By: Ralph D. Conroy
There has never been any more exciting form of big-game hunting than the taking of buffalo from horseback as was practiced by the Indian of the American West.
In my mind’s eye I can look back into time and see a young Indian brave sitting quietly astride his fast pony. The pony has a split ear, the mark of the buffalo hunter, and is the most valued possession of the Plains Indian during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
The brave is dressed in breechcloth; his long raven-black hair is gathered in twin braids. Twin eagle feathers, fastened to his head, dance in the breeze those gusts into his face. All extraneous clothing has been carefully discarded. In the next few minutes the action will be fast and dangerous.
He thumbs the score of flint-tipped arrows in the otter-skin quiver strapped to the side of the pony. He is armed with a short but strong bow. Its string is the stretched neck tendons of a bull buffalo. The brave may be of any number of tribes – Sioux or Crow, Mandan or Arapaho, Cheyenne or Comanche.
At a signal from the hunt leaders the brave touches his heels to the flanks of the little pony and feel him respond. The chase is on. Gaining speed, horse and rider movie in perfect concert over the rough terrain. They are at full gallop before they reach the clipped, grazed grass of the plains.
All about them braves whoop and spur their mounts to full pace. Several hundred yards ahead a small band of buffalo stops feeding, hesitates for a split second, then wheels and races off. Their heavy hooves mingle with the hoof beats of the pursuing ponies and the shrill battle cries of the mounted hunters. The heavily muscled buffalo is a surprisingly good runner and the ponies press hard to close with the retreating herd.
The clear Dakota air is now filled with thick clouds of billodust and for an instant the hunters ride blind. Then they are through the dust and into the herd, bare legs brushing against the coarse matted hair of the buffalo.
On all sides of the young brave the great animals run, their chests heaving, blood-red eyes rolling in panic, the sun glinting now and again on the menacing horns. Here and there a bull or cow turns to fight, and a pony and rider scramble desperately to avoid contact.
The brave sees a fine bull ahead and without command the pony stretches out, running belly low, to bring his rider close astern the right flank. Somewhere ahead a horse and rider go down in an explosion of dust and thrashing hooves, yet the wild pursuit continues without pause.
Now the brave is close enough and the pony settles to pace as his rider draws and nocks an arrow, no mean trick astride a galloping horse. He draws until the butt of the stone head touches the index finger of his left hand. For an instant he holds, then releases. At the twang of the bowstring the seasoned pony moves obliquely to the right, putting distance between himself and the now-wounded buffalo. The shaft has sunk to the fletching in the now-wounded buffalo. The shaft has sunk to the fletching in the appointed place behind the short rib, angling forward into the bull’s vitals. Even as the brave reaches forward to nock a second arrow he sees it will not be necessary. The wounded bull falters, misses stride, then skids forward onto its nose. The bull is dead before the brave dismounts, his skinning knife in hand.
A half mile ahead the hunt rages on across the prairie.
“By the 1880s the buffalo herds were decimated, ending an area that some historians have called ‘the golden age of Plains Indian….’ ”
The hunting of the buffalo from horseback was short-lived. The Plains Indian did not acquire the horse until the 1600s and 1700s. By the 1800s the buffalo herds were decimated, ending an era that some historians have called “the golden age of Plains Indian.” The buffalo hunt from horseback has come to symbolize that time, and the wild, romantic, proud freedom of the Buffalo Indian. It was, perhaps their finest hour.
The excitement and danger of the mounted buffalo chase caught the imagination of the early western explorer. It is easy to see why. The American Bison is an awesome beast.
A full-grown bull stands six feet at the shoulder and is ten to twelve feet long from nose to tail. His weight averages 1800 pounds, but some were said to reach 3000 pounds. Before the coming of the white men the buffalo was the most numerous large land animal on earth. Some naturalists estimate there were seventy-five to one hundred million buffalo. Nearly all agree that the figure exceeded fifty million.
After slaughter began t did not take long to end. Buffalo were killed for hides, meat, sport and, more importantly, as government. The Indian depended on the buffalo not only for food, but for clothing, shelter and tools. With the buffalo gone, the once proud and free-ranging tribes could be brought to heel; their ancient tribal lands more safely and expeditiously stolen.
In 1851 there were more buffalo than people in the United States. By 1900, s scant forty-nine years later, there were only 2500 buffalo left. Five years later the American Bison Society was organized by William T. Hornady, head taxidermist for the National Museum in Washington D.C., with President Theodore Roosevelt as the society’s honorary president. The society was instrumental in persuading Congress to establish the National Bison Range in Montana. Thankfully, the animal was saved from extinction. Such was not the case with the other two subspecies, the wood bison (Bison bison Athabasca Rhoads) and the eastern bison (Bison bison pennsylvanicus). Some scientists claim there was a fourth subspecies the mountain bison (Bison bison haningtoni Figgins).
A variation of the Indian hunt was conducted with rifle and revolver by the white men who flocked west. Notable amongst these was the hunt arranged by General Philip Sheridan in 1872 for the Grand Dukes Alexis of Russia. The Grand Duke, son of Czar, traveled west in a private railroad car. General Armstrong Custer and Colonel William “Buffalo Bill” Cody, a pack of Indian Scouts, and a troop of U.S. Cavalry were enlisted to round up some of the animals for the Grand Duke’s sport. Afterwards, a buffalo was barbecued and its death toasted with champagne. Chief Spotted Tail of the Sioux even staged a war dance for the entertainment of the royal tourist.
How good was the bow and arrow as a hunter of buffalo? Better than one might expect.
Though the Indian had firearms available to him soon after the appearance of the western settlers, most tribes continued to favor the bow and arrow. The Assiniboines went so far as to declare firearms illegal for tribal hunts. There were many reasons for this. An Indian could shoot two dozen arrows in the time it took to reload a muzzleloader, and since arrows carried the marks of the owner there could be little argument about who made what kill. In addition, many Indians found the arrow a more efficient killer than the gun, even the repeating rifle. At close range the Indian was deadly with his bow.
In his book, The Indian and the Horse, Frank Gilbert Roe tells of an eyewitness account of a Gee brave slaying sixteen buffalo with seventeen arrows! A cool shot would be hard-pressed to equal that feat with.460 Weather by magnum using a good scope and sure rest.
When metal became available the Indian often switched to this source as an alternate to the stone heads which were so time-consuming to make. Though metal was a convenience, the Indian had reservations about the metal head’s killing properties.
In volume one of George Bird Grinnell’s book, The Cheyenne Indians, he states: “The Cheyenne’s, like the Blackfeet and the Pawnees, say that wounds made by old stone arrow points were more likely to be fatal than those made by the points ( metal) of later times.”
Though one would think otherwise, experiments have shown the stone head to penetrate flesh farther than the metal head. Dr.Saxton Pope conducted such an experiment and reported his methods and findings in his book, Hunting with the Bow and Arrow, written in 1923, Pope made a box, two sides of which were closed with fresh deer skin. The interior was packed with bovine liver to represent boneless animal tissue.
‘At a distance of ten yards,” Pope reported, “I discharged an obsidian (a volcanic glass, usually black and referred to as flint) pointed arrow and steel pointed arrow from a weak bow.
“The two missiles were alike in size, weight and feathering, in fact were made by Ishi, only one had the native head and the other his modern substitute. Upon repeated trials, the steel headed arrow uniformly penetrated a distance of twenty-two inches from the front surface of the box, while the obsidian uniformly penetrated thirty inches, or eight inches farther, approximately 25 percent better penetration.
Pope, a medical doctor and one of the pioneers of modern bowhunting, attributed the superior penetration of the stone. He said that the serrated stone edge operated on “the same principle that fluted-edged bread and bandage knives cut better than ordinary knives.”
No matter what the reason, that some Indians could kill efficiently and get extraordinary penetration with their stone-tipped shafts incontestable.
According to Grinnel Big Ribs, a northern Cheyenne at Pine Ridge, and Strong Left Hand, at the Tongue River Agency, are known to have each shot a single shot. Strong Left Hand’s bow is said to have been so strong that few men could pull it. Grinnel reports other instances of powerful Indian archers driving arrows completely though a single buffalo.
Chief Luther Standing Bea, in his book, My People, the Sioux, tells of his father driving an arrow so deeply into one buffalo that the point protruded out the offside Reining his running pony to the offside, Standing Bear’s father leaned down and withdrew the shaft, point-first, from the side of the galloping buffalo, nocked it, and fired it into a second animal, thereby killing two buffalo withal single arrow, but in a rather unique manner.
As far as I know, the last man to kill a buffalo with an arrow shot from the back of galloping horse was the late Howard Hill. The first, and to my mind, most exciting chapter in his book, Hunting the Hard Way, Chronicles this event.
As with the modern sportsman, the Indian prized the quick, clean kill. With the Mandan’s, the killing of a buffalo with but a single arrow on religious significance, the pinnacle of which was to kill a buffalo with but a single arrow as the beast faced east at sunrise.
Chief Standing Bear reported that on his first buffalo hunt it was a source of embarrassment to him that he had needed five arrows to make his kill. For a few moments he weighed the thought of pulling all the arrows but one, but in the end his conscience could not condone the lie. (Incidentally, Standing Bear was a member of the first class of Pennsylvania’s Carlisle Indian School, which started in 1879. He also travelled in this country and Europe with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.)
Since the buffalo’s eyesight is poor, a small herd or band could be approached carefully and quietly upwind to within a quarter of a mile. A good pony could close within half-mile. But good ponies were scarce and highly valued. Besides speed, they needed heart and judgment, agility and stamina. The ponies were pampered and often led to the site of the hunt so as to be fresh as possible. A well trained pony brought his rider within an arm’s distance of the selected quarry, held a steady pace, and moved quickly away at the twang of the bowstring. On the rare occasion such a pony was sold, it could bring the price of ten, twenty, or even fifty common horses.
Dismiss the idea that the Indian’s buffalo chase was a carelessly run affair. It was quite the opposite. The hunt was organized by tribal chiefs, police or the soldier societies. No one went out on his own; it was a rigidly structured tribal function. Not to conform to tribal rules could result in equipment. Even the Comanche, who in most things exercised little if any communal discipline, appointed and obeyed leaders in the buffalo chase,
Black Elk, a warrior and medicine man of the Oglala Sioux and author of Black Elk Speaks, describes in detail bison hunt wherein the first line of assault was comprised of a soldier band riding twenty abreast and prepared to knock anyone from his horse who dared advanced beyond them. About penetration, Black Elk comments: “Some of the arrows would go in up to the feathers, and sometimes those that struck no bones went straight through.
Today the thrill and danger of the old buffalo chase lives only in the stories handed down by observers, and in some cases the written words of participants, and in the work of an artist.
Foremost amongst the artists in Charles M. Russell, who, with his frontiersman background and extraordinary eye for authentic detail, produced the finest and most accurate renditions. Russell was so fond of the buffalo chase as subject matter that he painted it more than fifty times.
The chase also sparked the imaginations of European artists, some of whom has never seen the West, its Indians, or its buffalo. Some of these works are interesting for their errors. Often the topography is a curious mixture of authenticity and imagination. In a great many pieces the horse dwarfs the buffalo. The artists either used the horse common to Europe as a model (these were larger then the Indian pony) or misjudged the size of the American Bison. But the excitement and danger of those buffalo chases with bow and arrow from the back of a galloping horse live on to awe future generations around the world.
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Bow and Arrow Magazine April 1978