1918 KANSAS AND KANSANS Chapter 11 Part 2

HABITS

The buffalo herds were broken up into small bands of from twenty to two hundred, usually led by some old cow. These bands slowly scattered, till a herd covered many miles. In searching for a feeding-land, the average buffalo band displayed little intelligence, often leaving good pasture to wander into arid, rocky deserts and hills. The bands feeding on dry broken country, would pasture for some days, until thirst drove them to seek water. The leader at the head, the rest following in single file, a march was begun in a manner that might have provoked the rivalry of a surveyor for directness and precision. The animals in a band numbering from twenty to two hundred would proceed for miles in single file. The same trail was used over and over again, until worn into a ditch, often from seven inches to two feet deep. Then it was abandoned for a new one alongside. Even now the plains-cattle use these trails.

Often, in a hot, drouthy summer when the streams were dried up by the sun, the search for a water hole was a long one. But at last a warm, sickningly alkaline pool would be found and surrounded by hot, thirsty animals. Then the law of might prevailed and the strongest gained the first drink. After satisfying their thirst, the herd, instead of returning to their original grazing ground, would wander aimlessly in search of new pasture.

The buffalo grass was the favorite food. It grew close to the earth, a tough-fibred plant, containing the best elements of the finest stock-feed. Fattening, rich, nourishing, it was equally good whether green and damp or dry and browned by the fierce prairie heat. Instead of being evenly distributed, it grew in small patches interspersed with bare earth.

In contrast to this checkered green-and-brown, there would sometimes be found by early plainsmen, large rings of luxuriantly growing, tall, wavy grass. These at first were a source of wonder to their discoverers, being simply known as "Fairy-rings." Later, when the habits of the bison became better known, these "Fairy-rings" were easily explained.

Often a herd of buffalo, driven almost frantic by heat and the ceaseless stinging torment of millions of insects, would search for a marshy low spot in the prairie. Here one, always the strongest old bull of the herd, would go down on his knees and cut deep into the sod with his horns. This he would continue, mingled with much rolling and shoving and, grunting, until he had completed a very good mud-hole. After wallowing in it till thickly coated with wet earth, and vastly satisfied, he would vacate in favor of the next buffalo. This would be kept up until every member of the herd was similarly. coated. The mud, drying, made the buffalo an object so hideous as to be awe-inspiring. But it fulfilled the purpose he desired - it formed a protecting layer between himself and the tormenting insects. Shielded by this earthen armor, the buffalo, good knight of the plains, walked his dominion unmolested.

These rings were not always confined to low or marshy ground, however. In the tenacious chalky soil on the mountain tops in the Alleghenies, and especially in Eastern Kentucky, these "buffalo wallows" were common. The heavy clay held water like a rubber blanket. The wallows were used from year to year, becoming wide and shallow pools.

On the prairies and plains, the old bulls cut untold thousands of these depressions. They rolled in them to take off the dead hair when they were shedding in the spring. Where the prairie has not been broken by the plow in Kansas and Oklahoma, and no doubt in all other plains states, these rings are still to be seen. They are particularly numerous in the country about Baxter Springs, Kansas, and the Quapaw Agency, Oklahoma, where they have been observed with curiosity, and much interest.

After the departure of the buffalo, verdure, of the greenest type. quickly grew over the mudhole, forming the beautiful, mysterious "Fairy-ring" of the plains.

The buffalo, like many other animals, claimed his share of the salt of the earth. So the salt-springs were very popular. They always evidenced the buffalo's favor in the trampled hoof-marked earth surrounding them.

The members of a herd entertained no affection for one another. There was no such thing as a life-time mating. During the breeding season, the herds collected close together, and the noise of their fighting and roaring could be heard for many miles. Afterwards the huge herds again separated into small bands. The breeding season was from the first of July to the first of October.

The calves, born in April, May or June, were covered with a baby-coat entirely unlike their later covering. They were a tawney red in color, and resembled greatly the common domestic calf in appearance. The calf would fight, butting desperately at his enemies or captors. The mother heartlessly deserted her offspring on slight provocation. But the bulls of the herd would often protect the calves from wolves. Often the calf, desiring to escape capture, would hide his head, ostrich-fashion, and imagine himself concealed safely from his pursuers. The hump was much more clearly defined in the male than in the female when very young. The calf, once captured, became quite tame, many times following its captor back to camp, trotting contentedly beside the horse.

About the first of August, the red hair began to fall off, and the new dark coat rapidly appeared. The silliness of the young calf gave way to the alertness and interest of the full grown bison. By the end of a year the calf had become a fine, fat young buffalo. However the buffalo did not reach full maturity under the age of three years.

In summer, the herds always tended towards the north, in winter they returned to their more southern feeding-grounds. On these expeditions the calf was compelled to look out for his own interests, as none of the herd gave him more than a cursory attention.

When it came to real affection or intelligence, the buffalo ranked low. Often stupidity was miscalled bravery in him. The bison had the instinct God gives all his creatures, fear of danger - and the power to flee from it. But puzzled and stupified, the buffalo would stand patiently still, with his comrades falling around him, and allow himself to be shot. He was not able to connect, mentally, their death and his own danger.

APPEARANCE

With the shedding of his old coat the buffalo stood forth, a sleek, dark, well-furred creature. Then his appearance was very imposing and majestic, but during the season preceding even his most ardent champion could not admire him. About the first of March, the old hair began to flake off in great patches, giving him a decidedly ragged, dejected look. On the hind quarters and body, all the hair was lost, leaving for a few days only bare, glistening skin. Then it was that the wallow offered surcease for his misery. On the posterior portions of the body the hair remained very short all summer. But by the first of October again, his new coat was in prime condition, and the hair grew steadily longer. in preparation for the cold of the coming winter. While shedding, the buffalo rolled many times daily in the dry "wallows," among the rough shrubs in the draws and ravines, in the sands along the streams, and in the loose earth horned down from cut banks, bluffs, and hillsides, in a constant effort to rub off the dead hair.

The short, curling horns of the bison offered a good guide to his age. In youth, symmetrical and graceful, they were at their best in the three-years old bull. After that, the horny, rough rings added by each succeeding year, together with the wear of grubbing and digging, utterly ruined their beauty.

THE INDIAN AND THE BUFFALO

Ages before the coming of the Europeans to the new world, the North American Indian had known and utilized the buffalo. While the Indians east of the Mississippi recognized him as a possible source of food and shelter, still they did not place on him the dependence shown by the Indians west of that river. The buffalo, while in moderate numbers in the east, was outranked there by other game, such as deer, bear, wild fowls, etc. But as these animals were not so plentiful on the Western plains, of course, the Indians west of the Mississippi placed almost their entire dependence on the buffalo.

As we have said before, the buffalo was pre-eminently a plains-animal. Of all the Indians dependent on the buffalo, the following twenty-two tribes seemingly needed him the most: The Sioux, Crows, Piegans, Bloods, Blackfeet, Cheyennes, Gros Ventres, Aricarees, Mandans, Bannacs, Shoshones, Nez Perces, Assinniboines, Kiowas, Comanches, Arapahoes, Apaches, Utes, Omahas, Kansas, Pawnees, Osages, and Winnebagos. To these various tribes he was the one absolute necessity of life.

As with all the other wild creatures, the Indian had a theory to explain the huge herds of the buffalo. It was supposed that on the Staked Plains of Texas there was a huge cave, out of which, every year, some beneficent spirit sent the buffalo in great numbers, as a prize for the Indian. So convinced were they of this, that even when the buffalo were near extermination, they still clung to the legend that the good spirit would not let them all be killed, but would keep sending more buffalo to take the place of the slain. Many old warriors of the different tribes told of some truthful relative who had witnessed the coming of the buffalo, and one old man told his white friends, that he, personally, had seen them coming from this cave.

The Indian habit of burning the timber away and leaving unwooded prairies was largely responsible for the pasture of the buffalo. Whether with the full knowledge of the reason for his act, or with merely the instinct to gain freed land, the Indian unerringly chose the best method for the bison and the making of his range. And the burning of the prairies in the fall was also good.

In hunting the buffalo. the different tribes took their choice of several different methods - the "Chase," "Impounding" the "Surround," or "Decoying.' In winter, sometimes the bison was hunted on snowshoes. The Indian, owing to his lack of the right fire-arms, seldom used the deadly "still-hunt," beloved of the white hunter.

In "Chasing," the hunter chose his favorite "Buffalo-horse," took his weapon, whether gun, or bow and arrows, and rode beside the fleeing herd, picking his animals and slaying. Afterwards, the squaws came to skin and care for the fallen buffalo.

By "Impounding" was meant driving the bison into circular pens, as cowboys drive domestic cattle, and then killing them from advantageous positions on the wall of the pens. Difficult as this may sound it was a common practice among the Indians.

The "Surround" was a carefully planned affair. A herd sighted, the Indians surround them, on all sides at a distance, closing in last to the windward. At the signal the lines drew closer to the startled, confused herd, which of course tried to flee. Foiled in every direction, they were compelled to beat about in fruitless efforts to escape until killed.

In "Decoying" or driving, the herd was sent by skilful maneuvering, to plunge, head-first, over a cliff. After which it was easy to supply a camp with skins and meat.

The Indians used the hides for tepees, moccasins, rawhide thongs, dishes, horse-shoes, clothes, and many other articles. The skins were stretched and cured much in the manner used afterward by the white hunter.

Out of the meat of the buffalo, the Indian constructed many forms of food. The flesh dried and pounded with corn or wild cherries formed a common, nourishing food. Often the meat was preserved in the tallow. Or it was cut in very thin strips and dried on brush frames. The tongue and the meat of the hump were regarded as especial delicacies, so much so that they were often the only parts used by white hunters.

The United States government recognized the dependence of the Indian on the buffalo. A plan was once considered of sending the soldiers to exterminate the American bison and thus bringing the unruly plains tribes to submission. But it was never carried out.

THE WHITE MAN AND THE BUFFALO

William T. Hornaday in his article, "The Extermination of the American Bison," groups the extermination under two heads - the period of desultory destruction, from 1730 to 1830, and the period of systematic slaughter, from 1830 to 1888.

The first period covered the time of the early discoverer or pioneer, who killed only to supply his own needs. Because emigration west of the Mississippi was a rare occurrence at that date, and because the huge herds were practically unknown to the average eastern settler, the number of buffalo slain amounted to but very little compared to the immense numbers left. However the slaughter of this period was enough to practically exterminate the bison east of the Mississippi.

The first deliberate buffalo hunt was sent from the Red River settlement, Manitoba. Five hundred and forty carts were used. The American Fur Company established trading posts along the Missouri River and soon the West was dotted with such posts. Both Indians and white men were encouraged to kill the buffalo.

From 1830 to 1856, the slaughter went systematically on, and the buffalo herd steadily decreased. But 1856, when the building of a transcontinental railroad was begun, saw the beginning of the end. The railroad cut the buffalo into two large herds - the northern and the southern. The railroad also made the hunting-grounds more accessible to the hired butcher and offered greater facility in the trader's handling of the skins. The laborers laying the track for the new railroad were constantly interfered with by the herds of buffalo.

As late as 1872, thousands of buffalo still grazed the plains. Towns had sprung up on their pasture, the hunter had made many devastating inroads on their herds, railroads ran through their midst, but the buffalo still clung to their lives and their home.

Colonel Dodge, in his "Plains of the Great West," says:

The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad was then (in 1871-72) in process of construction, and nowhere could the peculiarity of the buffalo of which I am speaking be better studied than from its trains. If a herd was on the north side of the track it would stand stupidly gazing, and without a symptom of alarm, although the locomotive passed within a hundred yards. If on the south side of the track, even though at a distance of 1 or 2 miles from it, the passage of a train set the whole herd in the wildest commotion. At full speed, and utterly regardless of the consequences, it would make for the track on its line of retreat. If the train happened not to be in its path, it crossed the track and stopped satisfied. If the train was in its way, each individual buffalo went at it with the desperation of despair, plunging against or between locomotive and cars, just as its blind madness chanced to direct it. Numbers were killed but numbers still pressed on, to stop and stare as soon as the obstacle had passed. After having trains thrown off the track twice in one week, conductors learned to have a very decided respect for the idiosyncrasies of the buffalo, and where there was a possibility of striking a herd "on the rampage" for the north side of the track the train was slowed up and sometimes stopped entirely.

From which it may be seen that the buffalo was still a force for civilization to reckon with.

In the commercialized killing, the butchers were supplied with especial outfits. In writing of this, Colonel Dodge describes it as follows:

The most approved party consisted of four men - one shooter, two skinners, and one man to cook, stretch hides and take care of camp. Where buffalo were very plentiful the number of skinners was increased. A light wagon, drawn by two horses, or mules, takes the outfit into the wilderness, and brings into the camp the skins taken each day. The outfit is most meager, a sack of flour, a side of bacon, 5 pounds of coffee, tea and sugar, a little salt, and possibly a few ,beans, is a month's supply. A common or "A" tent furnishes shelter; a couple of Remington's heaviest sporting rifles, and an unlimited supply of ammunition, is the armament.

The skinning knives do duty at the platter, and "fingers were made before forks." Nor must be forgotten one or more 10-gallon kegs of water, as the camp must of necessity be far away from the stream. The supplies are generally furnished by the merchant for whom the party is working, who, in addition, pays each of the party a specified percentage of the value of the skins delivered. The shooter is carefully selected for his skill and knowledge of the habits of the buffalo. He is captain and leader of the party. When all is ready, he plunges into the wilderness, going to the center of the best buffalo region known to him, not already occupied (for there are unwritten regulations recognized as laws, giving each hunter certain rights of discovery and occupancy). Arrived at the position, he makes his camp in some hidden ravine or thicket, and makes all ready for work.

After one of these expeditions, the plains for miles around were covered with mutilated, putrifying buffalo carcasses. In a season or so, the white bleached bones and skulls, so typical of the latter days of the great plains, were to be seen in immense quantities.

Because of the wantonness of the slayers, it has been estimated that there were three to five buffalo killed to every hide marketed. A hide torn by careless rough handling was discarded. And millions of pounds of rich juicy meat enough to have fed well all the poor of the nation - were wasted.

The terrible "Still-hunt" was usually used. A herd sighted, the hunter secreted himself and fired, killing the leader. The herd, confused and puzzled and lacking their accustomed general, stood still. Then it was an easy matter for the gunner, picking his animals and always killing those who would start to run, to soon exterminate a large band. Many a hunter killed in a season fifteen hundred to two thousand animals.

The work of the skinner was arduous, but not difficult. Sure of being able to replace those ruined, he displayed the same wasteful carelessness before spoken of. William T. Hornaday writes as follows:

At first the utmost wastfulness prevailed. Every one wanted to kill buffalo, and no one was willing to do the skinning and curing. Thousands upon thousands of buffaloes were killed for their tongues alone, and never skinned. Thousands more were wounded by unskillful marksmen and wandered off to die and become a total loss. But the climax of wastefulness and sloth was not reached until the enterprising buffalo-butcher began to skin his dead buffaloes by horse-power. The process is of interest, as showing the depths of degradation to which a man can fall and still call himself a hunter. The skin of the buffalo was ripped open along the belly and throat, the legs cut around at the knees, and ripped up the rest of the way. The skin of the neck was divided all the way around at the back of the head, and skinned back a few inches to afford a start. A stout iron bar like a hitching-post, was then driven through the skull and about 18 inches into the earth, after which a rope was tied very firmly to the thick skin of the neck, made ready for that purpose. The other end of this rope was then hitched to the whiffle-tree of a pair of horses, or to the rear axle of a wagon, the horses were whipped up, and the skin was forthwith either torn in two or torn off the buffalo with about 50 pounds of flesh adhering to it. It soon became apparent to even the most enterprising buffalo skinner that this method was not an unqualified success, and it was presently abandoned.

Skins were stretched, baled, and shipped like cordwood. Of the qualities of hides, one of the rarest was the "Beaver-robe," a soft fur resembling the animal it was named for. These sold for seventy-five dollars apiece.

The "Black-and-tan" was also rare. In it, the nose, flank, and inside of the forelegs were black-and-tan - the rest of the hide jet black.

The rarest skin of them all was the "Buckskin," a freak of nature. It was a dirty white in color, and because of its rarity, rather than its beauty, sold for two hundred dollars.

The ordinary hide sold for about three dollars and a half. As in all other merchandise, the price fluctuated.

By the end of the year 1875, the great southern herd was practically extinct. The last of the year 1883 saw the last of the great northern herd. Some hunters believed that the buffalo were not all killed - that they had fled far north, into Canada. But this was not so. The buffalo, as a power, and a source of supply, had simply ceased to exist.

No public action was ever taken to protect the American bison from the ravages of the hired hunter. From 1871 to 1876, Congress made several creditable efforts to do so, but was so hedged in and beset, that it utterly failed.

In 1889, there were only 635 wild unprotected buffalo in North America. Today, there are in existence, owing to stringent game-laws, something like four or five thousand head of bison. In the wild "badlands " and in such preserves as Yellowstone and in many private parks, they graze unmolested. Of all the millions of the buffalo, there remains only this pitiful remnant.

There have been many plans for domesticating and keeping the buffalo. Most of them were impracticable. While there is yet some bitterness over the unjust treatment and the complete passing of the buffalo from the plains, still there is this point to be considered.

The plains were needed by the increasing number of Americans, to supply homes, and food-stuffs for the rest of the world. This could not be while the buffalo roamed them in freedom. As all other factors in the world's progress, me buffalo had to yield to the necessities of man and the advance of his civilization. It is a piteous thing, and a tragic, this passing of the buffalo and the Great Plains. But it had to be. The two were compelled before the coming of the white settler.

But these two - the Great Plains and the buffalo - are fixed features in the romances of the early days. The haze of passing time can never hide them. Indissoluably linked for all the coming ages, they offer yearning memories to the old hunters still living, and rich dreams of the boundless freedom and untrammeled life of pioneer times, to the romancer of the future.

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A Standard History of Kansas and Kansans , written and compiled by William E. Connelley, transcribed by Carolyn Ward, 1998.

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