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feature By: Leo J. Remiger | March, 23
At this particular time, the Territory of Kansas extended from the Missouri River to the crest of the Rocky Mountains. In the eastern part of the territory dwelled the Shawnee, Delaware, Wyandotte, Kickapoo, Sac, Fox, Kansas (Kaw), Osage, Ottawa and assorted fragments of other tribes. On the plains were the Kiowa, Comanche, Cheyenne, Arapahoe, Pawnee and occasionally Ute and Sioux. All were jealous and extremely protective of their hunting grounds.
In the fall of 1859, James Mead organized his first buffalo hunt. Starting from Burlingame, they followed the old Santa Fe Trail through Council Grove to Turkey Creek and then pulled north to the Big Bend of the Smoky Hill, where they found an abundance of buffalo and other game. Mead was so enchanted with the country and prospects for hunting that he made arrangements with two of his party to remain. Together, they crossed north to the Saline River and selected a campsite 20 miles above its mouth. They erected buildings sufficient for residence, defense and trade that soon became known as “Mead’s Ranch.”
The whole territory west of Riley and Butler County was then included in Arapahoe County and comprised an area larger than the present state of Kansas. Surrounded by this vast territory, Mead soon built-up an extensive Indian and fur trade. Many of the northern tributaries of the Saline, Paradise, Wolf and Spillman Creeks were named by Mead based on some incident that was associated with the location. Many of those names are still in use to this day.
While Mead lived on the Saline River, a considerable portion of his time was occupied by various hunting expeditions. On one occasion he was absent in winter nearly three months, not seeing a human being excepting his two companions, narrowly escaping discovery by Indians, and killing more than 400 wolves, many elk, buffalo, deer and other game. After being given up for dead, they returned to the settlements safe and sound, with their teams loaded with furs of sufficient quantity and quality to buy a farm.1
What follows is James R. Mead’s month-long diary of a hunting trip that occurred during October, 1860. I take full responsibility for the errors in transcribing the diary. Many of the words I just could not make out or determine what they represented. Keep in mind this diary was written in the field more than 162 years ago and was probably never meant for public view, much less to be transcribed for an article.
Diary Etc. of James R. Mead and Co.:
Oct 1st – I went out early in the morning and pursued a herd of Buffalo, traveling west, I headed there and succeeded in killing two, a fine cow and young bull, hunted with my boots and pants off. Very warm. In the course of the day shot 12 more making 14 for the day saved hides and tallow.
Oct 2nd – looked for Wolves, put out strychnine for the first, found five Grays, killed 6 Buffalo I started in camp in afternoon, getting teams ready to go to river with load of tallow. Ed mowed.
Oct 3rd – Thomson went out early and shot a bull, w team started to Le with 10 Bbls Tallow. Thomson gave his place to his father and left for Ills. Boys Davies got 6 wolves, our force consists of Mr. Thompson, Ed Thomas, Wash Cavender, Jo & Banyola two Italians and myself, 6 in all.
Oct 4th – I awoke with a high fever which continued all day. Hauled hay. Geo Ed shot two Buffalo, 4 Wolves.
Oct 5th – I some better staid at camp boys worked at camp on house 5 Wolves.
Oct 6th – I went out in morning and shot two fine cows, saw several fine herds. after breakfast went out again and shot 3 bulls and 1 fine cow. Boys got 5 Wolves, brought in a load of meat & hides, windy Buffalo very wild and getting scarce, cows hard to kill concluded to try wolves my self so I put out baits.
Oct 7th – went out in morning and found 19 Wolves came in washed put on a clean shirt &co read papers Wolves getting quite plenty Buffalo scarce, Wind from north.
Oct 8th – got up early all well, small herd in Bottom I went out to them and shot a large cow, rest ran off at full speed, stripped cow, and then went amid the bluffs, on looking around found 20 wolves as the nights work. most of them large ones I attacked two old bulls and gave them a couple of balls each but they both limped off killed one pure white Wolf, afterwards shot two big Bulls, a hunter came to camp, hauled load of hay, saved meat Ed shot P. Chicken and Rabbit, got boots from bluff Buffalo scarce, My Rifle most give out, rejoice 0 Bulls.
Items in brief as they occur:
Oct 9th / 60 – In the morning I went to big ravine boys and team soon followed, found ten wolves & three skunk, saw 3 bull coming across, laid in wait for them, and at four shots they bit the dust, saved meat and hides, in the afternoon went with team and camped at Thompsons spring, I shot a fat cow.
Oct 10th – Wolves howled all night, found seven dead saw a large herd of cows but too far off, shot five bulls took meat and sent Wash to camp in afternoon shot a bull 200 yds across big [illegible] Ed fire 5 shots at another as no effect. towards evening shot 1 very big bull as he came to drink. Wash came back Weather very cold cloudy wind from north.
Oct 11th – got up early and started out saw two Buffalo near killed them each at a single shot, sent meat to camp found seven dead wolves (strychine) attacked 6 bulls and took tongues out of 3 of them heard heavy shooting at turkey fork, cold none but scattering bulls to be found [illegible] gone up sure.
Oct 12th – no Buffalo in sight – started out with team Shot 4 out of 5, put 1 in wagon. 3 Wolves only, saw Antelope plenty Spilman came to camp 3 teams gone up the creek, boys well.
Oct 13th – hung up meat in morning Wash brought in meat of three Buffalo. I staid in camp in forenoon, in afternoon I went to Salina, saw but few Buffalo, folks at Salina all well, staid at Mr Jones found six letter for me in office one Bros, Father one, Sister 1 “Agnes “Rosengarter “Lencar Gate.
Oct 16th – in morning found small herd of cows shot one. found 4 wolves. traveled up Saline. saw a few small herds. saw numerous trails crossed “cash” creek high up, from there on up we found a party of wagons, saw Buffalo I shot cow on Yauger creek camped, grass scarce.
Oct 17th – in morning found 8 Wolves, Mr Parsons and I took our horses and rode up to Spilmans creek, found Buffalo scarce, grass do, returned and shot a bull with jaeger – at 4 shots and blew the tube out of my target gun using it up.
Oct 18th – in morning found 12 wolves B:G cot-found Rattlesnake cave – hitched up team and started for home. stopped on Elk creek and left Ed to kill wolves. we came on and reached camp just at night – allright – found a large party camped near house. Boys killed 2 Buffalo 4 Wolves.
Oct 19th – Mr Parsons went home took 3 wolf pelts and one bottle strychnine. Wash and I went to Peak camp. Tried to kill Buffalo with jaeger but failed weather beautifull.
Oct 20th – in morning took Indian rifle and tried to kill Buffalo got ball fast and had to put the barrel in the fire and melt it out then shot 8 times at a herd but did not kill any concluded it was no use so I came home and then went to ferry to [illegible] again found [illegible] away Shipple at home lots of buffalo hunters goin up Smoky hill.
Oct 21st – came across a Pikes peaker with a good rifle as he came up north [illegible] saw several herds of Buffalo near the [illegible] [illegible], folks [illegible] of his on act. of horses & Banyola up the creek.
Oct 22nd – went to break camp took Drummer’ gun shot one Bull in morning al 4 shots afterwards shot a fat cow and two bulls. dressed them all and sent meat to camp.
Oct 23rd – in morning found my Pony was gone having dragged off the stick to which he was fastened sent Jo to look for him, while I shot two bulls close to camp: Drummer started back two miles after some of his things. I not very well, in afternoon came home afoot after my pony, heard nothing of [illegible], seven teams came down, Le Howe K Folk B Clark.
Oct 24th – found my pony in Bottom at shanty left him and went into the hills with team. shot three Bulls shot one through the head sent all the meat to camp.
Oct 25th – went to the higher point near and could put out large bait not see any Buffalo, none around all day vs evening.
Oct 29th – started for mud creek to get Rifle, arr[ived] at noon found Bernet gone My self and black s[mith] fixed gun staid all night. Fixing gun &co 1.50.
Oct 30th – started home at 11 arrived at eight shoulder sore, Burr & G gone about team here who have lost an ox, Box strychnine arrived.2
The dry summer of 1860, kept the buffalo out of the area and allowed the grass to green up. Mead reported that in the fall the buffalo herded south along the eastern border of their range in order to feed on the new growth grass. The buffalo kept coming until the valley was full of them. In a week’s time, nearly all the grass in the country was cropped off close to the ground. For another three weeks, a steady wave of buffalo fed toward the south, night and day.
The story of how he acquired the two Italians, as companions, is rather funny. Mead and companions had been back east to the settlements visiting friends and acquiring supplies for the next season’s worth of trading and hunting. In their absence a number of Italians occupied the “Mead Ranch.” Mead continues the story:
“A few days later I took my two Italians on a little hunt about a mile from camp where I shot a number of buffalo cows. Turning one upon its back, I split the hide down the legs and lengthwise of the body, and started them in to skinning the animal. I then went to work on some others lying nearby. After taking the skin off two cows, I walked over to see how my two Italians were progressing. They had skinned down one side of the cow-which is about a fair illustration of the difference between a green hand and an experienced plainsman.
“Another time I told them to take the tongue out of a bull I had killed, lying near by. After about half an hour, seeing that they had met with some difficulty, I walked over and found that they had pried the buffalo bull’s mouth open, wedged it with a rock, and were trying to get the tongue out from between his teeth. Taking it in the proper manner from under the jaw, I could remove it in ten seconds.
“Camp life in our isolated home on the ranch was very pleasant. We put up some buildings and started in to cure a great quantity of buffalo meat that winter, imagining we could make money handling that. We were impressed with the thought that our willful waste would make a woeful want, and therefore we started in the very laudable design of saving all of the buffalo possible. I saved the hides by pegging them out on the ground. To do this we hauled the green hides to our camp, wherever that might be, with a wagon. There we selected a smooth piece of ground in a sunny situation and proceeded to peg them out by cutting about twenty-four small holes in the edge of the skin and driving a little peg through each into the ground, stretching the hide into its proper shape equally in every direction, and to its fullest possible size. In three or four days it would be dry and smooth as a shingle and as tight drawn between the pegs as a drum head. It could then be taken up, or might remain without harm where it was for a considerable time; and when taken up they could be folded together and piled up with almost as much regularity as a pile of large planks. This was necessary as we hauled them about two hundred miles to market, and it was important to have them lie smooth and close together on the wagon.
“I also undertook to save the long curly hair from the buffalo head, and I did save several hundred pounds. But, failing to find a market for it, I took a quantity of it to a hair curling establishment and had it renovated and curled and made into a very large and splendid mattress, which I sent as a present to my father.
“From all the young buffalos that were in good condition, we took the hams and loins and hump steaks - the best parts - to our ranch and salted them slightly, put them in great piles, and allowed them to remain in the building for a few days. We then hung them in a large smoke-house that we had constructed and smoked them until sufficiently cured. In this manner we cured a great many tons of meat, but we found that there was no market for it and the cost of transportation to the Missouri River was a great obstacle in the way. So we found that the curing of meat as a business was a failure.
“We also tried our hand at curing buffalo tongues, of which we had hundreds from our own hunting and also in trading with the Indians. We had learned that an Indian-cured buffalo tongue was one of the choicest delicacies we had eaten, and we flattered ourselves that we could cure our own buffalo tongues and have them all the year round in great abundance. So we proposed to put them in a pickle of brine for a short time and then afterwards hang them up in the chimney which we had built for the purpose, thinking that the smoke and heat would cure them. This, however, we found to be a mistake. The Indians watched us while we were experimenting and, shaking their heads said, “Heap no good.” We came to the conclusion that they knew a good deal more about it than we did, and that their opinion of our method was correct. We afterwards found out how the Indians themselves cured the tongues. They would first boil them until well done, then split them in two and make a hole in the small end of each half. They then hung them up and smoked them a little without any heat, and let them dry in that condition. When dried in this manner they were the choicest of all meat that a mortal on the plains ever had - at least we thought so - and were the best possible provision for a hasty trip on horseback.
“We also saved a large number of beautiful buffalo horns, but could find no market for them, so they were allowed to lie on the ground and go to waste. In the course of our experiments we thought we would engage in the manufacture of neat’s-foot oil, which is made from the hooves and feet of domestic cattle. So I collected about a barrel full of buffalo feet, took off the skin and washed them carefully, then chopped the hooves and feet in pieces with an ax on a block, and put them in a large iron kettle we had and proceeded to boil them out and manufacture oil. But we found to our surprise that there was no oil of any consequence in a buffalo foot, and that instead of oil we had made a kettle of nice “calves foot jelly,” which we found good eating, but the Indians came along and pronounced it “heap no good.”
“About the only thing we did make a success of out of the carcass of the buffalo was the hides and tallow. We could render tallow out and put it into “bales,” which we made by constructing a frame of round sticks just the width of the wagon bed, 18 inches high, and three feet long. Then, taking a cow’s hide without any hole in it and stretching it while green over this frame and lashing it together at the top and letting it dry in the sun, it became as tight as a drum, and if struck sounded a great deal like one. We would render out the tallow in our large kettle and when it was cool, pour it into these skin boxes until they were full. The boxes, or bales as we called them, each held about 500 pounds. In that form it would keep for a long time, could be transported any distance, and was always a cash merchantable article of commerce.
“The hides could also be kept for a reasonable length of time if care was exercised in keeping them dry and in excluding the moths, which were very destructive in the summer time. On one occasion I had eighteen hundred hides on hand which were damaged to the extent of a dollar apiece by the moths. In speaking of hides, I do not mean the dressed robe; these moths fed exclusively on hides. When full-grown they are about an inch in length and very destructive. I never saw that variety of moth on buffalo skin. They work on the fur side, greatly damaging the skin for the purpose for which it is used. Most of these hides were taken to eastern markets and used for covering government saddle trees, as they made the best cover of any hide known and at much less cost than beef hides. This was during the Civil War. In the summer time it was necessary to remove the hide soon after the animal was killed or the hot sun would spoil it.
“There was one method of curing buffalo meat which proved a great success. I took the hams of some fine fat heifers and young cows in the fall and, taking out the bone, left the ham entire. These I packed in barrels, putting a very little salt in each ham and around it, until the barrels were full, then putting a heavy stone on it. The barrels were filled so full that what little brine was formed ran over the top, the weights pressing the meat down. In this way the meat kept perfectly throughout the winter without any further care, and we had the most delicious steaks cut off those hams. One slice or cut could fill a frying pan full of the finest meat I ever ate. We saved four or five barrels of meat in that way for home consumption, which we used during the winter.
“We found by experience that the Indians knew vastly more about handling the products of the buffalo than we did, as they had been in that business since long before Columbus sailed into the unknown western seas. Their method of curing meat was to cut it into long strips and weave it into a large mat. They would then make a framework of willows three or four feet high and spread the mats of braided buffalo meat over frames. Underneath this they would build a small fire which would slowly roast and dry the meat until it was beautifully cooked. They would then fold it into squares the size of their leather “bales,” which they made for that purpose of prepared raw-hides, and press the meat in until the “bales” were tightly packed. Then they would pour tallow into all the crevices, making a solid mass. This meat would keep for a year perfectly good, and was ready to eat without any further preparation at any time, and was most excellent food.
“The Indians also saved a great quantity of tallow which they put into “bales” in the same manner. Sometimes during the heat of summer, the Indians would cut the buffalo meat into thin strips which they would spread on platforms of poles built up from the ground, and let it dry in the sun and wind until it was thoroughly cured, making what would be called “jerked beef” or “jerked buffalo.” This method was always a success on the dry, arid plains.
“The usual method I adopted for killing buffalo, and that which proved the most successful and satisfactory, was to hunt them on foot. When I wished to go on a hunt, I would harness a team and take with me two men and a saddle pony. A camp kit, provisions and blankets, my rifle and a good butcher knife apiece completed the outfit. I would then travel in the direction in which I supposed the buffalo to be - usually a day or two days drive to the west of our “ranch” - and on coming in sight of herds would establish a temporary camp. Then, taking advantage of some sheltered ravine, and approaching them as near as possible on horse back without being observed, I would picket my pony and allow him to graze while I crawled forward, taking advantage of the inequalities of the ground to approach sometimes within fifty yards, often two or three times that distance. Selecting one which appeared to be a leader of the herd, I would shoot it, usually aiming low down just at the back edge of the shoulder, ranging a little forward. The heart of the buffalo lies low down, nearly at the bottom of the brisket, and three-fourths of the distance from the hump down to the brisket of the animal. A shot at that point is necessarily fatal in a moment or two. If I succeeded in killing the animal I shot at - which I usually did - the others would crowd round it or stand waiting for it to get up and lead them, apparently not apprehending any danger, and not understanding the reason their leader stopped. After two or three are shot, they pay no further attention to the gun, and if so disposed I could kill the entire herd, or as many as I chose.
“After I had killed the number I wanted, I would mount my pony, ride to the nearest most prominent point, and signal my men to come on. Frequently, hearing the sound of my rifle, my team would drive as close as possible without scaring any game, and wait until I was done shooting. We would then proceed to take the hides and tallow, load our wagons, and return to camp.”3
I will end this article with the following note: Wichita State University Libraries was awarded a grant in 2016, from the National Historical Publication Records and Commission to digitize over 12,000 items from the James R. Mead Papers in Special Collections and University Archives. We have read numerous public domain articles on James R. Mead, but the digital collection of Mead’s papers is a virtual gold mine of early Kansas history from 1859 to 1910. Any reader interested can reach the site at the following URL: https://cdm15942.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/p15942coll152/.
It is certainly worth a visit, not only for James R. Mead’s papers, journals, ledgers and articles but for the photographs of various native and frontier personalities.
1. Portrait and Biographical Album of Sedgwick County, Kansas, Chapman Brothers, Chicago, Illinois, 1888, pp. 154-162
2. Mead, James R., Saline River Diary, October 1860, Courtesy of Wichita State University Libraries, Special Collections and University Archives: https://cdm15942.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/p15942coll152/id/6153/rec/329
3. Mead, James R., Typescript of James R. Mead’s Dictated Memoirs, 1890, Courtesy of Wichita State University Libraries, Special Collections and University Archives: https://cdm15942.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/p15942coll152/id/6325/rec/121