The Buffalo Trade

      BUFFALO KILLING WAS THE FIRST BIG BUSINESS THAT REACHED the plains. It drew men from near and far, a few who craved the notoriety of killing a buffalo, but mostly men who were able to make this their life work while it lasted. The latter were men who stayed when the buffalo were gone and helped to, prove up the West, many of them making their home in Ford County, especially in Dodge City.

      A market for the hides was already established. W. C. Lobenstein had called Charles Rath and Myers to supply him with 500 buffalo hides. What the two hunters did not have, they bought from J. Wright Mooar and other hunters in the field. After the order was filled, Mooar had fifty-seven hides left over which he sent to his brother who lived in New York. If the English could make use of the hides, maybe the eastern tanneries could also.

 r#160; t160;id160;o 160; John Mooar sold the hides to a New England tanner, who then sold them to two Pennsylvania tanners for $3.50 each, promising to buy more if they could successfully be turned into usable leather. Mooar was then asked to buy 2,000 additional hides. Both the American and English experiments had been successful, thus paving the way for the great buffalo slaughter which followed from 1870 until the buffalo herds were annihilated.

      The scientific name of "bison" carried no appeal to western men or Indians; they promptly named the great shaggy beasts-buffaloes. A full grown buffalo bull weighed about 2500 pounds and was an awesome sight, standing six feet high at his shaggy shoulders. He was more fully clothed in front than in the hind quarters; therefore in a blizzard, buffaloes faced into a storm, while domestic cattle invariably drifted with the storm. He was classified as a stupid animal and, reportedly, had poor eyesight. They were a migrating herd, grazing slowly northward in summer and south again for the winter. Their number was guess work but the average count has been set at 60,000,000 or better.


The Buffalo Trade 99

      No hunter thought in the early seventies that he was helping to annihilate the buffalo.

      When the spring migration started with the greening of the grass, the first buffalo would appear, singly and in groups of two and three, an advance notice to hunters that the herd was moving. The size of the groups increased, and their numbers, until finally, as far as the eye could see, the whole country was covered with them, moving slowly toward the south, grazing as they went. A hunter could stand on a ridge or other high spot and the herd at first appeared to be a solid mass but looking more closely he saw the herd was divided into small groups, 25 to 30 buffaloes spread loosely over an acre. They drifted along, thousands of them as far as the eye could see and a hunter never ceased to be thrilled at the sight of them.

      Sometimes a small herd made up entirely of old bulls, driven from the main herd by the young bulls. A hunter liked to spot one of these herds for the old bulls' hides were worth more money, sometimes as much as $2.50 while the others oftentimes brought only a dollar.

      H.B. (Ham) Bell commented to the author, "Each spring as grass growing weather moved northward with the sun the buffalo herds followed to spend the summer in the Dakotas, Montana, and Canada. With the approach of snow to the northern plains, they turned south again to winter in the valleys of the Republican, the Smoky Hill, the Solomon, the Arkansas, Cimarron, Canadian, and the Brazos rivers. They were more valuable to the hide hunters from September to March than at any other season for they had come into their heavy winter coats. The buffalo grazed on the succulent buffalo grass, not much to look at either green or cured, but very nutritious."

      The growing season for buffalo grass started with earliest spring and it spread over the ground like a vine. In those early days, before the soil was robbed of its fertility, when some grass grew as tall as a horse's back, buffalo, grass was seldom more than six inches high. Its closed curled leaf looked something like moss and it cured on the stalk, when it was actually sweeter and more nutritious in the fall and winter than at any other time. But its most remarkable quality was that despite continuous grazing and the pounding of millions of hoofs it came up year after year.

      The sound of buffaloes on the march could be heard a mile

100 Early Ford County

      or more away, like the roll of distant thunder. Thousands of hoofs pounding on the hard sod and dew claws rattling, sounded like the pounding and clattering of a freight train moving across a long wooden bridge. In the breeding season, one could hear the bellowing of the bulls, like a mighty roar all through the night, even when the herd was out of sight, maybe more than a mile away. Grazing, they scattered over the prairie in great herds, each composed of bands, twenty to sometimes 200 in a bunch, with ten, twenty, or one hundred yards between bunches. The same herd could be in a range of twenty miles.

      The calving of the buffalo was during the wet season on the plains, from April until the middle of May. During this time, the bulls kept guard to drive off the fierce gray wolves. In their beat they made the rings on the prairie, where when the grass finally grew, it was greener.

      A buffalo wallow was a far different matter. It was a depression in the earth caused by the buffalo pawing and licking the salty alkaline ground. When the sod was broken, the loose earth was carried away by the wind. Often the rain that collected in these wallows furnished water for man and beast, and sometimes a breastworks for an unwary man caught in a fight with an Indian foe.

      The Indian hunted the buffalo on horseback, with bow and arrow, or else with a long spear or lance, which they planted in the side of the animal by riding up alongside it. By either means they had to ride up close to the buffalo, scattering the buffalo and running them off the range entirely. They killed only for their needs, and as soon as they had killed a sufficient number they stopped, giving the herd a chance to recover from their panic and get together again. In contrast, the white buffalo hunter never knew when he had killed a sufficient number, his greed had no ending. He continually harassed the buffalo on every side, never giving them a chance to recover, while he kept up a continual bang-bang with his big gun.

      After the earliest hunting days, a buffalo hunter "still" hunted, going afoot, getting a "stand" on a herd, then shooting the leader. There was scarcely any danger at all from still hunting, if the hunter kept out of sight. With two high-powered breech-loaders, plenty of cartridges, and a good hiding place, within range of a grazing or resting herd, a still hunter could kill one a

The Buffalo Trade 101

minute as long as the herd stood for it. But each group had a leader, the oldest cow in the group. So the first movement of the still hunter would be to drop her. Hearing the report of the gun, the other buffaloes would look toward her; they would see her standing still and resume their grazing.

      Shortly the cow would stagger forward and fall. If any other buffalo started forward as though to start a stampede, the hunter would see that he was the next buffalo shot. If the buffaloes sniffed blood and bawled, the hunter watched to see if one of them would start a stampede; if so, he shot that buffalo. An experienced hunter kept the herd milling, shooting those inclined to start away. All this took place while the hunter lay or crouched behind a bush, tall grass, or even soapweeds. Since the buffalo could not see the hunter, they kept milling until most of them were shot.

      Indians were afraid of the hunter's big gun, his cool bravery, and his unerring aim, for they saw he could shoot a buffalo in a vital spot from a great distance. They marvelled that a hunter could practically annihilate a whole herd by locating where the wind carried the scent away, keeping out of sight, while he kept shooting the buffaloes.

      Skinners then came out and stripped the hides off the carcasses while they were still warm. The professional skinner was an expert in his line and could rip a hide off a buffalo with amazing swiftness. His tools were a ripping knife, sharp pointed and keen as a razor blade; a skinning knife, sharp but with a more blunted point, and a butcher's steel, all dangling from scabbards attached to his belt.

      The hide was spread out on the grass, hair side down and left to cure and dry in the sun. Later, when skins became scarce, they were stretched and pegged to the ground to cure and brought a higher price. When the hides were dry enough, sufficiently cured, they were folded down the middle with the hair side in and piled into stacks. The hide of a buffalo shot in warm weather was unfit for a robe, the hair being too thin. It was made into leather and on the Texas prairie it brought from 50 to 65 cents for a cow hide and on up to a dollar for the bull hide. Good robes came from buffaloes killed in cold weather and brought from $2.00 to $3.00.

      A few hunters had their own wagons and hauled their hides to the railroad but mostly they stacked the hides and waited for

102 Early Ford County

the coming of a hide buyer, who later sent his wagon train to haul them to market. Besides the hide, a hunter saved what meat he could use.

      Buffalo meat was fine meat and made a very satisfying meal. The tongues were scalded until the skin peeled off, then sliced and fried. There were lots of good steaks on the hindquarters. The hump was the choicest meat of all. It lay on the top of the spine, just behind the neck. When cut out, it was a strip about three feet long, ten or twelve inches wide, and four or five inches thick at its thickest part. It had alternate layers of lean and fat, and was tender and delicious when fried. The hunters lived on it practically and felt that nothing was better than a thick slice of hump fried rare.

      The only other supplies a hunter toted along for food were flour, sugar, coffee, and salt. He had blankets, 4 ten-gallon kegs of water, a Dutch oven, two frying pans, a big tin coffee pot, a camp kettle, bread pan, tin cups and plates. He did not have knives, forks, or spoons. He used ripping and skinning knives for carving. He had a grindstone for sharpening knives and that just about took care of the hunter's camp equipment.

      Many are the records that have been left behind about the prowess of early day buffalo hunters. Lucian Carey says, "Great tales are told of men who got what they called a `stand' -meaning a chance to shoot at a large herd from one position. Charles Rath, known as a buffalo runner, before he formed the firm of Rath and Wright to deal in buffalo hides, is said to have killed 112 buffalo from a stand on the Canadian River." Harold McCracken writes: "Charlie Rath, hunting on the Canadian River in 1873, single-handed, shot 107 buffaloes in one `Stand' and there are accounts of several other men who approached the hundred mark in a day's killing."

      While most buffalo hunting parties had one or more riflemen, perhaps a half dozen skinners, and a couple of wagons, drawn either by mules or oxen, Rath did not hunt buffalo that way. He would have a wagon train which the teamster kept moving the meat and hides to market, while ample wagons and teams were left behind to bring the kill to a given point. Charles Rath did his own killing and always a loader, quite often J. W. Hickman, who rode beside him to care for and keep loaded his Sharps 50. He did not shoot on the run but from "stands" where he probably shot from a kneeling position. In these first early years,

The Buffalo Trade 103

buffalo paid little heed to one that dropped beside him, nor to the men or horses nearby.

      In the beginning, the buffalo were everywhere; later, a hunter picked his group, taking his stand to the windward, at the side of a rising ground or one where he was partly hidden by tall grass or bushes. A hunter tried for "dead shots," through the heart or neck for a wounded buffalo could stampede a herd. Some hunters used the forked orange stick driven into the ground to steady their guns. The winter of 1871-72, before Charles Rath moved to Dodge City, before there even was a Dodge City, while he still lived in Osage City, was a terribly cold one. Perhaps for this very reason, settlers were in very straightened circumstances. Never one to be idle nor to see his friends in need, Rath determined to spend the fall and winter hunting buffalo, on the Pawnee west of Fort Dodge, and on the Sawlog.

      The Sawlog early became a well-known creek, long before there was a Ford County, and one wonders how it got its name. Sawlog, properly the south fork of the Pawnee, the same as other creeks in the early day, was heavily wooded with hackberry, ash, boxelder, cottonwood, and elm. Soldiers would go out to the old Hay's crossing, chop down a big tree, hitch a string of mules to it, haul it up on the bank near the ford, and, after stripping off its top and limbs for firewood, leave its trunk there. In consequence, thousands of immense logs accumulated, making the place look as if a sawmill had been established and the great trunks were really ready for a sawmill to cut them into lumber. The early buffalo hunters promptly labelled the creek "Sawlog" which name it bears to this day.

      It was along in October, 1871, when Charles Rath outfitted his wagon train for the first buffalo hunting trip. Andy Johnson describes it thus: "About this time, Rath fitted up an outfit for the purpose of hunting buffalo, there being a good market for meat and hides. He had an outfit of about twelve teams, most of which consisted of six and eight mules each and the balance of two mules to the team. Rath did all the killing and had 21 men with him, whose duty it was to skin the buffalo, care for the meat, and haul the same to market. We went up the Kansas Pacific Railway (now the Kansas Division of the Union Pacific) towards Hays City. The most of the hunting was done between Hays city and Fort Dodge, the meat and hides being hauled to

104 Early Ford County

Hays City and shipped by rail to Leavenworth and Kansas City." Those are the pertinent facts about a buffalo hunt but Andy Johnson goes ahead to describe one in particular, the long hunt on which they had embarked in the fall.

      First Andy Johnson describes the weather. "During this winter we had a number of bad storms. I remember one storm in which a man by the name of Snuffer and eight or nine other men lost their lives ten miles south of Hays City. Snuffer owned an ox train consisting of a number of wagons loaded with wood bound for Hays City. When the storm came up it was bitter cold and the oxen which had been unhitched from the wagon drifted with the storm. All the men got out to follow and save the oxen. Part of the men got lost and perished on the prairie, the rest of them managed to reach the wagons and although they had plenty of fuel they were too cold to build a fire and crawled into their bedding in the wagons where they froze to death. Snuffer froze to death in the saddle."

      This was the terrible winter that Rath took his men out for the long buffalo hunt with Andy Johnson engaged to haul the hides to market. Ice lay thick on the streams soon after their departure and howling blizzards swept the plains. He had left Osage City, riding his favorite mare, with his loader mounted beside him, his wagon train and twenty-one picked men following, as they drove westward into the buffalo country, Rath leading the way.

      Big Sam Slusher was the wagon boss. The wagons were hitched together, pulled by six and eight mule teams. There were several single wagons and in them rode the skinners, meat cutters, and Andy Johnson, teamster, a trusted friend of the Raths. Buffalo were plentiful and there was a good market for meat and hides, and men needed money.

      When the storm came up they were camped forty miles south of Hays City, on Pawnee Creek. It is said Charles Rath glanced apprehensively at the sky and felt in his bones a storm was brewing. He called to Hickman, the man who loaded his guns, and sent word by him to skinners and cutters to drop everything and hurry to camp. Rath then rushed his mare to camp and rounded up Slusher. As the first breath of icy snow slanted across their faces, they set men digging into a bluff. While men shoveled, others yanked bows from wagons, setting them up before the entrance. Rath

The Buffalo Trade 105

and Slusher moved in the canned goods, while men were lugging frozen, green buffalo hides to cover the wagon bows. While men were still working with feverish haste, other wagons rolled in.

      Work, one might say a fight for life, edged men on. With hands and feet numbed by cold, faces stung by the snow-laden wind, men lugged firewood, piling it high by the entrance. Men backed mules to the windward side of ricks of buffalo hides and covered wagons. But Rath's mare and Hickman's horse were tied to a wagon drawn alongside the wagon-bow entrance.

      "Just in case, Boys," Rath had remarked, grimly, his blueblack eyes grave, as he ducked inside the robe-covered entrance and stamped the snow from his feet. Not a moment too soon were the men inside the hastily dug hillside cave, for by this time the wind whistled and roared and the drifts piled high. Men slapped their hands and stamped their feet, while Slusher got a fire going. He managed a vent for the smoke where the entrance joined the cave. He looked up in time to see Rath's glance circle the fire-lit cave.

      "Think you'd lost some of us?" he asked.

      And it is said Charles Rath answered, trying to smile, "Not aiming to." For almost three weeks, the impoverished cave was their home, while it snowed or the wind whip-lashed that already piled on the ground, making the drifts deeper, the low spots more bare. Was it snowing or blowing snow? No man would venture forth to make report.

      Yes, bitter cold kept men inside and Slusher's fire kept them warm. Nor was there lack of food. The larder Rath had provided and ricks of frozen buffalo humps and tongues nearby, took care of appetites. And when the sun came shining through the drifting clouds, although shaken, Charles Rath and his twenty-one men had survived.

      To men of faint heart, this wintry siege would have been the end of the buffalo hunting trip but not the twenty-one men Charles Rath had picked. Each and every one agreed to stick it out. So they went about their usual duties until along in January when the buffalo began to thin. By February, as Andy Johnson, the teamster, was ready to set out for Hays City with the meat and buffalo hides, he had company.

      Charles Rath rode along with him a way, then lifted his hand in a plainsman's salute, explaining before he turned his mare

106 Early Ford County

westward, "Next camp will be about fifteen miles west of Fort Dodge, Andy, and good luck."

      Big Sam Slusher stayed behind to clear out the camp, while Charles Rath and Hickman, his loader, went on ahead. When Slusher and his wagon found the new camp site, Charles Rath had shot enough buffalo to keep skinners and cutter occupied for the buffalo were plentiful now. But it seems Rath had done some thinking and calculating and he called the wagon boss aside.

      "When Andy comes back, meet me on the Sawlog," he said, then explained, "The haul will be too great in this freezing weather to make the kill profitable from this location."

      The men had everything in readiness when Andy Johnson returned. They loaded the wagons by moonlight, the meat sounding like rocks raining down as it hit the wagon bed for it was frozen stiff. Sam Slusher had the men out early the following morning and they hit the Santa Fe Trail by daylight. They stopped for dinner at Fort Dodge.

      On the trip from fifteen miles west of Fort Dodge to camp on the Sawlog, Andy reports, "I was doing the cooking and had a light team of mules. I was instructed by Sam Slusher, our wagon boss, to strip the harness from my team and tie them with a light rope when we came near Fort Dodge and proceed to get dinner, and he would have the other men give them grain. Slusher built a fire and dinner was soon under way. Before the teamsters had the mules fed, I had dinner ready consisting of buffalo meat, strong coffee, and hot bread baked in a Dutch oven. "Dinner over, we proceeded on our way and arrived at camp on Sawlog Creek late in the day, all tired out, for teams and drivers had fought drifts and biting cold all the way."

      Andy Johnson says, "The bottom lands west of Fort Dodge were covered with thousands of buffalo. They were very tame in these early days and merely walked off a couple of hundred yards, leaving a road through which we passed, which was the Santa Fe Trail. We did not lose sight of buffalo all the way to the Sawlog camp and countless numbers surrounded it.

      "Rath had gone on ahead with his skinners and cutters following. He had killed a great number of buffalo, and a quantity of meat and hides were ready for loading. Only hides, hams, hump, and tongue were saved. These soon froze and they

The Buffalo Trade 107

were then stacked like so many rocks. These stacks of meat were never molested by coyotes or other predatory animals as there was too much other provender more relished by them.

      "After a night's rest, I continued on to Hays City with the loaded train. On the trail with the Fort Dodge hides, I urged the mules through the big drifts, eased them on the blowed-out stretches, always headed toward Hays City. "On my return to camp on the Sawlog, I learned Charles Rath had gone on to Osage City, leaving instruction we were to load everything and follow. It was now late in February, 1872.

      "We hustled getting all the meat and hides loaded and started out on the long haul to Osage City. Mr. Rath shipped most of this load to market but salted down in barrels much of the meat and kept it for his own use."

      It is said that when the men were coming in that Charles Rath met them at the outskirts of Osage City. When the teams were unhitched and the men gathered for their pay, Charles Rath dusted his hands and looked away, thinking perhaps of other men who had not returned, before he spoke in his kindly way.

      "You've had a rough time, Boys."

      Big Sam Slusher stepped forward and gripped Rath's hand, saying, what each of the twenty-one picked men must have felt, "You had the know-how, Charlie."

      J. B. Edwards, who followed the frontier and the railroad building to Dodge City, operated a grocery store, handling buffalo hides in connection with the business. He bought 182,000 buffalo hides here in 1872. He continued to follow the frontier, moving his collapsible store from location to location until the railroad track reached the Colorado line. After the construction closed, he sold his store, and returned to Abilene, Kansas, to make his home.

      At one time, a marker that would reproduce a pile of 50,000 buffalo hides that stood in the Santa Fe shipping yard, with historical data of the "Buffalo City" was planned by the Southwest Historical Society *to be erected as a marker in the old shipping yard with the co-operation of local Santa Fe employees. The old buffalo hide and bone shipping yard stood between the old reading room and the old Harvey lunch room, where there is a lawn and the famous pair of sun dials, showing both mountain and central times.

108 Early Ford County

      H. F. Schmidt, then president of the society said no action had been taken on the kind of marker to be erected but several suggestions had been made. One of the most popular suggestions was an attractive sign marker, with a painting of the large stack of buffalo hides, and a legend giving the data of the buffalo trade. Figures kept during the period when Dodge City was known as the "Buffalo City" and later as Dodge City, show that more than five millions of buffalo hides and two and a half millions of dollars worth of buffalo bones were shipped from this point. The pile of 50,000 hides was the largest at one time and is a record no, other shipping point ever equaled.

      I. D. Gonser of Fort Dodge who operated a tannery in Dodge City in the '70's says he tanned 1,500 buffalo hides as late as 1878 and that was the last year any buffalo hides were tanned here. Not many of the hides in the big shipments were tanned, old timers recall. They usually were shipped green.

Ref. Page 99, The Rath Trail, Rath "Last of the Buffalo Hunters", True, December 1951: "The Sacred White Buffalo", Natural History Magazine, Sept. 1946. Interview Andy Johnson by Tom Stauth, Dodge City, Kansas, in author's possession. Now renamed Ford County Historical Society. `Apparently the marker was never set up.

Go to the previous chapter      Return to the Early Ford County Index       Go to next chapter

Dodge City History