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    Follow the Stories | Denver, Colorado (2010)

    Memoirs by H.S. Kilbourne


    Posted: 4.12.2010

    Buffalo sketch
    A sketch by H.S. Kilbourne of a dead bison.

    The following story is from a manuscript by Henry Sayles Kilbourne (1840-1910), who planned a book based on his experiences stationed on the American Plains as a contract surgeon with the 10th U.S. Cavalry at various times between 1862 and 1875. Kilbourne's memoir was never published, but drafts of three chapters have been preserved by his descendants, who have allowed ANTIQUES ROADSHOW to publish them for the first time here.

    The Buffalo Killing of the Palefaces

    In the Summer of 1867 my lot fell in with a squadron of Cavalry, assigned to the duty of protection of construction parties on the line of the Kansas Pacific Railway, against marauding Indians. The Indians roaming mostly westward of the hundreth [sic] meridian, between the valleys of the Republican and Arkansas rivers, continued hostile and aggressive. Buffalo, migrating northward repeatedly crossed the cuts and grades of the projected line and in such numbers that the newly raised embankment of loose earth suffered more or less demolition from the heavy tread of their sharp hoofs. The unaccustomed sight of such big game excited the men of the working parties, as well as those in our ranks. Much amateur sport resulted and the camp larders held a stock of buffalo meats occasionally choice but frequently replenished. The exacting work of the laborers left them little leisure for the chase. They consequently employed skilled hunters to keep their messes supplied with the game.

    Meanwhile the hunter rounds up the wounded, putting in a finishing shot when needed and so mercifully stops their laboring hopeless flight.

    Buffalo Bill, the famous scout and plainsman, was one of these and from this occupation gained this prairie title. The method of these hunters was this: Sweeping the horizon with field glass he would mark down a herd in the distance, in a favorable situation for approach against the wind, and hidden from view of the game. Mounting his buffalo horse and shouldering his carbine, the hunter then leisurely started in the direction chosen. The choice of a horse had much to do with the success and enjoyment of the chase.

    A nervous excitable animal, however swift and otherwise valuable, was undesirable. He was likely to break his neck in the chase, or the bones of his ridder [sic]. He must have a steady temper and be able to run strongly for a moderate distance, and, above all, should have had some experience in the work. One hunter that I met owned an old horse with but one eye and altogether an unpromising looking beast. Yet he could run like the wind for a distance of about five hundred yards, when he was done. But he would close up on the game and stay there for his distance, and his rider knew how to do the rest. When nearing the game the horseman frequently lost sight of it to take advantage of any sheltering ravine or cover of any sort, and so quietly came into the vicinity of the landmark selected, as a guide. He carefully avoided the sight and scent of the bulls, always alert and on guard, and if, by mischance, he is seen, he quickly retreats out of view until the alarm is over. In the meantime, he is followed by a heavy wagon and men to secure and bring in the expected game. The herd graze usually on a slope or high ground which habit enables the hunter to ride up along a dry watercourse or arroyo, then getting within a few yards of them, in favorable situation. Having reached the selected spot and cautiously assured himself that the game still remained undisturbed he suddenly appears in full sight of them, and putting spurs to his horse charges with the midst of the now flying herd. Choosing the fat young bulls and heifers, he drops the bridle, and closes in upon them. Going at full speed and using both hands he fires right and left at the galloping targets, aiming at the space just behind the shoulder. If his aim be sure the bullet pierces the lungs, and ranges forward among the vitals. One shot is enough if so placed, and the practiced hunter seldom fired more than one at the same animal. Having shot a sufficient number in this manner to make a load for the wagon, he reined in his foaming horse, and his work is done. The dead game lie scattered on the prairie. The wounded vainly try to overtake the vanishing multitudes of their comrades in the distance. The wagons arrive. Attendants strip off the robes and secure the tongues and removing the hind-quarters leave all else to the wolves.

    Meanwhile the hunter rounds up the wounded, putting in a finishing shot when needed and so mercifully stops their laboring hopeless flight.

    Among the troops at first there was no such expert work as this. The troop horses were unaccustomed to the sight and scent of buffalo and once near the game became nearly as wild. On a fractious horse the aim was uncertain, the shots went wide of the mark and only by chance proved effective. A lively bull would receive such attentions and gallop away with some pounds of useless lead, apparently no worse for the lead and labor. On one such amateur occasion I found myself galloping wildly, revolver in hand, after a single buffalo bull, separated from the herd. My horse went about as he liked, but finally, taking heart came up along side, close to the game. I began to shoot continuing until the pistol had been emptied, the game still strongly afoot. Just then I heard another shot and a cry from the other side. My friend wanted to know what I had been firing at him for. We had both been pursuing the same beast on opposite sides, without knowing it in the heat and hurry of the action. Finally he gave up the chase. I kept along, reloading as I road, following the wounded animal up along a dry watercourse. Suddenly my horse stopped short and with a bound turned and clambered up the steep sides of the arroyo. It was so quickly done that I did not know for a moment what had happened until the bull came charging down upon us. The ravine had ended in a Cul de sac on the hill side, from which here was no outlet but the one we had followed up. As he rushed by he got another shot, this time with a truer aim, which stopped him a few yards lower down. I learned afterward the way to make the pistol effective. The horseman closed up on the quarter of the game, and firing down on the loins breaking the spine, quickly stopped the run. But this method required a good mount, a horse trained to follow close, and a good aim.

    Just before breaking camp for a better location, a young officer joined us, to whom these scenes were new. Like all the others he wished to try his hand with the buffalo. We started on the march next day, he making a detour alone toward a herd visible on the horizon. We saw no more of him during the day and felt a little uneasy at his prolonged absense [sic], as Indians had recently been seen in the vicinity. Failing to come in after us at the new encampment, two parties were sent out to search for him. Toward sunset we saw someone leading a horse slowly and painfully down the slope beyond the camp. As he approached we knew that something had gone wrong and went out to meet him. He was bruised and lame and his clothing torn to shreds. His horse had no saddle, only a bridge and girth. From beneath the latter the bowels of the poor creature were escaping, being partly retained by the girth. As soon as the lieutenant had been somewhat restored he told his story "After leaving the column", he said, "I rode toward the herd and getting up near the game, gave them a long chase over the hills. I must have galloped a long distance for I lost my bearings. I wounded a large bull, with a pistol, and kept on after him, determined not to let him get away. After some time he began to weaken and, finally, went down on his haunches. Thinking him now powerless I rode my tired horse close up to his head. I was about to fire a finishing shot when suddenly, with tremendous energy he rose and charged. I do not know exactly what happened after that. I felt the horse lifted up under me into the air and then I fell with him. I must have been badly stunned for I remember nothing more until I awoke and found my horse lying partly upon me, wounded as you see, and unable to get on his feet. By great exertion and in much pain I crawled away from him and saw the buffalo dead, a few yards away. After a time I got him on his legs with difficulty, and binding up his wound with the girth, slowly made my way back, leading him, after resting, until I struck the trail. I don't mind the scratches, but I am sorry for my horse. I wish the doctor would do something for him."

    The doctor heard and tried to help, but after seeing the enormous ragged wound, shook his head despairingly. The captain saw and ordered the poor beast taken out of camp and shot, and so kindly ended his sufferings. We gave the dead hero a soldier's burial, and fired a volley over his lonely grave.

    This mishap cooled the ardor of some, but the ration was not rich, and fresh game gave a desirable addition. The chase was resumed with more success and less untoward effect. Before the close of the season our hunters were doing the work without wanton injury to the game, and much satisfaction to all.

    Two years after our first experience in the buffalo country, we were in midwinter, in the breaks of the Staked Plains, far from the base of supplies. Our horses weak from long marches and scanty forage, with rations becoming shorter and scarcer every day. A few buffalo strayed among the caƱons. To pursue them mounted was out of the question. They were able to outrun and outlast our horses. We tried still hunting. The hunters afoot crept up on the game through the ravine, or hidden behind clumps of greasewood or cactus, until by good fortune they were able to get within range. On one occasion a hunter shot four without leaving his tracks, and in plain view of the small band, which finally getting the wind galloped away. He came upon them suddenly and unexpectedly, and seeing them close at hand, stood quite still, awaiting the result. The game saw him but were not sensibly alarmed. He then very slowly and cautiously raised his gun, and deliberately selecting his mark, shot one of them, the rest started at the report of the rifle but did not run, or appear to see where the sound came from nor did they take fright at the struggle of the wounded animal. The hunter as slowly reloaded his piece, and as deliberately repeated his shot, bringing down another buffalo near the first. Two more followed in a similar manner, when the game getting the scent, discovered their danger and made haste to get away. The apparently motionless figure, though evidently seen, had not attracted more attention than any inanimate object, like a clump of sage brush or a tree cactus, familiar objects on the plains.

    Farther West grows a tree cactus, with a branching top, looking at a little distance like the figure of a man with extended arms. Among these the Apaches have been known to stand with outstretched arms, motionless, for hours, escaping observation and so hidden in plain view, until all danger of detection had passed by. But the cunning of the Apaches, like the courage of the ancient Suevi, was a match for the immortal Gods.

    Read the Kilbourne manuscripts in full here:
    "In a Buffalo Stampede" »
    "The Buffalo Killing of the Palefaces" »
    "The Arrest of the Kiowa Chiefs" »


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