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The frontispiece prefixed to this volume exhibits a lively representation of the noblest sport practiced upon this continent the hunting of the buffalo. These animals were formerly spread over the whole of the great western valley, and formed the most important article of food, not only for the natives, but the early white settlers of that fertile region. They retired in the country became settled by civilized men, and are now found only on the great prairies of the far West, whose immense extent, with the scarcity of timber and water, renders them uninhabitable by human beings. Here these animals are seen congregated in numbers which seem almost incredible. As the eye roves over a verdant surface, nearly as boundless as that of the ocean, the herds are beheld grazing over the whole of the wide space, in countless multitude.
The buffalo, though large and unwieldy, is not easily approached by the hunter. Extremely vigilant, and gifted with an exquisite sense of smelling, they readily discover the scent of a human being, and fly before him with precipitation. The Indians overcome this wariness by a variety of devices. Sometimes, having killed the prairie wolf, of which the buffalo has no fear, an Indian wraps him self in the skin, keeping the head in its proper position, and drags himself slowly towards the grazing herd, taking care to advance from the leeward, so that the watchful animal shall not scent his approach upon the tainted breeze. When the object is first seen, the buffaloes raise their heads, and eye it suspiciously, but the appearance of the wolf’s head, with which they are familiar, reassures them nor are they undeceived until their wily foe darts his arrow into one of the fattest of the herd, with an aim so true, that it is sure to pierce a vital part. Pitfalls and enclosures are also sometimes contrived. But, although these devices are practiced, the number thus taken is inconsiderable; and the only mode of taking this noble prey, which is commonly practiced, is that of meeting him openly in the field. For this purpose most of the tribes who reside in the vicinity of the great plains, resort to them, after having planted their corn in the spring, and spend the whole summer and autumn in the chase. As the buffaloes often change their pastures, and the laws which direct their migrations are but imperfectly known, the wanderings of the natives in search of them are often long and wearisome; hundreds of miles are sometimes traversed by a wayworn and starving band, before they are gladdened by the sight of their favorite game. Sometimes they are mocked by discovering the foot-prints of a retreating herd, which they pursue for days with unavailing toil; not infrequently a hostile clan crosses their track, and they are obliged to diverge from their intended course; arid sometimes having reached a suitable hunting-ground, they find it preoccupied by those with whom they cannot safely mingle, nor prudently contend.
At last the young men, who scout in advance of the main body, espy the black, slow, moving mass, wading in the rich pasture, and preparations are made for a grand hunt. An encampment is made at a spot affording fuel and water; the women erect lodges, and all is joy and bustle. But the hunting is not commenced without due solemnity. It is not a mere sport in which they are about to engage, but a national business, that is to supply the summer’s sustenance and the winter’s store, as well as to afford a harvest of valuable articles for traffic. Horses and harness are inspected; weapons are put in order; the medicine men practice incantations; offerings are made to the Great Spirit; the solemnities of the dance are gone through; and the more superstitious of the warriors often impose upon themselves the austerities of fasting, wounding the body, and incessant prayer, during the night, or even a longer period, preceding the hunt. Duly prepared at length, they mount for the chase, well furnished with arms, but divested of all superfluous clothing and furniture and approach the herd cautiously from the leeward, keeping some copse, or swell of the land, between themselves and the game, until they get near enough to charge, when the whole band rush at full speed upon the herd. The frighted buffaloes fly at the first appearance of their enemies. The hunters pursue; each selects his prey, choosing with ready skill the finest and fattest of those near him. The horse being the fleeter animal, soon overtakes the buffalo. The hunter drops the bridle-rein, fixes his arrow, and guiding his well-trained horse with his heel, and by the motion of his own body, watches his opportunity to let fly the weapon with fatal aim. This he does not do until his steed is abreast of the buffalo, and the vital part, immediately behind the shoulder, fairly presented; for it is considered disgraceful to discharge an arrow without effect. Usually, there fore, the wound is fatal, and instances have been known when the missile has been sent with such force as to pass through the body of this sturdy quadruped. If, however, the first arrow is but partially successful, the hunter draws another, the horse ‘ continuing to run by the side of the buffalo. But the chase now becomes more dangerous, for the wounded buffalo not infrequently turns upon his assailant, and dashing his horns furiously into the flank of the horse, prostrates him, mortally wounded, on the plain, and pursuing his advantage, tramples on horse and rider, unless the latter escapes by mere agility. When, however, the hunter discovers that the first or second arrow has taken effect, he reins up his steed, pauses a moment until he sees the huge beast reel and tumble, and then dashes away into the chase to select and slay another victim. Thus an expert and well-mounted hunter will kill several buffaloes in one day especially if the band be numerous, and so divided as to have reserved parties to meet and drive back the retreating herd.
When the slaughter ceases, the hunters retrace their steps to gather the spoil, and the squaws rush to the field to cut up and carry away the game. Each hunter now claims his own, and the mode of ascertaining their respective shares is simple. The arrows of each hunter bear a distinctive mark, and each carries an equal number. The carcass, therefore, belongs to him by whose arrow it is found to be transfixed; and these being carefully withdrawn, every hunter is obliged to produce his original number, .or to account for the loss of such as are missing, in default of which he suffers the discredit of having missed the object, or permitted a wounded buffalo to escape with a weapon in his flesh.
The animating scene which we have endeavored to describe, will be better understood by an inspection of the beautiful drawing of Rhinedesbacker, a young Swiss artist of uncommon talent, who, lured by his love of the picturesque, wandered far to the West, and spent several years upon our frontier, employing his pencil on subjects connected with the Indian modes of life. His was the fate of genius. His labors were unknown and unrequited. Few who saw the exquisite touches of his pencil knew their merit. They knew them to be graphic, but valued slightly the mimic presentations of familiar realities. They might wonder at the skill which placed on canvass the war-dance, or the buffalo-hunt, but they could not prize as they deserved, the copies of exciting scenes which they had familiarly witnessed. Since his death these beautiful pictures have attracted attention, and some of them have passed into the possession of those by whom they are properly appreciated. In that which graces this number there are slight defects, which we notice only because we are jealous of the fidelity of our work. The prominent figure in the foreground is a little too much encumbered with drapery. The costume is correct in itself, but misplaced; and there is a slight inaccuracy in the mode in which the arrow is grasped by the right hand. All else is true to nature. The landscape and the animals are faith fully depicted; and the wild scene which is daily acted upon our prairies, is placed vividly before the eye.
The chase over, a scene not less animated, but widely different, is presented. The slaughtered animals are cut up, and the most valuable parts carried to the camp. A busy scene ensues. The delicious humps are roasted and the warriors feast to satiety. The laborious squaws prepare the skins for use, and for market, and the meat for preservation. The latter is cut in thin slices and dried, in the sun or over a slow fire, and is then packed in small compact bales, suitable to be carried. If, however, more is taken than can be conveniently transported, the surplus is buried in holes, which our hunters call caches from the French word which signifies to hide. A cache is a hole dug in a dry spot, and carefully lined with bark, grass, or skins, in which’ the Indians deposit jerked meat, or any other valuables which they cannot conveniently carry away. They are carefully covered over, and the leaves and rubbish that naturally cover the ground replaced, so that the deposit is completely concealed. Property thus left is reclaimed at leisure, and sometimes furnishes timely relief to a famished war party, or an unsuccessful band of hunters. The skins of the buffaloes are very ingeniously dressed by the Indian women, either with or without the hair. This is done by partially drying the hide, then rubbing it laboriously from day to day, with the brains of the animal, until ‘ the juices and fleshy parts are entirely absorbed, and the fiber only left, which remains soft, white, and flexible. The lodges of the Indians and their clothing are made of these dressed skins; and immense quantities are annually sold to the traders.
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