Buffalo Traces—’Path of the Buffalo,’ Part 2

Buffalo Traces—’Path of the Buffalo,’ Part 2

Reenactment of the establishment of Initial Point on the bicentennial of the setting of this significant survey point. Deputy federal surveyors in period dress surveying the buffalo trace as in 1806. Ebenezer Buckingham Jr. U.S. Deputy Surveyor, established the original wooden post on September 1, 1805. The wooden post that marks the Initial Point was replaced by a corner stone in 1866. It was inscribed with an “S 31” for Section 31 by J.H. Lindley, Orange County Surveyor. This site is open to the public. Photo courtesy of the Initial Point Chapter of the Indiana Society of Professional Surveyors. US Forest Service.

Award Won

BEDFORD Oct 18, 2017—The Buffalo Trace Working Group with the Hoosier National Forest received the 2017 Indiana History Outstanding Event and Project Award from the Indiana Historical Society. The group was recognized as instrumental in uncovering the history of the Buffalo Trace and mapping its route through southern Indiana.

In December 2014 a group of interested Hoosiers—22 to 30 volunteers—met with the National Forest personnel and began searching for and documenting the remnants of Indiana’s oldest trail, known as the Vincennes Buffalo Trace through the National Forest and across the southern part of Indiana.

Within 3 years the group succeeded in mapping the original buffalo pathway, created a website devoted to the Buffalo Trace and an online interactive map highlighting historic resources along the route.

They were following the lead of early surveyors with William Rector and Crew in 1805 to 1807 —President Thomas Jefferson’s “army of young men”—who went through southern Indiana marking 160-acre farms with “north-south and east-west lines” with wood posts and dirt mounds every half mile.

Indiana was the first state to be completely laid out under the rectangular Public Land Survey System where the state was divided into six mile by six mile square townships, each containing 36 numbered sections of 640 acres each.

The buffalo left their mark in Indiana and Kentucky in deep, hard-packed roads—called Buffalo Traces.

David Ruckman, a retired surveyor and author who helped to locate the Trace, says it is the notes these young surveyors kept long ago that he and other modern surveyors relied on.

Their best resource became the notes and descriptions of those young surveyors.

They had marked the points where each quarter-section intersected the path of the buffalo—through the length and breadth of the Vincennes Buffalo Trace and the various routes that it took.

It was not a single route, but sometimes multiple trails—caused by local conditions such as years of flooding that may have changed routes.

In places the Vincennes Buffalo Trace was 12 to 20 feet wide and worn down to a depth of 12 feet, even cutting down through solid rock.

These routes forged a hard-packed swath through hills, creeks and forests that were easily followed by Native Americans, early pioneers, soldiers during the Revolutionary War and later even automobiles. The pathways made travel easy through dense forests.

They helped to mark Hwy 150—the main route of ancient buffalo migrations between what are now Vincennes and Louisville. Huge herds of buffalo summered on the Illinois prairie and followed this trail to winter in Kentucky.

However, over the years most of these pathways were covered over and hidden by the new roads, corn fields and the urban sprawls of civilization.

Location of the Buffalo Trace cabin in the Smokey Mountains. The trace cut a broad swath through the dense trees in a wide, deep road traveled by Native Americans and many pioneers coming into Indiana as well as commercial traffic.

The working group—county surveyors, former surveyors, archeologists, research scientists, U.S. Forest Service workers and others—shared information they discovered about the Buffalo Trace, showing maps from the early 1800s with a road that followed the old bison trail across southern Indiana, with smaller trails that led to springs near where French Lick now stands and other salt licks into Kentucky.

Their mission was to research, locate and preserve the location and historical significance of the Buffalo Trace in southern Indiana and to present their information to schools and the public.

Within those 3 years they reached most of their goals:

  • Use historical records to determine the location for the primary trail from the Ohio River crossing at Clarksville to the Wabash River in Vincennes.
  • Physically locate the remaining remnants of the Trace in all the counties, which include Clark, Floyd, Harrision, Crawford, Orange, Dubois, Pike and Knox.
    • Preserve the historical information and document its significance by publishing brochures and developing other resources that will educate the public about the Buffalo Trace.
    • Produce a final document compiling all that the group has learned—in time to have it be part of Indiana’s bicentennial celebration in 2016. This included putting up signs, developing a website and planning special events, such as re-enacting early surveys.

Path of the Buffalo

According to David Ruckman buffalo were actually “The new kids on the block.” They arrived east of the Mississippi River about the time of European discovery of America in 1492, he writes, and had vanished from Indiana by 1810 –about 300 years in all.

By the year 1800, bison had mostly disappeared from east of the Mississippi River. Settlers were filling the lands known as the Northwest Territory—the area around the Great Lakes and farther south. Urban sprawl began covering most of their pathways.

Still, though it’s rare, the careful observer may find an ancient rut made by the buffalo.

Today, local historians and researchers are trying to piece together those ruts and knobs of the Buffalo Traces.

Reinactment: Indiana was the first state to be completely laid out under the rectangular Public Land Survey System where the State was divided into six mile by six mile square townships/ ranges containing 36 numbered sections of 640 acres each. Townships run north-south and ranges run east-west. Courtesy US Forest Service.

Today, US Route 150 between Vincennes and Louisville, Kentucky, follows a portion of this path. Sections of the improved Trace have been designated as part of a National Scenic Byway that crosses southern Indiana.

Historians have been alert too—surveying the ancient routes from historic documents, establishing parks along the way and placing signs at the salt licks.

Work in the Field

One part of the project that took hours was walking through fields and along creeks, looking for visible signs of the Buffalo Trace. Not easy, as it is covered nearly everywhere with layers of civilization.

David Drake, a retired surveyor from Orange County, shared the recent findings from some treks he took in Orange County with fellow surveyor Tom Moore. The two were using the 1805 survey by William Rector, who surveyed the Buffalo Trace to establish the Indian treaty lines through the state.
Rector followed the Trace, establishing on paper where it was located and then had to mark a line for the treaty that was at least a half mile north of the most northerly turn of the Trace.

Drake said he used old maps to locate parts of the Trace just south of French Lick, but other segments were missing. Some parts follow roads but end in fields and woods before picking up again on another road.

The area the group walked was one of the locations Drake believes may contain part of the Trace. The land is owned by Drake’s relative. In one area, the Rector map showed the Trace traveling up a hill.

“It went up a hill and we couldn’t figure out why,” he said.

After walking up the hill, Drake and Moore discovered the reason.

Depressions in the soil showed there was once a salt lick at the top—the attraction that led the buffalo up the hill. Then on the other side, the buffalo went down the hill and on their way.

Another time, Ruckman noted that an early trading post had been built at a certain point in the trail. For several years the activity there caused migrating buffalo herds to make a new trail veering around it.

Ruckman’s Retracement Notes

David Ruckman made extensive notes on his section of the Vincennes Trace—which began at the Ohio River crossing from Kentucky into Indiana.

Ruckman began his survey at the Ohio River crossing in its shallowest point—as the buffalo had chosen for their crossing.

He said he had difficulty matching up his survey with the first notes of the early surveyors of 1805 to 1807 because “they did not start their Historic Survey at the Falls of the Ohio where our study starts, but northwest in Floyd County on the west line of the George Rogers Clark Military Grant on Greybrook Lane in New Albany.”

“[This] caused me many visits to the area looking for scars of the trace where I found none.”

Below is a sampling of his report:

  • “The Trace mounts the north bank of the Ohio River at the intersection of Croghan and Vincennes Streets, (1107730.78 n, 294361.34 e ), in the original William Clark Survey Map of the 1000 acre town of Clarksville, being our true place of beginning;

A sketch of the rapids in the Ohio River. The Falls in the Ohio between what is now Louisville and Clarksville made a rapid descent over a series of ledges formed by Devonian rock rich in fossils. In high stages of water the falls disappeared completely. During low water times, the whole width of the river had the appearance of a series of waterfalls with great flats of rock beds. There is now a state park in the location where the buffalo and the historic trace crossed from Kentucky into Indiana. This site is open to the public. Sites listed as having limited access are private sites with specific areas or times that they are accessible to the public. Clark County. Falls of the Ohio State Park website.

  • “Thence meandering north with the present day Emory Lane about one half mile to a Dry Trace Fork, whereupon the Dry Trace Fork went northwest, crossing Silver Creek at a point 90 feet north of the original McCullough Pike—Market Street Bridge location over Silver Creek, the other, northern Wet Weather Fork, continues north with said Emory Lane to cross State Road 62, ( Chief White Eye Trail).
  • “Thence the Trace spread out across the flat Silver Creek Valley just west of Providence High School, as it continues north to intersect with the Gutford Road at the southeast high bank overlooking Silver Creek, fifty feet below.
  • “Thence northeasterly and northwesterly following the present Gutford Road and said high bluff, passing Jane Sarles home and continuing about 5/8 mile to break northwest away from the present road, along the scar of the original Trace, ( 1116904.56 N, 292354.84 E ), to cross the slate bottom Silver Creek into Floyd C ounty at the Gutford crossing just east of Armstrong Bend;
  • “Thence this northern fork mounted the west bank of Silver Creek, to join the present Old Ford Road meandering up the hill to the flat ridgetop known as Lone Star and the intersection with the Indiana Ancient Trail—Charlestown Road and the ongoing Ancient Trail out Klerner Lane through the Indiana University Southeast Campus to join Bald Knob Road and the ascent up the steep Floyd County Knobs;
  • “Thence returning back to the Lone Star intersection, the Trace turned southwest following present day Charlestown Road about two miles to the intersection of the Trace where the Market Street Dry Fork Trace meets at Limerick Hill, the present intersection of Charlestown Road and the Vance Avenue;
  • “Thence returning back to Silver Creek and the Market Street/ McCullough Pike crossing point 90 feet north of the now vanished bridge;
  • “Thence, from there, it can be ascertained that the Trace made a fairly direct route nearly due west crossing the Ancient Trail “ Slate Run Trace”, through the east end of New Albany, passing Silver Street School, the National Cemetery and Hazelwood Jr. High,
  • “Thence climbing 7 Vance Avenue continuing west crossing the Ancient Trail Charlestown Road at a high point of the old Limerick Hill ;
  • “Thence continuing northwest along Vance Avenue to Falling Run;
  • “Thence from Falling Run Valley the 1805 Trace jogs south to avoid Parkers Station at Daisy Lane;

Ruckman then discussed going uphill at the southwest “to join the Rector Survey beginning point on Greybrook Lane and Country Club Lane just south of the 1790 Parker Family Settlement at Daisy Lane and the Grant Line, the Parker Family being one of the very first settlements in Floyd County.“
Allowable error for the Rector Linear Survey was noted to be 1 survey chain per mile. Later Ruckman pointed out the surprising accuracy of that 1805 survey, considering this allowed error.

“Now forward West, based on Rector and other Surveyor notes.

  • “Thence from the jog at Parkers Station at Greybrook and Country Club Drive hilltop the Rector notes of the 1805 Trace bend northwesterly following Greybrook Ridge past Elliott Phillips apartments and then descending down into the Falling Run Valley, where I once was a wild child swinging on grapevines and catching Falling Run catfish for dinner;
  • “Thence across the Daisy Radio Tower tract to cross Daisy lane near Falling Run Creek and joining the Original Trace from Greybrook Hill;
  • “Thence bending due west parallel to Daisy Lane to cross Green Valley Road just north of the intersection of Daisy Lane and Green Valley Road;
  • “Thence bending northwest curving just south of Trinity Run and proceeding through the New Albany Water Park to cross State Street at I-265;
  • “Thence meandering west through the Psi Duke substation and continuing along Trinity Run Valley (Binford road being on north edge), to exit said valley (1116508.54 N, 273038.37 E ) at the Holtz farm in the northwest quarter of Section 28 -2s-6e;

Buffalo sculptures are popular attractions in gardens and parks along the Buffalo Trace.

  • “Thence turning northwest following the old Trace and stone mining road winding now up the east face of the Floyd County Knobs.

Ruckman wrote that the Trace at that point had been widened by stonemason wagons, mining and hauling stone downhill to the upstart New Albany Village, whose only stone was slate. He said this strip mine scar is over a mile in length and is sometimes mistaken for the Trace. “The Trace winds and wraps its way up the steep ridge bone knob spine from the Trinity Run Valley through the Holtz farm in Section 28, on its way to the top of the Knobs at Fawcett Fox Ridge, now Chambord.”

  • “Thence [it goes] westerly, crossing Old Hill Road in Section 20 ( 1118875.25 N, 270921.35 E ), at the Hanka driveway proceeding along west, passing the William and Edith Hanka 1800’s hand hewn log lodge home in the southeast quarter of Section 20, 2s, – 6e; continuing west just north of the old Copler home along the ridge top through the tall oak timber. The Trace is barely visible in the woods, bending just south of a stone at the center of section 20, to follow a flat top wooded ridgetop and descending the west side of the Floyds Knobs through Charles Roberson’s land down a well-trod fork on the left (1119161.03 N, 267869.44 E and an existing incline pathway on the right (1119657.49 N, 268075.82 E), before coming together in the Floyds Knobs Valley;
  • “Thence west crossing said valley and Little Indian Creek (1119748.48 N, 267683.89 E) at the existing road creek crossing, (about 1, 000 feet south of Paoli Pike at Schupert’s corner);
  • “Thence westerly up the western side of the Floyds Knobs Valley and grassy field, passing just south of the Jim Bezy machine shop and a Doe Creek Tributary intersecting said Indian Creek,
  • “Thence westerly up the hill across Knable Court, meandering west just south of Luther Road, crossing Lawrence Banet Road at Luther Road;
  • “Thence continuing west, crossing a small tributary at Ken and Sandy Groh’s driveway and the center of Section 19;
  • “Thence meandering west with the Ken Groh driveway ( 1120461.31 N, 263204.64 E ), departing same west up the gentle grass hillside, passing just north of the Dennis Richard’s home and then the Monte Givens home before crossing US 150, about 700 feet south of Luther Road;
  • “Thence northwest through the Sperzel Woods to join Luther Road at the Highlander Ridge high point in Section 24 – 2s,- 5e;
  • “Thence flowing west along Luther Road, diverting from the existing road at the Yeager farm entrance;
  • “Thence westerly through the Ray Yeager farm and following the Rector calls in a direct line through the lands of Richard Libs and passing the Dr. Ragan home place, about 528 feet west of the common corners of Sections 13,14,23 and 24. Both Rector and the Rectangular Surveyors agree that the Trace crossed approximately 528 feet west of the northeast corner of Section 23, t-2-s, r-5-e, on the border between Mt. Saint Francis and Dr. Ragan’s home place;
  • “Thence proceeding west and northwest, passing just north of Floyd Central High School in Section 14 2s, 5e, proceeding northwest through the south portions of Benchmark and Quailwood, crossing northwest into Section 15 and through the Ruckman/ McWilliams Farm Plat in Sections 15 and 10, in a direct course about 5,412 feet, to a turn near the NW corner of the SW ¼ of the SE ¼ of Section 10- t-2-s, r-5-e , just southwest of Galena, and being one of the most northeasterly turns of the Trace, whereupon Rector’s return treaty line was to be at least ½ mile north of this turn.

Ruckman briefly hints at the excitement and discouragement that drove him on, day by day.

“In my retracement, I had many exciting ‘discovery’ moments. . . sometimes standing and or walking where the Buffalo trod.

“However, there were many disappointing days wandering and searching for any possible faint Trace scars, nearly invisible now. Or following an old abandoned former roadway only to find it turn away from the overall westerly Trace direction, proving it was not evidence of the Trace, merely a now-abandoned farm road.”


Parks along the Trace

Historians have been active too—surveying the ancient routes from historic documents, establishing parks along the way and placing signage to identify Buffalo Licks and other historic points.

Historic and modern signs mark the Buffalo Traces. Parts of the Original Trace have been protected for years and marked with hand-painted signs as the above which warns “Experienced Hikers & Mountain bikers—if in doubt please stay out!!!” Presumably this warning is an after thought to spare the fragile trail from wear and tear of experts who have been here before.

Parts of the Original Trace have been protected, including sections in the Hoosier National Forest and a small tract within Buffalo Trace Park, a preserve maintained by Harrison County, Indiana—and with these recent revelations—perhaps there’ll be more signage to come.

Distilleries along the trace attempt to usurp the Buffalo Trace Designation for their own purposes—and make it appear that the Trace and even buffalo themselves are overshadowed by Buffalo Trace Bourbon. Note the spectacular water tower! Try googling Buffalo Trace and see how many liquor bottles pop up! But despite this emphasis from some quarters, we have George Bird Grinnell’s nineteenth century statement of fact that “Americans are water-drinking people!” He contrasts this with drinking habits of people in many other places in the world—and therefore, he points out that we Americans need to keep our water clean.

Are historic roads important? Many major transportation routes of prehistoric and early historic times have been lost to history. Some are completely forgotten, both their story and their location lost.

For others, remnants of the road exist but their history is lost, and for some their physical location is lost, still the background of the road lingers in local folklore and histories

However, growing interest in prehistoric and historic trails has led to an increase in archaeological and historical research of these cultural resources, as remnants of old roads and trails abound. As here in Indiana they can be recognized as areas of over grown ruts, wide paths free of trees in forested areas and pathways eroded into the landscape.

Some can be found with a dry laid stonewall or single course of stone along the side of the road. Most of these can be attributed to small lanes used to get around the property by the landowner, or for farming or logging.

Survey notes, plat maps and other documents provide clues as archeologists continue to discover more sections, aided by modern technologies such as GIS and GNSS. Today some are part of the newly designated Historic Pathways and National Scenic Byway.

Buffalo Trace website: https://buffalotrace.indianashistoricpathways.org/

Story Map: https://usfs.maps.arcgis.com/apps/MapTour/index.html?appid=3d76729e954f4b63ba73cd5956e8039f

Hoosier National Forest: https://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/hoosier/specialplaces/?cid=fsbdev3_017492



Francie M Berg

Author of the Buffalo Tales &Trails blog

Buffalo Traces—‘Path of the Buffalo’, Part 1

Buffalo Traces—‘Path of the Buffalo’, Part 1

US Hwy 150 follows the Vincenne Buffalo Trace across southern Indiana from the falls of the Ohio River on the east. Historic pathways.org.

Bison east of the Mississippi have mostly disappeared from American memory. Yet, up until the Revolutionary War, buffalo could be found from New York to Florida and from the Mississippi River to the tide-water lands of the east coast.

They left their mark in Indiana and Kentucky in deep, hard-packed trails—called Buffalo Traces.
Various trails also converged around the major salt licks, probably near present-day Lick Fork and French Lick in Indiana.

Buffalo only arrived east of the Mississippi River about the time of European discovery of America in 1492, according to Indiana historian David Ruckman, a retired surveyor and author who is helping to locate the Trace. They vanished from Indiana by 1810 –“along with most of Indiana’s Native American families and the remnants of their proud tribes.”

The mineral springs of the valley, now famous for their high sulfur content, also contained high natural levels of salt.

As the spring water spread over the rocks and ground surrounding them, the water evaporated and left the salt behind.

An Englishman first reported bison near the Potomac River in 1612.

Until they were hunted to extinction by white settlers, buffalo were widespread and in places regionally abundant, leaving lasting impressions on the eastern landscape.

When the French and British colonists first came into what is now southern Indiana in the 1700s, thousands of bison were traveling in their annual fall migrations through the wilderness from the grasslands of the Great Plains across the Falls of the Ohio River, then south into Kentucky.

What an area of the Buffalo Trace looks like today. The Springs Valley Trail System follows the route of the Buffalo Trace for part of its length. If you look carefully, you may be able to visualize the long abandoned trace that played such an important part in one state’s history.

In 1732 the French founded a trading post near the Buffalo Trace’s Wabash River crossing. It later grew into the town of Vincennes in Indiana.

In 1769, Daniel Boone related seeing thousands of buffalo on the western Kentucky bluegrass. Such big numbers came together primarily at mineral licks that attracted bison from all directions, as could be seen by many radiating trails.

Also in 1769, George Washington killed bison in the Kanawha Valley of West Virginia. At this time bison were rather plentiful in the Ohio River Valley.

In a 1787 diary entry, Gen. Josiah Harmar, marching from Vincennes to the Falls of the Ohio, passed through the valley and reported, “A Great Quantity of Buffalo at this Lick.”

In 1792, Moravian missionary John Heckewelder was in a group that camped in the valley for the night, and he wrote of a “Salt spot, several acres in size” littered with animal bones.

Early residents of the area told tales of the bellows of buffalo bulls reverberating in the hills during the rut season.

Buffalo wallow: The mud holes were large buffalo wallows close to White Oak Springs, present day Petersburg. Historic writings mention groups staying near “the mudhole,” and speak of all the paths that radiated out from the wallows and how easy it was to get lost when you left to continue down the trace. They remarked that the woods around the area were quite bare. Many heads and skeletons of buffalo were to be found where they had been shot or died. Buffalo often wallowed in muddy areas to coat their fur with a protective layer of mud to keep off flies and other insects. This site is located on private land with no public access. Photo courtesy of US Geological Survey.

In Indiana the Vincennes Trace’s main line split into several smaller trails that converged northeast of Jasper, near several large ponds, or mud holes, where hundreds of bull buffalo took their turns at wallowing, especially in breeding season—July and August.

Over the centuries the large heavy buffalo created a broad trail through the timbered country.

After a major crossing at the Wabash River going west, the Trace split into separate trails that led across Illinois to the Mississippi River or went north toward what would become Chicago.

The Trace crossed the White River at several points, including near the present-day towns of Petersburg and Portersville, Indiana.

In Chicago, the Trace is called Vincennes Avenue, and after state-funded improvements and straightening, parts became State Street.

Huge herds of buffalo summered on the Illinois prairie and wintered in Kentucky.

The Buffalo Traces were also often “depressed below the original surface, with here and there a knob remaining to shew its former elevation.”

This buffalo migration route was well known and used by early American Indians traveling between the Great Lakes and Tennessee.

Buffalo are good swimmers, but their known crossings were often in the shallowest parts of rivers, as it was in crossing the Ohio at its falls into Indiana from Kentucky. ApogeePhoto.com.

Buffalo are strong swimmers. Yet their known river crossings were often in the shallowest parts of the rivers. That was the case in the buffalo crossing of the Ohio River from Kentucky into Indiana.

In the fall when late calves are still quite young, they might have difficulty swimming alongside their mothers.
Another difficulty was when ice began breaking up. Big chunks of ice interfered with the swimming buffalo and many drowned, so finding shallow crossings were important to the big herds.

Buffalo—’New Kids on the Block’

Buffalo didn’t discover the delights of these eastern states early—as they spread across the Great Plains of America and Canada. But when they did, they made their mark.

Bison appear to have been less abundant east of the Appalachian Mountains and rare within the forested mountains.

According to one Indiana historian David Ruckman, a retired surveyor and author who is helping to locate the Trace, buffalo were “The new kids on the block.”

Buffalo only arrived east of the Mississippi River about the time of European discovery of America in 1492, and had vanished from Indiana by 1810 –“along with most of Indiana’s Native American families and the remnants of their proud tribes,” writes Ruckman.

During the buffalo’s 300 or so years of travel from the Great Plains through Indiana, they left their pathways, he says.

“The Buffalo herds and the ever-trailing packs of panthers and wolves followed parts of existing footpaths, and then by necessity carved their own footpaths, not only through the eight southern Indiana counties, from Clark to Knox, but throughout other parts of Indiana as evidence and legend tells.”

Early travelers along the Buffalo Trace described the thousands of buffalo enjoying the salt licks and grazing the thick underbrush of the cane-breaks in Kentucky.

The mineral springs of the area, now famous for their high sulfur content, also contained high natural levels of salt. As the spring water spread over the rocks and ground surrounding them, the water evaporated and left the salt behind.

George Wilson, an early historian, wrote, “Those who traveled the Traces, in turn, were the buffalo, the Indians, ‘le coureur de bois’ priests, French salt hunters, pioneers, soldiers, settlers, governors, and mail carriers trod these tried and true routes.”

The Buffalo Trace across southern Indiana was followed by all these individuals and groups from earliest times. The Traces made it much easier for pioneers to travel through forests with their wagons.

Often dangerous too. The British incited Indian tribes, who hunted there, to make war on Americans who ventured into what was first called the Northwest Territory of Quebec.

Traveling the Trace

Used for hundreds of years by the Indians, the Trace was likely familiar to the French, who probably visited mineral licks along its route.

Known as the Buffalo or Vincennes Trace, the travel-way was known as durable as any road built today. Early pioneers used the Trace to cross the state and modern roads have been built along portions of its route.

As the colonists took control of the Illinois country during the Revolutionary War, the Trace became a busy overland route. This made it a target for Indian war parties, who were often armed by their allies, the British.

Early settlers and military men remarked on the importance of traveling on the Buffalo Traces. They could follow well-trod roads through the densest forests.

Later European traders and American settlers learned of the Vincennes Trace, and many used it as an early land route to travel west for settlement into Indiana and Illinois. It is considered the most important of the Buffalo Traces into Illinois.

Early settlers and military men remarked on the importance of traveling on the Buffalo Traces. They could follow well-trod roads through the densest forests.

George Rogers Clark was an American surveyor, soldier, and militia officer who joined other colonists from Virginia to claim new land in Kentucky. In 1786, Clark marched 1,000 militia men to Fort Sackville at Vincennes over the Buffalo Trace.

With the Revolutionary War, as the highest-ranking American officer on the northwestern frontier, he organized armies of men and led them several times on the Vincennes Buffalo Trace.

At the time the region was part of the British Province of Quebec, which spanned all or large parts of six U.S. states (Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and the northeastern part of Minnesota).

General George Rogers Clark’s strategy of collecting strong intelligence on the local defenses, followed by a surprise attack in winter were critical in catching the British leader and his men at Vincennes unaware and vulnerable.

He is best known for his captures of Vincennes and Kaskaskia during the Illinois Campaign.

After the war, in the late 1780s, the US government granted land in New York, Ohio and Indiana to veterans as payment for service. George Rogers Clark and his men were granted “many acres of land,” which became known as Clark’s Grant.

Some historians credit Clark with nearly doubling the size of the original 13 colonies when he seized control of Illinois lands from the British during the war.

Clark’s Illinois campaign—particularly the surprise march to Vincennes—was greatly celebrated and romanticized. He became known as the “Conqueror of the Old Northwest,” capturing territory in remarkable victories that helped America expand its borders.

After that campaign, he again followed the Buffalo Trace to return to the Clarksville area. There Clark, who was at one time the largest landholder in the Northwest Territory, was left with only a small plot of land.

Unfortunately, Clark went deeply in debt to finance his troops—outfitting and feeding them— expecting the Virginia officials to reimburse him for his military expenses. They did, but not until several years after his death, when the state granted his estate $30,000 as a partial payment on the debts it owed him (said to have a value of $677,912 today).

Buffalo Disapppeared East of Mississippi

At its most, there probably were about 2 to 4 million bison east of the Mississippi River, historians say.

By the year 1800, bison had mostly disappeared from east of the Mississippi River. Settlers filled the lands known as the Northwest Territory—the area around the Great Lakes and farther south. Urban sprawl began covering up most of their pathways.

The extinction of bison began in east Virginia tidelands by 1730, and proceeded westward as more people settled the frontier.

By the 1770s bison were gone from most or all of North and South Carolina, Alabama and Florida.

The last buffalo were seen in Illinois and Ohio in 1808, and Indiana as late as 1830. The last of the wild bison were seen in Kentucky around 1800.

Other terminal dates for buffalo are given as Georgia in the early 1800s, Pennsylvania 1801, Louisiana 1803, Illinois and Ohio 1808, Tennessee 1823, West Virginia 1825 and Wisconsin 1832.

Burying Buffalo Traces with Roads

Today, the Buffalo Trace is fading into obscurity. The line is left off of most modern maps. And on the ground, there are fewer places each year where the trace can still be followed.

The ‘Buffalo Path’ was known by various names, including Buffalo Trace, Louisville Trace, Clarksville Trace, and Old Indian Road. After being improved as a turnpike, the New Albany-Paoli Pike, among others.

The Trace’s continuous use encouraged improvements over the years, including paving and roadside development. Intensive settlement began to obscure the Pathways themselves.

Layers of civilization now cover the soil above nearly every Buffalo Trace. They have been buried by acres of corn fields, suburban sprawl and traffic snarls.

Still, though it’s rare, the careful observer may find an ancient rut made by the buffalo. Today, local historians and researchers are trying to piece those ruts and the Buffalo Traces together.

Historians have been alert too—surveying the ancient routes from historic documents, establishing parks along the way and placing signs at the Buffalo Licks.

Today, US Route 150 between Vincennes and Louisville, Kentucky, follows a portion of this path.

Sections of the improved Trace have been designated as part of a National Scenic Byway that crosses southern Indiana.

Lost and Forgotten Roads Being Searched

President Thomas Jefferson inspired an army of young men to go to Surveying School in the early days of 1805 to 1807, then sent them out to the Indiana frontier with William Rector and Crew and the mission of surveying the landscape into “thousands of square 160-acre farms, with north-south and east-west lines.”

They marked every half mile with wood posts and dirt mounds and also provided Surveyor’s notes and writings that explained where they intersected with the Vincennes Trace—”the path of the buffalo.”

David Ruckman says it is the notes these young surveyors made long ago that he and other surveyors are now relying on to find and understand the length and breadth of the Buffalo Trace and the various routes that it took.

It was not a single route, but in places multiple trails—sometimes local conditions such as certain years of flooding that may have changed routes.

In December 2014 a group of interested Hoosiers called the Buffalo Trace Working Group group—22 to 30 volunteers—began searching for and documenting the remnants of Indiana’s oldest trail, known as the Vincennes Buffalo Trace.

Today, a group of dedicated volunteers are researching this vital piece of Indiana history—the Buffalo Traces across southern Indiana. Photo courtesy of US Forest Service.

The group first met after Angie Doyle, the heritage program manager and tribal liaison with the Hoosier National Forest, wrote an article about the Buffalo Traces that appeared in The Times-Mail.

Almost immediately Doyle was inundated with phone calls and emails from people, many of whom knew where a segment of the Buffalo Trace was located.

“I’ve been trying to identify segments of the Trace for many years,” Doyle said. “I thought, I’m going to put all of these people together and introduce them to each other.”

An enthusiastic group of 22 volunteers began meeting monthly. They formed committees and

began working toward locating portions of the Buffalo Trace.

On one occasion the whole group—county surveyors, former surveyors, archeologists, research scientists, U.S. Forest Service workers and others—spent a day in French Lick walking along a creek in an area south of the town where the Trace may have been and learning about that Buffalo Trace.

The group shared information they had discovered about the Buffalo Trace, showing maps from the early 1800s that had a road that followed the old bison trail across southern Indiana, with smaller trails that led to the salt licks and springs near where French Lick now stands.

The group developed a mission statement to research, locate and preserve the location and historical significance of the Buffalo Trace in southern Indiana.

Working groups were established to reach these goals:

  • Use historical records to determine the location for the primary trail from the Ohio River at Clarksville to the Wabash River in Vincennes.
  • Physically locate the remaining remnants of the Trace in all the counties, which include Clark, Floyd, Harrision, Crawford, Orange, Dubois, Pike and Knox.
  • Preserve the historical information and document its significance by publishing a brochure and developing other resources that will educate the public about the Buffalo Trace.
  • Produce a final document compiling all that the group has learned—in time to have it be part of Indiana’s bicentennial celebration in 2016. This could include putting up signs, developing a website and planning special events, such as re-enacting early surveys.

The volunteer group agreed to track their hours of work as they move forward, Doyle said.

One of the goals for Ruckman is to use GPS, notes and photographs to create a path that can be used to make a 3-D flyover in Google Earth. He said this could be viewed by anyone interested in the Buffalo Trace.

NEXT: Such as “Part 2” of the Traces

Francie M Berg

Author of the Buffalo Tales &Trails blog

Part 2: Hunting Calves with Buffalo Jones in the Desert, 1887

Part 2: Hunting Calves with Buffalo Jones in the Desert, 1887

In the 1880s, the last southern buffalo hid in the remote, distant areas of the southwest, protected from hunters by drought and the forbidding sands of the desert. It was there that Buffalo Jones set out with two wagons and crew determined to capture and save buffalo calves.

Emerson Hough (1857–1923) was an American author best known for writing western stories and historical novels. He earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy in 1880 from the University of Iowa, then studied law and was admitted to the bar.

He and a friend, the artist J.A. Ricker, arrived in Garden City Kansas just as Buffalo Jones prepared for his 2nd expedition to capture buffalo calves in remote desert regions of Texas and the southwest.

The young men had been told that a wild herd of buffalo was within 200 miles to the south.

“We had supposed that the last buffalo had been killed. . . The event of a lifetime to see them!

“It was our last chance!” wrote Hough.

They met with Buffalo Jones—who first refused them as he had “50 less determined beggars.” But apparently, he could not resist the willingness of the eager writer and artist to record his trip.

“He smiled amusedly, looked us over, made us promise not to grumble if the bread was burned, and finally said, ‘Gentlemen if you will obey orders and not shoot or scare the buffalo in any manner without permission from me, I will take you in.’

“All of which we swore would be carried out faithfully.

“And now we must tell about Mr. Jones, for without him such a hunt—or the pleasures of it, or the story of it—could not have been at all.

“The Hon. CJ Jones is ‘The gentleman from Finney,’ when he is in the legislative halls at the capital of Kansas, but when out of his legislator’s desk he is just ‘Buffalo Jones’ . . . well-known all over Kansas and the West.

Buffalo Jones, “well known all over Kansas and the West”—plainsman, buffalo hunter, mail carrier, town builder and rescuer of buffalo calves—his goal to “preserve the species.”

“He had built a city, made a fortune, located the townsite of Garden City, ‘one of the liveliest and loveliest towns in western Kansas.’

“In the 70s he was out west in Kansas, away ahead of the rain belt with little to support him but his belief in the future of the country, his ability to ‘rustle’ and no doubt the hope of a blessed immortality if he starved to death. He was mail-carrier, station agent—anything he could be.

“In those days Mr. Jones lived in the heart of the buffalo country and in the midst of the buffaloes. He grew fundamentally acquainted with the animals and learned their every habit.

“Let it not be misunderstood—he did his full share toward exterminating the buffalo . . . but even as he destroyed them, he grew to know them and regret their fate.

“And as they faded away from the range and it became certain that soon they would be gone forever, no heart was fuller of regret than his and no mind so full of expedients to rescue them.

“His goal was not to destroy, but to preserve the species by saving buffalo calves.

“So we were to be in at the ‘last roundup.’ To see a buffalo had been our highest wish.”

Jones’ party set off in 2 outfits—a heavy wagon with 3 men had left the railroad for the south a week earlier, with the camping supplies and tents and over 2,000 pounds (a ton) of grain for the horses. He noted that preparations for the trip had cost him over $1,000.

Scenes on the journey. The heavy wagon (shown here in sketch by JA Ricker), left a week earlier with camping supplies, an extra team and 12 milk cows to furnish fresh milk and “mothering” for the buffalo calves they hoped to capture.

“The heavy wagon had a mule team, an extra team, three running horses—Jennie, Kentuck, Mr. Jones’s favorite Kentucky horse, and a black horse we christened Blackie.

“Also 12 milk cows without their calves, which meant they could not travel more than 20 miles a day.”

The livestock were in charge of Charlie Rude—the man Buffalo Jones always “banked” on. He had been on the first calf hunt the year before, and “knew the trail and the points to make for.”

The lighter wagon made 80 miles the first day into the desert, and camped for the night in the valley of the Cimarron. Between rocky bluffs on one side and gray sandhills on the other.

They found the wagon trail, met some cowboys with a ranch wagon who were picking up buffalo chips for fuel.

From the cowboys, they learned their other wagon had camped 6 miles below the night before. Only half a day ahead. About 2 o’clock they sighted them through field glasses and pushed on till they caught up with them.

Ez Carter had killed an antelope buck the day before. Not yet 18 years old, he was known as a plainsman of experience and one of the best ropers on the range.

“We found all the boys jolly and enthusiastic over the hunt. Stock well-watered from the buffalo wallows, filled from a recent rain,” reported Emerson Hough.

“Hobbled horses, pitched the tent. Ate a supper fit for the gods.

The full camp. They made 80 miles in one day and caught up with the other wagon. That night their camp was “busy and jolly” at the edge of civilization. They ate an antelope supper “fit for the gods.” Colonel Jones and Ez practiced their roping skills during which anyone was “likely to lose a hat or be tripped up by the heels, while the Greyhound, Don, was roped so often he howled whenever he heard the whiz of the lasso.” Credit JA Ricker.

“Our tent that night was a busy and jolly one. Colonel Jones and Ez began to practice with the lasso, in order to work up their skill and muscle for the coming trial on the buffalo calves.

“During their drill hour we were any of us likely to lose a hat or be tripped up by the heels, while the Greyhound, Don, was roped so often that he howled whenever he heard the whiz of the lasso.”

That night a heavy wind came up and blew down the tent.

Next day they ate at the Anchor D ranch—“Pretty near the ‘Jumping-off place of the world.’

“Now about 150 miles from our starting point, well down where we might expect to see or hear of the buffalos.

“But could get no news of the herd. They “might be at a point known as Company M, or down on the Agua Frio,’ or there might be water enough along the San Francisco to hold them, or out on the Flats, at some waterhole known only to themselves . . .

“We were not surprised, for we knew that cattlemen would not tell us of the herd if they were within 10 miles, and Colonel Jones says he always finds buffalo in the opposite direction from that advised to go.

“Therefore, our leader was not in the least put out by this general blankness in regard to the buffalo.”

Being now some 30 miles in advance of the slow-moving heavy wagon with the milk cows, they left instructions with cowboys at the ranch for the rest of their party to pitch camp on the upper pools of the Beaver while they went scouting ahead for buffalo with the lighter vehicle.

Buffalo—Running against the Storm!

Finally, one morning during a rain storm they saw—far off to the left—a small bunch of rapidly moving objects.

“As soon as he saw these animals through the glasses, Colonel Jones gave an exclamation of surprise.

“ ‘Why, they’re going against the storm!’ and a moment later added, ‘Yes, they’re buffalo, sure!’”

The animals were three or four miles distant, and the rain made everything obscure, although it could be seen they were running furiously and directly into the wind.

“Boys,” said Mr. Jones, “Those are buffalo. The buffalo is the only animal that ever runs against a storm. Cattle or horses drift before it, but a buffalo, never.”

”The animals came within a mile and a half and at last we could really say we had seen our first buffalo. We could see the humps plainly and how low they carried their heads as they went on in their tireless, lumbering gallop.

“There were only three—a cow, a yearling and a calf. We were half frantic to get at them, but Mr. Jones refused to tire the horses by a chase after so small a number. We begged Colonel Jones to turn back, but he assured us we would see plenty more.

“We crossed Tepee creek, finding some water in pools near the trail.

“The sun was getting low, and we were trundling along at the base of the breaks when our eyes were caught by a cloud of dust rising from the other side of a little ridge. We snatched up the glasses. The cloud came nearer. It swung up over the crest.

“Huge black forms—20, 30, 50, 60—rolled and surged along with it, heading almost toward us. No need for glasses now. Our tongues ‘froze stiff,’ until a second later our leader sprang clear of the buggy at a single bound and shouted in a voice like a bugle.

“’Get out the horses! They’re buffalo, by Jupiter! Give me the lasso!’ “

In seconds Colonel Jones and Jennie sped ahead—the mare seemed to fly.

“The sight was a grand one. With head well down and nostrils wide, the bay beauty tore in on them, eager as her rider and was never once called on with the spur. She crowded into the dust, into the herd, pushed out from it a cow and calf and lay alongside of them in her stride,” wrote Hughes.

The mare Jennie “eager as her rider, crowded into the dust, into the herd, pushed out from it a cow and calf and lay alongside of them. . . In a flash the dust was gone, and there was Colonel Jones kneeling on top of a struggling little tawny object, while Jennie stood by looking on complacently.” JA Ricker.

Then we saw her rider lean forward. Up came his hand, circling the wide coil of the rope. We could almost hear it whistle through the air. The next instant out it flew.

“In a flash the dust was gone, and there was Colonel Jones kneeling on top of a struggling little tawny object, while Jennie stood by looking on complacently.

“A second later the little object was hobbling around upon the grass alone.  Colonel Jones was following young Carter now and we were making for the calf.

“The herd at once swept out of sight and we drove up to the first victim. He was a comical looking, round-headed, curly little rascal. We laughed when approaching him. The first thing he did was to utter a hoarse bawl and charge at us with head down.

“In doing this, of course the hobble tripped him up and he turned a somersault.

“Before he could recover, we sat down on top of him—the first buffalo calf we had ever seen. We found that he was secured in precisely the best and most effectual way that could have been devised.

“The hobble was made of several strands of untwisted rope. At the middle it was tied in a large loop, which was slipped over the calf’s head.

“The two loose ends—which were left at just that length which experience told was right—were slip-noosed. These loops were fastened just above each hind foot, where they sat tight on the pastern joint, and drew the tighter for each struggle the calf made to free itself.

“Thus shackled, the captive was unable to make any progress, but at the same time was not choked or held in any way to injure it.

“Of course, adjusting the hobble took but an instant.

“And that was necessary—for even after the delay of a minute the herd would gain ground enough to make them hard to overtake.

“As we afterwards learned, Carter and the gray horse got into the edge of the herd easily enough, but his horse could not be pushed in close enough for roping, as he was afraid of the buffalo.

“Carter spurred and quirted him in vain. He was just the same old ‘gray devil’ and needed the stay-chain.

“Carter was furious at his inability to reach a calf. Colonel Jones again passed him and went into the herd within two miles of the place where the first calf was caught.

“He missed his cast at the next calf, but the mare did not stop.

“As she ran alongside of the now angry animal, Colonel Jones stooped down and caught it by the tail, turning it heels-over-head, and before it could rise the Colonel was on top, held it in his arms, and then hobbled it.

“This was a large bull calf, the largest taken on the entire hunt and he made a big fight after his fall. The calf was like a basketful of eels to hold.

“The last calf was caught by Carter, who roped it neatly as Colonel Jones cut it out of the herd and turned it toward him. This was a fine heifer calf, apparently the idol of her mother’s heart, for the latter came very near making a casualty the price of the capture.

“As soon as the calf was roped, the cow left the herd and charged Carter viciously as he bent over his victim.

The mother left the herd and charged toward Ez Carter as he hobbled her buffalo calf. Colonel Jones rode up just in time and drove the cow off—but only for a moment. She continued to charge and regretfully, he shot and killed her with his revolver. Corner sketch shows the light wagon. JA Ricker.

“Seeing this danger, Colonel Jones rode up just in time and drove the cow off for a moment. But she returned again and again and finally began charging at him whenever he came near, so that, much as he regretted it, he was compelled to shoot her with his revolver, killing her almost instantly.

“This was an unwished result and was much deplored, for we came, not to slay, but to rescue.

“After this, both rode on after the herd, which was by this time far toward the darkening horizon. The horses were now well blown, for they had run in the herd not only once, twice, but three times, and had gone a distance of 8 or 10 miles from the start.

“Colonel Jones soon pulled up and turned back to find the wagon.

“In the meantime my companion and I had, by dint of severe exertion, got the first calf tied up more firmly and secured in the light wagon, where it required all our strength to keep it until we devised the plan of piling the heavy tent upon it.

“We then drove on along the trail, using the glass all the time to sight the next captive, which we presently did, at a distance over a mile from us.

“We repeated our tactics here, having a great time with this big fellow; then drove on, meeting Colonel Jones before we got to the last calf. As it was possible and quite easy to miss seeing so small an object at such long distances, we were glad to learn that we had found all that had been caught.

“It was nearly dark by the time we had the last calf in the wagon, and as soon as Carter came up, all started back toward the Beaver.

“We could not camp, for we had no water and the horses needed it sadly.

“As there was none elsewhere within 20 miles, it was absolutely necessary that we find the river. It should be remembered that this river had no water in it, except at certain places. And we did not yet know where those places were.

“We might have to drive 20 miles after getting to the riverbed and might have to travel nearly that far in trying to get down through the breaks which fenced in the stream.

“All this was pretty near to being serious. But it was one of the demands of buffalo hunting.

“So we said nothing, but turned in the direction where we knew the stream lay, and ran by the compass and the stars, driving in darkness which grew more dense at every moment.

“If our leader had been a man inexperienced on the Plains, or unacquainted with the general lay of the country, we would have had a dry camp that night, and would in all probability have lost our calves, to say nothing of any possible discomfiture to ourselves, or injury to our horses.

“In an hour or so we came to the edge of the breaks, and began to hunt a way down through them.

“Richter and Carter rode off to the right, while Colonel Jones drove a little to the left. We noticed that all the trails appeared to converge at the head of a certain draw, and after driving across them till that fact was established, we knew that they led to water.

“We therefore followed down this draw, and fired signals for the boys to come in.

“Presently we heard Carter fire, he having got out on a point at our left.

“Ricker had not come in, and did not answer any signal. Fearing he was lost, Carter went back after him.

“Colonel Jones and myself, following the draw, presently got into the valley and found water. There was not much, and it was tramped up by cattle and had several dead carcasses in it.

“But still it was water, and we were glad to find it.

“By the time we had the horses out and the baggage on the ground, Ricker and Carter got into camp, the former insisting that he was one of the sort that didn’t get lost.

“We all fell to and proceeded to water the horses and get camp up. We found there was no axe or hatchet with us, but were lucky to find a hard stone, with which we drove our tent pins—for it looked like rain.

“We had no coffee mill, but an old buffalo skull, a bit of canvas and the stone served instead.

“Presently the clouds broke, and the southern moon peeped out brightly. It revealed another pool of water below us, and we could see a bunch of ducks upon it. As we had not stopped to butcher our buffalo, we had no meat, so Ricker took his three-barrel and shot four ducks, which Ez Carter fished out with his lasso.

“When we went down to the water we heard something flopping and discovered it was fairly alive with bullhead fish. We therefore supposed that the running water could not be very far away. A search soon revealed that a succession of pools began a short distance below our camp.

“Then as our little fire of chips was going nicely, Ez soon had some bread baking, the coffee pot simmering and some bacon and skinned teal sizzling in the frying pan.

“Our stove was a buffalo skull and our shovel a shoulder blade. No Man’s Land is entirely devoid of timber, and even of small sticks.

“While we were getting supper and arranging the tent, Colonel Jones was busy with the calves.

Jones stretched a long rope on the ground, fastening the ends to two tent pins driven in the ground. Then he strung the calves “like fish on a trot-line,” tied by the neck. “The little fellows were vigorous and full of fight.” JA Ricker.

“Taking a long rope, he stretched it along the ground, fastening the ends to two strong tent pins driven to the head in the ground. On this rope he strung his calves, like fish on a trot-line, each calf being tied by the neck and with its limbs left free.

“This arrangement gave them plenty of play and kept them from injury, while at the same time it rendered their escape impossible. The little fellows were vigorous and full of fight, and whenever anyone came near they would lower their heads and come at him with a short bawl.

“We amused ourselves by pushing each other upon them, and found by experience that they could butt hard enough to knock a man entirely off his feet.

“They spent most of their time standing with head down, back humped up, and tail cocked out, pawing the ground for all the world like an old bull, and from time to time uttering short, hoarse bawls, that sounded more like the grunt of a hog than the bleat of a calf.

“We sat beside them after supper until a late hour. Then we rolled up in our blankets and went to sleep, telling each other that we were the luckiest fellows in all the world.”

Next morning, May 14, all were up early, checking on the calves.

“We feared we would lose all our calves before the main outfit arrived, for we had not a cow with us, of course, and not even a can of condensed milk.

“All that could be done, was to try to induce our panting and suffering little captives to drink of the water which we offered them. But they refused to be comforted, and indignantly butted the water pail endwise whenever it was left near them, or charged headlong at a wet rag or a stick.

“Colonel Jones concluded to go out and try to find the herd again, then to return, and in the evening either rope a range cow, or drive down in the night to meet our team and get some condensed milk to keep the calves alive until the domestic cows would arrive.

“Accordingly, he, Ricker and Carter started out with all the horses, directly after breakfast. It fell to my lot to remain and guard the camp—which I did not relish very much.

“At 3 pm our scouting party returned. They had not found the herd, but had met two buffalo cows, undoubtedly the mothers of the captured calves, whose maternal instinct had led them to return in search of their offspring.

“One cow was killed for meat. Her udder was full of milk, and as there was no water to be had, the Colonel filled a canteen. After milking the canteen about half-full he corked it up and tossed it into the spring wagon.”

Unexpectedly, the milk churned itself into butter in the hours of driving, which the men salted and drained.

“We had one grand feast of hot biscuits and buffalo butter! It was declared delicious when enjoyed with hot biscuits.

“No water could be discovered anywhere. The flats were entirely dry.”

Jones rode his horse down the Beaver hoping to meet the other wagon team.

“Giving neither himself nor his horse any rest—for it was imperative that we get milk, or we would lose our calves.

“The little fellows began to look gaunt, their tongues black and swollen, hanging from their mouths, while they continually uttered their hoarse, growing grunts of complaint.”

It was a couple of hours after dark when they heard repeated yells and shooting. They replied and soon the others came up with the wagon and cows.

Jones had found the wagon just in time or it would have stayed up on the flats, probably passing by and wandering “no one knew how far into the waterless country.”

“Everything was now confusion in camp. We had a great many animals to take care of and it necessitated work.

“The cows had all to be lassoed and hobbled—which they resented. The horses to be watered. Supper to cook, and a hundred other things to be done.

“One of the first of these duties was feeding the buffalo calves. And this was one of the most interesting features of the whole hunt.

Mothering the Buffalo Calves

“Ez roped a certain old red cow of about the right color as any we had, and hobbled her securely fore and aft. Then we picked out the youngest calf and approached—the little fellow butting and fighting viciously.

“The cow turned her head and promptly kicked so hard she broke the hobble and sent the calf a somersault. It was strange, but after a few moments this cow and buffalo calf seemed to ‘take to’ each other. And within an hour the curly little rascal was lying down by the side of his new mother, chuck full of milk and happy as a clam.” JA Ricker.

“The cow turned her head and promptly kicked so hard she broke the hobble and sent the calf a somersault. This did not daunt it, however, and it returned, seeming to take in the situation at a glance.

“It was strange, but after a few moments this cow and buffalo calf seemed to ‘take to’ each other. The best of relations were established between them.

“And within an hour the curly little rascal was lying down by the side of his new mother, chuck full of milk and happy as a clam. This calf was never wild after that, but could be approached easily and was perfectly docile.

“In the morning we let it loose near the cow and it followed her about, kicking up its heels and bawling out of very exuberance of spirits.

“The next day, the cows were hobbled and the calves’ lariats allowed to drag loose, yet they never made any attempt to escape. Today the little calf is the tamest on Colonel Jones’ ranch and the old red stripper (as she is called, for she has had no calf of her own for three years) is its devoted mother.

“This cow took a great notion to all the buffalo calves and would allow two of them to suckle at once, though she would drive off a domestic calf. The buffaloes were emphatic, imperious little scamps, and she seemed to take a fancy to them.

“The other calves gave some trouble. They did not take kindly to the white cow which was introduced to them as their stepmother, nor did she take to them.

“One of the calves preferred a beer bottle, covered with a rag.

“The big bull calf would drink from nothing but a bucket—though he made a very good supper in that way. And, it may not be believed, but he would never afterward drink out of any but that particular pail, which happened to be painted white outside and in.

Teaching the buffalo calves to drink was a challenge. They were “full of action and spirit,” pawing, butting and snorting “to make up a history of interesting experiences that never can be duplicated.” JA Ricker.

“If any other was offered him, he would butt it over at once and prance around pawing at the dirt, until someone would call out, ‘Give him the white pail!’

“The scenes of that night and of the succeeding days, in trying to teach the buffalo calves to assume their new relations, were full of action and spirit, and went to make up a history of interesting experiences that never can be duplicated.”

Both wagons next headed farther west with supplies for a week’s trip, leaving behind in the home camp all the cows and the buffalo calves, with Robinson to care for them.

They drove 50 or 60 miles, and then for 2 days scoured the country for 50 miles around to find some trace of the buffalo herd. Constantly they studied the horizon with “powerful field-glasses.”

“We found but little water, but dug a hole in the sand and got enough for our use.

“We began to be discouraged—all except our leader, whose resolve to find the buffalo herd seemed never to flag.

“One morning just as the sun was rising we saw a little bunch of animals slowly walking toward us, about two miles distant and on the other side of a wire fence.

“We turned the glasses on them. They looked like buffaloes. We studied them.

“They looked wonderfully like buffaloes . . .

“Colonel Jones fired a shot toward them. At once they strung out into a line and tailed off as hard as they could go. Cattle do not run at the sound of a gun. Buffaloes always do—a habit acquired since they have been hunted so much.” NPS, Harlan Kredit.

“We divided in our opinions. Colonel Jones thought they were buffaloes. But we did not wonder at that, because he thought everything he saw was a buffalo. Ez didn’t know. Charlie didn’t care. Ricker was not certain. I knew all the time they were only cattle.

“Finally, Colonel Jones fired a shot toward them from his rifle.

“At once they strung out into a line and tailed off as hard as they could go. Cattle do not run at the sound of a gun. Buffaloes always do—that is a habit acquired since they have been hunted so much.

“In a moment Colonel Jones and Ez Carter were in saddles and racing ahead, with Ricker and myself a good second in the light wagon and Charley following with the mule team after the dust cloud.

“We all got across the wire fence, I don’t know just how, and followed after the dust-cloud.

“The wagons were far behind when, after a half-hour’s breathless drive, we saw a horseman appear on the crest of a distant ridge.

“He gave us the Plains signal to ‘Come ahead’—which is by riding at right angles to those called if mounted, or by repeatedly rising and squatting down if on foot.

“We hurried on and soon by the glass made him out to be Ez Carter and saw that he had at the end of his lasso a lively red object we knew to be another buffalo calf.

“Ez came riding down on a gallop, the calf running parallel with the rope stretched tightly. This was the curliest calf caught on the trip, and a fine prize she was.

“Ez had lost his hat and we learned that Colonel Jones had gone back along the trail to find it and his field glass, both of which were found.

“The calf was caught under rather peculiar circumstances. Both horsemen were crowding it. Colonel Jones cast for it, but it dodged the noose and ran square in front of his horse.

“The calf ran against it and both fell, knocking it fully 15 feet away and throwing Colonel Jones headlong.”

Jones, according to his version, was satisfied as he passed through the air that the fall would kill him, but concluded that it would be as well to go into another world with a calf in his arms as in any other way!

“He fell directly on top of the calf, caught it in his arms and held on until Carter roped it. It was a ludicrous and altogether lucky accident. Neither man, horse nor calf seemed to be much injured.

“We bundled the calf into the big wagon and headed northeast in the direction of our main camp, through terrible sandhills which made rapid travel impossible.

“The day was very warm.  We gave the horses all the water left and started on with many misgivings.

“We did not stop for dinner, but spent our time trying to find out where we were.

“And, thanks to fortune and hard driving, we at last got up to a little mesa which was familiar and soon struck a trail and better country for traveling.

“We were truly thankful that our leader was not a tenderfoot, for such had best not go hunting in that country, unless he wants to die crazy and bleach his bones among the sandhills.

“We came upon a ridge and our white tent lay before us, a thin blue shaft of smoke piercing the sultry evening air.

“The water pool shone in the evening sun and the cattle were grazing about it or lying near.

“Our jaded horses pitched their ears forward and actually broke into a trot.

“The long and wearisome day was over. We were thankful that the day had been no worse.

“The mule team with Charley and Ez came in late.

“During our absence one of the calves had died—the only heifer calf we had, and therefore most valued of course.

“This made us feel sad, so on the whole it was rather a demoralized crowd of hunters that gathered around our late supper that night.”

They stayed in camp a day or two to rest the horses “which were well-nigh broken down under the severe tasks which had been imposed upon them.”

One afternoon the camp was out of meat and Jones went out on foot to stalk some antelope he saw coming in to the water.

They heard a shot and he came in at a dead run, calling out to Hough and Ricker, “Get out the horses, boys! Four bulls just ran out the other side when I shot! You’re going to have that shot at a bull I have been promising you.”

“He gave us the signal to come on and we galloped up to the top of the level country,” reported Hough.

“There four miles ahead running into the wind and looming up as large as churches in the streaming mirage which surrounded them were four huge objects—the buffalo bulls!

“The bulls were running directly from us and neither saw nor winded us. They fell into a walk.”

The men rode closer. Racing to a small hollow they left the horses and crawled toward a sagebrush that hid them.

“We made a big circle back and got the wind to suit us

“Now the skill of the old buffalo-hunter began to assert itself. We found he knew more in a minute than we did in all the rest of the year.

“We laid ourselves flat along the earth and inch by inch crept up to the edge of the shallow little basin in which the bulls were standing. “

They all shot, but the bullets went high. The bulls ran.

They shot again. The bulls kept going.

At just that moment a herd of 50 buffalo cows and calves showed up heading for the water, and the calf hunters dashed off to follow them.

At just that moment a herd of 50 buffalo cows and calves showed up heading for the water, and the calf hunters dashed off to follow them. Hough and Ricker—who’d been yearning for a shot at a buffalo bull—were left alone to stalk the four bulls—but without success. SDGGP, Chris Hull.

The two young men Hough and Ricker—who’d been yearning for a shot at a buffalo bull—were left alone to stalk the four bulls. They got some good shots but without Jones’ help, most of the shots went wild and they could not tell if any animals were hit.

They hiked back to camp, fed the calves, hobbled the horses and sat late into the night.

Meanwhile, far into the distance, the calf hunt went on. When the others returned, well after midnight they had “three more buffalo calves curled up in the bottom of the wagon.”

Bright and early the next morning Jones declared his decision to make one more foray farther south. He said it would be the last hunt.

Before dark Ez Carter came in slowly leading the bay mare Jennie. Both were nearly dead from thirst and exhaustion. He threw himself on the ground saying, “I guess she’s sure gone!”

“The poor creature looked it truly. She stood with head down and legs wide apart, wet with sweat and trembling like a leaf. We soon found she was quite blind and blundered and stumbled about the camp.

“Then we poured a straight pint of raw whiskey into a pail. Before we could dilute it with water, the mare felt the rim of the pail, and at once drank its contents at a gulp.

“She drank that whiskey straight and it was the best thing she could have done.”

They gave her water and “she began to prick up her ears and whinny a little.”

“Then we knew she would pull through and we held a general jubilee, hugging the game old animal and calling her all sorts of pet names.”

“That mare’s clear grit,” said Carter. “She’s gone over 100 miles today and hasn’t had a drop of water. I’ve made three big runs on her and caught 5 calves without uncinching the saddle.”

Carter told them they made the first run for calves early that morning, and a second run late in the morning, and again in the afternoon. The horses were nearly exhausted and the day terribly hot.

The day was hot and the calves exhausted. So were the horses, but they made three runs—over 100 miles—without “a drop of water.” NPS, J Schmidt.

Jones had got so far away that it looked like he would have to leave his exhausted horse and try to make the 50 or 60 miles on foot.

But he found the trail and by driving his horse for a time—as it was so near gone it would not lead—and managed to keep it going until he sighted the wagon and signaled for them to come up.

The whole outfit was nearly “done up” and it was a question whether they would all ever get into camp.

But luckily Jones recognized a certain table-rock, and knew that camp lay far below them.

“Had they gone up the stream instead of down, they would have lost all their stock, and would probably have perished themselves.

“A party going down on that range would be foolish to start without a thoroughly posted guide. They would get no game, and would stand a large chance of dying of thirst.

“Carter had come down to get a fresh team and take back such water as he could.

“Poor fellow! He looked weary enough himself. But he did not tarry and after his hasty supper started back with the spare team, carrying as much water and whisky as he could sling about him in canteens.”

About midnight the rest of the party rode silently into camp.

The next morning Jones announced that he, Hughes and Ricker were heading home immediately and prepared the light wagon and for the trip, leaving the wearied stock for the heavier wagon to collect and bring.

“Our hunt was over!

“By driving day and night—we held our way steadily and, almost before we knew it were at the railroad and home in Garden City.

“Once we drove 100 miles in 24 hours!”

Even though they were disappointed not to finish their hunt for bulls, Emerson Hough marveled at his and Ricker’s good fortune in having their experience of hunting buffalo in the desert with Buffalo Jones.

He summed up their success with the calves.

“Today in the pasture at the edge of Garden City, Colonel Jones has 11 buffalo calves. Four of them are yearlings, fat as seals, shaggy as sheep, and so tame that you can almost touch them.

“The other 7 are the calves of this year’s hunt. They are lively as crickets and run bawling after their foster mothers like any other calves. The ‘old red stripper’ supports two and watches them with the most motherly pride.”

Hughes asks himself whether others could have succeeded as well—without the likes of Buffalo Jones.

“Could not the calf-hunt be duplicated by other parties? Could a party of hunters not acquainted with the country go into that region with any chance of success?” he speculates, then answers his own question.

“No. It would be dangerous to try. Water is too scarce. The path of the hunt might be a ‘journey of death.’

“It is probable that we were the last—or very near that last—civilized hunters to look upon the buffalo wild on its native range.

“It will be the cool, calculating, fiendish skin hunter who will make the last stalk.”

Hear his boasts, “I’ve got the last!”

“Poor fool!”

Buffalo Jones’ several trips into Texas deserts to save buffalo calves are compiled from his journals by Col. Henry Inman in the book Buffalo Jones’ Forty Years of Adventure by Charles Jesse Jones, published in 1899. However, this 2nd hunting trip is described in Jone’s book by E. Hough, with drawings by J.A. Ricker, two young men who pleaded to be taken along.
(See also our earlier Blog: Part 1: Hunting Calves with Buffalo Jones in the Desert, 1886).


Francie M Berg

Author of the Buffalo Tales &Trails blog

Part 1: Hunting Calves with Buffalo Jones in the Desert, 1886

Part 1: Hunting Calves with Buffalo Jones in the Desert, 1886

Into the desert sands. In 1886 a few wild buffalo could still be found in the most remote and formidable desert country of Texas. Buffalo Jones travelled into those desperately dry desert regions to capture calves. Credit National Park Service.

On a bleak cold day—April 24, 1886—Buffalo Jones struck out with Charley Rude and Newton Adams with a team of 3-year-old mules harnessed to a light spring wagon and another team hauling a heavier lumber wagon.

They took provisions for a 6-week expedition in Texas desert country determined to capture buffalo calves for Jones’ Kansas ranch.

Their point of departure was the little Kansas town of Kendall, on the Arkansas River not far from the west border of that state.

First challenge was crossing the treacherous Arkansas River—about a half mile wide, 5 feet deep with a quicksand bottom and choked with floating ice.

Jones met that challenge by commandeering two of his own “immense work teams”—large draft horses which happened to be working in an area quarry hauling out the “marble block” he was constructing at his home in nearby Garden City, Kansas.

The draft horses pulled the 2 rigs across the river and sent them on their way into the Oklahoma sandhills beyond and southwest across plains and deserts of the Indian Territory and the Panhandle of Texas.

It was to be “a long weary march—with the almost absolute certainty of not meeting a soul,” according to CJ Jones’ biographer, Colonel Henry Inman, who compiled his book, Buffalo Jones’ 40 Years of Adventure, by Charles Jesse Jones, from his journals in 1899.

Buffalo Jones was already well known in Kansas as a legislator and successful town builder who came West as a buffalo hunter and worked as a mail carrier, station agent and rancher.

Although successful on many fronts, his current passion was to rescue buffalo calves and develop a herd of them from the wild.

Heading into No Man’s Land

Day after day the little party strained their eyes hoping to discover something that would relieve the monotony.

Scenes on the Journey. Jones’ party stopped at a last cattle ranch where ranching people kept quiet about the whereabouts of any wild buffalo herd. They left civilization behind and headed into ‘No Man’s Land.’ Credit JA Ricker, artist.

Always it seemed they were searching for water, as well as buffalo calves.

Then one day Buffalo Jones was driving his light team ahead, while Rude lay in the rear leading two saddle-horses which were reserved for the chase when the proper time would arrive.

Jones climbed a divide hoping to find water for camping, when he suddenly exclaimed.

“Great Heavens!. . . An elephant for sure!

Buffalo Jones sighted their first buffalo just before dark as he stood on the wagon seat at the edge of a high divide looking for water. Abruptly he sat down, swung the wagon down into a nearby ravine, handed the reins to Rude, then jumped out, crawled back to peek over the top, and shot a huge bull. Credit NPS, J Schmidt.

He gave the off horse a cut with the whip and whirled the team around so short and quick that it almost tumbled supplies out of the wagon.

Old hunter that he was, he had made it a rule to stand up on the seat in crossing a ridge, when after big game. Now this allowed him to see buffalo before they noticed his approach.

He sat down, drove quickly into the ravine, then jumped out, gave the reins to Rude and scrambled to the crest of the divide with his Winchester and peeked over.

In a few minutes, Bang! came the gun’s report. He turned and waved for Rude to come.

Three hundred yards beyond was a huge buffalo bull—dead! Killed instantly by his rifle.

Charley Rude and Newton Adams were excited and delighted to see their first buffalo.

They carved off about a hundred pounds of excellent meat and skinned the remarkably large head for mounting.

It was getting dark and the men had no water all day and were extremely thirsty. Worse, they had found no water in their last 20 miles. The horses were jaded.

Colonel Jones built a fire of buffalo chips on the highest point of the divide, telling Adams to keep up the signal so they wouldn’t get lost.

Then he and Rude mounted the saddle-horses and went in search of water. Jones took the high plateau and Rude the bottom of the ravine—each with a pail on his arm.

Hours passed, but neither returned to camp.

Adams grew anxious, frightened that Indians had captured both men. So he let the signal fire die out—and crawled off to hide in the long grass.

Near midnight he heard the sound of a gun far out on the prairie. He grew frantic with fear, convinced that Jones was killed—as the shot had come from that direction.

Soon he heard another report—from due north, followed immediately by two more to the east.

In terror he listened, sure that his time had come, forgetting entirely that he was supposed to return any shots he heard.

Very soon, to his terror, he saw what he supposed was an Indian riding a pony, passing by the camp. He shrank back into his hiding spot hoping all would go on by without discovering him.

His imagination told him the entire prairie was alive with hostile Indians hunting him!

Suddenly, one of his horses whinnied loudly at the passing horse, and his heart sank.

But the next second a voice called out, “Hello Adams! Where are you?”

It was Colonel Jones. His life on the Plains taught him how to find camp. He had come close even without the beacon fire he had started on the hill before he left.

Embarrassed, Adams leaped to his feet to help renew their buffalo chip fire on top of the hill.

By its dull glare Rude was guided into camp. In his pail he carried water, having found a small pond—while Jones had found none, looking from the high points.

Luckily, Rude had enough water to quench the thirst of the men, wet the throats of the four mules and Jones’ horse—his own having satisfied himself at the pond.

Colonel Jones broiled a large piece of delicious buffalo meat on the coals, brewed coffee and fried ‘slapjacks—being dubbed as good a cook as he was a hunter.

Then, the men’s stomachs filled and comfortable, they spent a jolly time until well after midnight listening to Jones’ stories of his experiences in the Great Plains and mountains.

Next morning, while the others fixed breakfast, Jones took his field glasses, strolled off in search of water, and in a short time discovered—a half mile to the southwest a beautiful pool of the purest and clearest.

He returned by a very high point where he could not resist stopping to contemplate the magnificent scenes all around him.

“For the Colonel is a lover of Nature in her quieter moods, as well as in the midst of an exciting chase after her wildest and dangerous creations,” wrote his biographer.                                                                                                                                                             “The air was so pure that not a vapor streaked the dawn, so that he could see over a vast area.

“He who has never been alone on the Great Plains and looked across a magnificent stretch of prairie at the moment of sunrise, cannot comprehend the thrill of emotion which fills one’s soul as he gazes upon such a scene—a landscape bewildering in its vastness.

“Colonel Jones stood entranced as he drank in the variety and charming features of the panorama, which only ended in the deep blue of the horizon, while imagination took him beyond.

“Little groups of antelope were either grazing, or having completed their morning repast were ruminating in the sunny ravines.

“Bands of wild horses were gamboling on the green hillsides, while here and there a wolf or coyote that had not yet finished its nocturnal prowling, slowly moved toward its den of seclusion as the sun rose in fullness of beauty and splendor.

“The wind was blowing from the south and it would not do for the scent of the party to be wafted in the direction of the herd, for buffalo will more quickly stampede at the smell of objects approaching them than by actual sight of the disturbing element.” E Nottingham Caprock Bison Release. Credit Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.

“Far in the distance was a herd of perhaps 20 monstrous buffalo, unconscious of the fact that so near was an individual who had enlisted his best efforts in ‘rescuing the perishing’ from annihilation.

“How slowly they move! In single file toward their sequestered nooks. Where the grass is thick and tender.

“Now the Colonel became intensely interested in this group of shaggy monsters as the light glinted upon their huge bodies.

“What he desired was the young bison, to raise at his ranch and thus perpetuate the species. There might be a hundred there, but the fact could not be determined, except by going closer.

“The Colonel returned to camp. With the animals all watered, breakfast was hurriedly dispensed of and soon

“They arrived at the crest of a high divide, where to the northwest, far beyond in a wide valley, a herd of 20 buffaloes was discovered—the same first seen by the Colonel in the early morning—lying down for their midday rest.” JA Ricker.

“The Colonel guided as usual, riding in the light wagon, leading his Kentucky thoroughbred, already saddled and bridled, with lasso carefully wound around the horn of the saddle and plenty of small rope to bind the calves if any were found in the herd.

“About 10 o’clock they arrived at the crest of a high divide, where to the northwest, far beyond in a wide valley, a herd of 20 buffaloes was discovered—the same first seen by the Colonel in the early morning—lying down for their midday rest.”

Here the team was immediately turned to the left, into a draw that opened into a larger one, situated between the buffalo and their pursuers—out of sight.

“Arriving at the larger ravine, a turn into it at the right was made, until another ravine from the west was encountered. Turning into it the most precautionary measures were adopted.

“The wind was blowing from the south and it would not do for the scent of the party to be wafted in the direction of the herd, for buffalo will more quickly stampede at the smell of objects approaching them than by actual sight of the disturbing element. And the odor of a white man is particularly obnoxious to them.

“The wind was blowing from the south and it would not do for the scent of the party to be wafted in the direction of the herd, for buffalo will more quickly stampede at the smell of objects approaching them than by actual sight of the disturbing element.” E Nottingham Caprock Bison Release.

They had to leave the wagons as the rattle of the wheels would certainly betray their presence.

At Last, Buffalo Calves

“Colonel Jones then cautiously took his saddle horse by the reins, drew up the cinch, and gave Rude orders to keep up and gather in the calves if any should be caught. And to lay on the lash and be sure not to lose sight of him.

“Then he led the horse as near as he dared, quickly mounted, laid flat upon the animal and galloped directly toward the buffalo.

“Every detail of his methods worked like a charm. If he had sat erect upon his horse the herd would have become frightened at once and been out of sight in a few moments. He did not deviate from a straight line in the slightest.

“To the buffalo, the object they saw was only a wild horse, looking at it as a very familiar sight. For buffalo are not able to distinguish a moving object from a stationary one, particularly if it is coming directly toward them,” according to Jones.

“Nearer and nearer the Colonel approached the herd, until he was within 200 yards, when they commenced to rise and move slowly away.

“In an instant confusion ran riot with the herd. Away they went, all going to the northeast as if they had been shot out of a cannon . . . To his infinite delight as the buffalo stood up, he saw four tawny calves among them, which had been hidden from view before, so completely were they masked by their mothers, nestled close to their great shaggy bodies.” NPS, Harlan Kredit photographer.



“To his infinite delight as the buffalo stood up, he saw four tawny calves among them, which had been hidden from his view before, so completely were they masked by their mothers, nestled close to their great shaggy bodies.

“In an instant confusion ran riot with the herd. Away they went, all going to the northeast as if they had been shot out of a cannon.

“By this time Mr. Rude had arrived with his mules at the top of the hill, from which commanding position he could grasp the whole exciting scene and take in every feature of the chase.”

“Colonel Jones was in excellent condition to do good work that morning. Getting so near the herd before it started and mounted on his best Kentucky runner was a combination of strategy and luck.

“Fearing that when he dismounted to tie a calf his horse might get frightened and leave him, he had fastened one end of the lasso around his animal’s neck, so he could be sure of keeping the horse from stampeding while binding the captive.

“As soon as the Colonel closed up to the surprised animals they ran all the faster.

“Mark how the cows protect their calves, sheltering them almost under their shaggy bodies!

“But old ‘Kentuck’ was in his prime and swept down upon the buffalo like a wolf on a wandering lamb.

“Now see the lasso whirling in mid-air from skillful hand. Away it goes into the midst of the fleeting shadows of the frightened animals.

“The horse comes to a sudden halt!

“A tawny calf is rearing and plunging at the end of the rope in its frantic struggles to escape the fatal snare!

“It is in vain. In an instant the Colonel is on the ground, grasps the little brute and in three distinct motions lashes its hind legs close up to its neck, slips the noose from its head and with a single bound that would have done credit to the most nimble circus rider, is firm in the saddle again.

“And see how the blooded horse sweeps over the prairie! At every jump the sod and dust are whirled 30 feet high in air, to land on the ground a hundred yards in his rear.

“What a wonderful picture! Scenes rivaling the chariot-racing in the Roman Coliseum of old!

“Every hope of success now depended upon the endurance of the thoroughbred. Like a hawk swooping down on its prey did the noble steed again close in on the flying herd.

“Now the lasso once more is whirled into the air. It shoots out like a cat’s paw and rakes in another calf!

“The Colonel was off as quickly as before, but as he was binding this second victim, he heard a loud grunt accompanied by a terrible rattling of hoofs immediately in his rear.

“Looking up to discover the cause of the strange commotion he saw the mother, who having heard her offspring bleating, was coming to its rescue—her eyes green as an angry tiger’s and hair all turned the wrong way.

“Looking up to discover the cause of the strange commotion he saw the mother, who having heard her offspring bleating, was coming to its rescue—her eyes green as an angry tiger’s and hair all turned the wrong way.” Jones threw his body into the saddle and Kentuck darted off like a flash with the enraged cow in close pursuit. NPS.

“With a bound that surprised the Colonel himself, he threw his body into the saddle and sunk both spurs into Kentuck’s flanks, upon which the horse darted off like a flash with the enraged cow in close pursuit.

“Kentuck whirled into the air like a small boy’s top—as the other end was still around the calf’s neck. There was no time to unfasten the rope from the horse’s neck, as the cow had already passed him and was fixing for another charge.

“All that could be done was to run Kentuck in a circle, using the calf as a pivot—or shoot the cow.

“Bang! Bang! Bang! came three reports from the Colonel’s 45 double-action revolver, but still the cow came nearer and nearer.

“The gallant hunter realized that there remained only two charges in the chambers, so he collected his nerve and waited till the furious animal was almost within reach of his horse. Then, leaning far back in the saddle, he took deliberate aim, firing the fourth time.

“The cow gave a furious snort and bounded away. She was hit high up in the shoulder, badly hurt but not mortally wounded. When she had gone about a hundred yards, she halted, shook her head and pawed the earth.

“Colonel Jones, taking advantage of this lull in hostilities, quickly slipped off Kentuck, tied one the of calf’s hind legs close to its neck, then drew the noose from its neck, again mounted and started after the fleeting herd a mile away, as though nothing had happened.

“Upon overtaking them, he profited by the lesson he had just learned and did not attempt to throw the lasso over another calf while the rope was attached to his horse’s neck. So, reaching down, he attempted to untie it, but the terrible strain it had been subjected to during his little fracas with the cow had so tightened the knot that he found he could not do so.

“The Colonel was well aware that if he stopped to untie it, it would be impossible to overtake the herd again, as his horse was fast becoming fatigued and not able to make another race.

“He concluded that if he pressed the herd hard enough the buffalo would get away and abandon the calves, which they would not do under ordinary circumstances.

“He then contented himself with an occasional dash between the calf and the remainder of the herd, causing it to bleat and beg for assistance.

“In every instance the cows and bulls invariably turned completely around, grunting in response, facing their enemy with a sold front of sharp-horned and vicious-looking heads, coming in the very impersonation of brute rage to the rescue of their little one.

“The Colonel then determined to resort to catching one of the calves with his hands, so he could hurriedly let it go if the herd pressed too closely.

“Reaching over to the right as they dashed over the prairie, he succeeded in grasping the tail of one of the calves (buffalo always run with their tails curved over their backs ‘like scorpions.’)

“The well-trained Kentuck knew that when his rider leaned to the right or to the left it was a signal to turn in that direction.

“So when the Colonel leaned to the right to grasp the tail of the calf, the horse promptly turned in that direction, unfortunately striking the calf with his feet.

“In an instant horse, rider and young buffalo were tumbled in a confused mass on the ground!

“The calf bellowed lustily, half scared to death, upon which 19 of the infuriated bulls and cows turned and started for the intrepid but reckless Colonel with all the intensity of concentrated wrath.

“Nineteen of the infuriated bulls and cows turned and started for the intrepid but reckless Colonel with all the intensity of concentrated wrath. . . Striking the horse a terrific cut with the rope brought him to his feet and senses in a second. Away he dashed with his master clinging to the saddle, out of the way of the impending clash of the charging buffalo.” Parks Canada.

“He at once realized the terrible predicament he was in, but his inevitable coolness in time of danger did not forsake him.

“Striking the horse a terrific cut with the rope brought him to his feet and senses in a second. Away he dashed with his master clinging to the saddle, out of the way of the impending clash of the charging buffalo.

“It was a ‘close call’—to employ a Western expression indictive of escape from almost certain death.

“But Fortune favored the hunter that day—as she has many times since—and the buffalo were doubly enraged upon arriving at the spot where the calf stood, to find their enemy vanished like a mirage.

“These two thrilling experiences, so closely following each other, did not abate one jot of the Colonel’s usual ‘nerve.’

“In a moment, it was ‘Up, Guards and at them! Again, as soon as he could straighten out matters, he dashed into the herd, running it until one calf, exhausted, was far in the rear.

“He pressed the buffalo at such a rate that they were soon so far away they could not hear it bleat.

“He then whirled his horse about, galloped back and met the calf, threw the lasso around his neck, dismounted, tied it and started for the other, the last calf.

“By careful tactics he succeeded in overtaking the herd and the last calf and its mother were separated from the herd, when with the last load in his revolver, he so wounded the cow that she was unable to keep up with her young one, and throwing the lasso over it, he captured the coveted prize.

“Three very exciting hours had just passed in the intense desperate struggle. Both the Colonel and his wonderful horse were so worn out that, after resting for a few moments they were so stiff that neither could make any rapid movement.

Mr. Rude was nowhere in sight and in fact was left 15 miles behind.

His horse exhausted, Jones took off the saddle, tied his horse to it, and set off on foot to find the wagon, his tongue already parched and swollen—with all their water in the wagon driven by Rude.

After two hours, near sunset, Jones saw a wagon far in the distance. Rude was heading for an antelope, which he later said he thought was a man on horseback. He was completely turned around and bewildered.

Together the two men gathered in the calves, found where Jones had left Kentuck, and made a ‘bee line’ for their camp—20 miles away, which turned out to be exactly where Jones said it was.

They arrived about 10 pm, and tied the calves 16 feet apart on a long rope.

But the men got little sleep that night as the calves were bawling constantly for their mothers.

Next morning they christened the calves:  Lucky Knight whose mother had been in such a rage;  May Queen which had thrown Kentuck;  Robert Burns the first saved and Grace Greenwood, the last.

Sadly these last two did not survive the return trip back to Kansas.

Thirst and Opportunity in the Desert

Desiring to get more calves, Jones persuaded his party—now reluctant to go farther into the bleak desert—to continue farther southwest in Texas.

First, they took the buffalo calves they had captured back to one of the last ranches they had passed.

From then on, with misgivings—although courageous—Mr. Rude and Adams plowed on through deep sand and dry lands with scarce water for many miles and many days.

From the top of one of the highest points both men actually felt cold chills run through their nerves as they gazed upon the barren landscape stretching out before them.

To the very verge of the horizon there lay an apparently boundless desert of pure sand. Sometimes the whole surface resembled a high rolling sea with the spray flying high. The wind howled mournfully over the great waste.

Meanwhile Jones rode ahead searching with great confidence and optimism for water and buffalo.

He was more than a mile in advance of the wagons, plowing through the sand at a fearfully slow rate, when upon looking backward over his trail he saw the caravan had halted. Mr. Rude was signaling for him to return.

He swept the whole area with his powerful glass, saw there was no danger lurking from any quarter, so he signaled for them to come on—by riding in a circle.

The wagons did not move, but Rude mounted the other saddle horse and started for the spot where the Colonel waited, impatient for the loss of time.

Rude looked very pale when he arrived. He said that Mr. Adams refused to go any farther for fear they would all perish in the desert from want of water—and that he himself was not anxious to proceed. They had found no water that whole day.

Colonel Jones’ only answer was: “’Go where you like. I shall cross this desert! I know you never can find your way home—you would better choose the wiser part.”

He whirled his horse and rode straight away to the south, as he’d been going, without one parting look at his companions.

After some time he topped a high point out of sight and walked back to the crest of the divide, peeking over with his glasses to check on the wagon.

He saw that the two men had conferred fully 15 minutes. Then they climbed back in the wagon and began to follow his trail.

Mile after mile went by with no vegetation visible anywhere. Darkness set in early and Jones stopped to wait till the wagon came up. They made a dry camp that night.

Next morning, he set out early and about 10 am from a high vantage point spotted a big lake glistening in the sunlight, some 6 miles away. Or was it another mirage?

A band of wild horses was approaching the real or imagined lake. Soon he would know.

Jones insisted that wild horses are the best sign of water because—unlike buffalo—they come to water every day between 10 and 3 pm.

In the desert wild horses are the best sign of water because they come to water every day between 10 am and 3 pm, Colonel Jones told his men. In contrast, he said buffalo will travel three days or more before attempting to find water—so it is useless to follow buffalo hoping they are heading for water. Credit reddit.com.

In contrast, when they came up he told Rude and Adams, that a buffalo herd can travel three days or more without attempting to find a stream or lagoon of water.

The wild horses went to the spot at a gallop, lowered their heads and appeared to drink. Then they sloshed water a few minutes, turned about and went back the way they had come.

Water, without a doubt! Jones had watched wild horses in these maneuvers before.

The other two men were scarcely convinced the beautiful lake was real and not a mirage—until they actually dipped their fingers in the water.

That afternoon Jones saw through his glass a distant lone buffalo cow rapidly traveling south. He was certain she was frightened and hurrying to catch the main herd. She disappeared from sight, still going due south.

They followed with the wagon and covered at least 20 miles before stopping to camp. In all that long distance not an object was visible on the vast expanse before them.

Until just as the sun was setting. Then they saw 9 distinct large animals far off in the southwest, too far off to be sure.

And as Jones peeped cautiously over the next divide he saw what he believed was the last 600 wild buffalo in the world.

Next morning he left the wagon early with two horses to dash after the buffalo, telling his assistants to follow closely behind to pick up calves.

Unfortunately, in the light wagon they soon lost him in the distance and swirling dust of the rapidly stampeding buffalo herd.

The wolves and coyotes were very bold in this “No Man’s Land.” Dozens of them constantly prowled around his horses, slashing at the buffalo calves.

Jones roped 2 calves and wondered, “Shall I leave this one and take chances of the wolves devouring it?”

He decided, “Yes. Such an opportunity to catch calves will never again occur. I have travelled 500 miles for this all-important opportunity!”

Jones grabbed off his cowboy hat, tucked it under one calf’s neck rope. His coat went under another. His vest went under another.

By this time his horse was exhausted.

“Without checking their speed, Colonel Jones leaped on the second horse he was leading, cut him loose and rolled the steel spurs upon his faithful steed’s flanks.”

The 6th and 7th calf each got a cowboy boot tucked in against their neck rope.

Jones knew that wolves will not disturb anything that has on it the scent of man—thinking it is a trap. And at first they didn’t.

“But when the 8th was caught there was a desperate struggle,” according to the writer describing that first buffalo calf hunt.

“The horse by this time was all of a tremble, and covered with foam.

“The gallant Colonel, having no other garment he could well spare, mounted his horse, reached down and drew the baby buffalo up in his arms.

“He then started on the backward track. He could see a band of wolves encircling the 7th calf, so spurred up ‘Jubar’ to the rescue.

“He arrived at the spot just in time. The wolves had closed in on it and were ready to complete their tactics, when they were scattered right and left by the Colonel—who reached down and drew the supposed victim up in triumph.

Jones carried two buffalo calves on the saddle while searching for the wagon—with more than 50 wolves and coyotes trotting all around as they accompanied him. Ricker’s sketch shows the buffalo herd in the distance at far right, while wolves surround the captured calves. Wolves came as close as they dared to the small trussed-up calf in the right foreground—being leary of the odor of one of Jones’ cowboy boots. Sketch by JA Ricker.

“This calf was also carried on toward his goal, with a band of more than 50 wolves and coyotes trotting all around as they accompanied him.”

“The next calf fortunately, had been left in a clump of grass which the wolves had missed entirely. When the Colonel reached it his courage failed.

“The danger was too great to attempt taking the 3rd animal up in his arms with the others.

“He let the calves down on the ground and made a dash at the wolves, shooting at them with his revolver, but they paid little attention to this kind of music.

“He was in a dilemma. In a precarious position. ‘Where in the world was the team?’

“He was worn out completely and his strength was gradually giving way. He longed to see the wagon.

“Certainly, his companions could not be lost. The trail of the herd was visible fully half a mile away.

“As often as he would venture off in search of the men, as often did the wolves return and attempt to get at the helpless calves. So he was compelled to remain and fight the vicious, hungry brutes.

“After more than a full hour’s worrying with the pack, he heard the report of a gun—but in an entirely opposite direction from where he expected.

“Upon this happy turn, he made a dash to the top of a high hill near by where he saw the wagon about a mile distant. The driver apparently was wandering at random over the prairie.

“By this time all the wolves were aggregating in one large pack around the three calves and he had to rush down on them in a mighty hurry to save his prizes.

“Yet they hardly noticed him, continuing to jump upon the little buffalo.

“He stood guard over them, preventing the wolves from effecting their purpose, only by the greatest efforts until the team came up.

“And to make matters worse—bringing with them another pack of the hungry devils, which had been escorting the wagon for miles.

“The report of the gun that had attracted the Colonel’s attention was caused by Mr. Rude, who had fired at one of the impudent monsters—a great gray beast, which fortunately he succeeded in killing.

“The men had gathered up three of the calves as they came to them. The three guarded by Colonel Jones were quickly loaded and the wagon going at as rapid a rate as possible back over the trail of the herd until the other two calves and the horse that had been cut loose were safely taken also.

‘The Greatest Herd of Buffalo in the World’

“It was found that the wolves had made no attack upon them. The foresight of the Colonel in putting his clothes around them had prevented it.

“When the last little buffalo was placed in the wagon, Colonel Jones sank on the ground, perfectly exhausted.

“Fortunately, there was a quart bottle of whisky in the light spring rig, it having been brought from home as an antidote to the possible bite of a rattlesnake, the country being full of them.

“A drink of this was administered to him by Mr. Rude and it immediately revived him.

“The team was driven to where chips could be procured.

“A dinner was elegantly served, consisting of deliciously broiled buffalo steak, hot biscuits and excellent coffee—the first warm meal the tired hunters had partaken of for 48 hours.

“An extraordinary appetite gave a zest to it, such as cannot be appreciated by those who have never experienced a plainsman’s capacity under similar circumstances.

“The party bade farewell to the ‘Staked Plains’ and drove to the ranch where they had left the five calves already caught.

“Fourteen calves were secured—a whole wagon box full.

Buffalo Jones declared his expedition a great success, his first great effort at capturing the nucleus of what he believed would become “the greatest herd of buffalo in the world.” NPS.

They then took a ‘bee line’ for the Colonel’s home in Kansas and arrived there with 10 of the last buffalo calves in good health.

Four died on the way, due to fatigue and inadequate nutrition.

Buffalo Jones declared his expedition a great success, his first great effort at capturing the nucleus of what he believed would become “the greatest herd of buffalo in the world.”

Source: “Buffalo Jones’ 40 Years of Adventure,” by Charles Jesse Jones. Compiled from his journals by Col Henry Inman, 1899. Copyright 1899, by Crane & Co, Topeka, Kansas

Francie M Berg

Author of the Buffalo Tales &Trails blog

Traditions of Buffalo Origin

Traditions of Buffalo Origin

In October 2016, the Nature Conservancy brought a herd of 23 bison to roam on more than 1,000 acres at Kankakee Sands. Photo credit: The Nature Conservancy.

Long ago, a tribe of Cheyenne hunters camped at the head of a rushing stream, which eventually emptied into a large cave.

The people were starving. They hunted deer, rabbits, porcupines, birds and even skunks until all were gone.

Then they would move to a new camp. But soon all wildlife was gone there too.

Because of the great need for a new food supply for his people, the Chief called a council meeting.

“We should explore this large cave,” he told his people.

“How many brave hunters will offer to go on this venture? Of course, it may be dangerous, but we have brave hunters.”

The men were silent. No one responded to the Chief’s request.

Every morning he repeated his plea.

Finally, one young brave painted himself for hunting and stepped forth in the council.

He said, “I will go and sacrifice myself for our people.”

He arrived at the cave, near the opening, where the stream rushed underground.

There to his surprise, Young Brave found two other Cheyenne hunters, also painted for hunting.

“We will go with you,” they said.

“Are they here to taunt me,” Young Brave wondered? “Will you only pretend to jump when I do?”

A large cave opened into a gumbo hill, where the stream rushed underground. Credit Nicole Haase.

But the other two braves assured him they would go with him, no matter how dangerous.

“You are mistaken about us. We really do want to enter the cave with you,” they said.

Young Brave then joined hands with them and they jumped into the opening of the cave. Together they tumbled down a long passage, then came to a stop.

They stood up, but because of the darkness, it took some time for their eyes to adjust.

Suddenly they saw what looked like an opening or door in the wall, with a hide hanging over it.

Young Brave knocked, but there was no response. He knocked again, much louder. Then they heard a frail voice.

An old Indian grandmother pulled back the hide and opened the door. “Where did you come from? And what do you want, my brave ones?” she asked.

“Grandmother, we are searching for a new food supply for our tribe,” Young Brave replied politely. “Our people never seem to have enough food to eat.”

“Are you hungry now?” she asked.

“Oh, yes, kind Grandmother, we are very hungry,” all three braves answered, hopefully.

The old grandmother pulled open her door wide, inviting the young men to enter.

She took them to a window and pointed for them to look.

“Look out there!” she said.

At first it was hard to see, but soon their eyes opened and a beautiful wide prairie stretched before their eyes. Great herds of buffalo were grazing contentedly.

The young hunters were surprised to see outside the window great herds of buffalo grazing contentedly on the beautiful green prairie grasses. SD Tourism.

The young hunters could hardly believe what they saw!

The old grandmother told them to sit and brought each of them a stone bowl filled with buffalo meat.

How good it tasted!  They ate and ate until they were full.

To their surprise, more buffalo meat still remained in their stone bowls!

“I want you to take your stone bowls of buffalo meat back to the people at your camp. Don’t spill any on the way,” said the old grandmother.

“Tell your people that soon I will send them live buffalo.”

“Thank you, thank you, thank you, kind Grandmother,” said the three young Cheyenne braves.

They took their bowls and being careful not to spill any meat, went back into the cave. It was very dark, but finally they saw a dim light and found a narrow passage.

After a time they found their way up and scaled the walls of the cave.

When the young hunters returned to their camp with gifts of buffalo meat, the people rejoiced over this new, good food.

The entire tribe ate heartily from the old grandmother’s three magic bowls, and still there was meat left over.

When the Cheyenne awoke at dawn the next day, herds of buffalo had mysteriously appeared, surrounding their village and eating the green grass in all four directions!

The people were truly thankful to the old Indian grandmother and to the Sky Spirits for their good fortune.

From then on they could hunt buffalo whenever they wanted.

But they always remembered to give thanks to all, and thanks to the buffalo—for offering up their flesh, their hides and other gifts for the Cheyenne people and their families.

How Coyote freed the Buffalo from Humpback

Another tradition told of the release of buffalo before they ran free over the earth. One of these involved a powerful being named Humpback who owned all the buffalo.

Humpback’s buffalo broke out of the corral and ran free over the earth.

In the first days a mean and powerful being named Humpback owned all the buffalo in the world. He kept them locked in a stone corral in the mountains north of San Juan, where he lived with his young son.

The buffalo were crowded into the corral, without much to eat, and most of their food was covered with dust.

They tried to reach for the green grass and sagebrush that grew outside their corral on the mountainside, but could not.

Humpback shared the buffalo with no one else and refused to give any meat to his neighbors, even though they were starving.

One summer game was very scarce. Coyote and the people hunters traveled many miles in all directions but found nothing to eat. The people and their children grew thin with hunger.

They sought help from the wily Coyote. Something had to be done to help the buffalo escape from Humpback’s corral.

Coyote and his family lived not far from the mountains. His children, too, cried because their bellies were empty.

Coyote called the people to a Council.

“Humpback will not give us any buffalo,” he said. “Let us go over to his corral and make a plan to help them escape.”

The people traveled to the mountains near Humpback’s place and camped. After dark they inspected his buffalo pens.

They found the stone walls had no opening. They were too high to climb. The only entrance was through the back door of Humpback’s home.

For four days they watched the father and son and the buffalo.

Then Coyote summoned the people to another Council and asked them to offer suggestions for releasing the buffalo.

“There is no way,” said one older man. “To release the buffalo we must go into Humpback’s house, and he is too powerful for us to do that.”

“I have an idea,” Coyote said. “For four days we have secretly watched Humpback and his young son go about their work.

“Have you noticed that the boy is lonesome? He does not own a pet of any kind?”

The people did not understand what this had to do with freeing the buffalo, but they knew that Coyote was a great schemer so they waited for him to explain.

“I will change myself into a Killdeer,” Coyote said. “In the morning when Humpback’s son goes down to the spring to get water, he’ll find a Killdeer with a broken wing.

“He will want this bird for a pet and take it back into his house.

“Once I am in the house I can fly into the corral, and the cries of the Killdeer will frighten the buffalo into a stampede. They will come charging out through Humpback’s house and be free to run upon the earth.”

The people thought this was a good plan, and the next morning when Humpback’s son came down the path to the spring he found the Killdeer with a crippled wing.

As Coyote had planned, the boy picked up the bird and carried it back into his lodge.

“Look here,” the boy cried. “This is a very good bird!”

“It is good for nothing!” Humpback shouted at him. “All the birds and animals and people are rascals.”

“It is a very good bird,” the boy repeated.

Humpback wore a blue mask over his face and fierce nose. Through its slits his eyes glittered. His basket headdress was painted black with a zigzag streak of yellow to represent lightning.

“Take it back where you found it!” roared Humpback, and his frightened son did as he was told.

As soon as the Killdeer was released it flew to where the people were camped and changed back into Coyote.

“That plan did not work,” he said, “but I will try again in the morning. Maybe a puppy will be better than a bird.”

The next morning Humpback’s son found a small dog by the spring, lapping at the water.

The boy picked up the puppy and hurried home.

“Look here!” he cried. “What a nice pet I have found.”

“How foolish you are, boy!” Humpback growled. “A dog is good for nothing. I’ll kill it with my club.”

But the boy hugged the dog tightly to his chest and began crying.

“Oh, all right,” Humpback growled. “But first let me test that animal to make certain it is a dog. All animals in the world are schemers.”

He took a coal of fire from the hearth and brought it closer and closer to the dog’s eyes until it gave three rapid barks.

“It is a real dog,” Humpback decided. “You may keep it in the buffalo corral, but not in the house.”

This was exactly what Coyote wanted.

When darkness fell and Humpback and his son went to sleep, Coyote opened the back door of the house.

Then he ran among the buffalo in the corral, barking as loud as he could. The buffalo were badly scared because they had never before heard a dog bark.

When Coyote ran nipping at their heels, they stampeded toward Humpback’s house and smashed down the rear door.

The buffalo broke through Humpback’s front door and all escaped to run free on the western plains. Nature Conservancy.

The pounding of their hooves in his house awakened Humpback. He jumped out of bed and tried to stop them, but the buffalo crashed through his front door and escaped.

All the buffalo escaped from Humpback’s corral. They scattered over all the plains and grazed on the lush green grass in the sunshine.

After the last of the big shaggy animals had galloped away, Humpback’s son could not find his small dog.

“Where is my pet?” he cried. “Where is my puppy?”

“That was no dog,” Humpback said angrily. “That was Coyote the Trickster. He has turned loose all our buffalo and we can never get them back again.”

Humpback said, “That was Coyote the Trickster. He has turned loose all our buffalo and we can never get them back again.” Photo courtesy of SD Tourism.

That was all true. The buffalo had escaped and now ran free to roam over the earth.

Coyote and the people could hunt them whenever they were hungry—but only when they thanked the buffalo for sharing their gifts.

Ancient Storytelling

Some tribes held another tradition for the origin of buffalo. Their beliefs centered on a Spirit Being who formed a buffalo shape out of mud and then breathed life into it.

Storytelling was one way that early Native Americans passed down their traditions and culture. Often families sat around the fire after dark and told stories on long winter evenings. It kept their customs, history and heritage alive from one generation to the next. Some traditional stories are still told today. Credit Cameron Nelson and Sarah VanAuken.

From this effigy came untold herds of buffalo that populated the earth.

The same traditions in different variations are often told by storytellers from different tribes, especially when those tribes shared kinship or traded with each other.

In ancient times, storytelling was an art and an important way of passing down religious beliefs, history and tribal culture.

Traditional beliefs were—and often are today—taught at a grandmother’s knee. Or told by grandfathers.

Some restrictions and taboos apply. Only special people were allowed to tell certain stories and at certain times of the year.

Some stories and traditions were passed down through a specific medicine man, and he alone was allowed to tell them.

There were traditions of the origin of buffalo, the flood that covered the earth, the close connections of the people with the spirit world of their relatives—buffalo and other wildlife and birds.

Other stories modeled good behavior such as kindness to the less fortunate and the generosity of every good hunter in sharing his game

Traditional storytellers believe the old stories are best told in the native language and to those who understand the culture.

Much of the spirit, humor and excitement are lost when stories need to be translated, they say.

Further, Cree storytellers suggest the stories lose meaning without the close connection to nature, the Great Spirit and other people, which is part of their culture and reflected in the stories told to small children from birth.

Not always do the traditional stories provide religious or cultural significance or teach a lesson

The Native American grandmother might entertain children with hilarious tales of coyote tricksters and other mischief just for the fun of it while she beaded moccasins or babysat the little ones. Credit Painting Howard Terpning.

The venerable Native grandmother, with a twinkle in her eye, might entertain with hilarious tales about coyote tricksters and other mischief.

Some stories she told just for fun of it, with twists, turns and surprises for a giggling circle of attentive children.

Francie M Berg

Author of the Buffalo Tales &Trails blog

The Buffalo Conservationists—Part 2

The Buffalo Conservationists—Part 2

Buffalo resting in the junipers at Teddy Roosevelt National Park, ND. Credit National Park Service.

William Hornaday published his amazing report on the slaughter of the buffalo herds in a government book in 1889, which he titled The Extermination of the American Bison.

It was intended to be the last word on bison.

William Hornaday hunted buffalo in remote canyons of central Montana, shot, killed and mounted his large, majestic bull with its family of six for the Smithsonian—which became an icon for the nation–wrote his amazing book on how buffalo were being exterminated, and then devoted the rest of his life to saving live buffalo in Parks and wildlife refuges throughout the country. Photographer unknown.

Determined to get it right, he spared no effort in contacting every possible source of buffalo knowledge, from Army officers at far-flung western forts to fur traders, railroaders, hide hunters and cowboys.

He learned that the end of the big herds came in Dakota Territory—on the Great Sioux reservation—but offered few details. Except to state that Sitting Bull and his band were there at the end.

He soon discovered that small herds of buffalo here and there were not only surviving—but thriving and multiplying.

Upon publishing his greatest book—on extermination of the buffalo—Hornaday could have rested on his laurels, but fortunately for us, he did not.

Instead, he spent the rest of his life fighting for the conservation of healthy, live buffalo.

No longer solely interested in carcasses, he developed a vision for living buffalo—a way they could be kept safe in parks and public lands across America.

He had a new mission—to save buffalo and other game animals in refuges where they could live out their lives in safety.

In Washington, DC and New York he lectured and wrote impassioned articles on the need to set aside national reserves for buffalo and other wildlife.

But Congress did not act.

In no uncertain terms, Hornaday expressed his anger and despair.

“We are weary of witnessing the greed, selfishness and cruelty of ‘civilized’ man toward the wild creatures of the earth. We are sick of tales of slaughter and pictures of carnage.

“It is time for sweeping reformation; and that is precisely what we now demand,” he wrote.

“If the majority of the people of America feel that so long as there is any game alive there must be an annual two months or four months open season for its slaughter, then assuredly we soon will have a game-less continent.”

A gameless continent! A sobering thought indeed.

Yet, the west teemed with wildlife and the risk of that seemed impossible.

Westerners generally opposed laws to restrict hunting, knowing many desperate pioneers on the frontier survived by hunting and selling hides and meat.

Congress shrugged the conservation concerns aside.

As for using public land for grazing buffalo, that was highly unlikely when the public clamored for even more homestead land.

As an early leader in conservation and the passionate editor of Field and Stream Magazine Grinnell, too, played an important role in influencing the saving of buffalo in America.

An early conservation writer, George Bird Grinnell earned his PhD and editorship of Field and Stream Magazine, after first joining the Pawnee’s in their last great buffalo hunt of 1872 while still in college. Credit William Notman, c 1880.

George Bird Grinnell wrote often about the need for saving the buffalo.

Born in Brooklyn, New York, Grinnell lived in Audubon Park and had connections with the Audubon family, which likely helped spur his interest in the natural world.

Like fellow conservationists Hornaday and Theodore Roosevelt, Grinnell had a special interest in the west.

Like them he hunted buffalo and in fact, had joined the Pawnee’s last great buffalo hunt of in 1872 while still in college.

He rode with General Custer’s 1874 Black Hills expedition and the next year went with Col. William Ludlow’s expedition to Yellowstone Park.

For the Ludlow report he documented the poaching of buffalo, deer, elk and antelope that was going on in Yellowstone.

Grinnell earned a PhD from Yale in 1880, where he was already an editor of Field and Stream Magazine. He continued his long-term career as senior editor and publisher of that magazine.

On his western ranch Theodore Roosevelt—who came to Dakota in 1883 to hunt big game and stayed to set up a ranch business—soon realized that the elk, bighorn sheep and buffalo that he so admired would not survive relentless overhunting or the destruction of their grasslands under modern civilization.

A frail asthmatic child, Theodore Roosevelt learned hard-riding cowboy ways on his badlands North Dakota ranch and built up his strength and endurance. He hunted big game and grew convinced of the need to preserve all forms of wildlife.

He became increasingly convinced of the need to protect the magnificent buffalo and provide large, safe places for them to live.

When the long and bitterly cold winter of 1886–1887 wiped out his herd of cattle and those of other ranchers, and with them over half his $80,000 investment, Roosevelt returned to the East.

The badlands of Theodore Roosevelt National Park after a rain, at sunset—rugged ridges, clay banks and fertile green bottomlands. Good ranching country. NPS.

After that disastrous winter, he let go of most of his ranch holdings but continued to maintain some cattle interests in the badlands.

In 1886, after his first wife’s death, Roosevelt married Edith Carow, a childhood friend.

He entered politics—first as a delegate to the Republican National Convention, then president of the NY City Board of Police Commissioners, and next as governor of NY where he battled corruption and fought for reform.

He launched the rules for his Square Deal: “Honesty in public affairs, an equitable sharing of privilege and responsibility, and subordination of party and local concerns to the interests of the state at large.”

Appointed assistant secretary of the navy by President William McKinley, Roosevelt worked for a stronger navy and railed against Spain for its interference in Cuba and North American affairs.

When war with Spain was declared in 1898, Roosevelt organized the Rough Riders and was sent to fight in Cuba. The successful charge of the Rough Riders up Kettle Hill July 1, 1898, during the deadly Battle of Santiago was well publicized and made him a national hero.

TR became Vice President of the United States in 1901—a powerless office. However, he gave one memorable speech at the Minnesota State Fair.

“I have always been fond of the West African proverb,” he told the crowd. ‘Speak softly and carry a big stickyou will go far.’”

The cartoonists picked up on his “big stick.”

It was a hint of the style he would soon put into practice. Within six months he was President, upon the assassination of William McKinley.

He continued to visit western North Dakota to hunt, renew himself and refresh his soul in the badlands, where he said “the romance of my life began.”

The American Bison Society

The American Bison Society arranged a donation of bison from the New York Zoological Society to the new Wichita National Forest and Game Preserve in Oklahoma. On Oct 11,1907, 15 of “the finest buffalo from the New York Zoological Park were shipped by rail to Oklahoma.’ Here the six bulls and nine cows were being safely returned to the plains and mountains of Oklahoma. Credit US FWS Archives.

Grinnell founded the Audubon Society of New York, and organized the New York Zoological Society. He wrote articles against market hunting and in favor of realistic game laws.

With Theodore Roosevelt he founded the Boone and Crockett Club, dedicated to the restoration of America’s wildlands. Together he and Roosevelt wrote the club’s first book in 1895.

For 35 years, until 1911, Grinnell had an ideal platform in Field and Stream for publicizing his passion on conservation and environmental issues.

Grinnell took hunting trips to what is now Glacier National Park in Montana, with the well-known guide James Willard Schultz.

In a 1885 visit they hiked over the St. Mary Lakes region naming outstanding features including the glacier named for him—Grinnell Glacier.

These experiences spurred him to write many articles urging protection of the buffalo and the American West. He spent many years studying the natural history of the region.

He was influential in establishing Glacier National Park when the park system began in 1910.

Grinnell also took a deep interest in Native Americans.

On his many trips west, he often lived with Indian tribes and became an advocate for them in the East. He wrote many books on the Native Americans, some of the most popular on the Cheyenne, the Pawnee and the Blackfeet. Also Blackfeet Indian Stories, When Buffalo Ran, and Native American Ways: Four Paths to Enlightenment

As a young man Grinnell lived with and became a friend of several Indian tribes. Later he became an advocate for them.


Then Hornaday discovered an amazingly effective route to his conservation goals.

The idea came on a lecture tour, when a listener asked, “Why not form a society dedicated to the permanent preservation of the buffalo?”

Americans could be mobilized for a cause, as Henry Osborn, president of the New York Zoological Society, wrote in his foreword to William Hornaday’s new book,   Our Vanishing Wildlife:

“Americans are practical. Like all other northern peoples, they love money and will sacrifice much for it, but they are also full of idealism, as well as moral and spiritual energy.

‘The influence of the splendid body of Americans and Canadians who have turned their best forces of mind and language into literature and into political power for the conservation movement, is becoming stronger every day.”

Hornaday passed the idea on to the new president, who often voiced his regrets at the state of conservation in his country.

“The extermination of the buffalo has been a veritable tragedy of the animal world,” Theodore Roosevelt said.

In his message to Congress on Dec 5, 1905, the Conservation President Teddy Roosevelt called for a buffalo refuge.

“The most characteristic animal of the western plains was the great shaggy-maned wild ox, the bison, commonly known as buffalo.

“Small fragments of herds exist in a domesticated state, here and there. Such a herd as that on the Flathead Reservation should not be allowed to go out of existence.

“Either on some reservation or on some forest reserve or refuge, provision should be made for the preservation of such a herd.”

At last, a president who understood both buffalo and ranching—from his time as a western rancher—and with a heart for conservation!

Three days later, on Dec. 8, the American Bison Society was born, with William Hornaday as president and Roosevelt, honorary president.

Memberships poured in and suddenly Hornaday had the power he wanted.

He immediately proposed a federal range—on or next to the Flathead Indian Reservation in western Montana, where Michel Pablo still ran his half of the original Walking Coyote herd.

Within six months Congress appropriated money to enclose 8,000 acres of the National Wichita Forest Reserve in southwest Oklahoma with a high wire fence for a wildlife refuge and stocked it with 15 donated buffalo.

One of the first wildlife parks to get buffalo was the National Wichita Forest Reserve in southwest Oklahoma, stocked with 15 donated buffalo.


By 1909 the US government owned 158 buffalo.

Most were in Yellowstone National Park, along with 40 head on the National Bison Range, 19 on the Wichita Game Reserve in Oklahoma, and 7 in the National Zoological Park in Washington, DC.

Fourteen Buffalo donated to Wind Cave National Game Preserve in the Black Hills, SD, leave New York City after a send-off by men of the American Bison Society. Credit Wildlife Conservation Society.

The American Bison Society stocked Wind Cave National Game Preserve in the Black Hills with 14 buffalo, surprisingly from the New York City Zoo, and later added six from Yellowstone Park.

This remains a special herd that tests genetically pure because of its unique origins.

Grinnell founded the Audubon Society of New York, and was an organizer of the New York Zoological Society.

He was a founding member, with Theodore Roosevelt, of the Boone and Crockett Club, dedicated to the restoration of America’s wildlands. Together he and Roosevelt wrote the club’s first book in 1895.

Buffalo arriving at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge in Colorado. NPS.

He campaigned intensely against market hunting and for realistic game laws and was influential in the enactment of the Migratory Bird Treaty in Great Britain in 1916 as well as the adoption of strong regulatory control of hunting in all states.

Hornaday came up with another startling new idea that took root: Forever prohibit the sale of wild game.

Another federal herd of six donated buffalo, launched in the Appalachian Mountains near Asheville, North Carolina, failed to grow. The last lone buffalo died there a couple of decades later.

The Teddy Roosevelt Legacy

Perhaps spurred on by the popularity of their successes with the American Bison Society, President Theodore Roosevelt wielded his “big stick” and went on to establish numerous wildlife refuges stocked with buffalo and teeming with wild animals and bird life.

As president—from 1901 to 1909—he became one of the most powerful voices in the history of American conservation.

Roosevelt set aside almost five times as much land as all of his predecessors combined, and earned himself a place on Mt. Rushmore as this country’s greatest conservationist, along with three of its greatest leaders, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln.

Teddy Roosevelt earned his place on Mt. Rushmore as the Conservation President. NPS.

The Park System grew rapidly. When the National Park Service was created in 1916—seven years after Roosevelt left office—there were 35 sites to be managed by the new organization. Roosevelt helped create 23 of those.

He took the view that the President as a “steward of the people” should take whatever action is necessary for the public good unless expressly forbidden by law or the Constitution.

“I did not usurp power,” he wrote, “but I did greatly broaden the use of executive power.”

When it came to setting aside land and resources for use of the general public he did not hesitate. He said:

”We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources.

“But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields and obstructing navigation.

“We have fallen heirs to the most glorious heritage a people ever received, and each one must do his part if we wish to show that the nation is worthy of its good fortune.”

After becoming president, Roosevelt:

  • Created the United States Forest Service (USFS) and established
  • 150 national forests
  • 51 federal bird reserves
  • 4 national game preserves
  • Set aside 230 million acres of public land

National parks are created by an act of Congress. Roosevelt worked with his legislative branch to establish these 5 parks:

  • Crater Lake National Park (OR) – 1902
  • Wind Cave National Park (SD) – 1903
  • Sullys Hill (ND) – 1904 (now managed by USFWS)
  • Platt National Park (OK) – 1906 (now part of Chickasaw National Recreation Area)
  • Mesa Verde National Park (CO) – 1906
  • Also added land to Yosemite National Park (CA)
  • Named for him is Theodore Roosevelt National Park (1978)
    in the badlands of North Dakota, where he owned two cattle ranches

and where his Presidential Library is scheduled to be built soon.

Since he did not need congressional approval for national monuments, Roosevelt could establish them much easier than national parks. He dedicated these 18 sites as national monuments:

  • Devil’s Tower (WY) – 1906
  • El Morro (NM) – 1906
  • Montezuma Castle (AZ) – 1906
  • Petrified Forest (AZ) – 1906 (now a national park)
  • Chaco Canyon (NM) – 1907
  • Lassen Peak (CA) – 1907 (now Lassen Volcanic National Park)
  • Cinder Cone (CA) – 1907 (now part of Lassen Volcanic National Park)
  • Gila Cliff Dwellings (NM) – 1907
  • Tonto (AZ) – 1907
  • Muir Woods (CA) – 1908
  • Grand Canyon (AZ) – 1908 (now a national park)
  • Pinnacles (CA) – 1908 (now a national park)
  • Jewel Cave (SD) – 1908
  • Natural Bridges (UT) – 1908
  • Lewis & Clark Caverns (MT) – 1908 (now a Montana State Park)
  • Tumacacori (AZ) – 1908
  • Wheeler (CO) – 1908 (now Wheeler Geologic Area, part of Rio Grande National Forest)
  • Mount Olympus (WA) – 1909 (now Olympic National Park)

Roosevelt also established Chalmette Monument and Grounds in 1907, site of the Battle of New Orleans, now part of Jean Lafitte National Historical Park.

Sagamore Hill, New York, was the home of Theodore Roosevelt and his family from 1885 until his death in 1919. Called his “Summer White House,” during his time in office it is now a Historic Site with 83 acres of park grounds and historic buildings. NPS.

TR’s words and actions continue to affect how we approach and appreciate the natural world.

Though his many writings describe numerous hunting trips and successful kills, they are filled with his regret for the loss of species and habitat. He wrote:

“It is also vandalism wantonly to destroy or to permit the destruction of what is beautiful in nature, whether it be a cliff, a forest, or a species of mammal or bird.

“Here in the United States we turn our rivers and streams into sewers and dumping-grounds, we pollute the air, we destroy forests, and exterminate fishes, birds and mammals—not to speak of vulgarizing charming landscapes with hideous advertisements.

“But at last it looks as if our people are awakening.”

Today, Theodore Roosevelt’s legacy is found across the country.

His words and actions continue to affect how we approach and appreciate the natural world.

He saw the effects of overgrazing, and suffered the loss of his ranches because of it.

Here in North Dakota, where many of his personal concerns inspired his later environmental efforts, Roosevelt is remembered with a national park that bears his name and honors the memory of this dedicated conservationist.

Roosevelt continued to maintain some cattle interests in the badlands until he became Vice President of the United States in 1901.

For the rest of his life he continued to visit good friends he made in the badlands and to enjoy the renewal and inspiration—and what he called the ‘hardy life’—he found here.

“I have always said I would not have been President had it not been for my experience in North Dakota.

“It was here that the romance of my life began.

“I grow very fond of this place, and it certainly has a desolate, grim beauty of its own, that has a curious fascination for me.

“There is a delight in the hardy life of the open. There are no words that can tell the hidden spirit of the wilderness that can reveal its mystery, its melancholy and its charm.

“The Bad Lands grade all the way from those that are almost rolling in character to those that are so fantastically broken in form and so bizarre in color as to seem hardly properly to belong to this earth.

“Nothing could be more lonely and nothing more beautiful than the view at nightfall across the prairies to these huge hill masses, when the lengthening shadows had at last merged into one and the faint after-glow of the red sunset filled the west.”

At age 42 TR also expanded presidential power for support of the public interest in conflicts between big business and labor.

Although he promised continuity with McKinley’s policies, he transformed the public image of the presidency at once.

He led the nation toward an active role in world politics, particularly in Europe and Asia.

Theodore Roosevelt riding with others into Yellowstone Park from the train station in Gardiner, MT. NPS.

Roosevelt wielded his big-stick diplomacy in 1903, when he helped Panama pull away from Colombia and gave the United States a Canal Zone.

He secured the route and began construction of the Panama Canal (1904–14). In 1906 Roosevelt visited the Canal–the first president to leave the US while in office.

He reached an agreement on immigration with Japan, and sent the Great White Fleet on a goodwill tour of the world.

He won the Nobel Prize for Peace (posthumously) for mediating an end to the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905).

He renamed the presidential home “the White House” and opened its doors to entertain an array of people who fascinated him—cowboys, prizefighters, explorers, writers and artists.

He gained the respect and affection of ordinary working Americans everywhere despite his wealthy upbringing.

His refusal to shoot a bear cub tied to a tree on a 1902 hunting trip inspired a toy maker to name a stuffed bear after him—and a teddy bear fad swept the nation.

The North Room in TR’s Sagamore Hill home at Oyster Bay displays his buffalo head, his hunting skills and love for the natural world, along with a touch of elegance. NPS.

TR and Edith lived all their adult lives at Sagamore Hill, an estate near Oyster Bay, Long Island. They had five children: Theodore, Jr., Kermit, Ethel, Archibald, and Quentin.

The Roosevelt family with Theodore and Edith seated in front; oldest daughter Alice, center back. NPS.

His young children played on the White House lawn—along with TR himself at times. The marriage of his oldest daughter Alice in 1905 to Representative Nicholas Longworth of Ohio became a major social event.

Always the reformer, Roosevelt gave speeches from the presidency’s “bully pulpit,” aimed at raising public consciousness about the nation’s role in world politics, the need to control the trusts that dominated the economy, the regulation of railroads and the impact of political corruption.

He appointed young college-educated men to administrative positions.

“While President, I have been President,” he said. “Emphatically; I have used every ounce of power there was in the office . . . “

“I do not believe that any President ever had as thoroughly good a time as I have had, or has ever enjoyed himself as much.”

Roosevelt’s last visit to the North Dakota badlands came in the fall of 1918, just a few months before his death January 6, 1919 at the age of 60, in Oyster Bay, New York.

His Presidential Library begins construction in 2021 within the borders of Theodore Roosevelt National Park in the badlands, where his two ranches—the Maltese Cross and the Elkhorn—were located.

Who Really Saved the Buffalo?

 So who really did save the buffalo?

William Hornaday took special delight in the new buffalo refuge in western Montana when it was finished with its magnificent view of the snow-packed Mission range.

At last his wildest dreams had come true.

“It is beautiful and perfect beyond compare,” he marveled.

Indeed. It is perfect!

There, in the shadow of the Rockies, buffalo still graze across the open grasslands of Montana’s beautiful Flathead Valley, rising in the stunning foothills and narrow canyons of what the Natives call Red Sleep Mountain to the high Missions beyond.

Big Medicine, the famous white buffalo, was born there and lived out his 26 years on the National Bison Range.

The refuge is kept as a natural, controlled ecosystem, with a target population of around 350 buffalo, 130 elk, 200 mule deer, 175 white-tailed deer, 100 antelope, 40 bighorn sheep and 30 mountain goats.

About 125,000 visitors come every year to enjoy its delights. Many drive the one-way 19-mile road that climbs up and over the mountain among grazing buffalo and other wildlife.

No going back once committed!

The road to the top and along the ridge is delightful—high switch-backs but no heart-stopping drop-offs. It’s a two hour drive—maybe somewhat longer with summer traffic. And well-worth it!

The main herds are often found with their calves along the creek bottoms.

Here and there up high on the mountain can be seen a lone buffalo bull or two.

And at the summit of Red Sleep Mountain the view of the valley and the rugged Mission Range beyond is nothing short of spectacular!

History rightly gives a great deal of credit for saving the buffalo to the Duprees and Philips, Walking Coyotes, Pablo and Allard, McKay, Goodnights and Buffalo Jones.

We honor these five family groups with ‘boots on the ground’ who rescued buffalo calves and kept them alive, healthy and multiplying.

Without them, there’d be no American bison today.

Buffalo roundup in Badlands of North Dakota via helicopter. NPS.

Still, we also need to honor these visionary conservatists for their dedication and determination to provide the buffalo with safe places to live out their lives.

For their persistence in developing wildlife sanctuaries for buffalo throughout the United States, making them available for the enjoyment of people everywhere—William Hornaday, George Bird Grinnell and President Theodore Roosevelt are Buffalo Conservation heroes.

And yes, I believe Teddy Roosevelt well deserves his place on Mt. Rushmore as our greatest Conservation President!

Bully for him!

Francie M Berg

Author of the Buffalo Tales &Trails blog

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