Hunting the buffalo and fighting Indians on the western frontier
For millennia the great herds of North American bison (or buffalo as they were popularly known) had roamed the continental heartland followed by the indigenous Indian tribes whose own existence in every sense depended upon them. After the American Civil War, as the new railroads pushed from ocean to ocean, the herds of buffalo came in closer proximity to the ever increasing numbers of settlers intent on fulfilling the ‘manifest destiny’ of the American people by crossing and populating the nation. Now the political and economic potential of intensively hunting the buffalo became apparent. So the buffalo hunter, a resourceful opportunist armed with a long rifle, appeared across the western wilderness. This book, a highly regarded classic on its subject, was written by a frontiersman buffalo hunter and graphically describes his life of the Great Plains. These hunters heralded not only the end of the great herds of buffalo, but also the demise of the traditional way of life for the Plains Indian tribes. So, inevitably, this book also relates the authors experiences as an Indian fighter particularly against the Comanches. Despite our contemporary understanding of these tragic events, John Cook’s narrative provides an entertaining and thrilling insight into a life lived in the Wild West in its heyday.
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We hunters were optimistic enough to predict a wonderful future for a region of such delightful climate and such fertile soil. In March we sold our hides to Charles Rath, who sent his agent, George West, to follow up the hunters with two large freight trains to bring back the hides they got that winter. But a dozen such trains could not haul the hides that the hunters had in their many camps west from the one-hundredth meridian to the New Mexico line and south to the Brazos River. It was a red-letter killing and the slaughter reached its high-tide mark that winter and spring. The summer of 1876 I hunted with fair success in different parts of the Panhandle of Texas. But that year not many buffaloes went north to the Cimarron. They were giving ground.
The terrible slaughter of the past two years had shortened their annual pilgrimage from the Cimarron to the Platte, 500 miles. In October I was back on the breaks of Red River. Army officers informed us that the Indians were restless. They had heard of Sitting Bull’s annihilation of Custer’s Seventh Cavalry, and it was in their hearts to emulate his and Gall’s warriors. George Whitelaw with two men, Hank Campbell with two men, and Crawford and I, agreed to camp together for mutual protection. We found some excellent water-holes about three miles north of Red River, in rough ground. Here we pitched camp and stayed until the last of November, getting all told 1600 hides from here.
Campbell’s outfit and my own went west about six miles and camped at the head of a draw running through a large flat down to Red river. Whitelaw went back to Fort Elliott. There were, in this camp, Hank Campbell, Frank Lewis, “Crazy” Burns, Willis Crawford, and myself, the night of the 15th December, when a heavy blinding snow-storm came on. This snow commenced falling as darkness set in; by daylight it had ceased, and there were seven inches of snow on the ground.
Sometime that night, while we were all wrapped in our warm beds and sound asleep, Old Nigger Horse, with 170 Comanche warriors, together with their families, passed by less than 200 feet from us, running away from Fort Sill. They were being followed by two companies of soldiers that would have overtaken them if Miles, Custer, or Crook had been there. This is my opinion.
The next morning “Crazy” Burns, as he was called, was the first one up, and while he was building the morning fire the soldiers appeared, and they told us they had abandoned the Indian trail on account of the weather. This act alone caused the loss of many lives of the hunters. These Indians kept on south and went into camp for the rest of the winter. The place they selected was a pocket-cañon just south of the mouth of Thompson’s cañon, and is so located on the old maps.
It was an excellent place for a defensive fight, being located as it was immediately under the escarpment of the Staked Plains. They stayed here until the last of February. Literally they were perfectly hidden. But few hunters were that far south at the time, and none that far west. The fact developed afterward that the nearest hunter’s camp was twelve miles from them. This was Billy Devins’s, northeast of them. Five miles northeast of Devins’s was the ill-fated Marshall Sewall’s camp.
In the latter part of February these Indians began murdering and pillaging in earnest. But a few days before the first hunters were disturbed, they had evidently scouted the country well, for there were single Indians seen in different places far apart at the same time.
A few days after Nigger Horse and his band had passed by our camp, Rankin Moore came along with his outfit and told us he had not seen a buffalo since he had left Fort Elliott. We had not seen one for the last two days. So we agreed to pull south for the Brazos country. We crossed the Red River at the same place the Indians did, and followed their trail for ten miles, when it turned off more to the southwest; but we went on south. Moore had agreed to go to a certain place on the Salt Fork and camp there until Benson’s outfit came along, Benson and he both having been at the place the winter before. This place was about ten miles up the river from where Arkansaw Jack’s camp was the winter of my first hunt.
The evening we arrived at this place I took my horses down a broad ravine and hobbled them, nearly a quarter of a mile from camp, where there was better grass than at or near camp.
Just as I started with the horses Rankin Moore picked up his gun and said he would go up on the hill east of our camp. This draw that I went down ran eastward.
As I was going down the draw he was going up the hill on the south side of the draw. Just as I had hobbled the last horse, had picked up my gun and had taken perhaps five or six steps, when zip! went a bullet, and then the report of a gun which came from the hills south of me.
I had a cartridge in my gun. Raising it, and looking toward where the shot came from, spat! and the ground was struck by a bullet in front and to the left of me, the bullet passing between myself and the pinto pony.
Just at that moment boom! came the report of a bigger gun from the hills and also a considerable distance to the west of the shots coming toward me. Then came the strong audible voice of Moore, “Look out, Cook! There is an Injun trying to get you!”
When I first saw Moore he was running east toward the place the Indian was shooting at me from. I hurried out of the draw, running south to get under cover of the hills as soon as possible, thinking I was too much exposed in the draw.
As I ascended the hill, I peered cautiously as I went. I heard the report of Moore’s gun again, this time not more than 200 yards from me, and nearly south, the direction I was going. I then hurried on up the hill and ran out to where Moore was then standing.