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Bedson’s buffalo — a bull was hitched to a sleigh and the warden’s guests had a wild ride across the prairie
Dec 11, 2015

by Bruce Cherney (part 1)

Colonel Samuel Lawrence Bedson was a bit of a maverick among Canada’s prison wardens with some rather unusual hobbies and methods of inmate rehabilitation that would not be too far out of place today. In terms of hobbies, he set up a nine-hole golf course, the first in Manitoba, a curling rink, a race track and a hunting club at Stony Mountain Penitentiary.

It is perhaps because he had no formal training as a warden that he brought what would be new methods to the prison at Stony Mountain, where he became the prison’s first warden on February 2, 1877. That is not to say that Bedson lacked experience in the prison system. When Ottawa established a penitentiary-mental hospital at Lower Fort Garry in 1871, he became its initial warden. What effectively happened is that Bedson learned on the job, unfettered by the everyday practices that were then common within Canada’s penal system.

Bedson was also responsible for selecting the site of Stony Mountain Penitentiary. In his history of Stony Mountain, Edward R. Mills related that Bedson was among a small party of men, including a representative of the federal government, seeking a location for a new prison in the summer of 1872. As they reached the brow of the west hill at Stony Mountain, Bedson said, “This is the place for the new penitentiary.”

As a military man, who came to Manitoba with the 1870 Wolseley expedition — his rank as colonel with the 91st Battalion came after his participation in the Northwest Rebellion in 1885 as a major — Bedson enforced strict discipline among the inmates, but this was tempered by common sense and humanity towards his charges. At his insistence, inmates at the federal prison were provided with proper food, clothing, quarters and medical care. In return, the inmates were expected to repair buildings, garden, tend livestock or become shoemakers. He also provided a school to teach illiterate prisoners (stony mountain.ca).

In federal prison system reports, his methods were constantly cited as examples of good management, although some officials objected to his cost per prisoner $550, compared to around $200 per inmate in eastern prisons), being the highest in the land. Bedson correctly pointed out that Manitoba had a higher cost of living and higher freight costs, so his budget wasn’t cut by federal authorities.

“He made an excellent warden and so great were his talents as a disciplinarian that he was once placed temporarily in charge of St. Vincent de Paul penitentiary near Montreal to subdue a spirit of insubordination which was being manifested in various unpleasant ways by the inmates” (his obituary in the July 18, 1891, Manitoba Free Press. Bedson had died a day earlier at age 49 in Ottawa).

Bedson and his wife Jemima were noted in the province for being exceptionally cordial hosts, even feting Lord and Lady Dufferin who officially opened the prison in August 1877. According to the  Free Press obituary, “he was always to be found doing his utmost to make everyone feel at home in the tiny village (Stony Mountain) in which he was a sort of king ... His social qualities were of the finest type. The hospitalities of the warden’s residence at Stony Mountain were proverbial ... and will be treasured by hundred as memories of a noble, generous and manly personality ...”

It was said that his flute playing made him the centre of attention during the many soirees he and his wife hosted.

The reference to “king” in the article led to Bedson being nicknamed the “king of the castle” — his castle was the Stony Mountain Penitentiary.

Bedson even employed a butler, “properly dressed and obviously well trained (Edith Paterson article in the November 22, 1969, Winnipeg Free Press). All went well until one of the judges (one of two judges who were guests of Bedson’s for a dinner party) recognized the ‘butler’ as a man he had recently sentenced for several years’ imprisonment for armed robbery!”

To placate the judge, the butler was sent back to the cell-block and the party continued.

One of the more peculiar pursuits of Bedson, while overseeing the prison approximately 25 kilometres north-west of Winnipeg, was his collection of wild animals, including bears, wolves, badgers, deer, moose and geese. It was his boast that he could tame them all. In fact, he tamed two moose to the point that they pulled a toboggan.

Among Bedson’s prized animals was a herd of buffalo (bison), which he attempted to domesticate with somewhat limited success.

In a newspaper interview, related by Paterson in her November 22,1969, article, his daughter Menatoh told a story of a Christmas afternoon when her father hitched a two-year-old buffalo bull to a toboggan to pull eight guests.

“They all sat down on the toboggan. My sister Tanis and I were told to stand far back. Five or six prisoners held onto a long rope around the buffalo’s neck. He stood for a long time, 15 or 20 minutes. I heard the men joking with each other: ‘Well, goodbye if I don’t see you again, old chap.’ All of a sudden that buffalo took a terrific leap into the air. The rope broke and the prisoners and quests scattered far and wide in the snow. The animal started to run and gallop out of sight.”

Her father received a letter from a North Dakota man the next spring asking if the buffalo with a rope around his neck was Bedson’s. The buffalo that had wandered so far afield was fetched from south of the border and returned to Stony Mountain.

“Moose took to the business of giving rides to humans better than buffalo ... As a child I had long rides with the moose, always in tandem — one behind the other in a low cariole. The driver would take them across the open prairie to within four of five miles of Winnipeg, then turn for home. They trotted very fast, no matter how deep the snow or high the drifts,” Menatoh related.

But Bedson wasn’t one to give up. For his birthday on February 13, 1883, he attempted the same feat with the objective of proving that hitching buffalo to a sleigh and riding such a conveyance over the windswept prairie snow could be accomplished.

“Any ordinary man, under the pressure of a hard winter, would have contented himself on such an occasion with a quiet little family party at home, supplemented by the usual plum pudding and a jorum (large drinking bowl) of punch,” reported the February 17, 1883, Manitoba Free Press. “But Mr. Bedson is not an ordinary man. His wild, untamed spirit could not brook the commonplace orthodox method of commemorating such an important event. He determined, if he were going to have a celebration at all, that it should be one which everyone participating therein should remember for some time to come.”

Although there is no byline to the article, the indepth nature of the account may indicate that a reporter was present as an eyewitness to the strange event. It’s possible that the journalist was Charles Acton Burrows, who is mentioned in the article. As well, Mr. (Walter) Nursey is mentioned in the article, who happened to be a former journalist and at the time of the buffalo sleigh ride was the provincial auditor. Nursey may have used his keen eye for details to inform the Free Press reporter about the day’s happenings, using humour to emphasize the strangeness of using a buffalo to pull a sleigh.

The article noted that some of the beasts of Bedson’s herd were docile, but others didn’t take kindly to being trifled with regardless of the novelty of penitentiary being acknowledged as the first buffalo in Canada to pull a sleigh. 

“He (Bedson) would send one of these rugged monarchs of the plain to his purpose — he would careen over the illimitable prairie behind a steed whose unbroken spirit knew no yoke — a steed such as a mortal man had never driven before.”

Bedson selected a “lively old bull” named Blizzard to be hitched to the sleigh. He managed to put Blizzard in an ox harness — not a rope that could easily break as during the previous attempt — and attached him to an “ordinary sled.”

It was noted in the article that the warden didn’t use his best cutter for the ride, even though it was his birthday. The reporter hinted that Bedson felt the unusual sleigh ride had the potential to go awry.

“Blizzard did not appear to quite understand the new wrinkle to which he was being subjected, and an ominous twinkle in his eye, betokened that the blood of his ancestors, which had never brooked servitude before, was beginning to simmer. The other members of the herd also manifested decided signs of dissatisfaction at the unusual proceedings, and look considerably annoyed.”

With everything apparently ready, Mrs. (Jemima) Bedson and guests took their places in the sleigh. The warden was at the reins and suggested to old Blizzard to mush, but the buffalo remained steadfastly in place.

An individual named “old Joe” and a Mr. (J.H.E.) Secretan, a civil engineer with the CPR, each took hold of a horn and “endeavoured to induce a forward movement on the part of Blizzard.”

Still, there was no forward momentum. The buffalo then “hesitated a moment, collected himself together, took a long breath, and just as Mr. Burrows was reaching out to twist his tail, he shot forward like a catapult, taking the sleigh and passengers with him. Joe and ‘Sec’ were thunderstruck, and made a desperate rush to get out of the way, but the bull was too quick for them. He gave a shake of his head that sent Joe head over heels into a snow bank, and then gave ‘Sec’ a lift that sent him some ten feet into space, and he alighted about a dozen yards off in a snow drift on the opposite side to Joe.”

The author of article wrote that Blizzard set off over the prairie with such “alacrity” that Jemima Bedson’s hair was standing on end.

Meanwhile, warden Bedson, attempting to rein in the beast, was shouting out, “Whoa, Blizzard — whoa, boy!”

While Bedson was hollering at Blizzard, “Darby Taylor, with remarkable coolness, deliberately fell over the tailboard, his momentum enabling him to plow a broad furrow along the trail for a rod or two, at the end of which he sat looking at the fleeting panorama with an expression of bewilderment on his face that absolutely beggars description.”

Next overboard was Mr. Burrows, who landed in a soft snow drift.

Meanwhile, the rest of the party continued their wild ride over the prairie. Amazingly, the rambunctious Blizzard tired and Bedson was able to coax him back to the starting point with those remaining aboard the sleigh none the worse for wear.

“Mr. Nursey said it was the most invigorating trip he had ever taken since the good old days when he used to take his airings on the back of (Manitoba Premier John) Norquay’s immortal mule.”

Success at last! It was the first time a buffalo had been harnessed for a sleigh ride that didn’t end in complete disaster.

The reported concluded, “It is quite possible that it will be the last (time such a ride would be untaken).”

A.A. McDonald, who as a young 15-year-old lad kept watch over Bedson’s buffalo for a summer along with a young Englishman named Jack Swan while accompanied by Angus Smith, who knew each animal individually, related in an article he wrote for the March 22, 1930, Free Press that the buffalo were far from tame and anyone approached them at their peril. He said that the buffalo had lost their fear of people and became more dangerous than wild buffalo as a result.

He wrote that on one occasion that they were on the main trail from Stony Mountain to Winnipeg when they encountered a buckboard with two passengers.

“Our duty was to prevent anyone for their own safety from approaching the animals. Mr. Swan was away and Angus and myself were alone, so I hustled to get Molly (his horse). Fortunately she was feeding quite close and I had the saddle on and was on her quickly and going to meet the rig ... a man climbed out, starting at the same time to take a tripod camera with a black cloth over it out of the rig.”

At this moment, McDonald yelled at him to get back on the rig and get away as fast as possible. “One of the dangerous bulls had given the ‘snort’ signal and they (the herd) were on the feet in a second. He was obliged to drop the camera and drive away on a full gallop.”

McDonald rode after him, also leaving the camera to its fate, which was promptly turned into “matchwood” by the riled buffalo. “Fortunately the buffalo were satisfied with vengeance on the black object and quieted down.”

McDonald was of the opinion that any stranger approaching the buffalo would be killed, which was the primary reason for posting a close watch over the herd.

Not even Angus was safe from a the buffalo’s wrath, according to McDonald’s story. When one bull wandered away, he sent his dog, Jack, after the wayward beast. The bull was too fast for the dog and tossed the animal into the air with its horns and then trampled the defenseless canine.

“No doubt the smell of blood made the bull lose fear of Angus as he charged for him. Fortunately he had both barrels of his gun loaded and shot them at close range at the bull’s head, blinding him absolutely. Angus escaped by jumping quickly to one side. This was the account given by Angus as to how it happened.”

The blinded bull ran around and around in circles until ropers came and tied the beast up and loaded him on a low drag. Since the bull afterward refused to eat or drink, he was eventually put down.

(Next week: part 2)