journalist Don Hampton Biggers covered about everything he could get to
just as the last of the plains buffalo
were being killed and some of the first ranches in West
Texas were being established. He came of age during the time and worked as
a journalist and editor in many a rugged outpost, compiling stories told by the
old buffalo hunters and the pioneer cowmen.
This wasn’t always easy because
both groups of people can tell some pretty tall tales, and sometimes the stories
don’t always get repeated the way they were told the first time around. Biggers
talked to a lot of the old buffalo hunters and put together their stories as best
he could, considering the sources.
Here’s what he wrote about the rigors
compiling an oral history of the old buffalo hunters: “I have never yet approached
an old hunter for a narrative and failed to obtain this bit of valuable (?) information:
‘I don’t remember much about it. You ought to see Jim Somebody.’ If I ever found
Jim Somebody he generally recommended Somebody Else as the man to see. I therefore
feel justified in using, though without permission, that which has been surreptitiously
obtained, names generally being omitted as a courtesy.” Biggers’ writings are
collected in the book “Buffalo Guns and Barbed Wire,” published by Texas Tech
Biggers would hear from one hunter about West
Texas when it was a wilderness and the hunter would remark that the disappearance
of turkeys from the rolling plains always puzzled him. Biggers would ask another
old hunter what happened to the turkeys and be told: “You say an old hunter told
you he didn’t know what became of the turkeys? Well, I’ll tell you. The hogs got
‘em. There were two breeds of these hogs, one of them was called razorbacks and
the others palmed themselves off on society as humans.”
Turkeys, the hunter
continued, were the buffalo hunter’s pests. They ate the horses’ feed and generally
roosted not far from the camps. Fisher County, where this hunter worked, was especially
thick with turkeys. The first group of people to come into the country once the
buffalo and their attendant hostile tribes had departed were what the old hunter
contemptuously described as “sportsmen” who slaughtered the turkeys while they
roosted and then congratulate each other on what good hunters they were.
“A bunch of friendly, harmless
Tonkawa Indians unintentionally stampeded a crowd of these dime novel sports,
and the Tonks nearly killed their horses trying to overtake them and explain matters,
but had to abandon the chase,” the hunter noted.
Another species of tenderfoot
was not so wanton and destructive as the “sporting” crowd but members of this
group annoyed the old hunter almost as much as the barbarians at the gates of
the wilderness. These were what might be called the “Golly! Gee!” crowd of travelers.
One such group that he took from Fort
Griffin to a buffalo camp kept talking among themselves about the “magnificent
scenery” and “beautiful landscapes,” which amused the old hunter. “It was all
new and wonderful to them, but old and common place to me,” he said.
group of innocents begged the old hunter to shoot some turkeys for them and he
said he would but only if they promised to eat all the meat from all the turkeys
he killed; they agreed. The hunter had no trouble finding turkeys. He wandered
a few yards from camp and killed five. The tenderfeet had a much harder time fulfilling
their part of the bargain as they had nothing to eat but turkey for the next five
days; they were sick of it by the end of the second meal. By the end of five days,
they had some serious gastrointestinal issues.
“They soon yielded their
sentiments to the stern realities confronting them and tore down their air castles
and preempted a lot of practical ideas which they improved with experience,” the
old hunter noted.
As for the turkeys, which is where the story began,
the old hunter finally added that a couple of fellows named John Goff and Doak
Good turned loose some hogs along the water courses between the Canadian
and Colorado Rivers in 1876 and the hogs developed a ravenous taste for turkey
eggs. “These hogs would scour the country in quest of the delectable food, and
there is no question but their work of interfering with the raising was a material
factor in the process of extermination.”
And that, according to one old
buffalo hunter, is what happened to the wild turkeys in Fisher County in the latter
part of the 19th Century.
8, 2011 Column
"Letters from Central Texas"
| Texas Animal Tales