The Extermination of the American Bison Part 13


1. _The still-hunt._--Of all the deadly methods of buffalo slaughter, the still-hunt was the deadliest. Of all the methods that were unsportsmanlike, unfair, ignoble, and utterly reprehensible, this was in every respect the lowest and the worst. Destitute of nearly every element of the buoyant excitement and spice of danger that accompanied genuine buffalo hunting on horseback, the still-hunt was mere butchery of the tamest and yet most cruel kind. About it there was none of the true excitement of the chase; but there was plenty of greedy eagerness to "down" as many "head" as possible every day, just as there is in every slaughter-house where the killers are paid so much per head.

Judging from all accounts, it was about as exciting and dangerous work as it would be to go out now and shoot cattle on the Texas or Montana ranges. The probabilities are, however, that shooting Texas cattle would be the most dangerous; for, instead of running from a man on foot, as the buffalo used to do, range cattle usually charge down upon him, from motives of curiosity, perhaps, and not infrequently place his life in considerable jeopardy.

The buffalo owes his extermination very largely to his own unparalleled stupidity; for nothing else could by any possibility have enabled the still-hunters to accomplish what they did in such an incredibly short time. So long as the chase on horseback was the order of the day, it ordinarily required the united efforts of from fifteen to twenty-five hunters to kill a thousand buffalo in a single season; but a single still-hunter, with a long-range breech-loader, who knew how to make a "sneak" and get "a stand on a bunch," often succeeded in killing from one to three thousand in one season by his own unaided efforts. Capt.

Jack Brydges, of Kansas, who was one of the first to begin the final slaughter of the southern herd, killed, by contract, one thousand one hundred and forty-two buffaloes in six weeks.

So long as the buffalo remained in large herds their numbers gave each individual a feeling of dependence upon his fellows and of general security from harm, even in the presence of strange phenomena which he could not understand. When he heard a loud report and saw a little cloud of white smoke rising from a gully, a clump of sage-brash, or the top of a ridge, 200 yards away, he wondered what it meant, and held himself in readiness to follow his leader in case she should run away. But when the leader of the herd, usually the oldest cow, fell bleeding upon the ground, and no other buffalo promptly assumed the leadership of the herd, instead of acting independently and fleeing from the alarm, he merely did as he saw the others do, and waited his turn to be shot.

Latterly, however, when the herds were totally broken up, when the few survivors were scattered in every direction, and it became a case of every buffalo for himself, they became wild and wary, ever ready to start off at the slightest alarm, and run indefinitely. Had they shown the same wariness seventeen years ago that the survivors have manifested during the last three or four years, there would now be a hundred thousand head alive instead of only about three hundred in a wild and unprotected state.

Notwithstanding the merciless war that had been waged against the buffalo for over a century by both whites and Indians, and the steady decrease of its numbers, as well as its range, there were several million head on foot, not only up to the completion of the Union Pacific Railway, but as late as the year 1870. Up to that time the killing done by white men had been chiefly for the sake of meat, the demand for robes was moderate, and the Indians took annually less than one hundred thousand for trading. Although half a million buffaloes were killed by Indians, half-breeds, and whites, the natural increase was so very considerable as to make it seem that the evil day of extermination was yet far distant.

But by a coincidence which was fatal to the buffalo, with the building of three lines of railway through the most populous buffalo country there came a demand for robes and hides, backed up by an unlimited supply of new and marvellously accurate breech-loading rifles and fixed ammunition. And then followed a wild rush of hunters to the buffalo country, eager to destroy as many head as possible in the shortest time.

For those greedy ones the chase on horseback was "too slow" and too unfruitful. That was a retail method of killing, whereas they wanted to kill by wholesale. From their point of view, the still-hunt or "sneak"

hunt was the method _par excellence_. If they could have obtained Gatling guns with which to mow down a whole herd at a time, beyond a doubt they would have gladly used them.

The still-hunt was seen at its very worst in the years 1871, 1872, and 1873, on the southern buffalo range, and ten years later at its best in Montana, on the northern. Let us first consider it at its best, which in principle was bad enough.

The great rise in the price of robes which followed the blotting out of the great southern herd at once put buffalo-hunting on a much more comfortable and respectable business basis in the North than it had ever occupied in the South, where prices had all along been phenomenally low.

In Montana it was no uncommon thing for a hunter to invest from $1,000 to $2,000 in his "outfit" of horses, wagons, weapons, ammunition, provisions, and sundries.

One of the men who accompanied the Smithsonian Expedition for Buffalo, Mr. James McNaney, of Miles City, Montana, was an ex-buffalo banter, who had spent three seasons on the northern range, killing buffalo for their robes, and his standing as a hunter was of the best. A brief description of his outfit and its work during its last season on the range (1882-'83) may fairly be taken as a typical illustration of the life and work of the still-hunter at its best. The only thing against it was the extermination of the buffalo.

During the winters of 1880 and 1881 Mr. McNaney had served in Maxwell's outfit as a hunter, working by the month, but his success in killing was such that he decided to work the third year on his own account. Although at that time only seventeen years of age, he took an elder brother as a partner, and purchased an outfit in Miles City, of which the following were the principal items: Two wagons, 2 four-horse teams, 2 saddle-horses, 2 wall-tents, 1 cook-stove with pipe, 1 40-90 Sharp's rifle (breech-loading), 1 45-70 Sharps rifle (breech-loading), 1 45-120 Sharps rifle (breech-loading), 50 pounds gunpowder, 550 pounds lead, 4,500 primers, 600 brass shells, 4 sheets patch-paper, 60 Wilson skinning knives, 3 butcher's steels, 1 portable grindstone, flour, bacon, baking-powder, coffee, sugar, molasses, dried apples, canned vegetables, beans, etc., in quantity.

The entire cost of the outfit was about $1,400. Two men were hired for the season at $50 per month, and the party started from Miles City on November 10, which was considered a very late start. The usual time of setting out for the range was about October 1.

The outfit went by rail northeastward to Terry, and from thence across country south and east about 100 miles, around the head of O'Fallon Creek to the head of Beaver Creek, a tributary of the Little Missouri. A good range was selected, without encroachment upon the domains of the hunters already in the field, and the camp was made near the bank of the creek, close to a supply of wood and water, and screened from distant observation by a circle of hills and ridges. The two rectangular wall-tents were set up end to end, with the cook-stove in the middle, where the ends came together. In one tent the cooking and eating was done, and the other contained the beds.

It was planned that the various members of the party should cook turn about, a week at a time, but one of them soon developed such a rare and conspicuous talent for bread-making and general cookery that he was elected by acclamation to cook during the entire season. To the other three members fell the hunting. Each man hunted separately from the others, and skinned all the animals that his rifle brought down.

There were buffalo on the range when the hunters arrived, and the killing began at once. At daylight the still-hunter sallied forth on foot, carrying in his hand his huge Sharps rifle, weighing from 16 to 19 pounds, with from seventy-five to one hundred loaded cartridges in his two belts or his pockets. At his side, depending from his belt, hung his "hunter's companion," a flat leather scabbard, containing a ripping knife, a skinning knife, and a butcher's steel upon which to sharpen them. The total weight carried was very considerable, seldom less than 36 pounds, and often more.

Inasmuch as it was highly important to move camp as seldom as possible in the course of a season's work, the hunter exercised the greatest precaution in killing his game, and had ever before his mind the necessity of doing his killing without frightening away the survivors.

With ten thousand buffaloes on their range, it was considered the height of good luck to find a "bunch" of fifty head in a secluded "draw" or hollow, where it was possible to "make a kill" without disturbing the big herd.

The still-hunter usually went on foot, for when buffaloes became so scarce as to make it necessary for him to ride his occupation was practically gone. At the time I speak of, the hunter seldom had to walk more than 3 miles from camp to find buffalo, in case there were any at all on his range, and it was usually an advantage to be without a horse.

From the top of a ridge or high butte the country was carefully scanned, and if several small herds were in sight the one easiest to approach was selected as the one to attack. It was far better to find a herd lying down or quietly grazing, or sheltering from a cold wind, than to find it traveling, for while a hard run of a mile or two often enabled the hunter to "head off" a moving herd and kill a certain number of animals out of it, the net results were never half so satisfactory as with herds absolutely at rest.

Having decided upon an attack, the hunter gets to leeward of his game, and approaches it according to the nature of the ground. If it is in a hollow, he secures a position at the top of the nearest ridge, as close as he can get. If it is in a level "flat," he looks for a gully up which he can skulk until within good rifle-shot. If there is no gully, he may be obliged to crawl half a mile on his hands and knees, often through snow or amongst beds of prickly pear, taking advantage of even such scanty cover as sage-brush affords. Some Montana still-hunters adopted the method of drawing a gunny-sack over the entire upper half of the body, with holes cut for the eyes and arms, which simple but unpicturesque arrangement often enabled the hunter to approach his game much more easily and more closely than would otherwise have been possible.


From a painting by J. H. Moser, in the National Museum.]

Having secured a position within from 100 to 250 yards of his game (often the distance was much greater), the hunter secures a comfortable rest for his huge rifle, all the time keeping his own person thoroughly hidden from view, estimates the distance, carefully adjusts his sights, and begins business. If the herd is moving, the animal in the lead is the first one shot, close behind the fore leg and about a foot above the brisket, which sends the ball through the lungs. If the herd is at rest, the oldest cow is always supposed to be the leader, and she is the one to kill first. The noise startles the buffaloes, they stare at the little cloud of white smoke and feel inclined to run, but seeing their leader hesitate they wait for her. She, when struck, gives a violent start forward, but soon stops, and the blood begins to run from her nostrils in two bright crimson streams. In a couple of minutes her body sways unsteadily, she staggers, tries hard to keep her feet, but soon gives a lurch sidewise and falls. Some of the other members of the herd come around her and stare and sniff in wide-eyed wonder, and one of the more wary starts to lead the herd away. But before she takes half a dozen steps "bang!" goes the hidden rifle again, and her leadership is ended forever. Her fall only increases the bewilderment of the survivors over a proceeding which to them is strange and unaccountable, because the danger is not visible. They cluster around the fallen ones, sniff at the warm blood, bawl aloud in wonderment, and do everything but run away.

The policy of the hunter is to not fire too rapidly, but to attend closely to business, and every time a buffalo attempts to make off, shoot it down. One shot per minute was a moderate rate of firing, but under pressure of circumstances two per minute could be discharged with deliberate precision. With the most accurate hunting rifle ever made, a "dead rest," and a large mark practically motionless, it was no wonder that nearly every shot meant a dead buffalo. The vital spot on a buffalo which stands with its side to the hunter is about a foot in diameter, and on a full-grown bull is considerably more. Under such conditions as the above, which was called getting "a stand," the hunter nurses his victims just as an angler plays a big fish with light tackle, and in the most methodical manner murders them one by one, either until the last one falls, his cartridges are all expended, or the stupid brutes come to their senses and run away. Occasionally the poor fellow was troubled by having his rifle get too hot to use, but if a snow-bank was at hand he would thrust the weapon into it without ceremony to cool it off.

A success in getting a stand meant the slaughter of a good-sized herd. A hunter whom I met in Montana, Mr. Harry Andrews, told me that he once fired one hundred and fifteen shots from one spot and killed sixty-three buffalo in less than an hour. The highest number Mr. McNaney ever knew of being killed in one stand was ninety-one head, but Colonel Dodge once counted one hundred and twelve carcasses of buffalo "inside of a semicircle of 200 yards radius, all of which were killed by one man from the same spot, and in less than three-quarters of an hour."

The "kill" being completed, the hunter then addressed himself to the task of skinning his victims. The northern hunters were seldom guilty of the reckless carelessness and lack of enterprise in the treatment of robes which at one time was so prominent a feature of work on the southern range. By the time white men began to hunt for robes on the northern range, buffalo were becoming comparatively scarce, and robes were worth from $2 to $4 each. The fur-buyers had taught the hunters, with the potent argument of hard cash, that a robe carefully and neatly taken off, stretched, and kept reasonably free from blood and dirt, was worth more money in the market than one taken off in a slovenly manner, and contrary to the nicer demands of the trade. After 1880, buffalo on the northern range were skinned with considerable care, and amongst the robe-hunters not one was allowed to become a loss when it was possible to prevent it. Every full-sized cow robe was considered equal to $3.50 in hard cash, and treated accordingly. The hunter, or skinner, always stretched every robe out on the ground to its fullest extent while it was yet warm, and cut the initials of his employer in the thin subcutaneous muscle which always adhered to the inside of the skin. A warm skin is very elastic, and when stretched upon the ground the hair holds it in shape until it either dries or freezes, and so retains its full size. On the northern range skins were so valuable that many a dispute arose between rival outfits over the ownership of a dead buffalo, some of which produced serious results.

2. _The chase on horseback or "running buffalo."_--Next to the still-hunt the method called "running buffalo" was the most fatal to the race, and the one most universally practiced. To all hunters, save greedy white men, the chase on horseback yielded spoil sufficient for every need, and it also furnished sport of a superior kind--manly, exhilarating, and well spiced with danger. Even the horses shared the excitement and eagerness of their riders.

So long as the weapons of the Indian consisted only of the bow and arrow and the spear, he was obliged to kill at close quarters or not at all.

And even when fire-arms were first placed in his hands their caliber was so small, the charge so light, and the Indian himself so poor a marksman at long range, that his best course was still to gallop alongside the herd on his favorite "buffalo horse" and kill at the shortest possible range. From all accounts, the Red River half-breeds, who hunted almost exclusively with fire-arms, never dreamed of the deadly still hunt, but always killed their game by "running" it.

In former times even the white men of the plains did the most of their buffalo hunting on horseback, using the largest-sized Colt's revolver, sometimes one in each hand, until the repeating-rifle made its appearance, which in a great measure displaced the revolver in running buffalo. But about that time began the mad warfare for "robes" and "hides," and the only fair and sportsmanlike method of hunting was declared too slow for the greedy buffalo-skinners.

Then came the cold-blooded butchery of the still-hunt. From that time on the buffalo as a game animal steadily lost caste. It soon came to be universally considered that there was no sport in hunting buffalo. True enough of still-hunting, where the hunter sneaks up and shoots them down one by one at such long range the report of his big rifle does not even frighten them away. So far as sportsmanlike fairness is concerned, that method was not one whit more elevated than killing game by poison.

Bat the chase on horseback was a different thing. Its successful prosecution demanded a good horse, a bold rider, a firm seat, and perfect familiarity with weapons. The excitement of it was intense, the dangers not to be despised, and, above all, the buffalo had a fair show for his life, or partially so, at least. The mode of attack is easily described.

Whenever the hunters discovered a herd of buffalo, they usually got to leeward of it and quietly rode forward in a body, or stretched out in a regular skirmish line, behind the shelter of a knoll, perhaps, until they had approached the herd as closely as could be done without alarming it. Usually the unsuspecting animals, with a confidence due more to their great numbers than anything else, would allow a party of horsemen to approach within from 200 to 400 yards of their flankers, and then they would start off on a slow trot. The hunters then put spurs to their horses and dashed forward to overtake the herd as quickly as possible. Once up with it, each hunter chooses the best animal within his reach, chases him until his flying steed carries him close alongside, and then the arrow or the bullet is sent into his vitals. The fatal spot is from 12 to 18 inches in circumference, and lies immediately back of the fore leg, with its lowest point on a line with the elbow.

This, the true chase of the buffalo, was not only exciting, but dangerous. It often happened that the hunter found himself surrounded by the flying herd, and in a cloud of dust, so that neither man nor horse could see the ground before them. Under such circumstances fatal accidents to both men and horses were numerous. It was not an uncommon thing for half-breeds to shoot each other in the excitement of the chase; and, while now and then a wounded bull suddenly turned upon his pursuer and overthrew him, the greatest number of casualties were from falls.

Of the dangers involved in running buffalo Colonel Dodge writes as follows:[52]

[Note 52: Plains of the Great West, p. 127.]

"The danger is not so much from the buffalo, which rarely makes an effort to injure his pursuer, as from the fact that neither man nor horse can see the ground, which may be rough and broken, or perforated with prairie-dog or gopher holes. This danger is so imminent, that a man who runs into a herd of buffalo may be said to take his life in his hand. I have never known a man hurt by a buffalo in such a chase. I have known of at least six killed, and a very great many more or less injured, some very severely, by their horses falling with them."

On this point Catlin declares that to engage in running buffalo is "at the hazard of every bone in one's body, to feel the fine and thrilling exhilaration of the chase for a moment, and then as often to upbraid and blame himself for his folly and imprudence."

Previous to my first experience in "running buffalo" I had entertained a mortal dread of ever being called upon to ride a chase across a prairie-dog town. The mouth of a prairie-dog's burrow is amply large to receive the hoof of a horse, and the angle at which the hole descends into the earth makes it just right for the leg of a running horse to plunge into up to the knee and bring down both horse and rider instantly; the former with a broken leg, to say the least of it. If the rider sits loosely, and promptly resigns his seat, he will go flying forward, as if thrown from a catapult, for 20 feet or so, perhaps to escape with a few broken bones, and perhaps to have his neck broken, or his skull fractured on the hard earth. If he sticks tightly to his saddle, his horse is almost certain to fall upon him, and perhaps kill him. Judge, then, my feelings when the first bunch of buffalo we started headed straight across the largest prairie-dog town I had ever seen up to that time. And not only was the ground honey-combed with gaping round holes, but it was also crossed here and there by treacherous ditch-like gullies, cut straight down into the earth to an uncertain depth, and so narrow as to be invisible until it was almost time to leap across them.

But at such a time, with the game thundering along a few rods in advance, the hunter thinks of little else except getting up to it. He looks as far ahead as possible, and helps his horse to avoid dangers, but to a great extent the horse must guide himself. The rider plies his spurs and looks eagerly forward, almost feverish with excitement and eagerness, but at the same time if he is wise he _expects_ a fall, and holds himself in readiness to take the ground with as little damage as he can.

Mr. Catlin gives a most graphic description of a hunting accident, which may fairly be quoted in full as a type of many such. I must say that I fully sympathize with M. Chardon in his estimate of the hardness of the ground he fell upon, for I have a painful recollection of a fall I had from which I arose with the settled conviction that the ground in Montana is the hardest in the world! It seemed more like falling upon cast-iron than prairie turf.

"I dashed along through the thundering mass as they swept away over the plain, scarcely able to tell whether I was on a buffalo's back or my horse, hit and hooked and jostled about, till at length I found myself alongside my game, when I gave him a shot as I passed him.

[Illustration: THE CHASE ON HORSEBACK. From a painting in the National Museum by George Catlin.]

I saw guns flash about me in several directions, but I heard them not. Amidst the trampling throng Mons. Chardon had wounded a stately bull, and at this moment was passing him with his piece leveled for another shot. They were both at full speed and I also, within the reach of the muzzle of my gun, when the bull instantly turned, receiving the horse upon his horns, and the ground received poor Chardon, who made a frog's leap of some 20 feet or more over the bull's back and almost under my horse's heels. I wheeled my horse as soon as possible and rode back where lay poor Chardon, gasping to start his breath again, and within a few paces of him his huge victim, with his heels high in the air, and the horse lying across him. I dismounted instantly, but Chardon was raising himself on his hands, with his eyes and mouth full of dirt, and feeling for his gun, which lay about 30 feet in advance of him. 'Heaven spare you! are you hurt, Chardon?' 'Hi-hic--hic--hic--hic--no;--hic--no--no, I believe not. Oh, this is not much, Mons. Cataline--this is nothing new--but this is a d--d hard piece of ground here--hic--oh! hic!' At this the poor fellow fainted, but in a few moments arose, picked up his gun, took his horse by the bit, which then opened _its_ eyes, and with a _hic_ and a ugh--_ughk!_--sprang upon its feet, shook off the dirt, and here we were, all upon our legs again, save the bull, whose fate had been more sad than that of either."[53]

[Note 53: North American Indians, I, pp. 25-26.]

The following passage from Mr. Alexander Ross's graphic description of a great hunt,[54] in which about four hundred hunters made an onslaught upon a herd, affords a good illustration of the dangers in running buffalo:

[Note 54: Red River Settlement, p. 256.]

Chapter end

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