The Plight of the Buffalo

The rage of the savages was evident when they saw that their attempt to annihilate the troops had failed, and they rode off sullenly into the sand hills, as the number of soldiers was too great for them to think of charging.

 

Buffalo Stampede Damage

Buffalo Stampede Damage

Cody tells of a buffalo stampede which he witnessed in his youth on the plains, when he was a wagon-master. The caravan was on its way with government stores for the military posts in the mountains, and the wagons were hauled by oxen.

He said:

The country was alive with buffalo, and besides killing quite a number we had a rare day for sport. One morning we pulled out of camp, and the train was strung out to a considerable length along the Trail, which ran near the foot of the sand hills, two miles from the river. Between the road and the river we saw a large herd of buffalo grazing quietly, they having been down to the stream to drink. Just at this time we observed a party of returning Californians coming from the west. They, too, noticed the buffalo herd, and in another moment they were dashing down upon them, urging their horses to their greatest speed.

The buffalo herd stampeded at once, and broke down the sides of the hills; so hotly were they pursued by the hunters that about five hundred of them rushed pell-mell through our caravan, frightening both men and oxen. Some of the wagons were turned clear around and many of the terrified oxen attempted to run to the hills with the heavy wagons attached to them. Others were turned around so short that they broke the tongues off. Nearly all the teams got entangled in their gearing and became wild and unruly, so that the perplexed drivers were unable to manage them.

The buffalo, the cattle, and the men were soon running in every direction, and the excitement upset everybody and everything. Many of the oxen broke their yokes and stampeded. One big buffalo bull became entangled in one of the heavy wagon-chains, and it is a fact that in his desperate efforts to free himself, he not only snapped the strong chain in two, but broke the ox-yoke to which it was attached, and the last seen of him he was running toward the hills with it hanging from his horns.

Stampedes were a great source of profit to the Indians of the plains. The Comanche were particularly expert and daring in this kind of robbery. They even trained their horses to run from one point to another in expectation of the coming of the trains. When a camp was made that was nearly in range, they turned their trained animals loose, which at once flew across the prairie, passing through the herd and penetrating the very corrals of their victims. All of the picketed horses and mules would endeavor to follow these decoys, and were invariably led right into the haunts of the Indians, who easily secured them. Young horses and mules were easily frightened; and, in the confusion which generally ensued, great injury was frequently done to the runaways themselves.

At times when the herd was very large, the horses scattered over the prairie and were irrevocably lost; and such as did not become wild fell a prey to the wolves. That fate was very frequently the lot of stampeded horses bred in the States, they not having been trained by a prairie life to take care of themselves. Instead of stopping and bravely fighting off the blood-thirsty beasts, they would run. Then the whole pack were sure to leave the bolder animals and make for the runaways, which they seldom failed to overtake and dispatch.

On the Old Trail some years ago one of these stampedes occurred of a band of government horses, in which were several valuable animals. It was attended, however, with very little loss, through the courage and great exertion of the men who had them in charge; many were recovered, but none without having sustained injuries.

Hon. R. M. Wright, of Dodge City, Kansas, one of the pioneers in the days of the Santa Fe trade, and in the settlement of the State, has had many exciting experiences both with the savages of the Great Plains, and the buffalo. In relation to the habits of the latter, no man is better qualified to speak.

He was once owner of Fort Aubrey, a celebrated point on the Trail, but was compelled to abandon it on account of constant persecution by the Indians, or rather he was ordered to do so by the military authorities. While occupying the once famous landmark, in connection with others, had a contract to furnish hay to the government at Fort Lyon, seventy-five miles further west. His journal, which he kindly placed at my disposal, says:

Buffalo Bill Cody, 1907

Buffalo Bill Cody, 1907

While we were preparing to commence the work, a vast herd of buffalo stampeded through our range one night, and took off with them about half of our work cattle. The next day a stage-driver and conductor on the Overland Route told us they had seen a number of our oxen twenty-five miles east of Aubrey, and this information gave me an idea in which direction to hunt for the missing beasts. I immediately started after them, while my partner took those that remained and a few wagons and left with them for Fort Lyon.

Let me explain here that while the Indians were supposed to be peaceable, small war-parties of young men, who could not be controlled by their chiefs, were continually committing depredations, and the main body of savages themselves were very uneasy, and might be expected to break out any day. In consequence of this unsettled state of affairs, there had been a brisk movement among the United States troops stationed at the various military posts, a large number of whom were believed to be on the road from Denver to Fort Lyon.

I filled my saddle-bags with jerked buffalo, hardtack and ground coffee, and took with me a belt of cartridges, my rifle and six-shooter, a field-glass and my blankets, prepared for any emergency. The first day out, I found a few of the lost cattle, and placed them on the river-bottom, which I continued to do as fast as I recovered them, for a distance of about eighty-five miles down the Arkansas River. There I met a wagon-train, the drivers of which told me that I would find several more of my oxen with a train that had arrived at the Cimarron crossing the day before. I came up with this train in eight or ten hours’ travel south of the river, got my cattle, and started next morning for home.

I picked up those I had left on the Arkansas River as I went along, and after having made a very hard day’s travel, about sundown I concluded I would go into camp. I had only fairly halted when the oxen began to drop down, so completely tired out were they, as I believed. Just as it was growing dark, I happened to look toward the west, and I saw several fires on a big island, near what was called “The Lone Tree,” about a mile from where I had determined to remain for the night.

Thinking the fires were those of the soldiers that I had heard were on the road from Denver, and anticipating and longing for a cup of good coffee, as I had had none for five days, knowing, too, that the troops would be full of news, I felt good and determined to go over to their camp.

The Arkansas River was low, but the banks steep, with high, rank grass growing to the very water’s edge. I found a buffalo-trail cut through the deep bank, narrow and precipitous, and down this I went, arriving in a short time within a little distance of my supposed soldiers’ camp. When I had reached the middle of another deep cut in the bank, I looked across to the island, and, great Caesar! saw a hundred little fires, around which an aggregation of a thousand Indians were huddled!

I slid backwards off my horse, and by dint of great exertion, worked him up the river-bank as quietly and quickly as possible, then led him gently away out on the prairie. My first impulse was not to go back to the cattle; but as we needed them very badly, I concluded to return, put them all on their feet, and light out mighty lively, without making any noise.

I started them, and, oh dear! I was afraid to tread upon a weed, lest it would snap and bring the Indians down on my trail. Until I had put several miles between them and me, I could not rest easy for a moment. Tired as I was, tired as were both my horse and the cattle, I drove them twenty-five miles before

I halted.

Then daylight was upon me. I was at what is known as Chouteau’s Island, a once famous place in the days of the Old Santa Fe Trail.

Of course, I had to let the oxen and my horse rest and fill themselves until the afternoon, and I lay down, and fell asleep, but did not sleep long, as I thought it dangerous to remain too near the cattle. I rose and walked up a big, dry sand creek that opened into the river, and after I had ascended it for a couple of miles, found the banks very steep; in fact, they rose to a height of eighteen or twenty feet, and were sharply cut up by narrow trails made by the buffalo.

The whole face of the earth was covered by buffalo, and they were slowly grazing toward the Arkansas River. All at once they became frightened at something, and stampeded pell-mell toward the very spot on which I stood. I quickly ran into one of the precipitous little paths and up on the prairie, to see what had scared them. They were making the ground fairly tremble as their mighty multitude came rushing on at full speed, the sound of their hoofs resembling thunder, but in a continuous peal. It appeared to me that they must sweep everything in their path, and for my own preservation I rushed under the creek-bank, but on they came like a tornado, with one old bull in the lead.

He held up a second to descend the narrow trail, and when he had got about halfway down I let him have it; I was only a few steps from him and over he tumbled. I don’t know why I killed him; out of pure wantonness, I expect, or perhaps I thought it would frighten the others back.

Not so, however; they only quickened their pace, and came dashing down in great numbers. Dozens of them stumbled and fell over the dead bull; others fell over them. The top of the bank was fairly swarming with them; they leaped, pitched, and rolled down. I crouched as close to the bank as possible, but many of them just grazed my head, knocking the sand and gravel in great streams down my neck; indeed I was half buried before the herd had passed over. That old bull was the last buffalo I ever shot wantonly, excepting once, from an ambulance while riding on the Old Trail, to please a distinguished Englishman, who had never seen one shot; then I did it only after his most earnest persuasion.

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