Another IAGenWeb Project





A FEW INCIDENTS connected with the disappearance of the game in this locality may not be wholly devoid of interest. Aside from the fur-bearing animals which have already been mentioned, the more common were badgers, coyotes, foxes and prairie wolves. In addition to these the timber wolf and the lynx, or bob-cat, as the trappers called it, were occasionally met with. Raccoons were common enough in the groves but didn't venture out much on the prairie, and since the groves were limited they were not plenty. There is no account of any bear ever having been seen here. The larger game were deer, elk and buffalo. It is an open question whether buffalo were ever so plenty here as has been popularly supposed or as they are known to have been in the "buffalo grass" region of the Dakotas and beyond. Fabulous stories were early told of the hunting grounds of northwestern Iowa and it is possible many have formed somewhat extravagant ideas of the richness of it.


So far as relates to the fur-bearing animals, no description of them has ever exceeded the truth, and the same is true of the birds, but when it comes to the larger game such statements need to be taken with some degree of allowance. It was held by some the lakes being the favorite headquarters of certain bands of Sioux Indians they kept the game hunted down closer than was done in other localities. This was doubtless true to some extent. Be that as it may, the buffalo had practically disappeared at the time of the first attempt to settle the county in 1856. So far as can now be ascertained there are no accounts or traditions of any having been seen in the vicinity of the lakes for three or four years along about that time. Trappers and others coming across from the Big Sioux and beyond, occasionally reported having seen buffalo sometimes in large droves and then again in small numbers. But that was contiguous to the buffalo grass region. None came about the lakes at that time.


Along about 1861 and 1862 there used to be occasional reports of stragglers being sighted on the prairie, but so far as is known none were killed at that time, although some reports are going the rounds of the papers that one was killed in Osceola County in 1860. One was killed in this county in the latter part of the summer of 1861 or 1862. He was evidently •a two-year-old. He must have straggled in around the north end of West Okoboji Lake, for the first seen of him he was coming down along what is now known as Des Moines Beach, and on reaching Given's Point he took a course, swimming straight across the bay. He landed at the mouth of a ditch, which had been dug from the lake inland to supply a steam mill, located there, with water. The ditch was nearly a hundred and fifty feet long, and although shallow where it entered the lake, it gradually increased in depth as it neared the mill until at the upper end it was about twelve feet deep. The buffalo entered this ditch without hesitation, and as he made his way toward the upper end he soon found himself in a trap. He couldn't go ahead, he couldn't climb up the sides, and he couldn't back out, and the mill hands putting in an appearance about that time soon dispatched him.


It is supposed by those who know something of the habits of the buffalo that this one must have mistaken the mouth of the ditch for an ordinary buffalo trail and attempted to follow it. It is said that in the buffalo country it is no uncommon experience to see a trail worn several feet deep by the buffalo following each other in single file across the bluffs. How this lone animal strayed away from his fellows and made his appearance there at the mill at that time as he did has always been pretty much of a mystery, but this incident can be verified by a large amount of unimpeachable testimony and can be taken as true.


In the latter part of August, 1863, a party consisting of J. S. Prescott, E. V. Osborn, John Burrill, Aaron Rogers and R. A. Smith started for Sioux City on business at the United States Land Office. As they were going around the bend of the Little Sioux in the southwest corner of Okoboji township, they saw across the bend what they at first took to be two cattle lying down near the top of the bluff. Soon one of the boys made the remark that he didn't believe they were cattle, as there were no cattle running down there at that time. Prescott had a good glass which he always carried on his trips across the prairie. This was soon produced and by its help it was easy to see that the animals were buffalo. The party had three horses along, Prescott's two on a spring wagon, and R. A. Smith's saddle horse.


It was arranged that Prescott should drive his team behind the hill out of sight and await results, that R. A. Smith with his saddle horse should make a wide detour to the west and get beyond them, while the others with the three rifles of the party should, by keeping the high ground between them and their game, get as near them as they could and deliver their fire. This program was carried out as planned. Osborn had a heavy buffalo rifle. The other two were small affairs and of not much account. As the boys came over the ridge that they had kept between them and their game they found themselves closer to it than they expected to be, and not more than fifteen or twenty rods away. One of the buffalo had got onto its feet and was stretching itself while the other was lying still as first sighted. With all the caution possible the boys took deliberate aim and fired at the standing buffalo. Whether their shots took effect or not they did not know at the time, but they did not bring him down. The two animals started on a deliberate canter to the southwest. They did not go fast, as R. A. Smith, who was stationed out that way with his horse, had no trouble in keeping alongside. But every time that he came up they were inclined to shear off to the left. Noticing this peculiarity he thought that by keeping on one side they might be run around in a circle to near where they started from. After running about a half mile they separated, one of them keeping on the southwest while the wounded one coming around in a circle was soon approaching the starting point. The boys noticing this dropped down out of sight by a gopher knoll covered with weeds and awaited his approach. He passed within about eight rods of them. When directly opposite they gave him another broadside. This demoralized him materially and checked his speed somewhat, but failed to bring him down. He kept on until he came to the Little Sioux River. There was a sand bar here reaching out into the stream. He went out on this sand bar and stopped. He was by this time pretty well exhausted. Osborn made the remark that he had heard it said that you could not bring down a buffalo by shooting him in the forehead, and now he was going to find out. Accordingly he went out ahead about six or eight rods away, and taking deliberate aim at his forehead, fired. The ball went crashing through his brain, and he fell over on his back, his feet quivering in the air.


An examination afterwards proved that the first ball fired at him passed through the fleshy part of the heart, but not striking any of the cavities, failed to bring him down. The boys soon rigged a Spanish windlass and dragged him out on dry land where they took off the hide and cut up the carcass. He proved to be a very large animal. The quarters must have weighed nearly four hundred pounds each. Whether this was the last buffalo killed in Iowa or not is an open question, but it was one of the last. There was one killed north of Spirit Lake, near Loon Lake, in Jackson County, Minnesota, about the same time, by "Jim Palmer," who was well known to all of the old settlers.


About the same time John Gilbert, who was carrying the mail between Spirit Lake and Fort Dodge, reported on his return from one of his weekly trips that the people in the vicinity of Old Rolfe, which was then the county seat of Pocahontas County, were much wrought up and excited over having killed a large buffalo near there the previous week, and lie gave the names of some of the parties engaged in the hunt and some of the incidents of it. There may have been others killed in Iowa that same season, and doubtless were. Indeed, of late there have been several items going the rounds of the press of north-western Iowa where different localities are claiming the distinction of being the place where the last buffalo in Iowa was run down and killed.


Other instances are reported of buffalo being seen which were not killed. One was seen one Sunday morning on the bluffs near where the Okoboji mill was afterward built. A. S. Mead reported having seen one in the vicinity of Marble Grove. And there were others. Since the foregoing was written it has been ascertained that in the summer of 1870 two buffalo were seen near the forks of the Little Sioux, in this county. They were coming from the northwest and going southeast. It was afterwards learned that this same two were also seen by several persons in the German settlement in the Little Sioux Valley, in Minnesota. What became of them was never known, and where they carne from, and how they came to be here alone, will always remain a mystery.


Now, it is an open question as to what extent the buffalo was native to northwestern Iowa. That peculiar product known as "buffalo grass" never grew there, and the buffalo were known to be very partial to it and never left the regions where it grew, except in times of drouth when it failed and they were obliged to seek other pasture. This was notably the case in 1863. This was the summer of Sully's first expedition up the Missouri, and the boys from this county connected with that expedition agree in the statement that the vegetation in the country through which they passed was burned up by drouth, and that they were obliged at times to make forced marches of twenty to thirty miles in search of water and forage for their horses. Of course this condition of affairs would compel the buffalo to scatter and seek their food wherever they could find it, and accounts for their coming into Iowa that fall in greater numbers than they had done for some years previous.


Now, whatever question there may be, as to this having been the native home of the buffalo, there is none in regard to the elk. The prairies of northwestern Iowa were as peculiarly adapted to being the home of the elk as those of Dakota were the home of the buffalo. In the early days it was a rare thing to cross any of the large prairies without encountering a drove of elk, and sometimes several of them. Of course they kept growing scarcer and more rare until the date of their final extermination, which is fixed in 1871. An interesting article written by J. A Smith, formerly editor of the Spirit Lake Beacon, and published in the Midland Monthly for August, 1895, entitled "The Hegira of the Elk," gives an account of the disappearance of the elk from Iowa, and a short extract may prove interesting. He says:


"Until midsummer of 1871 a considerable drove of elk had found feeding grounds and comparative security for rearing their young in the then unsettled region of northwestern Iowa, where the 'trend of drainage is toward the Little Sioux and Rock Rivers and near their headquarters. A colony of settlers planted by Captain May in Lyon County in 1869, the railroad surveyors and advance guard of pioneers in southwestern Minnesota in the same year, and the influx of homesteaders into Dickinson, O'Brien, Clay and Sioux Counties at that period, compelled this herd of elk to take refuge in the valley of the Ocheyedan River, a tributary of the Little Sioux. There they remained undisturbed, except by an occasional band of hunters, until a memorable July morning in 1871, when the writer at a distance of some two miles saw them pass southwestward down the further border of a small stream that emptied its waters into the Ocheyedan River. The coigne of vantage was a lone house on a homestead claim in the extreme southwestern corner of Dickinson County, miles away from any habitation to the east and many more miles away from any on the west. The herd passed down on the east bank of the stream, while the homesteader's cabin was on the west bank with the wide valley between. To the northwest the view was unobstructed for half a dozen miles, and it was from this quarter that the elk were moving from 'their violated jungle homes amid the tall rushes end willows of the Ocheyedan Valley.


"Peering through the vista of pink and yellow shades of a rising summer sun, the first thought of the early summer dwellers in the cabin was that some emigrant's cattle had stampeded—a not unusual occurrence. A few minutes later and the use of a fieldglass disclosed the identity of the swiftly galloping animals. Ere they reached the nearest point on the eastern range, we were able to classify them as a drove of elk consisting of four old bulls, ten full grown cows, twelve yearlings and four calves. Judging by the peculiar articulate movements which were plainly visible through the glass, the pace did not seem 'to be fast, but the conclusion arrived at from the distance covered in a given time, led us to believe that it would be useless to fry to intercept them without swift horses. Some weeks later (for news traveled slowly in those days), we learned that the entire drove in its hegira was scattered and killed before reaching the Missouri River. They took refuge in the larger bodies of timber that skirt the lower waters of the Little Sioux River, and relays of hunters slew to the very last one this fleeing remnant of noble game. * * * And this in brief is the story of the exodus from Iowa of the American elk. * * * It is quite probable that the remnant, the fate of which these pages record, was the last vestige of the American elk east of the great Rocky Sierras and south of the unsalted seas."


Whether the writer of the above was wholly correct in his conclusion is immaterial. It was the last drove of elk in Iowa of which any reliable account can be obtained.


While there was occasionally a deer seen in this region in the early days, they were not plenty. Indeed, they were very rare. They are a timber animal and don't take to the open prairie unless they are forced to. And then again in the terrible winter of 1856 and 1857 they were either starved out or hunted down in the deep snows until they became almost extinct, and during the next twenty-five years were met with but seldom. The winter of 1880 and 1881 will be remembered by the old-timers as another winter of very deep snows. Some time in December of that winter a drove of over twenty deer put in an appearance on the Ocheyedan River and Stony Creek. Where they came from has always been a mystery, but probably from the Northwest.


Wallace Smith, who at that time lived on the Stony, happened in Milford about the holidays, and while there told George Chase about the deer being in the Ocheyedan Valley, and together they planned to have a hunt for them. Accordingly when Wallace went home Chase accompanied him, taking with him a large chicken dog that was the joint property of himself and E. D. Carlton, of Spirit Lake. This dog had previously won a great reputation for skill and pluck, which he more than maintained on this occasion. After reaching home the boys formed their plans for following the deer the next day. Accordingly bright and early next morning they were off, accompanied by the dog "Jim." The snow was deep and covered with a crust that held the dog all right, and held the men a part of the time, they breaking through occasionally, but was not strong enough for the sharp-pointed hoofs of the deer, they breaking through at every jump.


The incidents of the day's hunt are about what any person can imagine they would be under the same circumstances, and yet to hear the boys tell them they become interesting, and at times quite exciting, particularly the achievements of the dog "Jim." During the day he brought down three deer, two of which he killed outright, and the third one he tired out and stayed by it until the boys came up and dispatched it. The first was a fawn, and was easily disposed of. The second was a doe, and made quite a fight, but the dog soon tired her out and made a finish of her. The last of the three was a young, strong buck, and he put up the fight of the occasion. Except for the snow he doubtless would have escaped, for the dog had been doing pretty hard work and must have been by this time somewhat fatigued, but the sight of the big game "braced" him up and he went in to win. How long the fight lasted nobody knows, but when the boys came up both combatants were lying on the ground completely exhausted. The dog had not been able to inflict any mortal hurt, and the buck had not been able to get away. Every time the deer would make an effort to rise up the dog would grab him by the back of the neck, and they would have a tussle there in the snow. The boys soon put an end to the struggle by dispatching the deer, which was the largest one they took that day. They brought in seven in all, including the three that were credited up to old "Jim."


A day or two later than this L. J. and L. W. Vreeland, of Spirit Lake, encountered this same drove farther north and succeeded in securing two or three of them. What became of the balance of the herd is not known, but probably they were hunted down and killed before getting out of the state.


Now, it is more than probable that there are yet some deer in the timber regions of the state, but the incident just related is the story of the last flock of deer seen in northwestern Iowa.


Foxes, coyotes and prairie wolves were numerous up to about 1870 or 1875, since which time with the gradual settlement and improvement of the country, they have gradually disappeared until they are practically extinct or nearly so. The fox is always respected for his smartness, and the prairie wolf despised for his meanness. It was not possible, until about 1880 for farmers to keep sheep with profit on account of the depredations of these marauders. In addition to the prairie wolves there was occasionally seen a large grey wolf, known as the timber wolf. They seemed to be thicker set and stouter, stockier built than the wolves of the timber country, but were so rare that they never cut much figure in the game of northwestern Iowa. Mr. Barkman used to get one occasionally in his extensive purchases of fur in this region.


Another animal occasionally encountered in this region was a species of lynx, known among the trappers as the "bob-cat." He had long strong foreleg ; thick, heavy shoulders; a short, thick neck, ,and a round head, a somewhat lank body, and a short tail, which accounts for the name "bob-cat " He had the tassels on the tips of his ears, which unmistakably proclaimed him a member of the lynx family. His feet were large in proportion to the body, and the tracks he left in the snow were terror inspiring to those not acquainted with the animal and his peculiarities. One of these animals was killed in the winter of 1869 and 1870 northwest of Spirit Lake, by a young man by the name of Fenton, who lived at Marble Grove. Either that winter or a year later one was killed by Frank Mead out west of West Okoboji. Frank and a young man by the name of Hogle were together out there trapping muskrats. It was their custom to make the rounds of their traps during the day, bringing their game in and taking care of their fur in the evening, and they were not very particular about throwing the carcasses far away from the tent. One night Frank heard some thing prowling around and crunching the carcasses that had been thrown out the preceding day, and crawling out of bed he went to the door of the tent;, and cautiously putting aside the curtain that served as a door he was suddenly startled by the hideous countenance of an enormous bob-cat within six inches of his face. Dodging back into the tent he seized his revolver and finished the animal there and then. He brought the hide in next day and was quite proud of his trophy.


A son of Homer Calkins, living, at that time in a bend of the Little Sioux southwest of Milford, had a lot of traps set for small game, such as muskrat, mink, etc. One morning on visiting his traps he saw a fierce, hideous looking animal in one of them. He had no idea what it was, having never seen nor heard of anything like it. He at once provided himself with a willow club of suitable size and tackled the brute, and for a time it was an open question which would win, the boy or the bob-cat. But the boy was strong and plucky, and delivered his blows fast and furious and soon had the satisfaction of seeing his antagonist show signs of weakness, when a few more well-directed blows finished the job, and the furious beast succumbed to the inevitable and the boy carried home the hide in triumph. None of the animals have been seen nor heard of here since about that time.


The foregoing incidents are not regarded as either interesting or important, except as they mark the dividing line between the past and the present, the old and the new. It notes the time and place of the disappearance of the game of northwestern Iowa, which was once popularly supposed to be a hunter's paradise.