The Border and the Buffalo

June 1, 2016

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Proofreading at Distributed Proofreaders has exposed me to a whole genre of books I never knew existed and which I’ve learned I really enjoy: first-hand accounts of the exploration and development of America—especially the American West.

Recently I worked on proofing one of these, a 1907 autobiography, The Border and the Buffalo: An Untold Story of the Southwest Plains, by John R. Cook. Cook participated in the slaughter of what is now believed to have been about 4.5 million American buffalo in a few years during the 1870s. Alarmed by the prospect of the buffalo’s extinction, several states, including Colorado and Kansas, had outlawed wholesale slaughter of buffalo. But not everyone thought that was a good idea. When the Texas Legislature met regarding a bill drawn up for the protection of buffalo,

General Phil. Sheridan … went to Austin, and, appearing before the joint assembly of the House and Senate, told them that they were making a sentimental mistake by legislating in the interest of the buffalo…. He said: “These men have done in the last two years and will do more in the next year, to settle the vexed Indian question, than the entire regular army has done in the last thirty years. They are destroying the Indians’ commissary; and it is a well-known fact that an army losing its base of supplies is placed at a great disadvantage. Send them powder and lead, if you will; but, for the sake of a lasting peace, let them kill, skin, and sell until the buffaloes are exterminated. Then your prairies can be covered with speckled cattle, and the festive cowboy, who follows the hunter as a second forerunner of an advanced civilization.”

I was aware that the buffalo slaughter had occurred, but had no idea of the role Sheridan had in encouraging it, nor that it was an intentional strategy to control the Native American populations and to open up the prairies for cattle. I had thought it was just the shortsightedness of individuals seeing the opportunity for financial gain and not realizing, or perhaps not caring, about their impact on the long-term survival of the species. They reduced the population of buffalo from multiple millions to what is believed to be only 300 in 1900. Today, with conservation efforts, the American buffalo population has increased to about half a million.

The hunters were after the hides and sometimes the tongues, which they dried and shipped east. In what appears to be an exception, Cook tells us about the Moore brothers, who “dried tons and tons of meat for a St. Louis firm.” In most cases, after killing the buffalo for their hides, the hunters left the rest behind.

But all was not wasted. When the army of hunters had annihilated those massive, sturdy creatures, the hair and bone scavengers followed them up with four- and six-horse, mule, or ox teams. They gathered up and hauled to the nearest railroad station every vestige of buffalo hair and bones that could be found.

I saw in 1874, the year before the great buffalo slaughter began in earnest, a rick of buffalo bones, on the Santa Fe railroad right-of-way, and twenty miles ahead of the track from Granada, Colorado, piled twelve feet high, nearly that wide at the base, and one-half mile long. Seven, eight, nine, and ten dollars per ton was realized from them alone.

I was also interested in the fact that individuals who had fought on opposite sides of the American Civil War, just a few years later, were working together in the American West. One group is described thus:

There were several ex-Confederate soldiers and Union ex-soldiers who had joined issues in a common cause. There were three school-teachers. All the party were native-born Americans with the exception of the two Englishmen, whose camp had been destroyed.

In the following tale they seemed to have more in common in the fact that they had had military experience than in the fact they had fought on opposite sides.

This book is written in an entertaining style. Cook introduces the reader to many characters of the time and tells interesting stories about them: the man who doesn’t realize he can use a left rear wagon-wheel to replace a damaged right rear wheel by turning it around—later known as Wrong-Wheel Jones; a horse that plays lame and dead and allows his owner to use his head as a gun rest; and Cook’s meeting with Pat Garrett, the man who later became sheriff of Lincoln County, New Mexico, and who killed Billy the Kid.

Through Cook we meet Smoky Hill Thompson, Squirrel-eye, Limpy Jim Smith, Wild Skillet, Crazy Burns, Buffalo Jones, Dirty-Face Jones, Arkansaw Jack, and Powder-Face Hudson, and sometimes we learn the source of their nicknames.

Cook also shows some regret at the slaughter he was involved in. Whether it really occurred at the time as represented, or whether it came to him when he wrote his autobiography some thirty years later, he reflects:

I then thought: What fertile soil! And what profitable and beautiful homes this region would make if only moisture were assured! How seemingly ruthless this slaughter of the thousands of tons of meat, one of the most wholesome and nutritious diets, as a rule, in the world!… Then a slight feeling of remorse would come over me for the part I was taking in this greatest of all “hunts to the death.” Then I would justify myself with the recollection of what General Sheridan had said; and I pictured to myself a white school-house on that knoll yonder where a mild maid was teaching future generals and statesmen the necessity of becoming familiar with the three R’s. Back there on that plateau I could see the court-house of a thriving county seat. On ahead is a good site for a church of any Christian denomination.

In addition to stories about killing buffalo, Cook tells many tales of encounters with Indians, personal stories of other travelers, and accounts of experiences while traveling through the American West in its last days before development. He provides an entertaining and insightful view of a time and place experienced and documented by only a few travelers. He wraps up one of his stories: “And this is just simply another of the many remarkable incidents that happened on the Range during the passing of the buffalo.”

This post was contributed by WebRover, a DP volunteer.


The Pony Express

May 13, 2012

When I was about seven, I read a story about the Pony Express in a book my grandparents had given me. This fascinated me, the idea of young men galloping through the wilderness to deliver mail, fighting off Indians and thundering into a depot to pass the mail on to the next rider. The Pony Express rider who was featured was Bill Cody, Buffalo Bill. The Pony Express only lasted for a couple of years, moving mail rapidly east and west in the old American West until tracks were laid and mail was shipped by train.

I had to write a report in elementary school on a topic about the development of the American West and was able to use the Pony Express as the central theme of my report. I had access to general reference books, history books, and Encyclopedias, but no first-hand accounts of the time.

How exciting, then, for me to get to work on two books here at Distributed Proofreaders, in a period of a few weeks, with accounts of the Pony Express and the settling of the West. These books were written by two men who were in the center of the events.

The first book is an autobiography, The Adventures of Buffalo Bill by Col. William F. Cody, published in 1904. Bill Cody was a teenaged rider for the Pony Express and told personal accounts of some of his rides. This book also imparted that Alexander Majors initiated the Pony Express and was Buffalo Bill’s boss.

The second book is Seventy Years on the Frontier, the autobiography of Alexander Majors, published in 1893. Majors shares from his unique viewpoint the changes he saw and contributed to in his lifetime. I had never really thought about the business and political sides of setting up the Pony Express and found these very interesting.

Without Distributed Proofreaders I never would have discovered either of these books. I am so pleased to have an opportunity to work on these accounts, written by the people involved, in the time period these events occurred. How much more interesting would my elementary school report have been had I had access to these books!

From The Adventures of Buffalo Bill (told in the third person):

When the time came for him to be ready for the first trip the boy was outside of his station with his pony ready, looking across the prairie for the rider who was to bring the mail pouches from the next station. Close upon time the man appeared. Drawing up to the station he jumped off, threw the bag to Cody, who in turn leaped into his saddle with it and started on his fifteen miles. He reached his first station on time, dismounted, and mounted a fresh pony which was standing ready, and started on the second relay. And so with the third, until he finished his thirty-five miles and threw the bag to the next man, who was waiting. And within an hour he was ready again for the rider coming from the direction of San Francisco. As soon as he had the mail he mounted a fresh pony and rode back over the same thirty-five miles.

Thus the boy did seventy miles every day for three months.

From Seventy Years on the Frontier:

Among the most noted and daring riders of the Pony Express was Hon. William F. Cody, better known as Buffalo Bill, whose reputation is now established the world over. While engaged in the express service, his route lay between Red Buttes and Three Crossings, a distance of 116 miles. It was a most dangerous, long, and lonely trail, . . . An average of fifteen miles an hour had to be made, including changes of horses, detours for safety, and time for meals. Once, upon reaching Three Crossings, he found that the rider on the next division, who had a route of seventy-six miles, had been killed during the night before, and he was called on to make the extra trip until another rider could be employed. This was a request the compliance with which would involve the most taxing labors and an endurance few persons are capable of; nevertheless, young Cody was promptly on hand for the additional journey, and reached Rocky Ridge, the limit of the second route, on time. This round trip of 384 miles was made without a stop, except for meals and to change horses, and every station on the route was entered on time. This is one of the longest and best ridden pony express journeys ever made.

Again from Seventy Years on the Frontier:

The quickest time that had ever been made with any message between San Francisco and New York, over the Butterfield line, which was the southern route, was twenty-one days. Our Pony Express shortened the time to ten days, which was our schedule time, without a single failure, being a difference of eleven days. . . .
Two important events transpired during the term of the Pony’s existence; one was the carrying of President Buchanan’s last message to Congress, in December, 1860, from the Missouri River to Sacramento, a distance of two thousand miles, in eight days and some hours. The other was the carrying of President Lincoln’s inaugural address of March 4, 1861, over the same route in seven days and, I think, seventeen hours, being the quickest time, taking the distance into consideration, on record in this or any other country, as far as I know.

These books are not just about the short-lived Pony Express, but cover many aspects of both men’s lives, times and observations. This level of detail, history and sense of excitement was not in the reference books I had access to. I am thrilled to be able to help preserve books like these.

Seventy Years on the Frontier is still in progress at Distributed Proofreaders. A link to the book will be added once it has been posted at Project Gutenberg. Edit February 26, 2013: Seventy Years on the Frontier has now been posted to Project Gutenberg.


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