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A Ride For Life In A Buffalo Herd

July 2024
8min read

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.

— T.P.Jr.

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.

While wrapped in the wonderful prospect before us, the guide quietly remarked, “We must have one of those fellows for supper.” This broke the spell and brought a practical question directly before us. The guide was mounted on a large mule, January by name, which had a long army record for nearly everything except buffalo hunting. Lieutenant Pope was on a tall cavalry horse, a new recruit that was gazing timidly on a herd of buffalo for the first time. My steed was a fleet Indian pony known as Pawnee, said to have been stolen from that tribe by a Sioux warrior, and well trained for the hunt by his former owners. He had proved his mettle in the two expeditions I had ridden him and in several chases I had given the buffalo then encountered. It was therefore at once decided that I must provide for our supper, and shifting my fossil treasures into the guide’s saddle bags, and tightening the cinch of my pony and my own cartridge belt, I was soon ready for the fray. My hunting weapons consisted of a cavalry carbine and a pair of navy revolvers, not too many for an Indian country, and I hoped soon to bring down a young buffalo that would give our camp the wished-for meal. I rode slowly down toward the herd, avoiding a few old bulls outside the main body, so as not to disturb them. The wind was in my favor, and I soon was near the herd. Selecting my animal, I promptly gave chase, hoping to get in my shot before the herd started, which I knew would soon be the case. The animal selected, a young cow, proved especially fleet, and it was some minutes before I was alongside, ready to shoot, in the exact manner my first guide, Buffalo Bill, had taught me long before. While the chase was still going on, I had heard one or two shots behind me in the distance, and concluded that my comrades were firing at some straggling animal, but I had no time to look around, as my pony, knowing what was wanted, made a direct chase for the buffalo selected, and soon carried me where a shot from my carbine brought the animal to the ground. I then had a chance to look back.

To my amazement, I saw that the main herd, alarmed by the shots … had started and was moving rapidly southward. I saw also what I had not before surmised; that in my eagerness, I had pushed well into the herd without noticing it, and as the great mass of animals in the rear started, they began to lap around me, and I would soon be enclosed in the rapidly moving throng, liable at any moment to be trampled to death if my pony should fail me. My only chance of escape was evidently to keep moving with the buffalo and press towards the edge of the herd, and thinking thus to cut my way out, I began shooting at the animals nearest to me, to open the way. Each shot gave me some gain, as those near pushed away, and when one went down, others stumbled over him. The whole mighty herd was now at full speed, the earth seemed fairly to shake under the moving mass, which with tongues out, the flaming eyes and nostrils, were hurrying onward, pressed by those behind, up the broad valley, which narrowed as it approached the higher land in the distance. My horse was greatly excited by his surroundings, and at first seemed to think I wanted some particular animal, and was thus inclined to make chase after it, but he soon came to understand the serious problem before him, and acted accordingly.

A new danger suddenly confronted me. The prairie bottom had hitherto been so even that my only thought was of the buffalo around me and the danger of being overwhelmed by them if my pony could not keep up the race. The new terror was a large prairie dog village, extending for half a mile or more up the valley. As the herd dashed into it, some of the animals stepped into the deep burrows, and near where I was riding I saw quite a number come to earth and now and then a comrade from behind fall over them. My trained buffalo horse here showed his wonderful sagacity. While running at full speed along with the herd, he kept his head down, and whenever a dangerous dog hole was in his path, he either stepped short or leaped over it and thus brought me through this new danger in safety. The race had now been kept up for several miles, and my carbine ammunition was nearly exhausted; while my pony, after his long day’s work and rapid run, showed unmistakable signs of fatigue. My only hope was that he could hold out until we reached rougher ground, where the herd might divide. This came sooner than I expected.

As the valley narrowed, the side ravines came closer together at the bottom, and our course soon led us among them. The smaller gullies were leaped with ease by the buffalo close around me, and my pony held his own with the best of them. As the ravines became deeper, longer leaps were necessary, and my brave steed refused none of them. Soon the ravines became too wide for a single leap, and the buffalo plunged into them and scrambled up the opposite bank. My pony did the same, and several times I could have touched with my extended hands the buffalo on either side of me as we clambered together up the yielding sides of the narrow canyons we were crossing. This was hard work for all, and the buffalo showed the greater signs of fatigue, but no intentions of stopping in their mad career, except those that were disabled and went down in the fierce struggle to keep out of the way of those behind them.

As the valley narrowed, I saw ahead, perhaps a mile distant, a low butte, a little to the left of the course we were taking. This gave me new courage, for if I could only reach it, it would afford shelter, as the herd must pass on either side of it. Drawing a revolver, I began to shoot at the nearest buffalo on my left, and this caused them to draw away as far as the others would let them, and when one went down, I gained so much ground. They were now really more afraid of me and my steed than we were of them, and for this reason did not charge, as a single wounded buffalo might have done. Continuing my shooting more rapidly as we approached the butte, I gradually swung to the left, and when we came to it, I pulled my pony sharp around behind it, and let the great herd pass on.

Dismounting, I saw why my pony had seemed so footheavy during the last mile. He was covered with dust, nearly exhausted, and with bleeding flanks, distended forelegs, and blazing nostrils, he stood there quivering and breathing heavily, while the buffalo were passing within a few feet. We could not move until the herd had gone by, and it was more than an hour before the last of them left us alone.…

The danger was now over, and the pangs of hunger reminded me of the supper I had promised to secure for my comrades. One of the last stragglers of the herd in the twilight was a young heifer, and a shot brought her to my feet. To draw my hunting knife and remove the tongue and hump steaks, sufficient for our small party, was the work of a few minutes; and thus laden, I was ready to start for camp, some half a dozen miles to the eastward.

Meanwhile, I had not forgotten my … Indian pony. He had saved my life, and I did all I could for him. I took off his saddle, and I offered him the scanty contents of my pocket flask, but this he declined, although needing it more than myself. I started to lead him slowly in the direction of camp, but he soon made me understand that he was himself again, and after mounting, I gave him his head, and he hurried on in the darkness to where he knew our comrades were waiting for us. It was late as we approached camp, and the signal guns to guide us had for some time been flashing in the distance. My first duty on arriving was again to my weary steed, and for once my striker was not permitted to relieve me. I sang Pawnee’s praises around the campfire that night.…

Poor Pawnee! He deserved a better fate than overtook him in his first campaign the next year. Grazing at night, he was bitten on the nose by a large rattlesnake. When found in the morning, his head was fearfully swollen, and all the whisky in camp could not save him. He was buried with military honors, and a double salute fired over his remains. If, in the happy hunting ground above, Pawnee does not have a place of honor, I shall lose all faith in the belief of the untutored Indian, who thinks—

admitted to that equal sky, His faithful dog shall bear him company.

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