- Historic Sites
Prelude To War:
The Slaughter of the Buffalo
February 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 2
Most of the hidemen spent the winter of 1873-74 holed up in Dodge City, but some of the hardier outfits wasted no time and headed for the Texas ranges that very fall. The Mooars, for example, reloaded their own wagons and hurried back, the dangers posed by the Indians notwithstanding. Also going south with his outfit was Billy Dixon, at twenty-three one of the ablest and most respected marksmen on the plains. The actual process of hunting the buffalo on the range that autumn was best explained by Wright Mooar himself, as quoted many years later in a book about the period:
Each outfit would take a wagon, a keg of water, a roll of bedding, and a little grub and, with a four-mule team, would drive out on the divide between the North PaIo Duro and the Canadian. There we would intercept the herds that were crossing, east to west, from the headwaters of Wolf Creek to the Blue and the Coldwater. We stayed there on the divide until we loaded out the wagon with hides and meat. We could haul 10,000 pounds when the ground was frozen. We would load, come back to camp, unload, and go back out again. We could keep track of the Wheelers’ outfit [another team of hunters], and his of ours, by the sound of the guns. If either of us got into trouble, the sound of the buffalo guns would be interrupted with the reports of lighter guns.
The favorite gun of all the buffalo hunters was the Sharp’s “Big Fifty” buffalo rifle, a .5o-caliber octagonalbarrelled cannon that, with its 2,000 foot-pounds of muzzle energy, could send a heavy ball an astonishing distance. One model weighed sixteen pounds, but Mooar and most of the others preferred the lighter kinds. “I killed 6,500 buffaloes with my fourteen-pound gun,” recalled Mooar, “and 14,000 with the eleven-pounder.” Mooar and the other professionals always insisted on making their own bullets, melting their own lead and overloading the threeinch bottlenecked cartridges with up to no grains of powder. Ninety grains was standard, but the massive eightsided barrels had no trouble handling the extra charge. A weapon of this type could kill the strongest buffalo at six hundred yards; some of them were equipped with IOX and 2ox telescopes, and a well-placed ball could drop an animal at three quarters of a mile. Each man followed his own eccentricities in loading his gun, and it was possible to recognize almost any hunter on the plains merely by the peculiar “boom” of his Sharp’s Fifty. One other rather grim article that each hunter carried with him at all times was his “bite,” a Big Fifty cartridge emptied of its powder and filled with cyanide, guaranteeing a quick death infinitely preferable to the tortures devised by the Indians, and insurance as well against mutilation. Warriors would only scalp or “count coup” on a victim they had actually killed; the bodies of hunters who “bit the bite” were always found intact.
There were several techniques for slaughtering the buffalo, but the most effective, and therefore most favored, was the “stand.” When a herd was found, the hunter would pick out an exposed place some hundreds of yards away from which he could fire in relative comfort and not alarm the animals. Setting up the forked rest sticks on which he set the heavy barrel of his buffalo gun, he first picked out and shot the leader of the herd. With no leader to start a stampede the animals milled about until the hunter shot as many as his skinners could handle. That done, the skinners would go out (the hunter usually had three or four in his employ) to rip off the hides. A good hunter could kill fifty animals in a stand before the herd bolted or wandered out of range. Billy Dixon, one of the best, “once took 120 hides without moving his rest sticks.” Hunters making a stand generally killed only as many as their skinners could handle in a day. Frank H. Mayer, one of the last surviving buffalo runners, recalled not long before his death: “Killing more than we could use would waste buff, which wasn’t important; it would also waste ammunition, which was.”
If the government had lived up to its treaty obligations to protect the Indians from the buffalo hunters, there would have been little possibility of renewed warfare with the South Plains tribes. But such protection was not the government’s policy, and it is difficult to imagine the privation the eradication of the buffalo caused among the Indians. In the first place, the primary year-round staple of the tribes’ diet was dried buffalo meat, gathered when the hunting was good, then stored in sacks of dried buffalo skin. From the hides of the big, shaggy animals the Indians fashioned their clothing and the tepees they lived in, their war shields, cradles for their infants, even rude boats of hides stretched over willow saplings. They wove rope from the hair and stretched the tendons into bowstrings and thread. They fashioned the large bones into tools, rendered glue from the hoofs, even removed and dried the bladders to use as canteens. Brains were pounded into a pulp used as a tanning paste, as were extracts from fat and other organs. The horns were crafted into eating utensils; even the tails were dried to serve as war clubs and knife scabbards. And in addition to these practical uses the buffalo was the heart of the Indians’ culture and religion. The South Plains Indians believed very simply that when all the buffalo were gone, their world would come to its end.