By: Randy Tucker
The races had a purpose. The young man with speed, who could run to the horizon faster than all the others, earned a special honor in the tribe.
Winning the race came with heavy responsibility. The young warrior was the one whose actions meant feast or famine for his people.
Before the horse changed Arapaho life on the plains, it was man on foot who brought meat to his family.
This is the story of cunning, agility, guile, and pure bravery in the face of the most powerful animal on the Great Plains, the American bison. In Hollywood’s version of buffalo hunting, the Native American hunters always rode alongside the bison and shot arrows from horseback or with a short-barreled rifle. While this took place, it was the ball and cap pistol that was used much more often. The pistol was easier to control at full gallop and at close range had the power to drop a bison in stride.
Hunting buffalo before the horse was a risky endeavor at best, and a suicide mission at the least. Many plains tribes disguised themselves as wolves, coyotes, or deer as they crawled within lance or bow distance of a buffalo.
Bison are herd animals that rely on the collective senses of the group for survival. They are wary at water holes, drink quickly and then move on. The springs that once dotted the grasslands of Nebraska, South Dakota, Oklahoma, and Wyoming turned to mud wallows once the bison were replaced by cattle, but when the bison are allowed to return as they have on selected areas of the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, the springs have come back to life. Though the traditional predators are gone or greatly diminished, the modern buffalo retains inherited survival habits that date back to the dawn of time, making them drink quickly and move away from the danger of the water.
Hunting single animals could feed a band of Arapaho for a few days, but winter survival required jerked meat, pemmican, and much larger numbers of buffalo.
Using the bison’s herding instinct against it was the key to survival for people on foot, and buffalo jumps were the answer that they discovered.
Jumps are deep depressions in an otherwise flat plain caused by water erosion, and while there are recorded jumps in modern-day Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas, Colorado, and Nebraska, none of these states have the number and variety of the jumps discovered in Wyoming and Montana and which extended north into the plains of Canada.
The Arapaho people called the region now known as Wyoming and Montana home for millennia before the arrival of the horse. The preponderance of draws, gullies, and outright cliffs that spring from the swaying grasslands of eastern Wyoming through central Montana were ideal hunting grounds.
A perfect jump was a ravine from 35 to 120 feet deep. A lower elevation, and the bison survived the fall; higher than 120 feet, and the carnage was so great that it was difficult to skin, butcher, and prepare the meat, hides, organs, and bones that provided the food and tools of a migratory people.
The zone around the Platte River as it flows through modern Casper and east to Glenrock was the prime area for buffalo jumps. Chugwater, a few dozen miles north of Cheyenne, lays claim as the most famous jump in modern times, due to good marketing.
On a late spring or early summer day, when the prairie grass was the highest and wild flowers sprouted throughout the meadows, the Arapaho elders met and took information from young scouts who had searched in all four directions to locate a herd of buffalo.
These young men reported the position of the herd, and the elders spoke in council to decide which group was closest to the known jumps.
Once one was selected, songs were sung praying for a good hunt, and the young man who won the race earlier was given a buffalo cape, complete with skull cap and attached horns. He traveled ahead of the rest of the party to the jump and located a crevice, hollow, or even a strong overhanging branch that would provide cover when the bison chased him.
The rest of the hunters moved out slowly, careful not to excite or warn the herd. As they moved out, they surrounded the buffalo on three sides and waited for an elder to signal the attack.
On the call of one of the wise men of the tribe, everyone jumped from cover, waved their arms and shouted.
The startled buffalo swirled in a circle. The runner jumped ahead of the frightened animals and with cap and horns on his head, ran towards the jump. The bison saw what they thought was one of their own with an escape route and followed the young, disguised man in hot pursuit. Bison are much faster than humans, and the buffalo closed the distance to the young man just as he reached the jump. The warrior found his cover as the herd swarmed in behind him.
The buffalo in the lead saw the precipice, but were pushed by the animals behind until the herd fell into the jump.
If the hunt went off as planned, the women and children were already camped on the far side of the jump, and as the animals fell. they quickly moved in with knives to begin the skinning and butchering process.
The hot summer sun made the work urgent, since waiting even a day would mean putrid meat and wasting the life of an animal the Arapaho held sacred.
Some of the jumps are ancient, dating back to 2500 BC.
The Vore Buffalo Jump near Sundance in Crook County, Wyoming is one of the largest, not in size, but in terms of how many buffalo remains are estimated to be in the pit.
The jump is 40 feet deep and about 200 feet in diameter, a natural sink hole that formed when water washed away a gypsum deposit, leaving the solid rock surrounding it. It is thought the jump was used by Arapaho, Lakota, Crow, Hidatsa, Cheyenne, and Gros Ventre from 1500 to 1800 AD. Spear and arrow points have been discovered as deep as 15 feet underground, and it is estimated that the remains of 20,000 bison are in the bottom of the pit.
A surprise came during exaction when Apache and Kiowa points were discovered in the pit. The site is a long way from the modern home of either tribe.
A site named Buffalo Kill, near Casper, is one of the oldest known at 4000 BC and a unique hunting area in the entire bison range. Ancient hunters chased the bison, evidently from all directions, since they weren’t targeting a cliff, hole, or washout, but a large, curved sand dune. The hunters chased the buffalo into the sand, where their average weight of 1,500 pounds sank their feet deep into the loose surface. Men raced in as the animals struggled to get out of the sand and killed them at close range with lances. It’s estimated that 100 buffalo could be taken each time in a trap like this.
As is often noted, few if any of the jump sites were limited to use by one tribe. Tribes could be mortal enemies, but they respected and allowed each other’s use of a communal trap site. There are no stories or legends telling of ambushes or open warfare at any jump sight.
Another ancient site, near Newcastle, Wyoming in the far northeastern corner of the state, held some surprises for archeologists digging in the jump. The Hawken site was used around 2300 BC and is an arroyo, with boxed sides that trapped the animals. Two surprises emerged when this site was investigated. The first was that it was used during the winter months.
The climate in northeastern Wyoming in the dark days of winter is brutal. Temperatures down to -45 degrees, howling winds and heavy snow make it a less than ideal place to camp. But the arroyo was a perfect trap for the ancient hunters.
Mixed with modern bison bones were the bones of an intermediate sized animal, something between the modern Bison bison and the gigantic, extinct Bison antiquus. These intermediate bison are estimated to have weighed up to two tons and stood almost six feet at the shoulder.
Perhaps the oldest known site, and definitely the most famous, is the jump at Chugwater. The tiny town of Chugwater bears the translated name of the sound a buffalo made when it was driven off the nearby cliffs into the shallow depths of the Chugwater River below. The “chug” sound is the splash of a large animal as it fell to its death in the water below the cliff.
The Chugwater site is thought to have the remains of animals taken as long as 12,000 years ago.
Hunting occurring in 10,000 BC reflects new arrivals from Asia as they moved across the North American continent. The ancient giant mammals of North America, the mammoth, mastodon, and wooly rhino were still roaming the area.
Giant wolves, the size of modern lions and saber tooth cats, preyed on human and animal equally in those days, and the climate of the area was decidedly warmer than today. The glaciers that moved south just a few thousand years before were in full recession.
But it is likely that the swiftest young man in those ancient groups still held the honor of running with the bison. An honor that meant survival to his people.
Randy Tucker is a retired history teacher and freelance writer from western Wyoming. He has a lifetime of experience in farming, ranching, hunting and fishing in the shadow of the Wind River Mountains. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.