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Lost on the Prairie
Frémont's second expedition under Joseph N. Nicollet
Twenty-six year old John Charles Frémont's First Buffalo Hunt

My horse was a good one, an American, but grass-fed and prairie-bred. Whether he had gained his experience among the whites or Indians I do not know, but he was a good hunter and knew about buffalo, and badger holes as well, and when he did get his foot into one it was not his fault.

Now I was to see the buffalo. This was an event on which my imagination had been dwelling. I was about to realize the tales the mere telling of which was enough to warm the taciturn Renville into enthusiastic expression, and to rouse all the hunter in the excitable Freniére.

The prairie over which we rode was rolling, and we were able to keep well to leeward and out of sight of the herd. Riding silently up a short slope, we came directly upon them. Not a hundred yards below us was the great, compact mass of animals, moving slowly along, feeding as they went, and making the loud incessant grunting noise peculiar to them. There they were.

The moment's pause that we made on the summit of the slope was enough to put the herd in motion. Instantly as we rose the hill, they saw us. There was a sudden halt, a confused wavering movement, and then a headlong rout; the hunters in their midst. How I got down that short hillside I never knew. From the moment I saw the herd I never saw the ground again until all was over. I remember, as the charge was made, seeing the bulls in the rear turn, then take a few bounds forward, and then, turning for a last look, join the headlong flight.

As they broke into the herd the hunters separated. For some instants I saw them as they showed through the clouds of dust, but I scarcely noticed them. I was finding out what it was to be a prairie hunter. We were only some few miles from the river, hardly clear of the breaks of the hills, and in places the ground still rough. But the only things visible to me in our flying course were the buffalo and the dust, and there was tumult in my breast as well as around me. I made repeated ineffectual attempts to steady myself for a shot at a cow after a hard struggle to get up with her, and each time barely escaped a fall. In such work a man must be able to forget his horse, but my horsemanship was not yet equal to such a proof. At the outset, when the hunters had searched over the herd and singled out each his fattest cow, and made his dash upon her, the herd broke into bands which spread over the plain. I clung to that where I found myself, unwilling to give up, until I found that neither horse nor man could bear the strain longer. Our furious speed had carried us far out over the prairies. Only some straggling groups were in sight, loping slowly off, seemingly conscious that the chase was over. I dismounted and reloaded, and sat down on the grass for a while to give us both rest. I could nowhere see any of my companions, and, except that it lay somewhere to the south of where I was, I had no idea where to look for the camp. The sun was getting low, and I decided to ride directly west, thinking that I might reach the river hills above the fort while there was light enough for me to find our trail of the morning. In this way I could not miss the camp, but for the time being I was lost.

My horse was tired and I rode slowly. He was to be my companion and reliance in a long journey, and I would not press him. The sun went down, and there was no sign that the river was near. While it was still light an antelope came circling round me, but I would not fire at him. His appearance and strange conduct seemed uncanny but companionable, and the echo to my gun might not be a pleasant one. Long after dark I struck upon a great number of paths, deeply worn, and running along together in a broad roadway. They were leading directly toward the river, and I supposed, to the fort. With my anxieties all relieved I was walking contentedly along, when I suddenly recognized that these were buffalo-trails leading to some accustomed great watering-place. The discovery was something of a shock, but I gathered myself together and walked on. I had been for some time leading my horse. Toward midnight I reached the breaks of the river hills at a wooded ravine, and just then I saw a rocket shoot up into the sky, far away to the south. That was camp, but apparently some fifteen miles distant, impossible for me to reach by the rough way in the night around the ravines. So I led my horse to the brink of the ravine, and going down I found water, which, á plusieurs reprises, I brought up to him, using my straw hat for a bucket. Taking off his saddle and bridle, and fastening him by his long lariat to one of the stirrups, I made a pillow of the saddle and slept soundly until morning. He did not disturb me much, giving an occasional jerk to my pillow, just enough to let me see that all was right.

Southern Argentina, 1832, a night on the Pampas.
"I passed the night under the open sky, with the gear of the recado [equipment; outfit] for my bed. There is a high enjoyment in the independence in the Gaucho life--to be able at any moment to pull up your horse and say, Here we will pass the night." Charles Darwin

At the first streak of dawn I saddled up. I had laid my gun by my side in the direction where I had seen the rocket, and riding along that way, the morning was not far advanced when I saw three men riding toward me at speed. The), did not slacken their pace until they came directly up against me, when the foremost touched me. It was Louison Freniére. A reward had been promised by Mr. Nicollet to the first who should touch me, and Louison won it. And this was the end of my first buffalo hunt.

The camp gathered around all glad to see me; to be lost on the prairie in an Indian Country is a serious accident, involving many chances, and no one was disposed to treat it lightly. Our party was made up of men experienced in prairie and in mountain travel, exposed always to unforeseen incidents.

As leader of his own first expedition of exploration in July of 1843, Frémont would write:

My horse was a trained hunter, famous in the west under the name of Proveau, and with his eyes flashing, and foam flying from his mouth, he sprang on the [buffalo] cow like a tiger. In a few moments he brought me along side of her, and rising in the stirrups, I fired at the distance of a yard.


©1999, 2007
Bob Graham