- Historic Sites
A Ride For Life In A Buffalo Herd
June 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 4
Othmel Charles Marsh lived a strenuous life full of achievement. He helped found the Peabody Museum of Natural History and the United States Geological Survey. He exposed the Indian Ring in the Grant administration and forced the resignation of a Cabinet officer, Secretary of the Interior Columbus Delano. He served as president of the National Academy of Sciences for three consecutive terms. His friends included Charles Darwin, Thomas Huxley, and the Sioux Nation. His enemies—notably his bitter scientific rival, an unpacific Quaker named Edward Drinker Cope—were at least as interesting. Marsh spent his entire personal fortune to maintain an army of bone .diggers in the field, who eventually shipped to the Peabody, from all over the West, a staggering lifetime haul of thirty freight-car loads of fossils that helped establish Marsh’s reputation as a vertebrate paleontologist.
Yet in his autobiography, of which he completed only five fragmentary chapters before his death in 1899, his thoughts turned away from impressive deeds and back to the time when as a young assistant professor he had led parties of Tale seniors over the high plains and central Rockies, braving bad water, voracious insects, and hostile Indians, in search of fossils. What the aging Marsh savored in his memory was the still-vivid thrill of hobnobbing with hard-bitten cavalrymen and notorious characters like Buffalo Bill, and of riding for his life in the middle of a stampeding herd of buffalo, the wind in his face and a canny Indian pony beneath him.
In October, 1872, I was exploring the chalk cliffs of western Kansas for fossils … The region under exploration, along the Smoky Hill River and its tributaries, between Fort Hays and Fort Wallace, was then [the Cheyennes’] special hunting ground, as the buffalo were there in countless numbers, and herds of thousands were daily in sight from the bluffs on which we were at work.
Our party was a small one, a few Yale students, and a small military escort from Fort Wallace, consisting of Lieutenant Pope, a sergeant, and about a score of soldiers. This escort I owed to General Sherman [the famous Civil War commander who was the Army’s General in Chief, 1869–84], a faithful friend in all my western explorations. I appreciated his kindness all the more, as just then the frontier posts had none too many troops to keep the Indians in check. Our guide was the famous Ned Lane, known over that whole region for his knowledge of the country, especially of the Indians then infesting it. …
One afternoon, when returning from a long fossil hunt, the guide, Lieutenant Pope, and myself were riding slowly abreast, discussing the day’s fossil hunt and the prospect for the morrow, from which I expected important results. … As we rode to the crest of a high ridge, the guide now slightly ahead, as is usual in an Indian country, suddenly called out, “Great God, look at the buffalo!” and we saw a sight that I shall never forget, and one that no mortal eye will ever see again. The broad valley before us, perhaps six or eight miles wide, was black with buffalo, the herd extending a dozen miles, up and down the valley, and quietly grazing, showing that no Indians were near. The animals were headed to the South, and slowly moving up the valley in the direction … where pasturage for the night was to be found. The sight was so wonderful that we sat on our horses for some time, watching the countless throng, and endeavoring to make some estimate of how many buffalo were in sight before us. The lowest estimate was that of the guide, who placed the number at 50,000. I thought there were more; and our military comrade, with his mathematics fresh from West Point, made a rapid calculation of the square miles covered, and the number of animals to the mile, making his total nearly one hundred thousand. While we were thus engaged, the slowly declining sun behind us shed a golden light over the valley, the black moving masses being in strong relief, while our own lengthening shadows pointed toward the herd, that thus far had not deigned to notice us, all forming together a panorama of surpassing interest.