feature By: Leo J. Remiger | December, 22
“One of the best-known of the men who followed the occupation of buffalo hunter in the days when the Yellowstone River valley was the wintering place of thousands of the “Indian’s cattle” was Charley Trask, who has spent the past several years of his life on a cattle ranch near Dickinson, N.D. In all probability he was the last of the army of “hide hunters” to give up the occupation, and it was only when the last large band of buffalo was killed off did he engage in some other pursuit.
“In the winter of 1878 he established his camp on the Yellowstone, a short distance below where the town of Forsyth now stands. At that time there were thousands of buffaloes roaming the grass-covered hills which border on the Yellowstone valley, and the killing of these was an easy matter for the experienced hunter. Each hide meant $1 to $5 for the hunter and the tongue, which was the only part of the carcass generally saved, meant from two bits to four bits more, after it was smoked and cured.
“The Yellowstone was not the safest place in the world for a white man in those days, for it was the hunting ground of several warlike tribes of Indians, each of which claimed Eastern Montana at that time, and no man knew when he would be assailed by either Sioux or Crow warriors. But the hide hunters cared but little for the danger. Each winter they stood to clean up several thousand dollars as a result of their winter work, and there was more than one of these men whose fate has never been learned.
“One winter night a crowd of congenial fellows sat around a warm fire in a Dickinson saloon. It was Christmas Eve and the memory of the day brought back more than one interesting reminiscence of early day Christmases. For a long time Mr. Trask was a good listener and finally he was pressed to give his experience on some Christmas Day in the past; to tell of some adventure which befell him in the times when he was a buffalo hunter.
“I do not know whether this story will interest you or not,” he said, “but the very nearest I ever came to having my scalp lifted was on Christmas day in 1878, when I was hunting buffalo in the Yellowstone Valley. In company with four “skinners” I had established my winter camp in a thick growth of cottonwoods, which can now be found a few miles below where the town of Forsyth stands, and on the opposite side of the river. I had followed the occupation of a buffalo hunter for several seasons and it was seldom when I got less than 1,000 hides as the result of the winter’s hunt. The winter of ’78 passed off unusually well and I made an extraordinary killing before I had been in camp over a week, knocking down over 89 fine fellows in a single day. I had the best buffalo pony in the entire country and could leave him to his own devices, once in a herd. The method I pursued in killing the animals, I will explain to you tenderfeet, was to get as close as I could to a band as they were grazing, and then dash into them astride of a good pony. The guns we used in those days were heavy caliber Sharps rifles and a bullet almost any place in the huge carcasses of the buffaloes as they lumbered off generally meant that the animal was your meat, if you wanted meat, or your hide, if you were a hide hunter. I have been told that one man has been known to kill over 200 in a single day’s hunt, but I never got that many except on one occasion, and that is going to be the story of tonight.
“Christmas day, that year, was as bright a day as a man ever saw. There was a little snow on the ground and the air was cold enough to make a man thresh his arms considerable in an effort to keep warm. The day before I had killed five or six bufflers and had sent three skinners out with order to bring the carcass of a yearling calf into camp, intending to roast a good part of it for our Christmas dinner. The weather was so fine that I concluded that I would take a little hunt, intending to get back into camp about 4 o’clock in the afternoon for dinner.
“Down below Forsyth, you remember, the river sweeps close against a high, perpendicular bluff. Leading back from this bluff there is a long grassy ridge and near the river a fringe of scrubby pines follow the edge of the bluff, a crescent-shaped fringe being on each side of the ridge. I had frequently noticed the place and thought what a good place it would be to stampede a herd of buffaloes over and make a phenomenal killing.
“Well, that is how I made the big killing. Near the head of the ridge I jumped a band of nearly 400 head of bufflers and was soon shooting among them, dropping one every now and then. They were headed directly for the bluff and I did not shoot as often as usual, but I had them thoroughly frightened and they thundered on for the bluff, making the ground fairly tremble with their weight.
“You know, a buffler always runs with his head down, and the leaders of the band were fairly in the trap before they saw it. The leaders tried to check the rush and swerve to the fringe of pines in an effort to prevent going over the cliff, but the weight of beef coming behind was so great that they could not stop, and over they went. As soon as I saw that they were headed right I turned my horse to one side and rushed him to the top of a high butte in order to avoid being trampled by the rush of the survivors, should any succeed in escaping from the crush. It is well I did, for within a few minutes after I had left the trail fully 100 maddened animals plunged back along the back trail, fairly blind with terror.
“From my station on the butte top I had an excellent view of the avalanche of bufflers as it poured over the edge of the bluff. It was nearly 100 feet to the frozen surface of the Yellowstone and the majority of them were killed as they fell. Some of the last ones that went over apparently escaped with little injury, their less fortunate herd mates serving as a cushion to break the fall and, after being stunned for a few minutes, they dragged themselves across the slippery ice and crossed the river to safety.
“Some of the animals were crippled so badly that they could not get up, and after watching with chagrin over 50 head cross the river to safety I went down to the river to put the wounded animals out of their misery. My pony I left on the river bank grazing, and I was soon busy shooting the crippled brutes. I counted over 200 carcasses on the ice and was looking over the bunch with considerable gratification when I heard something spat in the ice immediately in front of me. An instant later I heard the report of a gun and, looking across the river, I saw that I was the target for a dozen redskins, and they were apparently bound to have my scalp and the immense pile of meat I had killed. The instant I saw them I dodged behind the carcass of a big bull and opened fire in return. I had an old Sharp’s rifle which would shoot and kill nearly a mile, and, with the bufflers as barricades, I managed to keep my skin intact until darkness came, laying out one or two reds in the meantime. During this time one of the red men, while the others held my attention in the front, crossed the river a mile or more above and stole my horse, which left me afoot. This I discovered after dark, when I reached the bank and whistled vainly for the pony.
“By keeping close to the bank I managed to reach camp, but found not a sign of life about the place. The skinners had not returned and the camp cook I found tomahawked a short distance from the old campfire. Afterwards I found that all three of my skinners had also been surprised and murdered, and it was only by the greatest scratch in the world and after enduring almost unheard of privations that I reached old Fort Ellis, footsore, frost bitten and in rags, a month later.
“I had nearly 200 prime hides in that camp which I was compelled to abandon and the thought of the other 200 hides waiting to be stripped off the carcasses on the river made me sick to think about.
“The following spring I accompanied a government party down the river and after a considerable search we found the bodies of my three other skinners, but I never found a trace of the hides I had salted away in the camp.
“Some years afterwards, after the Crows had been licked out of their boots and had concluded to be peaceful, old Plenty Coes told me how he had surprised a white man who had chased a lot of bufflers over the cliff and how the white man had drowned himself in an air hole rather than take chances of being an Indian captive. Plenty Coes said that the Indians of the Crow tribe camped on the river all winter and had buffler meat all winter long. In the spring, he says, they sold 550 hides to a white trader who came up the river early on a “fire boat.” Old Plenty Coes was a wealthy Indian then, and I told him those hides were all mine and that I wanted my pay for them. He could not see it that way and, although I dun him for the value of those hides and my pony every time I see him, I do not think he will ever dig up.”
In his diary, Henry Raymond mentions Charley Trask several times as a hunter around Dodge City in the 1873 time frame:
April. Monday 21. 1873.
Found old six [?] blade knife this eve. Went up the river above Point of Rock. Got two loads poles. Very warm day. Saw old Indian camp and lodges. Lost my revolver. Charley Trask went to look for it. Boys found it in the load. Sick at night.
April. Tuesday 22. 1873.
Turned real cold awhile before morning. Very windy this morning. Saw company of infantry soldiers go by & 6 six mule teams and an ambulance. I did not go to town today. Snowed some. Traded my ripping knifes to C. Trask for dirk knife. Made handle and put on dirk.
June. Wednesday 11. 1873.
Nice day. At ranch all day. Hoed some in garden. Shot little revolver at telegraph pole 300 yds. C. Trask here at night.
June. Friday 13. 1873.
Plowed corn. Finished. Went down town. Got poison and soda to poison hides. Trask proposed to me to go hunting. Shot pistol at mark.
June. Sunday 15. 1873.
Nice day until eve when there came a hard wind storm. Went to town twice to see Charley [Trask] but failed to see him. In eve piled the hides. Rode Jim in morning, and grazed him. Rained at night.
Sept. Sunday 21. 1873.
Worked a little on bull train. Cloudy and looked like rain. Charley Trask and the Texiean ran a race. I was one of the outcome judges. I lost the drinks on betting length of a stick of timbir on cars. Throwed race.
Nov. Wednesday 12. 1873.
I worked in shop. Made new axletree for Little Albert. Cold in morning. C Trask came slept in dug out.
The November 12, 1873, entry was the last entry I noticed for Charley Trask. However, in Fredric R. Young’s book, Dodge City, Up Through A Century in Story and Pictures, on page 100 appears the following sentence:
So, you will have to be the judge, was it the same man, separate men, or just a “windy” being spun around the stove on a cold Christmas day by old-timers, determined to be the storyteller with the most outrageous story for the evening.
• ‘Twas Told in Dakota, Anaconda Standard, Anaconda, Montana, 21 December 1902, Page 13.
• Buffalo Hunter Killed 200 Animals in One Day, But Lost Them All to Band of Hostile Redmen, Choteau Acantha, Choteau, Montana, January 7, 1937, Page 3.
• Diary of a Dodge City Buffalo Hunter, Joseph W. Snell, Kansas History Quarterly, Vol 31, No. 4, Winter, 1965, PP 345-395 https://www.kshs.org/p/diary-of-a-dodge-city-buffalo-hunter/17683.
• Frederic R. Young, Dodge City, Up Through A Century in Story and Pictures, Boot Hill Museum, Dodge City, Kansas, 1972, Page 100.