The Plight of the Buffalo

Buffalo in South Dakota, by Kathy Weiser

Buffalo in South Dakota, by Kathy Weiser

One day a stage-driver named Frank Harris and myself started out after buffalo; they were scarce, for a wonder, and we were very hungry for fresh meat. The day was fine and we rode a long way, expecting sooner or later a bunch would jump up, but in the afternoon, having seen none, we gave it up and started for the ranch. Of course, we didn’t care to save our ammunition, so shot it away at everything in sight, skunks, rattlesnakes, prairie-dogs, and gophers, until we had only a few loads left. Suddenly an old bull jumped up that had been lying down in one of those sugar-loaf-shaped sand hills, whose tops are hollowed out by the action of the wind. Harris emptied his revolver into him, and so did I; but the old fellow sullenly stood still there on top of the sand hill, bleeding profusely at the nose, and yet absolutely refusing to die, although he would repeatedly stagger and nearly tumble over.

It was getting late and we couldn’t wait on him, so Harris said: “I will dismount, creep up behind him, and cut his hamstrings with my butcher-knife.” The bull having now lain down, Harris commenced operations, but his movement seemed to infuse new life into the old fellow; he jumped to his feet, his head lowered in the attitude of fight, and away he went around the outside of the top of the sand hill! It was a perfect circus with one ring; Harris, who was a tall, lanky fellow, took hold of the enraged animal’s tail as he rose to his feet, and in a moment his legs were flying higher than his head, but he did not dare let go of his hold on the bull’s tail, and around and around they went; it was his only show for life. I could not assist him a particle, but had to sit and hold his horse, and be judge of the fight. I really thought that old bull would never weaken.

Finally, however, the “ring” performance began to show symptoms of fatigue; slower and slower the actions of the bull grew, and at last Harris succeeded in cutting his hamstrings and the poor beast went down. Harris said afterward, when the danger was all over, that the only thing he feared was that perhaps the bull’s tail would pull out, and if it did, he was well aware that he was a goner. We brought his tongue, hump, and a hindquarter to the ranch with us, and had a glorious feast and a big laugh that night with the boys over the ridiculous adventure. (Buffalo Bill Cody)

General Richard Irving Dodge, United States army, in his work on the big game of America, said:

It is almost impossible for a civilized being to realize the value to the Plains Indian of the buffalo. It furnished him with home, food, clothing, bedding, horse equipment–almost everything.

From 1869 to 1873 I was stationed at various posts along the Arkansas River. Early in spring, as soon as the dry and apparently desert prairie had begun to change its coat of dingy brown to one of palest green, the horizon would begin to be dotted with buffalo, single or in groups of two or three, forerunners of the coming herd. Thick and thicker, and in large groups they come, until by the time the grass is well up, the whole vast landscape appears a mass of buffalo, some individuals feeding, others lying down, but the herd slowly moving to the northward; of their number, it was impossible to form a conjecture.

Determined as they are to pursue their journey northward, yet they are exceedingly cautious and timid about it, and on any alarm rush to the southward with all speed, until that alarm is dissipated. Especially is this the case when any unusual object appears in their rear, and so utterly regardless of consequences are they, that an old plainsman will not risk a wagon-train in such a herd, where rising ground will permit those in front to get a good view of their rear.

In May, 1871, I drove in a buggy from old Fort Zarah to Fort Larned, on the Arkansas River The distance is thirty-four miles. At least twenty-five miles of that distance was through an immense herd. The whole country was one mass of buffalo, apparently, and it was only when actually among them, that the seemingly solid body was seen to be an agglomeration of countless herds of from fifty to two hundred animals, separated from the surrounding herds by a greater or less space, but still separated.

The road ran along the broad valley of the Arkansas River. Some miles from Zarah a low line of hills rises from the plain on the right, gradually increasing in height and approaching road and river, until they culminate in Pawnee Rock.

So long as I was in the broad, level valley, the herds sullenly got out of my way, and, turning, stared stupidly at me, some within thirty or forty yards. When, however, I had reached a point where the hills were no more than a mile from the road, the buffalo on the crests, seeing an unusual object in their rear, turned, stared an instant, then started at full speed toward me, stampeding and bringing with them the numberless herds through which they passed, and pouring down on me, no longer separated but compacted into one immense mass of plunging animals, mad with fright, irresistible as an avalanche.

The situation was by no means pleasant. There was but one hope of escape. My horse was, fortunately, a quiet old beast, that had rushed with me into many a herd, and been in at the death of many a buffalo. Reining him up, I waited until the front of the mass was within fifty yards, then, with a few well-directed shots, dropped some of the leaders, split the herd and sent it off in two streams to my right and left. When all had passed me, they stopped, apparently satisfied, though thousands were yet within reach of my rifle. After my servant had cut out the tongues of the fallen, I proceeded on my journey, only to have a similar experience within a mile or two, and this occurred so often that I reached Fort Larned with twenty-six tongues, representing the greatest number of buffalo that I can blame myself with having murdered in one day.

Some years, as in 1871, the buffalo appeared to move northward in one immense column, oftentimes from twenty to fifty miles in width, and of unknown depth from front to rear. Other years the northward journey was made in several parallel columns moving at the same rate and with their numerous flankers covering a width of a hundred or more miles.

Trapper

Trapper

When the food in one locality fails, they go to another, and toward fall, when the grass of the high prairies becomes parched by the heat and drought, they gradually work their way back to the south, concentrating on the rich pastures of Texas and the Indian Indian Territory, whence, the same instinct acting on all, they are ready to start together again on their northward march as soon as spring starts the grass.

Old plainsmen and the Indians aver that the buffalo never return south; that each year’s herd was composed of animals which had never made the journey before, and would never make it again. All admit the northern migration, that being too pronounced for any one to dispute, but refuse to admit the southern migration. Thousands of young calves were caught and killed every spring that were produced during this migration, and accompanied the herd northward; but because the buffalo did not return south in one vast body as they went north, it was stoutly maintained that they did not go south at all. The plainsman could give no reasonable hypothesis of his “No-return theory” on which to base the origin of the vast herds which yearly made their march northward. The Indian was, however, equal to the occasion. Every Plains Indian firmly believed that the buffalo were produced in countless numbers in a country under ground; that every spring the surplus swarmed, like bees from a hive, out of the immense cave-like opening in the region of the great Llano Estacado, or Staked Plains of Texas. In 1879 Stone Calf, a celebrated chief, assured me that he knew exactly where the caves were, though he had never seen them; that the good God had provided this means for the constant supply of food for the Indian, and however recklessly the white men might slaughter, they could never exterminate them. When last I saw him, the old man was beginning to waver in this belief, and feared that the “Bad God” had shut the entrances, and that his tribe must starve.”

The old trappers and plainsmen themselves, even as early as the beginning of the Santa Fe trade, noticed the gradual disappearance of the buffalo, while they still existed in countless numbers.

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