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8/18/2004

Buffalo Tracks

Buffalo seem to be my subject the past few installments. And why not?! Cowboys came into contact with the great buffalo herds when first driving cattle to the railhead at Abilene. To draw attention to his brand new market Joseph McCoy hired some Cowboys and Vaqueros fresh in from the long trail to capture a few wild buffalo. Not only buffalo, but elk, mustangs and Texas Longhorn steers were loaded onto rail cars and sent to St. Louis for what was probably the very first Wild West Show. The March/April issue of the Kansas Cowboy features a story of Mark Withers one of those legendary Cowboys that gathered the wild buffalo out on the open plain near today’s Russell, Kansas.  
Everyone knows the Native American culture revolved around the buffalo. Their very lives depended upon the movements of the herds. Before the sacred dog (horse) was introduced to their way of life the hunt was performed on foot. Many locations over the prairie gave them the opportunity to quietly surround a herd of buffalo with the idea of stampeding them. The success of the stampede depended upon the direction in which they ran. The idea was to send them charging in wild escape only to run headlong over a steep bluff. The animals falling recklessly over the edge died or were crippled allowing the Indians to butcher the animals providing meat and hide for their survival. These stampede sites are called “buffalo stands” today.  
One such buffalo stand overlooks Ash Creek in southern Ellsworth County. The small field below the bluff is said to have been filled with old buffalo bones when it was first plowed by settlers. Even more exciting are the “Buffalo Tracks”. There are only a couple of breaks in the rocks of the bluff that allow access from the high ground down to Ash Creek. So many millions of buffalo used that same avenue to water over and over again that as they stumbled unsteadily down that bluff they began to carve out their own small steps in the rocks. Those steps eventually were uniform enough that each animal virtually stepped in exactly the same spot leaving their footprints fixed in the stone. The toes are easily seen and even the dew claws at the back of the ankle are easily identified as each animal scraped the back of the sandstone passing down the steep slope.  
The site is truly a natural wonder of the prairie. The mists of time have all but covered the grandeur of the unbroken Great Plains, but at this site a Cowboy can jest about “see” those shaggy beasts charging for water in a era that can only live again in these places of exceptional perspective. 
So Long, 
The Cowboy 
 

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