Buffalo

PrintPrintEmailEmail

“The trees, also, furnished their evidence and every low limb was worn by the Buffaloe, while scratching his skin, after coming out of his mud or sand bath,” wrote a tenderfoot, wideeyed about buffalo doings; but such doings could make experienced men, such as Alexander Henry, equally wideeyed: “Buffalo have ravaged this small island,” he wrote of an area in Canada; “nothing remains but the large elms and oaks, whose bark has been polished to the height of the buffalo by their perpetual rubbing. Brush and grass are not to be seen in this little wood.…”

Men walking near buffalo had to watch their step as in a cattle yard because of dung. But on last year’s grazing ground the droppings sometimes dried “hard as a clamshell” and reached the color of a weathered cardboard carton. Each one became an odorless, papery disk, about twelve inches in diameter, drilled by hundreds of tiny insect holes. It made a perch for meadowlarks to sing from; it was a home for beetles and flies.

 

As everyone knows, buffalo chips burn—somewhat after six months drying, but very well indeed after a full year or more. They were a traditional fuel; Coronado had found Indians enjoying such fires.

These chips were the bois de vache , often the only “wood” available. Fortyniners on the Platte traveling one 160mile section on the Oregon Trail found “no place in the whole distance where timber enough could be got on ten miles square to fence ten acres,” but chips enough lay about “sufficient for any to cook by.” When a wagon master decided on a stopping place, he searched first for a chip and water supply.

Men walking beside their lumbering Conestoga wagons drew “their ramrods, not to ram home cartridges but to stick it through the largest chip they could find and string them on… like so many pancakes,” one overlander recorded in his journal. When a ramrod was filled, a man slid the cakes into one of the chip sacks that swung underneath the wagon bed, out of the reach of a sudden shower. Children ran extra miles gathering them, men gathered the “scutters” from where they hung on grass or sagebrush; they used sleeping blankets as chip hods. Women out for a stroll returned to the wagons with aprons full of the nasty burnables… all the nastier for the insects which scuttled about on the underside when a person picked one up. At first a woman hated to touch the things while cooking, another traveler noted. She began by handling the chips with two sticks, progressed to a rag, then to a corner of the apron, until, as a seasoned chip handler, “Now it is out of the bread, into the chips and back again—and not even a dust of the hands!”

Expert chip users (one became expert in a single crossing of the plainsmaking perhaps three hundred chip fires) claimed the chip made a better fire than the dead cottonwood that they occasionally found, for it “ignited quickly; a mass of them made solid but almost transparent coals, which glowed with intense heat.” A wonderful fuel, they claimed, that hardened every year until a man found it difficult to cut its surface with a knife, a fuel that the “snows of winter” didn’t change and the spring rains dampened only a sixteenth of an inch or so. Others, less smitten by the plains, wrote, “Our Buffalo Chips are of no account when it rains, and but little when dry. …” These emigrants were “careful to pick up before it began to rain,” or to get “into some scrawly timber…,” a relief after having found “nothing but buffalo chips to burn for three nights.” Alexander Henry, after trying to barbecue buffalo steak in the smudge of wet chips, decided he wanted no more “buffalo dung steaks.” Major Stephen H. Long’s 1820 expedition to the Rockies experienced a cloudburst that washed “cow dung” into the water hole and turned it mustard color; they boiled meat in this effluent, creating a soup with the gagging flavor of a cow yard.

Some men threw on buffalo tallow to make the buffalo chips burn—”a rather hard matter that the Buffalo should furnish the meat and then the fuel to cook it,” as one said. Without the tallow, a fire of chips was small comfort against the cold, but chips heaped up under ribs on a spit during the night cooked breakfast, often making a morning fire unnecessary.

Mountain men tossed buffalo liver directly onto the burning dung and popped it in their mouths when done, pausing only to dust off the thickest of the manure ash. Or if a hunk of roast rib snatched from the spit burned their fingers, they would pop it onto a chip as makeshift plate. A common joke on the plains was that steak cooked over buffalo chips needed no pepper.

The buffalo chip to the wanderer in buffalo land was almost as handy as the buffalo himself. And not only as fuel or crockery. Coronado’s men, fearful of losing themselves on the bare plains, piled “heapes of oxe-dung” to blaze the trail. A man having to sleep on the snowy prairie arranged buffalo chips in layers to insulate himself from the ground (and threw a buffalo robe over himself). Homesteaders burned chips in their soddies for winter heat; Father Megarini at St. Mary’s Mission, plagued with mosquitoes, drove them from his cabin with a buffalo-chip smudge. Marksmen piled them up as gun rests. The chip of the West: one man valued it next to the telegraph and steam engine in importance to the Western frontier.