Authentic Research

Killing a bull buffalo from horseback with a bow and arrow (Excerpt from Hoofbeats)

lee_nelson_shooting-buffalo

While writing The Storm Testament series, I was doing a lot of reading on Indians and Indian lore to find material to use in my continuing story. One day, in getting ready to write about my hero Dan Storm going on his first buffalo hunt with his Indian friends, I simply could not find the information I needed in the library. Nobody who had ever killed a buffalo from the back of a galloping horse with a bow and arrow had ever written about it. I found a Mormon pioneer journal entry where Porter Rockwell and some of his friends dared each other to ride horses in front of stampeding buffalo bulls to see if the balls from the rider’s guns could penetrate the thick skulls. But no one had done it the Indian way and written about it. How hard was it to train the horse? Indians claimed their forefathers had sophisticated training methods that were now lost. How hard was it to kill the buffalo? How dangerous was it?

My research told me that before the horse came along, the Plains Indians and surrounding tribes lived a pretty much hand-to-mouth survival existence. But the tribes who learned to chase herds of buffalo on horseback, with a single warrior sometimes killing as many as half a dozen animals in a single hunt, now had plenty of food if they made pemmican and jerky to carry them through the lean months. With abundant food, these tribes had more time for war, religion, travel, trade, and harassing their neighbors by stealing horses and women.

I decided that since I couldn’t find anything in the library, this was a research project I could conduct myself. The first thing I did was place an ad in the classified section of the newspaper announcing I was looking for a buffalo horse to do research on the hunting methods of the Plains Indians. I received a number of interesting calls.

One lady tried to sell me an Arabian mare because that breed has the most endurance, she claimed. A man said I should buy his thoroughbred, the only breed of horse in the world bred entirely for athletic ability and speed. A couple of quarter horse people called and said their horses had cow sense, which could be translated into buffalo sense. These horses were bred to follow their prey. Of course, someone wanted to sell me a mustang, the original breed used by Indians to chase buffalo.

In the end I didn’t buy a new horse but decided to use a four-year-old quarter horse I had raised from a colt. He was athletic and seemed to have plenty of speed. At first I hired a professional horse trainer, Virgil Neeves, to start my buffalo horse, but when I saw Virgil trotting around in a pen with a bunch of cows, shooting an arrow here and there, I decided the horse needed a more aggressive brand of training, and so did I.

In an effort to develop my skill with the bow and arrow while riding a horse, I started galloping through Mapleton hay fields, shooting arrows into bales of hay on the ground. When I told Browning Arms in Morgan, Utah, about my research, they provided me with two Bantum compound bows, short and powerful. I had learned that when Indians started chasing buffalo on horseback, they started using shorter bows, because maneuverability was more important than the accuracy made possible with long bows.

Then I started taking my horse Sonny to roping arenas where team roping was going on. I talked the cowboys into letting me practice on their roping steers. I was using a plastic bow I bought for my son Russell at Kmart when he was six. I wrapped duct tape on the tips of the arrows to make them less dangerous. I would shoot one of the cowboys in the leg to show him my arrows would not hurt the roping cattle. Or course, I promised to buy any I might hit in the eye, but I never hurt any cattle.

When they let the roping steer out of the chute, I galloped out of the heeler’s box on the right side of the chute. I rode Sonny into position, dropped the reins, and started shooting arrows. If the horse got too close or out of position, I would grab the reins and get him back to the right spot, his nose five or six feet to the right of the cow’s right hip. From there my arrow could enter the chest cavity from behind the rib cage. In that position I was far enough from the steer’s head that I usually did not head him off to the left. And from that position behind the running target, it would be harder for an angry buffalo to turn and jab me or my horse with his horns.

After a dozen or so runs, Sonny knew his job. Contrary to what some Indians had told me, no sophisticated horse training was necessary. Someone would let the steer out of the chute, Sonny would run to the desired position near the right hip and stay there while I shot arrow after arrow at the running steer, aiming at the soft spot behind the last rib. After a hundred or so practice runs, I could hit the target almost every time.

If I wanted him to get a little closer to the steer or move a little further away, instead of picking up the reins, all I had to do was apply leg pressure. He had learned to move away from pressure.

In my reading I learned that Indians who chased buffalo with bows and arrows quickly abandoned bareback riding and started using crude saddles with stirrups. I assumed this change was made so the riders would not fall off so easily, but as I continued to practice, I discovered that when I rode bareback style like an Indian, my behind was flat on the horse’s back, going up and down, forward and back with the movement of the horse. My arrows were not very accurate. But when I rode like a cowboy, weight in the stirrups, my behind off the saddle, and my knees absorbing the up and down movement of the horse, my arrows were much more accurate. As I watched calf and team roping competitions more carefully, it became apparent that all the good and accurate ropers also rode with their stirrups. So that’s how I practiced.

While Sonny and I were perfecting our skills, I started calling Indian reservations and ranches with herds of buffalo requesting permission to kill one of their buffalo the old-fashioned way. The reservation Indians were not cooperative at all. It was as if they resented a white man wanting to do something that only Indians had a right to do.

A Blackfoot Indian in Montana told me it couldn’t be done by a white man like me, that what I was trying to do was too dangerous and I shouldn’t do it because I would get killed. When I asked how members of his tribe hunted the buffalo on their reservation, he said they drove around in pickup trucks, shooting the animals with high-powered rifles.

The private buffalo ranchers weren’t any more cooperative. Though they let hunters pay them high fees to shoot their bison with rifles, they weren’t about to let me stampede the animals by chasing them on a horse. One Wyoming rancher told me that when he let a television crew from Hollywood stampede his herd, the frightened animals went through his fences and then the neighbors’ fences. He said it took all summer to get them back home again. He wasn’t about to let that happen a second time.

I ended up buying a buffalo, a two-year-old bull that weighed about nine hundred pounds, from Dr. Otto Jones in South Jordan. He was buying up bison to develop a ranch in Wyoming. I found a valley east of Stockton, Utah, south of Tooele, where the owner had maintained a herd of about three hundred buffalo at one time, though the valley was no longer fenced to contain bison. When I told him what I intended to do, he described how his buffalo had killed several of his prize quarter horses. With the sharp, upturned horns, the bison instinctively knew how to get under a horse’s belly and rip it open, allowing the entrails to fall down. He said there was a good chance this two-year-old would do that to my horse. He said if I had any brains, I would let the buffalo out of the trailer, shoot it with a 30.06, shove an arrow in the bullet hole, and then start taking pictures. No one would ever know that I had cheated.

One of my concerns was that my horse, who had been trained on live cattle, would think the buffalo was a different kind of beast and refuse to chase it. Sometimes when an otherwise good cow horse comes upon a goat or a llama for the first time, he is afraid of it. Plus I was worried that much of the valley where I intended to conduct the chase was strewn with rocks and boulders. I asked Virgil what I should do if the buffalo ran through one of the rocky areas and if Sonny would be able to run through the rough terrain. He said Sonny was horse enough if I was man enough.

I arrived at Otto’s place in South Jordan early on a Saturday morning. After handing him a check for $550, we ran the buffalo into my two-horse trailer. He tried to run right on through, and then he spun around to test the rear doors we had just closed. He was a wild animal, not a domestic cow. I didn’t have any breakfast that morning while driving out to Stockton.

I had plenty of help to conduct my experiment. Virgil came along to see how the horse would do. Bob Davis, a rodeo cowboy, was there with his rope. I had given him permission to rope the buffalo if I missed with the arrows. My neighbor Jeff Kennedy brought his 30.06 rifle with the intent to kill the buffalo and save my life in the event it charged me. My boys’ scoutmaster Bruce Palmer had come along to help. My friend Ray Virchow had come too. Bruce Elm, a computer programmer from work, came to take pictures. I had also hired Rell Francis, a professional photographer from Springville. We set up two tepees so everyone would have a place to sleep if they decided to stay over. Jeff, Bruce, and I planned to stay the entire weekend, making pemmican and jerky, tanning the hide, and cooking up Indian recipes. My four oldest boys were there, along with a dozen or so children belonging to others who came to help.

When I pulled the trailer into an open area at the bottom of the little valley, everyone was there. My horse was saddled and ready for the action to begin. A quiver full of arrows was strapped over my shoulder. The photographers had moved to the upper end of the valley where we thought the buffalo would want to go. They were hiding in gullies and behind bushes so they would not alarm the buffalo, possibly causing it to turn in the wrong direction.

By this time I had heard so many stories about the dangers of free-roaming buffalo that when I looked around and saw so many children, I became concerned. We couldn’t risk a child being gored. I ordered the children to crowd into Bob Davis’s four-horse trailer where they could peer between the steel side panels. I gave them strict orders not to leave the trailer until the buffalo was dead.

With the children safely confined, I rode Sonny to the side of my trailer and nodded for the rear gate to be opened. The buffalo didn’t hit the ground running. He wasn’t sure of his new surroundings, so he cautiously stepped out of the trailer, looked around, and then started trotting to the open area away from the vehicles and tepees. I loped alongside, hazing him in the direction I wanted him to go. I drew an arrow from the quiver.

That’s when I noticed a lot of noise behind me, the sound one hears when driving by an elementary school at recess. I looked back. The children had opened the rear door of the trailer and were running after me. About that time, the buffalo turned into my horse, like he was going to give me a jab with his right horn. I had dropped the reins, but before I could grab them, Sonny laid back his ears, a warning to the bison to stay away. Sonny then turned away himself so he could maintain a healthy distance between himself and the bison. The horse wasn’t excited at all. This seemed routine business for him, just like when we chased the roping steers. I was glad for that.

By now the buffalo had stopped and was looking back at the gang of children who were running toward us. Virgil and Bob were galloping forward on their horses in an effort to get between the children and the bison.

The buffalo had seen enough. He turned away from the approaching hoard and started galloping toward the open part of the valley. I galloped alongside and let the first arrow fly. I didn’t miss. The only part of the arrow I could still see was the feathers. It had penetrated that far, but the buffalo continued to gallop along as if nothing had happened, though I began to see red foamy blood bubbling from his mouth and nose. This told me the lungs had been punctured and that the wound was fatal.

I shot a second arrow, but I was closer to the buffalo’s head by now. The arrow hit a rib and didn’t go in very far. I later discovered the rib was broken from the impact of the arrow, but the arrow did not penetrate deep enough to do any real damage. Had that been the first arrow, I might have had one angry beast on my hands. But the first arrow was fatal. The buffalo’s lungs were now filled with blood. He gradually slowed to a stop, turned around, and fell to the ground.

Everyone gathered around to watch the butchering. Rell Francis, the photographer, pulled me aside to let me know that he had become so frightened when he saw the buffalo galloping toward him that he had not taken any pictures. I was devastated until Bruce Elm assured me that he had taken a ton of photos. So had Ray Virchow.

Before beginning the butchering, I had to experiment with an old mountain man custom, founded in a belief that if certain parts of the dead animal were eaten raw, the virility of the animal would transfer to the man who had made the kill. I cut out a raw testicle, gnawed off a huge chunk of it, and began to chew. Kind of slippery tasting; I do not recommend it.

When I am describing this event in speeches, if the audience is comprised of adults, I say that the virility experiment was a failure. My wife said she didn’t notice any difference at all.

Since we were out in the flat and, like the Plains Indians, had no way to hang up the animal for normal white man butchering, we went about it the Indian way. We skinned back the hide on the top surface, removed all the meat, and then rolled the animal over so we could remove the hide from the other side and get at those cuts of meat. When all the meat was safely and cleanly tucked in sacks, we finally cut open the inner cavity, removing entrails, heart, lungs, liver and so on. By saving the messy part to last, we were able to keep the meat relatively clean.

Bruce, Jeff and I, and our children stayed there for several days scraping flesh off the hide and rubbing raw brains into it, making pemmican and jerky, and trying recipes I had discovered in the books I was reading on the Plains Indians.

I had to try a favorite Blackfoot recipe called Crow Guts. You take a section of small intestine more than a foot long and turn it inside out so the fat is on the inside. You then stuff it full of pieces of meat and tie a knot at both ends so it looks like a big, bumpy hot dog. You cook it a long time on a bed of hot coals to allow the meat to simmer in the melted intestine fat.

I tried to make crow guts three times, but the meat always had kind of a manure flavor. Not very good—I didn’t like it. Months later, when I described this process to a Blackfoot Indian, he guessed I forgot to wash the intestine before stuffing in the meat. It never occurred to me to wash the intestine. Maybe that was the problem.

When I got home, I wrote an article about my research with the bison and included plenty of photos. The Journal published it, as well as most of the newspapers that were serializing The Storm Testament. 

This piece of publicity really set me apart from the armchair writers who never seem to get out and do the things they write about. While the research with the buffalo helped me be more realistic and graphic in my descriptions, I can’t deny that there was a huge benefit in the amount of publicity it generated about my books and me as an author.

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