Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Wyatt Earp: Knight With A Six-Shooter

Hunting Buffalo

"(Wyatt was) more intelligent...than the majority of his associates,

which probably did not help them to understand him."

Bat Masterson, lawman

After crossing the plains willy-nilly for several months, despondent and avoiding civilization, Wyatt finally wandered into Springfield, Missouri, needing a shave and to reestablish himself with humanity. His next step remained uncertain until he spied a poster outside an assay office calling for a hunter of buffalo to accompany a forthcoming land survey party. The party was charted to do topography studies of the plains south to the Red River, then northwest to Kansas; in all, a six-month journey through the Choctaw Indian Nation. He had earlier done occasional buffalo hunting for the cavalry and found the going pay $35 a day plus 10 cents per pound for buffalo meat appealing. Because he now needed money desperately, and because the job would introduce him to a part of the country he had never seen, he signed on.

Wyatt Earp, age 21 (Turner-Oster Collection)
Wyatt Earp, age 21

Furthermore, Wyatt was in search of his lifes dream, some self-satisfying glory. Something he believed in. Farming was out; he needed to move to keep ahead of the memories of Ursilla that haunted him. Teamstering was too competitive and wagon mastering too confining. This experience at least provided him the opportunity to hone his skills on the buffalo prairies, skills that he could later use as an independent hunter.

Throughout the journey he studied the actions of the buffalo, experimented with new methods of the hunt, and continually improved his tactics. By the time the party reached Kansas in early 1871, its journey ended, Wyatt believed he had found the ideal calling one that put money in his pockets, kept him busy yet free to roam the wilderness, and utilized his talents.

A regulation hunting party (which consisted of a hunter, two skinners, a herd tender, a pair of wagoneers, a watchman and a cook) produced 80 to 100 carcasses a day. Depending on the size and quality of the animal, a single buffalo could fetch up to $3 for hide and meat. Knowing this, and figuring to make the most investment of his time, he opted to freelance and creatively conserve on the number of personnel in his party chiefly two, both of whom would hunt, skin, cook and drive. He figured that at a rate of 25 beasts killed a day (about $75) the divided profits for each man would surpass those of any of the eight-man regulation team.

Bat Masterson (Boot Hill Museum)
Bat Masterson
(Boot Hill Museum)

He chose as his partner a likable young fellow he met along the Arkansas River while hunting, and whose company he enjoyed. His name was William Barclay Masterson, but, as he told Wyatt, "simply call me by my nickname, Bat." Together, the two dared the taunts of the old timers who scoffed at the novelty of their approach.

But, the laughs petered off when the veterans realized that the two young upstarts were tripling their delivery days at the wholesale buyers markets in Caldwell, Kansas, and walking away richer men!

Wyatt ignored other standard practices to expedite his product. For one, he and Bat did not use the unwieldy Sharps buffalo gun with its tremendous kickback; instead, they selected the lighter, easier-to-aim shotgun. Nor did they charge the buffalo on horseback, which only resulted in merry stampedes. Rather, they hunted on foot, with stealth.

"My system was to work my way very near to the herds," wrote Wyatt in his memoirs. "The shorter range of my shotgun made this necessary, but I could fire as rapidly as I wished...before the animals smelled blood." Because the buffalo did not alarm to the sound of the guns, they were able to shoot "one stand a day, which meant 25 to 30 dollars apiece" for him and Bat.

After two winter seasons on the Kansas plains, and after earning $5,000, Wyatt traded in his buckskins. He had turned 25 and yearned for something different. That Earp blood again, sizzling for new adventures. Speaking practically, he knew, as the railroads trudged into Kansas, that the buffalo herds would begin moving further west. He chose not to follow them. Instead, he set his bead on visiting the cow towns springing up like crazy across the plains. Perhaps in one of them he might find his station.

In April, 1873, he bid goodbye to Bat and, like Jason on the deck of his Argo, sought mysterious and exciting waters.


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