For Soldiers Posted on American Frontier, Hunting Offered Recreation and Repast
"Duck-shooting and wolf chasing are the only things that at all reconcile him to the place"
Letter of Captain Thomas Swords November 10, 1844
Fort Scott, Kansas, National Historic Site
In the Academy Award winning movie Dances with Wolves, a tribe of Plains Indians undertakes a heart-pounding bison (buffalo) hunt. The scene where the skilled Indians rode among the stampeding herd was then hailed as an authentic depiction of this dangerous style of hunting. Actor Kevin Costner played a young officer posted to a seemingly desolate frontier outpost in the film.
Hunters today can only wonder at the vistas that must have awaited the American soldier posted on the American frontier during the 1800s. Prairie teeming with buffalo, pronghorn antelope and grouse, hills full of deer and elk, skies dark with ducks and geese – it must’ve been a hunter’s dream.
Western forts were primarily designed to maintain peace among tribes, as well as between Indians and white immigrants. Hunting was critical to the Indians. Soldiers often tried to keep the peace by protecting hunting lands from encroachment by immigrants and settlers.
As trails West expanded, commerce followed. The forts helped establish and maintain security for the businesses serving soldiers and travelers on the trail.
Hunting the Frontier
The western frontier certainly had some colorful characters, people whose exploits in this untamed environment were chronicled for the fancy of the throngs back east living a citified existence.
By some historical accounts, Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer’s ego was as expansive as the golden tresses flowing beneath his hat. Custer, fortunately, wrote extensively about life on the plains following the Civil War. After his death in 1876 at the Little Bighorn, his wife Libby helped ensure these writings were available and promoted.
Above: Custer's Replica Home at Fort Lincoln, North Dakota
Custer loved to hunt. Some accounts even accord Custer status as one of the nation’s earliest outdoor writers, penning prose about the thrill of buffalo hunting under the pseudonym Nomad for the magazine “Turf, Field and Farm.”
For officers such as Custer, the frontier was similar to an exotic African safari of the early 1900s. Custer staged hunting parties out of comfortable camps. Special guests, visiting dignitaries and spouses of the officers sometimes rounded out the hunting entourage.
Most archived diaries and records were written by officers. Most enlisted men, many of them immigrant with little education, didn’t seem to spend much time compiling notes. One exception was Sgt. Lewis Byram Hull of the 11th Ohio Cavalry. Hull, a Civil War veteran, was posted west in 1864 at the age of 23. An exception to the soldierly norm of the 1800’s enlisted man, Hull kept a diary of his travels between Forts Kearney, Halleck and Laramie. It’s full of references to experiences of soldiers he worked with, social events and whiskey he enjoyed or endured, his observations and interaction with the Indians, and even seems to note his difficulties in writing a last – perhaps “Dear Jane” – letter to a girl back home.
“Camp on Plum creek ranch. Whiskey in the ascendant, and of course plenty of quarreling. Went hunting with Curtis; saw some pheasants for the first time.”
Lewis B. Hull, April 20, 1864.
Hull’s diary shows he availed himself of every opportunity to hunt during his two years posted to the frontier and has dozens of references to hunting big and small game, as well as fishing.
“Charlie, Will, and I went hunting over the river. Saw geese, ducks, chickens, and other game, but could not get close enough to kill anything. A band of Pawnees at the fort…”
Lewis B. Hull, April 1, 1864
Hull’s daughter Myra E. Hull used the diary in 1938 to develop “Soldiering on the High Plains: The Diary of Lewis Byram Hull, 1864-1866.
“Built a fire in the stove again. Opened the barbershop and shaved several. Colonel's escort came in; had a good time hunting, having killed buffalo, elk, and deer. Went fishing with Charlie Bolton and caught half a dozen frogs and ate two for supper. Like them; good and sweet…”
Lewis B. Hull, Sept. 14, 1864
The officers, more educated and well-heeled financially, purchased their own uniforms, food and, sometimes, weapons. In comparison, everything was provided for the enlisted man.
Officers could afford to hunt. They could afford to purchase the latest firearms of the day – the Winchesters, the repeating rifles, or the bigger bore guns popular with the buffalo hunters. Hunting buffalo, getting some hump steaks and tongue, was a popular practice. Certainly venturing out for a buffalo could impress guests from back East.
Ammo allocations tightened after the Civil War as Army budgets decreased (guess nothing ever changes for a peacetime Army). There wasn’t enough ammunition to even ensure soldiers were proficient with their firearms let alone for a largely recreational pursuit such as hunting. There was also a reluctance among some leaders to trust their men with repeating rifles, fearing they’d waste ammunition.
“…Great bear chase. About forty shots fired, fifteen of which took effect. Bear steak for supper.”
Lewis B. Hull, June 6, 1865
Soldiers taking to the field hauled food with them. It’s not too difficult to imagine what might taste better following a day in the saddle: hardtack and a can of warmed-over tinned beef or a sizzling plate of antelope or deer steaks. As long as the expedition’s senior leader approved, soldiers away from the fort for extended periods occasionally shot game to supplement their provisions.
“Start out hunting. Shoot one antelope near road. It starts running, but I run it for a mile; it lies down; I shoot again, cut off hams, and overtake wagons. Cross Rock creek. Cripple another antelope but don't get it…Supper with Simpson. Take Hutch with me. Camp on Bear creek. Fried antelope, "slap jacks," and molasses.”
Lewis B. Hull, May 16, 1865
Kansas’ Fort Hays was one of the major logistical depots on the frontier, especially during the westward migration before the railroads were established. Bob Wilhelm, a former director of Historic Fort Hays, said, “One way enlisted soldiers at Fort Hays got around not using government ammo for hunting was their company funds,” Wilhelm said. “They’d raise money selling bread. Each man was allotted an 18 to 22-ounce loaf of bread daily. This was issued to the company in terms of bulk flour.
“Now, it doesn’t take 18 ounces of flour to make 18 ounces of bread,” he continued. “Consequently, they could make extra bread and sell it, usually at 5 cents a loaf to the soldier and 10-15 cents a loaf to the civilians around the fort. The money would go into the company fund for their own use. They could buy a chair for the barracks or a box of ammo from the post trader. They’d go out, kill a buffalo or antelope and generally bring it back to supplement the company’s rations.”
At some frontier postings, the benefit of augmenting the daily ration was better understood. At Fort Bliss, along the Texas-Mexico border, hunting was popular and considered a valued supplement to the daily ration. Museum records there note that, “One commander went so far as to declare that the Army would save a great deal of money and train its troops if soldiers were organized into hunting parties, instead of spending endless hours on fatigue duty.”
“Go fishing with seine. Have plenty of fun and catch plenty of fish. No pay for us this time; money ran short.”
Lewis B. Hull, July 23, 1865
“Fishing was a different story,” Wilhelm added. “At Fort Hays, the creek was just a quarter of a mile away and many soldiers would likely try their hand at fishing when they were off duty.”
Fishing was also very popular and productive at Fort Laramie. In documents from 1872, one unnamed source writes, “Laramie River is well-filled with fish, and gives rise to the following true story: One evening, an officer of ours was walking toward the dam, when he heard the noise of some fish trying to get upstream. He obtained some men and, as the fish were in a shallow place, boards were put in the rear to prevent their going back, and with the men’s hands 182 large-sized fish were thrown out of the water.”
In an earlier interview, Sandra Lowry, a former Fort Laramie National Historic Site librarian, noted that fishing for catfish with trotlines was a popular practice. This makes sense because most enlisted soldiers probably didn’t have the luxury of any type of fishing rod or reel. A baited line, often sporting several hooks, firmly attached to a tree limb on the riverbank was an effective way to catch fish.
Lowry cited an archived handwritten note to Mr. Hart, the clerk at the Fort Laramie store. It read, “Please let Rohn, Company G, have two fish lines, two dozen hooks, and small, thin line and charge the same to me.” It was signed, “2nd Lt.” The cost for the goods: 60 cents for the hooks and 40 cents for the line.
Lowry said any hunting directly adjacent to Fort Laramie would’ve been mostly for small game.
“The enlisted man at Laramie wouldn’t have had much time or opportunity to hunt big game unless stationed at one of the sawmills in the mountains of the Laramie Range,” she said. Mule deer, elk, bear and wild sheep flourished in the Wyoming mountains.
Although a military assignment in the Western United States today doesn’t represent the same frontier adventure, it still can present incredible outdoor opportunities. Still, one can easily imagine an American military member stationed at places such as historic Fort Riley, Kansas, looking out the gate and imagining days of wagon trains, horse cavalry, Indian camps and endless miles of open land filled with wildlife.
“With Pumpelly I crossed the river to hunt as neither of us has to march in the ranks. Find ten or twelve black-tailed deer. P. shot but missed. Came on and scared up a young black tail. It ran into the bushes and looked out, I dismounted and drew low, shooting him through covering of heart. He ran on about two hundred yards and fell dead. Fine meat: splendid supper and breakfast for moss.” \
Lewis B. Hull, Sept. 4, 1865