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

Life On The Trail

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Buffalo and the Pioneers

The buffalo encountered by the pioneers during their crossing were both a blessing and a curse. Thomas Bullock, who was called "The Clerk of the Camp of Israel," once described the buffalo as "the Lord's cattle" (Will Bagley, _The Pioneer Camp of the Saints_, p. 150).

The first sighting of buffalo, during the 1847 trek from Winter Quarters to Salt Lake by the first company, was recorded by Bullock:

"[We reached] the head of Grand Island, where we first came in sight of the buffalo, on 30th April -- a day long to be remembered for having seen the first buffalo hunt. Several of the brethren mounted their horses, went several miles in pursuit of a band of sixty-five and then gave chase in splendid style along the mountain side in full view of our camp. The way they raised a dust was a caution to fox hunters -- they were soon enveloped in a cloud, now and then a straggler was singled out and became a victim, and the sport was not ended until they had killed and secured eleven bulls, cows and calves. When they were brought into camp, we presented a very lively butcher's market -- everyone being busy to dry and preserve his portion of meat." (_Our Pioneer Heritage_, 8:239)

A few days later, Bullock recorded again:

"We saw several miles of buffalo in full move -- the prairie was literally a dense black mass of moving animals; that day I saw something like one or two hundred thousand buffalo. On turning a bend around a hill, they were thick on the south side; as they had passed around our camp, many would stop and look at us as if amazed at such a sight. We caught several calves alive, remember, catching a buffalo calf and a domesticated calf are two different things -- a swift horse is sometimes puzzled to catch up with him; they are swift as horses, and although the old animals are the ugliest racers of any brutes, they get over the ground very fast and an inexperienced rider is soon left to admire their beauty 'in the distance;' even if he should get within shooting distance, if he is not cautious, he will kiss mother earth." (8:240)

Orson F. Whitney recorded that the big animals had tough foreheads:

"Some of the hunters [apparently including Porter Rockwell] were verdant enough to attempt to kill one by shooting him full in the forehead, from which the bullets rebounded without making the least impression. The hide on the skull-piece of one of the dead bisons was found to be an inch thick, and covered with a coarse mat of hair -- in itself a helmet of defense -- which fully accounted for the phenomenon of rebounding balls." (Orson F. Whitney, _History of Utah_, 1:308-309)

Brigham Young cautioned the pioneers not to kill buffalo unnecessarily, wisely observing: "If we slay when we have no need, we will need when we cannot slay."

The buffalo meat was very helpful in the sustenance of the pioneer companies, and their hides were used to make blankets and coverings. The meat was often dried in the sun or smoked over fires; Sarah Rich recorded:

"The men fixed scaffolds out of willows and spread out the meat cut up in thin slices, and made fires underneath, as one side of the meat would get dry, they would turn it over, and by so doing, it became dry. They called it 'jerk' meat. We put it into sacks, and had enough to last us all through and it was the sweetest meat I ever tasted. The children grew fat on it." ("Sarah Rich Autobiography", typescript, BYU-S, p.75)

However, the meat was also richer than what they were used to; George A. Smith recorded, "I ate heartily of buffalo meat, and was routed out very early by its effect" (Nibley, _Exodus to Greatness_, p. 380).

There were other benefits to be gained from the buffalo. Candles were made from the fat which "burned very clear and pleasant and the tallow smelled sweet and rich" (_Our Pioneer Heritage_, 8:246); William Clayton's journal was often recorded by the light of buffalo candles (2:584). The tallow was used as grease for cooking.

The buffalo droppings, called "buffalo chips", were used for fuel.

The major problem with the buffalo, however, came when the buffalo stampeded. Lemuel Hardison Redd was a boy of 14 when he crossed the plains. In later years, he recalled the experiences with buffalo:

"He often entertained his children with the description of a buffalo stampede. First there was seen a cloud of dust in the far distance. This grew larger and larger as it drew nearer. Then was heard the distant sound of hoofbeats, which increased in volume as the mighty herd progressed in its excited flight, trampling everything in its way. With the first sign of the oncoming herd the train of fifty or a hundred wagons with their teams of oxen were hurriedly collected in a compact group to clear a path for the terrified, crazed animals. It must have been a terrorizing sight to see hundreds, perhaps thousands of huge buffalo in their frenzy and fury charging across the great prairie." (16:288)

Sarah Rich recorded:

"We were several days traveling through the Buffalo Country. Some days we could see herds of thousands together, and several times they would come in large herds crossing just ahead of our teams as hard as they could go, and in such large numbers that the roaring of them would frighten our teams.

"It was all that the drivers could do to prevent a stampede among our cattle. It was dangerous traveling through this country, but we were preserved from serious accident. It was a grand sight to see these herds of wild animals, thousands of them, racing across the prairies. The sight of our wagons seemed to frighten them, and we were afraid they might attack us in their fright." ("Sarah Rich Autobiography", typescript, BYU-S, pp. 75-76)

Source: Church History Stories Collection Collection by Dave Kenison - a member of the LDS church. Many of the stories detail pioneer experiences through the eyes of members of the Mormon church.