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


VIII.
LAST OF THE BUFFALO.

Reisinger’s Creek, Station No. 13, }
Pike’s Peak Express Co., May 31, 1859. }

I would rather not bore the public with buffalo. I fully realize that the subject is not novel—that Irving, and Cooper, and many others, have written fully and admirably upon it; and that the traveler’s enthusiastic recital falls coldly on the ear of the distant, critical, unsympathizing reader. Yet I insist on writing this once more on buffalo, promising then to drop the subject, as we pass out of the range of the buffalo before night. All day yesterday, they darkened the earth around us, often seeming to be drawn up like an army in battle array on the ridges and adown their slopes a mile or so south of us—often on the north as well. They are rather shy of the little screens of straggling timber on the creek-bottoms—doubtless from their sore experience of Indians lurking therein to discharge arrows at them as they went down to drink. If they feed in the grass of the narrow valleys and ravines, they are careful to have a part of the herd on the ridges which overlook them, and with them the surrounding country for miles. And, when an alarm is given, they all rush furiously off in the direction which the leaders presume that of safety.

This is what gives us such excellent opportunities for regarding them to the best advantage. They are moving northward, and are still mainly south of our track. Whenever alarmed, they set off on their awkward but effective canter to the great herds still south, or to haunts with which they are comparatively familiar, and wherein they have hitherto found safety. This necessarily sends those north of us across our roads often but a few rods in front of us, even when they had started a mile away. Then a herd will commence running across a hundred rods ahead of us, and, the whole blindly following their leader, we will be close upon them before the last will have cleared the track. Of course, they sometimes stop and tack, or, seeing us, sheer off and cross further ahead, or split into two lines; but the general impulse, when alarmed, is to follow blindly and at full speed, seeming not to inquire or consider from what quarter danger is to be apprehended.

What strikes the stranger with most amazement is their immense numbers. I know a million is a great many, but I am confident we saw that number yesterday. Certainly, all we saw could not have stood on ten square miles of ground. Often, the country for miles on either hand seemed quite black with them. The soil is rich, and well matted with their favorite grass. Yet it is all (except a very little on the creek-bottoms, near to timber) eaten down like an overtaxed sheep-pasture in a dry August. Consider that we have traversed more than one hundred miles in width since we first struck them, and that for most of this distance the buffalo have been constantly in sight, and that they continue for some twenty-five miles further on—this being the breadth of their present range, which has a length of perhaps a thousand miles—and you have some approach to an idea of their countless myriads. I doubt whether the domesticated horned cattle of the United States equal the numbers, while they must fall considerably short in weight, of these wild ones. Margaret Fuller long ago observed that the Illinois prairies seemed to repel the idea of being new to civilized life and industry—that they, with their borders of trees and belts of timber, reminded the traveler rather of the parks and spacious fields of an old country like England —that you were constantly on the involuntary look-out for the chateaux, or at least the humbler farm-houses, which should diversify such a scene. True as this is or was of Illinois, the resemblance is far more striking here, where the grass is all so closely pastured and the cattle are seen in such vast herds on every ridge. The timber, too, aids the illusion, seeming to have been reduced to the last degree consistent with the wants of a grazing country, and to have been left only on the steep creek-banks where grass would not grow. It is hard to realize that this is the center of a region of wilderness and solitude, so far as the labors of civilized man are concerned—that the first wagon passed through it some two months ago. But the utter absence of houses or buildings of any kind, and our unbridged, unworked road, winding on its way for hundreds of miles without a track other than of buffalo intersecting or leading away from it on either hand, bring us back to the reality.

I shall pass lightly over the hunting exploits of our party. A good many shots have been fired—certainly not by me; even were I in the habit of making war on nature’s children, I would as soon think of shooting my neighbor’s oxen as these great, clumsy, harmless, creatures. If they were scarce, I might comprehend the idea of hunting them for sport; here, they are so abundant that you might as well hunt your neighbor’s geese. And, while there have been several shots fired by our party at point-blank distance, I have reason for my hope that no buffalo has experienced any personal inconvenience therefrom. For this impunity, the foulness of the rifle has had to answer in part; the greenness of the sportsmen is perhaps equally responsible for it. But then we have had no horse or mule out of our regular teams, and the candid will admit that a coach-and-four is not precisely the fittest turn-out for a hunting party.

I write in the station-tent (having been driven from our wagon by the operation of greasing its wheels, which was found to interfere with the steadiness of my hastily-improvised table), with the buffalo visible on the ridges south and every way but north of us. They were very close down to us at daylight, and, till the increasing light revealed distinctly our position, since which they have kept a respectful distance. But a party of our drivers, who went back seven miles on mules last evening, to help get our rear wagon out of a gully in which it had mired and stuck fast, from which expedition they returned at midnight, report that they found the road absolutely dangerous from the crowds of buffalo feeding on either side, and running across it—that, the night being quite dark, they were often in great danger of being run over and run down by the headlong brutes. They were obliged to stand still for minutes, and fire their revolvers right and left, to save their lives and their mules.

The superintendent of this division, Mr. Fuller, had a narrow escape day before yesterday. He was riding his mule along our road, utterly unconscious of danger, when a herd of buffalo north of the road were stampeded by an emigrant train, and set off full gallop in a south-westerly direction, as usual. A slight ridge hid them from Mr. F.’s sight till their leader came full tilt against his mule, knocking him down, and going over him at full speed. Mr. F. of course fell with the dying mule, and I presume lay very snug by his side while the buffaloes made a clear sweep over the concern—he firing his revolver rapidly, and thus inducing many of the herd to shear off on one side or the other. He rose stunned and bruised, but still able to make his way to the station—with an increased respect for buffalo, I fancy, and a disposition to give them a reasonably wide berth hereafter. But he has gone out this morning in quest of the mired coach, and our waiting for his return gives me this chance to write without encroaching on the hours due to sleep.

Two nights ago, an immense herd came down upon a party of Pike’s Peakers camped just across the creek from this station, and, (it being dark) were with difficulty prevented from trampling down tents, cattle, and people. Some fifty shots were fired into them before they could be turned. And now our station-master has just taken his gun to scare them off so as to save our mules from a stampede.

But the teams have returned with the missing coach, and I must break off and pack to go on.

Station, 15, Prairie Dog Creek, May 31, evening.

We have made fifty-five miles since we started about nine this morning, and our present encampment is on a creek running to the Republican, so that we have bidden a final adieu to Solomon’s Fork, and all other affluents of the Smoky Hill branch of the Kansas. We traveled on the “divide” between this and the northern branch of the Kansas for some miles to-day, and finally came over to the waters of that stream (the Republican), which we are to strike some eighty miles further on. We are now just half way from Leavenworth to Denver, and our coach has been a week making this distance; so that with equal good fortune we may expect to reach the land of gold in another week. The coaches we met here to-night have been just a week on the way, having (like us) lost a day, but not, like us, by high water: their bother was with wild Indians—Arapahoes mainly—whom they report to be in great numbers on our route—not hostile to us, but intent on begging or stealing, and stopping the wagons peremptorily till their demands are complied with. They are at war with the Pawnees, and most of their men are now on the war-path; their women and children are largely camped around the Express Company’s Stations, living as they best may. The Pawnees, I believe, are mainly or entirely south of our road. The Arapahoes boast of triumphs and slaughters which I am tempted to hope, have been or will be reciprocated. Indian wars with each other are, in our day, cruel and cowardly plundering forays, fitted to excite only disgust.

As we left Station 14 this morning, and rose from the creek-bottom to the high prairie, a great herd of buffalo were seen in and around our road, who began to run first north, then south, many standing as if confused and undecided which course to take, and when at last they all started southward, we were so near them that our driver stopped his mules to let the immense impetuous herd pass without doing us any harm. Our sportsman’s Sharp was not loaded at the time; it afterward was, and fired into a herd at fair distance, but I did not see anything drop. After this, they were seen in greater or less numbers on the ridges and high prairie, mainly south of us, but they either kept a respectful distance or soon took one. We have not seen one for the last twenty-five miles; but they are now considerably further this way than they were a few days since; and as every foot of the way thus far, and (I hear) further, is carpeted with buffalo-grass, not here eaten down, and as buffalo-paths and other evidences that this is their favorite feeding-ground are everywhere present, I presume they will be here in the course of a week. But enough of them. And let me here proffer my acknowledgments to sundry other quadrupeds with whom I have recently formed a passing acquaintance.

The prairie-wolf was the first of these gentry to pay his respects to us. He is a sneaking, cowardly little wretch, of a dull or dirty white color, much resembling a small, short-bodied dog set up on pretty long legs. I believe his only feat entitling him to rank as a beast of prey consists in sometimes, when hard pressed by hunger, digging out a prairie-dog and making a meal of him. His usual provender is the carcass—no matter how putrid—of any dead buffalo, mule, or ox that he may find exposed on the prairies. He is a paltry creature.

But the gray-wolf—who is also a denizen of the prairies—(I think we have seen at least a dozen of the species to-day)—is a scoundrel of much more imposing caliber. He delights to lurk around the outskirts of a herd of buffalo, keeping out of sight and unsuspected in the ravines and creek-timber, so far as possible; and wo to the unlucky calf that strays (which he seldom does) outside of the exterior line of defence formed by the bulls. If very large and hungry, the gray-wolf will sometimes manage to cut a cow off from the herd, and, interposing between her and her companions, detain or drive her further away, until she is beyond the hope of rescue, when her doom is sealed. His liveliest hope, however, is that of finding a buffalo whom some hunter has wounded, so that he cannot keep up with the herd, especially should it be stampeded. Let him once get such a one by himself, and a few snaps at his ham-strings, taking excellent care to keep out of the way of his horns, insures that the victim will have ceased to be a buffalo, and become mere wolf-meat before another morning.

It is impossible for a stranger to the prairies to realize the impudence of these prairie-lawyers. Of some twenty of them that I have seen within the last two days, I think not six have really run from us. One that we saw just before us, two hours ago, kept on his way across the prairie, stopping occasionally to take a good look at us, but not hurrying himself in the least on our account, though for some minutes within good rifle range. Once to-day, our superintendent sent a ball after one who was making very deliberate time away from us, hitting him in a quarter where the compliment should have expedited his movements; but it did not seem to have that effect. It is very common for these wolves to follow at night a man traveling the road on a mule, not making any belligerent demonstrations, but waiting for whatever may turn up. Sometimes the express-wagons have been followed in this way, but I think that unusual. But this creature is up to any thing wherein there is a chance for game.

The prairie-dog is the funny fellow of these parts—frisky himself, and a source of merriment to others. He dens in villages or towns, on any dry, grassy ground —usually on the dryest part of the high prairie—and his hole is superficially a very large ant-hill, with the necessary orifice in its center. On this ant-hill sits the proprietor—a chunky little fellow, in size between a gray squirrel and a rabbit-say about half a woodchuck. When we approach, he raises the cry of danger—no bark at all, but something between the piping of a frog on a warm spring evening, and the noise made by a very young puppy—then drops into his hole and is silent and invisible. The holes are not very regularly placed, but some thirty feet apart; and when I say that I believe we have to-day passed within sight of at least three square miles of these holes, the reader can guess how many of these animals must exist here, even supposing that there is usually but one to each hole. I judge that there cannot be less than a hundred square miles of prairie-dog towns within the present buffalo range.

That the prairie-dog and the owl—of a small, brown-backed, white-bellied species—do live harmoniously in the same hole I know, for I have seen it. I presume the owl pays for his lodgings like a gentleman, probably by turning in some provisions toward the supply of the common table. If so, this is the most successful example of industrial and household association yet furnished. That the rattlesnake is ever admitted as a third partner, I indignantly deny. No doubt he has been found in the prairie-dog’s home—it would be just like him to seek so cozy a nest—but he doubtless entered like a true border-ruffian, and contrived to make himself a deal more free than welcome. Politeness, or (if you please) prudence, may have induced the rightful owner to submit to a joint tenancy at will—the will of the tenant, not that of the rightful landlord—but no consent was ever given, unless under constraint of that potent logic which the intruder carries in his head; and warning whereof proceeds from the tip of his tail.

Of antelope, I have seen many, but not so near at hand as I could wish. I defer speaking of them, in the hope of a better acquaintance.

A word now of the face of the country:

For more than a hundred miles back, I have seen no stone, and think there is none, except at a great depth. Solomon’s fork, where we left its vicinity, is now a stream two rods wide, running but four to six inches of water over a bed of pure sand, at a depth of some three or four hundred feet below the high prairie level of the country. I infer that there is no rock in place for at least that depth. The subsoil of the prairies is generally a loamy clay, resting on a bed of sand. The violent though not frequent rains of this region form sheets of water, which rush down the slopes into the water-courses, which they rapidly swell into torrents, which, meeting no resistance from rocks or roots of trees, are constantly deepening or widening the ravines which run down to the creeks on every side. These gullies or gorges have originally steep, perpendicular banks, over which, in times of heavy rain, sheets of water go tumbling and roaring into the bottom of the ravines, washing down the sodden, semi-liquid banks, and sending them to thicken the waters of the Kansas and the Missouri. Thus the prairie, save some narrow, irregular ridges, or “divides,” is gradually scooped and worn into broader or narrower valleys, some of which have three or four little precipices at intervals up their sides, where they formerly had but one, and will eventually have none. For still the soil is washing away and running off to the Gulf of Mexico; and if this country should ever be cultivated, the progress of this disaster would be materially accelerated. It needs to be timbered before it can be fit for the habitation of civilized man. But still a few low cotton-woods and elms along the margins of the larger streams—not a cord of wood in all to each square mile —are all the timber that is to be seen. I hear of some poor oak on the broader streams, and an occasional white-ash, but do not see them.

The prairie-wind shaking the wagon so that I write in it with difficulty, bespeaks a storm at hand. Adieu!


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