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    Confesions of a Buffalo Butcher

    In 1885, J.A. Allen wrote to the editor of Forest and Stream magazine asking for the readers to contribute any information they had available to help record the demise of the once-great buffalo herds. In this article we print his request, the request of the editor of Forest and Stream to the readers, and one reader’s reply, which I found most interesting.

    What is the Present Distribution of the American Bison? – Editor Forest and Stream

    As is well known, the American bison or “buffalo” has so rapidly decreased in numbers during the last few years that few are not to be found within the limits of the United States, or in the immediately contiguous British territory. If we cannot preserve the bison, we should at least secure a tolerably detailed history of its extirpation. In former years, I gave considerable attention to this subject, and in 1876 published the results of my investigations, illustrated by a map showing its gradual restriction to its then comparatively extended habitat. Its destruction has since gone on at a fearfully rapid pace, till now it is believed to exist within our territorial borders in only very few small numbers and over very restricted areas. Any readers of Forest and Stream who may be able to give exact information as to their destruction and extirpation at particular points during the last decade, and especially within the last five years, will make a most welcome contribution to the history of the last days of this doomed beast. I make the appeal urgently, and in behalf of science, and in the hope that anyone having any facts at command bearing on the subject will feel “in duty bound” to make them known.

    – J.A. Allen (Cambridge, Mass.)1

    Present Range of the Buffalo

    The attention of our readers who are familiar with the old buffalo ranges is called to Mr. Allen’s note in our Natural History columns. It is extremely important that the materials for the closing chapter in the history of this animal should be accumulated at once, and the task of writing this chapter naturally falls to Mr. Allen. Everyone who can contribute any facts about the buffalo should do so immediately. We shall hope to hear from our Western readers at once.2

    Confessions of
    a Buffalo Hunter

    In reply to Mr. J.A. Allen’s inquiry in regard to the present distribution of the American bison and their extermination in certain localities, I will say that I am thoroughly acquainted with the country of which I shall speak, and know personally a great many men who have followed the buffalo for from five to fifteen years, and have done nothing but hunt for a large part of that time, and have now gone to work for a living like other decent people. I hope that I will be able to give the readers of the Forest and Stream a tolerably good idea of the manner in which the noblest and best American game was destroyed. The hundreds of true sportsmen who yet hope to visit the great plains and badlands and see a buffalo in his native wilds are just two years too late. The buffalo is gone, and there’s nothing half so grand now in North America as a herd of buffalo.

    During the month of October, 1882, two companions and myself fitted up a hunting rig for the purpose of making an all-winter camp somewhere on the buffalo range. Contrary to all previous experience it was impossible at that time to locate any large bands of buffalo anywhere in the Northwest, but they had been most frequently met with on the high divides on the south side of the Yellowstone River, with their western limit defined in a general way by the Powder River, and extending eastward well toward the Missouri, and south to within sixty or seventy miles of the Black Hills. Reference to a map of Montana and Dakota will give the reader a fair idea of the country south of the Yellowstone, which was at that time occupied as a winter range by the buffalo.

    It embraces the valleys of all tributaries to Powder River from the east, all of the valleys of Beaver Creek, O’Fallon Creek and the Little Missouri and Moreau rivers, and both forks of the Cannon Ball for almost half their length. This immense territory, lying almost equally in Montana and Dakota, had been occupied during the winters by many thousands of buffaloes from time immemorial, and many of the cows remained during the summer and brought forth their young undisturbed.

    Having left Miles City, Mont., on the 23rd of October we crossed Powder River on the 25th about twenty-five miles from its mouth, and plunged at once into the Bad Lands to find a favorable location for a temporary camp, until such time as we could locate the main herd and find out something about the movements of various bands of Indians and half breeds with which the country was infested.

    We camped about six miles east of Powder River, on a little creek coming down through a narrow valley between impassible bad lands, and having its source away up on the high plateau which form the divide between O’Fallon Creek and Powder River. We found excellent pasture in this little valley and abundant indications that it was frequented by small bands of buffalo.

    On the morning of 26th we all left camp in different directions to look the country over and see what we could find in the way of game. Taking the north side of the valley, I traveled for two hours or more diagonally away from the creek, finding signs plenty, but without seeing any game until I ascended a very high butte, about five miles from camp, which, from its dark and forbidding looks we had named the evening before, Black Mountain.

    The country north and east of where I stood is high, dry and hilly, and about one-third of it is covered with low, scrubby pine. From the top of Black Mountain, I could see a small band of buffalo about three-quarter of a mile away. They were lying down and evidently unsuspicious of any danger. Hastily descending, I took the lowest ground in a direction that would give me the advantage of the wind, being from them to me, and occasionally looked over a knoll to see if they were still quiet. Having placed myself to leeward of them, and the ground being favorable, I had no difficulty in walking up to within about seventy yards of them.

    Peeping over the top of a little ridge I found that they had got up and were quickly feeding along against the wind and occasionally holding their nose up for a long sniff as though their keen sense of smell had already given them a suspicion that all was not right.

    Lying close on the ground I waited until one turned his side to me, and then taking a quick aim, fired a shot which was instantly fatal. That was the very thing I did not intend to do. The one struck fell at the report of my gun, kicked his legs in the air, and as his lungs collapsed he let out a short roar like groan and was dead. The others, five in number, bounded into the air, took one quick look around, saw their fallen fellow and the white cloud slowly lifting above where I lay and then before I could slip in another cartridge they tossed their tails and proceeded to “fill the air with alkali dust and accumulate intervening space” with a celerity that would have done justice to Mark Twain’s jack rabbit.

    My rifle was a Sharps .45-cal. Hammerless and loaded with 120 grains of DuPont FG powder, and the U.S. Government 405-grain grooved bullet, hardened with about eight percent of block tin. Every rifleman will know that ought to be a wonderfully powerful cartridge, as indeed it is, yet from experience in many similar cases I knew it would be worse than useless to shoot at a buffalo from behind, so I lay perfectly still and kept raising my sight as they got further away, hoping that they would change their course enough to present a quartering shot, but was disappointed, and for all I know to the contrary they may be going yet.

    On examination, I found that I had a splendid three-year old bull. My bullet had struck him in the shoulder quite low, smashed the big bones, passed directly through the heart and made a hole over an inch in diameter where it came out. I also found a sliver of bone sticking through the hide two or three inches from where the bullet came out, which proved to be a piece of the shoulder blade from the side away from me. Struck in the same spot with a common lead bullet he would probably have run off on three legs to die several days later. Our bullets were calculated to upset a little when striking the largest bones, but would usually hold their form and go straight through. Every buffalo shooter tries to avoid giving a shot that will kill on the spot, well knowing that if such a one is given it will probably be his last at that band. The following account of our work at another band will give the reader an idea of the methods employed by hunters who can keep cool enough to hold themselves down to business. Considering the perfection of the guns used and the peculiar characteristics of the game, the wonder is not that the buffalo are gone, but that they were not all killed years ago.

    The first few days of our hunt around Black Mountain proving quite successful, we decided to make our location permanent, and built us three camps endurable in all kinds of weather, the two extremes being about twenty-five miles apart.

    By the middle of January, we had stacked up at our various camps 236 cow and calf robes and about 200 buffalo hams. Many of those killed were so far away or in such inaccessible country that the only part saved was the robe and tongue.

    The weather now became so severe that it was impossible to do anything in the way of hunting, and we laid by for three weeks doing nothing but to look after our ponies and cut wood.

    On the 8th of February, the wind came from the west and the weather rapidly moderated, and on the morning of the 19th, it being evident that a thaw was coming on, we once more sallied forth to see if we could see anything to shoot at. I hunted without success until along in the afternoon, when I heard a shot about half a mile away and I immediately started for the place from which the sound came. I counted two, three, four, five, and that sharp, wicked crack I knew came from Price’s .40-90. No other gun talks like a .40-caliber Sharps with 90 grains of DuPont.

    About three shots to the minute! “That means buff, sure!” and I found myself scrambling over logs, dodging pine limbs, and wallowing through snow at a break-neck rate, until completely winded, I took a more moderate gait and soon saw Price lying on top of a ridge among some broken rocks and pumping away at something in the valley beyond. Creeping up alongside of him I saw a little herd of twenty-five or thirty cows and young bulls standing huddled together at the foot of the hill and some eight or ten lying stretched out on the snow.

    Buffalo in herds will not run as a general thing except to follow their leader, or from danger in plain view. Their senses of sight and hearing are not very acute, and by taking advantage of the wind it is no trouble to get quite close to them. If a band is standing and one of them is struck by a bullet, the one struck will bound into the air and run, all the rest following, and if he stops from weakness they all stop. If shot fairly through the lungs a buffalo will run from fifty to one hundred yards, stop, turn once or twice around like a dog that is making a good place in which to lie. He then quietly lies down, his head sinks to the ground, and he dies without a struggle.

    When I crawled up to Price he turned and whispered to me, “Now you keep your fingers out of this pie. I’ve got them to stand and I’ll get the whole band.”

    Presently one stepped out at a brisk walk for a leader, but before he threw himself forward for a run Price had sent a bullet through his ribs. He made a few frantic lunges, stopped, turned around and laid down as quietly as though nothing was wrong. In less than a minute he was far enough gone to require no more attention. The same thing was done over and over. As soon as one stepped out for a leader he was shot, and the herd always stopped with him.

    Presently Price asked me to hand up my gun and take his and wipe it out. I willingly passed it up, along with half a hatful of cartridges, and taking out my field cleaner started to clean his gun, when I was surprised to hear two shots in quick succession followed by a blast of execrations that fairly turned the air blue. It seems that an old cow had started, and Price had miscalculated the distance and shot clean over her. Quick as he was about getting in another cartridge she got under way and caught the bullet through the abdomen. Of course, she did not stop, and the remnant of the herd following her out of sight. Price didn’t swear (?). Oh, no! He wasn’t mad enough. He just waltzed around the whole top of the ridge, kicked the stones, tramped my ammunition into the snow, and condemned that pot-bellied pea slinger to blankety, blankety, blank, blank, blank, and ended by sticking her up to the lock in a snow bank and marching off down the hill caressing his own gun and growling like a bear with a sore head.

    We counted up the kill and had twenty-seven dead, all fine robes; a little bleached on the hump, but salable for all that.

    On the way home that night, and just before dusk, I killed a black-tailed deer at the second shot at a good 500 yards. When he fell, I turned to Price and remarked that the pot-bellied pea slinger always comes up smiling for the last round.

    The next day we finished skinning, and got the last of the hams home a week later. We turned in that spring 286 robes at an average price of $2.20, and a large quantity of meat at three cents a pound, besides 400 pounds of deer and antelope hides. We also sold during the winter at the Government sawmill on the Miles City road about ninety saddles of venison.

    I was only one of probably a thousand men who spent that winter, as they had spent many preceding ones, at just the kind of work I have tried to describe; and that since that time the only buffalo anywhere in the Northwest have been a few stragglers over the old ranges, and occasionally one or two seen in the Big Horn Mountains and in remote corners of the eastern slope of the Rockies.

    I know that the readers of Forest and Stream will say “slaughter, slaughter,” and “pot-hunter.” Gentlemen, I plead guilty. That is exactly what it was. However, if you are ever in Montana, with a long, cold winter coming on and only a few dollars in your pockets, and you know there’s a clean thousand dollars for a winter’s work at “pot-hunting” – well, I don’t ask you to say what you would do, but you know what I did.


    Minnesota, July, 18853


    1. “What is the Present Distribution of the American Bison?” Forest and Stream, Volume XXIV, Number 8, Nos. 39 & 40 Park Rowe, New York, March 19, 1885, Page 145

    2. “Present Range of the Buffalo,” Forest and Stream, Volume XXIV, Number 8, Nos. 39 & 40 Park Rowe, New York, March 19, 1885, Page 143

    3. “Confessions of a Buffalo Butcher,” Forest and Stream, Volume XXIV, Number 25, Nos. 39 & 40 Park Rowe, New York, July 16, 1885, Page 489

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