Buffalo hunting on the frozen snow

The Buffalo

Buffalo hunting on the frozen snow
Plate 4 – Buffalo hunting on the frozen snow – Peter Rindisbacher about 1825

With the practical extermination of the buffalo in recent years, and the rapid changes which have taken place in the general appearance of the country, it is difficult to picture it as it was two or more centuries ago. While the country continued to be the home of the native tribes, game was abundant, and the buffalo, in prodigious numbers, roamed over the wide region from the Rocky Mountains to near the Atlantic. It is quite evident, and easily conceivable, that wherever the buffalo was to be found it was hunted by the people of the neighboring villages, principally to serve as food. But the different parts of the animal were made use of for many purposes, and, as related in an early Spanish narrative, one prepared nearly four centuries ago, when referring to “the oxen of Quivira. Their masters have no other riches nor substance: of them they eat, they drink, they apparel, they shooe themselves: and of their hides they make many things, as houses, shooes, apparel and ropes: of their bones they make bodkins: of their sinews and hair, thread: of their horns, maw’s, and bladders, vessels: of their dung, fire: and of their calves-skins, budgets, wherein they draw and keep water. To be short, they make so many things of them as they need of, or as many as suffice them in the use of this life.” 1 A crude engraving of a buffalo made at that time is reproduced in plate 1.

The preceding account describes the customs of the people then living in the southern part of the region treated in the present sketch, either a Caddoan or a neighboring tribe or group, and it suggests another reference to the great importance of the buffalo, but applying to the tribes of the north more than three centuries later.

The Buffalo of Gomara, 1554
Plate 1 – The Buffalo of Gomara, 1554

“The animals inhabiting the Dakota country, and hunted more or less by them for clothing, food, or for the purposes of barter, are buffalo, elk, black-and white-tailed deer, bighorn, antelope, wolves of Several kinds, red and gray foxes, a few beaver and otter, grizzly bear, badger, skunk, porcupine, rabbits, muskrats, and a few panthers in the mountainous parts. Of all those just mentioned the buffalo is most numerous and most necessary to their support.  Every part of this animal is eaten by the Indian except the horns, hoofs, and hair, even the skin being made to sustain life in times of great scarcity. The skin, is used to make their lodges and clothes, the sinews for bowstrings, the horns to contain powder, and the bones are wrought into various domestic implements, or pounded up and boiled to extract the fatty matter. In the proper season. from the beginning of October until the 1st of March, the skins are dressed with the hair remaining on them, and are either worn by themselves or exchanged with the traders.” 2

In the early days the tribes who occupied a region frequented by or in the vicinity of the range of the buffalo could and undoubtedly did kill sufficient numbers to satisfy their various wants and requirements, but hunting was made more easy in later times when horses were possessed by the Indian. Then it became possible for the bands of hunter’s, or even the entire village, to follow the, vast herds, to surround and kill as, many as they desired, and to carry away great quantities of meat to be “jerked,” or dried, for future use. So intimately connected were the buffalo with the life of the tribes of the plains and the circumjacent country that frequent allusions will be made to the former when describing the camps and villages of the latter.

A Buffalo Hunt on the southwestern prairies
Plate 2 – A Buffalo Hunt on the southwestern prairies

The various ways of hunting the buffalo and other wild beasts of the plains and mountainous country, as practiced by the different tribes, have been described by many writers. The several methods of hunting the buffalo were often forced through natural conditions, but nothing could have exceeded the excitement produced during the chase by well-mounted Indian hunters. This was the usual custom of the tribes of the plains after horses had become plentiful and the buffalo continued numerous. The paintings reproduced in plates 2 and 3 vividly portray this phase of the hunt. In the north the hunters were compelled during the long winters to attack the herds on the frozen, snow-covered prairies, and plate 4 shows a party of hunters, wearing snowshoes, mingled with the buffalo. This sketch, made about the year 1825, bears the legend: “Indian Hunter’s pursuing the Buffalo early in the spring when the snow is sufficiently frozen to bear the men but the Animal breaks through and cannot run.” This graphic sketch may represent a party of Cree or Assiniboin hunters, probably the latter, and it will be noticed that they are using bows and arrows, not firearms, although other drawings by the same artist representing a summer hunt shows them having guns.

Another custom in the North was that of constructing enclosures of logs and branches of trees, leaving one opening through which the buffalo were driven, and when thus secured were killed. Such an enclosure, or pound, shown in plate 5a. This is a reproduction of the original painting made by Paul Kane, September, 1845.

Buffalo Hunt
Plate 3 – Buffalo Hunt

In describing it he wrote: “These pounds can only be made in the vicinity of forests as they are composed of logs piled up roughly, five feet high, and enclose about two acres. At one side an entrance is left, about ten feet wide, and from each side of this, to the distance of half a mile, a row of posts or short stumps, called dead men, are planted, at the distance of twenty feet each, gradually widening out into the plain from the entrance. When we arrived at the pound we found a party there anxiously awaiting the arrival of the buffaloes, which their companions were driving in. This is accomplished as follows: A man, mounted on a fleet horse, usually rides forward till he sees a band of buffaloes. This may be sixteen or eighteen miles distant from the ground, but of course the nearer to it the better. The hunter immediately strikes a light with a flint and steel, and places the lighted spunk in a handful of dried grass, the smoke arising from which the buffaloes soon smell and start away from it at the top of their speed. The man now rides up alongside of the herd, which, from some unaccountable propensity, invariably endeavor to cross in front of his horse. I have had them follow me for miles in order to do so. The hunter thus possesses an unfailing means, wherever the pound may be situated, of conducting them to it by the dexterous management of his horse. Indians are stationed at intervals behind the posts, or dead men, provided with buffalo robes, who, when the herd are once in the avenue, rise up and shake the robes, yelling and urging them on until they get into the enclosure, the spot usually selected for which is one with a tree in the centre. On this they hang offerings to propitiate the Great Spirit to direct the herd towards it. A man is also placed in the tree with a medicine pipestem in his hand, which he waves continually, chanting a sort of prayer to the Great Spirit, the burden of which is that the buffaloes may be numerous and fat.” 3

Buffalo hunting on the frozen snow
Plate 4 – Buffalo hunting on the frozen snow – Peter Rindisbacher about 1825

Quite similar to this is the description of a pound constructed by the Cree a few years later. This was some 120 feet across, “constructed of the trunks of trees, laced with withes together, and braced by outside supports,” and within ” lay tossed in every conceivable position over two hundred dead buffalo.” Another pound erected at this time had the “dead men” extending for a distance of 4 miles from the entrance. 4 Maximilian, Lewis and Clark, and other explorers of the upper Missouri Valley refer to enclosures into which the Indians drove antelope. And that the custom was followed by the tribes far east of the Mississippi is proved by the writings of early explorers. Champlain in 1615 gave an account, accompanied by an interesting drawing, of such a hunt, and Lahontan nearly a century later presented an illustration bearing the legend: ” Stags block’d up in a park, after being pursued by ye Savages.” Many other references could be quoted, as the ways of hunting followed by the Indians have always been of interest to the many writers who have described the manners and customs of the people.

What was probably a characteristic view in a Sioux village of half a century ago, after a successful hunt, is shown in the old photograph reproduced in plate 5b. Here, in front of the group of skin tipis, are quantities of meat suspended and being “jerked” or dried in the air. Buffalo skins are stretched on the ground and in the immediate foreground are two women scraping a skin. This is a picture of the greatest interest and rarity.

The sight of the great herds roaming unmolested over the far-reaching prairies proved of interest to all who saw them, and many accounts are left by the early travelers. One brief description of such a scene may be quoted. It refers to a place in the upper Missouri Valley, not far from a Mandan village, and was written June 22, 1811:

A Buffalo Pound
Plate 5a – A Buffalo Pound – Paul Kane 1845

“We arrived on the summit of a ridge more elevated than any we had yet passed. From thence we saw before us a beautiful plain, as we judged, about four miles across, in the direction of our course, and of similar dimensions from east to west. It was bounded on all ,sides by long ridges, similar to that which we had ascended. The scene exhibited in this valley was sufficiently interesting to excite even in our Canadians a wish to stop a few minutes and contemplate it. The whole of the plain was perfectly level, and, like the rest of the country, without a single shrub. It was covered with the finest verdure, and in every part herds of buffaloes were feeding. I counted seventeen herds, but the aggregate number of the animals it was difficult even to guess at: some thought upwards of 10,000.” 5 And this was but one of innumerable similar scenes to have been witnessed throughout the wide range of the vast herds.

Scene in a Sioux Village about 1870
Plate 5b – Scene in a Sioux Village about 1870. Photograph by S. J. Morrow

“The Indians say … that in traveling over a country with which they are unacquainted they always follow the buffalo trail, for this animal always selects the most practicable route for his road.” 6 This is a well-known fact, and many roads both east and west of the Mississippi which have now developed into important highways owe their origin to this cause.

The story of the buffalo will ever be one of interest, becoming more and more so as the years pass; and so it is gratifying to know that nearly all the available information bearing on the customs of the animal, the migration of the herds, their ancient habitat, and their rapid reduction in numbers was some years ago brought together and preserved in a single volume. 7 This was done while the buffalo were still quite numerous, and many facts recorded were derived from hunters or others acquainted with the customs of the times.


  1. Gomara, F. L., In Hakluyt, Vol. III. London, 1600., p. 382.[]
  2. Hayden, F. V., Contributions to the Ethnography and Philology of the Indian Tribes of the Missouri Valley. In Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. XII. Philadelphia, 1862, p. 371.[]
  3. Kane, Paul, Wanderings of an Artist among the Indians of North America. London, 1859, pp. 117-119.[]
  4. Hind, (1), I, pp. 356-359.[]
  5. Bradbury, John,Travels in the Interior of America, in the years 1809, 1810, and 1811. Liverpool, 1817, pp. 134-135.[]
  6. (Warren, G. K., Explorations in the Dacota Country, in the Year 1855. Washington, 1856, p. 74.[]
  7. Allen, Joel Asaph, History of the American Bison, Bison americanus. In Ninth Annual Report of the United States Geological Survey, for the year 1875. Washington, 1877.[]

Bushnell, David Ives. Villages of the Algonquian, Siouan and Caddoan Tribes West of the Mississippi. Published in Bulletin 77, Bureau of American Ethnology, Smithsonian Institution. Washington. 1922.

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