1739. In Report on Canadian Archives. . . 1889. Ottawa, 1890, p. 13.
- James, Edwin, A Narrative of the Captivity and Adventures of John Tanner… during thirty years residence among the Indians. New York, 1830. p. 57.
- Lewis and Clark, History of the Expedition under the command of Captains Lewis and Clark… Prepared for the press by Paul Allen. Philadelphia, 1814. 2 vols., 1, p. 127.
- Lewis and Clark, History of the Expedition under the command of Captains Lewis and Clark… Prepared for the press by Paul Allen. Philadelphia, 1814. 2 vols., I, pp. 185-186.
- Maximilian, Prince Of Wied, Travels in the Interior of North America. London, 1843, pp. 202-204.
- Bushnell, D. I. Jr., Ethnographical Material from North America in Swiss Collections. In American Anthropologist, Vol. 10, No. 1, Jan.-Mar. 1908., p. 15.
- Kane, Paul, Wanderings of an Artist among the Indians of North America. London, 1859, p. 408.