Filming the Mexican buffalo episode got me thinking about the years I spent working on my book, American Buffalo: In Search of a Lost Icon. And thinking about that got me thinking about this photo, which is perhaps my favorite hunting photo of all time. It was taken by a photographer named L.A. Huffman, who worked in eastern Montana during the years when that beautiful country was in the autumn of its frontier phase. In the winter of 1881/’82, he went out to photograph the last big push of the commercial buffalo hide hunters, who had been busily exterminating buffalo on the southern and northern plains for the previous decade. These men were making good money, or at least some of them were, and they gave little thought to where their industry might be headed once they killed the last of their resource. There are reliable historic reports of a herd of 75,000 buffalo that crossed the Yellowstone River in ’81 or ‘82 outside of Miles City, near where this photo was taken, and so many hide hunters fell on the herd that there were as few as a couple thousand animals (some say zero) left by the time they reached the Canadian border a few days later. The hide hunters operated with such ignorance about the finiteness of their resource that they really had no idea what they’d accomplished once it was all over. Some hide hunters hung around Miles City after the last herds were killed, convinced that more buffalo were certain to show up sooner or later. Within a few years, though, they had to cede the fact that it was all over.
Whatever negative things you want to think about the commercial hide hunters, and there are plenty of options, you can’t deny that they lived colorful and fascinating existences. This camp photo shows a lot about their lives while they were out hunting on the plains. This man is living in a dug-out that he’s burrowed into the side of a dry wash. The opening is capped by a collection of buffalo hides. Much of the hunter’s food is scattered about. A rib cage off a buffalo is lying in the dirt beyond the axe in the foreground. He’s got some extracted buffalo tongues laid out on the hides that form the doorway. Also, the head of a bighorn ram. To the right of the ram is a frozen buffalo embryo that must have been plucked from the uterus of a killed cow. While it is widely accepted that Indians relished the flesh of unborn buffalo calves, whether this hunter hauled the thing home as food or as a decoration is something that we’ll never know. It is just one question out of dozens that I’d love to ask him if I could be so lucky as to share his filthy, lonely camp.