Determined For Oregon in 1843



When an antelope once sees the hunter, it is impossible to stalk the animal. On the trip to Oregon, I tried the experiment without success. When I saw the antelope, upon the top of a small hill or mound, looking at me, I would turn and walk away in the opposite direction, until I was out of sight of the animal; then I would make a turn at right angles, until I found some object between me and the antelope, behind which I could approach unseen within rifle-shot; but, invariably the wily creature would be found on the top of some higher elevation, looking at me creeping up behind the object that I had supposed concealed me from my coveted prey. The only practical way of deceiving an antelope is to fall flat upon the ground among the grass, and hold up on your ramrod a hat or handkerchief, while you keep yourself concealed from his view. Though exceedingly wary, the curiosity of the animal is so great that he will often slowly and cautiously approach within rifle-shot.

On the 16th of June, we saw a splendid race between some of our dogs and an antelope, which ran all the way down the long line of wagons, and about 150 yards distant from them. Greyhounds were let loose, but, could not catch it. It ran very smoothly, making no long bounds like the deer or horse, but seemed to glide through the air. The gait of the antelope is so peculiar that, if one was running at the top of his speed over a perfectly smooth surface, his body would always be substantially the same distance from the earth.

Lindsey Applegate, a pioneer known for blazing the Applegate Trail, an alternative end of Oregon Trail, gave this amusing and somewhat exaggerated account of a race between a very fleet greyhound and an antelope. The antelope was off to the right of the road half a mile distant and started to cross the road at right angles ahead of the train. The greyhound saw him start in the direction of the road and ran to meet him, so regulating his pace as to intercept the antelope at the point where he crossed the road. The attention of the antelope being fixed upon the train, he did not see the greyhound until the latter was within twenty feet of him. Then the struggle commenced, each animal running at his utmost speed. The greyhound only ran about a quarter of a mile, when he gave up the race and looked with seeming astonishment at the animal that beat him, as no other animal had ever done before. Applegate declared, in strong hyperbolical language, that “the antelope ran a mile before you could see the dust rise.”

After crossing the Kansas River we traveled up the Blue River. On June 17th we reached our last encampment on the river and here, saw a band of Pawnee Indians, returning from a buffalo hunt. They had quantities of dried buffalo meat, of which they generously gave us a good supply. They were fine-looking Indians, who did not shave their heads, but, cut their hair short like white men.

Platte River, Nebraska

Platte River, Nebraska

On the 18th of June, we crossed from the Blue River to the great Platte River, making a journey of 25-30 miles, about the greatest distance we ever traveled in a single day. The road was splendid, and we drove some distance into the Platte River bottom and encamped in the open prairie without fuel. The next morning we left very early, without breakfast, having traveled 271 miles from the rendezvous, according to the estimated distance recorded in my journal.

We traveled up the south bank of the Platte River, which, at the point where we struck it, was from a mile to a mile and a half wide. Though not so remarkable as the famed and mysterious Nile, the Platte is still a remarkable stream. Like the Nile, it runs hundreds of miles through a desert without receiving any tributaries. Its general course is almost as straight as a direct line. It runs through a formation of sand of equal consistency, and this is the reason its course is so direct.

The valley of the Platte River is about 20 miles wide, through the middle of which this wide, shallow, and muddy stream makes its rapid course. Its banks are low, not exceeding 5-6 feet in height; and the river bottoms on each side seem to the eye a dead level, covered with luxuriant grass. Ten miles from the river you come to the foot of the table-lands, which are also apparently a level sandy plain, elevated some 150 feet above the river bottoms. On these plains grows the short buffalo-grass, upon which the animal feeds during a portion of the year. As the dry season approaches, the water, which stands in pools on table-lands, dries up, and the buffalo are compelled to go to the Platte for water to drink. They start for water about 10:00 a.m. and always travel in single file, one after the other, and in parallel lines about 20 yards apart, and go in a direct line to the river. They invariably travel the same routes over and over again, until they make a path some ten inches deep and twelve inches wide. These buffalo paths constituted quite an obstruction to our wagons, which were heavily laden at this point in our journey. Several axles were broken. We had been apprised of the danger in advance, and each wagon was supplied with an extra axle.

A Wagon Train in the Platte River Valley

A Wagon Train in the Platte River Valley

In making our monotonous journey up the smooth valley of the Platte, through the warm genial sunshine of summer, the feeling of drowsiness was so great that it was extremely difficult to keep awake during the day. Instances occurred where the drivers went to sleep on the road, sitting in the front of their wagons; and the oxen, being about as sleepy, would stop until the drivers were aroused from their slumber. My small wagon was only used for the family to ride in, and Mrs. Burnett and I drove and slept alternately during the day.

One great difficulty on this part of the trip was the scarcity of fuel. Sometimes we found dry willows, sometimes we picked up pieces of drift-wood along the way, which we put into our wagons, and hauled them along until we needed them. At many points of the route up the Platte, we had to use buffalo chips. By cutting a trench some ten inches deep, six inches wide, and two feet long, we were enabled to get along with very little fuel. At one or two places the wind was so severe that we were forced to use the trenches in order to make a fire at all.

On the 20th of June, we sent out a party of hunters, who returned on the 24th with plenty of fresh buffalo meat. We thought the flesh of the buffalo the most excellent of all flesh eaten by man. Its flavor is decidedly different from that of beef and far superior, and the meat more digestible. On a trip like that, in that dry climate, our appetites were excellent; but, even making every reasonable allowance, I still think buffalo the sweetest meat in the world.

The American buffalo is a peculiar animal, remarkably hardy, and much fleeter of foot than anyone would suppose from his round short figure. It requires a fleet horse to overtake him. His sense of smell is remarkably acute, while those of sight and hearing are very dull. If the wind blows from the hunter to the buffalo, it is impossible to approach him. I remember that, on one occasion, while we were traveling up the Platte River, I saw a band of some 40 buffalo running obliquely toward the river on the other side from us, and some three miles off; and, the moment that their leader struck the stream of tainted atmosphere passing from us to them, he and the rest of the herd turned at right angles from their former course, and fled in the direction of the wind.

On one occasion five of us went out on fleet horses to hunt buffalo. We soon found nine full-grown animals, feeding near the head of a ravine. The wind blew from them to us, and their keen scent was thus worthless to them, as the smell will only travel with the wind. We rode quietly up the ravine, until we arrived at a point only about 100 yards distant, when we formed in line, side by side, and the order was given to charge. We put our horses at once to their utmost speed; and the loud clattering of their hoofs over the dry hard ground at once attracted the attention of the buffalo, which raised their heads and gazed at us for an instant, and then turned and fled. By the time they started, we were within 50 yards of them. The race was over a level plain, and we gradually gained upon the fleeing game; but, when we approached within 20 yards of them, we could plainly see that they let out a few more links, and ran much faster. I was riding a fleet Indian pony and was ahead of all my comrades except Mr. Garrison, who rode a blooded American mare. He dashed in ahead of me, and fired with a large horse-pistol at the largest buffalo, giving the animal a slight wound. The moment the buffalo felt himself wounded, that moment he bore off from the others, they continuing close together, and he running by himself.

I followed the wounded buffalo, and my comrades followed the others. The moment I began to press closely upon the wounded animal, he turned suddenly around, and faced me with his shaggy head, black horns, and gleaming eyes. My pony stopped instantly, and I rode around the old bull to get a shot at his side, knowing that it would be idle to shoot him in the head, as no rifle-ball will penetrate to the brain of a buffalo-bull. But the animal would keep his head toward me. I knew my pony had been trained to stand wherever he was left, and I saw that the wounded bull never charged at the horse. So I determined to dismount and try to get a shot on foot. I would go a few yards from my horse, and occasionally the buffalo would bound toward me, and then I would dodge behind my pony, which stood like a statue, not exhibiting the slightest fear. For some reason, the wounded animal would not attack the pony.

Buffalo on the Great Plains

Buffalo on the Great Plains

Perhaps the buffalo had been hit through the lungs. The moment he felt the shot, he turned and fled, and after running a quarter of a mile fell dead. The shot through the lungs is the most fatal to the buffalo, as he soon smothers from the effects of internal hemorrhage. It is a singular fact that, before a buffalo is wounded, he will never turn and face his pursuer, but will run at his best speed, even until the hunter is by his side; but the moment a buffalo-bull is wounded, even slightly, he will quit the band, and when pressed by the hunter will turn and face him. The animal seems to think that, when wounded, his escape by flight is impossible, and his only chance is in combat.

On the 27th of June our people had halted for lunch at noon, and to rest the teams and allow the oxen to graze. Our wagons were about 300 yards from the river and were strung out in line to the distance of one mile. While taking our lunch we saw seven buffalo-bulls on the opposite side of the river, coming toward us, as if they intended to cross the river in the face of our whole caravan. When they arrived on the opposite bank they had a full view of us; and yet they deliberately entered the river, wading a part of the distance, and swimming the remainder. When we saw that they were determined to cross at all hazards, our men took their rifles, formed in line between the wagons and the river, and awaited the approach of the animals. So soon as they rose the bank, they came on in a run, broke boldly through the line of men, and bore to the left of the wagons. Three of them were killed, and most of the others wounded.

On the 29th of June, we arrived at a grove of timber, on the south bank of the South Fork of the Platte River. This was the only timber we had seen since we struck the river, except on the islands, which were covered with cottonwoods and willows. From our first camp upon the Platte to this point, we had traveled, according to my estimates recorded in my journal, 173 miles, in eleven days.

On July 1st we made three boats by covering our wagon-boxes or beds with green buffalo-hides sewed together, stretched tightly over the boxes, flesh side out, and tacked on with large tacks; and the boxes, thus covered, were then turned up to the sun until the hides were thoroughly dry. This process of drying the green hides had to be repeated several times. From July 1st to the 5th we were engaged in crossing the river. On the 7th we arrived at the south bank of the North Fork of the Platte, having traveled a distance of 29 miles from the South Fork. We had not seen any prairie chickens since we left the Blue River. On the 9th we saw three beautiful wild horses. On the 14th we arrived at Fort Laramie, Wyoming where we remained two days, repairing our wagons. We had traveled from the crossing of South Fork 141 miles in nine days. Prices of articles at this trading post were: Coffee, $1.50 a pint; brown sugar, the same; flour, unbolted, 25 cents a pound; powder, $1.50 a pound; lead, 75 cents a pound; percussion-caps, $1.50 a box; calico, very inferior, $1 a yard.

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