TO MY FRIEND THE INDIAN
WHOSE GOOD PARTS SURVIVE
AS A MONUMENT OVER THE
GRAVES OF A VANISHING RACE
THE GREAT BUFFALO HUNT AT STANDING ROCK
Story of the Killing of Five Thousand Buffaloes by a Hunting Party of Six Hundred Mounted Sioux in the Summer of 1882. PTE, the Buffalo, was feeding on the rich grasslands at the west end of the Great Sioux reservation, under the jurisdiction of the Standing Rock agency. The Indians at the agency knew it; they knew it instinctively, though it had been many years since the buffalo had sought the hunting-grounds of that part of the reservation. They believed that Pte, finding himself near to extinction at the hands of white pot- hunters, sought out the reservation that he might, in the end, fulfill his mission and die to provide walls for the tepee, robes for the couch, sinews for the bow, and meat for the store of the sons of the Lakodia. For Pte carried within his hairy cover the furnishing for all the primitive needs of his brother the Sioux. On the wings of the wind, then, came the news that Pte had arrived to make a Sioux holiday and provide such meat as had never been furnished, even by the most conscientious and liberal of beef-contractors. With this rich store of succulent meat in sight, giving assurance of a summer of good cheer, with such sport as must have appealed mightily to the heart of the hunter, it was not possible that the Indians could be held in check. I therefore took the initiative and proposed to the head men that a great buffalo – hunt should be organized. I have been measurably successful in dealing with the Indian because I have treated him as a man, but I am firmly convinced that the organization of the hunt at that time, and under the existing conditions, did more than anything else in bringing about a good understanding with the people whom I lived with and guided for so many years.
When I took charge of the Indians on the Standing Rock reservation, they were a sullen lot, and suspicious of every move made by the government or its administrative officers. On the day that I arrived at the agency to assume charge, September 8, 1881, Sitting Bull and one hundred and forty- six of the more turbulent of his followers were taken down the Missouri River to be held prisoners at Fort Randall. The circumstances were not auspicious. I moved my family and household goods down the Missouri, from Bismarck to Fort Yates, the military post adjoining the agency on the south, making the trip on the steamer General Sherman. As the steamer approached the Fort Yates landing, I saw a prospect that was not calculated to inspire hope in the breast of a man who had accepted the appointment with the sincere determination of turning a lot of wild Indians into civilized human beings by moral suasion and firm guidance, divorced altogether from the suggestion of coercion.
On the bench of the riverbank stood the tepees of Sitting Bull and his band. A cordon of troops hemmed in the encampment. All around this bench, where stood the camp of the most vicious and bitter of the Hunkpapa Sioux, there was and is an amphitheater of hills, and on these hills lay the people of the reservation. The showing of force was sufficient to quell any disposition on the part of the Indians to interfere with the removal of Sitting Bull and his band, even if they had been so disposed, which they were not. The more intelligent of the Sioux had long since considered Sitting Bull a boastful pretender, that as a leader he was a fraud; and his power in the Sioux nation was gone when he was deserted by Gall, Crow King, and other of the trusted chiefs. A few hours after my arrival , Sitting Bull , with his one hundred and forty- six immediate followers , was taken down the Missouri River to Fort Randall, and I was left to deal with nearly six thousand Indians, over half of whom had been out with Sitting Bull in active hostility for several years , and who, from the disappearance of buffalo in the section of country to which they had fled after the campaign of 1876 , were compelled to return and surrender to the United States military authorities at various frontier posts , the garrisons of which had been constantly harassing them after the battle of the Little Big Horn.
On the Standing Rock reservation , and principally huddled about the agency which was located then , as now, sixty miles south of Bismarck, North Dakota, on the west bank of the Missouri River – there were Hunkpapas, Yanktonais, Blackfeet, Minniconjous, Sans Arcs, Oglalas , Brules, and some minor bands : a miscellaneous crew, many of them fresh from a life of vagabondage, and not a few as hostile at heart as any Indians ever were . It was not promising material, and it was very raw, but I was far from hopeless of doing something with it.
It was in the following spring, after a hard winter, that I was inspired to take the people on a buffalo hunt that would at once show my faith in them and give them the healthful exercise and natural food they were pining for.
I was on excellent terms with those of the leaders who had intelligence enough to appreciate the fact that the white man’s way must be made the path of the Indian. The most trustworthy of these men I had appointed policemen. The chiefs of dignity and importance, who had shown a good disposition, were treated with consideration. I rec
koned among my friends such men as Gall and Crow King, both of whom had been lieutenants of Sitting Bull , and had accompanied him in his flight after the Custer affair ; Rain- in-the-Face and John Grass, the latter a distinguished orator and influential man , Fire Heart, Kill Eagle , Crazy Walking, – now judge of the court of Indian offenses at Standing Rock agency, Spotted Horn Bull , Gray Eagle, Charging Thunder, and many others who were not chiefs originally but who were advanced as I found them influential and intelligent. Through these men I made known my desire that the people might organize a hunt.
The bands were all camped about the agency, and for several days previous to that upon which the expedition was to move, June 10, there was such excitement as had not been seen for many moons. Men, women, and children were engaged in the preparation. Arms were brought out and cleaned; ammunition was provided, and this was a most important matter. I had been engaged in quietly disarming the people, and it was impossible for any of them to obtain cartridges except on my order. These orders were made in favor of individuals and for a limited number of cartridges, but it was desirable that they should not receive the impression that I was fearful of their obtaining too great a supply.
The ponies that had been having a hard time during the winter were given such careful attention as must have surprised them. The finest clothing and decorations were brought out, and the women vied with one another in embellishing the personal outfits of the hunters of their families. It would hardly be possible to make a more glittering array of a body of Indians, and the plains of Dakota had not for many years seen so resplendent a gathering of these people as that which moved out of Standing Rock just after dawn on the tenth of June 1882. And it was many hours later before the last of the straggling column disappeared from view over the buttes to the west of the agency.
The buffalo had been located one hundred miles to the west, in a country now beyond the limits of the reservation, but which was at that time within the boundary. The great body of the people would move slowly, and it was arranged that the Indians should have a few days the start of myself and the little party who were to accompany me. On the morning of June 15, I left the agency. With me was my son, Harry, then a lad of fourteen, who distinguished himself on the hunt by killing seven buffalo calves, Steve Burk, James Stitsell, Thomas Miller, and John Eagle Man, the latter an Indian policeman. Our supply- wagon had been sent on ahead. We overtook the main body of Indians that evening at Cedar Creek, fifty miles west of the agency, where a camp was made and the important business of selecting and starting off the scouts to locate the herd was gone through with.
The camp was made according to the tribal custom, and all the honors were accorded traditional belief. In the slovenly Indian of the agency there is little to suggest that he and his people do all things by system, that he and they are the creatures of custom; but, in fact, the Sioux has the most solemn regard for the usages of his people. He is given to ceremonial wherever it is possible, and he is unprogressive, according to our light, because he will not undertake to do those things for which custom has prescribed no system. The buffalo hunt was unquestionably the most important business of the year to the Sioux, and in going into the hunt an elaborate ceremonial, some portions of it based on good sense and much of it on the outgrowth of arbitrary custom, was indulged in by them.
When I overtook the Indians at Cedar Creek (the south fork of the Cannon Ball River) the camp was pitched close to where the Bismarck and Black Hills trail crosses that stream. An opening had been left in the circle of lodges and I was conducted through this. The camp was practically deserted, but for a few old men and women. The Indians had gathered in a great body some distance to the west of the camp, and to this gathering-place I made my way. I may say that, although I had spent ten years with the Sisseton and Wahpeton bands, I knew little of the customs of the Teton bands, and the ceremonial of a buffalo hunt was new to me.
The two thousand Indians were seated on the prairie, forming a crescent- shaped body, the horns of the crescent opening to the west. At the south horn of the crescent were seated the important men in the hunt organization, Running Antelope, the leader of the hunt and an orator of prominence, at the extreme end; next to him Long Soldier, and then Red Horse, who divided with Running Antelope the direction of the party. Around the crescent the people were seated with due regard for rank from the place of honor, the men in the front rows. Across the horns of the crescent, the opening would measure a hundred yards. Before the place occupied by Running Antelope there was set up a painted stone, some ten inches high, answering the purpose of an altar, and as I approached, there gathered about the altar eight young men who had been selected as scouts to go ahead and spy out the buffalo. At their head was Crazy Walking, and all had been carefully chosen, not only for their qualities as hunters, but because they were known to be truthful and of good moral character. They were as fine a body of young men as could be found in the Sioux nation, and many of them came to be men of prominence, Crazy Walking being now, as I have said, an Indian judge at Standing Rock agency.
The scouts being seated, Running Antelope harangued them on the importance of their mission and how necessary it was that their work should be carefully done and correctly reported. He pointed to the importance of the undertaking, the necessity for caution, and closed by administering to each of them an oath binding them to report correctly what they saw in the hunting country. The oath was administered amid breathless silence, the men in the semicircle. even putting away their pipes while Running Antelope filled the sacred pipe. This he did with much deliberation, then, taking a spoon- shaped wooden utensil used only on ceremonial occasions, he drew a coal from the fire, placed it on the tobacco, offered the pipe to the earth in front of him, to propitiate the spirits which make the ground fruitful, then to the sky, invoking the blessing of the Great Spirit. Taking a pull from the pipe, with the peculiar hissing sound of the Indian smoker, he passed it to Crazy Walking, who placed his hand, holding the bowl of the pipe, on the painted stone and drew one puff of smoke, and so passed it down the line, each scout repeating the performance. I was hardly prepared for the change that came over the multitude when the ceremony was concluded. Instantly every man owning a horse was on his feet, shouting and gesticulating and congratulating the scouts on their good fortune, and the horses were brought up. John Eagle Man, my policeman, explained to me that the scouts must now be escorted forth from the circle and taken some distance on their way, then the escort must race back and ride into and between the horns of the crescent, following a line upon which three freshly cut green bushes had been set up, about ten yards apart, and within a few feet of the front rank of the Indians. If, in passing the bushes, the leader of the race should fail to knock any of these bushes down, the hunt might as well be abandoned ; should he knock one down , it would augur but indifferent success; if two were knocked over, the chase would be fairly successful, and if, by a happy chance, the rider should upset all three of the bushes, then there would be a great amount of game killed and the people would be rich beyond the telling.
My knowledge of the Indian had already taught me that nothing impresses him so much as having the reputation of being lucky or bringing good luck. I had an excellent horse, a present from Crow King, as narrated in chapter six. For several weeks the animal had been fed with grain and well exercised, and I could depend on his speed. I made up my mind then that I would try for the reputation of having good medicine as a prophet by knocking down the bushes.
A howling, shouting, joyous mob of about three hundred mounted men started out with the scouts. It takes an occasion of this sort to induce the Sioux to throw off his affected indifference and his borrowed reputation for stoicism. As a matter of fact, my experience among the Indians has taught me that when they are happy, they are exuberant and noisy in their demonstrations of joy, and the band that went forth that evening, singing and careering about on their horses, were as light – hearted a lot of men as I ever saw anywhere. They dashed recklessly about the scouts, touching them with lucky charms, shouting out encouragement and advice, and joking them on their love-affairs. For about two miles the escort continued with the scouts; then a whoop rang out that was taken up by some hundreds of mounted men and screaming a good – by to the scouting party, the escort wheeled and dashed back toward the camp. I was hardly ready for the beginning of the race but recovered soon enough to be well up with the leaders. I had something of an advantage over the Indians by having observed the lay of the land very closely while going out, and that a slight deviation from the direct course in returning to camp would avoid some rough ground and stony ridges, which would greatly tax a horse running at topmost speed. Furthermore, my horse had not been worn out in the display of horsemanship incident to the outgoing journey indulged in by the Indians, and I made up my mind to save him for a fast finish.
The details of that mad race in the midst of a swarm of whooping Indians do not remain very fresh in my memory. I only know that, as I drew up to the horns of the crescent, there was only one Indian within several yards of me, both of us headed straight for the bushes that bore the tale of the prophecy. I managed to nose my Indian out at the finish and rode pell-mell along the front of the crescent- shaped column of men and women, who retained their places, to witness the finish and rejoice according to augury. They moved not an inch, and I swerved my horse in the nick of time, went straight at the bushes, and rode down all three of them.
The tremendous row that followed this performance I was prepared for, after witnessing the other demonstration, but I had had no idea of the importance that would be attached to the feat. By the time they were through with me, I understood that I had good medicine and had established myself in the esteem of the Indians of Standing Rock agency.
The next morning, we took the trail after the scouts. The direction was due west, and we went forward in most orderly formation, Running Antelope and the other leaders prescribing rules which none might break. One hundred men were selected and designated as soldiers, their faces being painted to indicate their office, and their business being to preserve order on the march. My son Harry, being well mounted, was made a soldier.
At the head of the column marched twelve men whose office it was to make the pace. They walked slowly and with much deliberation, the object being to restrain the better-mounted or more impetuous, and the gait of the pacemaker was equal to that of the slowest old man in the party. Every three miles or thereabouts the pacemakers halted and sat down for a smoke and rest, and during these periods of rest the old men and great hunters told stories of their prowess in the hunting field.
The main body marched in two columns, a few hundred yards apart, the Hunkpapas and Blackfeet to the left and the Yanktonais to the right. I traveled with the Hunkpapas until the hunt really began, when the Yanktonais made a row about it and declared their right to enjoy the benefit of traveling in company with the good medicine that I possessed, and I went over to the other column. We made no more than ten miles a day, and the march was wearisome enough, but it was relieved at night by the feasting, dancing, and story-telling in the camps. The greatest orators and chief warriors of the Sioux nation were in the party with us: Gall, whom I have always regarded as one of the most intelligent men of his race, a great orator and natural leader; John Grass, a man who became a great power with his people; Crow King, Rain-in-the-Face, Spotted Horn Bull, and other men of the Hunkpapas, whose names were household words in the days when the Sioux had still the pernicious idea that they were the equals of the white man in the field. In such company – the said company having the material for feast and smoking there was no lack of entertainment at night, and I frequently had to tell the people that I was sleepy in order to have them leave, that I might retire for the night.
The trail led through what was then and is still the finest grazing country on this continent. It is not a plains country, except in the sense that it bears little timber, but is diversified by draws and small hills, with here and there a row of majestic buttes relieving the line of the horizon. Watercourses were sufficiently numerous to provide for the stock, and the ponies were in good condition.
The march lasted four days, and by the end of the fourth day we were beyond the present boundary of the Standing Rock reservation. At that time the boundary on the west was the 103d degree of west longitude, but one degree was cut off by the agreement of 1889. In the forenoon of the fourth day the advance-guard made out the scouts. They were cut out against the sky- line some ten miles away, and even at that distance our people read their signals. The signals were made out before the men were visible to the eye, in fact, for each of the scouts carried a little circular mirror and signaled his message by a comparatively perfect heliographic system, which was read by our people and repeated.
A great herd of buffalo was grazing within a few miles of the scouts. Camp was made that night to the leeward, and within striking distance of the hunting ground, due provision being made that the grazing herd should not be disturbed. When I arose next morning, the camp was the scene of much excited activity. A half -dozen grindstones had been carried along, and a clamoring mob stood about each grindstone, waiting for a turn at the knife- sharpening, which could not have been attempted before without interfering with the good medicine. While they were sharpening their knives, Shave Head, an Indian policeman, announced to the people that ” The Father” wanted a live buffalo calf. Camp was broken, to the end that it might be moved up closer to the scene of slaughter that was to ensue, and the hunters mounted. I could not see that there was any general supervision of the hunt after the game came in sight, but the traditional rules of the Sioux in buffalo hunting were rigidly adhered to.
There were about six hundred mounted hunters in the party, and they rode in two broad columns where it was possible, but using the draws and ravines to shelter them and prevent the game from taking fright and stampeding before the Indians were amongst the bison. I was well up in front of my party when we came out on an elevation within a few hundred yards of the nearest buffalo.
It was the knowledge of what would take place when that band of buffalo -hungry Indians swooped down into the valley, presently, that made the scene that presented itself intensely interesting. So far as the eye could gather, the picture was pastoral, with many thousands of cattle quietly grazing on the slopes of a hundred elevations. The knowledge that the moving animals in the pastoral scene were buffalo, the greatest game in the world, contributed to the element of personal excitement; but for the rest, I saw just such a picture a few months ago in crossing the country to the east of that hunting-ground, where the cattle of the ” L7 ” outfit range. The buffalo had shed their hair and looked like a vast herd of black cattle.
The slayers halted before rushing on their prey. They were no longer agency Indians. Every man of the lot had discarded every superfluity in the way of clothing and was simply and effectively garbed in a breech- cloth. Most of them carried repeating rifles and all had breech – loaders, except a few of the older men and the boys, whose poverty forced them to use, if not to be content with, the bow and arrow. And every man had a hunting-knife.
There was no shouting as the race for the herd began, and we were among the buffalo, a column attacking each flank, before they knew it. A few of the animals looked up and sniffed, some scampered to a distance, but there was no stampede. In fact, so widely were they scattered and so immense was the herd – estimated at fifty thousand – that a stampede would not have been possible. As the first rifle cracked, a few of the animals began to run, but the hunters followed them, and the hunt became a slaughter in less time than I have taken to tell it.
Of the details of the killing but few incidents remain with me. A hunter would ride up close to his quarry, take as careful aim as possible, and generally get his meat with a single shot. A tough old bull or a particularly active two-year- old might give him trouble; but so far as I could see- and I was somewhat busy myself -the hunter shot, gave the struggling animal the coup de grâce, and went on for another shot. As I came out of Hidden Wood Creek just previous to the charge, Crow’s Ghost rode up and advised me not to charge with the first column, and John Eagle Man, whom I had hitherto seen only in the sedate habiliments of an Indian policeman, but who now sported a breech- clout and wore a red handkerchief bound about his temples, tendered the same advice. I had some difficulty in keeping my party in check, and my son, Harry, was particularly keen for the game; but we got into the hunt with some show of order.
There was no rest during the day. The Indians killed until they were dismounted or exhausted — not a few of them were dismounted.
Late in the afternoon I found an old fellow unconscious, whose horse had fallen with him, another whose horse had been disemboweled and who had had his own leg ripped from the ankle to the knee by an enraged buffalo, another with a badly lacerated hand, with three fingers blown off by the bursting of his gun. The hunters had paid absolutely no attention to those injured men; even their relatives, who would ordinarily make a great row if they were ill, had passed them by unnoticed, and they had lain for hours in the sun, bleeding to death. We bound up their wounds, made them shelters from the sun, and left them as comfortable as possible until we found their relatives and had them taken to camp.
There were some amusing incidents. Wolf Necklace, an old man about sixty years of age, handicapped by poverty and the fact that a paternal government did not think he needed a gun, was constrained to use the bow and arrow. I found him ambling along on a gray pony within easy range of an old buffalo into which he had shot a number of arrows without bringing the animal to the ground. Somebody offered to kill the buffalo. ” No , ” said the Indian, ” the arrows will work in and he’ll die. ” And the old fellow calmly rode on, shooting an occasional arrow into the bull until he dropped.
Another Indian, one Peter Skunk, had shot and wounded a big bull with a revolver and had been dismounted. Fortunately, he landed close beside a large boulder in a little depression in the prairie. He put the boulder between himself and the bull with what expedition he could muster, and there we found him, the bull chasing him about the rock and giving him no time for a shot. We offered to make the killing for him, but he screamed an enraged ” No! ” For about five minutes the Indian dodged the bull, until the animal became tired. When he paused for a minute, Skunk took advantage of the pause and planted a shot behind the ear that stopped the animal.
I have known but few Indians die of heart- disease, but in the midst of the hunt one met death from that cause. We found a man crouching behind a rock; he had dismounted and his horse was grazing nearby, the rope trailing. The hunter had dismounted to pick off his game with greater certainty ; his gun rested on the rock, it was cocked, and a finger was on the trigger; in the very act of shooting, death smote him instantaneously.
For myself I had good luck. The advice of Eagle Man was too good to be disregarded. Moreover, that faithful ally was by my side, determined that I should not get hurt in getting my first buffalo. The column with which I was riding was to attack the herd on the left flank, the other column on the other flank, the two columns being about five miles apart when the charge was made; and the herd was to be driven together for the slaughter, escape being possible only to the west, as we attacked from the northeast and southeast. After the first few scattering shots there was a tremendous din all over the field, and the wildness of some of the shooting made me thankful that I was not in the mêlée; and I had my reward. A little bunch of buffalo dropped behind the herd and directly in front of us. We rode down on the animals, and I picked out a fine three-year-old cow and fired into her flank at close quarters. I knew that it was customary for the Indians to shoot a fleeing buffalo in the flank, trusting to the certainty that the bullet would work in and disable the animal. In this case I aimed a little high, the cow turned, and my pony, knowing more about buffalo- hunting than I did, promptly wheeled to keep out of her way. I came very near going out of the hunt that instant, for the sudden swerve of the pony almost unseated me and sent my Winchester flying twenty feet away. The cow turned at once to follow the herd, and I picked up my rifle and followed her; but before I could get another shot the animal again charged. I shot her between the eyes as she rushed at my mount, which only made her shake her head and wheel to follow the herd; but a well-directed shot behind the right fore – shoulder, as she turned to the left, settled the cow, and I had my first buffalo. I got four others and quit, in the knowledge that I had no means of taking care of more meat.
I had a good stiff ride back to camp that evening, for I had lost Harry and spent some time looking for him, and it was long after dark when the Indians got back to their camp. They were all too tired for storytelling that night, but an estimate was made of the number of buffalo killed, and it was proved correct the next day, when about two thousand carcasses were butchered, no attempt at butchering being made on the first day.
I slept long the next morning, and when I rose I found that the entire Indian encampment had been moved out close to the field of the hunt. My tent stood alone, but ranged about it, tied to stakes, were twenty two buffalo calves, the Indians’ response to my request for a single calf!
The men were at work skinning and cutting up the dead animals, when I arrived on the field, and that day was given up to this work; but the next day they followed the herd to the west, and resumed the slaughter, which was even more extensive that day than in the first hunt. The attack was made as before, for the buffalo had moved but a short distance. They were attacked on each side, and the men killed the choicer animals until they had all the meat that could be carried away and all the skins needed the hides of the shedding season being useless for robes. The slaughter had been awful but not wanton, and I was impressed with the fact then that the Indian displays more restraint in hunting, even though his desire to kill makes his blood boil, than the white man. I never have known an Indian to kill a game animal that he did not require for his needs. And I have known few white hunters to stop while there was game to kill. The hunt stopped when five thousand buffalo had been slain.
The hunters removed the hump and other tender morsels from the carcasses, quartered the beeves for transport, and brought the meat in on wagons and travois to the camp, which had been made on Hidden Wood Creek, where there was plenty of good water, which camp remained there for the jerking of the meat and making of pemmican. The second day I lost my saddle-horse, a herd of four or five hundred buffalo stampeding directly through the camp and carrying off five horses, including mine, which were out grazing.
The animal was not retaken then, remaining with the buffalo until the following fall, when a hunting party identified the beast, captured it after “creasing” it shooting it through the skin at the top of the neck, just forward of the shoulder. [Note: “Creasing” a man would aim his rifle at a horse just along the crest of the neck and graze the vertebra, stunning the animal, they are then able to catch them. ]
The night of the first butchering there was such a feast as had not been held at Standing Rock for many years. Mighty hunters sat down with mighty appetites to satisfy and ate until I stood fairly astonished at the capacity of their stomachs for solid food. And they told stories of the hunt -stories that did not need corroboration.
Crazy Walking, whom in memory of that day I made a captain of police later, Standing Soldier, Henry Agard, and Frank Gates, the last two mixed bloods, had each killed twenty- six buffalo; Bull Head, who was killed eight years after in carrying out my order for the arrest of Sitting Bull, and who was captain of the soldiers in that hunt, had a mighty bag; Shave Head, who died with Bull Head and who had severely disciplined one of the party the night before the hunt for an alleged offense against the discipline of the soldiers (of which he was really innocent ), Shave Head too had meat for many days; Black Bull — who sits listening, a grinning old man, as I tell this story was among the heroes in performance that day. But if I would tell the tale of great hunters, I must enumerate the head men of the Sioux Nation. They were all in that hunt and at peace on the banks of the Hidden Wood Creek that night. Years after, in the trying times of the ghost-dancing, when Sitting Bull sought to arouse his people against the whites, there was bitterness, enmity, and death; but that night Hunkpapas, Blackfeet, Upper and Lower Yanktonais, and whites were friends in feasting as they are friends to-day, and I never visit my old home at Standing Rock but that some of them gather at my door and go over the story of the great buffalo hunt of 1882.