Charles Rath, Buffalo Hunter
from Early Ford County, by Ida Ellen Rath, Dodge City, KS
ON THE WIDE, WINDSWEPT PLAINS OF WESTERN KANSAS AND the Panhandle of Texas, hunters followed and shot the shaggy, humpbacked transient herds of bison. Their slaughter brought about a great industrial drama that culminated in the practical extinction of the buffalo, the end of Indian warfare, and the rush of settlers to populate the plains.
Shoot them they did, courageous, adventuresome, expert marksmen to the tune of nearly two million a year and thereby lined their pockets with "buffalo gold." Few of these old buffalo hunters survive today, but the fruits of their industry are still living monuments.
But many are the men who shot the buffalo still living on in the annals of history; in the innermost recesses of your heart and mine. A goodly number of those early day hunters, the first family men of Dodge City, invested their buffalo gold into businesses of their own or enabled others to do so; the fruits of their industry monuments to early day men and their truly pioneering wives.
Reams have been written about early day buffalo hunters who, later became famous for various reasons, namely: Wyatt Earp, Bill Tilghman, "Bat" Masterson, `Buffalo Bill" Cody. But many other hunters were as expert on the draw and as widely known throughout the buffalo range. Mention buffalo hunters, of whom there were thousands, and memories of some of the great buffalo hunters spring into the limelight again: Charley Rath and his helper, Andy Johnson; "Brick" Bond; Bill Gillepie; George Bellfield; George Reighard; "Texas Jack" Mathias; and one other, "Prairie Dog Dave" Morrow of the white buffalo fame.
In the sixties and almost through the seventies, great migrating herds of hump-backed, shaggy buffalo darkened the plains as far as the eye could reach. They fed on the succulent buffalo and grama grass whether it was green in summer or dry in winter. They drank from creeks, rivers, and "buffalo wallows," depressions made in the hard-packed alkaline soil by buffalo licking the salt from the ground. Little groups of grazing buffalo, their tangled dewlaps almost dragging the ground, combined to make one vast herd which was always on the move during that instinctive migration which drove them north in summer, south in the winter.
In 1872 before the arrival of the Santa Fe railroad at Buffalo City, later re-named Dodge City, the buffalo had been killed mostly to provide food and hides for present needs by white man and Indian alike. Hays City did have a hide market previous to this time, however, and many hides were shipped from that point. But, with the coming of the railroad, many a man laid down the tools of his trade to shoot the buffalo; many would-be hunters were so young they had no trade; many were seasoned trappers and Indian traders even though their youth belied the fact.
Charles Rath from Sweetwine, Ohio, but "Plainsman Charley" as early as 1853, foresaw great possibilities in the opened market in the east, not only for buffalo hides and other furs, but for choice buffalo tongue, fat-streaked hump, and delicious steak. As a boy of twelve, while waiting with his parents for clearance at the custom house, Charley Rath had been teased by other children because he wore his brother's outgrown suit, fully four sizes too large, its lines sagging shabbily on the lean youth. If those children could have looked into the future, at one of the first family men in Dodge City, this boy turned man, they would have seen a large man with a head of black hair topped with a fine beaver hat, clothed in a rich brown tailor-made suit and shirt. His button shoes were shining black and his gloves were white. In later years, a niece of Mr. Rath wrote her cousin Robert, "I remember well the occasional visits of your father to our home when we were children to whom he seemed a fairy prince driving a prancing livery team and carrying a big bag of goodies for the children."
When Charles Rath accompanied his high Conestoga freight wagons,- it was a common sight during rest periods, to see the great man ensconced safely under a wagon-tongue, its end held high by the propped neckyoke. In the shade of the wagon, the grown man improved his education from the supply of text books which he always considered a necessary part of camp equipment.