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 territory in Dakota. 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 (Younger) 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 Fort Union.
Today, we know Pembina to be a small rural town in northeastern North Dakota. However, the region known as Pembina, and described by Father 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 prairie,
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. (Executive Document 51, pg. 37)
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.
The Chippewa first established themselves at Pembina in the early 1800s. 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 during 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 plough share does not throw out
of the furrow quantities of human bones, remains of
the destructive scourge. (Executive Document 51,
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.
In addition to bringing food and furs to the Chippewa, the Red River also brought danger. The encroachment of white settlers to the east, and the westward movement of the fur trade, brought them closer and closer to their territorial rivals, the Dakota. The Chippewa camped in forests to the east of the 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 Chippewas 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, where both sides received heavy losses, continued until the 1858 Sweet Corn Treaty, some 50 years later. (Hickerson, p. 296)