by George Catlin

(First published in London in 1844)

LETTER--No. 4.


The several tribes of Indians inhabiting the regions of the Upper Missouri, and of whom I spoke in my last Letter, are undoubtedly the finest looking, best equipped, and most beautifully costumed of any on the Continent. They live in a country well-stocked with buffaloes and wild horses, which furnish them an excellent and easy living; their atmosphere is pure, which produces good health and long life; and they are the most independent and the happiest races of Indians I have met with: they are all entirely in a state of primitive wildness, and consequently are picturesque and handsome, almost beyond description. Nothing in the world, of its kind, can possibly surpass in beauty and grace, some of their games and amusements -- their gambols and parades, of which I shall speak and paint hereafter.

As far as my travels have yet led me into the Indian country, I have more than realized my former predictions that those Indians who could be found most entirely in a state of nature, with the least knowledge of civilized society, would be found to be the most cleanly in their persons, elegant in their dress and manners, and enjoying life to the greatest perfection. Of such tribes, perhaps the Crows and Blackfeet stand first; and no one would be able to appreciate the richness and elegance (and even taste of), with which some of these people dress, without seeing them in their own country. I will do all I can, however, to make their looks as well as customs known to the world; I will paint with my brush and scribble with my pen, and bring their plumes and plumage, dresses, weapons, &c., and every thing but the Indian himself, to prove to the world the assertions which I have made above.

Every one of these red sons of the forest (or rather of the prairie) is a knight and lord -- his squaws are his slaves; the only things which he deems worthy of his exertions are to mount his snorting steed, with his bow :and quiver slung, his shield upon his arm, and his long lance glistening in the war-parade; or, divested of all his plumes and trappings, armed with a simple bow and quiver, to plunge his steed amongst the flying herds of buffaloes, and with his sinewy bow, which he seldom bends in vain, to drive deep to life's fountain the whizzing arrow.

The buffalo herds, which graze In almost countless numbers on these beautiful prairies, afford them an abundance of meat; and so much is it preferred to all other, that the deer, the elk, and the antelope sport upon the prairies in herds in the greatest security; as the Indians seldom kill them, unless they want their shins for a dress. Tilt: buffalo (or more correctly speaking bison) is a noble animal, that roams over the vast prairies, from the borders of Mexico on the south, to PIudson's Bay on the north. Their size is somewhat above that of our common beef, and their fresh of a delicious flavor, resembling and equaling that of fit beef Their flesh which is easily procured, furnishes the savages of these vast regions the means of a wholesome and good subsistence, and they live: almost exclusively upon it -- converting the skins, horns, hoofs and bones, to the construction of' dresses, shields, bows, &c. The buffalo bull is one of the most formidable and frightful looking animals in the world when elicited to resistance; his long shaggy mane hangs in great profusion over His neck and shoulders, and often extends quite down to the ground. The cow is less in stature, and less ferocious; though not much less wild and frightful in her appearance.

The mode in which these Indians kill this noble animal is spirited and thrilling in the extreme; and I must in a future epistle, give you a minute account of it. I have almost daily accompanied parties of Indians to see the fun, and have often shared in it myself; but much oftener ran my horse by their sides, to see how the hunt was done--to study the modes and expressions of these splendid scenes, which I am enthusiastically putting on the canvas.

They are all (or nearly so) killed with arrows and the lance, while at full speed; and the reader may easily imagine, that these scenes after the most spirited and picturesque views of the sporting kind that can possibly he seen.

At present, I will give a little sketch of a hit of fun I joined in yesterday, with Mr. McKenzie anti a number of his men without the company or aid of Indians.

I mentioned the other day, that McKinzie's table from day to day groans under the weight of buffaloe tongues and beavers' tails, and other luxuries of this western land. He has within his Fort a spacious ice-house, where he preserves his meat fresh for any length of time required; and sometimes, when his larder runs low, he starts out, rallying some five or six of his best hunters (not to hunt, but to "go for meat"). He leads the party, mounted on his favorite buffalo horse (i.e. the horse amongst his whole group which is best trained to run the buffalo), trailing a light and short gun in his hand, such an one as lie can most easily reload whilst his horse is at full speed.

Such was the condition of the ice-house yesterday morning which caused

to cast their eyes with a wishful look over the prairies such was the plight in which our host took the Iead, and I, and then Mons. Chardon, and Batiste Defonde and Tullock (who is a trader amongst the Crows, and is here at this time, with a large party of that tribe), and there were several others whose names I do not know.

As me were mounted and ready to start, McKenzie called up some four or five of his men, and told them to follow immediately on our trail, with as many one-horse carts, which they were to harness up, to bring home the meat; "ferry them across the river in the scow," said he, "and following our trail through the bottom, you will find us on the plain yonder, between the Yellow Stone and the Missouri rivers, with meat enough to load you home. My watch on gender bluff has just told us by his signals, that there are cattle a plenty on that spot, and we are going there as fast as possible." We all crossed the river, and galloped away a couple of miles or so, when we mounted the bluff; and to be sure, as was said, there was in full view of us a fine herd of some four or five hundred buffaloes, perfectly at rest, and in their own estimation (probably) perfectly secure. Some were grazing, and others were lying down and sleeping; we advanced within a mile or so of them in full view, and came to a halt. Mons. Chardon "tossed the feather" (a custom always observed, to try the course of the wind), and, he commenced: "stripping" as it is termed (I. e. every man strips himself and his horse of every extraneous and unnecessary appendage of dress, &c. that might be an incumbrance in running): hats are laid off, and coats -- and bullet pouches; sleeves are rolled up, a handkerchief tied tightly around the head, and another around the waist -- cartridges are prepared and placed in the waistcoat pocket, or a half dozen bullets "thrown into the mouth," &c., &c., all of which takes up some ten or fifteen minutes, and is not, in appearance or in effect, unlike a council of war. Our leader lays the whole plan of the. chase, and preliminaries all fixed, guns charged and ramrods in our hands, we mount and start for the onset. The horses are. all trained for this business, and seem to enter into it with as much enthusiasm, and with as restless a spirit as the riders themselves. While "stripping" and mounting, they exhibit the most restless impatience; and when "approaching" -- (which is, all of us abreast, upon a slow walk, and in a straight line towards the herd, until they discover us and run!, they all seem to have caught entirely the spirit of the chase, and the laziest nag amongst them prances with an elasticity in His step -- champing] his bit -- his ears erect -- his eyes strained out of his head, and fixed upon the game before him, whilst he trembles under the saddle of his rider. In this way we carefully and silently marched, until within' some forty or fifty rolls; when the herd discovering us, wheeled and laid their course in a mass. At this instant we started! (and all must start, for no one could check the fury of those steeds at that moment of excitement,) and away all sailed, and over the prairie flew in a cloud of dust which was raised by their trampling hoofs. McKinzie was foremost in tire throng, and soon dashed off amidst the dust and was out of slight -- he was after the fattest and the fastest. I had discovered a huge bull whose shoulders towered above the whole band, and I picked my way through the crowd to cut alongside of him. I went not for "meat", but for a trophy; I wanted his head and horns. I dashed along through the thundering mass, as they swept away over the plain, scarcely able to tell whether I was on a buffalo's back or my horse -- hit, and hooked, and jostled about, till at length I found myself alongside of my game, when I gave him a shot, as I passed him. I saw guns flash in several directions about me, but I heard them not. Amidst the trampling throng, Mons. Chardon had wounded a stately bull, and at this moment was passing him again with his piece leveled for another shot; they were both at full speed and I also, within the reach of the muzzle of my gun, when the bull instantly turned and receiving the horse upon his horns, and the ground received poor Chardon, who made a frog's leap of some twenty feet or more over the bull's back, and almost under my horse's heels. I wheeled my horse as soon as possible and rode back, where lay poor Chardon, gasping to start his breath again; and within a few paces of him his huge victim, with his heels high in the air, and the horse lying across him. I dismounted instantly, but Chardon was raising himself on his hands, with his eyes and mouth full of dirt, and feeling for his gun, which lay about thirty feet in advance of him. "Heaven spare you ! are you hurt, Chardon ?" " hi--llic--- hic ---h ic ---hic----h i c------------- n o, ------hic------no---no, I believe not. 0h-no! This is not much, Mons. Cataline -- this is nothing new -- but this is a d---d hard pied of ground here -- hic -- oh! Hic!" At this the poor fellow fainted, but in a few moments arose, picked up his gun, took his horse by the bit; which then opened its eyes, and with a hic and a UGH! -- UGH! Sprang upon its feet -- shook off the dirt -- and here we were, all upon our legs again, save the bull, whose life had been more sad than that of either.

I turned my eyes in the direction where the herd had gone, and our companions in pursuit, and nothing could be seen of them, nor indication, except the cloud of dust which they left behind them. At a little distance on the right, however, I beheld lily huge victim endeavouring to make as much head-way as he possibly could, fiom this dangerous ground, upon three legs. I galloped off to him, and at my approach he wheeled around -- and bristled up for battle;he seemed to know perf'ectly well that he could not escape from me, and resolved to meet his enemy and death as bravely as possible.

I found that my shot had entered him a little too far forward, breaking one of his shoulders, and lodging in his breast, and from his very great weight it was impossible for him to make much advance upon me. As I rode up within a few paces of him, he would ristle up with fury enough in his looks alone, almost to annihilate me; and making one lunge at me, would fall upon his neck and nose, so that I fountl the sagacity of my horse alone enough to keep me out of reach of' danger: and I tlrew from my pocket my sketch-book, laid my gun across my lap, and commenced taking his likeness. He stood stiffened up, and swelling with awful vengeance, which was sublime for a picture, but which he could not vent upon me. I rode around him and sketched him in numerous attitudes, sometimes he would lie down, and I would then sketch him; then throw my cap at him, and rousing him on his legs, rally a new expression, and sketch him again.

In this way I added to my sketch-book some invaluable sketches of this grim-visaged monster, who knew not that he was standing for his likeness.

No man on earth can imagine what is the look and expression of such a rul?ject before him as this was. I defy the world to produce another animal than call look so frightful as a huge buffalo bull, when wounded as Ire was, turned around for battle, and swelling with rage; -- his eyes bloodshot, and his long sh.ag-gy mane hanging to the ground, -- his month open, and his horrid rage hissing in streams of smoke and blood from His mouth and through his nostrils, as Ire is bending forward to spring upon his assailant.

After I had had the requisite time and opportunity for using my pencil, McKinzie and his companions came walkiag their exhausted horses back from the chase, and in our rear came four or five carts to carry home the meat. The party met from all quarters arountl me and my buffalo bull, whom I then shot in the head artd finished. And being seated together for a few minutes, each one took a smoke of the pipe, and recited his exploits, and his "coups" or deaths; when all parties had a hearty laugh at me, as a novice, for having aimed at an old bull, whose flesh was not suitable for food, and the carts were escorted on the trail, to bring away the meat. I rode back with Mr. McKenzie, who pointed out five cows which he had killed, and all of them selected as the fattest and slickest of' the herd. This astonishing feat was; performed within the distance of one mile -- all were killed at full speed, and every one shot through the heart. In the short space of time required for a horse under "full whip", to run the distance of one mile, he had discharged his gun five, and loaded it four times -- selected his animals, and killed at every shot! There were six or eight others liilletl ;it the same time, which altogether furnished, as will be seen, abnntlance of freight for the carts; which ret.urned, as well as several packhorses, loaded with the choicest parts which were cut from the animals, anti the remainder of the carcasses left a prey for the wolves.

Such is the mode by which white men live in this country -- such the way in which they get their food, and such is one of their delightful amusements -- at the hazard of every bone in one's body, to feel the fine anti thrilling exhilaration of the chase for a moment, and then as often to upbraid and blame himself for his folly and imprudence.

From this scene we commenced leisurely wending our way back; anci dismounting at the place where we had stripped, each man dressed himself again, or slung his extra articles of dress, &c. across his saddle, astride of which Ire sat; and we rode back to the Fort, reciting as we rode, and for twenty-four hours afterwards, deeds of' chivalry and chase, and hair's-breadth escapes which each and either had fought and run on former occasions. McKinzie with all the true character and dignity of a leader, was silent on these subjects; but smiled, while those in his train were reciting for him the astonishing and almost incredible deeds of his sinewed arms, which they had witnessed in similar scenes; from which I learned (as well as from my own observations), that he was reputed (and actually was) the most distinguished of ail the white men who have flourished in these regions, in the pursuit and death of the buffalo.

On our return to the Fort, a bottle or two of wine were set forth upon the table, and around them a half dozen parched throats were soon moistened, and good cheer ensued. Batiste Defonde, Chardon, &c., retired to their quarters, enlarging smoothly upon the events of our morning's work; which they were reciting to their wives and sweethearts; when about this time the Fort was thrown open, and the procession of carts and paclihorses laden with buffalo meat made its entrke; gladdening the hearts of a hundred women and children, and tickling the noses of as many hungry dogs and puppies, who were stealing in and smelling at the tail of the procession. The door of the ice-house was thrown open, the meat was discharged into it, and I being fatigued,went to sleep.

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