By Ashley Kath-Bilsky
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
"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
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)