Mudeater: An Amer­i­can Buf­falo Hunter and the Sur­ren­der of Louis Riel

Canada's History - - BOOKS -

by John D. Pi­hach Univer­sity of Regina Press, 272 pages, $27.95 His name was Mudeater — Irvin Mudeater. At least that was what he was called in the United States, where he was known as the son of a Wyan­dotte chief in Kansas and as a great fron­tiers­man.

In 1882, he came to Canada and adopted a dif­fer­ent name and a dif­fer­ent eth­nic­ity. Here he was Robert Arm­strong, and he let oth­ers be­lieve that he was white. In Canada he helped to make his­tory by play­ing an in­stru­men­tal role in the sur­ren­der of Louis Riel, the Métis leader who was hanged for his crimes — an ex­e­cu­tion that is to­day con­sid­ered to have been un­just.

His in­volve­ment in Riel’s ar­rest in 1885 over­shad­ows the ear­lier ex­ploits of Mudeater (or Arm­strong) in the United States, when he ran wagon trains, drove a stage­coach, and was known as a fear­less buf­falo hunter. As he wrote in his mem­oir, “dur­ing the sum­mer of 1871 I killed over six­teen hun­dred buf­falo.”

As ei­ther Mudeater or Arm­strong, this was a rest­less man, al­ways on the move. Af­ter his en­counter with Riel, Mudeater lived in Prince Al­bert and Ros­th­ern in what is now Saskatchewan, in Ok­la­homa, and in Gle­ichen and Cal­gary in Al­berta, be­fore mov­ing to Cal­i­for­nia. He died in Los An­ge­les in 1940.

De­spite his role in a piv­otal time in his­tory, the story of Mudeater has never been well-known and is al­most for­got­ten to­day. Au­thor John D. Pi­hach is help­ing to cor­rect that with this book, which is re­mark­able in a cou­ple of ways. For one thing, Pi­hach started his quest to learn about Mudeater be­cause of a chance com­ment from a neigh­bour who said that his an­ces­tor had been the man who cap­tured Riel. Be­yond that, Mudeater kept a com­pre­hen­sive mem­oir — it was still in the hands of his de­scen­dants, and they were quite happy to share it with Pi­hach.

Any per­sonal rem­i­nis­cences must be viewed with a healthy dose of skep­ti­cism and should be checked against other records when­ever pos­si­ble. Pi­hach did that as he gath­ered ma­te­rial to tell the story of Mudeater’s life, us­ing a wide va­ri­ety of ge­nealog­i­cal and his­tor­i­cal sources as he fleshed out, con­firmed, and cor­rected this bi­og­ra­phy.

Pi­hach’s nar­ra­tive makes up less than half the book, which also in­cludes a tran­script of Mudeater’s mem­oir. The man’s own words of­fer an­other view of his life, one that pro­vides an in­ter­est­ing per­spec­tive on the law­less Amer­i­can West.

The mem­oir is un­fil­tered and un­chal­lenged but de­scribes a world that is all but for­got­ten to­day. It could have been the ba­sis for many west­ern movies. Mudeater’s story is at times ugly, at times ex­cit­ing, and for the most part fas­ci­nat­ing.

He clearly did not iden­tify with his Na­tive Amer­i­can com­mu­nity. He tells of en­coun­ters with Indige­nous peo­ple as an out­sider would write the story, and he uses words such as “red­skin” that are jar­ring to­day. On the other hand, these words help to con­vey the lan­guage of the day as well as his own at­ti­tude.

He wrote at length of his abil­ity to kill buf­falo, earn­ing at one point earn­ing eight dol­lars for ev­ery calf he killed. He also noted that the buf­falo were an im­por­tant source of food for Indige­nous peo­ples — again writ­ing as if deny­ing his own an­ces­try.

Mudeater met Riel in Mon­tana in 1882, and Riel later claimed to have saved the life of Mudeater by telling oth­ers not to claim the price on the lat­ter’s head. The book in­cludes sev­eral ac­counts of Riel’s ap­pre­hen­sion, in­clud­ing words from var­i­ous men in­volved in the cap­ture. In ef­fect, with Pi­hach’s in­clu­sion of source doc­u­ments, we can an­a­lyze the story for our­selves.

It might have seemed that ev­ery pos­si­ble de­tail about Riel has al­ready been published; af­ter all, it has been more than 130 years since he was hanged. Yet with his book Mudeater Pi­hach has brought new light to the story. He helps read­ers to gain a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of the po­lit­i­cal forces and the pub­lic opin­ion that led to the hunt for and sur­ren­der of Riel. Re­viewed by Dave Obee, a mem­ber of the board of Canada’s His­tory So­ci­ety.

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