Hide Hunters Explained

Buffalo Guns & Skinners


This account is about just a couple of men, when often times the hunter groups were much larger and could contain up to several teams in one camp. It explains how they did things and why. It puts a more human side to try and understand “how could they?” Make no mistake, so often the act of hide hunting was very cruel, you can read the stories as I have, through the years. 

Forsyth wrote: “Thus for centuries they lived in peace and contentment. But alas for the Buffalo, his woolly hide was worth about three dollars in money. The building of the Union Pacific gave the skin hunters their chance. Soon the prairie was soaked with blood. There were miles and miles of hides piled like cord wood, thousands of which were never shipped. By 1884 only a few small herds remained. “

A ‘pot hunter” is a hunter who kills for meat.

‘Hide hunter’ wants just the hide and maybe takes the tongue as well.

When Indian hunting parties went on the buffalo grounds to get their winter’s supply of meat, the herds were soon in great commotion, making it difficult for the white hunter to do his killing at a “stand.” Strange as it may seem, if there were no Indians moving among the buffaloes, the latter would pay scarcely any attention to white hunters, even though the big buffalo guns were booming from sunrise to sunset. Billy Dixon

The hide hunters as a rule do not remove the skin from the buffalo’s head, which was covered with long coarse hair that never shed; the hair on some of the old bulls measured from seventeen to twenty-two inches in length. This hair was gathered up by the bone pickers and was sold for $.75 a pound. It was used principally for stuffing cushions and mattresses.


American Bison- The Fur Trade of America

The history of the American bison, regarded from the viewpoint of the hide of the animal as a commercial commodity, is a shameful record of willful waste very definitely followed by woeful want; during the height of the trade more than two hundred thousand bison were killed each season in Texas alone, and that total was duplicated on other hunting grounds, merely for the hides, the bodies being left on the plains to slowly decay, or be in part devoured by ravenous animals.

If the vast herds of bison on the wide western and southwestern plains had been properly protected by the government, half million might have been taken year after year. Indefinitely, both for their hides and a supply of meat approximating beef in excellence – and just now the meat would supply a “long felt want,” many yearning appetites, and be a material help in reducing the cost of living to those who are living high, and the greater number existing hope.

A member of the American board in the Bering Sea Arbitration Tribunal at Paris, on being reminded that the United States was very eager to preserve the fur seals in which a monopoly was concerned, but was indifferent when the bison was being exterminated in a free to all onslaught, stated that the American bison had been slaughtered in “the interest of civilization.” If any one has noticed any improvement in civilization since the last bison was killed thirty years ago, the fact has not been disclosed. If the diplomat had said that the bison were recklessly exterminated for the “land’s sake” – in the interest of few – that the greedy might find “a place in the sun,” his meaning would have been perfectly clear. “Buffalo” was the only trade name.

In the seventies of the past century about one hundred fifty thousand buffalo robes were shipped east in a single season from Fort griffin, Texas, and upwards of fifty thousand from Fort Concho, or San Angelo on the opposite side of the river; other vast supplies were gathered in Montana, Idaho and the Territories; about two thousand hunters operated on the plains of Texas.

The large buyers were J. & A. Boskowitz, Chicago and New York; Samuel Shethar & Company, New York; Hart, Taylor & Company, Boston. Indian caught and handled hides came from Fort Benton, and post in Indian Territory, through J.G. Baker & Company, T.C. Power & Company, and other Indian traders. The buffalo robes were, with few exceptions, handles by fur merchants, and were converted into sleigh robes and men’s coats by fur manufacturers.

The excessive slaughter resulted in a steadily decreasing collection; in 1878 the number of

The Fur Trade of America and some others 1917 Painted bison hide
Painted Native Bison Hide

robes marketed comprised 25,000 from Texas, 15,000 southwest, 50,000 northwest, and about 10,000 from scattering points; a year later the total fell to 55,000. From the latter date the decline was rapid, and by 1886 none remained. Many of the Indian tanned hides were illuminated on the leather side with outline sketches in strong colors, especially bright reds, yellows and greens.

The sketches were pictorial writings descriptive of the chase, battles, and interesting events in the lives of the red men. The illustration shown depicts some of the courageous deeds of a mighty warrior.



The Kalispell Bee – LOC
Kalispell, Montana, December 18, 1901

Last Stand of the Buffalo

Upon the rolling sun-browned plains of eastern Montana was made the last stand of the buffalo. Hunted for centuries by the primitive red man with bow and arrow, yet their numbers had increased until the plain were covered with countless thousands of the shaggy monsters. But with the advent of the white man and the repeating rifle their days were numbered and now the Kalispell resident or visitor who looks to the north of the city on almost any pleasant afternoon will see grazing upon the gently sloping hills surrounded by a substantial fence the last remnant of the once monarch of the plains.

Excepting the few to be found in the Yellowstone National Park. Flathead county contains the only herds of American bison or buffalo in the world, and strange to say the buffalo is not a native of the Flathead valley.

In 1882 a few The buffalo were driven into Missoula country from east of the Rocky mountains and coming into the possession of Charles Allard on the Flathead Indian reservation their numbers have increased to several hundred head. From this herd the 35 head now kept near Kalispell were purchased by Mr. C. E. Conrad.

Scattered to the four winds of the earth are the few remaining hunters whose efforts so nearly wiped out the last vestige of the buffalo. The buffalo hunter in his day was as distant a class as the cowboy who succeeded him upon the American plains.

Beginning upon the prairies of Texas and gradually working north, the slaughter of the buffalo was continued until the vast clouds that once covered the plains and foothills from the Gulf to the Canadian line were made to disappear as a mist before the morning sun.

While the lover of nature and the sportsman — and who does not belong to one or the other — will never cease to deplore what seems to have been a wanton destruction of the noblest American game, the destruction of the buffalo was but an incident in the irresistible march of civilization. So long as though warlike tribes of Indians could subsist upon the herds of the plains they were not to be conquered and but for the existence of the buffalo they gallant Custer and his band would never have been massacred. As the buffalo and the hunter retreat to the north their places were filled by the stockman and his herds of cattle, and they in turn are giving way to the farmer and builder of homes.

The buffalo hunters as a rule were men of adventurous spirit inured to the hardships and dangers of the plains. Some of them it is true were outlaws and hard characters, but almost to a man they were generous and kind hearted, while hospitality for friend or stranger was never lacking. The hunter who chanced upon another’s camp in his absent never hesitated to make himself at home, well knowing that he was welcome.

The last great killing of buffalo was made in the winter of 1880-81 on the plains between the Yellowstone and the Missouri river in eastern Montana. In that season approximately 150,000 buffalo were killed and their hides stacked upon the river banks of those two streams to be taken away by steamboat and the following summer. The hunting season usually began in September or rather the hunters began to prepare their winter camps in that month. The actual work of hunting not beginning until October and ending in March or April, when the animals began to shed their fur.

The principal outfitting point for hunters for this season of ’80-81 was Miles City, situated in the valley of the Yellowstone under the protecting shadow of Fort Keogh, two miles distant. In the fall of that season the person who stood upon the streets of Miles City and looked to the north through the hazy atmosphere could see grazing upon the high plateau which skirts the river numerous herds of buffalo, while leaving the streets of the busy frontier town hunters with their outfits could often be seen fording the limpid waters of the nearby Tongue river and wending their way to the government cable ferry which spanned the broader Yellowstone near the government fort.

One such outfit was accompanied by the writer, then a “tenderfoot” of tender years, with a desire to experience some of the adventures of buffalo hunting.

The party consisted of two experienced hunters and myself, whom they had with considerable contempt taken into partnership because I had the wherewithal to purchase the outfit. This consideration on their part was made necessary by the circumstance that the money which they had made by the previous seasons hunt had been used to establish a faro bank, which legitimate enterprise, as one of them expressed it,” had failed to produce.”

Our outfit consisted of one saddle horse and two balky Cayuses hitched to a wagon of somewhat ancient origin. Loaded in the wagon was a plentiful supply of “grub” and ammunition, the latter consisting of several kegs of black rifle powder and about 200 pounds of lead for bullets, with plenty of caps, or primers, for loading the shells. The guns used were the single shot breach loading “old reliable” Sharp’s rifles of 45 calibre, using 120 grains of powder. This shell went loaded was six inches in length.

After crossing the Yellowstone on the government ferry and struggling and see-saw fashion with our balky team up the narrow de__e which the road followed from the river to the top of the table land, we for the first time came in close proximity to numerous herds of buffalo.

At this point I was only restrained by my partners from immediately beginning the hunt. Continuing North we camped for the night on Sunday creek, the bed of which stream is without water, except in places, during most of the year. While my companions made camp I sallied forth with my gun, and while there were plenty of buffalo in sight, and the country was quite rolling, for some mysterious reason I was unable to get within gunshot of any of them. I would locate a bunch of them quietly grazing, and being positive that they had not seen me, would stealthily approached from behind a hill… only to see them lumbering off a half mile or more in the distance. Because of this apparent mystery I discovered later on and I judged it was not unknown to my companions, from the cynical smiles which with they greeted by empty handed return.

On the following morning my partners left me in camp and went out to look for a location for our winter camp. This they chose near a spring, which they found a few miles distant, and we at once proceeded to prepare our winter quarters.

First we constructed a dugout, some 12 by 15 feet in size, in the face of a gently sloping bank. The roof of the dugout was covered by a few cottonwood poles over which was spread four buffalo bull hides taken by my companions and over these was put a layer of buffalo grass sod. Another buffalo hide served the purpose of a door. In the back and of the dugout was constructed a rude fireplace and after we had gathered a large quantity of dry buffalo chips and hauled some dead cottonwood logs from Sunday creek for fuel we were ready to begin the real business of hunting.

The most of the killing was done by one of my companions, the other man and myself being occupied in skinning and packing the hides into camp, using the horses to do the packing. At first my companions were somewhat distant, classing me with all “tenderfoot,” as being of little account, but finding I was willing to take my full share of the drudgery and that my powers of endurance were equal or better than their own. The ‘kid,” as they called me gradually came to be a favorite with them and their friendship thus formed lasted through all the years that we were thrown together and in one instance at least served to prolong my career on earth.

The method employed in hunting was commonly termed still hunting and was far removed from the popular idea of hunting buffalo by chasing them on horseback.

The best character of country for hunting was the broken undulating plain interlaced with ravines and gullies. Upon starting out for the day the hunter usually went to a nearby hill or butte where a good view of the surrounding country could be had. From this point probably a number of different herds could be seen ranging in size from a few head to several hundred or even thousands. A novice would be apt to go after the largest herd in sight, but the experienced hunter would select a bunch of 15 or 20 that seem to be on favorable ground and if fortune favored him the entire herd would be killed. This program would often be buried by chance; perhaps the hunter would come on to a herd before reaching the observation point, or he might encounter buffalo that were not visible from the hill or the herd would stampede at the first shot, and he might get only one or two of them or perhaps not at all.

Buffalo Hunter Takes Aim 1880's

The hunter was obliged to keep out of sight and one absolutely necessary requisite was that the hunter always keep to the windward of his game, for the buffalo is wonderfully keen of smell, being able to detect a man at a distance of several miles if the wind is favorable. This explained the apparent mystery of my first failure at hunting.

The best distance for shooting was considered to be from 200 to 250 yards, about one-eighth of a mile. Often the hunter would crawl to a point that had seemed about the right distance and on getting insight of the game would find himself too close and would be compelled to crawl back and make a detour to another point where his person could be hid and where he would be at the right distance from the game. This strange necessity was due to a peculiarity of the buffalo that is found in no other animal. A herd of buffalo when traveling were nearly always led by ___of the older animals, which might be either a cow or a bull, and the effect of the number was always to kill the leader first. Hunters believe that a herd was always led by the same that this leadership was probably often a mere matter of chance.

Upon gaining the proper point from which to shoot the hunter would fire at the buffalo which he took to be the leader. At the first fire the herd would scatter in every direction and after running a few steps would all stop for an instant, then by some instinct the whole herd would start in the same direction at the same instant. They might run directly toward the hunter or in any other direction. The hunter if experienced would wait until the buffalo were altogether before making the second shot and would then shoot over and a little in front of the fleeing herd. At each shot fired in this manner the buffalo would turn and run in a different direction and after being turned in this way several times would become confused and stand stock still until the last one had fallen in his tracks. This peculiarity was the reason the hunter was obliged to shoot from beyond a certain distance, for if to close the noise of the gun or smell of powder would prevent the hunter from getting a “stand.” This was the method followed where everything went right, but often the hunter would fail for no apparent reason to get a ‘stand,” or through too rapid shooting the herd would be stampeded. Then again if the shooting was inaccurate and buffalo were wounded instead of killed they were apt to straggle away and being followed by others. The whole herd would soon be in rapid motion. The hunter usually tried to shoot the buffalo through the body just behind the shoulder.

The Still Hunt
The Still Hunt

The reason the experienced hunter preferred the small herd was because the large herd was almost certain to stampede. Sometimes as many as 40 could be secured in a single killing, and in rare instances 75 or 80, but usually a greater number than 20 or 25 could not be held. When the snow was deep and the weather cold the buffalo world less likely to stampede and it was usually under such conditions that the largest killings were made.

Skinning the buffalo was of course the most labor us part of the work and to become proficient much practice was required. We often heard of men who could take off 40 hides in a day, but it was never my pleasure to meet such a man. An average of 20 or 25 hides taken off was _____day’s work. Of course it was easier to scan cows and young animals than old bulls. Some of the latter were of monstrous size weighing certainly more than a ton. The hide from such when spread out wood cover over 100 square feet of surface and when green would weigh over 200 pounds. Such hides brought the

lowest price and were probably only used for leather. The color of the buffalo varied from light brown and tawny yellow over the shoulders in summer to dark brown or nearly black in winter. The bull hides besides being too heavy for robes were of poor color, retaining no light or faded appearance over the shoulders in winter. A very few robes were taken of very fine for that bordered on the mouse color. These were called silk robes. When the hide was taken from the carcass it was immediately spread upon the ground– usually on the snow fur down, and when dry the hides were packed into camp and stacked in piles. Robe hides dried weighing from 10 to 20 pounds, while dry bull hides weighed about 30 pounds. The prices received by hunters for their hides when compared with present values seem ridiculously small. Bull hides brought about a dollar each, while robe hides were worth from $2 to $3.50 apiece. On account of the hump over the shoulders the carcass of the large buffalo was exceedingly hard to turn over, and in skinning it was necessary to turn each one. The Skinner if alone usually first raised the hind legs of the carcass as high as possible and propped them in that position with his rifle, then getting his shoulder under the lower front leg of the buffalo by strenuous lifting the carcass was turned over. Usually the only portion taken with the hide and tongue and occasionally strips of tenderloin would be cut from some of the younger animals to make jerked meat. The tongues would be boiled in large quantities and strong on willow switches by running the switch through the point of the tongue. These would be hung up in camp and when the tired hunter came home at night, often long after dark, the tongues sliced and fried made a delicious short order supper.

The buffalo were always very fat and this fat was used by the hunters for all cooking purposes. It was whiter than beef tallow, and when cold was not nearly so hard. It had a mild pleasant taste and in cold weather we drank it hot like broth or soup.

The buffalo grows to maturity in about three years and the age up to six years can generally be told by the horns. A two-year-old bull has horns that turned sharply at the base and stick straight up. Such an animal was called a ‘spike.” At three years the horns are heavier and the tips turn in. At about five years the horns reach their full growth and scene after this they began to splinter off at the point. This continues until some of the older bulls have only short stumps for horns.

After the snow had disappeared in the spring the Bulls would collect and large numbers, usually on a southern slope where they would bellow and paw and took the earth and fight for hours. Often a bunch composed entirely of old bulls would be seen that had been driven away from the herd by the younger and stronger animals. The horns of the cows were smaller at the base and they were more curved, also showing rings or wrinkles with age.

The buffalo would usually be spread over a wide scope of country, sufficiently scattered to ensure good grazing. They might remain in the same general territory for weeks or even months until as if by some common impulse they would all began to move rapidly in the same direction. As they moved forward the herds would close up until they formed a mighty host that rolled like an endless black cloud across the plain. In this way they would often travel several hundred miles without stopping or turning aside, and the hunter was obliged to follow up or go out of business. These movements, however, occurred rarely if ever in the winter. A buffalo killed at the end of such a trip would be empty of food and the carcass would not bloat, while the carcass of one killed when full of food would swell to an enormous size in two or three hours, which would spoil the meat. For this reason the first thing to be done by the hunter on making a killing was to take out the tongues.

A buffalo would never show fight unless wounded and not always then. Often in making a killing one or more wounded bulls would straggle into nearby ravines to hide. If the hunter killed them in such a place they were hard to scan because of the difficulty in turning them over. In order to get them out he would approach quite close and help them with rocks or snowballs and when the buffalo charged out at his tormentor he would be shot. Occasionally a hunter would be injured or killed in this manner, but it did not seem to deter others from following the practice. Sometimes the buffalo shot through the hump and apparently dead would come to life again. On one occasion one of my companions had killed a small herd among which was a cow and calf. He was in the act of taking out the cows come when she began to struggle. He put his weight on her hump and just above the shoulders, which, as she lay on her side, kept her from getting up by preventing her from getting a hold on the ground with her front feet. As the cow continued to struggle she grew stronger and finding he could not hold her he made a break for his gun, which was leaning against a carcass some 50 feet away. The cow was after him instantly and as he reached the gun he sprang over the carcass, dragging the gun over by the muzzle and turning, shot the animal dead. I witnessed the incident from the distance and when I came up his only remark was, “That was a d—n lucky shot.”

The best robes were taken from young cows and spikes, yearlings and calves were of

LA Huffman photo Killing Cows and Spikes

good for, but too small to be of much value. The number of buffalo killed in a season by an outfit depended not only on the number and skill of the hunters, but also on the chance, for if the camp had to be moved several times in order to keep in range of the buffalo, much less could be done. If the snow was deep and crusted the buffalo were less apt to travel than if the winner was open and the ground pair of snow. The number secured by an outfit in a season might run anywhere from a few hundred to several thousand hides.

While the hunters as a class were a rough set, given to gambling and whooping it up in the dance halls after selling their hides, yet they always paid their deaths and none could be more openhearted and generous than they. Independent and self-reliant, yet they always respected the rights of one another. Hides belonging to different hunters would be scattered over the same country, but disputes over the ownership were unknown.

The country was visited occasionally by roving bands of Indians, mostly Crows, from the south and Sioux from Sitting Bull’s band on the north. They were usually bent on stealing horses from one another and generally there was but two or three in a party. When they came upon hides spread out to dry they would generally take what robe hides they could carry and would nearly always cut the hides that were left full of holes. As the hunters had long-range guns the Indians always gave them a wide berth, but when in large parties the Indians were quite aggressive. Some interesting experiences might be told in this connection, that such a recital would extend this article far beyond the space allotted me.

The winter of which I speak 80-81, was an excellent one for hunting buffalo; the snow was deep and the weather cold until spring, which came quite early. By first of May our hides were all safely banked upon the Yellowstone. The following winter was a poor one for hunting, being warm and with but little snow. The few remaining buffalo were wild and badly scattered. A few were killed each year up to 1885, but the last great killing was made in 1880-81.

The day of the buffalo has gone forever. His bones now bleaching upon a thousand hills bear mute witness of his former greatness. And while the disappearance of the noblest American game brings a pang of regret his extinction by the onward march of civilization was just as inevitable as the setting of the western sun.


A Famous Buffalo Hunter. 1902
In the palmy days of the Buffalo hunt, there were certain noted shots in the northwest who made it their business during the four months of severe winter to hunt buffalo for their hides. No other part of the animal was utilized except possibly a small slice of meat from the hump, which was practically the only food available for the hunter.

“Liver-eating” Johnson. a famous Montana scout and buffalo hunter, who is still living, has probably killed more buffalo in his day than any other living man. The parties led by him generally started from Coulson, on the Yellowstone River, now an abandoned settlement, a few miles from Billings. Montana. They went north to the Musselshell valley, then a famous buffalo feeding ground. When a herd of buffalo was discovered the animals were run around and around until they were confused and then the slaughter began. While the firing was in progress the herd stood in a daze, which was called getting a “stand,” and on many occasions, nearly the entire herd was killed before any of the buffalo came to their senses and attempted escape. It is told of “Liver-eating” Johnson that on one occasion from a supply 250 cartridges for his octagon-barreled Sharps rifle he killed over 200 buffalo.

The men suffered terribly from the fierce north winds, and their only food for days at a time was buffalo meat, possibly with salt and possibly without. The thermometer often ranged for weeks at a time from forty below down to sixty. The hunters never took their clothes off and have been known to disembowel the warm carcass of slain buffalo and crawl inside to escape the piercing wind of the winter night. In the spring after the hunt was over most of the men returned to the little frontier settlements with their hair hanging down on their shoulders, their clothes caked with grease, their faces hidden under a tremendous growth of whiskers, but each with bag of gold as his winter’s wages. It would take but a few days, however, to gamble and drink this money away, and then other employment for the summer was sought. These visits of the buffalo hunters to the frontier settlements in the spring are remembered by those who have witnessed them as the wildest orgies of crime and dissipation ever witnessed in the West.