Photographer nearly trampled to death

Photographer nearly trampled to death

View of cowboys on horses chasing bison out of the pine trees, with white cliffs across the Flathead River in the background. Forsyth used dual cameras to shoot these stereographic scenes. Montana Historical Society.

One of the men attracted to Michel Pablo’s grand roundup of his near-wild buffalo was Norman A. Forsyth, a young photographer who began selling stereo cards and viewers door-to-door while attending college at Wesleyan University in Lincoln, Nebraska.

After college he moved west, still selling for Underwood and Underwood, an early producer and distributor of stereographic views. Attracted by the scenic beauty of Yellowstone Park, Forsyth worked as a tour guide and stage driver in Yellowstone five summers, taking scenic stereographic views along the way, and then set up a photography studio in Butte where he sold them.

Fascinated by what he read of Michel Pablo’s great roundup of near-wild bison he took his cameras to Ronan, MT. There he made friends with Charlie Russell, a cowboy painter also attracted to the dramatic buffalo action they saw every day.

Forsyth shot stereographic views and Russell painted and sketched numerous scenes over the first three summers during which the Pablo buffalo roundup shipped most of the animals to Canada. 

One day Forsyth scrambled down into some trees to get the perfect shot as the cowboy wranglers brought in a herd of buffalo across the river toward the corrals.

The Wainwright, Alberta, newspaper reported Forsyth’s near brush with death as the buffalo herd leaped up out of the river and charged directly toward him.

“The entry of the buffalo into the corral came nearly being accompanied by a regrettable fatality.

“Mr. Forsyth, an enterprising photographer from Butte, Montana, being anxious to get some photos of the animals in the water, had stationed himself at a point of vantage amidst a clump of trees close to one of the booms in the river where he judged he would be out of path of the oncoming herd.

“However they chose to take the bank directly below where he was standing, and before he could reach safety they were upon him in a mad, irresistible stampede.

“How he escaped being trampled to instant death is a miracle which even he cannot realize.

“He has a recollection of the herd rushing upon him and of having in some way clutched a passing calf which he clung to until it passed under a tree.

“He then managed to grasp a branch and although he was unable to pull himself up out of danger he was able to keep above the feet of the plunging herd.

“His dangling legs were bruised and cut by their horns and his clothes torn to shreds, but he still clung to the limb for life.

“Twice the herd passed under him as they circled back in an attempt to escape, but fortunately before he became exhausted they rushed into the corral.

“The Canadian Pacific officials and riders who knew the location chosen by Forsyth shuddered when they saw the animals rush in there and expected to find his body trampled out of semblance in the clay.

“Consequently, they rejoiced to find the luckless photographer slightly disfigured, but still hugging his friend the tree in his disheveled wardrobe.”

As the buffalo stampeded up out of the trees and into the corral, the cowboys rode to his rescue.

Scratched, bleeding and with his clothing ripped apart, Forsyth dropped out of the tree.

On the ground were his two costly cameras that shot dual picture stereographs, both shattered into many pieces and trampled in the mud.

He greeted his would-be rescuers with a sheepish grin, saying, “I think I have had enough of buffalo!”

Francie M Berg

Author of the Buffalo Tales &Trails blog

Bud Cotton and his Buffalo Roundup Gang

Bud Cotton and his Buffalo Roundup Gang

This photo illustrates the difficulty of trying to chase buffalo where they don’t want to go, especially when all run in different directions. Bud Cotton’s Buffalo Roundup Gang rode hard and bore “scars and sore bones” from the “good old days” of roundup. Montana Historical Society.

E.J. (‘Bud’) Cotton was the Buffalo Park Warden at Wainwright, Alberta from 1912 through 1940. An old-fashioned buffalo handler who rode hard and worked his crew hard, he preferred to change their lathered-up horses at noon if at all possible.

Cotton hired a hard-riding Buffalo Roundup Gang—as he called them for “fall” roundup, which they tackled in stride during the coldest days of winter.

Long before the advent of low-stress handling practices were being advocated for buffalo, the buffalo herds were literally wild animals, and they came stampeding between the drift fences toward the open gate at a dead run.

Cotton said his corral fences looked strong enough to hold an elephant “but just stick around until we run a bunch of buffalo into them, then watch the splinters fly!”

When worked, the thousands of buffalo they corralled and manhandled bore some scars—but so did the riders, he wrote. Even years later the men “still bear scars and sore bones as mementos of those same good old days.”

Roundup days for buffalo, unlike on cattle ranches—where the herd was rounded up, steers sorted off and sold in the often-delightful golden days of fall—happened during the coldest days of winter, when buffalo hides were prime.

As Cotton explained the differences: “With cattle we did not worry about just how prime the hides were. Down on the big cattle ranches—roundups for beef were pretty well all finished up by the time snow hit us. But then with cattle we did not worry about just how prime the hides were.

“With the buffalo it’s different, as both beef and hide count, and the buffalo’s hide is not considered prime until about December or later. This hide, when prime, makes beautiful robes and coats. That is why you will hear of riders hitting the roundup trails in 40 below zero weather, right up to their necks in snow banks.”

At Wainwright thousands of buffalo were rounded up each fall—from their 200 square-mile pasture bordered by 9-foot-high fences.

“Buffalo we had corralled, branded and manhandled by the thousand bore some scars and brands—but then the riders still bear scars and sore bones as mementos of those same good old days!”

“Bert Kitchen should still show some scars. We happened to be heading fast through a narrow draw on the high lope, eight riders strung out head to tail, trying to head off a bunch of break-away buffalo.

“Bert was in the lead when his horse went down, some of our horses jumped over him and some just walked down his lanky frame. Our horses were all shod with ‘never-slip’ or Spade Caulks.

“We all sighed ‘Poor Bert,’ but by the time we had circled back to the rescue, Bert had picked himself out of the snow and was mounted again, and mumbled something about how he had busted his cigarette lighter.

“[One morning] the riders had picked up about 2,000 buffalo in west hills and we figured we had them safe as we headed them for the Jameson Lake Gate, only about a mile away.

“George Armstrong trying to head a bunch of break-away buffalo raced out on one of the ice-covered bays of the lake.

“Then PLUNK… horse and rider were in the lake’s icy water. Everybody to the rescue! Ice covered lariats dragged George and his horse out of what could have been an icy grave.

“Ten below that day and George was kinda stiff in his crystalized clothes by the time he got to a warm fireside. However, he was out again the next day as we continued the roundup.

“Blake Sharp and his pinto pony disappeared in a milling herd of buffalo one day as we were corralling…

“He lost his Stetson and Pinto was somewhat wobbly as the buffalo unscrambled and let them see daylight once more… As Blake said, ‘It could have been worse!’”

Cotton told his riders that if their horse left them afoot, they should climb to the top of the nearest butte and “we’ll come back and pick you up later. Once we start the buffalo running we can’t leave them till we hit the corrals… Your horse will be running with us.”

“Jack Johnston was on our Riding Crew. He raced his buckskin pony ahead to open a gate for us, but apparently the buffalo were coming just too fast. Guess about 20 head of buffs ran over him. Lucky though, they were light ‘shippers’ so Jack was able to keep his date down Greenshilds way that night.

“Dick McNairn rode with the roundup crew for many a winter and could tell you tales of fast running buffalo and cold miles of saddle polishing. Dick riding hard and close, trying to haze in a big grumpy buffalo bull on one of our roundups.

“Down goes his horse in a slitherin’ roll, the bull whirls and stands there looking Dick right in the eye. Dick was pinned down by one leg as the horse rolled, but he looked that old bull in the eye. The bull snorted and loped away just as we were riding up to unscramble one lone rider.

“Hi Dunning tied onto a balky buffalo cow and hitched her hard and fast onto his saddle horn. Now a buffalo cow is not bashful and sure is active. Things started to happen fast!!

“First his saddle cinch loosened and the saddle started to turn. About that time his horse just didn’t like the looks of the buff cow so close and hooked one hind leg over the taut rope and started to buck.

“Hi was sure in the middle of trouble with no hope of getting that hard knot from the saddle horn.

“However, Warren Blinn rides in close and cuts Hi’s new rope, thus leaving Hi and his horse free from the now thoroughly peeved buffalo.

“Still Hi was uncertain whether to bless Warren for saving him from a real dirty mix-up, or to cuss him for cutting his brand new Italian hemp lariat!

“Generally, we had about 12 regular riders on the roundups. We always looked forward to the times that the Gang rode together.

“Taking hard knocks, broken bones and bitter cold weather as a matter of course, our riders came back year after year, because there was something fascinating and a surging exhilaration that only the Buffalo Riders will ever know.

“Only these riders experienced the thrill of careening over an open Range for miles with 5,000 to 8,000 buffalo thundering along in flying dust of snow clouds.

“Park Regulations prohibited any visitors on our roundup drives, so we the Crew rode alone to sights and scenes that we will never forget.
(Excerpted from an article in “Buffalo Trails and Tales: Wainwright and Districts,” written by Bud Cotton, Buffalo Park Warden at Wainwright, Alberta, 1973.)

Francie M Berg

Author of the Buffalo Tales &Trails blog

Buffalo Heifer attacked by Grizzly

Buffalo Heifer attacked by Grizzly

Grizzly bear and buffalo well-matched. Imagining Head-Smashed-In, Jack Brink

In another unusual rescue, a Blackfoot Indian reported seeing a buffalo bull charge a grizzly bear that had attacked a heifer.

The grizzly was lying in wait, hidden by a trail near a creek when a small bunch of buffalo trailed down to drink. Led by a young buffalo heifer, they came down the bank in single file.

As the heifer passed under the clay shelf where the grizzly hid, he reached down with both paws and caught her around the neck, then leaped on her back. She struggled to escape.

Suddenly a “splendid young buffalo bull” came rushing down the trail and charged the bear, knocking him down.
They fought fiercely. The grizzly tried to grasp the bull by the head and shoulders, but could not hold him. The bull slashed furiously with his heavy horns.

Blood gushing from mortal wounds, the bear tried to escape, but the bull would not let him go. He kept up the attack until he had killed the bear.

Even then he continued to gore and toss the carcass off the ground. The bull seemed insane with rage.

The Blackfoot hunter—who was also hiding near the trail—was much afraid he’d be discovered and attacked too. Finally, much to his relief, the buffalo left the carcass and went off to join his band.

(Source: George Bird Grinnell interviewing Blackfoot hunter.)


Francie M Berg

Author of the Buffalo Tales &Trails blog

Noble Fathers we saw in Actiond

Noble Fathers we saw in Actiond

Wild buffalo bulls protected cows and calves from wolves. The Buffalo Book, David A. Dary.

Buffalo bulls are born with a strong sense of responsibility.

The “noble fathers,” as they’ve been called in earlier times, for protecting mothers and calves from the ravages of wolves. In blizzards and fierce storms, it was said, they form a triangle facing into the wind and shield cows and calves from wintery blasts.

I saw those “noble fathers” in action once myself.

We were riding horseback in the North Unit of Teddy Roosevelt Park with some friends.

Our kids were teenagers then and we were about 15 riders. We rode over a hill and saw below us—spread out and grazing—a herd of about 60 buffalo.

They looked up, startled by the sudden appearance of so many riders, and started to run. We pulled in our horses and paused to watch.

They didn’t run far. The big bulls stopped in an open area and formed a tight circle facing us, shaking their massive heads, while cows and calves took the inside.

It was clearly a defensive position they all understood—and we did too—the calves well-hidden and protected with their moms, and the males ready and eager to take us on.

Describing a similar defense in the 19th century, Colonel R.I. Dodge, wrote in his Plains of the Great West:

“The bulls with heads erect, tails cocked in air, nostrils expanded and eyes that seem to flash fire, walk uneasily to and fro, menacing the intruder by pawing the earth and tossing their huge heads.”

We paused and watched the amazing bulls for awhile, charmed to think that for over 100 years this herd and their ancestors had lived safely inside the national park—without any large enemies to fear.

Yet this generation of noble fathers stood ready to fight us off and protect with their lives the young calves and their mothers, just as dozens of observers described their responses to danger long ago.

No hungry wolves would have broken through their defenses that day!

No wolves or grizzly bears or hunters.

Of course, we skirted far around the herd and let the bulls think they had stood off our attack.

(by Francie M. Berg.)

Francie M Berg

Author of the Buffalo Tales &Trails blog

Great Indian Buffalo Horses

Great Indian Buffalo Horses

Painting by CM Russell, Amon Carter Museum.

According to all accounts, the Indian horses were better trained for the job than those of white hunters, reported William Hornaday. He credited this to the fact that shooting with bow and arrows required free use of both hands.

This was only possible when the horse took the right course of its own free will and as guided by knee pressure alone, held close to the buffalo during a charge.

“Indeed,” he wrote, “in running buffalo with only the bow and arrow, nothing but the willing cooperation of the horse could have possibly made this mode of hunting successful.

“But for the willingness and even genuine eagerness with which the buffalo horses entered into the chase, hunting on horseback would have been attended with almost insurmountable difficulties.”

Indian horses seemed to take special pleasure in running buffalo.

The Hon. H.H. Sibley told of the dedication of one horse that had lost its rider on a Red River Metis hunt.

“One of the hunters fell from his saddle and was unable to overtake his horse, which continued the chase as if he of himself could accomplish great things, so much do these animals become imbued with a passion of this sport!”

Another hunter who left his favorite buffalo horse in camp for a day’s rest, asked his wife to tie the horse. But the horse pulled loose and galloped off to join the hunt.

“He continued to keep pace with the hunters in their pursuit of the buffalo, seeming to await with impatience the fall of some of them to earth. The chase ended. He came neighing to his master, who he soon singled out, although the men were dispersed here and there for a distance of miles,” wrote Sibley.

The explorers, Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, too, were impressed with the passion for buffalo hunting of the Indian horses they purchased from the Shoshones in trade.

After they had trekked to the Pacific Ocean and back, they divided their party, and Clark took the southern route by boat through rich buffalo country down the Yellowstone River.

Their Indian horses he delegated to Sergeant Pryor with a couple of riders to bring their 49 Indian horses downriver along the shore.

But he got a complaint from Sgt. Pryor, who sent word that he needed at least one more rider.

It was almost impossible, Sgt Pryor said, to drive the horses along the shore with the help of only two men. There were so many herds of buffalo grazing on the rich grasses and the Indian horses were so interested in hunting them, that they tried to round-up every herd they saw.

“In passing every gangue of buffalow, the loos horses as soon as they saw the buffalow would immediately pursue them and run around them,” Clark wrote in his journal.

“All those that speed sufficient would head the buffalow and those of less speed would pursue on as fast as they could.”

Sgt. Pryor found the only practical method was to have an extra man ride ahead—and whenever he saw a herd of buffalo to chase them off before the horse herd came close enough to pursue them.

(Original Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, 1804-1806.)

Francie M Berg

Author of the Buffalo Tales &Trails blog

Enormous Buffalo Herds of the 1800s

Enormous Buffalo Herds of the 1800s

One eastern artist’s idea of what a big herd of buffalo might look like. The Buffalo Book, David A Dary.

During the fall rut—or breeding season—huge wild herds of buffalo came together on the plains.

Descriptions often had it that the hills were “black with buffalo as far as the eye could see.”

Explorers and travelers often tried to describe and estimate how many buffalo they could see from a single vantage point.

On viewing a large herd of cattle one day, a Canadian named John McDougall was amazed to learn there were 23,000 head in the herd before him. He said that cattle herd in one small valley was far smaller than the immense buffalo herds he’d seen spread out over a dozen hills and flats in the plains.

Comparing herds from memory, he ventured, “Many times from hills and range summits, I had seen more than half a million buffalo at one time.”

During their journey from St. Louis to the Pacific Ocean and back, Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark described their astonishment at the huge buffalo herds they encountered through the Dakotas and west as far as the Rocky Mountains. Always there was plenty of meat for their hunters to feed the boat crews—until they actually reached the mountains—when they were sometimes desperate enough to eat their horses.

It was on their return journey, in August 1806—when they saw their largest buffalo herds—travelling through South Dakota’s White River country. They reported in their journals,

“We are convinced that 20,000 would be no exaggerated number—more than we had ever seen before at one time!”

A North Dakota railroad surveyor once stood on a high point from which he added up what he saw:

“For a great distance ahead every square mile seemed to have a herd of buffalo upon it. Their number was variously estimated by members of the party, some as high as half a million. I do not think it any exaggeration to set it down at 200,000.”

One traveler, Thomas J. Farnham, crossed Kansas for three days on the Santa Fe trail in 1839, driving a team all the way through what appeared to be one large migrating herd.

He wrote, “We travelled at the rate of 15 miles a day—15 times three days equals 45. Take 45 times 30 [miles across] and you get 1,350 square miles . . . so thickly covered with these noble animals, that wen viewed from a height it scarce afforded a sight of a square league of its surface.”

Colonel Dodge reported to William Hornaday that he drove 25 miles through a herd migrating north along the Arkansas River. He estimated it to be at least two miles wide, averaging 15 to 20 buffalo per acre.

Hornaday repeated Dodge’s figures, estimating that he had seen 480,000 buffalo. When he added the herds Dodge saw earlier that day from the top of Pawnee Rock, his day’s total reached 500,000, or half a million head of buffalo.

Hornaday speculated that if Dodge’s herd had been 50 miles long by 25 miles wide, “as it was known to have been in some places”—it would have contained 12 million head.

Deducting two-thirds of this—in figuring a possible wedge shape in the front—he came up with over four million in the herd, “which I believe is more likely below the truth than above it.”

 Another question often asked is, “How many millions of buffalo were here when the first Europeans arrived?”

 Speculations ran high, and people believed them all. Obviously there were so many buffalo, how could the number be exaggerated?

One early estimate that took hold, was that of Earnest Seton, a famed Canadian naturalist. Seton estimated the square miles of probable buffalo range by their carrying capacity, and came up with 60 million or even 75 million buffalo that grazed the North American grasslands at one time.

 These totals persisted until recent times, when range specialists began saying, “Wait just a minute, there. Let’s do the math again.”

Turns out Seton estimated the heavily-used buffalo range at about three million square miles, double what today’s experts can claim.

Today’s range specialists insist the buffalo grazing the fringes of Seton’s enormous chunk of pasture were few to non-existent.

The California scientist Dale F. Lott, who grew up on the National Bison Refuge in Montana objected to Seton’s figures in his book American Bison: A Natural History. He argued that Seton

drew a line around every reported location of bison in North America, including most of the Rocky Mountains and all of Idaho, where bison were known to be rare to nonexistent.

Lott said Seton then calculated the entire region at close to full carrying capacity, even though buffalo were likely rare on the broad fringes of that range.

Llewellyn Manske, PhD, Research Professor of Range Science, at the NDSU Research Extension Center in Dickinson, ND, reports that the known buffalo ranges did not contain 3 million square miles, but only about 1.2 million.

This included lands from the foot of the Rocky Mountains to the Appalachian Mountains and from southern Texas to the Canadian Shield in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta—all of the tall grass, mixed grass and short grass prairies and parts of the eastern deciduous forest and aspen parkland, for a total of 575,000 square miles in the Great Plains and 650,000 square miles in the central lowlands.

Manske says the peak buffalo population was likely about 30 million.

Lott concludes, “About all we can confidently say is that primitive America’s bison population was probably less than thirty million—perhaps on average three to six million less.”

That was still a lot of buffalo!

(Compiled from many sources for Buffalo Heartbeats Across the Plains, by FM Berg, 2018.)

Francie M Berg

Author of the Buffalo Tales &Trails blog

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