KanColl Books


The Men Who Returned

     The Winter before Charles Rath moved to Dodge City, while he still lived in Osage City, was a terribly cold one and perhaps for this very reason, settlers were in very straitened financial difficulties. Never one to be idle nor to see his friends in need, Rath determined to spend the fall and Winter hunting buffalo. Knowing he would be away for weeks at a time, he must have been glad that his brother will and his wife lived in Osage and his brother Chris and his wife, Margaret (Hall Wise) lived in Antelope, not too far away. Chris must have moved there shortly after his daughter Gabrielle was born in 1867. His wife was lovingly called, Aunt Maggie, and sometimes, Aunt Mag; while Will's wife, Theresa was Aunt Tressie to all the relatives. Aunt Caroline Rath, Charles' wife was very shortly called Aunt Carry. But among the relatives Charles was always Uncle Charles, never Charlie, and mostly his friends said Charles.

     It was during this late fall that Will Rath moved his family to Fort Dodge. They had two children, Louisa, shortened to Lucy, born in April 1867, and Emma, born January 19, 1869. Their son George was born January 8, 1871, in Fort Dodge. It was along in October, 1871, when Charles Rath outfitted his 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 hides, and haul same to market. We went up the Kansas Pacific Railway (now the Kansas Div. 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 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

1. Interview Andy Johnson by Tom Stauth, Dodge City, Kansas, in Author's possession.


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 wagons 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. Even the dog froze under the wagon. Snuffer froze to death in the saddle."

     This was the terrible winter 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 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, and by now a trusted friend of Rath's. 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 brew ing. 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 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 blue-black 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, Rath answered, trying to smile, "Not aiming to." For almost three weeks, the improvised 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 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 a way with him, lifted his hand in a plainsman's salute, explaining before he turned his mare 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 caught up, Charles Rath had shot enough buffalo to keep skinners and cutters 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 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 for they hit the Santa Fe Trail by daylight. They stopped for dinner at Fort Dodge, and arrived at camp on Sawlog Creek late in the day, all tired out for they 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 and


merely walked off a couple of hundred yards, leaving a road through which we passed, which, by the way, was the Santa Fe Trail. We did not lose sight of buffalo all the way to Sawlog Camp and countless numbers surrounded it. "Rath had gone on ahead with his Skinners and had killed a large number of buffalo. Only hides, hams and humps were saved. These soon froze and they were stacked up 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."

     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 the Fort and proceed to get dinner, and he would have the other boys 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 to our camp on the Sawlog where we found Rath had a quantity of meat and hides ready for us. I continued on to Hays City with the loaded train and returned again to the Sawlog where we loaded up our last load which we hauled through 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." On the trip with the Fort Dodge hides, Andy had urged the mules through the big drifts, eased them on the blowed-out stretches, on his way to Hays City. On his return to camp on the Sawlog, he says Charles Rath had gone on to Osage City, leaving instructions they were to load everything and follow. It was now late in February, 1872.

     It is said that when the men arrived in Osage City, Charles Rath met them on the outskirts of town. 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 up and gripped Rath's hand, saying, what each of the twenty-one picked men must have felt, "You had the know-how, Charlie." Many are the records that have been left behind about the prowess of Charles Rath's buffalo hunting. Lucian Cary says, "Great tales are told of men who got what was called a "stand" - meaning a chance to shoot at a large herd from one postion. Charles Path, 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 one day's killing." [3]

     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 in that way. As noted in the account given, he would have a wagon train which a teamster kept moving the hides and meat to market, while ample wagons and teams were left behind for bringing the kill to a given point. 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, buffalo paid little heed to one that dropped beside him, nor to the men or horses nearby.

     No record is left as to how Rath paid his men, but quite likely it was by daily wages. However, that may be, he must have paid them well for men were eager to work for Charles Rath. The men's families charged groceries at stores in Osage City while they were away on the hunt from that point. It was customary at the time. Other hunts, men may have come from near Rath's trading posts or stores and did their buying there.

     Even a man's everyday needs were bought, quite generally, by the boss at the store where he traded. On the firm's books, there was a listing charged to the boss as a whole, but each man on his payroll was charged with what was bought by the boss for him, his tobacco, pipes, underwear, shoes, hat, and other necessities. Possibly every so often, the hand drew some cash, all of which was deducted from his pay when settling-up time came. A man as a rule, had little need for money while on a buffalo hunting trip; they were ready for bed after a hard day's work and up and ready to work again by dawn.

     The scientific name "bison" carried no appeal apparently for western men and Indians, for promptly they named the great horde of shaggy beasts, buffalo. A full grown buffalo bull weighed about 2500 pounds, 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 case of a blizzard, they faced into the storm, while domestic cattle invariably drifted with the wind. The buffalo, reportedly, had poor eyesight and was classified as a stupid animal. They were a migrating herd, grazing slowly northward in summer,

2. Article, Last of the Buffalo Hunters, True, Dec. 1961. 3. Article, The sacred White Buffalo. Natural History Magazine, September 1946.


South for the Winter. No one knew their number but the general average of calculators seems to place their number at around 60,000,000.

     Robert M. Wright has much to say about the buffalo in his book, Cowboy Capital. "I have indeed traveled through buffalo along the Arkansas River 200 miles, almost one continuous herd, as close together as it is customary to herd cattle. Another time, he says, "The whole face of the earth was covered with buffalo; they were grazing slowly toward the river."

     The buffalo wallow, Wright says, was caused by buffalo pawing and licking the salty alkaline earth. Day by day, prairie winds blew the loose earth away until finally there was a large hole in the ground. In these buffalo wallows, men have holed-up for defense during Indian fights, and here during rainy spells, men and horses have quenched their thirst.

     From the first of April until the middle of May, was the wet season on the Kansas plains, also the calving time for the buffalo. The rutting time lasted one month, during which time they would keep up a low roaring sound all night. Consquently, the cows all calved in a month, while the bulls ringed the group, making a deep path, as they guarded the cows from attacks by coyotes and the fierce gray wolves.

     An old timer once said, the noise and apparent trembling of the earth, of buffalo on the move, could well be likened to the same conditions when a large ox train was approaching.

     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 to hold his gun steady; perhaps Charles Rath did not for no record to that effect has been found.

     Rath moved with the buffalo, his loader riding beside him. The skinners and cutters stayed behind with the kill, preparing the meat for market, staking the hides out to dry, and later helping the teamster get it loaded on the wagons. Only then did these men follow their leader. In turn, the teamster spent practically all of his time on the trail, taking the meat and hides to market, bringing back needed supplies.

     Charles Rath kept a brother's butcher shop in Emporia supplied with buffalo meat, tongues, humps and hams, besides what he shipped otherwise. He also bought hides from other hunters. Mr. Wright says, "Charles Rath and I shipped over two hundred thousand buffalo hides the first winter the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe railroad reached Dodge City, and I think there were at least as many more shipped from there, besides two hundred cars of hind quarters and two cars of buffalo tongues."


     And wherever Charles Rath set up a trading post, great ricks of buffalo hides were seen. Hunters relied on Rath's word Wherever hunters shot the buffalo, Rath's trains would come to pick them up. He would even outfit the hunters, so they could make the kill.

     Then when the buffalo were gone, in the last of the seventies, a new business sprang up. Settlers had moved in and farming was going on in earnest but with drought, grasshoppers, and other depredation on their crops, they were in need of money. The prairies were white with bleached buffalo bones. Professional bone hunters replaced the buffalo hunters, for the eastern market wanted the bones for fertilizer. The settlers hitched their teams to the wagons and set out to collect bones, and many a youngster heard in later days, how buffalo bones kept something to eat in the family larder in those early days.

     The bones rolled in at every wayside station, great stacked piles of bleached buffalo bones, the whitened skulls, all along the ten foot high, half-mile length of the ricks, presented a grim, ghostly reminder of an era now gone, never to return.

     Rath's trains, probably, stretched out along the prairie, picking up bones also. Most certainly, he bought and shipped millions of these same buffalo bones to the eastern markets where they reportedly brought $6.00 a ton.

Go to the top of the page Go to the previous chapter Go to the next chapter Go to the title page Go to the table of contents