Wyatt Earp - The Buffalo Hunter
F. Robert Jacobs, Indiana University
The legend of Wyatt Earp lives on largely based on his exploits as a gunfighter and Marshall of the frontier West in the 1880s. The classic tales of the shootout at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone or his sawed-off shotgun duel with Curly Bill are possibly the most celebrated gunfights of frontier history and can not fail to stir the reader's imagination. Wyatt lived to be over 80 years old, long enough to recount his story to Stuart Lake for the book Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshall (published by Pocket Books). Apparently, Wyatt was quite a financial success long before he became a marshal. He learned how to hunt and shoot buffalo when only 15 years old. By the time he was 20, the Kansas City and Caldwell buffalo hunters knew him as one of the best in the west. His methods for hunting buffalo were very different from the established practices of the time. Outside the marshal's office in Caldwell, veteran hunters would meet to compare the season's hunt. Success was measured solely by animals killed and cash received for the hides and meat. Wyatt realized that what was important was the gain after expenditures for horses, wagons, supplies, and skinners' wages were considered. Any hunter could boast of the money in his pockets at the end of a season, but few could say accurately how much was gain. The Ways of the Veteran Hunters
The buffalo hunter of 1871 set out for the range with five four-horse wagons, with one driver, the stocktender, camp watchman, and cook; and four others to skin the kill. The hunter provided horses, wagons, and supplies for several months. Money received for hides and meat would be divided into two equal parts; one went to the hunter, and from his share, he paid all expenses. The second was again split into as many shares as there were drivers, skinners and helpers with each getting a share as his seasonal wage. It was believed that no really top-notch buffalo hunter would stoop to skinning the animals he shot. Each person in the party had a specific assigned job, and none would do something below their level of dignity. The weapon of choice at the time was the Sharps "Fifty" rifle. These rifles, which all right-minded buffalo hunters carried, weighed more than twenty pounds. The gun shot a slug of lead two inches in length, a half-inch in diameter, weighing approximately an eighth of a pound. The Sharps was the best weapon obtainable for long-range shooting, but notable among its drawbacks were the cost of ammunition and the fact that the rifle's accuracy was seriously affected by continued rapid fire. To prevent damaging the rifle, the wise user, ran a water-soaked rag through the barrel after every second or third shot and let the metal cool. Wyatt recounted that "early white hunters had followed the Indian practice of shooting buffalo from the back of a horse galloping full tilt at the edge of a stampeding herd. In skin hunting this did not pay. Shooting from horseback could not be as accurate as from a stand, and the animals killed during a run would be strung for miles across the prairie, making a lot of travel for the skinners, with the added certainty that many hides would be missed. Also, every buffalo left alive would be stampeded clear out of the country in a day's hunt, and the killers would have to move camp or wait for another herd. "In stories about Buffalo Bill Cody and other Western characters who went into the circus business, I've read of a single horseman holding a bunch of buffalo stock-still by riding around and around them for hours and shooting as he rode. That was an impossibility. Two minutes after the horseman started his riding and shooting, there would not have been a buffalo within rifle range. Buffalo would stampede instantly at the sight or smell of a man on horseback; they would ignore a man on foot, or eye him in curiosity. That was why hide hunters shoot from a stand. Wyatt goes on to...