KanColl Books


by Adolph Roenigk

Buffalo Hunters and Robe Merchants; The Solomon River;
Hunting Expeditions; Otoe and Omaha Indians
Tanning Robes on the Solomon River

     In the days when millions of buffaloes were roaming on the buffalos range from the Dakotas to the panhandle of Texas, buffalo robes were in everyday use and were nearly as common as blankets are today. In the winter time when the ground was covered with snow it was an ordinary practice for people to go sleigh riding wrapped up in a buffalo robe. Merchants, harness shops, and such dealers as dealt in blankets generally kept buffalo robes for sale.
     Prior to the settlement of the country, in the days of the trappers, and the American Fur Company, trading with the Indians and trappers was the main occupation of the merchants in the West, and forutnes were made in the fur business. In this connection I will mention one firm that I knew and did business with, while I was engaged in the saddlery business in Clifton. I refer to W. C. Lobenstein of Leavenworth, who, beginning in a small way in the fifties, accumulated a fortune, organized a firm which became one of the leading wholesale houses on the Missouri river with branch houses at Fort Worth, Texas and Helena, Montana. The robe and furt trade had been his main line of business for years, later wholesale saddlery and leather was added, and it was then that I did business with the firm. One of this firm’s traveling salesmen named Robinson told me the firm shipped forty thousand hides to England in a year, clearing one dollar profit on each in this deal.
     It was said W. C. Lobenstein was a Jew, but those who knew him best said he was a German by birth and came from central Germany, and that he was not an Iraelite. He, having become wealthy, and being up in years, retired from business in the later seventies, and with his only daughter departed from this country to Switzerland, where he lived until he died some years later.
     While I was in the saddlery business at Clifton I kept buffalo robes for sale, which I generally bought from the above firm.
     One day in the summer of 1878 a man by the name of John


P. RaRthbun came along with a two-horse wagonload of buffalo robes, which he was bringing from the Ote Indian reservation located in northeastern Kansas on the Nebraska line, where he had the robes tanned by that tribe of Indians. He lived on the Solomon river in Osborn County and was on his way home, selling the robes to merchants and whoever wished to buy along the route.
     John P. Rathbun was an early settler and buffalo hunter in Osborn County. He was not of the ordinary type of hunter who simply slew the noble bison for their hides, leaving the carcass go to waste. He was more enterprising and businesslike than the ordinary hunter. He and his associates in hunting made use of the meat and tallow as well as the hides whenever it was possible to do so.
     Associated with John P. Rathbun was his brother Ed and several other men who lived in that vicinity, who accompanied him on several hunting expeditions to the buffalo range. Among these men was Wm. H. Nicholson, a well-educated man who did the wise thing of keeping a diary, which is now in the possession of his brother-in-law, D. O. Bancroft. Having heard of


D. O. Bancroft, the owner of the diary


this diary I interviewed the owner, who generously let me copy it, and, as he had been on one of these trips himself gave me much information. To copy the diary in full here would require too much space for the purpose of this book, but I will endeavor to give correctly the most important parts.
     John P. Rathbun made two trips to the buffalo range during the winter of 1873-74. On the first trip the party consisted of himself and his brother, Ed B., Wm. H. Nicholson, Wm. Heath, Alec Harper, W. Hiliker and his brother, Ben, George Doremus, George Gorden, Chas. Bradish, and Robert Taylor. All well armed.
     With six two-horse teams and wagons loaded principally with corn, the winter supply of grain for the horses. Startnig on the 29th day of December, the party traveled northwest, crossing the south and the north forks of the Solomon river, then Sappa and Beaver creek and the Republican river, where, on the 13th of January, 1874, they killed the first buffalo. From here they entered the hunting ground in western Nebraska and soon the whole party were busily engaged in killing and skinning buffalo, drying the meat, rendering tallow and staking out the hides for drying.
     When the buffalo became scarce in one locality the party moved camp to another where they were more plentiful. Other hunters’ camps were located on the range, the members of the several hunting parties exchanged visits with each other, although the camps might be five or ten miles apart. Rathbun bought buffalo hides in several camps for the hunters, selecting those best adapted for robes. At times when their camp was located within a few days’ travel of the Union Pacific Railroad frequently a load of fresh or dried meat was hauled to Julesburg, Ogalala, or other stations, which was sold or traded for provisions, ammunition or other necessaries.
     January 28, John Rathbun started for home with a load of buffalo hides, and returned from home back to camp February 25, bringing with him Nicholson’s brother-in-law, a young man in his teens with the name of D. O. Bancroft, who is now the owner of the diary mentioned above. The Indians were very quiet that season as they generally were in the winter time.
     NOTE: John P. Rathbun was born in Ohio, 1829; came to Osborne County in 1871, and died here in 1905. Wm. H. Nicholson was born in Ohio in 1837, and died in Corinth Township, Osborne County, in 1919.


     March 24th the hunting party went up on the north side of the Platte river into Wyoming. While on this trip they met a band of Sioux Indians. They were peaceable inclined and our hunters traded with them, exchanging a rifle and a revolver for buffalo robes. While trading with the savages the hunters took no chances in giving them the advantage, and the Indians kept their places with due respect for the white men and their rifles. Here Mr. D. O. Bancroft stated that when the party returned from the North Platte they brought with them three hundred buffalo hides. The diary sates that hides were shipped, but it does not state to which point. The hides were bought with the object of having them tanned and made into robes.
     According to this diary ninety-four buffaloes were killed by the Rathbun party during this hunting trip. On March 30 seven buffalo were killed. A ranchman named Tucker came to the camp and hauled the thirteen buffalo heads to the Union Pacific Railroad station, from where they were shipped to Denver to be mounted by a taxidermist. The hunters received pay for the heads later.
     A hunter’s life on the plains in those days was quite different from the comforts of life enjoyed in a modern home today. There were hardships to be endured. When their camp was located near water holes or creeks devoid of timber, the men were often compelled to rely on buffalo chips for fuel to cook their meals and to warm themselves. When overtaken by a snowstorm, and the weather perhaps ranged below zero, all that could be done was to seek shelter behind a bluff or a high creek bank where they were protected from the piercing winds, blanket the horses and feed them an extra portion of corn, while the hunters wrapped themselves in buffalo robes and slept warm in some sheltered place. Occasionally the coyotes or gray wolves could be heard howling during the night, which was music to the hunters’ ears. In this way the time passed until the storm abated.
     Now winter had passed and spring had arrived. Nothing had happened to interfere with the hunt on this trip. Besides encountering a snowstorm, breaking a wagon wheel and a wagon tongue, getting stuck fast while crossing a miry creek no serious accident occurred. On April 16 the wagons were loaded with the proceeds of the hunt and the party started for home by nearly the same route as they came, and arrived at home on May 12. So far the diary.


     Mr. D. O. Bancroft also told the writer that shortly after their arrival at home he and John Rathbun, and his son, Frank, with a horse team each, made a trip to the Otoe Indian agency, hauling buffalo hides, where they were tanned and made into robes by that tribe of Indians. After the work was done three hundred buffalo robes were baled at Marysville, Kansas, and shipped to Ohio. As John Rathbun became well acquainted with the Otoes, the transaction between them having been satisfactory, another trible of Indians, the Omahas, whose reservation was located in eastern Nebraska, sought this white man’s favor. In 1875 and the years following both of these tribes were accompanied by Rathbun on hunting trips to the buffalo range. By this time the buffaloes had been hunted and killed off by the millions, and were getting scarce in Kansas, but were still found in large number on the Cimeron river in the Indian Territory and the Panhandle of Texas. For the purpose of accompanying these tribes on their hunts to that country John Rathbun was appointed sub-agent. An interpreter also accompanied them. No diary was kept during these trips and as the leading members are dead little of the particulars of these hunts are known except what is remembered by the relatives.
     At one time when the Otoes were camped on the Solomon river near Rathbun’s and were ready to start on the journey to the buffalo hunting ground, one of the little pappooses became sick and died, which was about to delay the expedition, as according to Indian tradition and belief the soul of the little one must be cared for by building a fire for three successive nights at the little one’s grave. To please the Indians and not delay the journey, arrangements were made with Ed Rathbun, a younger brother of John’s, who made the fires, after the Indians departed, to guide the soul of the little one to the happy hunting ground.
     The Indians were all mounted and equipped for a long journey; the bucks were accompanied by their squaws and papooses, in all about three hundred strong. They were armed with rifles and bows and arrows. They made no surrounds in killing buffaloes like some of the wild tribes, in the West, but hunted them the same as did the white men. These hunts were successful; the party returning with their string of ponies loaded with meat and hides. After their return the Indians


made their camp near the Rathbun farm on the north side of the Solomon river, near the mouth of Twin creek. According to Frank Rathbun, a son of John P., who, with his family, still resides on the farm, the Omahas were here on a hunt and camped on his father’s place one time, but the Otoes were here several times on hunting trips and tanning robes at the camping ground mentioned. They tanned the hides and made robes for themselves and also for Rathbun, who paid them a stipulated price for each robe. The material that was used in the process was brains and grease, and the implements or tools used were stones.
     Many of these robes were elaborately painted on the flesh side with a dye made of herbs and barks, which they gathered in the woods along the creeks and river. The painting was done with a bone of porous quality. Pictures were drawn of all sorts of Indian design. It was said a white man named Theodore Cunningham, painted many of the robes and did the work as well as any Indian.
     In the last years of the seventies buffalo hunting came to an end; only isolated small herds were left in Montana and other out-of-the-way places, and efforts were made to preserve this useful animal and prevent its extinction

The First Settler in Osborne County--How Covert Met His
Death--Covert Creek Named for Him--Other
Creeks Named In Memory of the Affair

     While interviewing old-timers in Osborne County I made the acquaintance of Jeff Durfey, the first settler in Osborne County. He was born in 1845 and served three years in the Thirtieth Wisconsin Infantry during the Civil War. He came to Osborne County from Dane County, Wisconsin, in 1870, by the way of Nebraska, and settled on a homestead on Covert creek, where he has resided ever since. Much of the time in the early seventies he spent hunting buffaloes, traveling over the western country in a half dozen states, and many are the interesting stories he tells of those times. Covert creek is one of the best timbered streams in Osborne County. In places there are forty to eighty acres of timber in a body. One of these heavy timbered sections he


selected for his homestead and built his home at the outer edge of it. In this timber the buffaloes congregated after their return from the south in the spring of the year. The timber was a help to them in shedding their winter’s fur coat. Durfey said when he first saw this timber the lower parts of the trunks of trees were covered with buffalo fur which was clinging to the rough bark in wads, showing where these animals had rubbed in order to relieve themselves of their winter’s coat. Enough of this fur could be gathered to fill a mattress in a short time.
     On the east side of this creek the country is hilly, and in the deep bottoms between the bluffs grows luxurious grass, affording good pasture for stock late in the fall, during most of the winter and early spring. In these hills the buffalo were found at times when they were scarce on the open prairie.
     Here the savages had been well supplied with the comforts of Indian life. With plenty of timber for shelter, firewood for their lodges, springs of clear water close by, everything was near at hand for a permanent Indian home.
     When Mr. Durfey selected this site for his first cabin there was evidence about this vicinity to show that he was not the first inhabitant to choose this place for a home. Signs of a former Indian village were noticeable all around this vicinity. Lodge poles were lying in quantities all around in the timber, that had been left on the ground when the village was being moved to another location. On the prairie near by there were numerous stakes driven into the ground and scaffold made to dry meat. Mr. Durfey said he gathered several wagon loads of poles and hauled them home to use for firewood, and the stakes that were left in the ground so interferred with the breaking of the sod that he had to remove the stakes before he could proceed with the plow.
     Very little is known and different stories have been told about the killing of Covert, by Indians, after whom these creeks were named. All the creeks in this vicinity flow from the south to the north into the Solomon river. Mr. Durfey says Covert was killed in 1869. Others give the time earlier. To substantiate his statement, Mr. Durfey told the following: “Covert was associated with a man named Carr. The two men, together with a team and wagon, came from Salina to this creek to hunt buffalo. They camped eight miles south of his farm near where the village of Covert is now located.” Con-


tinuing, he said; “He and some other parties saw the place shortly after he came here in 1870 and things looked comparatively fresh. The remains of the wagon were still there at the Covert camp; it had been chopped to pieces and utterly ruined by the savages. The spokes had been chopped from the wagon wheels and were lying on the ground; a number of these were gathered up by the men and taken home, and were used for picket pins for a long time afterwards.
     Mr. Durfey tells this story how Covert was killed: “Covert had a muzzle-loading rifle. He had been out hunting the day before the Indians appeared, and had lost his powder horn. On the morning of this fatal day he went out trying to find his powder horn, when the Indians suddenly appeared and cut him off from the camp. Just how he was killed is not known. (He did not find his powder horn because it was found later by someone herding cattle.) Carr was in camp and seeing the Indians coming abandoned everything and made his way on foot to Pipe creek, Ottawa County, where he came from.”
     The creeks on both sides, east and west, of Covert creek, all flowing north, received their names in memory of this affair. They are named: Kill creek, Indian creek, Covert creek and Carr creek. Mr. Durfey said the surveyors, or those who placed the names of those creeks on the maps, got the names mixed. The names of the creeks were meant to be placed on the map in rotation, commencing on the east, as follows: Indian creek, Kill creek, Covert creek and Carr creek, which meant: Indian Kill Covert, Carr got away.

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