Douglas & McIntyre

Interviews with author(s) of “Arc of the Medicine Line”

Tony  Rees

Tony Rees

November 2007

Author and archivist Tony Rees gives us a dose of history and explains how the "Medicine Line" was created.

Where does the term “Medicine Line” come from?

The term was originally applied to the section of the boundary between the United States and present-day Saskatchewan, but it is often used today to describe any part of the 49th Parallel between the Rocky Mountains and the Red River. It is said to be a term adopted by the plains nations – the Assinboine, Sioux and Plains Cree – to suggest that the boundary line possessed strong medicine. Although there was no physical fence or wall between the markers, the line had the power to stop the US Cavalry in its tracks. Sitting Bull was perhaps the most famous figure to demonstrate the power of the Medicine Line and it was toward the line, just two years later, that the great Nez Perce Chief Joseph was headed when he was finally stopped in Montana’s Bear Paw Mountains.

The Drawing of the 49th Parallel heralded the beginning of the opening of the Canadian west to settlement, but did it not also represent a closing?

The drawing of the 49th Parallel really marked the end of the first great era of the North American West. France, Spain and, most recently, Russia, had already been pushed off the continent and now Great Britain was joining them on the sidelines. The completion of the Medicine Line effectively ended the course of Empire in North America.

By agreeing to place the International Boundary along the 49th Parallel, the United States also acknowledged the end of “Manifest Destiny”, the long-held, almost sacred belief that the United States was ordained to occupy the whole of the continent. From that moment on, there would be two sovereign North American nations – the United States and the newly-independent Canada – each free to pursue its own destiny.

There were other, more immediate “endings”, too. The commissions travelled more than 600 miles west along the boundary line before finding themselves among the last of the great buffalo herds. They also encountered (and took a great deal of interest in) the great summer hunting camps of the Metis, a sight that would be gone from the plains within a few short years. And, within two years of serving under Marcus Reno and Miles Keough as escort to the boundary commissions, most of the 7th Cavalry troopers would lie dead at the Little Bighorn.

Was there more to the work of the boundary commissions than simply surveying and marking the 49th Parallel?

Each commission was also charged with the creation of a topographical survey along the entire 800 miles of the line. The survey varied in width from three to six miles on either side of the line and represented the first truly detailed and accurate portrait of the country.

In addition, each commission had its own naturalist. For the United States, it was Army surgeon Captain Elliott Coues, then emerging as one of the premier ornithologists of the late 19th Century. His subsequent publications on the birds and animals of the northern plains were enormously influential.

For geologist and naturalist George Dawson, the British/Canadian commission was the beginning of a brilliant career. Only in his mid-20s, stunted and crippled by a childhood disease, Dawson’s work with the commission resulted in the publication of a monumental 400+ page work which, for the first time, detailed the flora and fauna and natural resources of the new Canadian lands along the 49th Parallel. Following his work with the commission, Dawson returned again and again to his explorations and studies of the west (especially British Columbia and the Yukon Territory) and eventually became a popular and influential director of the Geological Survey of Canada.

What was the scale of the operation at its peak?

In the summer of 1873, the British/Canadian boundary commission put over 280 men into the field. Under the direction of 18 Royal Engineers officers, these men, both surveyors and civilian support staff, moved more than 100 wagons of various size and function, from heavy supply wagons drawn by fifty pairs of oxen to water wagons, field ambulances and sprung light wagons for the delicate instruments. The American commission, made up almost exclusively of officers and men from of US Army, was slightly smaller, since it made use of the military forts along the Missouri River to keep its supply lines shorter. Both commissions represented prodigious feats of organization.

What was the most physically demanding part of the work?

The most physically taxing and dangerous part work was not the two summer seasons the parties spent out on the high plains. Rather it was the short, 100-mile section of the boundary that ran east from the Red River to Lake of the Woods. Since the area was almost entirely swamp, the parties had to undertake all the work in the depths of winter when the swamps had frozen. As a result, the British/Canadian commission, which undertook the bulk of the work, found itself facing blizzards and temperatures of -40 and trying to make their delicate measurements, at night, with instruments which would freeze solid if exposed for more than a just a few minutes.

What was the relationship of the commissions to the resident native populations?

Although the American commission’s 7th Cavalry escort was always on the alert for trouble with the Sioux, relations between the commissions and the resident populations remained cordial, based largely on mutual curiosity. While there were a few raids on commission supply depots, there was no serious trouble from either side.

During the winter work east of the Red River, the British commission hired substantial numbers of natives to transport supplies out to the field camps. The most significant native presence, however, were the Metis horsemen who made up the 49th Rangers. The closest thing the British/Canadian commission had to a military escort, the Rangers were responsible for marking trails and finding appropriate campsites for the astronomical parties (both British and American).

Douglas & McIntyre Marketing, Nov 27, 2007
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