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The Buffalo Hunters Gallop Off, But One Pioneer Doesn't Return
Harold Schindler
Published: 05/01/1997 Category: Nation-World Page: A2

Editor's Note: To commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Mormon Trail, The Salt Lake Tribune is offering this day-by-day account of the Mormon Pioneers' original trek from Winter Quarters, Nebraska, to the Great Salt Lake Valley. Tribune history writer Harold Schindler, using diaries, letters, journals and reminiscences that have come to light this century, has fleshed out the following narrative.

May 1, 1847

A cold, uncomfortable morning enveloped the Camp of Israel as it lumbered six miles before breakfast in search of grass for its teams. The company halted about 8:00 a.m. to allow the cattle to graze and for the men to eat. Three buffalo meandered to a bluff about six miles away, but William Clayton could see them and a few others plainly with his spyglass.

Orrin Porter Rockwell, Tom Brown and Luke S. Johnson started on horseback to head them off. The camp was low on meat and it would be fine if they could shoot one or two. The three had barely ridden away when another herd was spotted in the northwest and a second party of ten hunters lit out in pursuit. "I counted with my glass seventy-two and Orson Pratt counted seventy-four animals," reported Clayton.

The camp moved on. Before long more game appeared. Two dogs with the hunters jumped an antelope. Pratt took a quick shot, but only served to turn the antelope toward the buffalo herd with both dogs hot on its tail. By this time Rockwell's party had circled around the bluffs and was approaching the herd from the far flank. Johnson chased one bull and dropped it to its knees with a single shot. But the beast snorted, rose to its feet and ran to the herd. Much of the action on the part of the Mormons was tentative since this was the first time most had ever seen a buffalo.

By now it was fast approaching noon and the wagon train halted at a small lake that Clayton speculated connected to the Platte River during high water times. They called the inlet stream Buffalo Creek, according to Norton Jacob. Rockwell, Johnson and Brown rode in and reported their poor luck, then regrouped to join the main hunting party. Clayton could count more than 100 buffalo milling on the bluffs in the distance. Heber C. Kimball, an excellent horseman, rode up and called for Howard Egan's fifteen-shot rifle, then galloped off to join the fray.

Clayton watched one of the dogs suddenly back off in his pursuit of the antelope when a number of the buffalo "commenced to canter into a closer huddle." In this defense posture, they menaced the dogs, who didn't know what to expect. Great excitement prevailed in the camp, knowing the hunters were inexperienced in buffalo hunting, while at the same time recognizing the critical need to replenish the company food supply. "I rested my glass on Aaron Farr's shoulder to steady it and soon spotted Porter Rockwell ride into the midst of the herd, which then appeared to number more than 200," Clayton wrote.

Rockwell was engulfed in a cloud of dust as the herd began to scatter; he shot a large cow, left her to the other hunters to finish off, and went on to the next buffalo. Now Kimball closed in at full gallop and picking out a cow, fired Egan's repeating rifle. The buffalo dropped, but the roar of the heavily loaded weapon caused Kimball's horse to rear and leap forward. Having let loose the reins to shoot, Kimball was in a precarious position. But being a good rider, he maintained his seat in the saddle and succeeded in regaining the reins.

A large and furious bull, shot several times, was slowing and blowing blood when Rockwell came at him head on. He had heard that a buffalo could not be brought down with a bullet to the skull and he was determined to find out for himself. He maneuvered his horse to within a rod of the bull and fired his rifle-pistol directly at its shaggy forehead. A wisp of smoke curled from the impact point, some dust flew and the raging animal shook its huge head in irritation. Rockwell quickly turned from its path to avoid being gored. John Higbee and John Pack rode in and finished off the buffalo.

The hunt was now in its third hour and Brigham Young signaled for teams to leave camp and fetch the game. The hunters had bagged one bull, three cows and six calves. The meat was in camp and distributed by nightfall "and heartily relished by all." Wilford Woodruff noted that the frenzy of the chase had taken the hunters through the largest prairie dog town anyone in the company had ever seen. It was nearly ten miles long and two miles wide, full of burrows and a great danger to a horse if it were to step in a hole and fall. It was a miracle there was no accident, he said.

There was some concern in camp for the welfare of Joseph Hancock, who had set out on foot toward the buffalo herd when it was first seen this morning. When he had not returned by nightfall, there was worry that an accident had befallen him. "Hancock is lame," Clayton reported. "It is thought Indians may have gotten him."

Distance made this day: 18 miles, 97 miles for the week, and the Camp of Israel is now 236 miles from the Missouri River.

Re-Enactment Trek Day 10

The word on everyone's lips at the Mormon Trail Wagon Train is COLD. Tuesday night while camped in Genoa, Nebraska, the winds blew and the dogs howled. Freezing tent-dwellers and walkers scurried into a nearby two-story barn for protection against the walloping rain and thunder. "My hands were bitterly cold and they still feel a little numb," said wagon leader Leon Wilkinson, noting that the overnight temperature dipped into the thirties. Wednesday did not bring much relief.

Gusting winds of fifteen to twenty-five miles per hour whipped the modern-day pioneers as they trolled along an arduous nineteen miles. They pushed along with only two brief "potty breaks," said Tom Whitaker of Midway, Utah. "They passed out lunches on the fly and we just kept going."

The number of walkers dipped to twenty-seven from the usual sixty to seventy, said Joseph Johnstun of Salt Lake City, while the number of handcarts was reduced to seven from nine. Some of the walkers took a ride in the wagons but "it got more cold in the wagons than walking," Johnstun said.

Thanks to the work of a local historian, Jerry Carlson, the wagon train took note of the site where John Dunbar, the American cavalryman featured in the movie "Dances With Wolves," had established a Pawnee mission. "There is nothing there now but farms," Johnstun said, "but we were able to view the spot." People were humming tunes from the Kevin Costner movie and rubbing their hands for warmth as they camped for the night on fairgrounds at Fullerton, Nebraska.

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