CAPTURING A WILD BUFFALO by J. A. W. Hudson (edited by Sibyl Hudson Goerner)

The following is an excerpt from the book My Life on the Frontier by J. A. W. Hudson.


The settlers began to come to Nebraska in 1882 and settle up the land, not only on the creeks, but out on the divides, and by 1885 they were farming pretty extensively on the divides and the heads of streams. The cattle was eating up the crops, so the farmers decided that since the ranchers were so unconcerned about it, they would try to get a herd law in. It carried by a large majority, of course, since there were more farmers than ranchers.


In the spring of 1886 the cattlemen had to gather the cattle and take them out of the country since there was no more free range. They took them mostly up into the Dako-tas and Montana. I had some cattle out that had strayed away and I went out with the general roundup to find my stock.


I followed the round up, up to the head waters of the Frenchman River and while in camp there, four cowboys were sent out to hunt cattle around water holes there. They were: Billy Koontz, Johnny Anderson, another waddy whose name I never learned, and Lou Armacost who was appointed captain of the bunch. Johnny Anderson came to me and says, “Joe, I’m not afeeling very well. Don’t you want to take a ride out in the hills for me?” He says, “I’ll give you a good horse if you want to go. They are going out this afternoon to gather the cattle that the grangers say were back in the hills at some water holes.” I says, “Yes, I’ll go.”


The horses was brought in so we caught and saddled them and started on a high lope for the hills southwest of our camp. We kept up this lope for about 10 miles, and reined in, on the crest of a high sand hill, overlooking a long wide flat. We saw two bunches of stock, one to our right and another to our left, southwest of us. They was so far away we couldn’t tell for sure what kind of stock, wild or tame. The left hand bunch was standing, but the right hand bunch was traveling in a south direction. Armacost was an old timer as well as myself and made the remark that the right hand bunch looked to be either horses or buffalo. “Well I think so myself,” says I. We watched them while giving our horses their wind. Finally Armacost says, “I and this other waddy will go to the right hand bunch, and you and Billy can go left. We’ll drive them together and take them into the roundup camp.”


They pulled out and was soon out of sight over the brow of the hill. Billy started out for the other bunch and I says, “Stop Billy, wait a bit. If that is buffalo or horses they may turn them our way and maybe we can get some buffalo calves or wild colts.” So he stopped, and we sat on our horses, watching some little time, till the riders come up in sight. About that time the bunch of stock started on a lope, and as soon as they started that lope, I knew it was buffalo. Billy says, “You bet they are,” and put spurs in his horse and started over the hill on a run. I says, “Stop, Billy, you’ll get your horse’s wind before you get half way to them. Let’s stay here and see if they won’t turn them, then maybe we’ll be able to catch the calves, if there be ” The buffalo started running from the riders taking them in a south westerly direction almost directly from us.


Armacost was on the left of them and pushed them across the flat as fast as his horse could go, and when they got to the farthest end of the flats going up into the sand hills, they took a draw, and Armacost up another draw. So with a high point of land between them when they got to the top of the hill, Armacost was ahead of them. They whirled square around, and went back down the draw heading straight back for Billy and me standing on the hill waiting for them.


Armacost had pushed them across the flat running up to the leader, pushing them toward us, pulling his horse back, then rushing the leader again, keeping them coming toward us. He had a horse I had bought and broke myself. His name was Tony, and I’ll tell you he was some horse, just as mean as he was good.


When they dashed into the hills just ahead of us, the old buffaloes’ tongues were lolling out full length, so we took after them. They were running sideways, first one way, then the other, like they were going to charge us. The little calves were keeping up pretty well with their mothers, but had dropped back some. Billy managed to get his rope on one and I jumped off my horse and threw it down. Quite a job! I’ll tell you they’ve got a leg sticking down all the time – don’t make any difference how you turn’em. Far different than a tame calf to throw.


Billy took the hobbles off his horse’s neck, which were always carried there, threw them over to me, and I hog-tied the calf with them. This took some little time, and the rest of the bunch had got quite a ways off. We took after them and soon caught up with them. The two calves was back behind the rest. He took after the one that got in ahead of mine, my calf running behind Billy, and I bring-ing up the rear, all four in a string, following the herd. Billy says, “Stay with him, Joe, I’ve got mine,” but he was still swinging his rope and the calf running as fast as ever, and every little bit his rope knotting up.


Finally my calf stopped and run its head right against my horse’s breast, charging him. I took the hobble off my horse’s neck and dropped it over the back of the calf’s neck, but he backed out of it, whirled, and away he went. I mounted my horse and took after him again, and hadn’t far till he stopped and just stood there. I got off my horse with the hobble still in my hand and threw the calf down and started to hog tie him when I looked up and saw that Billy had his rope on his calf’s foot.


In my excitement I had left the reins over my horse’s neck, but he hadn’t been trained to stand where his rider left him, so he pulled out for camp. Just then I saw Billy’s calf had kicked out of the rope, and I says, “Let that calf go, Billy, my horse is going to camp,” which was about ten miles away. So he whirled and took after my horse, and caught him about half a mile away, and brought him back. While he was gone I hog tied my calf, keeping watch where the other one went. It took off down a low draw, keeping up that rolling lope as far as I could see him. When Billy got back we searched for the calf but couldn’t find it, so we pulled out for camp, leaving the two calves hog tied there on the prairie.


Going to camp, Billy says, “I’m going to have them calves if I lose my job.” When we got to camp, Lou Armacost was already there, and come over to us and says, “The next time I run a bunch of buffalo over to you fellows, you get some calves.” “Well,” I told him, “we got two.” Next morning Billy and I, of course, were ready to go at daylight, and he come over to me and says, “Well, Joe, this roundup is going to move to the Platte River, and I’ll have to go or lose my job. I’ll give you all my interest In the buffalo calves.” Wishing me good luck with them, he mounted his horse and says, “Goodbye,” and I never saw him again.


I struck out to where the nearest grangers lived, and found a man who had a mule team and wagon that still had the bows and cover on it from moving into the country. I hired him to go out and get my calves to take them to my ranch about forty or forty five miles east. When we got out to where we had left the calves, the first one we came to was dead, (the last one caught). We went over to the next one and he was all right, so I put my rope on him, and this time I had my own horse. I mounted, and told the boys to take the hobbles off the calf. When he got up he sure tried the strength of that rope. I tried to drive him over to the wagon, but he was bound to get his way, and ran right under my horse’s belly. We finally did get him into the wagon, then put two ropes on him and tied them, one on one side of the wagon, and the other on the other. We went down to a water hole a little ways away. I took my hat, dipped it full of water and brought it back to him, and he drank like he was used to drinking out of a hat.


We pulled out, then, for the Frenchman River, and on down to my ranch. When I picketed him out on the prairie, I used two ropes so that he couldn’t quite get to either stake, so I could keep him changed on fresh grass. He was on the fight, and wouldn’t allow me to get near him. One of our old milk cows wandered up near him to see what he was. He was just a little yellow calf, not over six weeks old, standing about two and a half feet tall and weighing around one hundred twenty five pounds. The old cow would have weighed around eleven or twelve hundred. When she turned sideways like she wanted to fight, getting a little closer all the time, the calf kept backing out, its head up and tail straight up, waving around. Finally he got back as far as the rope would let him. The old cow was about twenty or thirty feet away when he made a rush for her and struck her with an upper lift, knocking that cow flat on her side, with feet rolled up in the air! The calf backed off, and the old cow got up and walked off a whole lot wiser.


The next day, everybody who had heard about us havin’ him wanted to come down to see that buffalo calf, of course. There was a young fellow and two young ladies come just about noon, as I was just settin’ down to dinner. I never thought about them goin’ up to the calf, and pretty soon my wife says, “Say, you had better go out there, that fellow is liable to go right up to that calf.” I jumped up and sure enough, there he was, walking out with a girl on each arm. The calf backed up, waving that little flag of a tail, and would have charged the next minute if I hadn’t hollered at them just in time.


He was only on the fight about three days, and tamed down all right after that, but I kept him on the picket rope a month or six weeks, then let him out around the door yard. We fed him cow’s milk and he sure did grow. We named him, “Jumbo.” By and by he got so he’d suck the cows, and I never saw the cow that could get away from him if he started to suck her.


Our next oldest daughter about a year and two months old liked to play in the dirt out In the yard. Her hair was light colored and curly. One day she was sittin’ out in the yard playin’, and Jumbo was sauntering around. Finally he walked up behind this little girl and started chewing her hair. She of course started squallin’. Her mother heard her and went out to see what the trouble was, and drove him off. I guess he supposed he was eating buffalo grass, her hair was so curly. Of course the little girl, barely able to walk, couldn’t get away, just sat and squalled.


He grew to be quite a large buffalo, and when he was one and a half years old I had to put him in a wire pen. He would get playing spells. I could always tell when it was going to storm, for he would get to playing. One morning I was out afeedlng him and he got a playing spell, and when I’d throw the hay to him he’d hook it all out. He did this several times! Finally I got angry and picked up an iron rod about two feet lon9 and three quarters of an inch thick, and threw it at him with all my might, right at his head. It turned over several times till the end of it hit him right in the forehead. It staggered him back and liked to knocked him down. I went to the house and told my wife I guessed I had killed Jumbo, so she went to the window and looked out. She says, “I guess he’s all right, he is standing there eatin’ his hay.”


One day Noah, my brother, was coming in through the gate with a team and wagon about a hundred yards from the door. Jumbo was lying right in the road where Noah had to come through the gate. I told my younger brother to go out and make Jumbo get out of the way because the horses were scared of him. He went out and the buffalo jumped up and begin to jump sideways and shake his head. He knew it wasn’t me, so he figured he could run things to suit himself. The gate posts were set three feet deep and anchored at the bottom. Then the barb wire put around the gate post was fastened to a big stake driven in the ground to make it more secure. The brace to keep it from pulling over sideways was nailed to the post. The buffalo kept jumping and getting closer and closer to the fence. I grabbed one of my irons which I kept handy to make him mind, but before I got there he had run his horns and head under the braces and wires and lifted the whole thing out of the ground and threw it in the air over his back. He jumped back and sideways, grunted and as soon as he saw me he jumped, whirled and run clear to the other end of the pasture.


One day I’d fixed the fence so he couldn’t get in around the house. I put up a four wire fence and kept it so there would be no loose ends, because if he could find anything loose, he’d flip it with his horn, then snort and jump around and blow, then go over and flip it again-just playing, but pretty rough play! He always was hunting something to play with, and always inside the yard into mischief. The fence didn’t hinder him much from gettin’ inside. He could jump it easy.


One day I was eating dinner and my wife come in and said Jumbo was in the yard. I Jumped up and went out and started to drive him to the corner of the fence thinking I’d make him jump out, but when he got to the fence he turned on me and begin to jump sideways with his little old tail in the air, coming closer and closer. I thought he’d charge me any minute. I kept backing out, for if I’d turn to run he would have me. I had a big post settin’ in the yard a few steps from the door about twelve or fourteen inches through. It was ten feet high with a Martin box on top, for Martins to nest in. I got in behind that. He thought he had me treed sure enough. He got up to the post and got to hookin’ the post. I could have run to the door and got away, but if I had, he would always remember I had run, and I couldn’t have done anything with him after that. I didn’t have my irons handy but did think of my bulldog six shooter in my pocket. Thinks I, “I’ll get the best of you here too.” I pulled the gun and aimed to shoot him through the end of the nose, but he was moving his head fast and I was afraid of hittin’ him too high up anyhow, and missed him entirely! It done just as much good, for he whirled and took for the corner of that fence, cleared it, landed running and never stopped till he come to the far end of the pasture again.


In the winter time I fed him different root vegetables, turnips, beets, etc. and one day I was feeding him up some chopped turnips which he was very fond of. I’d fed him a little pile out near the end of the old sod barn, and some pigs were running around there that weighed from sixty to seventy five pounds. They were trying to get to his turnip feed. I tried, but I couldn’t keep them away, so thinks I, “You’ll just have to take what comes,” and just as I turned and started to walk off I heard a pig squeal. I looked around, but couldn’t see no pig. Pretty soon, here come the pig down out of the air, right beside me, cowallop, down on the ground! It nearly hit me. When it did get up, it couldn’t stand. I looked over, and there stood Jumbo eatin’ his beets very contentedly. Jimmy, my little brother saw the whole thing, said it had gone up near Jumbo. He caught it under his horn, gave it a little flip, and the pig gave a yelp and went as high as the sod barn before coming down.


When Jumbo was about a year old we were asked to bring him up to Imperial, Nebraska for the first fair ever held there. We led an old cow and he followed her. Noah also took several deer he had. They give us twenty-five dollars to hold them there for three days for the people to see. These two towns, Imperial and Champion were pulling for the county seat. Imperial wanted to put on a good show, and draw the largest crowd for the election, and I guess that got It for them.


I sold Jumbo to brother Noah when he was about four or five years old. I had two, two year old half breeds, two heifers and a steer.


(Later Jumbo was shown at Elitch’s Garden in Denver, then around 1900 he was sold to the Denver zoo. After his death he was mounted and displayed in the Denver Museum of Natural History.)