The Extermination of the American Bison Part 14

"On this occasion the surface was rocky and full of badger-holes.

Twenty-three horses and riders were at one moment all sprawling on the ground; one horse, gored by a bull, was killed on the spot; two more were disabled by the fall; one rider broke his shoulder-blade; another burst his gun and lost three of his fingers by the accident; and a third was struck on the knee by an exhausted ball. These accidents will not be thought overnumerous, considering the result, for in the evening no less than thirteen hundred and seventy-five tongues were brought into camp."

It really seems as if the horses of the plains entered willfully and knowingly into the war on the doomed herds. But for the willingness and even genuine eagerness with which the "buffalo horses" of both white men and Indians entered into the chase, hunting on horseback would have been attended with almost insurmountable difficulties, and the results would have been much less fatal to the species. According to all accounts the horses of the Indians and half-breeds were far better trained than those of their white rivals, no doubt owing to the fact that the use of the bow, which required the free use of both hands, was only possible when the horse took the right coarse of his own free will or else could be guided by the pressure of the knees. If we may believe the historians of that period, and there is not the slightest reason to doubt them, the "buffalo horses" of the Indians displayed almost as much intelligence and eagerness in the chase as did their human riders. Indeed, in "running buffalo" with only the bow and arrow, nothing but the willing co-operation of the horse could have possibly made this mode of hunting either satisfactory or successful.

In Lewis and Clarke's Travels, volume II, page 387, appears the following record:

"He [Sergeant Pryor] had found it almost impossible with two men to drive on the remaining horses, for as soon as they discovered a herd of buffaloes the loose horses immediately set off in pursuit of them, and surrounded the buffalo herd with almost as much skill as their riders could have done. At last he was obliged to send one horseman forward and drive all the buffaloes from the route."

The Hon. H. H. Sibley, who once accompanied the Red River half-breeds on their annual hunt, relates the following[55]:

"One of the hunters fell from his saddle, and was unable to overtake his horse, which continued the chase as if he of himself could accomplish great things, so much do these animals become imbued with a passion for this sport! On another occasion a half-breed left his favorite steed at the camp, to enable him to recruit his strength, enjoining upon his wife the necessity of properly securing the animal, which was not done. Not relishing the idea of being left behind, he started after us and soon was alongside, and thus he continued to keep pace with the hunters in their pursuit of the buffalo, seeming to await with impatience the fall of some of them to the earth. The chase ended, he came neighing to his master, whom he soon singled out, although the men were dispersed here and there for a distance of miles."

[Note 55: Schoolcraft's "North American Indians," 108.]

Col. R. I. Dodge, in his Plains of the Great West, page 129, describes a meeting with two Mexican buffalo-hunters whose horses were so fleet and so well trained that whenever a herd of buffalo came in sight, instead of shooting their game wherever they came up with it, the one having the best horse would dash into the herd, cut out a fat two-year old, and, with the help of his partner, then actually drive it to their camp before shooting it down. "They had a fine lot of meat and a goodly pile of skins, and they said that every buffalo had been driven into camp and killed as the one I saw. 'It saves a heap of trouble packing the meat to camp,' said one of them, naively."

Probably never before in the history of the world, until civilized man came in contact with the buffalo, did whole armies of men march out in true military style, with officers, flags, chaplains, and rules of war, and make war on wild animals. No wonder the buffalo has been exterminated. So long as they existed north of the Missouri in any considerable number, the half-breeds and Indians of the Manitoba Red River settlement used to gather each year in a great army, and go with carts to the buffalo range. On these great hunts, which took place every year from about the 15th of June to the 1st of September, vast numbers of buffalo were killed, and the supply was finally exhausted. As if Heaven had decreed the extirpation of the species, the half-breed hunters, like their white robe-hunting rivals farther south, always killed _cows_ in preference to bulls so long as a choice was possible, the very course best calculated to exterminate any species in the shortest possible time.

The army of half-breeds and Indians which annually went forth from the Red River settlement to make war on the buffalo was often far larger than the army with which Cortez subdued a great empire. As early as 1846 it had become so great, that it was necessary to divide it into two divisions, one of which, the White Horse Plain division, was accustomed to go west by the Assinniboine River to the "rapids crossing-place," and from there in a southwesterly direction. The Red River division went south to Pembina, and did the most of their hunting in Dakota. The two divisions sometimes met (says Professor Hind), but not intentionally. In 1849 a Mr. Flett took a census of the White Horse Plain division, in Dakota Territory, and found that it contained 603 carts, 700 half-breeds, 200 Indians, 600 horses, 200 oxen, 400 dogs, and 1 cat.

In his "Red River Settlement" Mr. Alexander Ross gives the following census of the number of carts assembled in camp for the buffalo hunt at five different-periods:

+--------------------------+ _Number of carts assembled for the first trip._ +--------------------------+ In 1820 540 In 1825 680 In 1830 820 In 1835 970 In 1840 1,210 +--------------------------+

The expedition which was accompanied by Rev. Mr. Belcourt, a Catholic priest, whose account is set forth in the Hon. Mr. Sibley's paper on the buffalo,[56] was a comparatively small one, which started from Pembina, and very generously took pains not to spoil the prospects of the great Red River division, which was expected to take the field at the same time. This, therefore, was a small party, like others which had already reached the range; but it contained 213 carts, 55 hunters and their families, making 60 lodges in all. This party killed 1,776 cows (bulls not counted, many of which were killed, though "not even a tongue was taken"), which yielded 228 bags of pemmican, 1,213 bales of dried meat, 166 sacks of tallow, and 556 bladders full of marrow. But this was very moderate slaughter, being about 33 buffalo to each family. Even as late as 1872, when buffalo were getting scarce, Mr. Grant[57] met a half-breed family on the Qu'Appelle, consisting of man, wife, and seven children, whose six carts were laden with the meat and robes yielded by _sixty_ buffaloes; that number representing this one hunter's share of the spoils of the hunt.

[Note 56: Schoolcraft, pp. 101-110.]

[Note 57: Ocean to Ocean, p. 116.]

To afford an idea of the truly military character of those Red River expeditions, I have only to quote a page from Prof. Henry Youle Hind:[58]

[Note 58: Assinniboine and Saskatch. Exp. Exped., II, p. 111.]

"After the start from the settlement has been well made, and all stragglers or tardy hunters have arrived, a great council is held and a president elected. A number of captains are nominated by the president and people jointly. The captains then proceed to appoint their own policemen, the number assigned to each not exceeding ten. Their duties are to see that the laws of the hunt are strictly carried out. In 1840, if a man ran a buffalo without permission before the general hunt began, his saddle and bridle were cut to pieces for the first offense; for the second offense his clothes were cut off his back. At the present day these punishments are changed to a fine of 20 shillings for the first offense. No gun is permitted to be fired when in the buffalo country before the 'race' begins. A priest sometimes goes with the hunt, and mass is then celebrated in the open prairies.

"At night the carts are placed in the form of a circle, with the horses and cattle inside the ring, and it is the duty of the captains and their policemen to see that this is rightly done. All laws are proclaimed in camp, and relate to the hunt alone. All camping orders are given by signal, a flag being carried by the guides, who are appointed by election. Each guide has his tarn of one day, and no man can pass a guide on duty without subjecting himself to a fine of 5 shillings. No hunter can leave the camp to return home without permission, and no one is permitted to stir until any animal or property of value supposed to be lost is recovered. The policemen, at the order of their captains, can seize any cart at night-fall and place it where they choose for the public safety, but on the following morning they are compelled to bring it back to the spot from which they moved it the previous evening. This power is very necessary, in order that the horses may not be stampeded by night attacks of the Sioux or other Indian tribes at war with the half-breeds. A heavy fine is imposed in case of neglect in extinguishing fires when the camp is broken up in the morning.

"In sight of buffalo all the hunters are drawn up in line, the president, captains, and police being a few yards in advance, restraining the impatient hunters. 'Not yet! Not yet!' is the subdued whisper of the president. The approach to the herd is cautiously made.

'Now!' the president exclaims; and as the word leaves his lips the charge is made, and in a few minutes the excited half-breeds are amongst the bewildered buffalo."

"After witnessing one buffalo hunt," says Prof. John Macoun, "I can not blame the half-breed and the Indian for leaving the farm and wildly making for the plains when it is reported that buffalo have crossed the border."

The "great fall hunt" was a regular event with about all the Indian tribes living within striking distance of the buffalo, in the course of which great numbers of buffalo were killed, great quantities of meat dried and made into pemmican, and all the skins taken were tanned in various ways to suit the many purposes they were called upon to serve.

Mr. Francis La Flesche informs me that during the presence of the buffalo in western Nebraska and until they were driven south by the Sioux, the fall hunt of the Omahas was sometimes participated in by three hundred lodges, or about 3,000 people all told, six hundred of whom were warriors, and each of whom generally killed about ten buffaloes. The laws of the hunt were very strict and inexorable. In order that all participants should have an equal chance, it was decreed that any hunter caught "still-hunting" should be soundly flogged. On one occasion an Indian was discovered in the act, but not caught. During the chase which was made to capture him many arrows were fired at him by the police, but being better mounted than his pursuers he escaped, and kept clear of the camp during the remainder of the hunt. On another occasion an Omaha, guilty of the same offense, was chased, and in his effort to escape his horse fell with him in a coulee and broke one of his legs. In spite of the sad plight of the Omaha, his pursuers came up and flogged him, just as if nothing had happened.

After the invention of the Colt's revolver, and breech-loading rifles generally, the chase on horseback speedily became more fatal to the bison than it ever had been before. With such weapons, it was possible to gallop into the midst of a flying herd and, during the course of a run of 2 or 3 miles, discharge from twelve to forty shots at a range of only a few yards, or even a few feet. In this kind of hunting the heavy Navy revolver was the favorite weapon, because it could be held in one hand and fired with far greater precision than could a rifle held in both hands. Except in the hands of an expert, the use of the rifle was limited, and often attended with risk to the hunter; but the revolver was good for all directions; it could very often be used with deadly effect where a rifle could not have been used at all, and, moreover, it left the bridle-hand free. Many cavalrymen and hunters were able to use a revolver with either hand, or one in each hand. Gen. Lew. Wallace preferred the Smith and Wesson in 1867, which he declared to be "the best of revolvers" then.

It was his marvelous skill in shooting buffaloes with a rifle, from the back of a galloping horse, that earned for the Hon. W. F. Cody the sobriquet by which he is now familiarly known to the world--"Buffalo Bill." To the average hunter on horseback the galloping of the horse makes it easy for him to aim at the heart of a buffalo and shoot clear over its back. No other shooting is so difficult, or requires such consummate dexterity as shooting with any kind of a gun, especially a rifle, from the back of a running horse. Let him who doubts this statement try it for himself and he will doubt no more. It was in the chase of the buffalo on horseback, armed with a rifle, that "Buffalo Bill" acquired the marvelous dexterity with the rifle which he has since exhibited in the presence of the people of two continents. I regret that circumstances have prevented my obtaining the exact figures of the great kill of buffaloes that Mr. Cody once made in a single run, in which he broke all previous records in that line, and fairly earned his title. In 1867 he entered into a contract with the Kansas Pacific Railway, then in course of construction through western Kansas, at a monthly salary of $500, to deliver all the buffalo meat that would be required by the army of laborers engaged in building the road. In eighteen mouths he killed 4,280 buffaloes.

3. _Impounding or Killing in Pens._--At first thought it seems hard to believe that it was ever possible for Indians to build pens and drive wild buffaloes into them, as cowboys now corral their cattle, yet such wholesale catches were of common occurrence among the Plains Crees of the south Saskatchewan country, and the same general plan was pursued, with slight modifications, by the Indians of the Assinniboine, Blackfeet, and Gros Ventres, and other tribes of the Northwest. Like the keddah elephant-catching operations in India, this plan was feasible only in a partially wooded country, and where buffalo were so numerous that their presence could be counted upon to a certainty. The "pound"

was simply a circular pen, having a single entrance; but being unable to construct a gate of heavy timbers, such as is made to drop and close the entrance to an elephant pen, the Indians very shrewdly got over the difficulty by making the opening at the edge of a perpendicular bank 10 or 12 feet high, easy enough for a buffalo to jump down, but impossible for him to scale afterward. It is hardly probable that Indians who were expert enough to attack and kill buffalo on foot would have been tempted to undertake the labor that building a pound always involved, had it not been for the wild excitement attending captures made in this way, and which were shared to the fullest possible extent by warriors, women, and children alike.

The best description of this method which has come under our notice is that of Professor Hind, who witnessed its practice by the Plains Crees, on the headwaters of the Qu'Appelle River, in 1858. He describes the pound he saw as a fence, constructed of the trunks of trees laced together with green withes, and braced on the outside by props, inclosing a circular space about 120 feet in diameter. It was placed in a pretty dell between sand-hills, and leading from it in two diverging rows (like the guiding wings of an elephant pen) were the two rows of bushes which the Indians designate "dead men," which serve to guide the buffalo into the pound. The "dead men" extended a distance of 4 miles into the prairie. They were placed about 50 feet apart, and the two rows gradually diverged until at their extremities they were from 11/2 to 2 miles apart.

[Illustration: CREE INDIANS IMPOUNDING BUFFALOES. Reproduced from Prof.

H. Y. Hind's--"Red River, Assinniboine and Saskatchewan Expedition."]

"When the skilled hunters are about to bring in a herd of buffalo from the prairie," says Professor Hind, "they direct the course of the gallop of the alarmed animals by confederates stationed in hollows or small depressions, who, when the buffalo appear inclined to take a direction leading from the space marked out by the 'dead men,' show themselves for a moment and wave their robes, immediately hiding again. This serves to turn the buffalo slightly in another direction, and when the animals, having arrived between the rows of 'dead men,' endeavor to pass through them, Indians stationed here and there behind a 'dead man' go through the same operation, and thus keep the animals within the narrowing limits of the converging lines. At the entrance to the pound there is a strong trunk of a tree placed about a foot from the ground, and on the inner side an excavation is made sufficiently deep to prevent the buffalo from leaping back when once in the pound. As soon as the animals have taken the fatal spring, they begin to gallop round and round the ring fence, looking for a chance to escape, but with the utmost silence women and children on the outside hold their robes before every orifice until the whole herd is brought in; then they climb to the top of the fence, and, with the hunters who have followed closely in the rear of the buffalo, spear or shoot with bows and arrows or fire-arms at the bewildered animals, rapidly becoming frantic with rage and terror, within the narrow limits of the pound.

"A dreadful scene of confusion and slaughter then begins; the oldest and strongest animals crush and toss the weaker; the shouts and screams of the excited Indians rise above the roaring of the bulls, the bellowing of the cows, and the piteous moaning of the calves. The dying struggles of so many huge and powerful animals crowded together create a revolting and terrible scene, dreadful from the excess of its cruelty and waste of life, but with occasional displays of wonderful brute strength and rage; while man in his savage, untutored, and heathen state shows both in deed and expression how little he is superior to the noble beasts he so wantonly and cruelly destroys."[59]

[Note 59: Assinniboine and Saskatchewan Expedition, p. 358.]

The last scene of the bloody tragedy is thus set forth a week later:

"Within the circular fence ... lay, tossed in every conceivable position, over two hundred dead buffalo. [The exact number was 240.]

From old bulls to calves of three months' old, animals of every age were huddled together in all the forced attitudes of violent death. Some lay on their backs, with eyes starting from their heads and tongue thrust out through clotted gore. Others were impaled on the horns of the old and strong bulls. Others again, which had been tossed, were lying with broken backs, two and three deep. One little calf hung suspended on the horns of a bull which had impaled it in the wild race round and round the pound. The Indians looked upon the dreadful and sickening sight with evident delight, and told how such and such a bull or cow had exhibited feats of wonderful strength in the death-struggle. The flesh of many of the cows had been taken from them, and was drying in the sun on stages near the tents. It is needless to say that the odor was overpowering, and millions of large blue flesh-flies, humming and buzzing over the putrefying bodies, was not the least disgusting part of the spectacle."

It is some satisfaction to know that when the first "run" was made, ten days previous, the herd of two hundred buffaloes was no sooner driven into the pound than a wary old bull espied a weak spot in the fence, charged it at full speed, and burst through to freedom and the prairie, followed by the entire herd.

Strange as it may seem to-day, this wholesale method of destroying buffalo was once practiced in Montana. In his memoir on "The American Bison," Mr. J. A. Allen states that as late as 1873, while journeying through that Territory in charge of the Yellowstone Expedition, he "several times met with the remains of these pounds and their converging fences in the region above the mouth of the Big Horn River." Mr. Thomas Simpson states that in 1840 there were three camps of Assinniboine Indians in the vicinity of Carlton House, each of which had its buffalo pound into which they drove forty or fifty animals daily.

4. _The "Surround."_--During the last forty years the final extermination of the buffalo has been confidently predicted by not only the observing white man of the West, but also nearly all the Indians and half-breeds who formerly depended upon this animal for the most of the necessities, as well as luxuries, of life. They have seen the great herds driven westward farther and farther, until the plains were left tenantless, and hunger took the place of feasting on the choice tid-bits of the chase. And is it not singular that during this period the Indian tribes were not moved by a common impulse to kill sparingly, and by the exercise of a reasonable economy in the chase to make the buffalo last as long as possible.

But apparently no such thoughts ever entered their minds, so far as _they themselves_ were concerned. They looked with jealous eyes upon the white hunter, and considered him as much of a robber as if they had a brand on every buffalo. It has been claimed by some authors that the Indians killed with more judgment and more care for the future than did the white man, but I fail to find any evidence that such was ever the fact. They all killed wastefully, wantonly, and always about five times as many head as were really necessary for food. It was always the same old story, whenever a gang of Indians needed meat a whole herd was slaughtered, the choicest portions of the finest animals were taken, and about 75 per cent of the whole left to putrefy and fatten the wolves.

And now, as we read of the appalling slaughter, one can scarcely repress the feeling of grim satisfaction that arises when we also read that many of the ex-slaughterers are almost starving for the millions of pounds of fat and juicy buffalo meat they wasted a few years ago. Verily, the buffalo is in a great measure avenged already.

The following extract from Mr. Catlin's "North American Indians,"[60] I, page 199-200, serves well to illustrate not only a very common and very deadly Indian method of wholesale slaughter--the "surround"--but also to show the senseless destructiveness of Indians even when in a state of semi-starvation, which was brought upon them by similar acts of improvidence and wastefulness.

[Note 60: H. Mis. 600, pt. 2-31]

"The Minatarees, as well as the Mandans, had suffered for some months past for want of meat, and had indulged in the most alarming fears that the herds of buffalo were emigrating so far off from them that there was great danger of their actual starvation, when it was suddenly announced through the village one morning at an early hour that a herd of buffaloes was in sight. A hundred or more young men mounted their horses, with weapons in hand, and steered their course to the prairies.

"The plan of attack, which in this country is familiarly called a surround, was explicitly agreed upon, and the hunters, who were all mounted on their 'buffalo horses' and armed with bows and arrows or long lances, divided into two columns, taking opposite directions, and drew themselves gradually around the herd at a mile or more distance from them, thus forming a circle of horsemen at equal distances apart, who gradually closed in upon them with a moderate pace at a signal given.

The unsuspecting herd at length 'got the wind' of the approaching enemy and fled in a mass in the greatest confusion. To the point where they were aiming to cross the line the horsemen were seen, at full speed, gathering and forming in a column, brandishing their weapons, and yelling in the most frightful manner, by which they turned the black and rushing mass, which moved off in an opposite direction, where they were again met and foiled in a similar manner, and wheeled back in utter confusion; by which time the horsemen had closed in from all directions, forming a continuous line around them, whilst the poor affrighted animals were eddying about in a crowded and confused mass, hooking and climbing upon each other, when the work of death commenced. I had rode up in the rear and occupied an elevated position at a few rods'

distance, from which I could (like the general of a battlefield) survey from my horse's back the nature and the progress of the grand _melee_, but (unlike him) without the power of issuing a command or in any way directing its issue.

"In this grand turmoil [see illustration] a cloud of dust was soon raised, which in parts obscured the throng where the hunters were galloping their horses around and driving the whizzing arrows or their long lances to the hearts of these noble animals; which in many instances, becoming infuriated with deadly wounds in their sides, erected their shaggy manes over their bloodshot eyes and furiously plunged forward at the sides of their assailants' horses, sometimes goring them to death at a lunge and putting their dismounted riders to flight for their lives. Sometimes their dense crowd was opened, and the blinded horsemen, too intent on their prey amidst the cloud of dust, were hemmed and wedged in amidst the crowding beasts, over whose backs they were obliged to leap for security, leaving their horses to the fate that might await them in the results of this wild and desperate war.

Many were the bulls that turned upon their assailants and met them with desperate resistance, and many were the warriors who were dismounted and saved themselves by the superior muscles of their legs; some who were closely pursued by the bulls wheeled suddenly around, and snatching the part of a buffalo robe from around their waists, threw it over the horns and eyes of the infuriated beast, and darting by its side drove the arrow or the lance to its heart; others suddenly dashed off upon the prairie by the side of the affrighted animals which had escaped from the throng, and closely escorting them for a few rods, brought down their heart's blood in streams and their huge carcasses upon the green and enameled turf.

"In this way this grand hunt soon resolved itself into a desperate battle, _and in the space of fifteen minutes resulted in the total destruction of the whole herd_, which in all their strength and fury were doomed, like every beast and living thing else, to fall before the destroying hands of mighty man.

"I had sat in trembling silence upon my horse and witnessed this extraordinary scene, which allowed not one of these animals to escape out of my sight. Many plunged off upon the prairie for a distance, but were overtaken and killed, and although I could not distinctly estimate the number that were slain, yet I am sure that some hundreds of these noble animals fell in this grand _melee_. * * * Amongst the poor affrighted creatures that had occasionally dashed through the ranks of their enemy and sought safety in flight upon the prairie (and in some instances had undoubtedly gained it), I saw them stand awhile, looking back, when they turned, and, as if bent on their own destruction, retraced their steps, and mingled themselves and their deaths with those of the dying throng. Others had fled to a distance on the prairies, and for want of company, of friends or of foes, had stood and gazed on till the battle-scene was over, seemingly taking pains to stay and hold their lives in readiness for their destroyers until the general destruction was over, when they fell easy victims to their weapons, making the slaughter complete."

It is to be noticed that _every animal_ of this entire herd of several hundred was slain on the spot, and there is no room to doubt that at least half (possibly much more) of the meat thus taken was allowed to become a loss. People who are so utterly senseless as to wantonly destroy their own source of food, as the Indians have done, certainly deserve to starve.

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