Friday, August 30, 2013

BUFFALO HUNTERS - HOW RESEARCH HELPED ME CREATE A HERO

By Ashley Kath-Bilsky

For those of you who have read ‘Whisper in the Wind’, my time travel romance set in 1885 Texas, you learned that Jordan Blake, the Pinkerton detective and hero of that book, had an older brother named Ethan. Ethan had been captured by a band of renegade Comanche as a young boy, and the ensuing years of not knowing the fate of his brother haunted Jordan. In fact, the determination to find Ethan was the reason Jordan became a Texas Ranger and ultimately a Pinkerton. Unfortunately, Jordan never discovered what happened to Ethan. No matter how hard or long he searched, he could never find any trace of Ethan Blake.

Since the Windswept Texas Romance books are a series of linked novels about the Blake family, and ‘Spirit of the Wind’ is Ethan’s story, I had to play detective and dig deep to develop the character and his back story. In order to understand the man he became, I needed to understand what happened to that little boy, too. What was the emotional and psychological impact on Ethan being raised by the people who murdered his parents, and took him captive? When and how did he break away from their influence, and how did he survive in those early years of adulthood. Every little detail from the obvious lapse in schooling, the customs and traditions impressed upon him by the Comanche culture, to how he interacted with people, are key influences that make up the man.

When a writer starts doing research for a specific character or a plot, it can be exciting or frustrating. In my efforts to create Ethan’s past and the time period in which that past took place, the key for me was survival. What did he do to earn a living? I came upon one possibility that provided income but also would cause problems for someone raised by Indians as to the importance of the buffalo and the guilt he might feel about his actions toward a revered animal. I also discovered intriguing secondary characters and plot angles. And this is only one part of what research can do for a writer. So, today, I am going to provide you with a glimpse into the past of the mysterious Ethan Blake, and just one of the paths he chose to survive in the white man’s world.

The buffalo, also known as the American bison, provided the main source of sustenance for the Native American Indians; its meat was used for nourishment, the buffalo’s hide was used for shelter and clothing, and buffalo fat was used for cooking, etc. So indebted were the Indians to the buffalo, they would take a buffalo robe that had been painted and embroidered with a quill, and leave it as an offering of thanksgiving in a high area of ground. To the various tribes of American Indians, the herds were plentiful as the stars and as constant as the wind. But just like their lives, all that changed when the white man migrated west.

As more and more settlers moved west along with the railroad, the demand for buffalo hides increased tremendously. Before the advent of the railroad, only well-tanned Indian robes were considered profitable enough to transport by overland wagons or river boats. Yet, the Iron Horse would take any buffalo hide, including flint hides and hides that had been wind-dried and not tanned.

[Pictured: Texas Buffalo Hunters; Courtesy Texas State Library and Archives]

Hide hunters came by the thousands and took only the hides of the buffalo, leaving the meat to rot on the prairie -- a fact that would have disgusted Ethan Blake who understood the importance of the bison in the lives of Indians. Needless to say, the ever-increasing intrusion of the white man on their lands and now the slaughter of their buffalo did not sit well with the Indians either. Tempers flared. Even the threat of attack by Indians wearing war paint did not hinder the hunters. They were determined to make money, and buffalo hides were "as good as the price of gold" at the hide yards situated near the railroad. The lightning speed with which multitudes of buffalo were killed by these hide men was mitigated by the firepower they had. With long-range buffalo rifles, they could pick off a herd in quick succession. At this time, the Indians could only hunt with bows and arrows since they were no longer able to trade buffalo robes for guns or ammunition.

Many tribes had become so impoverished they no longer had buffalo robes to warm their bodies during bitter winter months. Between the U.S. Army chasing the Indians away from their lands and the buffalo country, the hide men killing off great numbers of the animals just for their hide, the mass slaughter of the buffalo seemed to also foreshadow the end of the American Indian way of life.

[Pictured: Charles Rath, famous buffalo hunter, seated on 40,000 buffalo hides in Dodge City, 1878)

Anger and resentment among the Indian nations continued to build. Various tribes like the Sioux, Comanche, and Cheyenne saw no answer but to attack and kill buffalo hunters as a warning to others. And in December 1868, buffalo hunter Ralph Morrison became one such victim. Killed and scalped by the Cheyenne, his body was found on a cold, desolate prairie by Lieutenant Read and John O. Austin near Fort Dodge, Kansas.

In 1877, the Buffalo Hunters War began, involving an estimated 170 Comanche warriors and their families. In December of 1876, they left the Indian Territory under the leadership of Comanche war chief, Black Horse. Their destination was the Llano Estacado of Texas, also known as the Staked Plain. One of the largest mesas in North America, it encompassed parts of northwestern Texas and eastern New Mexico. By February of 1877, the Comanche were joined by the Apache and initiated attacks against buffalo hunter camps in the Texas Panhandle. They killed and wounded many, and also stole horses. Learning of the attacks, 45 hunters left Rath City, a trading post located near a shallow, sandy-braided stream known as the Double Mountain Fork Brazos River, and tracked the Indians to Lubbock, Texas. Fighting ensued on March 18, 1877. Both sides suffered losses, but the allied warring Indians escaped. The Buffalo Hunters War, brief as it was, became one of the last conflicts with the Comanche.

Despite the money a hide man could earn, their life was hard. They lived in isolation on the prairie. For weeks and months at a time they would track herds through mud, muck, mire, and snow. Their comforts were few; their clothing often soiled and bloody. Hides were heavy to begin with and became stiff as a board when dry enough to transport by wagon back to town. And despite the financial gain to be earned by bringing in a wagonload of buffalo hides, the men were often viewed with dismay. Who knew the last time they bathed? Then there was the fact it was not unusual to see a hide man return to town constantly scratching his body due to vermin infestation as well as buffalo mange that he’d encountered amidst his plunder of buffalo skins. In fact, the odiferous smell of buffalo hunters earned them the name ‘stinker’ as in, “Lord A’mighty, here comes another stinker.”
It should be noted, however, that some buffalo hunters became quite successful with the ‘hide’business, namely Charles Rath, the man upon whom Rath City was named. And I find it difficult to believe that showman and former hide man Buffalo Bill Cody (pictured here in 1880) would allow anyone to call him a stinker. But I digress…

As for the hide business, in Dodge City alone, between 1872 and 1878, approximately 1.5 million buffalo hides were shipped by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad.

So, why all this talk about hide men or buffalo hunters?

Apart from the fact they were part of an important period in the American West, they were men toughened by life and weathered by the elements. After the Civil War, they ventured west, motivated by the desire to earn a living and earn as much money as they possibly could while buffalo hides were in demand. They were ignorant (or just didn't care) about the consequences of their actions -- taking only buffalo hides (as many as they could get) while Indians already pushed off their lands needed the hide and meat for their people. And let's not forget these buffalo hunters caused the near extinction of the animal itself by 1890.

[Public Doman image of American bison galloping - Photographed by Eadweard Muybridge, First published in 1887 in Animal Locomotion.]

"Only seven years ago we made a treaty by which we were assured that the buffalo country should be left to us forever. Now they threaten to take that from us also." ~ Sitting Bull

The more I researched buffalo hunters and the plight of the Indian nations and the buffalo, it meshed perfectly with the inner struggles of Ethan as a white man raised by Indians. As he witnessed the Comanche and other tribes being forced off their land, and even participated in the destruction of the buffalo, a dying breed, how could he not feel a connection between his life and the animal? Everything about his way of life was changing.

I always envisioned Ethan as an unhappy, gruff, unfriendly recluse caught between two worlds...in more ways than one. He doesn’t seek out the company of others, and those he does trust are few. He hates and resents the Comanche for what they did to his family, and yet he cannot deny the influence they had on him. He is wary of white men, part of them, but not part of them at the same time. In his mind, he is better off walking through life alone. Since he’d been raised by the Comanche and learned survival skills from them, what better way for him to transition from tribal life and live amongst the white settlers than as a solitary but skilled buffalo hunter. It provided him a means to earn a living until he could save enough money to do what he loves…breed and train highly prized horses.

Of course, there are a lot more details about Ethan, and lots of twists and turns in the telling of his story. But it is the complexities of his character, his strength, his love of nature and connection to the elements, as well as the wall he has built around his heart that makes him unforgettable and endearing. Is he a tormented hero? Definitely. He has experienced so much upheaval and violence in his life, that he prefers to live in isolation and peace. He is a loner, satisfied with the simplicity of his life until he learns the little brother and sister he thought had been killed many years earlier along with his parents are still alive, and an unusual, irritatingly talkative Englishwoman decides to save him and, in the process, turn his world completely upside down.

I hope you enjoyed my post about Buffalo Hunters and the glimpse into the hero of ‘Spirit of the Wind’, Ethan Blake. I will keep you posted on its release date, so don’t stray too far. ~ AKB

Sources:
The Buffalo Hunters: The Story of the Hide Men by Mari Sandoz (1978 - Bison Books)

The Buffalo Hunters by Charles M. Robinson, III (1995 - State House Press)

18 comments:

  1. Ashley, thank you for sharing your research into the Native American peoples' dependence on the buffalo for everything from food to shelter, and the destruction of the great herds by hide hunters. It's a sad, shameful story.

    I enjoyed getting a glimpse into Ethan's personality. Looking forward to his book!

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    1. Thank you, Lyn. The near extinction of the buffalo and the plight of the Native Americans is a chapter in our history that is so disturbing. After so many years of conflict and bloodshed instigated by tribes to chase the white men away and keep their land, the slaughter of the buffalo was the last straw for many tribes. Each time there were treaties and peace might prevail, the government went back on their word. And the same held true for many tribes who said they wanted peace then realized the price they were expected to pay. Hindsight is everything, I guess. It does make you think what you would have done back then.

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  2. Very nice post, as always, Ashley. I always felt sorry for the Indians and the buffalo. So much waste seems horrible. I'm looking forward to Ethan's book.

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    1. Thank you, Caroline. We need to get together for lunch one of these days. ((Hugs))

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  3. Ashly, What a great blog and you tied it into your story so well. I've always felt so sad about was done to the Indians by way of destroying the buffalo. Thanks for this brief lesson we should never forget!

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    1. Hi Sharla Rae - Thank you. I am glad you liked the blog and relieved you felt it tied in well as part of Ethan's backstory. There were so many archive photos of buffalo hunters and what they left behind on the plains that were too graphic to post about the poor buffalo. I opted for the wonderful moving image published in 1887 of a buffalo running free. At least we preserved the breed before it was too late.

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  4. How sad for the loss of the buffalo. Greed seems to be one of the great evils of our history. I understand the will to make money, but at such a great expense to others. What a lot of reseach you've done, Ashley. Your story sounds great and full of history that needs to be told.

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  5. Thank you, Paisley. I love doing research but very often some of the things you learn are very upsetting. You're 100% right that greed motivates people to do senseless things, even when it hurts others. ((hugs))

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  6. Great post, Ashley! So much suffering has been caused by greed and it makes it easier to understand attacks on white settlers. Your new story sounds wonderful! Best of luck with it!

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  7. Ashley--excellent, as always. I'm glad you wrote Ethan's story, and it sounds as though you've created another winner. It's an extraordinary man who can see both sides. It's not easy for any of us, but even so...there are always two sides to every conquered nation and every captive and his story.
    It's always shameful, though, when greed and waste occur, it's something visceral and evil.
    Thanks for such a wonderful thorough post.

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  8. Thanks, Susan. You are right about gaining insight into the Native Americans attacking settlers. In their minds, they were protecting their home, and were often ruthless about it. The settlers were also protecting their new home. The whole situation was a powder keg.

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  9. Thank you very much, dear Celia. Your support of my posts mean so much, and I am so happy to be part of the Sweethearts of the West, and appreciate the forum to share my love of history, writing, and research. ((hugs))

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  10. Ashley,

    What a great post, as always. You do such fantastic research, and I loved the way you tied it to your story. Ethan sounds like my kind of hero!

    Cheryl

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  11. Thanks so much, Cheryl. It is so interesting how the characters we write endear themselves to us. Ethan is perhaps the most complex hero I have written, but I think he is -- in many ways -- the most heroic and real. ((Hugs))

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  12. Ashley, you have done an amazing job with your research. I love research. Sometimes I really get lost in it. Wonderful blog.

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  13. I could hardly read this, the extermination of the buffalo makes me so sick. Only 23 left in 1900. This disruption of the ecosystem is likely the cause of the plagues of Rocky Mountain locusts on the plains.

    What a wonderful tie-in to another wonderful boo. Congrats, Ashley.

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  14. Thank you, Sarah. Yep, it is very easy to get lost doing research. ;)

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  15. I understand, Tanya. It is terrible how close we came to destroying the American Bison completely. Thank you for your comment. :)

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