During the middle third of the 19th century, tens of thousands of emigrants made their way west along the Oregon-California Trail.
The possibility of sighting buffalo existed at least from the time a wagon train hit the Platte River in east-central Nebraska until it crossed South Pass in western Wyoming – almost half of the total distance of the entire trip. How many buffalo actually populated the high plains during the years of the great migration? In a talk to the Chicago Corral of The Westerners in 1980, Craig Eben noted that “In 1851 there was an estimate of 75 to 100 million buffalo. . .(with) Some estimates. . .as low as 30 million or as high as 200 million.”
James Linforth and Frederick Piercy came west in 1855. Looking across the North Platte River toward Ash Hollow, they reported seeing “an immense herd of buffalo, which good judges said could not number less than 10,000.” Contemporary scholars Ernest Wallace and E. Adamson Hoebel, in their book The Comanches: Lords of the South Plains, estimated that “In Kansas alone. . . the bones of thirty-one million head were gathered and sold for fertilizer between 1868 and 1881. A vast herd comprising considerably more than four million animals was seen by competent witnesses in 1871 on the Arkansas River. . . The main herd was fifty miles deep and twenty-five miles wide – and this was only one of the many herds in existence at the time.” It is small wonder that these herds were thought to be the greatest natural commissary in the world.
Like other elements of the natural environment, the presence of buffalo could be desirable or dangerous, according to circumstances. Lydia Milner Waters (1855) reported that “the hills on the opposite side of the Platte were perfectly black with them (buffalo). Five of them came near where we were. . . and would have run over the tents had the women not shaken their aprons and sunbonnets, and shouted at them which made them turn to avoid us.” The presence of buffalo herds on occasion also “spooked” the draft animals accompanying wagon trains. Nonetheless, the presence of these herds not only provided a source of fresh meat, but were also beneficial to emigrants in another way. The horse Indians of the high plains, talented raiders though they were, left cattle and oxen pretty much alone because they preferred buffalo meat to beef!
Along with antelope, rabbit, and sage hen, buffalo meat appeared with some regularity as part of wagon train fare. As might be expected, however, emigrant reaction to this new kind of meat was mixed. Keturah Belknap (1848) reported that the fresh meat of a “nice young heifer. . .is very coarse and dark meat but when cooked right made a very good change.” She went on to note that she herself “cooked some and made mince pies with dried apples which was fine for lunch.” On the other hand, when Cecelia Adams (1852) “at last had the chance of tasting the long wished for meat,” she and her companions found that “We do not relish it as well as we had expected to,” though noting that it “is very much like beef.”
Given the Indian emphasis on hunting, it is hardly surprising that white travelers sometimes witnessed an Indian buffalo hunt. In 1853, Phoebe Judson vividly described one such hunt which took place somewhere between Chimney Rock and Fort Laramie.
While a party of Indians were pursuing a band of buffalo, they surrounded them within plain view of our encampment. The buffalo dashed around furiously in a vain effort to get away, but to whatever point they galloped they were met by the Indians, who were mounted on active little ponies and armed with bows and arrows, with which they slaughtered over 30 buffalos. When one would break through the circle it was quickly overtaken and brought down the arrows of the dexterous Sioux. This was a very exciting scene and greatly enjoyed, especially by the men of our company.
Celinda Hines (1853), also an observer of this Indian “equestrian event,” noted that “The Indians had nothing but halters on their horses.” One of the buffalo was “killed a little way across the creek from us,” so she and another lady “went to see it. Mr Martin & Mr. Long carried us across. We examined some bows & arrows with which they killed them,” then “Martha & I took off our shoes and waded back.” A bit later, “The Sioux gave Charles a quarter & offered him another but he took but one.”
Whenever a buffalo “chase” occurred, interest ran high among wagon train emigrants, though the results of the “hunt” were not uniformly successful. “Quite an excitement was raised among the masculines by seeing a buffalo,” wrote Rachel Taylor in 1853; “all hands gave instant chase, wounded him badly, but did not succeed in taking him.” Nine years earlier, after a herd was chased near to the train, the Reverend Edward Evans Parrish (1844) reported that “our boys, with guns, soon brought down three or four,” adding the comment that “the scene was so interesting that some of our women actually joined in the chase.”
Matthew Field observed an even more unusual event in (1843). “During the hunt today 3 bulls plunged headlong over a precipice of 15 feet and ran on unhurt from the fall! A large band was chased into Ash Hollow, where rare sport and a regular bull baiting took place.” As the “sporting” aspect of buffalo hunting illustrates, the number of animals killed by emigrants exceeded their commissary needs with some frequency. But by no means did all wayfarers approve of such slaughter. Asahel Munger (1839) is a good case in point.
Thursday. . .One of the company went out when our camp was full of meat, several Buffalo having been killed, and most of it left to waste, and shot a large buffalo because he could. The Noble animal was feeding in good grass, taking his comfort when his enemy must commence murdering him – shot him 17 or 18 times before he fell – took perhaps his tongue and left the remainder to be devoured by wolves which preyed upon him all night.
Sarah Sutton (1854) is another who gives evidence of the buffalo’s toughness, or the emigrants’ general weakness in marksmanship! “Our company have today killed the only buffalo we have seen. . .there were so many on chase they shot 18 balls in him (the buffalo) so we have plenty of fresh beef for supper.”
In common with many of the activities associated with the trans-continental migration, hunting was potentially dangerous not only to the hunted, but also to the hunter! The results ranged from a successful hunt to property loss to personal injury. John Bidwell (1847), for instance, knew a Mr. Belden who “was hunting a short distance from the company, and left his horse tied while he crept in pursuit of a buffalo, but he was not able to find the same place again and consequently lost his horse.” Keturah Belknap (1848) reported a similar misadventure.
During the hunt Dr. Baker lost his nice saddle horse and a fine saddle; he jumped off and threw down the bridle to give his game another shot and away went the horse with the buffalo; they hunted for him but didn’t find him or the buffalo; but in about two weeks the company that was behind sent word to Dr. Baker that the horse had come to them with the saddle still on but turned under his belly; the head part of the bridle was on him yet so old dock got his horse and he never wanted to leave the train again.
A final example is provided by William Thompson Newby (1843). “A Mr. Richard Goodman & authers waus hunting & waus crawling on a buffilow & a Mr. Eumairs gun went off & shot Mr. Goodman throo the right arm.”
In addition to obtaining meat through hunting, another considerably less dramatic, but no less useful, value was attached to the presence of the buffalo herds. When timber and sagebrush disappeared, one emigrant noted that all “had to dry buffalo dung or chips, as they are called, to use as fuel to cook by.” Since cooking was primarily the responsibility of the female members of a train, so too was the acquisition of this new kind of “fuel.” “Buffalo chips scarce and in good demand,” wrote E.W. Conyers in 1852, adding that “Many of the ladies can be seen roaming over the prairie with sacks in hand, searching for a few buffalo chips, but most of them have discarded their gloves and are gathering the buffalo chips with their bare hands.” Four years later, Helen Carpenter (1856) pinpointed the incongruity experienced when watching “various chip gatherers . . .bag in hand, intent on getting enough to cook the evening meal – it would be amusing if it were not dire necessity which drives them to it.” She concluded by noting that “Hale made a gathering this evening, and reported to mother that he got ‘some good fresh ones.'”
For most emigrants, buffalo were a novelty, an annoyance or a source of food. Occasionally, however, a traveler responded to the huge animals in a somewhat more feeling manner. One who did so was Julia Anna Archibald [Holmes], who detailed her actions and attitudes in a letter to written from Fort Union, New Mexico, on January 25th, 1859. While her party was detained by a rain-induced flood the previous summer on the Santa Fe Trail, Mrs. Holmes’ husband “went out buffalo hunting and returned bringing with him a buffalo calf apparently but a week old.” “It was a great curiosity to us all,” she wrote, “and, in the fullness of my compassion for the poor little thing, I mixed up a mess of flour and water, which I hoped to make it drink.
I approached it with these charitable intentions, when the savage little animal advanced toward me and gave me such a blow with its head as to destroy the center of gravity. His hair was wooly in texture, and of an iron grey color. Unlike the young of our domestic cows, he seldom cried, and when he did only made a faint noise.
The young calf had, of course, been captured only upon the death of its mother who, in Mrs. Holmes’ words, had “made a heroic stand, and presented a beautiful illustration of the triumph of maternal feeling over fear.
“She was in a herd of many hundreds of buffaloes, fleeing wildly over the plain before the hunter. After a few miles chase the calf gave signs of fatigue. At its faint cry she would turn and come to the calf, but at sight of the hunter bounded off to the herd. This she did two or three times during a chase of as many miles, the calf falling behind more and more, and his mother wavering between fear for his life and her own, at last her decision was made, and she determined to defend her offspring alone on the prairie. She died in his defense.”
The frontier is now gone; the campsite has been replaced by a motel and the prairie schooner by a motor home. The wild, wide-ranging buffalo herds have also disappeared, but protected herds still roam in areas like Custer State Park in South Dakota – a living reminder of our nation’s yesterdays.