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Story Archives: Stories of buffalo and Indians on the Natchez frontier
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|Stories of buffalo and Indians on the Natchez frontier|
George Willey turned 11 years on Christmas Day 1787 when his family's flatboat docked at the Natchez landing. For the next 80-plus years he listened to old-timers talk about the wild frontier days of Natchez country.
He heard stories about the last days of buffalo being seen and hunted in this region at a time when conflicts between white settlers and Indians were common.
When Willey was in his 20s in the early 1800s after the Mississippi Territory had been formed by Congress, the buffalo were gone. A hundred years earlier, French explorer Bienville had seen buffalo crowding the eastern bank of the Mississippi near Baton Rouge.
A moment in time in the spring of 1805 reveals much about the buffalo. At his desk at the Forest Plantation south of Natchez William Dunbar was writing a report for President Thomas Jefferson about his exploration of the Ouachita River following the Louisiana Purchase. Not a buffalo had been seen from Natchez to the hot springs of Arkansas. But half a continent away, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were near Mandan villages in present day North Dakota on the exploration of the western reaches of the vast territory of Louisiana.
On April 25, 1805, Lewis wrote in his journal that "the whole face of the country was covered with herds of buffalo, elk & antelopes; deer are also abundant, but keep themselves more concealed in the woodland; the buffalo, elk and antelope are so gentle that we pass near them while feeding, without appearing to excite any alarm among them, and when we attract their attention, they frequently approach us more nearly to discover what we are."
Buffalo meat was a favorite of the pioneer, the hump and tongue considered choice. In the growing cities in the northeast, the tongue was considered a delicacy and by the mid-1800s smoked buffalo tongue taken from harvested animals on the western plains drew a premium in the eastern cities.
At the time George Willey arrived in Natchez in 1787, buffalo were rarely seen around Natchez or east of the Mississippi. At one time buffalo herds roamed the land between the Appalachian Mountains and the Rockies. In 1850, an estimated 50 million buffalo thrived in the Great Plains, so many that when the first railroads were pushing to the Pacific it was not uncommon for brakemen to stop their trains and wait for hours for a huge herd to pass over the rails. By the late 1800s, unregulated hunting out west had decimated the herds to the point that less than a 1,000 animals survived.
A buffalo is a massive animal. A bull stands 6-ft. tall at the shoulders and weighs as much as 2,000 pounds. The Indians wasted nothing when dressing a dead buffalo. The hides provided clothing -- robes, moccasin, leggings, coats, capes, belts, dresses. They were also used to make tobacco pouches, horse bridles and blankets. Bones were used for arrowheads and as hide scrapers; the horns for powder flasks, spoons, ladles, knives; the dung for fuel.
The brains and small intestines couldn't be preserved like other parts of the animal so the Indians would eat them on the spot of the kill as a celebration of victory and of life. They left the hearts in the field as symbolic seed to replenish the population.
According to George Willey, when he was a child in Natchez his father, James, escaped death on a journey to recover the brains of a freshly-killed buffalo. A hunter who knew Revolutionary War veteran James Willey told James that he had killed a buffalo "a short distance from the fort, and that it would be a good opportunity to get the brains of the animal to dress some deer-skins" which he knew James Willey had on hand.
George Willey called his father "a man of mild disposition and unassuming manners," characteristics that may have saved his life on his quest for the hunter's kill. A man would walk a long distance to kill a buffalo or just to retrieve part of its flesh, its bones or other parts.
In route to the Natchez hunter's buffalo kill, James Willey passed the cabin of an acquaintance along the way. Invited inside for breakfast, the host, in an act of deceit, somehow surmised that James was planning to harvest the brains from a freshly-killed buffalo and abruptly left him sitting at the breakfast table alone.
James figured out that the man was going to claim the brains for himself and sat quietly finishing his breakfast while awaiting for the man's return. A short time later, James heard two rifles being fired and quickly surmised what happened. He returned to the Natchez fort, grabbed his Kentucky long rifle and organized a party of men and went to the location of the gunshots. There they found James' breakfast host. He was dead, scalped, and had two bullet holes in his body.
George Willey also related one other story relating to the vanishing buffalo. A man who worked at the fort was hunting one day and camped along the bank of the stream, built a fire and was relaxing while roasting a joint of buffalo in the coals. After supper, he took his tomahawk and cracked the bone and began "enjoying" what Willey called "that greatest of luxuries of a hunter's life, the buffalo marrow."
No question that the frontiersmen loved the tongue and hump of the buffalo but the marrow was the greatest delicacy of all. Recalled Willey: "While quietly picking his marrow-bone, the hunter heard the stealthy tread of some animal in the leaves, near the edge of the water. Thinking it was probably a wild-cat, attracted by the smell of meat, he threw, with all his force, the sharp-pointed fragment of the marrow-bone, to frighten away the animal, whatever it might be." At daylight, the man discovered in the stream the body of an Indian "with the marrow-bone sticking in his head."
George Willey said such stories -- "all embracing something of the wonderful, and full of thrilling danger" -- were told over and over again "by the fireside of the early settler" in Natchez country.
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