The Prairie Traveler by Randolph Barnes Marcy, Captain, U.S.A.


Hunting. - Its Benefits to the Soldier. - Buffalo. - Deer. - Antelope. - Bear. - Big-horn, or Mountain Sheep. - Their Habits, and Hints upon the best Methods of hunting them.


     I KNOW of no better school of practice for perfecting men in target-firing, and the use of fire arms generally, than that in which the frontier hunter receives his education. One of the first and most important lessons that he is taught impresses him with the conviction that, unless his gun is in good order and steadily directed upon the game, he must go without his supper; and if ambition does not stimulate his efforts, his appetite will, and ultimately lead to success and confidence in his own powers.

     The man who is afraid to place the butt of his piece firmly against his shoulder, or who turns away his head at the instant of pulling trigger (as soldiers often do before they have been drilled at target-practice), will not be likely to bag much game or to contribute materially toward the result of a battle. The successful hunter, as a general rule, is a good shot, will always charge his gun properly, and may be relied upon in action. I would, therefore, when in garrison or at permanent camps, encourage officers and soldiers in field-sports. If permitted, men very readily cultivate a fondness for these innocent and healthy exercises, and occupy their leisure time in their pursuit; whereas, if confined to the narrow limits of a frontier camp or garrison, having no amusements within their reach, they are prone to indulge in practices which are highly detrimental to their physical and moral condition.

     By making short excursions about the country they acquire a knowledge of it, become inured to fatigue, learn the art of bivouacking, trailing, etc., etc., all of which will be found serviceable in border warfare; and, even if they should perchance now and then miss some of the minor routine duties of the garrison, the benefits they would derive from hunting would, in my opinion, more than counterbalance its effects. Under the old regime it was thought that drills, dress-parades, and guard-mountings comprehended the sum total of the soldier's education, but the experience of the last ten years has taught us that these are only the rudiments, and that to combat successfully with Indians we must receive instruction from them, study their tactics, and, where they suit our purposes, copy from them.

     The union of discipline with the individuality, self-reliance and rapidity of locomotion of the savage is what we should aim at. This will be the tendency of the course indicated, and it is conceived by the writer that an army composed of well-disciplined hunters will be the most efficient of all others against the only enemy we have to encounter within the limits of our vast possessions.

     I find some pertinent remarks upon this subject in a very sensible essay by "a late captain of infantry" (U. S.). He says:

     "It is conceived that scattered bands of mounted hunters, with the speed of a horse and the watchfulness of a wolf or antelope, whose faculties are sharpened by their necessities; who, when they get short of provisions, separate and look for something to eat, and find it in the water, in the ground, or on the surface; whose bill of fare ranges from grass-seed, nuts, roots, grasshoppers, lizards, and rattlesnakes up to the antelope, deer, elk, bear, and buffalo, and who have a continent to roam over, will be neither surprised, caught, conquered, overawed, or reduced to famine by a rumbling, bugle blowing, drum-beating town passing through their country on wheels at the speed of a loaded wagon.

     "If the Indians are in the path and do not wish to be seen, they cross a ridge, and the town moves on, ignorant whether there are fifty Indians within a mile or no Indian within fifty miles. If the Indians wish to see, they return to the crest of the ridge, crawl up to the edge, pull up a bunch of grass by the roots, and look through or under it at the procession."

     Although I would always encourage men in hunting when permanently located, yet, unless they are good woodsmen, it is not safe to permit them to go out alone in marching through the Indian country, as, aside from the danger of encountering Indians, they would be liable to become bewildered and perhaps lost, and this might detain the entire party in searching for them. The better plan upon a march is for three or four to go out together, accompanied by a good woodsman, who will be able with certainty to lead them back to camp.

     The little group could ascertain if Indians are about, and would be strong enough to act on the defensive against small parties of them; and, while they are amusing themselves, they may perform an important part as scouts and flankers.

     An expedition may have been perfectly organized, and every thing provided that the wisest forethought could suggest, yet circumstances beyond the control of the most experienced traveler may sometimes arise to defeat the best concerted plans. It is not, for example, an impossible contingency that the traveler may, by unforeseen delays, consume his provisions, lose them in crossing streams, or have them stolen by hostile Indians, and be reduced to the necessity of depending upon game for subsistence. Under these circumstances, a few observations upon the habits of the different animals that frequent the Plains and on the best methods of hunting them may not be altogether devoid of interest or utility in this connection.


     The largest and most useful animal that roams over the prairies is the buffalo. It provides food, clothing, and shelter to thousands of natives whose means of livelihood depend almost exclusively upon this gigantic monarch of the prairies.

     Not many years since they thronged in countless multitudes over all that vast area lying between Mexico and the British possessions, but now their range is confined within very narrowlimits, and a few more years will probably witness the extinction of the species.

     The traveler, in passing from Texas or Arkansas through southern New Mexico to California, does not, at the present day, encounter the buffalo; but upon all the routes north of latitude 36° the animal is still found between the 99th and 102d meridians of longitude.

     Although generally regarded as migratory in their habits, yet the buffalo often winter in the snows of a high northern latitude. Early in the spring of 1858 I found them in the Rocky Mountains, at the head of the Arkansas and South Platte Rivers, and there was every indication that this was a permanent abiding-place for them.

     There are two methods generally practiced in hunting the buffalo, viz.: running them on horseback, and stalking, or still-hunting. The first method requires a sure-footed and tolerably fleet horse that is not easily frightened. The buffalo cow, which makes much better beef than the bull, when pursued by the hunter runs rapidly, and, unless the horse be fleet, it requires a long and exhausting chase to overtake her.

     When the buffalo are discovered, and the hunter intends to give chase, he should first dismount, arrange his saddle-blanket and saddle, buckle the girth tight, and make every thing about his horse furniture snug and secure. He should then put his arms in good firing order, and, taking the lee side of the herd, so that they may not get "the wind" of him, he should approach in a walk as close as possible, taking advantage of any cover that may offer. His horse then, being cool and fresh, will be able to dash into the herd, and probably carry his rider very near the animal he has selected before he becomes alarmed.

      If the hunter be right-handed, and uses a pistol, he should approach upon the left side, and when nearly opposite and close upon the buffalo, deliver his shot, taking aim a little below the centre of the body, and about eight inches back of the shoulder. This will strike the vitals, and generally render another shot unnecessary.

     When a rifle or shot-gun is used the hunter rides up on the right side, keeping his horse well in hand, so as to be able to turn off if the beast charges upon him; this, however, never happens except with a buffalo that is wounded, when it is advisable to keep out of his reach.

     The buffalo has immense powers of endurance, and will run for many miles without any apparent effort or diminution in speed. The first buffalo I ever saw I followed about ten miles, and when I left him he seemed to run faster than when the chase commenced.

     As a long buffalo-chase is very severe labor upon a horse, I would recommend to all travelers, unless they have a good deal of surplus horse-flesh, never to expend it in running buffalo.

     Still-hunting, which requires no consumption of horse-flesh, and is equally successful with the other method, is recommended. In stalking on horseback, the most broken and hilly localities should be selected, as these will furnish cover to the hunter, who passes from the crest of one hill to another, examining the country carefully in all directions. When the game is discovered, if it happen to be on the lee side, the hunter should endeavor, by making a wide detour, to get upon the opposite side, as he will find it impossible to approach within rifle range with the wind.

     When the animal is upon a hill, or in any other position where he can not be approached without danger of disturbing him, the hunter should wait until he moves off to more favorable ground, and this will not generally require much time, as they wander about a great deal when not grazing; he then pickets his horse, and approaches cautiously, seeking to screen himself as much as possible by the undulations in the surface, or behind such other objects as may present themselves; but if the surface should offer no cover, he must crawl upon his hands and knees when near the game, and in this way he can generally get within rifle range.

     Should there be several animals together, and his first shot take effect, the hunter can often get several other shots before they become frightened. A Delaware Indian and myself once killed five buffaloes out of a small herd before the remainder were so much disturbed as to move away; although we were within the short distance of twenty yards, yet the reports of our rifles did not frighten them in the least, and they continued grazing during all the time we were loading and firing.

     The sense of smelling is exceedingly acute with the buffalo, and they will take the wind from the hunter at as great a distance as a mile.

     When the animal is wounded, and stops, it is better not to go near him until he lies down, as he will often run a great distance if disturbed; but if left to himself, will in many cases die in a short time.

     The tongues, humps, and marrow-bones are regarded as the choice parts of the animal. The tongue is taken out by ripping open the skin between the prongs of the lower jaw-bone and pulling it out through the orifice. The hump may be taken off by skinning down on each side of the shoulders and cutting away the meat, after which the hump-ribs can be unjointed where they unite with the spine. The marrow, when roasted in the bones, is delicious.


     Of all game quadrupeds indigenous to this continent, the common red deer is probably more widely dispersed from north to south and from east to west over our vast possessions than any other. They are found in all latitudes from Hudson's Bay to Mexico, and they clamber over the most elevated peaks of the western sierras with the same ease that they range the eastern forests or the everglades of Florida. In summer they crop the grass upon the summits of the Rocky Mountains, and in winter, when the snow falls deep, they descend into sheltered valleys, where they fall an easy prey to the Indians.

     Besides the common red deer of the Eastern States, two other varieties are found in the Rocky Mountains, viz., the " black -tailed deer," which takes its name from the fact of its having a small tuft of black hair upon the end of its tail, and the long-tailed species. The former of these is considerably larger than the eastern deer, and is much darker, being of a very deep-yellowish iron-gray, with a yellowish red upon the belly. It frequents the mountains, and is never seen far away from them. Its habits are similar to those of the red deer, and it is hunted in the same way. The only difference I have been able to discern between the long-tailed variety and the common deer is in the length of the tail and body. I have seen this animal only in the neighborhood of the Rocky Mountains, but it may resort to other localities.

     Although the deer are still abundant in many of our forestdistricts in the east, and do not appear to decrease very rapidly, yet there has within a few years been a very evident diminution in the numbers of those frequenting our Western prairies. In passing through Southern Texas in 1846, thousands of deer were met with daily, and, astonishing as it may appear, it was no uncommon spectacle to see from one to two hundred in a single herd; the prairies seemed literally alive with them; but in 1855 it was seldom that a herd of ten was seen in the same localities. It seemed to me that the vast herds first met with could not have been killed off by the hunters in that sparsely-populated section, and I was puzzled to know what had become of them. It is possible they may have moved off into Mexico; they certainly are not in our territory at the present time.

      Twenty years' experience in deer-hunting has taught me several facts relative to the habits of the animal which, when wellunderstood, will be found of much service to the inexperienced hunter, and greatly contribute to his success. The best target-shots are not necessarily the most skillful deerstalkers. One of the great secrets of this art is in knowing how to approach the game without giving alarm, and this can not easily be done unless the hunter sees it before he is himself discovered. There are so many objects in the woods resembling the deer in color that none but a practiced eye can often detect the difference.

     When the deer is reposing he generally turns his head from the wind, in which position he can see an enemy approaching from that direction, and his nose will apprise him of the presence of danger from the opposite side. The best method of hunting deer, therefore, is across the wind.

     While the deer are feeding, early in the morning and a short time before dark in the evening are the best times to stalk them, as they are then busily occupied and less on the alert. When a deer is espied with his head down, cropping the grass, the hunter advances cautiously, keeping his eyes constantly directed upon him, and screening himself behind intervening objects, or, in the absence of other cover, crawls along upon his hands and knees in the grass, until the deer hears his steps and raises his head, when he must instantly stop and remain in an attitude fixed and motionless as a statue, for the animal's vision is his keenest sense. When alarmed he will detect the slightest movement of a small object, and, unless the hunter stands or lies perfectly still, his presence will be detected. If the hunter does not move, the deer will, after a short time, recover from his alarm and resume his grazing, when he may be again approached. The deer always exhibits his alarm by a sudden jerking of the tail just before he raises his head.

     I once saw a Delaware Indian walk directly up within rifle range of a deer that was feeding upon the open prairie and shoot him down; he was, however, a long time in approaching, and made frequent halts whenever the animal flirted his tail and raised his head. Although he often turned toward the hunter, yet he did not appear to notice him, probably taking him for a stump or tree.

     When the deer are lying down in the smooth prairie, unless the grass is tall, it is difficult to get near them, as they are generally looking around, and become alarmed at the least noise.

     The Indians are in the habit of using a small instrument which imitates the bleat of the young fawn, with which they lure the doe within range of their rifles. The young fawn gives out no scent upon its track until it is sufficiently grown to make good running, and instinct teaches the mother that this wise provision of nature to preserve the helpless little quadruped from the ravages of wolves, panthers, and other carnivorous beasts, will be defeated if she remains with it, as her tracks can not be concealed. She therefore hides her fawn in the grass, where it is almost impossible to see it, even when very near it, goes off to some neighboring thicket within call, and makes her bed alone. The Indian pot-hunter, who is but little scrupulous as to the means he employs in accomplishing his ends, sounds the bleat along near the places where he thinks the game is lying, and the unsuspicious doe, who imagines that her offspring is in distress, rushes with headlong impetuosity toward the sound, and often goes within a few yards of the hunter to receive her death-wound.

     This is cruel sport, and can only be justified when meat is scarce, which is very frequently the case in the Indian's larder.

     It does not always comport with a man's feelings of security, especially if he happens to be a little nervous, to sound the deer-bleat in a wild region of country. I once undertook to experiment with the instrument myself, and made my first essay in attempting to call up an antelope which I discovered in the distance. I succeeded admirably in luring the wary victim within shooting range, had raised upon my knees, and was just in the act of pulling trigger, when a rustling in the grass on my left drew my attention in that direction, where, much to my surprise, I beheld a huge panther within about twenty yards, bounding with gigantic strides directly toward me. I turned my rifle, and in an instant, much to my relief and gratification, its contents were lodged in the heart of the beast.

     Many men, when they suddenly encounter a deer, are seized with nervous excitement, called in sporting parlance the "buck fever," which causes them to fire at random. Notwithstanding I have had much experience in hunting, I must confess that I am never entirely free from some of the symptoms of this malady when firing at large game, and I believe that in four out of five cases where I have missed the game my balls have passed too high. I have endeavored to obviate this by sighting my rifle low, and it has been attended with more successful results. The same remarks apply to most other men I have met with. They fire too high when excited.


Illustration: Calling Up Antelopes.

     This animal frequents the most elevated bleak and naked prairies in all latitudes from Mexico to Oregon, and constitutes an important item of subsistence with many of the Prairie Indians. It is the most wary, timid, and fleet animal that inhabits the Plains. It is about the size of a small deer, with a heavy coating of coarse, wiry hair, and its flesh is more tender and juicy than that of the deer. It seldom enters a timbered country, but seems to delight in cropping the grass from the elevated swells of the prairies. When disturbed by the traveler, it will circle around him with the speed of the wind, but does not stop until it reaches some prominent position whence it can survey the country on all sides, and nothing seems to escape its keen vision. They will sometimes stand for a long time and look at a man, provided he does not move or go out of sight; but if he goes behind a hill with the intention of passing around and getting nearer to them, he will never find them again in the same place. I have often tried the experiment, and invariably found that, as soon as I went where the antelope could not see me, he moved off. Their sense of hearing, as well as vision, is very acute, which renders it difficult to stalk them. By taking advantage of the cover afforded in broken ground, the hunter may, by moving slowly and cautiously over the crests of the irregularities in the surface, sometimes approach within rifle range.

     The antelope possesses a greater degree of curiosity than any other animal I know of, and will often approach very near a strange object. The experienced hunter, taking advantage of this peculiarity, lies down and secretes himself in the grass, after which he raises his handkerchief, hand, or foot, so as to attract the attention of the animal, and thus often succeeds in beguiling him within shooting distance.

     In some valleys near the Rocky Mountains, where the pasturage is good during the winter season, they collect in immense herds. The Indians are in the habit of surrounding them in such localities and running them with their horses until they tire them out, when they slay large numbers.

     The antelope makes a track much shorter than the deer, very broad and round at the heel, and quite sharp at the toe; a little experience renders it easy to distinguish them.


     Besides the common black bear of the Eastern States, several others are found in the mountains of California, Oregon, Utah, and New Mexico, viz., the grizzly, brown, and cinnamon varieties; all have nearly the same habits, and are hunted in the same manner.

     From all I had heard of the grizzly bear, I was induced to believe him one of the most formidable and savage animals in the universe, and that the man who would deliberately encounter and kill one of these beasts had performed a signal feat of courage which entitled him to a lofty position among the votaries of Nimrod. So firmly had I become impressed with this conviction, that I should have been very reluctant to fire upon one had I met him when alone and on foot. The grizzly bear is assuredly the monarch of the American forests, and, so far as physical strength is concerned, he is perhaps without a rival in the world; but, after some experience in hunting, my opinions regarding his courage and his willingness to attack men have very materially changed.

     In passing over the elevated table-lands lying between the two forksof the Platte River in 1858, I encountered a full-grown female grizzly bear, with two cubs, very quietly reposing upon the open prairie, several miles distant from any timber. This being the first opportunity that had ever occurred to me for an encounter with the ursine monster, and being imbued with the most exalted notions of the beast's proclivities for offensive warfare, especially when in the presence of her offspring, it may very justly be imagined that I was rather more excited than usual. I, however, determined to make the assault. I felt the utmost confidence in my horse, as she was afraid of nothing; and, after arranging every thing about my saddle and arms in good order, I advanced to within about eighty yards before I was discovered by the bear, when she raised upon her haunches and gave me a scrutinizing examination. I seized this opportune moment to fire, but missed my aim, and she started off, followed by her cubs at their utmost speed. After reloading my rifle, I pursued, and, on coming again within range, delivered another shot, which struck the large bear in the fleshy part of the thigh, whereupon she set up a most distressing howl and accelerated her pace, leaving her cubs behind. After loading again I gave spurs to my horse and resume the chase, soon passing the cubs, who were making the most plaintive cries of distress. They were heard by the dam, but she gave no other heed to them than occasionally to halt for an instant, turn around, sit up on her posteriors, and give a hasty look back; but, as soon as she saw me following her, she invariably turned again and redoubled her speed. I pursued about four miles and fired four balls into her before I succeeded in bringing her to the ground, and from the time I first saw her until her death-wound, notwithstanding I was often very close upon

     her heels, she never came to bay or made the slightest demonstration of resistance. Her sole purpose seemed to be to make her escape, leaving her cubs in the most cowardly manner.

     Upon three other different occasions I met the mountain bears, and once the cinnamon species, which is called the most formidable of all, and in none of these instances did they exhibit the slightest indication of anger or resistance, but invariably ran from me.

     Such is my experience with this formidable monarch of the mountains. It is possible that if a man came suddenly upon the beast in a thicket, where it could have no previous warning, he might be attacked; but it is my opinion that if the bear gets the wind or sight of a man at any considerable distance, it will endeavor to get away as soon as possible. I am so fully impressed with this idea that I shall hereafter hunt bear with a feeling of as much security as I would have in hunting the buffalo.

     The grizzly, like the black bear, hybernates in winter, and makes his appearance in the spring with his claws grown out long and very soft and tender; he is then poor, and unfit for food.

     I have heard a very curious fact stated by several old mountaineers regarding the mountain bears, which, of course, I can not vouch for, but it is given by them with great apparent sincerity and candor. They assert that no instance has ever been known of a female bear having been killed in a state of pregnancy. This singular fact in the history of the animal seems most inexplicable to me, unless she remain concealed in her brumal slumber until after she has been delivered of her cubs.

     I was told by an old Delaware Indian that when the bear has been traveling against the wind and wishes to lie down, he always turns in an opposite direction, and goes some distance away from his first track before making his bed. If an enemy then comes upon his trail, his keen sense of smell will apprise him of the danger. The same Indian mentioned that when a bear had been pursued and sought shelter in a cave, he had often endeavored to eject him with smoke, but that the bear would advance to the mouth of the cave, where the fire was burning, and put it out with his paws, then retreat into the cave again. This would indicate that Bruin is endowed with some glimpses of reason beyond the ordinary instincts of the brute creation in general, and, indeed, is capable of discerning the connection between cause and effect. Notwithstanding the extraordinary intelligence which this quadruped exhibits upon some occasions, upon others he shows himself to be one of the most stupid brutes imaginable. For example, when he has taken possession of a cavern, and the courageous hunter enters with a torch and rifle, it is said he will, instead of forcibly ejecting the intruder, raise himself upon his haunches and cover his eyes with his paws, so as to exclude the light, apparently thinking that in this situation he can not be seen. The hunter can then approach as close as he pleases and shoot him down.


      The big-horn or mountain sheep, which has a body like the deer, with the head of a sheep, surmounted by an enormous pair of short, heavy horns, is found throughout the Rocky Mountains, and resorts to the most inaccessible peaks and to the wildest and least-frequented glens. It clambers over almost perpendicular cliffs with the greatest ease and celerity, and skips from rock to rock, cropping the tender herbage that grows upon them.

      It has been supposed by some that this animal leaps down from crag to crag, lighting upon his horns, as an evidence of which it has been advanced that the front part of the horns is often much battered. This I believe to be erroneous, as it is very common to see horns that have no bruises upon them.

     The old mountaineers say they have often seen the bucks engaged in desperate encounters with their huge horns, which in striking together, made loud reports. This will account for the marks sometimes seen upon them.

     The flesh of the big-horn, when fat, is more tender, juicy, and delicious than that of any other animal I know of, but it is a bon bouche which will not grace the tables of our city epicures until a railroad to the Rocky Mountains affords the means of transporting it to a market a thousand miles distant from its haunts.

     In its habits the mountain sheep greatly resembles the chamois of Switzerland, and it is hunted in the same manner. The hunter traverses the most inaccessible and broken localities, moving along with great caution, as the least unusual noise causes them to flit away like a phantom, and they will be seen no more. The animal is gregarious, but it is seldom that more than eight or ten are found in a flock. When not grazing they seek the sheltered sides of the mountains, and repose among the rocks.

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