Townsend's Across the Rockies to the Columbia


CHAPTER III

Arrival at the Platte river-Wolves and antelopes-Saline efflorescences - Anxiety of the men to see buffalo - Visit of two spies from the Grand Pawnees - Forced march - A herd of buffalo - Elk - Singular conduct of the horses - Killing a buffalo - Indian mode of procuring buffalo - Great herd - Intention of the men to desert - Adventure with an Indian in the tent - Circumspection necessary - Indian feat with bow and arrow - Notice of the Pawnee tribes - Disappearance of the buffalo from the plains of the Platte - A hunting adventure - Killing a buffalo - Butchering of a bull - Shameful destruction of the game - Hunters' mode of quenching thirst.

On the 18th of May we arrived at the Platte river. It is from one and a half to two miles in width, very shoal; large sand flats, and small, verdant islands appearing in every part. Wolves and antelopes were in great abundance here, and the latter were frequently killed by our men. We saw, also, the sandhill crane, great heron, (Ardea heroidas,) and the longbilled curlew, stalking about through the shallow water, and searching for their aquatic food.

The prairie is here as level as a race course, not the slightest undulation appearing throughout the whole extent of vision, in a north and westerly direction; but to the eastward of the river, and about eight miles from it, is seen a range of high bluffs or sand banks, stretching away to the south-east until they are lost in the far distance.

The ground here is in many places encrusted with an impure salt, which by the taste appears to be a combination of the sulphate and muriate of soda; there are also a number of little pools, of only a few inches in depth, scattered over the plain, the water of which is so bitter and pungent, that it seems to penetrate into the tongue, and almost to produce decortication of the mouth.

We are now within about three days' journey of the usual haunts of the buffalo, and our men (particularly the uninitiated) look forward to our arrival amongst them with considerable anxiety. They have listened to the garrulous hunter's details of "approaching," and "running," and "quartering," until they fancy themselves the very actors in the scenes related, and are fretting and fuming with impatience to draw their maiden triggers upon the unoffending rangers of the plain.

The next morning, we perceived two men on horseback, at a great distance; and upon looking at them with our telescope, discovered them to be Indians, and that they were approaching us. When they arrived within three or four hundred yards, they halted, and appeared to wish to communicate with us, but feared to approach too nearly. Captain W. rode out alone and joined them, while the party proceeded slowly on its way. In about fifteen minutes he returned with the information that they were of the tribe called Grand Pawnees. They told him that a war party of their people, consisting of fifteen hundred warriors, was encamped about thirty miles below; and the captain inferred that these men had been sent to watch our motions, and ascertain our place of encampment; he was therefore careful to impress upon them that we intended to go but a few miles further, and pitch our tents upon a little stream near the main river. When we were satisfied that the messengers were out of sight of us, on their return to their camp, our whole caravan was urged into a brisk trot, and we determined to steal a march upon our neighbors. The little stream was soon passed, and we went on, and on, without slackening our pace, until 12 o'clock at night. We then called a halt on the bank of the river, made a hasty meal, threw ourselves down in our blankets, without pitching the tents, and slept soundly for three hours. We were then aroused, and off we went again, travelling steadily the whole day, making about thirty-five miles, and so got quite clear of the Grand Pawnees.

The antelopes are very numerous here. There is not half an hour during the day in which they are not seen, and they frequently permit the party to approach very near them. This afternoon, two beautiful does came bounding after us, bleating precisely like sheep. The men imitated the call, and they came up to within fifty yards of us, and stood still; two of the hunters fired, and both the poor creatures fell dead. We can now procure as many of these animals as we wish, but their flesh is not equal to common venison, and is frequently rejected by our people. A number are, however, slaughtered every day, from mere wantonness and love of killing, the greenhorns glorying in the sport, like our striplings of the city, in their annual murdering of robins and sparrows.

20th.-This afternoon, we came in sight of a large gang of the long-coveted buffalo. They were grazing on the opposite side of the Platte, quietly as domestic cattle, but as we neared them, the foremost winded us, and started back, and the whole herd followed in the wildest confusion, and were soon out of sight. There must have been many thousands of them. Towards evening, a large band of elk came towards us at full gallop, and passed very near the party. The appearance of these animals produced a singular effect upon our horses, all of which became restive, and about half the loose ones broke away, and scoured over the plain in full chase after the elk. Captain W. and several of his men went immediately in pursuit of them, and returned late at night, bringing the greater number. Two have, however, been lost irrecoverably. Our observed latitude, yesterday, was 40 deg 31', and our computed distance from the Missouri settlements, about 360 miles.

The day following, we saw several small herds of buffalo on our side of the river. Two of our hunters started out after a huge bull that had separated himself from his companions, and gave him chase on fleet horses.

Away went the buffalo, and away went the men, hard as they could dash; now the hunters gained upon him, and pressed him hard; again the enormous creature had the advantage, plunging with all his might, his terrific horns often ploughing up the earth as he spurned it under him. Sometimes he would double, and rush so near the horses as almost to gore them with his horns, and in an instant would be off in a tangent, and throw his pursuers from the track. At length the poor animal came to bay, and made some unequivocal demonstrations of combat; raising and tossing his head furiously, and tearing up the ground with his feet. At this moment a shot was fired. The victim trembled like an aspen, and fell to his knees, but recovering himself in an instant, started again as fast as before. Again the determined hunters dashed after him, but the poor bull was nearly exhausted, he proceeded but a short distance and stopped again. The hunters approached, rode slowly by him, and shot two balls through his body with the most perfect coolness and precision. During the race, the whole of which occurred in full view of the party, the men seemed wild with the excitement which it occasioned; and when the animal fell, a shout rent the air, which startled the antelopes by dozens from the bluffs, and sent the wolves howling like demons from their lairs.

This is the most common mode of killing the buffalo, and is practised very generally by the travelling hunters; many are also destroyed by approaching them on foot, when, if the bushes are sufficiently dense, or the grass high enough to afford concealment, the hunter, by keeping carefully to leeward of his game, may sometimes approach so near as almost to touch the animal. If on a plain, without grass or bushes, it is necessary to be very circumspect; to approach so slowly as not to excite alarm, and, when observed by the animal, to imitate dexterously, the clumsy motions of a young bear, or assume the sneaking, prowling attitude of a wolf, in order to lull suspicion.

The Indians resort to another stratagem, which is, perhaps, even more successful. The skin of a calf is properly dressed, with the head and legs left attached to it. The Indian envelopes himself in this, and with his short bow and a brace of arrows, ambles off into the very midst of a herd. When he has selected such an animal as suits his fancy, he comes close alongside of it, and without noise, passes an arrow through its heart. One arrow is always sufficient, and it is generally delivered with such force, that at least half the shaft appears through the opposite side. The creature totters, and is about to fall, when the Indian glides around, and draws the arrow from the wound lest it should be broken. A single Indian is said to kill a great number of buffaloes in this way, before any alarm is communicated to the herd.

Towards evening, on rising a hill, we were suddenly greeted by a sight which seemed to astonish even the oldest amongst us. The whole plain, as far as the eye could discern, was covered by one enormous mass of buffalo. Our vision, at the very least computation, would certainly extend ten miles, and in the whole of this great space, including about eight miles in width from the bluffs to the river bank, there was apparently no vista in the incalculable multitude. It was truly a sight that would have excited even the dullest mind to enthusiasm. Our party rode up to within a few hundred yards of the edge of the herd, before any alarm was communicated; then the bulls,-- which are always stationed around as sentinels,-- began pawing the ground, and throwing the earth over their heads; in a few moments they started in a slow, clumsy canter; but as we neared them, they quickened their pace to an astonishingly rapid gallop, and in a few minutes were entirely beyond the reach of our guns, but were still so near that their enormous horns, and long shaggy beards, were very distinctly seen. Shortly after we encamped, our hunters brought in the choice parts of five that they had killed. For the space of several days past, we have observed an inclination in five or six of our men to leave our service. Immediately as we encamp, we see them draw together in some secluded spot, and engage in close and earnest conversation. This has occurred several times, and as we are determined, if possible, to keep our horses, &c., for our own use, we have stationed a sentry near their tent, whose orders are peremptory to stop them at any hazard in case of an attempt on their part, to appropriate our horses. The men we are willing to lose, as they are of very little service, and we can do without them; but horses here are valuable, and we cannot afford to part with them without a sufficient compensation.

22d. On walking into our tent last night at eleven o 'clock, after the expiration of the first watch, (in which I had served as supernumerary, to prevent the desertion of the men,) and stooping to lay my gun in its usual situation near the head of my pallet, I was startled by seeing a pair of eyes, wild and bright as those of a tiger, gleaming from a dark comer of the lodge, and evidently directed upon me. My first impression, was that a wolf had been lurking around the camp, and had entered the tent in the prospect of finding meat. My gun was at my shoulder instinctively, my aim was directed between the eyes, and my finger pressed the trigger. At that moment a tall Indian sprang before me with a loud wah! seized the gun, and elevated the muzzle above my head; in another instant, a second Indian was by my side, and I saw his keen knife glitter as it left the scabbard. I had not time for thought, and was struggling with all my might with the first savage for the recovery of my weapon, when Captain W., and the other inmates of the tent were aroused, and the whole matter was explained, and set at rest in a moment. The Indians were chiefs of the tribe of Pawnee Loups, who had come with their young men to shoot buffalo: they had paid an evening visit to the captain, and as an act of courtesy had been invited to sleep in the tent. I had not known of their arrival, nor did I even suspect that Indians were in our neighborhood, so could not control the alarm which their sudden appearance occasioned me.

As I laid myself down, and drew my blanket around me, Captain W. touched me lightly, with his finger, and pointed significantly to his own person, which I perceived by the fire light at the mouth of the tent, to be garnished with his knife and pistols; I observed also that the muzzle of his rifle laid across his breast, and that the breech was firmly grasped by one of his legs. I took the hint; tightened my belt, drew my gun closely to my side, and composed myself to sleep. But the excitement of the scene through which I had just passed, effectually banished repose. I frequently directed my eyes towards the dark corner, and in the midst of the shapeless mass which occupied it, I could occasionally see the glittering orbs of our guest shining amidst the surrounding obscurity. At length fatigue conquered watchfulness, and I sank to sleep, dreaming of Indians, guns, daggers, and buffalo.

Upon rising the next morning, all had left the tent: the men were busied in cooking their morning meal; kettles were hanging on the rude cranes, great ribs of meat were roasting before the fires, and loading the air with fragrance, and my dreams and midnight reveries, and apprehensions of evil, fled upon the wings of the bright morning, and nought remained but a feeling of surprise that the untoward events of the night should have disturbed my equanimity.

While these thoughts were passing in my mind, my eye suddenly encountered the two Indians. They were squatting upon the ground near one of the fires, and appeared to be surveying, with the keenness of morning appetite, the fine "hump ribs" which were roasting before them. The moment they perceived me, I received from them a quick glance of recognition: the taller one, my opponent of the previous night,--rose to his feet, walked towards me, and gave me his hand with great cordiality; then pointed into the tent, made the motions of raising a gun to his shoulder, taking aim, and in short repeated the entire pantomime with great fidelity, and no little humor, laughing the whole time as though he thought it a capital joke. Poor fellow! it was near proving a dear joke for him, and I almost trembled as I recollected the eager haste with which I sought to take the life of a fellow creature. The Indian evidently felt no ill will towards me, and as a proof of it, proposed an exchange of knives, to which I willingly acceded. He deposited mine,--which had my name engraved upon the handle, in the sheath at his side, and walked away to his hump ribs with the air of a man who is conscious of having done a good action. As he left me, one of our old trappers took occasion to say, that in consequence of this little act of savage courtesy, the Indian became my firm friend; and that if I ever met him again, I should be entitled to share his hospitality, or claim his protection.

While the men were packing the horses, after breakfast, I was again engaged with my Indian friend. I took his bow and arrows in my hand, and remarked that the latter were smeared with blood throughout: upon my expressing surprise at this he told me, by signs, that they had passed through the body of the buffalo. I assumed a look of incredulity; the countenance of the savage brightened, and his peculiar and strange eyes actually flashed with eagerness, as he pointed to a dead antelope lying upon the ground about forty feet from us, and which one of the guard had shot near the camp in the morning. The animal lay upon its side with the breast towards us: the bow was drawn slightly, without any apparent effort, and the arrow flew through the body of the antelope, and skimmed to a great distance over the plain.

These Indians were the finest looking of any I have seen. Their persons were tall, straight, and finely formed; their noses slightly aqualine, and the whole countenance expressive of high and daring intrepidity. The face of the taller one was particularly admirable; and Gall or Spurzheim, at a single glance at his magnificent head, would have invested him with all the noblest qualities of the species. I know not what a physiognomist would have said of his eyes, but they were certainly the most wonderful eyes I ever looked into; glittering and scintillating constantly, like the mirror glasses in a lamp frame, and rolling and dancing in their orbits as though possessed of abstract volition.

The tribe to which these Indians belong, is a division of the great Pawnee nation. There are four of these divisions or tribes, known by the names of Grand Pawnees, Pawnee Loups, Pawnee Republicans, and Pawnee Picts. They are all independent of each other, governed exclusively by chiefs chosen from among their own people, and although they have always been on terms of intimacy and friendship, never intermarry, nor have other intercourse than that of trade, or a conjunction of their forces to attack the common enemy. In their dealings with the whites, they are arbitrary and overbearing, chaffering about the price of a horse, or a beaver skin, with true huckster-like eagerness and mendacity, and seizing with avidity every unfair advantage, which circumstances or their own craft may put in their power.

The buffalo still continue immensely numerous in every direction around, and our men kill great numbers, so that we are in truth living upon the fat of the land, and better feeding need no man wish. The savory buffalo hump has suffered no depreciation since the " man without a cross" vaunted of its good qualities to " the stranger;" and in this, as in many other particulars, we have realized the truth and fidelity of Cooper's admirable descriptions.

23d. When we rose this morning, not a single buffalo, of the many thousands that yesterday strewed the plain, was to be seen. It seemed like magic. Where could they have gone? I asked myself this question again and again, but in vain. At length I applied to Richardson, who stated that they had gone to the bluffs, but for what reason he could not tell; he, however, had observed their tracks bearing towards the bluffs, and was certain that they would be found there. He and Sandsbury (another hunter) were then about starting on a hunt to supply the camp, and I concluded to accompany them; Mr. Lee, the missionary, also joined us, and we all rode off together. The party got under way about the same time, and proceeded along the bank of the river, while we struck off south to look for the buffalo. About one hour's brisk trotting carried us to the bluffs, and we entered amongst large conical hills of yellow clay, intermixed with strata of limestone, but without the slightest vegetation of any kind.

On the plains which we had left, the grass was in great luxuriance, but here not a blade of it was to be seen, and yet, as Richardson had predicted, here were the buffalo. We had not ridden a mile before we entered upon a plain of sand of great extent, and observed ahead vast clouds of dust rising and circling in the air as though a tornado or a whirlwind were sweeping over the earth. " Ha !" said Richardson, "there they are; now let us take the wind of them, and you shall see some sport." We accordingly went around to leeward, and, upon approaching nearer, saw the huge animals rolling over and over in the sand with astonishing agility enveloping themselves by the exercise in a perfect atmosphere of dust; occasionally two of the bulls would spring from the ground and attack each other with amazing address and fury, retreating for ten or twelve feet, and then rushing suddenly forward, and dashing their enormous fronts together with a shock that seemed annihilating. In these rencontres, one of the combatants was often thrown back upon his haunches, and tumbled sprawling upon the ground; in which case, the victor, with true prize-fighting generosity, refrained from persecuting his fallen adversary, contenting himself with a hearty resumption of his rolling fit, and kicking up the dust with more than his former vigor, as if to celebrate his victory.

This appeared to be a good situation to approach and kill the buffalo, as, by reason of the plentiful distribution of the little clay hills, an opportunity would be afforded of successful concealment; we separated, therefore, each taking his own course. In a very few minutes I heard the crack of a rifle in the direction in which Richardson had gone, and immediately after saw the frightened animals flying from the spot. The sound reverberated among the hills, and as it died away the herd halted to watch and listen for its repetition. For myself, I strolled on for nearly an hour, leading my horse, and peering over every hill, in the hope of finding a buffalo within range, but not one could I see that was sufficiently near; and when I attempted the stealthy approach which I had seen Richardson practise with so much success, I felt compelled to acknowledge my utter insufficiency. I had determined to kill a buffalo, and as I had seen it several times done with so much apparent ease, I considered it a mere moonshine matter, and thought I could compass it without difficulty; but now I had attempted it, and was grievously mistaken in my estimate of the required skill. I had several times heard the guns of the hunters, and felt satisfied that we should not go to camp without meat, and was on the point of altering my course to join them, when, as I wound around the base of a little hill, I saw about twenty buffalo lying quietly on the ground within thirty yards of me. Now was my time. I took my picket from my saddle, and fastened my horse to the ground as quietly as possible, but with hands that almost failed to do their office, from my excessive eagerness and trembling anxiety. When this was completed, I crawled around the hill again, almost suspending my breath from fear of alarming my intended victims, until I came again in full view of the unsuspecting herd. There were so many fine animals that I was at a loss which to select; those nearest me appeared small and poor, and I therefore settled my aim upon a huge bull on the outside. Just then I was attacked with the "bull fever" so dreadfully, that for several minutes I could not shoot. At length, however, I became firm and steady, and pulled my trigger at exactly the right instant. Up sprang the herd like lightning, and away they scoured, and my bull with them. I was vexed, angry, and discontented; I concluded that I could never kill a buffalo, and was about to mount my horse and ride off in despair, when I observed that one of the animals had stopped in the midst of his career. I rode towards him, and sure enough, there was my great bull trembling and swaying from side to side, and the clotted gore hanging like icicles from his nostrils. In a few minutes after, he fell heavily upon his side, and I dismounted and surveyed the unwieldy brute, as he panted and struggled in the death agony.

When the first ebullition of my triumph had subsided, I perceived that my prize was so excessively lean as to be worth nothing, and while I was exerting my whole strength in a vain endeavor to raise the head from the ground for the purpose of removing the tongue, the two hunters joined me, and laughed heartily at my achievement. Like all inexperienced hunters, I had been particular to select the largest bull in the gang, supposing it to be the best, (and it proved, as usual, the poorest,) while more than a dozen fat cows were nearer me, either of which I might have killed with as little trouble.

As I had supposed, my companions had killed several animals, but they had taken the meat of only one, and we had, therefore, to be diligent, or the camp might suffer for provisions. It was now past mid-day; the weather was very warm, and the atmosphere was charged with minute particles of sand, which produced a dryness and stiffness of the mouth and tongue, that was exceedingly painful and distressing. Water was now the desideratum, but where was it to be found? The and country in which we then were, produced none, and the Platte was twelve or fourteen miles from us, and no buffalo in that direction, so that we could not afford time for so trifling a matter. I found that Mr. Lee was suffering as much as myself, although he had not spoken of it, and I perceived that Richardson was masticating a leaden bullet, to excite the salivary glands. Soon afterwards, a bull was killed, and we all assembled around the carcass to assist in the manipulations. The animal was first raised from his side where he had lain, and supported upon his knees, with his hoofs turned under him; a longitudinal incision was then made from the nape, or anterior base of the hump, and continued backward to the loins, and a large portion of the skin from each side removed; these pieces of skin were placed upon the ground, with the under surface uppermost, and the fleeces, or masses of meat, taken from along the back, were laid upon them. These fleeces, from a large animal, will weigh, perhaps, a hundred pounds each, and comprise the whole of the hump on each side of the vertical processes, (commonly called the hump ribs,) which are attached to the vertebra. The fleeces are considered the choice parts of the buffalo, and here, where the game is so abundant, nothing else is taken, if we except the tongue, and an occasional marrow bone.

This; it must be confessed, appears like a useless and unwarrantable waste of the goods of Providence; but when are men economical, unless compelled to be so by necessity? Here are more than a thousand pounds of delicious and savory flesh, which would delight the eyes and gladden the heart of any epicure in Christendom, left neglected where it fell, to feed the ravenous maw of the wild prairie wolf, and minister to the excesses of the unclean birds of the wilderness. But I have seen worse waste and havoc than this, and I feel my indignation rise at the recollection. I have seen dozens of buffalo slaughtered merely for the tongues, or for practice with the rifle; and I have also lived to see the very perpetrators of these deeds, lean and lank with famine, when the meanest and most worthless parts of the poor animals they had so inhumanly slaughtered, would have been received and eaten with humble thankfulness.

But to return to ourselves. We were all suffering from excessive thirst, and so intolerable had it at length become, that Mr. Lee and myself proposed a gallop over to the Platte river, in order to appease it; but Richardson advised us not to go, as he had just thought of a means of relieving us, which he immediately proceeded to put in practice. He tumbled our mangled buffalo over upon his side, and with his knife opened the body, so as to expose to view the great stomach, and still crawling and twisting entrails. The good missionary and myself stood gaping with astonishment, and no little loathing, as we saw our hunter plunge his knife into the distended paunch, from which gushed the green and gelatinous juices, and then insinuate his tin pan into the opening, and by depressing its edge, strain off the water which was mingled with its contents.

Richardson always valued himself upon his politeness, and the cup was therefore first offered to Mr. Lee and myself, but it is almost needless to say that we declined the proffer, and our features probably expressed the strong disgust which we felt, for our companion laughed heartily before he applied the cup to his own mouth. He then drank it to the dregs, smacking his lips, and drawing a long breath after it, with the satisfaction of a man taking his wine after dinner. Sansbury, the other hunter, was not slow in following the example set before him, and we, the audience, turned our backs upon the actors.

Before we left the spot, however, Richardson induced me to taste the blood which was still fluid in the heart, and immediately as it touched my lips, my burning thirst, aggravated by hunger, (for I had eaten nothing that day,) got the better of my abhorrence; I plunged my head into the reeking ventricles, and drank until forced to stop for breath. I felt somewhat ashamed of assimilating myself so nearly to the brutes, and turned my ensanguined countenance towards the missionary who stood by, but I saw no approval there: the good man was evidently attempting to control his risibility, and so I smiled to put him in countenance; the roar could no longer be restrained, and the missionary laughed until the tears rolled down his cheeks. I did not think, until afterwards, of the horrible ghastliness which must have characterized my smile at that particular moment.

When we arrived at the camp in the evening, and I enjoyed the luxury of a hearty draft of water, the effect upon my stomach was that of a powerful emetic: the blood was violently ejected without nausea, and I felt heartily glad to be rid of the disgusting encumbrance. I never drank blood from that day.