Heritage Gateways

Official Sesquicentennial K-12 Education Project
sponsored by the Utah State Board of Education, the BYU-Public School Partnership and the Utah Education Network

Pioneer 1847 Companies

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1847: Wednesday, May 12 - Vast buffalo herds had just melted away

Location: North Platte, Nebraska - Location: 41:07:26N 100:45:54W Elevation: 2800 feet

Date: May 12, 1847

Buffalo could still be seen from time to time, but the vast herds surrounding the Mormon pioneers in previous days had melted away -- apparently drifting east toward better grass.

Evidence of the enormous herds was on every side, from the bare prairie eaten clean of most grass, to the bones of those who died in other years.

"The valley we traveled through this day may be called "The Valley of Dry Bones," because of the immense number of bleached buffalo bones," Thomas Bullock said.

During the day, Luke Johnson and Phineas Young rode up to report a recent slaughter of buffalo on the nearby prairie, apparently the work of Indians.

The hunters counted more than 100 buffalo, including many calves, lying dead on the prairie. The animals had been skinned, some of the meat removed, the tongues cut out and the bones broken to extract the marrow.

The majority of the meat was simply left on the prairie to rot -- "a great waste of animal life," Bullock lamented. Such scenes occasionally encountered by the pioneers indicate the Indians did not always make maximum use of the buffalo they killed, as they are generally credited in most history books.

Perhaps, when buffalo became more scarce in later years because of the staggering slaughter by white men, the Indians made more efficient use of all parts of the large animals.

Norton Jacob said hunters also found carcasses of another 30 to 40 buffalo calves on the bank of the Platte River. The young animals apparently had been crushed to death during a stampede across the river while being chased by Indians.

After the Mormon pioneer company broke camp at 9 a.m. this day, the wagons crossed some "vast beds of salt, or rather dust with a salt taste," William Clayton wrote. "It looks something like dirty flour." Wilford Woodruff, who had dismounted from his horse to look around the bluffs north of the trail, had to give chase on foot when the animal trotted away.

While running after the uncooperative horse, and possibly muttering under his breath, he discovered the abandoned remains of a big Sioux Indian camp. There were ruins of several hundred lodges and many pieces of buffalo robes and other animal skins.

Woodruff left his gun in the empty camp in order to better chase the horse, which finally was caught with the help of another pioneer on horseback. On his return he picked up the rifle and also "a good dressed white wolf skin."

The company camped that night some distance past the junction where the Platte River divided into north and south branches, gradually bearing away from each other.

"We traveled 12 miles according to Clayton" s roadometer," Bullock said.

This device had been finished by Appleton Harmon and mounted on a wagon wheel, thus relieving Clayton of the wearisome task of counting revolutions of a wheel to keep accurate track of how far the pioneers marched each day.

The campsite for the pioneers this night was northwest of the future site of the town of North Plane. The community began when a trading post was opened in 1866 to serve the railhead. The place quickly acquired a population of more than 2,000.

But it suffered the same fate as many railhead boom towns. As the rails pushed further west, most of the town went with it, buildings and all. Only 20 structures were left in 1867. The community later became a division point on the Union Pacific railroad and grew steadily despite a disasterous prairie fire in 1893.

Just west of North Platte is the former home of William Cody, popularly known as Buffalo Bill. He got his famous nickname by killing 4,280 animals in 17 months as part of a contract to deliver meat to railroad construction workers in Kansas just after the Civil War.

Cody later went on the stage and then created a wild west show which toured much of the world and made him a celebrity. He did much to create the legend of the American cowboy. His old home is now the Buffalo Bill Ranch State Historical Park.

Source: 111 Days to Zion © Copyright 1997 Big Moon Traders and Hal Knight. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or utilized in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher. This includes educational uses.