Buffalo were once considered as dangerous as grizzly bears— viewed with awe and hunted with abandon. That the vast herds would reach near extinction seemed about as likely as a railroad crossing the continent.
As summer turned to fall in 1804, and Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s pirogues labored up the Missouri River past the mouth of the Platte, the explorers entered a land richer in wildlife than any they had ever imagined. Herds of elk and deer were abundant. Pelicans, rattlesnakes, “goats” that would later be labeled pronghorns, prairie dogs, even pike and shrimp vied for their attention. But the bison, which they already knew as buffalo, elicited few comments. They were interested in what was new, and as journal-keeper Joseph Whitehouse explained, buffalo were too well known to merit much space. The hunters had killed a few of the 1-ton creatures for food, and each captain achieved his own kill on September 9, with scant mention in their journals.
Even so, on September 17, Lewis had reason to estimate he had 3,000 of the shaggy beasts in his view at one glance. Later that month, the captains were carried into a Sioux council on buffalo robes especially painted for honored guests. “I was… not permitted to touch the ground,” Clark noted. In the chamber he was sheltered, fed and surrounded by parfleches, backrests, spoons, hoes, quivers, shields and dozens of other items the plains people were creating from buffalo before Clark’s Virginia had become a colony.
It was December before the men had a chance to accompany the Mandans on a buffalo hunt. Their journals credit the great skill and dexterity the mounted Indians displayed, sending arrows not only into but sometimes completely through the galloping beasts. Lewis willingly stayed out all night in subzero weather, and both men spent bone-chilling days on the hunt, yet the laconic accounts in their journals provide little inkling of the intoxicating thrill of running buffalo.
At the time of the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition, buffalo were still present east of the Mississippi. Early naturalists considered them savage beasts that feared no other animal and were every bit as dangerous as grizzly bears. The two Corps of Discovery leaders had seen firsthand how useful buffalo were to the Mandans and Sioux, but even they could not anticipate how much buffalo would shape Plains Indian culture and be a cash crop for many white men to boot. Their reports focused instead on rivers thronged with beaver, whose skins would make hunters of their generation wealthy. But in years to come, the mighty American buffalo (or bison) herds, which filled the horizon and thundered when they moved, would emerge in awestruck accounts by such Western newcomers as Jesuit Father Pierre-Jean De Smet and John James Audubon. At the same time, frontiersmen like Buffalo Bill Cody would hunt them with a singular passion to near extinction.
In 1811, five years after Lewis and Clark’s return, a frail-looking 25- year-old lawyer from Pennsylvania was riding the Missouri’s treacherous waters to see what he could see. Henry Marie Brackenridge had hitched a ride on fur trader Manuel Lisa’s keelboat. The New Orleans–born Spaniard was risking the lives of his passengers in a race to catch up with a larger party before he entered dangerous Sioux waters. Lisa’s livelihood was at stake. Brackenridge, with no such driving reason, felt guilty that he was risking his life for…what? A love of nature? The need to see what he had not seen before?
On May 24, above the Platte, Brackenridge caught one of those sights: a huge buffalo bull glaring down from a bluff. The lawyer gaped at the massive head, the sharply curved horns, the dark beard that nearly swept the grass. “A striking and terrific object,” he wrote in his diary, “he eyed us with the ferocity of a lion.” The bull tossed his head, wheeled and trotted away, but he wasn’t forgotten.
As the boat continued upriver, he saw buffalo by the hundreds, the thousands, “winding around the sides of the distant hills” to disappear in some hollow and reemerge. The whole plain was black with droppings, and “wide and beaten roads were everywhere to be seen.” Farther upriver Brackenridge noted how the Indians made bows, altars, doors, even boats from the animals they killed, and he watched the exacting way they hunted the creature around which their lives centered. In July the “tremendous bellowing” of bulls in rut awed him. Moved by the spectacle of a stampede, he wrote, “An immense herd running…in full speed…had something in it, which, without incurring ridicule, I might call sublime.” The thundering herds would impress many other westbound Easterners. After all, by the end of 1832, no wild buffalo remained east of the Mississippi.
The curtain was already falling on the fur trade in 1834 when 20-year-old Osborne Russell arrived at Fort Hall, near the Snake River in southern Oregon Territory. He was as green as the lumber that made up the newly built stockade, a leftover from a failed trapping-trading enterprise. Russell was one of 11 men who had been left to fend for themselves.
On August 12, Russell and three other men set out to fend. If they wanted to eat, they needed to kill buffalo. As Russell noted in his journal, “The country abounded with game, still it wanted experience to kill it.” He had an “elegant” rifle, but sorely lacked experience. However, as he continued, “I now prepared myself for the first time in my life to kill meat for my supper.” The men found bands of buffalo, and Russell crawled to “within about 80 yards of them, then raised my body erect, took aim and shot at a bull.”
At the crack of the gun, the rest of the herd galloped away, and Russell was alone with his kill. But the bull refused to die. “I then reloaded and shot as fast as I could,” he wrote, “until I had driven 25 bullets at, in and about him.” Russell was out of bullets, yet the bull continued to stand, as if “riveted to the spot.” The hungry trapper watched him anxiously. And kept watching. For half an hour. Finally, he gave it up as “a bad job” and returned to camp empty-handed.
Within days Russell’s hunting improved, but on October 4 he observed true experts in action. He was gazing over a herd that stretched “as far as I could see,” when a plume of dust billowed up from a ravine and grew into a cloud. Suddenly, a body of Indians on horseback fell upon the herd. Within seconds dust filled the near sky and the herd took to flight with a din “like distant thunder.” As he watched the boiling mass of animals in fascination, one nearby hunter raced after a cow, “let slip an arrow and she fell.” Russell recognized the man as a Bonnak (Bannock) who spoke Snake. The hunter marked his kill, shouted to the trapper that he needed one more to make four, and galloped away.
Invited to the camp, Russell climbed a hill, and as the dust cleared he viewed “up to a thousand cows.” For two days he watched women cut and hang meat to dry, until dozens of drying scaffolds were “bending beneath their rich loads of fat buffalo meat.” They were killed, he noted dryly, “without burning one single grain of gun powder.” In the late 1830s, far more buffalo robes than beaver pelts were shipped down the Missouri.
Not all sojourners were bent on hunting the huge animals. In April 1840, Father De Smet headed west up the Platte with a fur trade caravan to establish a mission among the Flathead people. The natural beauty he encountered along the trail delighted him. One day he rose early and worked his way up a high bluff. Spread out below was what he had come to see: Buffalo filled the valley for as much as 12 miles around.
De Smet marveled at the spectacle. Some were moving in single file, some cropping the spring grasses, some lying quietly—all content to browse or rest or mingle in slowly shifting patterns of brown on green. The Jesuit father lay watching them, thanking God for His bounty and the serenity of His world, as the sun rose in the morning sky.
There was sudden movement in the herd. Animals lunged to their feet and, one after another, began to run. In an instant they were all in motion. Dust and din replaced calm as the panicked beasts took flight. De Smet watched as hunters from his train, guns puffing smoke, galloped in, and the herd swept away, leaving only a few dark brown forms spotting the prairie. The dejected priest left the hilltop, knowing butchering would come next, knowing the men had to eat, but grieving for the bucolic scene he would hold in his memory.
Two years later, another traveler who treasured learning about the fauna of the West recorded a completely different reaction to the hunt. Forty-four-year-old New Jersey farmer Edward Harris was an amateur ornithologist whose generosity two decades earlier had helped hopeful artist John James Audubon. Harris was the now-famous Audubon’s choice of companions for an 1843 expedition up the Missouri. Unlike the flamboyant artist, Harris was quiet and studious, occasionally shaken with asthmatic coughs as he perused his books. In a pocket diary, he painstakingly recorded the intriguing birds and animals he and Audubon observed. They had brought along Lewis and Clark’s Journals, still the preeminent source on the West, and often compared its notes with their findings.
They passed the site of the Mandan villages, where the Lewis and Clark party had done its hunting, and were welcomed as guests at Fort Union. Whatever they wanted, chief agent Alexander Culbertson was ready to supply. So, on a blazing July 20, the naturalists set out to experience their first buffalo hunt. The 58-year-old Audubon was strictly an observer, but Harris, although he never rode horseback, determined to try.
Spotting four bulls, he followed instructions—threw off his jacket, loaded his gun, slung a powder horn over his shoulder, stuffed his pockets with bullets, popped a couple of spare rounds in his mouth and chose his bull. The beast instantly took flight. Harris, racing across terrain so rough he would have blanched at the thought moments before, closed on his prey. Reciting the lessons in his head, he stood in his stirrups, pointed his muzzle just behind the bull’s shoulder and fired. The beast stumbled slightly.
Recklessly urging on his pony, Harris aimed for the lungs and fired his second barrel. The bull continued to run. His mount galloping full speed, Harris switched arms, poured powder into his left hand, switched again, dumped the powder down the muzzle, whacked the gun butt on the saddle, spat out a bullet, dropped it in and pushed in a percussion cap. Just as he finished, the bull belched blood and slowed to a stumbling walk.
Satisfied that one was done for, Harris took off after another bull wounded by a fellow hunter. He was whipping his pony to close in when the beast vanished. The pony skidded to a stop, nearly pitching the farmer into a gulley. Then the pony slid downslope and careened through the brushy channel after the bull. Closing again, Harris stood in his stirrups. Suddenly, the bison whirled and charged. The horse shied. Harris somersaulted through the air and landed with a thud. Stunned, the farmer struggled to his feet to face the red-eyed, bleeding bull 20 feet away. Somehow Harris had kept hold of his rifle. He took aim and fired.
Both barrels, clogged with dirt, clicked futilely. Mesmerized by the fierce bull’s gory gaze, Harris couldn’t move. Neither for a long moment did the bull. Finally the quarry turned and trotted away. Sore and weary, Harris walked his pony three miles back to camp.
In short order, Harris was off after another bull. Eventually the hunting party returned to the fort with full carts, too loaded with meat to carry anything but the tongues of subsequent kills. By then the buffalo robe trade had been going strong for more than a decade, and a disgusted Audubon predicted the herds were on their way to extinction.
In spite of himself, Harris was intoxicated with the thrill of the chase. Ignoring his conscience and enfeebled health, he went out again and again. On August 12, he tried his luck on a cow, which he found just as fierce—and quicker—than a bull. She sent the farmer scrambling several times before he managed to dispatch her. Two days later he headed down the Missouri, thinner by 24 pounds but richer by two buffalo tails and experiences he would never forget.
It was along the Platte River that the greatest number of people encountered buffalo, and they too recorded unforgettable experiences. Father De Smet, traveling the Platte again in 1841, described how the caravan’s slumber was shattered one night when a huge herd of buffalo stampeded toward the wagons. Their guide, trapper-trader Tom Fitzpatrick, led terrified men out between the menacing horde and camp and directed a steady rifle fire at the lead animals, turning the threatening mass just in time.
Samuel Hancock, traveling the Platte in 1845, described another stampede: “The whole country as far as we could see, presented a mass of buffaloes on a stampede, coming towards us. We immediately went to work preparing ourselves as best we could, by driving the wagons around in a circle to make a fortification….Several of our company… [taking] a position on an eminence and keeping an incessant firing of guns and pistols, succeeded in a diversion of their route….This army of buffaloes was at least two hours in passing our encampment….Immediately following them were immense gangs of wolves, making the most hideous noise.”
Mrs. Benjamin G. Ferris recalled her 1852 journey: “We suddenly came on an immense herd of these monsters of the Plains. They started to run in three mighty streams, two of which were directly through the gaps of our trains. As they thundered past in blind fear, shaking the very ground beneath their feet, it seemed to me as though everything must be dashed to pieces.”
Pioneers were continually impressed by the immensity of the bulls, which could weigh 2 tons. G.A. Smith attributed “a savage appearance” to the bison, while wagoneer D. Jagger described “a noble-looking object… with his high hump shoulders and long mane and noble eye.” Like Brackenridge, he compared the bull to the African lion. Sometimes an enraged bull wounded by hunters would attack a train. “This morning we had an exciting time,” G.W. Thissell wrote of his 1850 trip. “Three buffalo ran into our camp. All rushed for their guns, but not until 20 balls had entered his hide did one buffalo come to the ground.” Many others could not help but admire the bison’s ferocity when threatened. William Pleasants told of shooting ball after ball into one bull, and “at every shot he would wheel and charge us, and more than once he came near ripping the side of a horse with his sharp, curving horns….The pursued animal finally stopped running and stood at bay, madly pawing the ground…his bloodshot eyes full of rage and defiance.”
Thoughtful W. McBride, whose fellow travelers stood calmly and picked off passing bison, had a different impression in 1850. “As these noble-looking but persecuted monsters of the Plains came up,” he wrote, “I felt a deep sympathy for them. It seemed like they were running the gauntlet.” A few hunters discovered that by standing upwind from a herd, they could shoot all the cows and bulls they wanted, and the rest would remain placid “like cattle in a pasture.” Killing buffalo no longer seemed much of a challenge, but it was still fun for many and good business for many more.
Ten years later, English traveler Sir Richard Burton remarked on the shrinking herds, estimating hunters’ annual take at 200,000 to 300,000 animals. As the transcontinental railroad inched west in 1865, railroad crews joined the Indians, settlers, soldiers and pioneers in feasting on buffalo flesh. With the Union Pacific line complete in 1869, and others extending across Kansas and Dakota Territory, the railroads welcomed wealthy tourists aboard special hunt trains, assured they could get their kill without even standing up. Encouraged by the U.S. Army, which was eager to reduce Indians’ hoofed “commissary,” bison hunting became a full-fledged profession by 1870.
On January 13, 1872, a tourist of note stepped off the train near Fort McPherson, in southwestern Nebraska. He was young, handsome and accompanied by the retinue of officials and servants to which the fourth son of Russia’s royal Romanov family was accustomed. The young noble’s railway journey from the East Coast had made headlines and set female hearts racing wherever he stopped, but on this cold January day he had other things on his mind. Escorted by General Phil Sheridan and a company of cavalry, and guided by Buffalo Bill Cody, 21-year-old Grand Duke Alexis climbed into an open carriage determined to see Indians and hunt buffalo. By evening the party was ensconced in the specially created Camp Alexis on Red Willow Creek, where the duke took in shows of horsemanship, sham fights and a war dance performed by 100 Brulé Sioux from Spotted Tail’s agency.
The cavalcade, including Lt. Col. George Custer was out early the next morning. Spotting a herd, Cody ushered the excited duke to windward before releasing him with: “Now is your time! Ride as fast as your horse will go, and don’t shoot until you have a good opportunity.” Spurring Cody’s favorite buffalo horse, the duke took off after a bull with Cody at his heels. Overanxious, he fired at 100 yards and missed. Cody directed the duke to close in while flanking the quarry with his own horse. Heeding instructions to press his gun against the galloping beast’s side, the Russian fired a fatal shot. As the animal thudded to the ground, the duke waved his cap wildly and summoned his followers, who arrived breathless to pop open champagne—a fitting climax to the duke’s 22nd birthday.
The party tallied 56 kills the following day, Alexis claiming two. But the honors went to Chief Two Lance, who proved to doubters that he could, as claimed, send an arrow completely through the body of a racing buffalo. Presented the arrow as a keepsake, as well as the hides of his kills, the duke expressed warm thanks and, according to Cody, enjoyed a wild carriage ride back to the railroad to take his leave. In his wake, scores of officers, enlisted men and civilians dismantled the camp, and the Brulés returned to their reservation in Dakota Territory with 25 wagonloads of promised provisions, along with the now-rare treat of meat from their eight buffalo kills.
Only five years later, in 1877, travelers on newspaper editor Frank Leslie’s “Excursion to the Pacific Coast,” suffered considerable disappointment while training through Nebraska on the Union Pacific. Lounging in their chairs, they were discussing “the Indian question and the march of civilization” when they learned to their great disgust, “We may expect to meet nothing wilder than the great herds of cattle which have begun to dot the plains.”
Buffalo became increasingly scarce. In the summer of 1879, an excited boy ran to a sod house to tell his aunt, Nebraska homesteader Luna Kellie, “Come quick and see the buffalo.” The Kellies had established their homestead three years earlier near Hastings, south of the Platte. Luna hurried down to the road to the sight of an enormous wagon piled with goods. Pulling the wagon were three or four yoke of oxen—and one yoke of buffalo. “That was a great sight for me,” Luna wrote later, “as it was the first I had ever seen.”
The buffalo were not at all what she expected. Luna was surprised that “their heads were so shaggy and carried so low, their hump so large, shoulders so heavy and hind quarters so small.” That these great beasts of the prairie had been tamed made no impression on the young wife, who hurried back inside to cook for the threshing crew. She later heard the buffalo were sold “to a Mr. Buer, who I believe took them east with a show.”
The remnants of the last great herd retreated farther north to Dakota and Montana territories. On September 9, 1883, a pale, squeaky voiced 24-yearold left the depot at Little Missouri and headed south with his guide. The dude from Manhattan squinted through spectacles, searching the rain-soaked landscape for buffalo. It was cold, foggy and miserable, and it was days before they found any. Theodore Roosevelt was more used to threading his way through New York politics than Dakota Badlands, but he never considered giving up. Riding hard, riding long, riding on after missed or ineffective shots, Teddy earned the respect of his leather-faced guide, and he finally got his bull. He also found renewed physical strength and new direction for his life. Before the month was out, he had purchased cattle and begun a treasured connection with the West that would fortify and color the rest of his days.
When Roosevelt was elected president in 1901, one of his first acts was to ask Congress to save the buffalo from extinction by establishing a new herd in Yellowstone National Park. The monsters of the Plains would become the tourist attractions of various preserves. But they had survived.
Coloradan Nancy M. Peterson writes often for Wild West. Suggested for further reading: The Buffalo Hunters, by Mari Sandoz; and The Buffalo Book, by David Dary.
Originally published in the February 2009 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.