My First Buffalo Hunt With Indians
This piece, published in the March 17, 1877 issue of The Spirit of the Times, was written by Texas Jack and later included in the literature of Buffalo Bill's Wild West to give audiences an idea of what Native American buffalo hunts were like.
Philadelphia, March 5, 1877.
Dear Spirit: The other evening my old friend, Donald McKay, famed at the time of the Modoc War as chief of scouts for Gen. Crook, paid me a visit; and as "speaking of shad reminds me of fish," the occasion brought to my memory my first "buffalo hunt with Indians." If I don't get like the butcher's calf and "kind o' give out," I'll try and give you an idea of one of the most exciting scenes I ever saw or read of, not excepting my school-boy impression of Andy Jackson's hoo-doo at New Orleans. I thought I had seen fun in a Texas cattle stampede, been astonished in a mustang chase; but it wasn't a marker, and it made me believe that Methuselah was right when he suggested that the oldest could "live and learn." It is a pity the old man didn't stick it out. He could have enjoyed this lesson.
A few years ago I was deputized United States Agent, under Major North, to accompany a party of Pawnee and Ponca Indians. Although "blanket Indians" (living wild), they have for a long time been friends of the Government, and have done excellent service under command of the justly-celebrated Major Frank North, whose famed Pawnee scouts (now at Sidney, Neb.), have always been a terror to the Sioux nation. Owing to their hatred of each other, it is necessary to send an agent with them to prevent "picnics," and also to settle disputes with the white hunters. As Major North was in poor health at that time, this delicate task fell to me.
As I don't like to be long-winded, I'll pass over the scenes and incidents of wild Indian camp life, the magnificent sight of a moving village of "nature's children," looking like a long rainbow in the bright colors of their blankets, beads, feathers, war paint, etc., etc., as it would form a full chapter, and skip an eleven-days' march from the Loup River Reservation to Plum Creek, on the North Platte, where our runners reported.
Early in the evening, as we were about making camp, my old friend, Baptiste, the interpreter, joyfully remarked: "Jack, the blanket is up three times—fun and fresh meat tomorrow."
There was a great powwowing that night, and all the warriors were to turn out for the grand "buffalo surround," leaving the squaws and papooses in the village.
Just before daybreak, there was a general stir and bustle on all sides, giving evidence of the complete preparations making for the coming events. As it was dark, and I busied in arranging my own outfit, thinking of the grand sight soon to be witnessed, and wondering how I would "pan out" in the view of my "red brothers," I had not noticed the manner of their own arrangements in an important particular that I will hereafter allude to.
At a given signal all started, and, when the first blue streaks of dawn allowed the moving column to be visible I had time to make an inspection of the strange cavalcade, and note peculiarities. I saw at once, placed at a disadvantage, the "white brother."
I had started fully equipped—bridle, saddle, lariat, rifle, pistol, belt, etc.—and astride of my pony. They, with as near nothing in garments as Adam and Eve, only breech cloth and moccasins, no saddle, no blanket, not even a bridle, only a small mouth rope, light bow and a few arrows in hand—in fact, not an ounce of weight more than necessary, and, unlike myself, all scudding along at a marvelous rate, leading their fiery ponies, so as to reserve every energy for the grand event in prospect.
Taking it all in at a glance, your ‘humble servant,’ quite abashed, let go all holts and slipped off his critter, feeling that the Broncho looked like a Government pack mule. I at once mentally gave up the intention of paralyzing my light-rigged side pards in the coming contest. As they were all walking, I thought the buffalo were quite near; but what was my surprise, as mile after mile was scored, that I gradually found myself dropping slowly but surely behind, and, so as not to get left, compelled every now and then to mount and lope to the front, there to perceive from the twinkling eyes of friend ‘Lo’ a smile that his otherwise stolid face gave no evidence of. How deep an Indian can think, and it not be surface plain, I believe has never been thoroughly measured. Just imagine this ‘lick,’ kept up with apparent ease by them for ten or twelve miles, and you may get a partial idea of your friend Jack's tribulations.
Fortunately, I kept up, but at what an expense of muscle, verging on a complete ‘funk,’ you can only appreciate by a similar spin.
About this time a halt was made, and you bet I was mighty glad of it. Suddenly two or three scouts rode up. A hurried council was held, during which the pipe was passed. Everything seemed to be now arranged, and, after a little further advance, again a halt, when, amid great but suppressed excitement, every Indian mounted his now almost frantic steed, each eagerly seeking to edge his way without observation to the front.
About two hundred horses almost abreast in the front line, say one hundred and fifty wedging in half way between formed a half second line, and one hundred struggling for place—a third line; the chiefs in front gesticulating, pantomiming, and, with slashing whips, keeping back the excited mass, whose plunging, panting ponies, as impatient as their masters, fretted, frothed, and foamed—both seemed molded into one being, with only one thought, one feeling, one ambition, as with flashing eye they waited for the signal, ‘Go,’ to let their pent-up feelings speed on to the honors of the chase.
Their prey is in fancied security, now quietly browsing to the windward in a low, open flat, some half a mile wide and two or three-mile-long, on top of a high divide, concealed from view by risings and breaks. Gradually they approach the knoll, their heads reach the level, the backs of the buffalo are seen, then a full view, when Pi-ta-ne-sha-a-du (Old Peter, the head chief) gives the word, drops the blanket, and they are "off."
Whew! wheez! thunder and lightning! Jerome Parks and Hippodromes! Talk of tornadoes, whirlwinds, avalanches, water-spouts, prairie fires, Niagara, Mount Vesuvius (and I have seen them all except old Vesuv.); boil them all together, mix them well, and serve on one plate, and you will have a limited idea of the charge of this "light brigade." They fairly left a hole in the air. With a roar like Niagara, the speed of a whirlwind, like the sweep of a tornado, the rush of a snow-slide, the suddenness of a water-spout, the rumbling of Vesuvius, with the fire of death in their souls, they pounce on their prey, and in an instant, amid a cloud of dust, nothing is visible but a mingled mass of flying arrows, horses' heels, buffaloes' tails, Indian heads, half of ponies, half of men, half of buffalo, until one thinks it a dream, or a heavy case of ‘jim-jams.’
I just anchored in astonishment. Where are they? Ah! there is one; there is another, a third, four, five. Over the plains in all directions they go, as the choice meat hunters cut them out, while in a jumbled mass, circling all around is the main body. The clouds of dust gradually rise as if a curtain was lifted, horses stop as buffaloes drop, until there is a clear panoramic view of a busy scene all quiet, everything still (save a few fleet ones in the distance); horses riderless, browsing proudly conscious of success; the prairie dotted here, there, everywhere with dead bison; and happy, hungry hunters skinning, cutting, slashing the late proud monarch of the plains.
I was so interested in the sight that I came near being left, when fortunately, a lucky long-range shot (the only one fired during the day) at a stray heifer saved my reputation. In about two hours every pony was loaded, their packing being quite a study that would need a deserved and lengthy description. It was wonderful.
As I had a heap of walk out, I proposed to ride in, so took a small cut of choice meat—a straight cut—for camp. Every pony was packed down only mine, seeing which ‘Peter's papoose’ (‘the sun chief’) invited himself up behind. Talk of gall—an Indian has got more cheek than a Government mule. He laughed at my objections, but as he had loaned me the pony I had to submit. He even directed the gait, and kept up a continual jabbering of “Wisgoots, ugh! De goinartsonse stak-ees, ugh”’ which I afterward learned meant “Hurry up; I am tired, hungry, and dry—how!”