Excerpt from Texas Safari: The Game Hunter’s Guide To Texas
After much consideration and having acquired men and supplies Jerry B. St. John, Esq. of Great Britain decided to allow himself six weeks for safari. The vast wilderness along the Gulf Coast of the recently formed Republic of Texas looked more than promising and judging by the stories he’d heard around the docks where his ship was being repaired the interior was bounding with game. If the estimates of the Caddo Indian guides he’d hired were correct six weeks would provide excellent hunting and be more than enough time to take a trophy buffalo.
It was in the early summer of 1842 that St. John and his party began their journey inward from the southern coastline, near the modern-day cities of Beaumont and Port Arthur. St. John’s party consisted of roughly twenty men, “…six of whom were white men, the rest Caddo Indians.” Despite the heat and relatively difficult travel, the party made good time and by the second day of May they had established camp at the edge of an island of timber, nestled between Pedro Bayou and Burnet Creek.
The hunting camp was without the modern comfort of tents, but all men in the party slept and relaxed within the confines of huts erected with “poles and boughs” by some of the Caddos in the party. These accommodations were more than “luxurious” and St. John found that they helped add a certain roughness to the camp that made the safari much more enjoyable.
Meals were taken at the front of the camp, next to the fire where party members could eat and peer outwards onto the “boundless interminable prairie” that lay before them. With very little in the way of “corn, meal and potatoes,” meals consisted of little more than meat. Grey squirrel, wild turkey and plenty of venison were served at almost every sitting. At first St. John and his European counterparts were concerned at their newfound diet of solely meat, but soon realized that “…living in the open air, in the constant pursuit of game, riding and walking vast and incredible distances in an exceedingly short space of time, are much greater incentives to digestion than a lazy stroll through St. James’s Park.”
Members of the hunting party needed all the protein they could get as the day to day rigors of hunting were more than taxing. Days were spent riding long distances across the Gulf Coastal Prairie, along rivers, and through islands of timber with thick underbrush in search of game. Game was so abundant St. John later wrote of his trip that “…each day [was] fresh and varied-each day presenting some new feature-now a deer, then a hog; now geese and swans, then a conager; now a possum, then a coon.” But despite an abundance and variety of game the party had yet to find any buffalo, the species St. John wanted most of all. His hopes were answered only a few days into the hunt by the sound of thunder.
The men had just finished breakfast when the rolling bass sounds of thunder filled the air. With the sky deep blue in color and free from clouds, members of the hunting party looked to the distance, trying to locate the coming storm. Instead of dark clouds they spotted a prairie exploding in dust and debris.
“What is this?” St. John yelled out, questioning anyone within the party who might know.
One of the Caddo Indians responded, “Buffalo.”
The immense dust storm and the bison that led it raced closer and closer to camp with a force that shook the ground and everything that stood upon it. The herd was estimated to be between four and five hundred in number, advancing at a hurried speed across the prairie. The men quickly ran to a nearby thicket to seek safety behind the trees. From there they would shoot at the passing herd and give chase to those that didn’t fall.
As the herd dissected the prairie before him, St. John voiced his thankfulness of the hunting party’s choice in tactics. “The herd came near the grove; and it was fortunate we were closely sheltered. For instant death from feet and horns would have been our fate, had we been in the open savannah.”
The men waited at the edge of the thicket as each minute the herd drew closer and closer to within shooting range. As it approached, St. John picked out his first trophy. “At the head of the herd was a huge, black bull, who was their leader, guiding them in their onward course; he came along, bellowing like a hundred lions, his tail straight on end, like a mop-stick, and at times tossing up the earth with powerful horns.”
St. John and others in his immediate surroundings took aim and fired. They fired, re-loaded and fired again until the gigantic black bull and several others fell to the earth. The herd, unable to stop, galloped over their former leader and continued along the unseen trail. St. John ran out to inspect his first trophy, but gave himself little time to admire it. He quickly instructed two Indians to begin butchering the animals while he and the rest of the hunters followed the herd.
The hunting party caught up with the still thundering herd in less than an hour. At the sight of the men, three buffalo split from the herd. This group split once more as a large bull abruptly veered away from the other two. To better follow the herd the hunters would have to split as well. With a few men riding beside him, St. John spurred after the bull as the remainder of the hunting party continued chasing the larger herd.
Still mounted, St. John and an Indian companion dropped the huge bull in its tracks after a short chase. Although down, the bull still required a pistol shot to the head from St. John to finish him off. The men began butchering the animal, with great haste so they could catch up to the party, and perhaps join in taking more bison.
After completing a hasty field dressing, St. John and his companions took up the trail of the herd and the rest of the hunting party. They were traveling parallel to a creek that was skirted on both sides by small bands of timber when the air was suddenly shattered with the sharp crack of gunfire. At first St. John attributed the shots to his fellow hunter’s success but quickly realized that their success could mean his death.
The distant hunting party’s shots had inadvertently turned the herd toward St. John. “…our position was far from being an agreeable one: to stand still was death, to take to our heels across the prairie was to risk being over taken by angry beasts. The Indian decided the question by dismounting and taking to the cover of the nearest thicket. I followed his example as quickly as possible; and having secured our horses, we grasped our rifles and prepared for action.”
The thundering herd ripped across the plains less than fifty yards from where St. John and his companions took refuge. From the safety of the trees, St. John singled out a fat cow and dropped it with one shot to the beast’s head. No sooner had the cow dropped than the rest of the hunting party screamed by the thicket in pursuit. St. John left the cow to be butchered later and spurred after the fleeing hunters. By the time he reached the men they had dropped seven more bulls and were stopping to inspect their trophies.
Lieutenant Snow was about to dismount when one of the “dead” bulls suddenly rose from the prairie floor and charged. He jerked the reins to turn but the horse’s response came too late. In a blur of motion the bull collided into the side of the horse. The sound of pounding flesh was echoed by the shrill cries of the horse as one of the bull’s horns pierced its side. Snow hit the ground with the force of a comet. Gasping for air he turned to see the bull shaking the horse’s dead body like a rag doll in an effort to free itself.
Snow lunged for his rifle and fired a half a dozen times into the trapped bull. At the last shot, the bull staggered and fell, collapsing in a heap atop and to the side of the horse it was still attached too.
That evening members of the hunting party lazed around the fire drinking coffee, eating bison, smoking, and telling stories of the day’s events. “…it is my firm conviction that, by our twenty men, no less a quantity than a hundred weight of buffalo was devoured. Ribs, steaks, hearts, livers, brains, went the way of all flesh, with a rapidity and dexterity most remarkable.”
Later, when all were gorged on meat and good times St. John retired for the evening noting that “there was not one who did not woo slumber as the best and most true refreshment after our day’s labour.”