PIONEER HISTORY OF KANSAS
by Adolph Roenigk
FOSSIL CREEK STATION, Continued
Hunting Buffalo on the Great Plains of Kansas; Experience
in the Great Sportsman Paradise.
Looking back over the gulf of sixty years I now know how little one is able to judge from the present what may be the outcome of the future. When I look upon the towns, churches, schoolhouses, the golden wheatfields and beautiful cultivated farms now found where once the buffalo roamed at will and the coyote howled a dismal dirge, I realize how sadly amiss was my idea of the future of the plains of Kansas. Even the men who passed many years in the great game region of Kansas never intended making it their permanent home, but come to hunt and to live the wild, free life of the frontiersman, expecting sometime to settle farther east in the region of more regular rainfall.
The first attempt to arouse interest in agriculture on the Kansas plains in the western half of the state was made by the Kansas Pacific Railroad Company in the spring of 1869. They issued circulars and furnished garden seeds to their men along the line offering three prizes, one of $300, $200 and $100, for the best three gardens grown.
We understood that the railroad company intended to run excursions to bring Eastern people to see what could be grown on the plains of the West, and thus induce them to purchase the land given to the company by the government as a bonus for building the road. We were skeptical about the agriculture possibilities of the plains, and thought the offer a fake scheme of the railroad company to sell to Eastern dupes land utterly worthless. But we intended to try for one of the prizes. Accordingly we made our gardens near the water tank, where we could apply the hose freely, then carefully hide it and grow a fine garden, giving the credit to the scanty rainfall. The Indian raids that followed upset our calculations. Soldiers were stationed here as at all stations along the line, and the garden project was abandoned.
When I first came to the Station I found it as near a hunter's paradise as one could wish for. Game of some kind was in sight at all times. Buffalo, antelope, wolves and occasionally deer, as well as wild turkey, which cautious bird would stray up to the highlands from the rivers and creeks below. Two
buffalo hunters made their headquarters in a boxcar which they had fitted up with a stove and other conveniences of camp life. The car was sidetracked at Bunker Hill. Later when the buffaloes had gone farther south, they had their car set off at the siding a mile and a half west of Fossil Creek Station, but the buffaloes were never as plentiful here as they were fifteen or twenty miles east. One of these hunters went by the name of Scotty, the others name I have forgotten. He had been an express agent. They shipped the hindquarters to New York and Boston. Scotty hunted on horseback. I saw him kill several out of a herd in a single run.
Many exciting episodes took place during those days. In the two years of 1868-69, somewhere near two hundred buffalo were killed within a radius of a mile of Fossil Creek, a greater number than killed in several years time in the vicinity of any other station on the line. Most of them were killed on what is now the townsite of Russell. Now, after these many years, there may be some people who think the number overdrawn, but I will say that I was always a close observer and even then realized what a waste was committed by the useless slaughter of buffalo.
What a number of people could have been fed on the good meat that went to waste in the vicinity of this one station alone. It was very easy to count the number killed as only the hindquarters were taken, being cut trough, hide and all, as there was no market for the hides that we knew of then, thus leaving the front quarters lying on the prairie where they had fallen, to be gnawed by wolves or dried up by the wind and sun.
There was no market in Ellsworth or Hayes, our trading towns. The only time a buffalo was skinned was when a hunter wanted a hide for his own use. We stretched and dried a few of them and hung them around the walls of our dugouts, as they were clean and comfortable. It might be said, we papered our houses in those days with buffalo hides. If there is an old settler living who picked up buffalo bones to sell, as so many settlers did in the seventies, he will bear me out in my statement as to the number killed. Two hundred buffaloes would not be considered a large number by the hunters who, a few years later, slaughtered the animals for their hides. I have talked with some of those professionals at the time who stated that a party of hunters had killed as many as a hundred in a
days hunt, and having seen the vast herds in their semi-annual migration, I do not doubt the statement.
By first killing the leader from a point of concealment, as was often possible in broken lands and near watercourses, with quick work the hunter could secure the whole herd, owing to their confusion. We had buffalo and antelope steak in those days as often and regular as we have beefsteak now, excepting a short time during the winter. This was our fresh meat supply, as domestic beef and pork were not available.
When the last herds of buffalo went south in the fall and it was cool enough for meat to keep, Cook, the boarding house boss, would lay in a supply, and here I wish to say that in my judgment, buffalo steak compares very favorable with good beefsteak. The cooking may have influenced my decision, as we had a most excellent cook. Only the best parts of the buffalo were used, and while there were always men coming and going, I heard no complaint about tough meat. The buffaloes were not so lean when they returned from the south in the spring as our native cattle are after going through the winter. I suppose there was a difference in their flesh in the two seasons, but we did not find the meat tough at any time; it was always good.
The most buffaloes we ever killed at the station at one time was ten. These were killed about three hundred yards west of the railroad watertank on the north side of the track. The killing was done by John Cook and a hunter whose name I cannot recall. There were seven calves and three cows. The seven calves were all the herd contained and the adults were not wanted, but as the cows would not leave their young three were killed, although no use was made of them. On that occasion we had a good laugh on Cook. When the calves had been shot and the cows had withdrawn a short distance looking piteously upon their murdered offspring, Cook started with his wheelbarrow to bring in the meat, but with just resentment the cows dashed toward him and he had to drop his wheelbarrow and run for his life.
At another time Cook killed five buffaloes alone, there being but that number in the bunch. This took place a few hundred yards west of the present center of the city of Russell. The station of Fossil Creek was favorably located for killing buffaloes; we seldom had to go out to hunt for them, they usually came to us. Only a few times did we have to go out
for meat and then but a mile or two brought the hunter to a herd. We would shoot one down, then get the pony and draw the hindquarters home on a sled. The pony and a wheelbarrow were the only means of conveyance we had.
We were located between two ravines, one on the east and the other on the west, both near the railroad track. The buffalo seemed to have a dread of the railroad. Coming from the south in the spring and from the north in the fall their march was interrupted by the track which extended east and west. They would follow the track as though trying to walk around it from a single animal to a dozen or more. We could see them coming from a long distance, which gave us ample time to get our rifles, get into the ravine, and wait for them. If they were coming from the east or west we had a place of ambush in those ravines, and had only to wait until they came within the desired range to begin killing.
John Cook and I were the best shots at the station and always went together when buffalo were in sight. We were expected to do the killing while the others who had less confidence in themselves, or cared less for the sport, watched us from the dugouts. Once five buffaloes came along the track from the west. As usual we got into the ravine on that side with our rifles. Here we separated, I going a little farther up, but they came closer to Cook than to me. He shot one in the
Finishing the kill with a butcher knife, the fore part of May, 1869