COMMERCE OF THE PRAIRIES, by Josiah Gregg: Volume II



The Mustang or Wild Horse — Capturing him by ‘Creasing,’ and with the Lazo — Horse-flesh — The Buffalo — Its Appearance — Excellence of its Meat — General Utility to the Indian and Traveller — Prospect of its Extinction — Hunting the Buffalo with Bow and Arrows, the Lance, etc.— 'Still-hunting' — The Buffalo ferocious only when wounded — Butchering, etc.— The Gray Wolf — Its Modes of killing Buffalo — Their great Numbers — A ‘wolf-scrape' — The Prairie Wolf, or ‘Jackal of the Prairies' — Elk, Deer and Bear — The Antelope — The Bighorn — The Prairie Dog — Owls and Rattlesnakes — The Horned Frog — Fowls — Bees, etc.

     THE zoology of the Prairies has probably attracted more attention than any other feature of their natural history. This has not arisen altogether from the peculiar interest the animals of the Prairies possess; but they constitute so considerable a portion of the society of the traveller who journeys among them, that they get to hold somewhat the same place in his estimation that his fellow-creatures would occupy if he were in civilization. Indeed, the animals are par eminence the communities of the Prairies.

     By far the most noble of these, and there-

Page 207 — THE MUSTANG.

fore the best entitled to precedence in the brief notice I am able to present of the animals of these regions, is the mustang* or wild horse of the Prairies. As he is descended from the stock introduced into America by the first Spanish colonists, he has no doubt a partial mixture of Arabian blood. Being of domestic origin, he is found of various colors, and sometimes of a beautiful piebald.

thin black line
* Mustang would most naturally seem a corruption of the Spanish adjective mostrenco (without owner), but the Mexicans call Wild horses mestenas, a synonyme in one of its senses with mostrenco.

     It is a singular fact in the economy of nature, that all wild animals of the same species should have one uniform color (with only occasional but uniform differences between males and females); while that of the domestic animals, whether quadruped or fowl is more or less diversified.

     The beauty of the mustang is proverbial. One in particular has been celebrated by hunters, of which marvellous stories are told. He has been represented as a medium-sized stallion of perfect symmetry, milk-white, save a pair of black ears — a natural ‘pacer,’ and so fleet, it has been said, as to leave far behind every horse that had been tried in pursuit of him, without breaking his ‘pace.’ But I infer that this story is somewhat mythical, from the difficulty which one finds in fixing the abiding place of its equine hero. He is familiarly known, by common report, all over the great Prairies. ‘The trapper celebrates him in the vicinity of the northern Rocky


Mountains; the hunter, on the Arkansas, or in the midst of the Plains; while others have him pacing at the rate of half a mile a minute on the borders of Texas. It is hardly a matter of surprise, then, that a creature of such an ubiquitary existence should never have been caught.

     The wild horses are generally well formed, with trim and clean limbs; still their elegance has been much exaggerated by travellers, because they have seen them at large, abandoned to their wild and natural gaiety. Then, it is true, they appear superb indeed; but when caught and tamed, they generally, dwindle down to ordinary ponies. Large droves are very frequently seen upon the Prairies, sometimes of hundreds together, gambolling and curvetting within a short distance of the caravans. It is sometimes difficult to keep them from dashing among the loose stock of the traveller, which would be exceedingly dangerous; for, once together, they are hard to separate again, particularly if the number of mustangs is much the greatest. It is a singular fact, that the gentlest wagon-horse (even though quite fagged with travel), once among a drove of mustangs, will often acquire in a few hours all the intractable wildness of his untamed companions.

     The mustang is sometimes taken by the cruel expedient of ‘creasing,’ which consists in shooting him through the upper crease of the neck, above the cervical vertebrae; when, the ball cutting a principal nerve, he falls as sud-


denly as if shot in the brain, and remains senseless for a few minutes, during which he is secured with a rope. He soon recovers from the shock, however, and springs to his feet, but finds himself deprived of his liberty. He is easily tamed after this, and the wound heals without leaving any physical injury. But ‘creasing’ is so nice an operation that many are killed in the attempt If the ball pass a little too low, it fractures a vertebra and kills the poor brute instantly.

     But the most usual mode, among the Mexicans and Indians, of taking the mestena (as the former call these animals), is with the lazo. They pursue them on fleet horses, and great numbers are thus noosed and tamed. The mustang has been taken in Texas in considerable numbers by preparing a strong pen at some passway or crossing of a river, into which they are frightened and caught.

     Upon the plains, I once succeeded in separating a gay-looking stallion from his herd of mestenas as, upon which he immediately joined our caballada, and was directly lazoed by a Mexican. As he curvetted at the end of the rope, or would stop and gaze majestically at his subjecters, his symmetrical proportions attracted the attention of all; and our best jockeys at once valued him at five hundred dollars. But it appeared that he had before been tamed, for he soon submitted to the saddle, and in a few days dwindled down to scarce a twenty-dollar hackney.

     Prairie travellers have often been reduced

Page 210 — THE BUFFALO.

to the necessity of eating the flesh of the mustang; and, when young and tender, it has been accounted savory enough; but, when of full age, it is said to be exceedingly rancid, particularly when fat. They are sometimes hunted by Mexicans for their oil, which is used by the curriers.

     The buffalo, though making no pretensions to the elegance and symmetry of the mustang, is by far the most important animal of the Prairies to the traveller. It is sufficiently well known that these animals bear but little resemblance to the buffalo of India; but that they are a species of bison, or bos Arnericanus, according to naturalists. They are called Cibolos by the Mexicans; and it would certainly have prevented ambiguity, had they been distinguished by some other name than buffalo with us.

     Their dusky black color becomes much paler during the season of long hair.* The phenomenon of a white buffalo has frequently been remarked upon the Prairies; but as the white skin is said to have been used in the mystic ceremonies of many of the northern tribes of Indians, this probably created such a demand for them, that they have become nearly extinct. Their unusual color has commonly been considered a lusus nature, yet it is probable that they stand in about the same relation to the black or brown buffalo that black sheep do to white ones. The horns of

thin black line
* The bulls usually shed in the spring, from the shoulders back, but not in front, which imparts to them quite a lion-like appearance.


the buffalo are short and black, and almost concealed under the frightfully shaggy frontlets of long woolly hair that crown the foreheads of the bulls; which, with the goat-like beard, and ill-shapen hump, form the chief distinction between them and the domestic cattle: in fact, they are so nearly of the same species that they will breed together; though the offspring, like the mule, is said to be unfruitful. Between the males and females there is still a greater disproportion in size than among the domestic cattle. A buffalo cow is about as heavy as a common ox, while a large fat bull will weigh perhaps double as much.

     These are very gregarious animals. At some seasons, however, the cows rather incline to keep to themselves; at other times they are mostly seen in the centre of the gang, while the bulls are scattered around, frequently to a considerable distance, evidently guarding time cows and calves. And on the outskirts of the buffalo range, we are apt to meet with small gangs of bulls alone, a day or two’s travel distant, as though performing the office of ‘piquet guards’ for the main herds.

     The flesh of the buffalo is, I think, as fine as any meat I ever tasted: the old hunter will not admit that there is anything equal to it. Much of its apparent savoriness, however, results perhaps from our sharpened ‘prairie appetites,’ and our being usually upon salt provisions awhile before obtaining it. The

Page 212 — BUFFALO BEEF.

flesh is of coarser texture than beef; more juicy, and the fat and lean better distributed. This meat is also very easy of digestion,* possessing even aperient qualities. The circumstance that bulls of all ages, if fat,, make good beef; is a further proof of the superiority of buffalo meat. These are generally selected for consumption in the winter and early spring, when the cows, unless barren, are apt to be poor; but during most of the year, the latter are the fattest and tenderest meat. Of these, the udder is held as hardly second to the tongue in delicacy. But what the tail of the beaver is to the trapper, the tongue of the buffalo is to the hunter. Next to this are the ‘marrow-bones,’ the tender-loins, and the hump-ribs. Instead of a gristly substance, as sometimes stated, the hump is produced by a convex tier of vertical ribs, which project from the spine, forming a gradual curve over the shoulders: those of the middle being sometimes nearly two feet in length. The ‘veal’ is rarely good, being generally poor, owing to the scanty supply of milk which their dams afford, and to their running so much from hunters and wolves.

thin black line
* It has often been remarked by travellers, that however much buffalo meat one may eat, no inconvenience is ever suffered from it.

     This animal furnishes almost the exclusive food of the prairie Indians, as well as covering for their wigwams and most of their clothing; also their bedding, ropes, bags for their meat, &c.; sinews for bow-strings, for sewing moccasins, leggins, and the like; be-


sides sustenance for the numerous travellers and trappers who range upon their grazing regions. Were they only killed for food:, however, their natural increase would perhaps replenish the loss: yet the continual, and wanton slaughter of them by travellers and hunters, and the still greater havoc made among them by the Indians, not only for meat, but often for the skins and tongues alone (for which they find a ready market among their traders), are fast reducing their numbers, and must ultimately effect their total annihilation from the continent. It is believed that the annual ‘export’ of buffalo rugs* from the Prairies and bordering ‘buffalo range,’ is about a hundred thousand: and the number killed wantonly, or exclusively for meat, is no doubt still greater, as the skins are fit to dress scarcely half the year. The vast extent of the prairies upon which they now pasture is no argument against the prospect of their total extinction, when we take into consideration the extent of country from which they have already disappeared; for it is well known, that, within the recollection of our oldest pioneers, they were nearly as abundant east of the Mississippi as they now are upon the western prairies; and from history we learn, that they once ranged to the Atlantic coast. Even within thirty years, they were abundant over much of the present States of Missouri and Arkansas; yet they are now rarely seen within two hundred miles of the frontier. Indeed, upon the high

thin black line
* Often, but it would seem improperly, called ‘buffalo robes.’


plains they have very sensibly decreased within the last ten years. Nevertheless, the number of buffalo upon the Prairies is still immense. But, as they incline to migrate en masse from place to place, it sometimes happens, that, for several days’ travel together, not a single one is to be met with; but, in other places, many thousands are often seen at one view.

     The Indians, as well as Mexicans, hunt the buffalo mostly with the bow and arrows. For this purpose they train their fleetest horses to run close beside him; and, when near enough, with almost unerring aim, they pierce him with their arrows, usually behind the short ribs, ranging forward, which soon disables and brings him to the ground. When an arrow has been ill-directed, or does not enter deep enough, and even sometimes when it has penetrated a vital part, but is needed to use again, the hunter sometimes rides up and draws it out while the animal is yet running. An athletic Indian will not unfrequently discharge his darts with such force, that I have seen them (30 inches long) wholly buried in the body of a buffalo: and I have been assured by hunters that the arrows, missing the bones, have been known to pass entirely through the huge carcass and fall upon the ground.

     The dexterity acquired by these wild hunters in shooting the buffalo, is very surprising. On one occasion, upon the prairies, a party of Witchita Indians were encamped near us; and


a drove of buffalo passing in the vicinity, I requested a chief to take my horse and kill one ‘upon the shares.’ He delighted in the sport: so, gathering his arrows, he mounted the pony, which was slow, and withal very lean, and giving chase, in a few minutes he had two buffaloes lying upon the plain, and two others went off so badly wounded, that, with a little exertion, they might have been secured.

     But the dexterity of the Comanches in the buffalo chase is perhaps superior to that of any other tribe. The Mexican Ciboleros, however, are scarcely if at all inferior to the Indians in this sport. I once went on a hunting expedition with a Cibolero, who carried no arms except his bow and arrows and a butcher’s knife. Espying a herd of buffalo, he put spurs to his horse, and, though I followed as fast as a mule I rode could trudge, when I came up with him, after a chase of two or three miles, he had the buffalo partly skinned! This was rather unusual dispatch, to be sure, for the animal oftener lingers awhile after receiving the fatal dart.

     In the chase, the experienced hunter singles out the fattest buffalo as his victim, and having given him a mortal wound, he in like manner selects another, and so on, till the plain is sometimes literally strewed with carcasses.

     It seems that Capt. Bonneville marvelled greatly that some Indians, during his peregrinations in the Rocky Mountains, should have


killed buffalo “Without guns or arrows, and with only an old spear;“ and he was no doubt mistaken in supposing “that they had chased the herds of buffalo at full speed, until they tired them down, when they easily dispatched them with the spear:“ for both Indians and Mexicans often chase with a long-handled spear or lance, which, if the horse be well trained, is still a more expeditious mode of killing them than with the bow and arrow. An expert lancer will enter a drove, and drawing up alongside, will pierce buffalo after buffalo until several are brought down.

     In default of bow or lance, they chase with the fusil, but seldom so successfully as with the former weapons. The Americans generally prefer ‘running’ with the horseman's pistol; yet the Indian is apt to kill double as many with his arrows or lance.

     In all these modes of hunting, the buffalo is sometimes dangerous; for, becoming enraged from his wounds, he will often make desperate lunges at his pursuer; and, if the horse be not well trained, he may be himself disembowelled, leaving his rider at the mercy of the buffalo, as has happened on some occasions. But if the steed understand his business, he will dodge the animal with the expertness of a fencer.

     Buffalo calves (but not full-grown buffalo) are often taken with the lazo by Mexicans and Indians; yet, being separated from their dams and the droves during chases, these simple little creatures not unfrequently take up with

Page 217 — 'STILL-HUNTING.'

the riding animals of the hunters, and follow them to the camp as tamely as though they were their dams. If provided with domestic cows, they may be raised without much difficulty.

     Some of the northern Indians, particularly the Assinaboins, are said to practise still a distinct mode of taking the buffalo. A staunch pound is erected at some convenient point, and, after a course of mystic rites by their medicine-men, they start upon the enterprise. A gang of buffalo is frightened towards the pen, while an Indian, covered with one of their woolly skins, runs at a distance ahead. Being seen by the animals, they mistake him for one of their kind, and follow him into the pen. Once secured in the enclosure, they leisurely dispatch them with their arrows, as they are said to believe it would offend the Great Spirit and render future hunts unpropitious to use fire arms in killing their imprisoned game.

     However, of all other modes, our backwoodsmen prefer ‘still-hunting’ — that is, stealing upon their game afoot with the rifle. Buffalo are much more easily approached than deer. When the hunter perceives a herd at rest, or quietly feeding, he crawls upon them behind a bank, a shrub, or a tuft of grass, with the greatest facility, provided he ‘has the wind of them,’ as hunters say — that is, if the wind blows from the buffalo; but if the reverse, he will find it impossible to approach them, however securely he may have


concealed himself from their sight In fact, their scent being acute, they seem to depend more upon it than their sight; for if a gang of buffalo be frightened, from any quarter whatever, they are apt to shape their course against the wind, that they may scent an enemy in their way.

     If the hunter succeed in ‘bringing down’ his first shot, he may frequently kill several out of the same herd; for, should the game neither see nor smell him, they may hear the rifle cracks, and witness their companions fall one after another, without heeding, except to raise their heads, and perhaps start a little at each report. They would seem to fancy that the fallen are only lying down to rest, and they are loth to leave them. On one occasion, upon the Cimarron river, I saw some ten or a dozen buffaloes lying upon a few acres of ground, all of which had been shot from the same herd by a couple of our hunters. Had not the gang been frightened by the approaching caravan, perhaps a dozen more of them might have fallen.

     A dextrous hunter will sometimes ‘crawl upon’ a gang of buffalo, on a perfectly level plain. As their sight is at best not acute, and is always more or less obscured by the shaggy hair of their foreheads, they will hardly observe an approaching enemy when they are feeding, unless the wind bears them the scent. The hunter is, therefore, careful to ‘have the wind’ of them, and crawls slowly and closely upon the ground, until within gun-shot. If


he bring down the first, the others will perhaps retire a little, when he may sometimes approach behind the fallen buffalo, and shoot several others.

     The tenacity of these animals for life is often very extraordinary. When one receives even a mortal shot, he frequently appears not hurt — he seems to disdain to flinch — but will curl his tail and step about as though he neither felt nor feared anything! If left undisturbed, however, he begins to stagger, and in a few moments expires: but if provoked, he might run for miles before he would fall. I have seen a party of hunters around a wounded and enraged bull, fire, at a few paces distance, a dozen or two shots, aimed at his very heart, without their seeming to have any effect till his anger cooled, when in an instant he would lie lifeless upon the ground. In such cases, the inexperienced hunter often aims to shoot them in the brain, but without success. Owing not only to the thickness of the scull, but to the matted wool upon it, I have never witnessed an instance of a rifle-ball’s penetrating to the brain of a buffalo bull.

     The ‘still-hunter’ must needs be upon his guard; for the wounded buffalo is prone to make battle, upon the too near approach of his enemy. With a little presence of mind, however, his attacks are easily shunned. If he make a lunge, the pedestrian hunter has only to wheel abruptly to one side; for the animal is apt to pass on in a direct line. I have never heard of a serious accident of the


kind; yet some frightful though amusing incidents have occurred in such cases.

     The buffalo never attacks, however, except when wounded. Even the largest droves (the opinion of some travellers to the contrary notwithstanding), though in the wildest career, are easily turned from their course by a single man who may intercept their way. I have crouched in the tall grass in the direct route of a frighted gang, when, firing at them on their near approach, they would spread in consternation to either side. Still their advance is somewhat frightful—their thundering rumble over the dry plain — their lionlike fronts and dangling beards — their open mouths and hanging tongues — as they come on, puffing like a locomotive engine at every bound, does at first make the blood settle a little heavy about the heart.

     The gait of these animals is a clumsy gallop, and any common pony can overtake them in the chase; though, as the hunter would express it, they ‘lumber’ over the ground rather deceivingly. The cows are usually much faster than the bulls. It has been the remark of travellers that the buffalo jumps up from the ground differently from any other animal. The horse rises upon his fore feet first, and the cow upon her hind feet, but the buffalo seems to spring up on them all at once.

     American hunters, as well as Indians, to butcher the buffalo, generally turn it upon the belly, and commence on the back. The

Page 221 — THE GRAY WOLF.

hump-ribs, tender-loins, and a few other choice bits being appropriated, the remainder is commonly left for the wolves. The skin is chiefly used for buffalo rugs, but for which it is only preserved by the Indians during fall and winter (and then rarely but from the cows and bullocks), when the hair is long and woolly. I have never seen the buffalo hide tanned, but it seems too porous and spongy to make substantial leather. Were it valuable, thousands of hides might be saved that are annually left to the wolves upon the Prairies.

     Although the buffalo is the largest, he has by no means the control among the prairie animals: the sceptre of authority has been lodged with the large gray wolf. Though but little larger than the wolf of the United States, he is much more ferocious. The same species abound throughout the north of Mexico, where they often kill horses, mules and cattle of all sizes; and on the Prairies they make considerable havoc among the buffalo.

     Many curious tales are told of the wiles and expedients practised by these animals to secure their prey. Some assert that they collect in companies, and chase a buffalo by turns, till he is fatigued, when they join and soon dispatch him: others, that, as the buffalo runs with the tongue hanging out, they snap at it in the chase till it is torn off, which preventing him from eating, he is reduced by starvation, and soon overpowered: others, that, while running, they gnaw and lacerate


the legs and ham-strings till they disable him, and then he is killed by the gang. Be this as it may, certain it is that they overcome many of the largest buffaloes, employing perhaps different means of subduing them, and among these is doubtless the last mentioned, for I have myself seen them with the muscles of the thighs cruelly mangled — a consequence no doubt of some of these attacks. Calves are constantly falling victims to the rapacity of these wolves; yet, when herds of buffalo are together, they defend their offspring with great bravery.

     Though the color of this wolf is generally a dirty gray, they are sometimes met with nearly white. I am of opinion, however, that the diversity of color originates chiefly from the different ages of the hair, and partially from the age of the animal itself. The few white wolves I have seen, have been lean, longhaired, and apparently very old. There are immense numbers of them upon the Prairies. Droves are frequently to be seen following in the wake of caravans, hunting companies, and itinerant Indian bands, for weeks together — not, like the jackal, so much to disinter the dead (though this they sometimes do), as to feast upon the abandoned carcasses of the buffalo which are so often wantonly killed and wasted. Unless in these cases, they are rarely seen, except in the neighborhood of buffalo; therefore, when the hungry traveller meets with wolves, he feels some assurance that supplies of his favorite game are at hand.

Page 223 — A 'WOLF SCRAPE.'

     I have never known these animals, rapacious as they are, extend their attacks to man, though they probably would, if very hungry and a. favorable opportunity presented itself. I shall not soon forget an adventure with one of them, many years ago, on the frontier of Missouri. Riding near the prairie border, I perceived one of the largest and fiercest of the gray species, which had just descended from the west, and seemed famished to desperation. I at once prepared for a chase; and, being without arms, I caught up a cudgel, when I betook me valiantly to the charge, much stronger, as I soon discovered, in my cause than in my equipment. The wolf was in no humor to flee, however, but boldly met me full half-way. I was soon disarmed, for my club broke upon the animal’s head. He then ‘laid to’ my horse’s legs, which, not relishing the conflict, gave a plunge and sent me whirling over his head, and made his escape, Leaving me and the wolf at close quarters. I was no sooner upon my feet than my antagonist renewed the charge; but, being without weapon, or any means of awakening an emotion of terror, save through his imagination, I took off my large black hat, and using it for a shield, began to thrust it towards his gaping jaws. My ruse had the desired effect; for, after springing at me a few times, he wheeled about and trotted off several paces, and stopped to gaze at me. Being apprehensive that he might change his mind and return to the attack, and conscious that, under the


compromise, I had the best of the bargain, I very resolutely — took to my heels, glad of the opportunity of making a drawn game, though I had myself given the challenge.

     There is a small species called the prairie wolf on the frontier, and coyote * by the Mexicans, which is also found in immense numbers on the Plains. It is rather smaller than an ordinary dog, nearly the color of the common gray wolf, and though as rapacious as the larger kind, it seems too cowardly to attack stout game. It therefore lives upon the remains of buffalo killed by hunters and by the large wolves, added to such small game as hares, prairie dogs, etc., and even reptiles and insects. It will lie for hours beside a ‘dog-hole,’ watching for the appearance of the little animal, which no sooner peeps out than the enemy pounces upon it

thin black line
* Canis latrans, a distinction to which its noisiness emphatically entitles it. Clavigero says of this animal: “El coyotl o coyote, como dicen los Espanoles, es una fiera semejante al lobo en la voracidad, la zorra en la astucia, al perro en la forma, y en otras propiedades al adive, o chacal; por lo que algunos escritores Mepicanos lo han numerado entre varias de aquellas especias; pero es indudable que se diferencia de todas ellas,” etc. — Hist.. Ant. de Meg. Tom. I. p. 40
     A similar propensity is observable among us to refer nearly all American animals to European species, whereas but very few that are legitimately indigenous to this continent, agree in every particular with those of the Old World. It would surely have contributed to the copiousness and euphony of the language, as well as to perspicuity in the distinction of species, had we, like the Mexicans, retained the Indian names of our indigenous animals.

     The coyote has been denominated the ‘jackal of the Prairies;’ indeed, some have reckoned it really a species of that animal, yet it would seem improperly, as this creature

Page 225 — ELK, DEER, AND BEAR.

partakes much less of the nature of the jackal than of the common wolf. Still, however noisy the former may be, he cannot exceed the prairie wolf. Like ventriloquists, a pair of these will represent a dozen distinct voices in such quick succession—will bark, chatter, yelp, whine, and howl in such variety of note, that one would fancy a score of them at hand. This, added to the long and doleful bugle-note of the large wolf, which often accompanies it, sometimes makes a night upon the Prairies perfectly hideous. Some hunters assert that the coyote and the dog will breed together Be this as it may, certain it is that the Indian dogs have a wonderfully wolfish appearance.

     The elk as well as the deer is found somewhat abundant upon the Arkansas river, as high as the Santa Fe road, but from thence westward they are both very scarce; for these animals do not resort to the high prairie plains. Further south, however, in the prairies bordering the brushy tributaries of the Canadian and Red River, deer are exceedingly plenty -- herds of hundreds are sometimes seen together; but in these southern regions there are but few elks.

     About the thickety streams above-mentioned, as well as among the Cross Timbers, the black bear is common, living chiefly upon acorns and other fruits. The grape vines and the branches of the scrubby oaks, and plumbushes, are in some places so torn and broken by the bear in pursuit of fruits, that a stranger

Page 226 — THE ANTELOPE.

would conclude a violent hurricane had passed among them.

     That species of gazelle known as the antelope is very numerous upon the high plains. This beautiful animal, though reckoned a link between the deer and goat, is certainly much nearest the latter. It is about the size and somewhat of the figure of a large goat. Its horns also resemble those of the latter, being likewise persistent; but they are more erect, and have a short prong projecting in front. The ground of this animal’s color a little resembles that of the common deer, but it is variegated with a whitish section or two on each side.

     The antelope is most remarkable for its fleetness: not bounding like the deer, but skimming over the ground as though upon skates. The fastest horse will rarely overtake them. I once witnessed an effort to catch one that had a hind-leg broken, but it far outstripped our fleetest ‘buffalo-horse.’ It is, therefore, too swift to be hunted in the chase. I have seen dogs run after this animal, but they would soon stop and turn about, apparently much ashamed of being left so far behind.

     The flesh of the antelope is, like that of the goat, rather coarse, and but little esteemed: consequently, no great efforts are made to take them. Being as wild as fleet, the hunting of them is very difficult, except they be entrapped by their curiosity. Meeting a stranger, they seem loth to leave him until they have fully found him out They will often

Page 227 — THE BIGHORN.

take a circuit around the object of their curiosity, usually approaching nearer and nearer, until within rifle-shot — frequently stopping to gaze. Also, they are often decoyed with a scarlet coat, or a red handkerchief attached to the tip of a ramrod, which will sometimes allure them within reach of the hunters aim. But this interesting animal, like the buffalo, is now very rarely seen within less than 200 miles of the frontier: though early voyagers tell us that it once frequented regions east of the Mississippi.

     The bighorn (carnero cimarron, - as called by Mexicans, and sometimes known to trappers as the mountain sheep), so abundant in most of the Rocky Mountain chain, is found in the spurs and table-plain cliffs about the sources of the Cimarron river (whence this stream acquired its name), as well as in the highland gorges, and other parts of those mountain borders. Its flesh is said to be excellent, and is preferred by many hunters to venison. It is larger than a common sheep, and covered with brownish hair instead of wool — darker than the deer, but whitish on the belly. It is most remarkable for its huge spiral horns, resembling in shape and curvature those of the sheep, but sometimes over three feet long, and four to six inches in diameter at the base.*

thin black line
* Mr. Irving furnishes the following dimensions of a male of this species: “From the nose to the base of the tail, five feet; length of the tail, four inches; girth of the body, four feet; height, three feet eight inches,” &c. — Rocky Mts., Vol. I., p. 48.


     The bighorn is quite celebrated for its agility, and its habit of secluding itself among the most inaccessible mountain crags. It seems to delight in perching and capering upon the very verge of the most frightful precipices and overhanging cliffs, and in skipping from rock to rock, regardless of the yawning chasms, hundreds of feet in depth, which intervene. In fact, when pursued, it does not hesitate, as I have been assured, to leap from a cliff into a valley a hundred or more feet below, where, lighting upon its huge horns, it springs to its feet uninjured; for the neck is so thick and strong as to support the greatest shock the animal’s weight can bring upon it. Being exceedingly timorous, it rarely descends to the valleys, but feeds and sleeps about such craggy fastnesses as are inaccessible to the wolves and other animals of prey. This animal seems greatly to resemble the moufflon of Buffon, in color, figure and horns, but the chamois in habits.

     But of all the prairie animals, by far the most curious, and by no means the least celebrated, is the little prairie dog. This singular quadruped is but little larger than a common squirrel, its body being nearly a foot long, with a tail of three or four inches. The color ranges from brown to a dirty yellow. The flesh, though often eaten by travellers, is not esteemed savory. It was denominated the ‘barking squirrel,’ the ‘prairie ground-squirrel,’ etc., by early explorers, with much more apparent propriety than the present establish-


ed name. Its yelp, which resembles that of the little toy-dog, seems its only canine attribute. It rather appears to occupy a middle ground betwixt the rabbit and squirrel — like the former in feeding and burrowing — like the latter in frisking, flirting, sitting erect, and somewhat so in its barking.

     The prairie dog has been reckoned by some naturalists a species of the marmot (arctomys ludoviciana); yet it seems to possess scarce any other quality in common with this animal except that of burrowing. Some have supposed, it is true, that like the marmot, they lie torpid during the cold season; and it is observed in ‘Long’s Expedition,’ that, “as they pass the winter in a lethargic state, they lay up no provisions,” &c: but this is no doubt erroneous; for I have the concurrent testimony of several persons, who have been upon the Prairies in winter, that, like rabbits and squirrels, they issue from their holes every soft day; and therefore lay up no doubt a hoard of ‘hay’ (as there is rarely anything else to be found in the vicinity of their towns), for winter’s use.

'Dog Town,' or A Settlement of Prairie Dogs     A collection of their burrows has been termed by travellers a ‘dog town,’ which comprises from a dozen or so, to some thousands in the same vicinity; often covering an area of several square miles. They generally locate upon firm dry plains, coated with fine short grass, upon which they feed; for they are no doubt exclusively herbivorous. But even when tall coarse grass surrounds, they seem commonly to destroy this within their ‘streets,’

Page 230 — THE 'DOG TOWN.'

which are nearly always found ‘paved’ with a fine species suited to their palates. They must need but little water, if any at all, as their ‘towns’ are often, indeed generally, found in the midst of the most arid plains — unless we suppose they dig down to subterranean fountains. At least they evidently burrow remarkably deep. Attempts either to dig or drown them out of their holes have generally proved unsuccessful.

     Approaching a ‘village,’ the little dogs may be observed frisking about the ‘streets’ — passing from dwelling to dwelling apparently on visits — sometimes a few clustered together as though in council — here feeding upon the tender herbage — there cleansing their ‘houses,’ or brushing the little hillock about the door — yet all quiet upon seeing a stranger, however, each streaks it to its home, but is apt to stop at the entrance, and spread the general alarm by a succession of shrill yelps, usually sitting erect. Yet at the report of a gun or the too near approach of the visitor, they dart down and are seen no more till the cause of alarm seems to have disappeared.

     Two other animals are said to live in communion with the prairie dogs — the rattle-snake and a small owl;* but both are no doubt intruders, resorting to these burrows for shelter, and to feed, it is presumed, upon the ‘pups’ of the inmates.

thin black line
* This has been called the Coquimbo owl. Its note, whether natural or imitative, much resembles that of the prairie dog.


     Rattle-snakes are exceedingly abundant upon these plains: scores of them are sometimes killed in the course of a day’s travel; yet they seem remarkably harmless, for I have never witnessed an instance of a man’s being bitten, though they have been known to crawl even into the beds of travellers.* Mules are sometimes bitten by them, yet very rarely, though they must daily walk over considerable numbers.

thin black line
* Though I never saw it tried, it has been said that snakes will not crawl over a hair-rope stretched upon the ground, and that consequently these form good barriers to keep these reptiles out of a bed.

     The horned frog, as modern travellers have christened it, or horned lizard,* as those of earlier times more rationally called it, is the most famed and curious reptile of the plains. Like the prairie dog, it is only found in the dry regions, often many miles from water. It no doubt lives nearly, if not wholly, without drink. Its food probably consists chiefly of ants and other insects; though many Mexicans will have it, that the camaleon (as they call it) vive del aire— lives upon the air. It has been kept several months without partaking of a particle of aliment. I once took a pair of them upon the far-western plains, which I shut up in a box and carried to one of the eastern cities, where they were kept for several months before they died, — without having taken food or water, though repeatedly offered them.

thin black line
* Orbicular lizard, as it has has technically denominated. It would seem a species of chameleon, having apparently some, though very little, variability of color.


     The whole length of the horned frog is from two to five inches — body flatted horizontally, oval-shaped, and between one and two inches wide in the middle. The back is beautifully variegated, with white and brown, and sometimes a yellowish purple. The belly is whitish and covered with brown specks. It acquired its name from a pair of short horns projecting from the top of the head — with other smaller horny protuberances upon the head and body. It has a short tail, which gives it a lizard-like appearance. It is a very inoffensive creature, and may be handled with perfect impunity, notwithstanding its uncouth appearance, and sometimes vicious demonstrations.

     As birds mostly incline to the timbered regions, there is but a scant variety to be met with upon the plains. About the Cross Timbers and indeed on all the brushy creeks, especially to the southward, are quantities of wild turkeys, which are frequently seen ranging in large flocks in the bordering prairies. That species of American grouse, known west as the prairie-hen, is very abundant on the frontier, and is quite destructive, in autumn, to the prairie corn-fields. This fowl is rarely seen over two hundred miles beyond the border. Of partridges, the same is true; but their number is quite limited anywhere beyond the precincts of the settlements. About the streams there are different species of geese and ducks, as well as both sand-hill and white cranes: also flocks of a species of plover and

Page 233 — THE HONEY-BEE.

curlew. Add to these numbers of hawks and ravens, and we have most of the fowls of the Prairies. Flocks of the latter follow in the wake of caravans with even greater constancy than wolves.

     The bee, among Western pioneers, is the proverbial precursor of the Anglo-Amencan population: in fact, the aborigines of the frontier have generally corroborated the notion; for they used to say, they knew the whites were not far behind, when bees appeared among them. This partial coincidence, I suppose, is the result of their emigration westward being at nearly an even pace with that of the settlers. As yet no honey-bees seem to have been discovered as far westward as any part of the Rocky Mountains. They are scattered, however, to the distance of two or three hundred miles west of the Missouri and Arkansas frontier, where there is timber affording them suitable habitations. On the Santa Fe route but few have been found beyond the Council Grove.

southwestern-style woven rope chain

Previous chapter   Next chapter   Contents