The transition of the Chippewa from the woodlands to the plains occurred near the end of the 18th century. French and English fur traders had traveled with the Chippewa as far as the Turtle Mountains. Having acquired guns and ammunition from the traders, and horses from the Mandan and Hidatsa, the Chippewa had an advantage in obtaining Dakota Territory. They had spent a decade utilizing the rivers of the Red River Territory. However, by 1807 this region was virtually depleted of wild game and furred animals. Feeling the hard times, these bands returned to their woodland homes in Minnesota. One group, the Mikinak-wastsha-anishinabe, a band of Chippewa, left the Pembina settlement and established themselves in the Turtle Mountains.
The Pembina Band of Chippewa advanced westward for several reasons. First they had acquired the horse and developed the Red River Cart. Alexander Henry stated in his Journals that one cart was as useful as five horses. The Turtle Mountains were plentiful in resources. Abundant in muskrat, beaver, fish, deer, and buffalo, the Turtle Mountains allowed the Chippewa to maintain a thriving fur trade. This region was filled with lakes and water resources as well as several types of medicinal and edible plants. At the same time the Turtle Mountains offered a refuge from the encroachment of white settlers. Although they moved to the plains, the Chippewa still traded at the posts in Pembina, as well as trading with the Mandans and other tribes at Ft. Union.
Today, we know Pembina to be a small rural town in northeastern North Dakota. However, the region known as Pembina, and described by Fr. Belcourt in 1849, consisted of a much larger land base. The priest explains the boundaries of Pembina in a letter to Major Woods (who was in charge of the Red River Expedition in 1849):
We understand here, that the district or department called Pembina, comprises all of the country or basin which is irrigated or traversed by the tributaries of the Red River, south of the line of the 49th parallel of latitude. The prairies’ rivers and lakes which extend to the height of land of the Mississippi, and the immense plains which feed innumerable herds of bison to the westward and from which the Chippewa and half breeds of this region obtain their subsistence, contains within their limits a country about 400 miles from north to south and more than five hundred miles from east to west.
The ox-drawn Red River Cart was first introduced to the plains from Pembina around 1805. Within a few decades there were great trains of these carts, carrying buffalo hides and other trade goods to St. Paul, Minnesota, and Winnipeg, Canada. These famous carts were also widely used on buffalo hunts. Red River carts gave the Chippewa and their Assiniboine and Cree allies a method of transporting huge amounts of pemmican and hides for trade, and hunting in massive groups.
Concerns in Pembina Territory
The Chippewa first established themselves at Pembina in the early 1800’s. They had in their company a resident Canadian priest. They built a church and many marriages and baptisms were recorded at this mission site. In 1849, this priest, Father Belcourt, through correspondence, interceded on behalf of the people. He informed Major Woods of the trade dealings of Hudson Bay Company. Although it was forbidden to trade alcohol, Father George A. Belcourt was aware that the previous year one-fifth of all imports from the Hudson Bay Company consisted of rum.
In addition, the smallpox epidemic had wiped out camps of Chippewa, leaving as few as one in ten alive. Father Belcourt wrote:
The small pox, not very long since, found its way among them and not only decimated, but in many of their camps did not leave one in ten alive. Here on the banks of the Pembina there is not a spot near the river where the ploughshare does not throw out of the furrow quantities of human bones, remain of the destructive scourge.
The priest categorized the people. Taking the posts of Red Lake, Reed Lake, Pembina, and Turtle Mountain into consideration, the priest believed there was a total of 2,400 Chippewas. He went on to comment that the Métis (French word meaning mixed-blood) were greater in numbers than the Chippewa. The priest believed there were more than 5,000 Métis in the Pembina Territory.
Included in his letter to Major Wood, Father Belcourt suggested that possibly the United States government could be the middleman for a treaty between the Chippewa and Dakota. He suggested the government declare imprisonment or other punishment for Indians committing hostilities against each other.
Conflict with the Dakota
The Red River not only provided food and furs for the Chippewa. It also brought danger. The encroachment of white settlers to the east, and the westward movement of the fur trader, brought them closer and closer to their territorial rivals, the Dakota. The Chippewa camped in forests to the east of Red River in order to avoid confrontation with the Dakota, who held claim to the land along the Red River. With the acquisition of the horse, the Dakota had a big advantage over the Chippewa. Without horses the Chippewa were almost always out maneuvered. In 1798 a Chippewa Chief of Red Lake named Sheshepaskut expressed his view on the advantage of the Dakota:
While they keep to the Plains with their horse, we are not a match for them; for we being foot men, they could go windward of us and set fire to the grass; when we marched for the woods, they would be there before us, dismount, and under cover fire on us. Until we have horses like them, we must keep to the woods and leave the plains to them.
The Chippewa and Dakota had long been doing battle over territory. The Red River was almost a natural boundary line dividing the woodlands from the plains. Battles over this territory, with both sides receiving heavy losses, continued until the 1858 Sweet Corn Treaty, some 50 years later.