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An Overland Journey from New York to San Francisco in the Summer of 1859 by Horace Greeley (1860)


VII.
THE HOME OF THE BUFFALO.

Station 11, Pike’s Peak Express, }
Clear Creek, May 29, 1859. }

I ceased writing No. VI. last night at midnight at Station 9—the storm, which had been threatened since dark, just bursting in wind and rain. The wind was a gale, but upset neither tents nor wagons; the rain fell for about an hour, then ceased, though a little more fell this morning, and we have had thunder and lightning at intervals through the day, and have it still, threatening showers before dawn. We rose early from our wagon-bed this morning, had breakfast at six, and soon bade adieu to Pipe Creek, with its fringe of low elms and cotton-woods, such as thinly streak all the streams we have passed to-day that are large enough to protect timber from prairie-fires. Very soon, we were off the sandstone upon limestone again, which has been the only rock visible for the last forty miles, and this but sparingly. The soil is of course improved, but I think not equal to that of Eastern Kansas. The face of the country is slightly rolling—in one place, a level prairie eleven miles wide —but even this is cut and washed out by shallow water-courses, probably dry a good part of each summer. We have crossed many streams to-day, all making south for Solomon’s Fork, which has throughout been from two to six miles from us on our left, its narrow belt of timber constantly sending out longer or shorter spurs up the creeks which feed it on either side. The route has been from fifty to two hundred feet above the bed of the Fork, keeping out of all bottoms and marshes, but continually cut by water-courses, often with abrupt banks and miry beds, in one of which only were we stalled until an extra span of mules was sent from the other wagon to our aid. (The express-wagons always go in pairs, for reciprocal aid and security.) I presume all the timber we have passed through since we left the Republican at Junction (and we are now one hundred and ten miles from it by our route, and perhaps one hundred in a straight line), would not form a belt half a mile wide, with but a few white-oaks to render it of any value except for fuel. A low, long-limbed, twisty elm, forms three-fourths of all the wood we have seen this side of Junction; the residue is mainly cotton-wood. The streams are usually clear, except where riled by recent showers, and springs are not infrequent. If well timbered, this country would be rather inviting. It is largely covered with the dead stalks of the wild sunflower, which is said to indicate a good soil for corn. The sunflower plant has not started this season.

On rising our first ridge this morning, a herd of buffalo was seen grazing on the prairie some three miles toward the Solomon; soon, more were visible; then others. At length, a herd of perhaps a hundred appeared on the north—the only one we saw on that side of our road during the day. Having been observed, they were heading down the valley of a small creek toward the Solomon. Just then, the tents and wagons of a body of encamped Pike’s Peakers appeared right across a little creek; two men were running across the prairie on foot to get a shot at the buffalo; another was mounting a horse with like intent. The herd passed on a long, awkward gallop north of the tents and struck southwest across our road some forty rods ahead of us. A Sharp’s rifle was leveled and fired at them by one of our party, but seemed rather to hasten than arrest their progress. But one old bull shambled along behind in a knock-kneed fashion (having probably been lamed by some former party); and he was fired at twice by our marksmen as he attempted to cross the road—once when only fifteen rods distant. They thought they wounded him fatally, but he vanished from our sight behind a low hill, and their hasty search for him proved unsuccessful.

Thence nearly all day, the buffalo in greater or less numbers were visible among the bottoms of the Solomon on our right—usually two to three miles distant. At length, about 5 p. m., we reached the crest of a “divide,” whence we looked down on the valley of a creek running to the Solomon some three miles distant, and saw the whole region from half a mile to three miles south of our road, and for an extent of at least four miles east and west, fairly alive with buffalo. There certainly were not less than ten thousand of them; I believe there were many more. Some were feeding, others lying down, others pawing up the earth, rolling on it. etc. The novel spectacle was too tempting for our sportsmen. The wagons were stopped, and two men walked quietly toward the center of the front of the herd. Favored by a water-course, they crept up to within fifty rods of the buffalo, and fired eight or ten shots into the herd, with no visible effect. The animals nearest the hunters retreated as they advanced, but the great body of the herd was no more disturbed or conscious of danger than if a couple of mosquitos had alighted among them. After an hour of this fruitless effort, the hunters gave it up, alleging that their rifle was so foul and badly sighted as to be worthless. They rejoined us, and we came away, leaving nine-tenths of the vast herd exactly where we found them. And there they doubtless are sleeping at this moment, about three miles from us.

We are near the heart of the buffalo region. The stages from the west that met us here this evening report the sight of millions within the last two days. Their trails chequer the prairie in every direction. A company of Pike’s Peakers killed thirteen near this point a few days since. Eight were killed yesterday at the next station west of this by simply stampeding a herd and driving them over a high creek-bank, where so many broke their necks. Buffalo-meat is hanging or lying all around us, and a calf two or three months old is tied to a stake just beside our wagons. He was taken by rushing a herd up a steep creek-bank; which so many could not possibly climb at once; this one was picked out in the melee as most worth having, and taken with a rope. Though fast tied and with but a short tether, he is true game, and makes at whoever goes near him with desperate intent to butt the intruder over. We met or passed to-day two parties of Pike’s Peakers who had respectively lost three oxen or steers, stampeded last night by herds of buffalo. The mules at the express stations have to be carefully watched to preserve them from a similar catastrophe—to their owners.

I do not like the flesh of this wild ox. It is tough and not juicy. I do not forget that our cookery is of the most unsophisticated pattern—carrying us back to the age of the building of the Pyramids, at least—but I would much rather see an immense herd of buffalo on the prairie than eat the best of them.

The herbage hereabout is nearly all the short, strong grass known as the buffalo-grass, and is closely fed down; we are far beyond the stakes of the land-surveyor—beyond the usual haunts of white men. The Santa Fé trail is far south of us; the California is considerably north. Very probably, the buffalo on Solomon’s Fork were never hunted by white men till this spring. Should one of these countless herds take a fancy for a man-hunt, our riflemen would find even the express-wagons no protection.

Though our road is hardly two months old, yet we passed two graves on it to-day. One is that of an infant, born in a tent of the wife of one of the station-masters on her way to his post, and which lived but a day; the other that of a Missourian on his way to Pike’s Peak, who was accidentally shot in taking a rifle from his wagon. His party seems to have been singularly unfortunate. A camp or two further on, a hurricane overtook them and tore their six wagons into oven-wood; they were able to make but three passable wagons out of the remains. Their loss in other property was serious; and they sustained much bodily harm. One more of them was buried a camp or two further on.

Those whom we meet here coming down confirm the worst news we have had from the Peak. There is scarcely any gold there; those who dig cannot average two shillings per day; all who can get away are leaving; Denver and Auraria are nearly deserted; terrible sufferings have been endured on the Plains, and more must yet be encountered; hundreds would gladly work for their board, but cannot find employment—in short, Pike’s Peak is an exploded bubble, which thousands must bitterly rue to the end of their days. Such is the tenor of our latest advices. I have received none this side of Leavenworth that contradict them. My informant says all are getting away who can, and that we shall find the region nearly deserted. That is likely, but we shall see.

A young clerk with whom I conversed at supper gave me a little less discouraging account; but even he, having frozen his feet on the winter journey out, had had enough of gold-hunting, and was going home to his parents in Indiana, to stick to school for a few years. I commended that as a wise resolution. Next morning, after we had started on our opposite ways, I was apprised by our conductor that said clerk was a woman! I had not dreamed of such a thing; but his more practical or more suspicious eyes had seen through her disguise at once. We heard more of her at Denver—quite enough more—but this may as well be left untold.


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