In 1920, Henry Thompson, an Alberta newspaperman, began interviewing 87-year-old Peter Erasmus, who lived near him in the area of Whitefish Lake, Alberta. Erasmus, who had been born in 1833 in the Red River settlement of what is now Manitoba, told him his life story, an account later published in book form by the Glenbow Institute as Buffalo Days and Nights, by Peter Erasmus as told to Henry Thompson.
(It’s not an easy book to find in print. You can obtain a copy from McNally Robinson, in Winnipeg.)
Erasmus’s life covered a period of radical change in the northern prairies of what is today Alberta. When he was born, this area was dominated by the bison-hunting cultures of the Cree and Blackfoot, with the isolated Hudson Bay Company post at Fort Edmonton (in what the HBC thought of as “Rupert’s Land”) holding an absolute monopoly over doing business with them. By the time of his death in 1931, it was fenced, plowed and gridded with roads, a province called Alberta in a country called Canada. The population was dominated by Euro-Canadian settlers and their descendants, while the indigenous people were corralled into a reserve system.
Erasmus was Métis (his father was a Dane and his mother was a Cree) and he had a genius for languages. He spoke Swampy and Plains Cree, Ojibway, English, Blackfoot and Stoney (Assiniboine), not to mention the Ancient Greek he had also studied as part of a half-hearted attempt to become a minister. At the age of twenty-four he was hired as the interpreter for a missionary based in Pigeon Lake, southwest of Fort Edmonton. Travelling with voyageurs going up the North Saskatchewan river in boats, it took Erasmus weeks to get there in the summer of 1856.
He had excellent rapport with the Plains Cree, and worked for a series of prominent missionaries over the years: the Reverend Henry Bird Steinhauer, (another Métis, operating a mission at Whitefish Lake), and John and George McDougall. He also worked for the Palliser Expedition, sent from Britain to survey the southern Plains in 1858-1860. Erasmus’s accounts of the tactics used while hunting bison are compelling and extraordinary.
Several processes converged to end this era. The number of bison declined sharply due to over-hunting, a phenomenon for which the Americans were frequently blamed. In 1870 the new nation of Canada asserted control over Rupert’s Land, and the number of settlers moving west began to increase. The government of Canada anticipated that the indigenous nations of the plains would have to become farmers in order to survive, and signed a series of treaties with them to bring this about. In 1876 Erasmus was hired by two prominent Cree chiefs, Mista-wa-sis (Big Child) and Ah-tuk-a-kup (Star Blanket), to interpret during negotiations for what is today known as Treaty Six.
In his later years, Erasmus worked as an independent trader, a fur buyer, a government agent and as a farmer.
Many of the places mentioned in his account still have the same names today, such as Lac Ste. Anne, Whitefish Lake and the North Saskatchewan River. There’s no need for a special map for these. But other places, such as Jasper House, the Victoria Mission, and the location of Fort Edmonton within the modern city of Edmonton, are historic locations that do not show up on most maps. It’s also quite remarkable to contemplate that where the present-day town of Vegreville sits, Erasmus hunted buffalo in 1871.
For more on Peter Erasmus, see the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, at http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/erasmus_peter_16E.html