Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Buffalo Wool at the Selkirk Settlement

Merino Ram.  Powerhouse Museum 1953 Samuel Sidney.
The problems of transportation and production were major factors in the slow start of Lord Selkirk's Red River Colony.  Early frosts and drought meant that, in the words of A.S. Morton, "transforming the prairies into fields of golden grain" was not an option. (Morton, History of Prairie Settlement, 26)  Morton notes that wheat and flour were much too bulky, and their low price not worth shipping back to Britain. Attempting to get a herd of cattle established proved equally difficult. Selkirk turned his mind to wool, as industrial machinery in England had outpaced supply, and it was fetching a good price.  Merino sheep from Spain had, at this time been sent to Austrailia, and Selkirk would attempt to export some to his far distant colony.  Morton claims that the lack of industry and intelligence of the settlers, however, led to the experiment's ruin.

George Back Sketchbook 1820-21  Credit: Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1994-254-1.53R
An attempt to use the resources at hand is observed in the founding of the Buffalo Wool Company to use buffalo hair as a weavable garment.  Morton notes that the mix of fine and coarse hairs made weaving difficult, and the wool's dark colour would not dye easily.  Chester Martin in his "Dominion Lands" Policy (1938) wrote that the Buffalo Wool Company was "the first and surely the most bizarre industrial venture of the West.  Lady Selkirk introduced the buffalo wool shawl into Scottish society but though remarkably soft and durable it would not take the vegetable dyes of those days." (Martin, 206)  The idea was eventually abandoned.  Interestingly, a modern company seems to have taken up the name, and sells buffalo yarn and garments, noting the institution was established in 1812, and re-established in 2011.

Further attempts to get sheep to the settlement met with disaster.  When a flock of over one thousand  was purchased in Kentucky and driven across country, they travelled through country rife with spear grass.  As Morton notes "the spears entered their flesh in such quantity as to make the whole body a festering sore.  The carcasses of the dead marked the way across the plains northward." (Morton, 27)   Morton sums up these efforts with a grim assessment: "all attempts to find an exportable product thus failing, the colony was necessarily reduced to playing the modest part of handmaid to the furtrade."

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