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- The Great Salt Lake Trail - 7/86 -


that was prepared and on the lookout.

Captain Williams was a man of the most persistent perseverance, patience, and unflinching courage, coupled with that determination of character which has been the saving attribute of nearly all our famous mountaineers from the earliest days. His men, too, were all used to the privations and hardships that a life on the border demands, for Missouri, at the time of the expedition, was a wilderness in the most rigid definition of the term. All were splendid shots with the rifle, and could hit the eye of a squirrel whether the animal stood still or was running up the trunk of a tree.

The distance they travelled each day averaged about twenty-five miles. When they were ready to camp, they selected a position where wood and water were plentiful, and the grass good for their animals. For the first eight or ten nights they would kindle great fires, around which they gathered, ate the fat venison their hunters had killed through the day, and told stories of hunting and logging back in the mighty forests of Missouri. When they reached the region of the Platte they were forced to abandon this careless practice, for they were now entering a region infested by hostile savages, and they found it necessary to act upon the suggestions of the Mandan chief, and be constantly on their guard.

For the distance of about two hundred and fifty miles from the Missouri they did not find game very abundant, although they never suffered, as there was always enough to supply their wants. The timber began to thin out too, and they were obliged to resort for their fire to the bois de vache, or buffalo-chips.

One day, two of the hunters killed a brace of very fat deer close to camp, and when the animals were dressed and their carcasses hung up to a huge limb, the viscera and other offal attracted a band of hungry wolves. Not less than twenty of the impudent, famishing brutes battened in luxurious frenzy on the inviting entrails and feet of the slaughtered deer. The wolves were of all sizes and colours; those that were the largest kept their smaller congeners away from the feast until they were themselves gorged, and then allowed the little ones to gather up the fragments. While the latter were waiting their turn with a constant whining and growling, the dogs of the expedition barked an accompaniment to the howls of the impatient animals, and soon made a break for the pack. They chased them around the trees and out on the open prairie, when they turned upon the dogs and drove them back to camp. One of the most plucky of the dogs made a bold stand, but was seized by as many of the wolves as could get hold of him, and he was torn to shreds almost instantly.

The trappers did not want to waste any lead on the worthless animals, but in the darkness set some of their beaver-traps, which they baited with pieces of venison suspended just above them on a projecting limb of a tree. In the morning, when the trappers went out to look for their supposed victims, both the meat and the traps were gone. They had, in their inexperience, forgotten to fasten the traps to anything, and if any of the wolves were caught, they had walked off, traps and all!

While all were at breakfast, one of the mortified hunters, disgusted at the loss of his trap, went off with the intention of tracking the wolf that had carried it away, thinking perhaps if the animal had got rid of it he would find it on its trail. Sure enough, a wolf had been caught by this man's trap, and in dragging it along had left in the grass a very distinct trail, by which he was easily followed. He was tracked into a thicket of hazel, entrance to which was almost impossible, so rank and tangled was its growth. No doubt the wolf was alive, but how to recover his trap was an enigma to the hunter. He called the dogs and endeavoured to get them to go in, but, after their experience of the night before, they, with the most terrible howls, declined to make the attempt. Then it was observed that near the clump of hazel was a large oak-tree, from whose limbs an extended view of the centre of the thicket could be had. One of the hunters, at the suggestion of Captain Williams, climbed the tree, and shot the wolf with his rifle. The danger having passed, the wolf was dragged from his retreat, and it was discovered that one of his forefeet had been caught in the trap. He was an immense fellow, and nearly black in colour.

In the early days of the frontier, the following method was sometimes employed to rid a camp of wolves. Several fishhooks were tied together by their shanks, with a sinew, and the whole placed in the centre of a piece of tempting fresh meat, which was dropped where the bait was most likely to be found by the prowling beasts. The hooks were so completely buried in the meat as to prevent their being shaken off by the animal that seized the bait. It is an old trapper's belief that a wolf never takes up a piece of food without shaking it well before he attempts to eat it, so that when the unlucky animal had swallowed the wicked morsel, he commenced at once to howl most horribly, tear his neck, and run incontinently from the place. As wolves rarely travel alone, but are gregarious in their habits, the moment the brute has swallowed the bait and commenced to run, all make after him. His fleeing is contagious, and they seldom come back to that spot again. Sometimes the pack will run for fifty miles before stopping.

One night, while encamped on the Platte, five of their horses were missing when daylight came. At first they thought the Indians had run them off; but, on second thought, Captain Williams argued that the animals could not have been stolen. If the Indians had been able to take the five, they could as easily have taken the whole herd. This induced the men to go out and institute a search for the missing animals. Their trail, made very plain by the dew, was soon found in the grass, and soon all were returned to camp. The horses had cleared themselves of their hobbles, and were going off in the direction of their far-away home, and it was not until dark that the camp was reached. Thus a whole day was lost, but as they were yet within comparatively safe distance of the river, no harm resulted from their carelessness. Now greater caution must be observed, for their journey was to be a long one; it led through a region occupied by hostile tribes who would watch them with an energy possible only to the North American savage. The Indians would waylay them in every ravine, watch them every moment from the hilltops for the purpose of gaining an advantage, hoping always to surprise them, steal their horses, and take their scalps if possible.

From that day the company adopted new tactics; they travelled until an hour before sundown, then halted, unsaddled their animals, and picketed them out to graze. In the meantime their supper was prepared, the fires lighted, and, after resting long enough for their horses to have filled themselves, generally after dark, they were brought in, saddled, the fires were renewed, and the company would start on for another camp eight or ten miles away, before again halting for the night. Of course, at the new camp no fires were kindled, and the men rested in security from a possible attack by the savages.

One day the company came upon a band of friendly Kansas Indians who were out on an annual buffalo-hunt, and Captain Williams resolved to spend two or three days with this tribe, and indulge in a buffalo-hunt with them. The whole country through which they were now travelling was literally covered with the great shaggy monsters; thousands and thousands could be seen from every point. The buffalo had not yet been frightened. Early the next morning, a dozen of the Kansas Indians, splendidly mounted, with spears, bows, and arrows for weapons, with the same number of Captain Williams' men, started for the herd grazing so unsuspiciously a few miles off. The Indians were not only excellent hunters, but very superior horsemen, their animals familiar with the habits of the huge beasts they were to encounter, and well-trained in all the quick movements so necessary to a successful hunt. But it was not so with the men of Captain Williams' party. Many of them had never seen a buffalo before, and though skilful hunters in their native woods on the Missouri River, they were wholly unacquainted with the habits of the immense beasts they were now to kill. Their horses, too, were as unused to the sight of a buffalo as their riders, and in consequence were badly frightened at the first sight of the ungainly animals. The men, of course, used their rifles, which in those days were altogether too cumbersome for hunting the buffalo.

The party soon came in view of the herd, which was quietly grazing about a mile off. Then the men dismounted, cinched up their saddles, and getting their arms ready for the attack, in a few moments of brisk riding were on the edge of the vast herd. Every man picked out his quarry and dashed after it, the Indians selecting the bulls, as they were fatter at that time of year. The cows had calves at their sides and were much thinner. In a moment the very earth seemed to tremble under the sharp clatter of the hoofs of the now thoroughly alarmed beasts, and the sound as they dashed away was like distant thunder. The Indians and their horses seemed to understand their business at once. Advancing up to a buffalo, the savage discharged his bow and launched his spear with unerring aim, and the moment it was seen that a buffalo was mortally wounded, off he would ride to another animal, leaving the dying victim where it fell.

For more than two hours the hard work was kept up until a dozen or more of the huge bulls were dead upon the prairie within the radius of a couple of miles. The Indians had averaged more than a buffalo apiece, while Captain Williams' men had signally failed to bring down a single bull, because they were unable to handle their rifles while riding. In fact, several of the white men were carried away by their unmanageable animals for miles from the scene of the hunt. One was thrown from his saddle. One horse had in his mad fright rushed upon an infuriated bull that had been wounded, and was disembowelled and killed in a moment. Its rider was compelled to walk to the camp, deeply mortified at his discomfiture.

The savages invariably exercised an amount of coolness on a buffalo-hunt that would astonish the average white man. They never let an arrow fly until they were certain of its effect. Sometimes a single arrow would suffice to kill the largest of bulls. Sometimes, so great was the force given, an arrow would pass obliquely through the body, when a bone was not struck in its passage.

Captain Williams' party had now an abundance of delicious buffalo meat, but it was at the expense of a horse, a considerable balance on the debtor side, considering the long and weary march yet to be made. Providence seems to have come luckily to the relief of the party at this juncture, for, one of the savages having taken a particular fancy to one of the dogs of the outfit, he offered to exchange a fine young horse for it. His offer was gladly acceded to by the captain. The Indian was pleased with the bargain, but not more so than the horseless hunter.

The next day Captain Williams crossed the Platte a short distance below the junction of the North and South Forks, and just before sundown, as usual, halted to graze the horses and prepare their evening meal. In a few moments the dog that had been exchanged for a horse came into camp, and appeared overjoyed to see his white friends again. A piece of buffalo-hide was attached to his neck. He had been tied, but had succeeded in gnawing the lariat in two, and thus made his escape, following the trail of the party he knew so well.

The region through which Captain Williams' party was now travelling


The Great Salt Lake Trail - 7/86

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