The Extermination of the American Bison Part 22

Although Phillips Creek was really the eastern boundary of the buffalo country, it was impossible for a six-mule wagon to proceed beyond it, at least at that point. Having established a permanent camp, the Government wagon and its escort returned to Fort Keogh, and we proceeded to hunt through the country between Sand Creek and the Little Dry. The absence of nearly all the cowboys on the spring round-up, which began May 20, threatened to be a serious drawback to us, as we greatly needed the services of a man who was acquainted with the country. We had with us as a scout and guide a Cheyenne Indian, named Dog, but it soon became apparent that he knew no more about the country than we did.

Fortunately, however, we succeeded in occasionally securing the services of a cowboy, which was of great advantage to us.

It was our custom to ride over the country daily, each day making a circuit through a new locality, and covering as much ground as it was possible to ride over in a day. It was also our custom to take trips of from two to four days in length, during which we carried our blankets and rations upon our horses and camped wherever night overtook us, provided water could be found.

Our first success consisted in the capture of a buffalo calf, which from excessive running had become unable to keep up with its mother, and had been left behind. The calf was caught alive without any difficulty, and while two of the members of our party carried it to camp across a horse, the other two made a vigorous effort to discover the band of adult animals. The effort was unsuccessful, for, besides the calf, no other buffaloes were seen.

Ten days after the above event two bull buffaloes were met with on the Little Dry, 15 miles above the =LU=-bar ranch, one of which was overtaken and killed, but the other got safely away. The shedding of the winter coat was in full progress. On the head, neck, and shoulders the old hair had been entirely replaced by the new, although the two coats were so matted together that the old hair clung in tangled masses to the other. The old hair was brown and weather-beaten, but the new, which was from 3 to 6 inches long, had a peculiar bluish-gray appearance. On the head the new hair was quite black, and contrasted oddly with the lighter color. On the body and hind quarters there were large patches of skin which were perfectly bare, between which lay large patches of old, woolly, brown hair. This curious condition gave the animal a very unkempt and "seedy" appearance, the effect of which was heightened by the long, shaggy locks of old, weather beaten hair which clung to the new coat of the neck and shoulders like tattered signals of distress, ready to be blown away by the first gust of wind.

This specimen was a large one, measuring 5 feet 4 inches in height.

Inasmuch as the skin was not in condition to mount, we took only the skeleton, entire, and the skin of the head and neck.

The capture of the calf and the death of this bull proved conclusively that there were buffaloes in that region, and also that they were breeding in comparative security. The extent of the country they had to range over made it reasonably certain that their number would not be diminished to any serious extent by the cowboys on the spring round-up, although it was absolutely certain that in a few months the members of that band would all be killed. The report of the existence of a herd of thirty-five head was confirmed later by cowboys, who had actually seen the animals, and killed two of them merely for sport, as usual. They saved a few pounds of hump meat, and all the rest became food for the wolves and foxes.

It was therefore resolved to leave the buffaloes entirely unmolested until autumn, and then, when the robes would be in the finest condition, return for a hunt on a liberal scale. Accordingly, it was decided to return to Washington without delay, and a courier was dispatched with a request for transportation to carry our party back to Fort Keogh.

While awaiting the arrival of the wagons, a cowboy in the employ of the Phillips Land and Cattle Company killed a solitary bull buffalo about 15 miles west of our camp, near Sand Creek. This animal had completely shed the hair on his body and hind quarters. In addition to the preservation of his entire skeleton, we prepared the skin also, as an example of the condition of the buffalo immediately after shedding.

On June 6 the teams from Fort Keogh arrived, and we immediately returned to Miles City, taking with us our live buffalo calf, two fresh buffalo skeletons, three bleached skeletons, seven skulls, one skin entire, and one head skin, in addition to a miscellaneous collection of skins and skeletons of smaller mammals and birds. On reaching Miles City we hastily packed and shipped our collection, and, taking the calf with us, returned at once to Washington.


On September 24 I arrived at Miles City a second time, fully equipped for a protracted hunt for buffalo; this time accompanied only by W.

Harvey Brown, a student of the University of Kansas, as field assistant, having previously engaged three cowboys as guides and hunters--Irwin Boyd, James McNaney, and L. S. Russell. Messrs. Boyd and Russell were in Miles City awaiting my arrival, and Mr. McNaney joined us in the field a few days later. Mr. Boyd acted as my foreman during the entire hunt, a position which he filled to my entire satisfaction.

Thanks to the energy and good-will of the officers at Fort Keogh, of which Lieutenant-Colonel Cochran was then in command, our transportation, camp equipage, and stores were furnished without an hour's delay. We purchased two months' supplies of commissary stores, a team, and two saddle-horses, and hired three more horses, a light wagon, and a set of double harness. Each of the cowboys furnished one horse; so that in our outfit we had ten head, a team, and two good saddle-horses for each hunter. The worst feature of the whole question of subsistence was the absolute necessity of hauling a supply of grain from Miles City into the heart of the buffalo country for our ten horses. For such work as they had to encounter it was necessary to feed them constantly and liberally with oats in order to keep them in condition to do their work.

We took with us 2,000 pounds of oats, and by the beginning of November as much more had to be hauled up to us.

Thirty six hours after our arrival in Miles City our outfit was complete, and we crossed the Yellowstone and started up the Sunday Creek trail. We had from Fort Keogh a six-mule team, an escort of four men, in charge of Sergeant Bayliss, and an old veteran of more than twenty years' service, from the Fifth Infantry, Private Patrick McCanna, who was detailed to act as cook and camp-guard for our party during our stay in the field.

On September 29 we reached Tow's ranch, the =HV=, on Big Dry Creek (erroneously called Big Timber Creek on most maps of Montana), at the mouth of Sand Creek, which here flows into it from the southwest. This point is said to be 90 miles from Miles City. Here we received our freight from the six-mule wagon, loaded it with bleached skeletons and skulls of buffalo, and started it back to the post. One member of the escort, Private C. S. West, who was then on two months' furlough, elected to join our party for the hunt, and accordingly remained with us to its close. Leaving half of our freight stored at the =HV= ranch, we loaded the remainder upon our own wagon, and started up Sand Creek.


At this point the hunt began. As the wagon and extra horses proceeded up the Sand Creek trail in the care of W. Harvey Brown, the three cowboys and I paired off, and while two hunted through the country along the south side of the creek, the others took the north. The whole of the country bordering Sand Creek, quite up to its source, consists of rugged hills and ridges, which sometimes rise to considerable height, cut between by great yawning ravines and hollows, such as persecuted game loves to seek shelter in. Inasmuch as the buffalo we were in search of had been seen hiding in those ravines, it became necessary to search through them with systematic thoroughness; a proceeding which was very wearing upon our horses. Along the south side of Sand Creek, near its source, the divide between it and Little Dry Creek culminates in a chain of high, flat-topped buttes, whose summits bear a scanty growth of stunted pines, which serve to make them conspicuous landmarks. On some maps these insignificant little buttes are shown as mountains, under the name of "Piny Buttes."

It was our intention to go to the head of Sand Creek, and beyond, in case buffaloes were not found earlier. Immediately westward of its source there is a lofty level plateau, about 3 miles square, which, by common consent, we called the High Divide. It is the highest ground anywhere between the Big Dry and the Yellowstone, and is the starting point of streams that run northward into the Missouri and Big Dry, eastward into Sand Creek and the Little Dry, southward into Porcupine Creek and the Yellowstone, and westward into the Musselshell. On three sides--north, east, and south--it is surrounded by wild and rugged butte country, and its sides are scored by intricate systems of great yawning ravines and hollows, steep-sided and very deep, and bad lands of the worst description.

By the 12th of October the hunt had progressed up Sand Creek to its source, and westward across the High Divide to Calf Creek, where we found a hole of wretchedly bad water and went into permanent camp. We considered that the spot we selected would serve us as a key to the promising country that lay on three sides of it, and our surmise that the buffalo were in the habit of hiding in the heads of those great ravines around the High Divide soon proved to be correct. Our camp at the head of Calf Creek was about 20 miles east of the Musselshell River, 40 miles south of the Missouri, and about 135 miles from Miles City, as the trail ran. Four miles north of us, also on Calf Creek, was the line camp of the =STV= ranch, owned by Messrs. J. H. Conrad & Co., and 18 miles east, near the head of Sand Creek, was the line camp of the =N=-bar ranch, owned by Mr. Newman. At each of these camps there were generally from two to four cowboys. From all these gentlemen we received the utmost courtesy and hospitality on all occasions, and all the information in regard to buffalo which it was in their power to give. On many occasions they rendered us valuable assistance, which is hereby gratefully acknowledged.

We saw no buffalo, nor any signs of any, until October 13. On that day, while L. S. Russell was escorting our second load of freight across the High Divide, he discovered a band of seven buffaloes lying in the head of a deep ravine. He fired upon them, but killed none, and when they dashed away he gave chase and followed them 2 or 3 miles. Being mounted on a tired horse, which was unequal to the demands of the chase, he was finally distanced by the herd, which took a straight course and ran due south. As it was then nearly night, nothing further could be done that day except to prepare for a vigorous chase on the morrow. Everything was got in perfect readiness for an early start, and by daybreak the following morning the three cowboys and the writer were mounted on our best horses, and on our way through the bad lands to take up the trail of the seven buffaloes.

Shortly after sunrise we found the trail, not far from the head of Calf Creek, and followed it due south. We left the rugged butte region behind us, and entered a tract of country quite unlike anything we had found before. It was composed of a succession of rolling hills and deep hollows, smooth enough on the surface, to all appearances, but like a desert of sand-hills to traverse. The dry soil was loose and crumbly, like loose ashes or scoriae, and the hoofs of our horses sank into it half-way to the fetlocks at every step. But there was another feature which was still worse. The whole surface of the ground was cracked and seamed with a perfect net-work of great cracks, into which our horses stepped every yard or so, and sank down still farther, with many a tiresome wrench of the joints. It was terrible ground to go over. To make it as bad as possible, a thick growth of sage-brush or else grease-wood was everywhere present for the horses to struggle through, and when it came to dragging a loaded wagon across that 12-mile stretch of "bad grounds" or "gumbo ground," as it was called, it was killing work.

But in spite of the character of this ground, in one way it was a benefit to us. Owing to its looseness on the surface we were able to track the buffaloes through it with the greatest ease, whereas on any other ground in that country it would have been almost impossible. We followed the trail due south for about 20 miles, which brought us to the head of a small stream called Taylor Creek. Here the bad grounds ended, and in the grassy country which lay beyond, tracking was almost impossible. Just at noon we rode to a high point, and on scanning the hills and hollows with the binocular discovered the buffaloes lying at rest on the level top of a small butte 2 miles away. The original bunch of seven had been joined by an equal number.

We crept up to within 200 yards of the buffaloes, which was as close as we could go, fired a volley at them just as they lay, and did not even kill a calf! Instantly they sprang up and dashed away at astonishing speed, heading straight for the sheltering ravines around the High Divide.

We had a most exciting and likewise dangerous chase after the herd through a vast prairie-dog town, honey-combed with holes just right for a running horse to thrust a leg in up to the knee and snap it off like a pipe-stem, and across fearfully wide gullies that either had to be leaped or fallen into. McNaney killed a fine old bull and a beautiful two year old, or "spike" bull, out of this herd, while I managed to kill a cow and another large old bull, making four for that day, all told.

This herd of fourteen head was the largest that we saw during the entire hunt.

Two days later, when we were on the spot with the wagon to skin our game and haul in the hides, four more buffaloes were discovered within 2 miles of us, and while I worked on one of the large bull skins to save it from spoiling, the cowboys went after the buffalo, and by a really brilliant exploit killed them all. The first one to fall was an old cow, which was killed at the beginning of the chase, the next was an old bull, who was brought down about 5 miles from the scene of the first attack, then 2 miles farther on a yearling calf was killed. The fourth buffalo, an immense old bull, was chased fully 12 miles before he was finally brought down.

The largest bull fell about 8 miles from our temporary camp, in the opposite direction from that in which our permanent camp lay, and at about 3 o'clock in the afternoon. There not being time enough in which to skin him completely and reach our rendezvous before dark, Messrs.

McNaney and Boyd dressed the carcass to preserve the meat, partly skinned the legs, and came to camp.

As early as possible the next morning we drove to the carcass with the wagon, to prepare both skin and skeleton and haul them in. When we reached it we found that during the night a gang of Indians had robbed us of our hard-earned spoil. They had stolen the skin and all the eatable meat, broken up the leg-bones to get at the marrow, and even cut out the tongue. And to injury the skulking thieves had added insult.

Through laziness they had left the head unskinned, but on one side of it they had smeared the hair with red war-paint, the other side they had daubed with yellow, and around the base of one horn they had tied a strip of red flannel as a signal of defiance. Of course they had left for parts unknown, and we never saw any signs of them afterward. The gang visited the =LU=-bar ranch a few days later, so we learned subsequently. It was then composed of eleven braves(!), who claimed to be Assinniboines, and were therefore believed to be Piegans, the most notorious horse and cattle thieves in the Northwest.

On October 22d Mr. Russell ran down in a fair chase a fine bull buffalo, and killed him in the rough country bordering the High Divide on the south. This was the ninth specimen. On the 26th we made an other trip with the wagon to the Buffalo Buttes, as, for the sake of convenience, we had named the group of buttes near which eight head had already been taken. While Mr. Brown and I were getting the wagon across the bad grounds, Messrs. McNaney and Boyd discovered a solitary bull buffalo feeding in a ravine within a quarter of a mile of our intended camping place, and the former stalked him and killed him at long range. The buffalo had all been attracted to that locality by some springs which lay between two groups of hills, and which was the only water within a radius of about 15 miles. In addition to water, the grass around the Buffalo Buttes was most excellent.

During all this time we shot antelope and coyotes whenever an opportunity offered, and preserved the skins and skeletons of the finest until we had obtained a very fine series of both. At this season the pelts of these animals were in the finest possible condition, the hair having attained its maximum length and density, and, being quite new, had lost none of its brightness of color, either by wear or the action of the weather. Along Sand Creek and all around the High Divide antelope were moderately plentiful (but really scarce in comparison with their former abundance), so much so that had we been inclined to slaughter we could have killed a hundred head or more, instead of the twenty that we shot as specimens and for their flesh. We have it to say that from first to last not an antelope was killed which was not made use of to the fullest extent.

On the 31st of October, Mr. Boyd and I discovered a buffalo cow and yearling calf in the ravines north of the High Divide, within 3 miles of our camp, and killed them both. The next day Private West arrived with a six mule team from Fort Keogh, in charge of Corporal Clafer and three men. This wagon brought us another 2,000 pounds of oats and various commissary stores. When it started back, on November 3, we sent by it all the skins and skeletons of buffalo, antelope, etc., which we had collected up to that date, which made a heavy load for the six mules. On this same day Mr. McNaney killed two young cow buffaloes in the bad lands south of the High Divide, which brought our total number up to fourteen.

On the night of the 3d the weather turned very cold, and on the day following we experienced our first snow-storm. By that time the water in the hole, which up to that time had supplied our camp, became so thick with mud and filth that it was unendurable; and having discovered a fine pool of pure water in the bottom of a little canon on the southern slope of the High Divide we moved to it forthwith. It was really the upper spring of the main fork of the Big Porcupine, and a finer situation for a camp does not exist in that whole region. The spot which nature made for us was sheltered on all sides by the high walls of the canon, within easy reach of an inexhaustible supply of good water, and also within reach of a fair supply of dry fire-wood, which we found half a mile below. This became our last permanent camp, and its advantages made up for the barrenness and discomfort of our camp on Calf Creek. Immediately south of us, and 2 miles distant there rose a lofty conical butte about 600 feet high, which forms a very conspicuous landmark from the south.

We were told that it was visible from 40 miles down the Porcupine.

Strange to say, this valuable landmark was without a name, so far as we could learn; so, for our own convenience, we christened it Smithsonian Butte.

The two buffalo cows that Mr. McNaney killed just before we moved our camp seemed to be the last in the country, for during the following week we scouted for 15 miles in three directions, north, east, and south, without finding as much as a hoof-print. At last we decided to go away and give that country absolute quiet for a week, in the hope that some more buffalo would come into it. Leaving McCanna and West to take care of the camp, we loaded a small assortment of general equipage into the wagon and pulled about 25 miles due west to the Musselshell River.

We found a fine stream of clear water, flowing over sand and pebbles, with heavy cottonwood timber and thick copses of willow along its banks, which afforded cover for white-tailed deer. In the rugged brakes, which led from the level river bottom into a labyrinth of ravines and gullies, ridges and hog-backs, up to the level of the high plateau above, we found a scanty growth of stunted cedars and pines, which once sheltered great numbers of mule deer, elk, and bear. Now, however, few remain, and these are very hard to find. Even when found, the deer are nearly always young. Although we killed five mule deer and five white-tails, we did not kill even one fine buck, and the only one we saw on the whole trip was a long distance off. We saw fresh tracks of elk, and also grizzly bear, but our most vigorous efforts to discover the animals themselves always ended in disappointment. The many bleaching skulls and antlers of elk and deer, which we found everywhere we went, afforded proof of what that country had been as a home for wild animals only a few years ago.

We were not a little surprised at finding the fleshless carcasses of three head of cattle that had been killed and eaten by bears within a few months.

In addition to ten deer, we shot three wild geese, seven sharp-tailed grouse, eleven sage grouse, nine Bohemian waxwings, and a magpie, for their skeletons. We made one trip of several miles up the Musselshell, and another due west, almost to the Bull Mountains, but no signs of buffalo were found. The weather at this time was quite cold, the thermometer registering 6 degrees below zero; but, in spite of the fact that we were without shelter and had to bivouac in the open, we were, generally speaking, quite comfortable.

Having found no buffalo by the 17th, we felt convinced that we ought to return to our permanent camp, and did so on that day. Having brought back nearly half a wagon-load of specimens in the flesh or half skinned, it was absolutely necessary that I should remain at camp all the next day. While I did so, Messrs. McNaney and Boyd rode over to the Buffalo Buttes, found four fine old buffalo cows, and, after a hard chase, killed them all.

Under the circumstances, this was the most brilliant piece of work of the entire hunt. As the four cows dashed past the hunters at the Buffalo Buttes, heading for the High Divide, fully 20 miles distant, McNaney killed one cow, and two others went off wounded. Of course the cowboys gave chase. About 12 miles from the starting-point one of the wounded cows left her companions, was headed off by Boyd, and killed. About 6 miles beyond that one, McNaney overhauled the third cow and killed her, but the fourth one got away for a short time. While McNaney skinned the third cow and dressed the carcass to preserve the meat, Boyd took their now thoroughly exhausted horses to camp and procured fresh mounts. On returning to McNaney they set out in pursuit of the fourth cow, chased her across the High Divide, within a mile or so of our camp, and into the ravines on the northern slope, where she was killed. She met her death nearly if not quite 25 miles from the spot where the first one fell.

The death of these four cows brought our number of buffaloes up to eighteen, and made us think about the possibilities of getting thirty.

As we were proceeding to the Buffalo Buttes on the day after the "kill"

to gather in the spoil, Mr. Brown and I taking charge of the wagon, Messrs. McNaney and Boyd went ahead in order to hunt. When within about 5 miles of the Buttes we came unexpectedly upon our companions, down in a hollow, busily engaged in skinning another old cow, which they had discovered traveling across the bad grounds, waylaid, and killed.

We camped that night on our old ground at the Buffalo Buttes, and although we all desired to remain a day or two and hunt for more buffalo, the peculiar appearance of the sky in the northwest, and the condition of the atmosphere, warned us that a change of weather was imminent. Accordingly, the following morning we decided without hesitation that it was best to get back to camp that day, and it soon proved very fortunate for us that we so decided.

Feeling that by reason of my work on the specimens I had been deprived of a fair share of the chase, I arranged for Mr. Boyd to accompany the wagon on the return trip, that I might hunt through the bad lands west of the Buffalo Buttes, which I felt must contain some buffalo. Mr.

Russell went northeast and Mr. McNaney accompanied me. About 4 miles from our late camp we came suddenly upon a fine old solitary bull, feeding in a hollow between two high and precipitous ridges. After a short but sharp chase I succeeded in getting a fair shot at him, and killed him with a ball which broke his left humerus and passed into his lungs. He was the only large bull killed on the entire trip by a single shot. He proved to be a very fine specimen, measuring 5 feet 6 inches in height at the shoulders. The wagon was overtaken and called back to get the skin, and while it was coming I took a complete series of measurements and sketches of him as he lay.

Although we removed the skin very quickly, and lost no time in again starting the wagon to our permanent camp, the delay occasioned by the death of our twentieth buffalo,--which occurred on November 20, precisely two months from the date of our leaving Washington to collect twenty buffalo, it possible,--caused us all to be caught in a snow-storm, which burst upon us from the northwest. The wagon had to be abandoned about 12 miles from camp in the bad lands. Mr. Brown packed the bedding on one of the horses and rode the other, he and Boyd reaching camp about 9 o'clock that night in a blinding snow-storm. Of coarse the skins in the wagon were treated with preservatives and covered up. It proved to be over a week that the wagon and its load had to remain thus abandoned before it was possible to get to it and bring it to camp, and even then the task was one of great difficulty. In this connection I can not refrain from recording the fact that the services rendered by Mr. W. Harvey Brown on all such trying occasions as the above were invaluable. He displayed the utmost zeal and intelligence, not only in the more agreeable kinds of work and sport incident to the hunt, but also in the disagreeable drudgery, such as team-driving and working on half-frozen specimens in bitter cold weather.

The storm which set in on the 20th soon developed into a regular blizzard. A fierce and bitter cold wind swept down from the northwest, driving the snow before it in blinding gusts. Had our camp been poorly sheltered we would have suffered, but at it was we were fairly comfortable.

Having thus completed our task (of getting twenty buffaloes), we were anxious to get out of that fearful country before we should get caught in serious difficulties with the weather, and it was arranged that Private C. S. West should ride to Fort Keogh as soon as possible, with a request for transportation. By the third day, November 23, the storm had abated sufficiently that Private West declared his willingness to start.

It was a little risky, but as he was to make only 10 miles the first day and stop at the =N=-bar camp on Sand Creek, it was thought safe to let him go. He dressed himself warmly, took my revolver, in order not to be hampered with a rifle, and set out.

Chapter end

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