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Home -> Chalkley J. Hambleton -> A Gold Hunter's Experience -> 2

A Gold Hunter's Experience - 2

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About a week after starting, one of the drivers got homesick,
discouraged and disgusted with the trip, left us and started back home
on foot. This compelled Sollitt and me to drive his team. One of our
wagons not being made of properly seasoned wood, became shaky from the
effects of the heat and dry air of the plains. At Marysville I traded it
off to a ranchman for a yoke of oxen and had the load distributed on the
other wagons so that again we had as many drivers as teams. I also
traded some of our younger, weaker oxen for old ones that served our
purpose better, though they were of less market value.

We learned that between this place and the Little Blue, there was no
water to be found to enable us to camp for a night, so we were
compelled to make the trip--some twenty miles--at a single drive. As the
weather was hot we started late in the afternoon, drove all night, and
arrived early next day, at that small river, where we found water and
grass. Sollitt rode ahead much of the time to pick out the road.

Our course for several days was now along the Little Blue in a northwest
direction, toward Fort Kearney on the Platte. To avoid the side gullies
and ravines, which were water courses in the spring, though now dried
up, we frequently circled off two or three miles on to the level
prairie, but had to return near the stream when we camped, in order to
get water.

One day, off to the west, a mile or two away, we saw a single buffalo
which had probably been outlawed and driven from the herd to wander in
solitude over the plains. Our pony had crossed the plains before and
was well used to buffalo. Sollitt mounted him, and, rifle in hand, rode
for the lone beast. When approached he began to run, but the horse soon
overtook him, and he received a bullet. Then he turned savagely on the
horse and rider, and, with head down, chased them at high speed before
trying to escape. The horse overtook him a second time and he received
another bullet. Then he charged after the horse and rider again. When
the horse's turn to chase came next, the buffalo received a third shot
and soon fell dead. This was quite exciting sport for us "tenderfeet"
who had never seen a buffalo hunt.

Sollitt, who was a butcher by trade, was now in his glory. He rode back
to camp, sharpened his knives and with the help of one or two of the men
carved up the animal and brought back a supply of fresh meat. This
proved rather tough as the animal was an old bull, nevertheless the
tongue and the tenderloin were relished, after having eaten only salt
pork for three weeks.

The small stream of water in the Little Blue grew less and less as we
approached its source, and the last night that we camped near it, there
was no running water at all. The little that was to be seen stood in
stagnant pools in the bottom of the river bed. When we would approach
these pools, turtles, frogs and snakes in great variety, that had been
sunning themselves on the banks, would tumble, jump and crawl into the
water, and countless tadpoles wiggled in the mud, at the bottom, so that
the water was soon black and thick. Its taste and smell were anything
but appetizing. The oxen, though without water since morning, refused to
drink it, even after we had dipped it up in pails and allowed it to
settle. We boiled it for the coffee, but the odor and flavor of mud
still remained. The situation had become serious and our only hope was
to reach the Platte river before the oxen were famished from thirst.
Earlier in the season, before the streams dried up, this was a favorite
route of travel, but it was not so at this time of year and we saw very
few passing teams.

By daylight next morning the oxen were yoked and hitched up and we
commenced a forced march for water and salvation. The old trail seemed
still to follow the course of the dried-up stream, bearing much to the
west. We concluded to leave it and steer more to the north with the hope
of striking the Platte at the nearest point. The prairie was hard and
level, the day not excessively hot, and everything was favorable for a
long drive. The rule for keeping together was ignored and each team was
to be urged to its best speed, in the hope that the strong and the swift
would reach the goal though the weak and the weary might fall by the

Before noon the teams were much separated. They halted for a nooning;
the oxen browsed a little on sage brush and dried grass; the men lunched
on crackers, cold coffee and the remnants of breakfast, but our water
keg was empty. By the time the last team was at the nooning place, the
head ones were ready to start on.

Sollitt rode ahead to explore and pick out the road, carrying his rifle
on the saddle, as we were liable at any time to meet bands of
treacherous, pillaging Pawnees, whose haunts were on the lower Platte. I
formed the rear guard with the hindmost wagon, so that it would not be
deserted and alone in case of accident. Each team was always in sight of
the next one ahead of it, though the train was stretched out some three
miles long. Late in the afternoon Sollitt rode back with the cheering
news that he had seen the Stars and Stripes waving over Fort Kearney to
the west and that he had picked out a camping ground near the river a
few miles below. Soon after dark the last team was in camp and the men
and beasts were luxuriating in the clear running water of the Platte.

The next forenoon we drove on to the fort and camped a mile or two west
of it for a day's rest. This was on the 20th of August, so we had been
out twenty days on the road from St. Joe. At the fort was a postoffice
and here we received letters from our friends in the East, and spent a
good part of the day in writing, in response to them. Letters were
brought here by the coaches of the overland express which carried the
United States mail to California.

The fort consisted of a few buildings surrounded by a high adobe wall
for protection; and adjoining was a strong stockade for horses and
oxen. There were a few United States troops here. Just outside the fort
grounds were some ranches, stores, saloons and trading posts. The two
Missourians proceeded forthwith to get dead drunk and it took them till
next day to sober up. By way of apology they said the whisky tasted "so
good" after being so long without it. We had no whisky on our train. It
was one of the very few that crossed the plains in those days without
that, so considered, essential article in frontier life.

Personally, through the entire period of my "Pike's Peak" experience, I
adhered strictly to my custom of not tasting spirituous or malt liquors,
nor using tobacco in any form.

We were now on the main central route of travel from the States to the
mountains, Salt Lake, California and Oregon. We saw teams and trains
daily going in both directions, and Kearney was a favorite place for
them to stop over a day and rest. Our course now lay along the south
side of the Platte, clear to Denver; and with the prospect of level
roads and plenty of grass and water, we looked forward hopefully to a
pleasant trip the rest of the way. The valley of the Platte is a sandy
plain, nearly level, extending westward for hundreds of miles from
Kearney, bounded on the north and the south by low bluffs, some four or
five miles apart. Back of these lie the more elevated, dry plains
extending to great distances.

Winding through this valley is the Platte river, a half a mile or more
wide, with water from an inch to two feet deep, running over a sandy
bottom and filled with numberless islands of shifting sand. The banks
were lined with willows and cottonwood bushes and bordered in many
places by green, grassy meadows, but trees were a rarity and for some
two hundred miles we did not see one larger than a good sized bush.

The day we camped near Kearney we began to see buffalo in small groups
off a few miles to the south and west. When I awoke next morning, soon
after daylight, I saw a lone one quietly eating grass about half a mile
from camp. I got out a rifle and went toward him, stooping or going on
my hands and knees through the wet grass, till within good rifle shot. I
then stood up, took deliberate aim just behind the shoulder, and fired.
He gave a quick jump, looked around and started toward me on the run
with head down, in usual fashion, for a charge. My thought was that I
had hit, but not hurt him. I dropped into the grass and made my way on
hands and knees as fast as possible toward camp, a little agitated.
Losing sight of me the animal soon stopped, stood still a few minutes
and then suddenly dropped to the ground. He had been shot through the

This was my first and last buffalo, as sneaking up to them and shooting
them down did not seem much more like sport than shooting down oxen. I
was neither a sufficiently expert rider nor hunter to chase and shoot
them on horseback. The one I shot was carved by Sollitt and one of the
men, and furnished us fresh meat for breakfast and several meals

During the day we passed a ranch, occupied by a man and his son, twelve
or fourteen years old. The boy had eight or ten buffalo calves in a pen,
which he said he had caught himself and intended to sell to parties
returning to their homes in the East. He had a well-trained little pony,
which he would mount, with a rope in hand that had a noose at the end,
and ride directly into the midst of a small drove of buffalo, and while
they scattered and ran would slip his rope about the neck of a calf and
lead it back to the ranch. The calf would side up to the pony and follow
it along as if under the delusion that it was following its mother. The
man traded in cattle by picking up estrays and buying, for a song, those
that were footsore and sick, keeping them till in condition and then
selling them to passing trains that were in need.

We now began to see buffalo quite plentifully off to the southwest, in
small groups, and in droves of twenty or more. Sometimes hunters on
horseback, who had camped near Kearney, were indulging in the excitement
of the hunt, chasing and shooting, and in turn being chased by the
enraged animals. That evening we camped on the verge of the great herd
that extended some sixty or seventy miles to the westward, and blackened
the bluffs to the south, and the great plains beyond as far as the eye
could reach. This great herd was not a solid, continuous mass, but was
divided up into innumerable smaller herds or droves consisting of from
fifty to two hundred animals each. These kept together when grazing,
marching or running, the bulls on the outside and the cows and calves in
the center. Sometimes these small herds were separated from each other
by a considerable space.

This great herd had probably started northward from the Arkansas in the
spring and had now reached the Platte, where they lingered for water and
the better grass that was found along the river. Following in the wake
and prowling on the outskirts of this slowly moving host, were thousands
of wolves, collected from the distant plains, to feast upon the young
and the weakly, and the carcasses of those that were killed by accident
or the hunter's gun.

The turn for watching the cattle the first half of that night fell to
the lot of two of the boys from Chicago. The cattle were grazing in a
good meadow off toward the river, half a mile from camp. At dusk the
boys went off to take charge of them. After dark the wolves began to
howl in all directions and sometimes it sounded as if a hundred hungry
ones were fighting over a single carcass. Then the buffalo bulls chimed
in with the music and bellowed, apparently by thousands, at the same
time. Pandemonium seemed to reign. The two boys got nervous, then
frightened and finally panic-stricken, and long before midnight came
rushing into camp declaring that they were surrounded by droves of
hungry wolves and furious buffalo. The cattle were also disturbed and
inclined to scatter and wander off.

Next morning early, all of us, except the cook, started off to hunt them
up. Some went up stream, some down, and some back along the road we had
come. Tobias and myself waded the river to the north side to hunt them
there, but we found neither cattle nor cattle tracks. We did find a huge
rattlesnake, which we killed. The river was about three-quarters of a
mile wide, and in no place over two feet deep. Wading it was easy enough
if one kept moving, but if he stood still he would gradually sink into
the quicksand till it was difficult to extricate his feet.

By noon, after this thorough search, we had collected all of our oxen
but two, which could not be found. Sollitt was very suspicious of cattle
thieves, and, whenever an ox was lost, his first opinion was that it had
been stolen. Mine was that it had strayed off and hidden in some ravine
or clump of bushes. He decided that these two lost ones had been taken
by some ranchman or passing train. I believed they had gone off with
the buffalo and that when they wanted drink badly they would come back
to the river. I therefore concluded to let the train go on, while I,
with the pony and some food, would stay behind and patrol the river for
a day or two. I rode back eastward along the river's edge, searching in
the bushes, and at night came to a ranch, near which I picketed the pony
and slept on the ground. Next morning, after first examining the
ranchman's cattle, I started westward again, making another thorough
search as I went along. In the afternoon I found the stragglers quietly
eating grass near the river, and then drove them along as fast as
possible till the train was overtaken.

We were now right in the midst of the great herd, through which we
journeyed for nearly five days. The anxiety they gave us was greater
than that of any of our previous troubles. To avoid having the oxen
stampeded, or run off with the buffalo at night, we wheeled our wagons
into a circle when camping at the end of a day's drive, and thus formed
a corral, into which we put as many oxen as it would hold, for the
night, and chained the rest in their yokes to the wagon wheels on the
outside. This was hard on the oxen, as they could not rest as well as
when free, nor could they graze a part of the night, as was their habit.
Whenever we looked off to the south or southwest, we would see dozens
and dozens of the small droves of one or two hundred buffalo moving
about in all directions. Some of the droves would be quietly eating
grass, some marching in a slow, stately walk, and others on the run,
going back and forth between their grazing grounds and the river. But
each separate drove kept in quite a compact body.

Sometimes they would keep off from the trail along which we traveled,
for several hours at a time and not trouble us. At other times they
would be going in such great numbers across our route, passing to and
from the river, that we had to wait hours for them to get out of our
way. Often a drove would get frightened at a passing wagon, the report
of a gun, the barking of a dog, or some imaginary enemy, and would start
on a run which soon became a furious stampede, the hindermost following
those before them, and in their blind fury crowding them forward with
such irresistible force that the leaders could not stop if they would.
If they came suddenly to a deep gully the foremost would tumble in till
it was full, and thus form a bridge of bone and flesh over which the
rest would pass. Several times these frightened droves passed so near
our wagons as to be alarming.

One drove came within a few yards of one of our wagons, and some of the
drivers peppered them with bullets from their pistols. Though these
frightened droves could not be stopped, they would shy to the right or
left if an unusual commotion was made in time in front of them. When a
drove, at some distance, seemed to be headed toward our train, we often
ran toward it, yelling, firing guns, and waving articles of clothing.
The leaders would shy off, and that would give direction to the whole
body, and thus relieve us from danger for the time being.

Every teamster, traveler and hunter that crossed the plains felt that he
must kill from one to a dozen or more buffalo. The result was that the
plain was dotted and whitened with tens of thousands of their carcasses
and skeletons. With this general slaughter and the increase of travel
induced by the discovery of the Pike's Peak gold fields, no wonder that
this was the very last year that these animals appeared in large
numbers in the Platte valley. We always estimated their numbers by the
million.[1] For some years after they appeared in large numbers in some
parts of the great plains of the West, but they rapidly declined in
number till they became extinct in their wild state.

[Footnote 1: The estimate was probably not an

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