Book Review: Hunting and Trading on the Great Plains, 1859-1875

As I’ve hunted in various places across the state of Kansas, I’ve often wondered what the early settlers and pioneers experienced when they came to this territory. They had to be awestruck as they left the hills, mountains and forests to see the apparent emptiness of the prairie. But still, I wondered how much different it looked to them than what I see today. Today, much of Kansas is sectioned off for agriculture with large acres of crops or cattle grazing. Roads crisscross the state, so much so that it would be nearly impossible to get lost or lose your bearing.

I finally found some of my answers from the book, Hunting and Trading on the Great Plains, 1859-1875 (American Exploration and Travel Series). It is the autobiography written by James R Mead, who later became one of the founders of Wichita, Kansas, the city I live in. Actually, Mr. Mead dictated his story to a stenographer. The tale is a fascinating look into the early days of the Kansas territory.

James Mead left his home in Iowa came to the territory in the spring of 1859 at the age of 23. He and some friends loaded up their wagons and headed west.

He ended up in the Salina area, along the Saline river hunting and camping. The first thing struck me was that he talks about how clear the streams, creeks and rivers were and how sweet the water tasted. Clear? Sweet? If you’ve spent any amount of time in Kansas and looked at the water, its anything but clear now. And I’m not about to take a taste of it. He also speaks of the abundance of trees along the rivers and streams.

The next thing is the variety and abundance of game. The vast herds of bison, elk and deer. So much so that he ignores the turkey that seem to be everywhere. Now, outside of deer, its hard to imagine the herds of bison and elk. I’ve never seen elk in the wild and have only seen bison fenced in. That would have to be an amazing site to see.

James would spend the first years out here as a contract hunter. Basically, he would shoot as much game as he could and sell the meat to the settlers and small towns that had begun to spring up. He claims to have made a great living at it during that time. But some of his descriptions of the hunts are a bit unsettling to the modern mind. The waste is shocking. To kill a bison just for the hide and tongue is shocking to the modern hunter with rules about wanton waste.

But it was a different time then, at least that’s what is said.

After a few years of hunting, James became a trader to the various Indian tribes that made the plains their home. He mentioned that he was always treated fairly and could rely on them to keep their word. The would always pay their debts according to the agreements he had made with them. Interesting how that goes against what recorded history and Hollywood has portrayed.

Mr. Mead also talks of the various historical figures he encountered through the years. Names like Jesse Chisholm, William “Buffalo Bill” Matthewson, Kit Carson, Kiowa chief Satanta and many others. The stories of these early celebrities are an interesting collection of things you don’t hear very often. James Mead then goes on to become a founder of the city of Wichita, helping to bring the railroad and cattle industries to the young town.

The end of the book brings about Jame’s looking back with some remorse to the changes that had come to the prairie. Saddened by the takeover of farms and ranches and the change they brought to the plains. The forested streams and rivers were gone, no longer clear running. The herds of bison and elk were no longer found on the prairie, having been slaughtered by the hunters, of which he was one. He did feel guilt for his role in the change and wished he could alter it. One has to wonder what the plains would look like today had the buffalo hunters of Mead’s day had a bit of foresight to see what the future held.

I thought the book an excellent view of the early history of Kansas. It is a unique look into the daily life of an early pioneer, one that we don’t often get to hear.

Tools of My Trade, part 1

Since I’m due to leave in a couple of days for the beginning deer season, felt like I’d write a short article on the guns I use for deer hunting. I’m not a very experienced deer hunter, this is only my third season out. I did go out with a few friends several years back, but don’t really count it since I was borrowing a rifle and didn’t even take a shot.

enfieldOne of the things I like about the group of guys I hunt with is that they like and enjoy shooting historic firearms. Most of them hunt traditional black powder or cowboy era rifles, but they also collect antique guns. Keith got me hooked on British firearms, so 3 years ago I picked up an old WWII era Enfield (303 British) made by Savage for the lend lease program during the war.

I shot my first deer with it 3 seasons ago during the winter rifle season. It was a doe, but I’m more of a meat hunter anyway. I scared a group of does out of some brush walking back to my vehicle for lunch and one of stopped and gave me a 30 yard side shot. Season over.

It’s a great gun to shoot, a little heavy, but there’s no kick to it and it holds a great pattern at 100 yards. I’d love to find a place to do some 200+ yard shots to see how I do, but haven’t found a place to do that yet.

woodsmanI recently picked up an Ardesa Spain, Hawken Woodsman in 50 caliber for an amazing price (too good to pass up). I’ve been shooting it steady for the past couple of months and am taking it out for muzzleloading season this year. I can hold a 6 inch group at 100 yards with it fairly consistently. I was never real taken with the Hawken style rifle until I picked this on up. It’s shorter than the traditional Hawken style, so it swings well and has a good feel to it.

I plan to make some changes to it after the season when I have some more time, didn’t want to try to get that done before the season. I’m going to put more traditional sites on it, let the brass tarnish a bit and refinish the stock to look original. But I’ll do that after the season is over.

musketMy last rifle is a Civil War era musket reproduction that I picked up last summer. I really wanted to use this rifle, but I’ve had difficulty getting it sited in at 100 yards. I like the looks of the muskets of that era. This one is closer to a Springfield rather than the Enfield. But it’s still fun to shoot. It’s in 58 caliber.

As you can see, I don’t really have any of the modern rifles that most use when hunting. I’m more drawn to historic firearms. There’s just something about shooting a gun that has some history behind it. I have it as a goal to someday have all my hunting rifles be British firearms. I really love the British military rifles and would love to add a Baker flintlock, an Enfield musket and a Martini Henry to my collection. Someday. Hopefully.

So those are my tools. I’m hoping Keith will give a write up on some of his. He’s a lot more knowledgeable about the history of some of these than I am and he has some great firearms and stories about them.

So what are some of you taking out into the field? Tell us about them.