THE LAST ROMANTIC BUFFALO HUNT ON THE PLAINS OF NEBRASKA BY JOHN LEE WEBSTER
In the autumn of 1872 a group of men, some of whom were then prominent in Nebraska history, Judge Elmer S. Dundy and Colonel Watson B. Smith, and one who afterward achieved national fame as an American explorer, Lieutenant Frederick Schwatka, and another who has since become known throughout Europe and America as a picturesque character and showman, Colonel Wm. F. Cody, participated in what proved to be the last romantic buffalo hunt upon the western plains of the state of Nebraska.
Elmer S. Dundy was a pioneer who had come to Nebraska in 1857. He had been a member of the territorial legislature for two successive terms; he was appointed a territorial judge in 1863, and became the first United States district judge after the admission of the state into the union. Colonel Watson B. Smith at that time held the office of clerk of the United States district and circuit courts for the district of Nebraska. Some years afterward he met a tragic death by being shot (accidentally or by assassination) in the corridors of the federal building in the city of Omaha. Colonel Smith was a lovable man, of the highest unimpeachable integrity and a most efficient public officer. There was also among the number James Neville, who at that time held the office of United States attorney and who afterward became a judge of the district court of Douglas county. He added zest, vim, and spirit by reason of some personal peculiarities to be mentioned later on.
These men, with the writer of this sketch, were anxious to have the experience and the enjoyment of the stimulating excitement of participating in a buffalo hunt before those native wild animals of the plans should become entirely extinct. To them it was to be a romantic incident in their lives and long to be remembered as an event of pioneer days. They enjoyed the luxury of a pullman car from Omaha to North Platte, which at326
Erected in Antelope Park, Lincoln, Nebraska, by Deborah Avery Chapter, Daughters of the American Revolution, in memory of Mary M. A. Stevens, First Regent of the Chapter (1896-1898). Dedicated, June 17, 1914. Cost $300.
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that time was little more than a railway station at a division point upon the Union Pacific, and where was also located a military post occupied by a battalion of United States cavalry.
Lieutenant Frederick Schwatka, a regular army officer and American explorer, at one time commanded an arctic expedition in search of traces of the remains of Dr. Franklin. At another time he was in command of an exploring expedition of the Yukon river. At another time he commanded an expedition into the northernmost regions of Alaska in the interest of the New York Times. He also became a writer and the author of three quite well known books: Along Alaska's Great River, Nimrod in the North, and Children of the Cold.
At the time of which we are speaking Lieutenant Schwatka was stationed at the military post at North Platte. He furnished us with the necessary army horses and equipment for the hunting expedition, and he himself went along in command of a squad of cavalry which acted as an escort to protect us if need be when we should get into the frontier regions where the Indians were at times still engaged in the quest of game and sometimes in unfriendly raids.
William F. Cody, familiarly known as "Buffalo Bill," who had already achieved a reputation as a guide and hunter and who has since won a world reputation as a showman, went along with us as courier and chief hunter. He went on similar expeditions into the wilder regions of Wyoming with General Phil Sheridan, the Grand Duke Alexis, and others quite equally celebrated.
This Omaha group of amateur buffalo hunters, led by Buffalo Bill and escorted by Lieutenant Schwatka and his squad of cavalry, rode on the afternoon of the first day from North Platte to Fort McPherson and there camped for the night with the bare earth and a blanket for a bed and a small army tent for shelter and cover.
On the next morning after a rude army breakfast, eaten while we sat about upon the ground, and without the luxury of a bath or a charge of wearing apparel, this cavalcade renewed its journey in a southwesterly direction expecting ultimately to reach the valley of the Republican. We consumed the entire day in traveling over what seemed almost a barren waste of undulating prairie, except where here and there it was broken by a higher
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upland and now and then crossed by a ravine and occasionally by a small stream of running water, along the banks of which might be found a small growth of timber. The visible area of the landscape was so great that it seemed boundless - an immense wilderness of space, and the altitude added to the invigorating and stimulating effect of the atmosphere.
We amateurs were constantly in anticipation of seeing either wild animals or Indians that might add to the spirit and zest of the expedition. There were no habitations, no fields, no farms. There was the vast expanse of plain in front of us ascending gradually westward toward the mountains with the blue sky and sunshine overhead. I do not recollect of seeing more than one little cabin or one little pioneer ranch during that whole day's ride. I do know that as the afternoon wore on those of us who were amateur horsemen were pleased to take our turns as the opportunity offered of riding in the army wagon which carried our supplies, and leading our horses.
When the shades of night of the second day had come we had seen many antelope and now and then heard the cry of the coyote and the wolf but we had not seen any sign of buffalo, but we did receive information from some cattlemen or plain wanderers that there was a band of roving Indians in that vicinity which created in us a feeling of some anxiety - not so much for our personal safety as that our horses might be stolen and we be left in these remote regions without the necessary facilities for traveling homeward.
Our camp for the night was made upon a spot of low ground near the bank of a small creek which was bordered by hills on either side and sheltered by a small grove of timber near at hand. The surrounding hills would cut off the sight of the evening camp fires, and the timber would obscure the ascending columns of smoke as they spread into space through the branches of the trees.
The horses were picketed near the camp around the commissary wagon and Lieutenant Schwatka placed the cavalrymen upon sentinel duty. The night was spent with some restlessness and sleep was somewhat disturbed in anticipation of a possible danger, and I believe that all of us rather anxiously awaited the coming of the morning with the eastern sunlight that we might be restored to that feeling of security that would come
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with freedom of action and the opportunity for "preparedness." When morning did come we had the pleasure of greeting each other with pleasant smiles and a feeling of happy contentment. We had not been molested by the Indians and our military sentinels had not seen them.
On the afternoon of the third day of our march into the wilderness we reached the farther margin of a high upland of the rim of a plain, where we had an opportunity of looking down over a large area of bottomland covered by vegetation and where there appeared to be signs of water. From this point of vantage we discovered a small herd of browsing buffalo but so far away from us as to be beyond rifle range. These animals were apparently so far away from civilization or human habitation of any kind that their animal instinct gave them a feeling of safety and security.
We well knew that these animals could scent the approach of men and horses even when beyond the line of vision. We must study the currents of the air and plan our maneuvers with the utmost caution if we expected to be able to approach within any reasonable distance without being first discovered by them.
We intrusted (sic) ourselves to the guidance of Buffalo Bill, whose experience added to his good judgment, and so skilfully (sic) did he conduct our maneuvers around the hills and up and down ravines that within an hour we were within a reasonable distance of these wild animals before they discovered us, and then the chase began. It was a part of the plan that we should surround them but we were prudently cautioned by Mr. Cody that a buffalo could run faster for a short distance than our horses. Therefore we must keep far enough away so that if the buffalo should turn toward any of us we could immediately turn and flee in the opposite direction as fast as our horses could carry us.
I must stop for a moment to recite a romantic incident which made this buffalo chase especially picturesque and amusing.
Judge Neville had been in the habit of wearing in Omaha a high silk hat and a full dress coat (in common parlance a spiketail).
He started out on this expedition wearing this suit of clothes and without any change of garments to wear on the hunt. So it came about that when this group of amateur buffalo huntsmen went riding pell-mell over the prairies after the buffalo, and likewise when pursued by them in turn, Judge Neville sat astride
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his running war-horse wearing his high silk hat and the long flaps of his spiketail coat floating out behind him on the breeze as if waving a farewell adieu to all his companions. He presented a picture against the horizon that does not have its parallel in all pioneer history.
It was entirely impossible for us inexperienced buffalo hunters while riding galloping horses across the plains to fire our rifles with any degree of accuracy. Suffice it to say we did not succeed in shooting any buffalo and I don't now even know that we tried to do so. We were too much taken up with the excitement of the chase and of being chased in turn. At one time we were the pursuers and at another time we were being pursued, but the excitement was so intense that there was no limit to our enjoyment or enthusiasm.
Buffalo Bill furnished us the unusual and soul-stirring amusement of that afternoon. He took it upon himself individually to lasso the largest bull buffalo of the herd while the rest of us did but little more than to direct the course of the flight of these wild animals, or perhaps, more correctly expressed - to keep out of their way. It did not take Buffalo Bill very long to lasso the large bull buffalo as his fleet blooded horse circled around the startled wild animal. When evening came we left the lassoed buffalo out on the plains solitary and alone, lariated to a stake driven into the ground so firmly that we felt quite sure he could not escape. It is my impression that we captured a young buffalo out of the small herd, which we placed in a corral found in that vicinity.
On the following morning we went out upon the plains to get the lassoed buffalo and found that in his efforts to break away he had broken one of his legs. We were confronted with the question whether we should let the animal loose upon the prairies in his crippled condition or whether it would be a more merciful thing to shoot him and put him out of his pain and suffering. Buffalo Bill solved the vexatious problem by concluding to lead the crippled animal over to the ranchman's house and there he obtained such instruments as he could, including a butcher knife, a hand-saw, and a bar of iron. He amputated the limb of the buffalo above the point of the break in the bone and seared it over with a hot iron to close the artery and prevent the, animal from bleeding to death. The surgical operation
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thus rudely performed upon this big, robust wild animal of the prairie seemed to be quite well and successfully performed. The buffalo was then left in the ranchman's corral with the understanding that he would see it was well fed and watered.
We were now quite a way from civilization and near the Colorado border line, and notwithstanding our subsequent riding over the hills and uplands during the following day we did not discover any other buffalo and those which had gotten away from us on the preceding day could not be found. During that day we turned northward, and I can remember that about noon we came to a cattleman's ranch where for the first time since our start on the journey we sat down to a wooden table in a log cabin for our noonday meal. During the afternoon we traveled northward as rapidly as our horses could carry us but night came on when we were twenty miles or more southwest of Fort McPherson and we found it again necessary to go into camp for the night, sleeping in the little army tents which we carried along with us in the commissary wagon.
Colonel Cody on this journey had been riding his own private horse - a beautiful animal, capable of great speed. I can remember quite well that Mr. Cody said that he never slept out at night when within twenty miles of his own home. He declined to go into camp with us but turned his horse to the northward and gave him the full rein and started off at a rapid gallop over the plains, expecting to reach his home before the hour of midnight. It seemed to us that it would be a desolate, dreary, lonesome and perilous ride over the solitude of that waste of country, without roads, without lights, without sign boards or guides, but Buffalo Bill said he knew the direction from the stars and that he would trust his good horse to safely carry him over depressions and ravines notwithstanding the darkness of the night. So on he sped northward toward his home.
On the next day we amateur buffalo hunters rode on to Fort McPherson and thence to North Platte where we returned our army horses to the military post with a debt of gratitude to Lieutenant Schwatka, who at all times had been generous, courteous, and polite to us, as well as an interesting social companion.
So ended the last romantic and rather unsuccessful buffalo hunt over the western plains of the state of Nebraska - a region
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then desolate, arid, barren, and almost totally uninhabited, but today a wealthy and productive part of our state.
The story of the buffalo hunt in and of itself is not an incident of much importance but it furnishes the material for a most remarkable contrast of development within a period of a generation. The wild buffalo has gone. The aboriginal red man of the plains has disappeared. The white man with the new civilization has stepped into their places. It all seems to have been a part of Nature's great plan. Out of the desolation of the past there has come the new life with the new civilization, just as new worlds and their satellites have been created out of the dust of dead worlds.
There was a glory of the wilderness but it has gone. There was a mystery that haunted all those barren plains but that too has gone. Now there are fields and houses and schools and groves of forest trees and villages and towns, all prosperous under the same warm sunshine as of a generation ago when the buffalo grazed on the meadow lands and the aboriginal Indians hunted over the plains.
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