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The Plight of the Buffalo

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By Colonel Henry Inman, 1897

 

Buffalo on the Plains

The Indians depended upon the buffalo that once roamed the Western Plains, Pelcks Scenic and Art Studio, 1906.

This image available for photo prints & editorial  downloads HERE.

The ancient range of the buffalo, according to history and tradition, once extended from the Alleghanies to the Rocky Mountains, embracing all that magnificent portion of North America known as the Mississippi valley; from the frozen lakes above to the "Tierras Calientes" of Mexico, far to the south.

 

It seems impossible, especially to those who have seen them, as numerous, apparently, as the sands of the seashore, feeding on the illimitable natural pastures of the Great Plains, that the buffalo should have become almost extinct.

 

When I look back only twenty-five years, and recall the fact that they roamed in immense numbers even then, as far east as Fort Harker, in Central Kansas, a little more than two hundred miles from the Missouri River, I ask myself, "Have they all disappeared?"

 

An idea may be formed of how many buffalo were killed from 1868 to 1881, a period of only thirteen years, during which time they were indiscriminately slaughtered for their hides. In Kansas alone there was paid out, between the dates specified, two million five hundred thousand dollars for their bones gathered on the prairies, to be utilized by the various carbon works of the country, principally in St. Louis. It required about one hundred carcasses to make one ton of bones, the price paid averaging eight dollars a ton; so the above-quoted enormous sum represented the skeletons of over thirty-one millions of buffalo. These figures may appear preposterous to readers not familiar with the Great Plains a third of a century ago; but to those who have seen the prairie black from horizon to horizon with the shaggy monsters, they are not so. In the autumn of 1868 I rode with Generals Sheridan, Custer, Sully, and others, for three consecutive days, through one continuous herd, which must have contained millions. In the spring of 1869 the train on the Kansas Pacific Railroad was delayed at a point between Forts Harker and Hays, from nine o'clock in the morning until five in the afternoon, in consequence of the passage of an immense herd of buffalo across the track. On each side of us, and to the west as far as we could see, our vision was only limited by the extended horizon of the flat prairie, and the whole vast area was black with the surging mass of frightened buffalo as they rushed onward to the south.

 

In 1868 the Union Pacific Railroad and its branch in Kansas was nearly completed across the plains to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, the western limit of the buffalo range, and that year witnessed the beginning of the wholesale and wanton slaughter of the great ruminants, which ended only with their practical extinction seventeen years afterward. The causes of this hecatomb of animals on the Great Plains were the incursion of regular hunters into the region, for the hides of the buffalo, and the crowds of tourists who crossed the continent for the mere pleasure and novelty of the trip. The latter class heartlessly killed for the excitement of the new experience as they rode along in the cars at a low rate of speed, often never touching a particle of the flesh of their victims, or possessing themselves of a single robe.

 

The former, numbering hundreds of old frontiersmen, all expert shots, with thousands of novices, the pioneer settlers on the public domain, just opened under the various land laws, from beyond the Platte River to far south of the Arkansas River, within transporting distance of two railroads, day after day for years made it a lucrative business to kill for the robes alone, a market for which had suddenly sprung up all over the country.

 

 

Cherokee Herbal Remedies from the Rocky Mountain General Store
 

Slaughtered BuffaloOn either side of the track of the two lines of railroads running through Kansas and Nebraska, within a relatively short distance and for nearly their whole length, the most conspicuous objects in those days were the desiccated carcasses of the noble beasts that had been ruthlessly slaughtered by the thoughtless and excited passengers on their way across the continent. On the open prairie, too, miles away from the course of legitimate travel, in some places one could walk all day on the dead bodies of the buffalo killed by the hide-hunters, without stepping off them to the ground.

 

The best robes, in their relation to thickness of fur and luster, were those taken during the winter months, particularly February, at which period the maximum of density and beauty had been reached.

Then, notwithstanding the sudden and fitful variations of temperature incident to our mid-continent climate, the old hunters were especially active, and accepted unusual risks to procure as many of the coveted skins as possible.

A temporary camp would be established under the friendly shelter of some timbered stream, from which the hunters would radiate every morning, and return at night after an arduous day's work, to smoke their pipes and relate their varied adventures around the fire of blazing logs.

 

Sometimes when far away from camp a blizzard would come down from the north in all its fury without ten minutes' warning, and in a few seconds the air, full of blinding snow, precluded the possibility of finding their shelter, an attempt at which would only result in an aimless circular march on the prairie. On such occasions, to keep from perishing by the intense cold, they would kill a buffalo, and, taking out its viscera, creep inside the huge cavity, enough animal heat being retained until the storm had sufficiently abated for them to proceed with safety to their camp.

 

Early in March, 1867, a party of my friends, all old buffalo hunters, were camped in Paradise valley, then a famous rendezvous of the animals they were after. One day when out on the range stalking, and widely separated from each other, a terrible blizzard came up. Three of the hunters reached their camp without much difficulty, but he who was farthest away was fairly caught in it, and night overtaking him, he was compelled to resort to the method described in the preceding paragraph. Luckily, he soon came up with a superannuated bull that had been abandoned by the herd; so he killed him, took out his viscera and crawled inside the empty carcass, where he lay comparatively comfortable until morning broke, when the storm had passed over and the sun shone brightly. But when he attempted to get out, he found himself a prisoner, the immense ribs of the creature having frozen together, and locked him up as tightly as if he were in a cell. Fortunately, his companions, who were searching for him, and firing their rifles from time to time, heard him yell in response to the discharge of their pieces, and thus discovered and released him from the peculiar predicament into which he had fallen.

 

At another time, several years before the acquisition of New Mexico by the United States, two old trappers were far up on the Arkansas River near the Trail, in the foot-hills hunting buffalo, and they, as is generally the case, became separated. In an hour or two one of them killed a fat young cow, and, leaving his rifle on the ground, went up and commenced to skin her. While busily engaged in his work, he suddenly heard right behind him a suppressed snort, and looking around he saw to his dismay a monstrous grizzly ambling along in that animal's characteristic gait, within a few feet of him.

 

In front, only a few rods away, there happened to be a clump of scrubby pines, and he incontinently made a break for them, climbing into the tallest in less time than it takes to tell of it. The bear deliberately ate a hearty meal off the juicy hams of the cow, so providentially fallen in his way, and when he had satiated himself, instead of going away, he quietly stretched himself alongside of the half-devoured carcass, and went to sleep, keeping one eye open, however, on the movements of the unlucky hunter whom he had corralled in the tree. In the early evening his partner came to the spot, and killed the impudent bear, that, being full of tender buffalo meat, was sluggish and unwary, and thus became an easy victim to the unerring rifle; when the unwilling prisoner came down from his perch in the pine, feeling sheepish enough. The last time I saw him he told me he still had the bear's hide, which he religiously preserved as a memento of his foolishness in separating himself from his rifle, a thing he has never been guilty of before or since.

 

Kit CarsonKit Carson, when with Fremont on his first exploring expedition, while hunting for the command, at some point on the Arkansas River, left a buffalo which he had just killed and partly cut up, to pursue a large bull that came rushing by him alone. He chased his game for nearly a quarter of a mile, not being able, however, to gain on it rapidly, owing to the blown condition of his horse. Coming up at length to the side of the fleeing beast, Carson fired, but at the same instant his horse stepped into a prairie-dog hole, fell down and threw Kit fully fifteen feet over his head. The bullet struck the buffalo low under the shoulder, which only served to enrage him so that the next moment the infuriated animal was pursuing Kit, who, fortunately not much hurt, was able to run toward the river. It was a race for life now, Carson using his nimble legs to the utmost of their capacity, accelerated very much by the thundering, bellowing bull bringing up the rear.

 

For several minutes it was nip and tuck which should reach the stream first, but Kit got there by a scratch a little ahead. It was a big bend of the river, and the water was deep under the bank, but it was paradise compared with the hades plunging at his back; so Kit leaped into the water, trusting to Providence that the bull would not follow.

 

The trust was well placed, for the bull did not continue the pursuit, but stood on the bank and shook his head vehemently at the struggling hunter who had preferred deep waves to the horns of a dilemma on shore.

 

Kit swam around for some time, carefully guarded by the bull, until his position was observed by one of his companions, who attacked the belligerent animal successfully with a forty-four slug, and then Kit crawled out and--skinned the enemy!

 

He once killed five buffalo during a single race, and used but four balls, having dismounted and cut the bullet from the wound of the fourth, and thus continued the chase. He it was, too, who established his reputation as a famous hunter by shooting a buffalo cow during an impetuous race down a steep hill, discharging his rifle just as the animal was leaping on one of the low cedars peculiar to the region. The ball struck a vital spot, and the dead cow remained in the jagged branches. The Indians who were with him on that hunt looked upon the circumstance as something beyond their comprehension, and insisted that Kit should leave the carcass in the tree as "Big Medicine." Katzatoa (Smoked Shield), a celebrated chief of the Kiowa many years ago, who was over seven feet tall, never mounted a horse when hunting the buffalo; he always ran after them on foot and killed them with his lance.

 

Two Lance, another famous chief, could shoot an arrow entirely through a buffalo while hunting on horseback. He accomplished this remarkable feat in the presence of the Grand Duke Alexis of Russia, who was under the care of Buffalo Bill, near Fort Hays, Kansas.

 

During one of Fremont's expeditions, two of his chasseurs, named Archambeaux and La Jeunesse, had a curious adventure on a buffalo-hunt. One of them was mounted on a mule, the other on a horse; they came in sight of a large band of buffalo feeding upon the open prairie about a mile distant. The mule was not fleet enough, and the horse was too much fatigued with the day's journey, to justify a race, and they concluded to approach the herd on foot.

 

Dismounting and securing the ends of their lariats in the ground, they made a slight detour, to take advantage of the wind, and crept stealthily in the direction of the game, approaching unperceived until within a few hundred yards. Some old bulls forming the outer picket guard slowly raised their heads and gazed long and dubiously at the strange objects, when, discovering that the intruders were not wolves, but two hunters, they gave a significant grunt, turned about as though on pivots, and in less than no time the whole herd--bulls, cows, and calves--were making the gravel fly over the prairie in fine style, leaving the hunters to their discomfiture. They had scarcely recovered from their surprise, when, to their great consternation, they beheld the whole company of the monsters, numbering several thousand, suddenly shape their course to where the riding animals were picketed. The charge of the stampeded buffalo was a magnificent one; for the buffalo, mistaking the horse and the mule for two of their own species, came down upon them like a tornado. A small cloud of dust arose for a moment over the spot where the hunter's animals had been left; the black mass moved on with accelerated speed, and in a few seconds the horizon shut them all from view. The horse and mule, with all their trappings, saddles, bridles, and holsters, were never seen or heard of afterward.

 

Buffalo Bill CodyBuffalo Bill, in less than eighteen months, while employed as hunter of the construction company of the Kansas Pacific Railroad, in 1867-68, killed nearly five thousand buffalo, which were consumed by the twelve hundred men employed in track-laying. He tells in his autobiography of the following remarkable experience he had at one time with his favorite horse Brigham, on an impromptu buffalo hunt:

 

One day we were pushed for horses to work on our scrapers, so I hitched up Brigham, to see how he would work. He was not much used to that kind of labor, and I was about giving up the idea of making a work horse of him, when one of the men called to me that there were some coming over the hill. As there had been no buffalo seen anywhere in the vicinity of the camp for several days, we had become rather short of meat. I immediately told one of our men to hitch his horses to a wagon and follow me, as I was going out after the herd, and we would bring back some fresh meat for supper. I had no saddle, as mine had been left at camp a mile distant, so taking the harness from Brigham I mounted him bareback, and started out after the game, being armed with my celebrated buffalo killer Lucretia Borgia--a newly improved breech-loading needle-gun, which I had obtained from the government.

 

While I was riding toward the buffalo, I observed five horsemen coming out from the fort, who had evidently seen the buffalo from the post, and were going out for a chase. They proved to be some newly arrived officers in that part of the country, and when they came up closer I could see by the shoulder-straps that the senior was a captain, while the others were lieutenants.

 

"Hello! my friend," sang out the captain; "I see you are after the same game we are."

 

"Yes, sir; I saw those buffalo coming over the hill, and as we were about out of fresh meat I thought I would go and get some," said I.

 

They scanned my cheap-looking outfit pretty closely, and as my horse was not very prepossessing in appearance, having on only a blind bridle, and otherwise looking like a work horse, they evidently considered me a green hand at hunting.

 

"Do you expect to catch those buffalo on that Gothic steed?" laughingly asked the captain.

 

"I hope so, by pushing on the reins hard enough," was my reply.

 

"You'll never catch them in the world, my fine fellow," said the captain. "It requires a fast horse to overtake the animals on the prairie."

 

"Does it?" asked I, as if I didn't know it.

 

"Yes; but come along with us, as we are going to kill them more for pleasure than anything else. All we want are the tongues and a piece of tenderloin, and you may have all that is left," said the generous man.

 

"I am much obliged to you, captain, and will follow you," I replied.

 

There were eleven buffalo in the herd, and they were not more than a mile ahead of us. The officers dashed on as if they had a sure thing on killing them all before I could come up with them; but I had noticed that the herd was making toward the creek for water, and as I knew buffalo nature, I was perfectly aware that it would be difficult to turn them from their direct course. Thereupon, I started toward the creek to head them off, while the officers came up in the rear and gave chase.

 

Buffalo in MontanaThe buffalo came rushing past me not a hundred yards distant, with the officers about three hundred yards in the rear. Now, thought I, is the time to "get my work in," as they say; and I pulled off the blind bridle from my horse, who knew as well as I did that we were out after buffalo, as he was a trained hunter. The moment the bridle was off he started at the top of his speed, running in ahead of the officers, and with a few jumps he brought me alongside the rear buffalo. Raising old Lucretia Borgia to my shoulder, I fired, and killed the animal at the first shot. My horse then carried me alongside the next one, not ten feet away, and I dropped him at the next fire.

 

As soon as one of the buffalo would fall, Brigham would take me so close to the next that I could almost touch it with my gun. In this manner I killed the eleven buffalo with twelve shots; and as the last animal dropped, my horse stopped. I jumped off to the ground, knowing that he would not leave me--it must be remembered that I had been riding him without bridle, reins, or saddle--and, turning around as the party of astonished officers rode up, I said to them:

 

"Now, gentlemen, allow me to present to you all the tongues and tenderloins you wish from these buffalo."

 

Captain Graham, for such I soon learned was his name, replied: "Well, I never saw the like before. Who under the sun are you, anyhow?"

 

 "My name is Cody," said I.

 

Captain Graham, who was considerable of a horseman, greatly admired Brigham, and said: "That horse of yours has running points."

 

"Yes, sir; he has not only got the points, he is a runner

and knows how to use the points," said I.

 

"So I noticed," said the captain.

 

They all finally dismounted, and we continued chatting for some little time upon the different subjects of horses, buffalo, hunting, and Indians. They felt a little sore at not getting a single shot at the buffalo; but the way I had killed them, they said, amply repaid them for their disappointment. They had read of such feats in books, but this was the first time they had ever seen anything of the kind with their own eyes. It was the first time, also, that they had ever witnessed or heard of a white man running buffalo on horseback without a saddle or bridle.

 

I told them that Brigham knew nearly as much about the business as I did, and if I had twenty bridles they would have been of no use to me, as he understood everything, and all that he expected of me was to do the shooting. It is a fact that Brigham would stop if a buffalo did not fall at the first fire, so as to give me a second chance; but if I did not kill the animal then, he would go on, as if to say, "You are no good, and I will not fool away my time by giving you more than two shots." Brigham was the best horse I ever saw or owned for buffalo chasing. - (Buffalo Bill Cody)

 

 

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Additional Reading:

 

American Buffalo

Buffalo Hunters

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Old West Legends

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Wildlife Photo Print Gallery

Shooting buffalo from the train

When the railroad pushed westward through the Plains buffalo were often shot for sport as the trains passed by, the carcasses left to rot upon the prairie. Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, June, 1871.

This image available for photo prints & editorial  downloads HERE.

 

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