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Luther North's Account of the Pawnee Buffalo Hunt

From "Man of the Plains - Recollections of Luther North 1856-1882."


The day after my visit with Eagle Chief, I went on to Columbus, and a short time after that my brother Frank had a letter from George Bird Grinnell of New York, asking him to take him and a Mr. James M. Russell of Kentucky on a buffalo hunt. The both men knew my brother, having been in the group of students from Yale College that Professor Marsh had brought out two years before, when my brother acted as guide for him in his expedition from Ft. McPherson north to the Loup River country. As my brother was at Ft. Russell and could not go, he referred them to me, and when they let me know at what time they would be here, I went to Plum Creek, Nebraska, where I hired a team and man to drive it and cook for us. I also got saddle horses and provisions enough to last a couple of weeks.


When the two men arrived we started south to overtake the Pawnees, who had gone on their annual summer hunt. This was the beginning of my friendship with Mr. Grinnell, and it has lasted until now. It is now fifty-two years since that buffalo hunt, and he still journeys out here every year to see me.


I think it was about the third day from Plum Creek that Giinnell killed an old bull buffalo. About the sixth day we overtook the Pawnees and traveled with them until they made a big surround and killed perhaps a thousand buffalo.


When the Pawnees were about to start on one of their hunts, the chiefs of the different bands had a meeting and agreed on four men, one from each band, who were to be leaders of the hunt, and these four men had absolute command, even the chiefs being subject to their orders. They rode ahead of the tribe on the march and picked out the camping grounds; they carried a staff or pole an inch in diameter and seven or eight feet long, to the end of which was fastened a strip of cloth, and the feathers of a hawk or an eagle, and the skin of some animal or bird that was the medicine of the beaver. This staff was held in an upright position while on the march.


Each day these leaders chose certain men to scout ahead and off to each side of the line of march, and when they came in to where they had made camp, they reported to the leaders what they had discovered. The leaders in turn reported to the crier, who in turn shouted the news to the camp. The crier came out in front of his lodge at sundown and called out in a loud voice, “Listen, listen, all of you people.” Instantly everything was still; when he would begin to tell the news of the day.


It was perhaps like this, “Blue Hawk was riding far ahead today, and found on Prairie Dog Creek a large band of buffalo. Tomorrow will be the big hunt; we will move camp at daylight.” Or, again, “Little Wolf saw the tracks of seven men north of here. They wore Sioux moccasins. You had better have your horses close to camp tonight, or they may be taken.” In this way, every evening the camp was informed of what had taken place during the day, and of what to expect on the morrow.


The day we overtook the Pawnees and camped with them, I took the two young men over and introduced them to Pete-ah-le-shar, Chief Man, the head chief of the tribe, and told him what we were there for; that these men wanted to see how the Pawnees killed buffalo. He said it was good, and that the next day they would make a big killing. After smoking with him we returned to our camp and took a good rest and sleep.


The next morning the Indians broke camp early and moved south across the hills to Driftwood Creek, where they went into camp, and the hunters mounted their fastest horses and started for the big hunt. There were about one thousand mounted men, and the leaders or captains of the hunt rode in front, and no man, not even one of the chiefs, dared ride ahead of them or attempt to kill a buffalo, until they gave the word. The reason for this was that, if individual hunting was permitted the men who had the best and fastest horses would be the only ones who would get any meat, and they would scare out of the country the buffalo that they didn’t kill, and those people who had slower horses would kill nothing and get no meat. Another reason was that the Pawnees had so many enemies that they dared not scatter out widely for fear of being attacked. So they always tried to make a big killing at one time, and as close together as possible.



When all was ready, we left camp and rode for a mile or two on a trot, and then broke into a slow canter. Many of the Indians, in fact the great majority of the younger warriors, ran on foot and led their horses, so that these would be fresh for the run when we reached the buffalo. They were stripped down to the breechclout, and all were riding bareback, and all were armed with bow and arrows. Men and horses were both excited, especially the horses. To them a hunt was like a race to a thoroughbred.


After riding for about ten miles the leaders stopped and everybody dismounted and gave the horses a chance to breathe. Then all mounted and formed in a line, or rather three or four lines. The leaders rode slowly ahead up a hill, on the other side of which the buffalo were lying down. When the leaders reached the top of the hill in sight of the buffalo, they leaned forward on their horses and shouted, now-wah, and the hunt was on.


There was a mad race, and before the buffalo were fairly on their feet we were among them. The dust from a thousand buffalo and a thousand horses was so thick that we could hardly see anything, but as they began to scatter, we saw small groups of buffalo, with a few hunters pursuing each band, and in an hour or so the hunt was over, so far as the lolling was concerned, and there were a thousand dead buffalo to be taken care of. The camp had moved from where we had started on the hunt, and we were now camped within two or three miles of where the buffalo were killed. In killing them the Indians kept circling them so they would be as near together as possible, and as near to the camping ground as they could keep them, for all the work of skinning and cutting up, taking to camp and drying the meat, had still to be done. This part was all done by the women.


The young men that were with me were very much interested in the hunt, and both of them had very good luck. Russell, I believe, killed some buffalo, and Grinnell killed several, and I believe I killed one. That night after we reached camp Pete-ah-le-shar invited us to a feast at which many of the chiefs were present. The meal served was kah-wis(1) a sort of a sausage that the boys thought was very good. After this meal came an invitation from La-sharo-too-ri-hoy, Good Chief, where we had roast ribs. We were served by the wife of Good Chief, who was the most beautiful woman in the Pawnee tribe. After eating and smoking with him we went to our camp. For several days more we traveled with the Pawnees, but at last the young men’s time was up, and we said goodbye to the Pawnees and started back for Plum Creek, where we arrived safely about a week later. This was the next to the last buffalo hunt that the Pawnees ever had, before they were removed to the Indian territory; in fact, it was the last hunt in which the whole tribe took part. The following year, 1873, part of the tribe, with John Williamson(2) in charge, while hunting on the Republican near where we had joined them the year before, were attacked and defeated by a large band of Sioux from the Whetstone Agency, and about one hundred fifty of them were killed. The spot where this battle took place is still called Massacre Canyon; it is in Hitchcock County, Nebr., and is near the town of Trenton(3).


 


(1)Ka-wis was a Pawnee delicacy consisting of a thin strip of tender meat placed with some water in a section of intestine with both ends tied. It was roasted in the coals and was not unlike a frankfurter both in appearance and popularity (Letter of Gene Weltfish to Donald F. Danker, April 5, 1958).


(2)John William Williamson (1850-1927) moved to Genoa in 1871. He was employed at the Pawnee Agency, and because of his wavy shoulder-length brown hair the Pawnees named him BukrCfnrn (Curly Head). The agent, John Burgess, picked him as trail agent on the ill-fated buffalo hunt. His duties were “to keep the Pawnees in order and to protect them from white men and, if possible, from the Sioux” (Hyde, Pawnee Indians, 244). He barely escaped the Sioux at Massacre Canyon. In 1874, Williamson helped to escort the Pawnee on their way to Indian Territory.


(3)The Sioux were Oglala and Brule from the Red Cloud and Spotted Tail agencies; the date was August 5, 1873. Estimates of the dead vary from 69 to 156 (Hyde, Pawnee Indians, 245-246).




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