Buffalo may not still be roaming around Grayson or Fannin counties like they do in the Dakotas – at least not in the wild, but there was a day when the buffalo hides were big business here.
Yet, a few years ago while on a trip to North Dakota, my husband and I kept looking for buffalo that still were roaming in the area. We had just about given up on seeing any when we went around a curve and there was a herd of the animals spread out over the highway.
Like other drivers, we pulled to the side of the road and stayed in the car to watch the beautiful giants. Signs suggested staying in car, but a few people got out to shoot pictures and get a closer look. This did not include the two Texas seniors, who obeyed the signs and preferred not to have to “run for it.”
A message from a couple of readers a few years ago sent us on a buffalo hunt and here is what we learned. One of the readers said that while visiting Grayson County Frontier Village they had seen a photo of wagon loads of bison hides on Denison’s Main Street waiting to be loaded onto the train.
A few years ago our reader’s husband found a bison skull on Red River and they took it to the Oklahoma Archaeological Survey in Norman, where it was dated to be approximately 5,000 years old. An article appeared in the Herald Democrat at that time telling how John Wesley Mooar, a buffalo hunter and businessman from New York, was clerking in a jewelry store in New York City in 1871 when he received a shipment of buffalo hides from his brother, who was hunting in western Kansas.
According to the Online Handbook of Texas, after making his first sale of buffalo hides to an American tannery he realized how much profit was there so he quit his job in 1873 and headed to Dodge City to form a partnership with his brother that lasted until 1905.
They were among the first to hunt buffalo in the Texas Panhandle and took their hides to Dodge City and Fort Griffin. One of John Wesley’s responsibilities was to supervise freighting caravans.
One of the caravans consisted of 18 teams of oxen, each pulling three wagons delivering 4,000 hides to Denison.
A story by Wayne Gard on the American Heritage Internet page said that herds of buffalo came from the high plains of northwest Texas, one herd he said covered 50 square miles. Another report mentioned said the hunters saw between two and three million buffalo at one time. A third rumor told of herds estimated as high as four million head. The rumors kept getting larger.
Gard said as late as the early 1870s, Texas drovers taking Longhorn cattle up the Chisholm Trail had to stop in the Indian Territory to allow buffalo herds to cross their path. Cowmen were afraid that the buffalo would cause the cattle to stampede and that some of the Longhorns would join them.
In the middle and late 1870s Fort Griffin was the principal headquarters for buffalo hunters. From there long wagon trains hauled the hides to Dallas and Denison. In the winter of 1877-78 the buffalo skinners took more than 100,000 hides in Texas, virtually wiping out the southern herd, according to Gard.
An Internet article titled “A Buffalo Hunt in Fannin County, Texas” written in 1876 by Judge J.P. Simpson appears on the Texas Genealogy page about Fannin County and tells about how in May of 1838 Judge Simpson and five others wanted to hunt buffalo. They decided not to take horses because Indians might steal them and leave them on foot.
They went by Pilot Grove to Cross Timbers in 1876, and found large herds of buffalo. They killed five that first day and ate buffalo meat that very night.
While eating they heard the sound of what Judge Simpson called “a mighty engine and cars on a railway.” They all jumped up ready to fight, thinking the whole Comanche nation was charging them. They soon found out it was a large herd of buffalo. They thought their oxen had probably joined the buffalo and spent the night trying to decide how to get the team back and escape from the wilderness country.
Judge Simpson said the next morning it looked like several thousand had passed nearby. The oxen were indeed missing. They followed the herd, trying to find their oxen team, but after 10 to 15 miles found no sign of them. The next morning one of the men headed back to camp, leaving Judge Simpson alone in Indian country. He said he did not claim to be brave and that he was excited and afraid of “the scalping knife and tomahawk”.
As he started for camp he came upon three mounted Indians, armed with guns, bows and arrows. One galloped around Judge Simpson and the other two charged up to him and stopped. He asked if they were Shawnee, Delaware or Kickapoo. One replied in English that they were Keachi, which he said made him even more afraid.
He said his voice trembled, but the hair on his head did not stand on end. He said his scalp drew so close to his skull that his head ached. The Indian who spoke English asked what Judge Simpson was doing there. He told them he was buffalo hunting and had a camp about 15 miles off. They pointed in that direction for him to leave, which he quickly did. The Indians, one on each side, accompanied him. After a few hundred yards, Judge Simpson saw some buffalo on the right and pointed them out to the Indians who wheeled their ponies and started for the buffalo.
He said “I kept my eye on them until they could not see me, when I can tell you that I did some pretty tall running for a number of miles. My breathing apparatus was as good as a greyhound’s, my body light as a feather; I neither tired nor halted for miles.
He said he later killed a fine buffalo and left it lying on the prairie as he went for camp, where the oxen had been found and buffalo meat that had been killed by his colleagues and barbecued.
They began loading up their meat and getting ready soon to start for home when about 40 Indians came and camped by them, killing meat and drying it for themselves.
On the third evening after the Indians camped nearby, the camp keeper, a man named “James Carter, father of the widow Russell who lives near Bonham” told them that the Indians had made plans to scalp the hunters that night.
That was enough. He said their meat went into the wagon, the oxen were yoked and they hurriedly headed for home. After traveling 15 or 20 miles that night they got away from the Indians and began celebrating that no one was wounded, killed or scalped. He said they spent the summer eating the buffalo meat and that put an end to the Fannin County group’s buffalo hunting.
Settlers came through this area on the Shawnee Trail, following buffalo herds and camping near natural springs. Then came the railroad and fewer and fewer cattle drives followed the trail that led them through the Denison area. One of the principal routes in Texas for Texas Longhorns was the Shawnee Trail before and after the Civil War.
They crossed the Red River at Rock Bluff near Preston, north of what now is Pottsboro. They went on north along the eastern edge of what became Oklahoma, a route later followed by the Missouri-Kansas & Texas Railroad. Early drovers referred to their route as the cattle trail, the Sedalia Trail, the Kansas Trail, or simply the trail. It’s not known why some began calling it the Shawnee Trail unless it was because a Shawnee village was located on the Texas side of the Red River just below the trail crossing, according to the Online Handbook of Texas.
Donna Hunt is former editor of The Denison Herald. She lives in Denison and can be contacted at email@example.com.