Item #4155 [An extraordinary account of a buffalo hunt in Dakota Territory]. William Boardman Reed.
[An extraordinary account of a buffalo hunt in Dakota Territory].
[An extraordinary account of a buffalo hunt in Dakota Territory].
[An extraordinary account of a buffalo hunt in Dakota Territory].
[An extraordinary account of a buffalo hunt in Dakota Territory].

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[An extraordinary account of a buffalo hunt in Dakota Territory].

Fort Rice, D.T.: January 14, 1866. 8vo, 20 pp., [with] carte-de-visite photograph of Reed, inscribed by Reed, taken in St. Louis at Outley’s Photographic Palace of Art, 1865 [manuscript date].

A riveting 20-page manuscript letter detailing a highly adventurous nine-day buffalo hunting trip undertaken jointly by an Army company and a party of Sioux Indians in the dead of winter.

Reed addresses this letter to his father, announcing from the outset that he has “a good deal to write”: “I must tell you now about this great buffalo hunt; for I shall always regard it as one of the remarkable events of my life.” Part of the 50th Wis. Infantry, Captain Reed is stationed at Fort Rice in North Dakota and describes the hunt as a welcome change from the “stupid monotonous life” at the frontier military fort. He jumps at the prospect of taking part in a buffalo hunt, despite the fact that “these prairies in January would be by no means agreeable.” Reed’s company for the excursion consists of fourteen officers and “thirty three or four men”; they set out January 5th on Indian ponies, “most of which were in poor condition.”

Heading north-east their first day, Reed and company join a party of eighty Lower Yanktonai Sioux Indians led by Chief Two Bears, each having two or three horses. One Indian horse, singled out as “remarkable for its running qualities and called the ‘buffalo horse,’ was never ridden until the chase after the buffalo had actually begun, and then, only while the chase lasted.” They spend their first night at Sand Hill Creek; this night, like all other nights noted in the letter, is described as “snapping cold…even in our tents, we were cold.” By the next morning, five of the men in Reed’s party turn back to the Fort. In an especially colorful passage, Reed remarks upon the party’s appearance:

I would give a considerable sum to have the party ride through Lancaster looking as it then did…The balance of us, Indians, officers, soldiers and mule teams, all mixed up, in one grand Cavalcade...It was a motley looking crowd, we of the pale faces with our buffalo skin caps, mittens, pants, and moccasins, rivaling even the Indians in grotesque attire.

The second day, Reed’s company and the Yanktonai travel thirty miles to Long Lake. Nearby, twenty Indians make their first hunt of eleven buffalo bulls with bows-and-arrows, so as not to disturb the larger herds that are known to be only a few miles away. (The Indians have scouts “most of the time, who kept them informed as to the whereabouts of the buffalo.”) Five buffalo are killed and the Indians share the meat with Reed’s party. “We thought the charge upon them a grand spectacle, but the ‘surmount’ which took place a few days after, so far eclipsed this little chase, that I cannot stop now to describe the latter.” The Indians strongly forbid any discharge of firearms until the proper moment, and Reed’s party duly observes this injunction. At one point, however, an Army lieutenant kills a buffalo with his revolver while gathering wood—but the Indians take no notice of it. Reed observes:

These hunts are conducted in a very systematically manner by the Indians, and are affairs of the greatest importance to them, for by means of such a general hunt as this one, they supply themselves with their Winter’s meat, and a supply of skins with which to make their clothing, bedding, and houses, and to trade for little articles of luxury.

The third and fourth days of the hunt are forestalled due to a “strong east wind” and extremely frigid weather; the Indians explain to Reed’s party that the wind “would affect the flight of their arrows.” On the fifth day of the hunting trip, the wind has died down but the air is so foggy “one could not see half a mile.” Nevertheless, it is “finally concluded to try the buffalo.” Setting out, several Indian scouts come upon two or three other Indians—at first mistaken by Reed and company as “a party of hostile Sioux (Santes)”:

[T]hese were some of the Indians composing our party, who becoming impatient, had rushed on ahead and ran into the herd of buffalo, killing one or two, and driving the rest further off—a dastardly trick, for which they were none too well punished.

These Indians are whipped, their saddles chopped “to atoms,” and their robes cut to pieces. After another five or six miles on horseback, “[f]inally, we came in sight of two large herds, one on our right, and one on our left, each containing a hundred or more buffaloes.” After some deliberation, the Indians orchestrate the hunt by positioning Reed’s party behind a hill, while half of the Indians approach the herd from behind. After the signal is given by an Indian on the hill, Reed’s company mount their horses and ride out onto the open plain:

Then transpired one of the grandest affairs, which it was ever my lot to witness, not excepting the battles of the war, in which I have participated. The whole herd consisting of one hundred or more buffalo came charging over a little eminence, directly towards us, closely followed the detachment of thirty or forty Indians, many of whom were right in the midst of the herd, shooting right and left, into the buffalo all around. We hastily deployed ourselves into line and charged against the herd, turning the living stream of animals to the left. The firing was now brisk on all sides.

While Reed and his fellow soldiers each carefully select one individual buffalo to kill, he describes the Indians as gracefully and deftly attacking multiple buffaloes simultaneously:

The Indians, guiding their ponies by the motion of their bodies, dashed hither and thither in the midst of the herd, & silently slipped their iron-pointed arrows into the shaggy beasts on all sides.

Within five minutes after Reed’s charge begins, he observes:

many of the poor beasts were either lying prostrate, or suffering under half a dozen wounds, and vainly struggling to keep upon their feet, while others were running in all directions, singly, and in small herds of from two to ten, usually closely pursued by one or more of the party.

Following his charge, Reed’s pony—“poorer than the average”—compels him to stop because it can “go no further,” already “out of wind and tired,” having “ridden twelve or fifteen miles at a rapid pace” before the hunt properly commenced. At the close of the hunt, Reed’s company of soldiers has killed fifteen or sixteen buffalo, while “[t]he Indians must have killed not far from one hundred.” Their meat and skins are taken to camp in two wagons; and when they return they discover they are missing one man from their party, Private David Davis. “We supposed that he was lost, & would undoubtedly be in next day.” Following the hunt, the Colonel’s horse has also gone missing.

The following morning, the sixth day of the trip, the two loaded wagons are sent back to Fort Rice, along with some of the party who “wished to return”; the “greater portion of the Indians” also return. Exchanging horses with an officer who returns to the Fort, Reed and eleven other of his men decide to stay and search for both Davis and the Colonel’s horse, as well as to hunt buffalo again, “if a good opportunity offered.” Now in possession of “a much better horse,” Reed and company, along with the remaining Indians, pursue a large herd of buffalo ten miles east of the hunting ground from the previous day. While better equipped, his new horse nonetheless tires out after chasing the buffalo for four or five miles, forcing Reed to dismount. Soon thereafter, a herd of some twenty buffalo crosses his path and he is able to kill a young heifer (“a yearling,” he thinks). Reed takes an hour to skin her, on account of “his dull knife and inexperience in the business.” By the time he had loaded the skin and meat onto his horse:

it was nearly dusk and very foggy, my chase had taken me five or six miles from the starting point, where the wagon was left, and in the hurry of the chase I had failed to note the direction. Under these circumstances, it soon became apparent to me that I was lost, and in a fair way to lie out in the snow that night alone…Just think for a moment of being lost in such a desert waste, where neither tree nor shrub could be seen, seventy five miles from any house or habitation of civilized man on a foggy night in January. I realized fully the horrors of such a situation.

Despite these worrisome circumstances, he is confident that, even if he fails to find the rest of his party, he will still be able to find his way back to the fort, with the help of his pocket compass. After hearing shots fired from a revolver, Reed eventually encounters the Colonel, who had been searching for both him and the Major. Failing to find the trail they followed out of camp, Reed and the Colonel “stopped & camped on the prairie without any other protection than could be constructed with our wagon box & a few saddle blankets [...] I need not tell you that it was almost impossible to sleep in such a situation, and we sat shivering around this little fire, dozing a little, now & then, till morning.”

The next morning, the seventh day, Reed travels a few miles south and finds the trail leading back to camp. Reaching camp that night, they discover Davis is still missing. Two men, equipped with “all necessaries,” are left at camp to search for Davis, while Reed begins his journey back to the Fort the morning of the eighth day, reaching there the ninth day. Describing his “rough quarters here in the fort” as “the next thing to a palace,” he writes, “never was I so glad to arrive at any place as I was to reach Ft. Rice that day.” “On making an inspection of myself, after my arrival, I found my nose had been frozen considerably, and the tips of my fingers slightly touched with frost”; yet, he writes, “a nice little buffalo skin, killed by myself”—along with his quarters—“fully repay me for all the hardships and tribulations of the trip.” At the close of the letter, Davis has still not turned up, whom Reed “fear[s], has perished upon the prairies.” In a postscript, he relates how a search party has found Davis’ horse as well as the Colonel’s—but no sight of Davis himself. Despite the thrilling nine-day adventure, he assures his family he will likely never undertake another trip of such scope:

Ma & the rest of you, may be troubled lest I repeat the experiment & again expose myself in the dangerous sort of hunting buffalo in cold weather—but you may all rest assured that there is not the slightest probability, of my trying the buffalo again under any circumstances, still less under such circumstances, as was this last hunt.

William Boardman Reed enlisted in the 2nd Wisconsin Infantry on 20 May 1861, serving for thirteen months ( The regiment, part of the famed “Iron Brigade,” saw its first combat at the First Battle of Bull Run in July 1861 under William T. Sherman. Reed was wounded at this battle but would go on to fight in 1862 against Stonewall Jackson at the Battle of Groveton and at the Second Battle of Bull Run. During this Northern Virginia Campaign, the Wisconsin regiment suffered severe casualties and Reed was wounded once again. He would be discharged for disability in early 1863. After recovering, Reed reenlisted in March 1865 as a Captain in the 50th WI. Infantry and was stationed at Fort Rice. In June 1866, only six months after the buffalo hunt documented here, he would be mustered out of the Army.

“Two Bears” (Mato Nopa), a prominent and venerated chief of the Lower Yanktonai Sioux, is described by Reed as commanding “the movements of the whole party, we, the white men, acknowledging the Indians as our leaders for the time being.” Chief Two Bears survived the Whitestone Massacre of 1863, in which 150 to 300 Sioux Indians were killed, and subsequently camped his tribe near Fort Rice in 1865 (“Two Bears” Around this time he visited Fort Rice and befriended the commanding officer, Colonel Charles Dimon; after this visit, Two Bears promised to live in peace with the Army. Perceived as a “peace chief,” despite objecting to reservation proposals, Two Bears “spoke of his friendship for whites as early as 1856 in a council at Fort Pierre” (“Two Bears” In 1865—a year before the buffalo hunt documented in this manuscript—“separate treaties of peace were made with the United States by the Upper and Lower Yanktonai, binding them to use their influence and power to prevent hostilities not only against citizens, but also between the Indian tribes in the region occupied or frequented by them” (“Yanktonai Tribe” A year after the buffalo hunt, Two Bears would serve as an interpreter at a treaty commission meeting held at Fort Rice with the Lakota.

An altogether captivating account of a buffalo hunt, brimming with vivid details.

Item #4155


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