Underground Bear Hunt
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Posted by Hal Neumann (+9403) one month ago
THE GREAT UNDERGROUND BEAR HUNT OF 1879
--Hal Neumann

In the fall of 1878 young Fred Whiteside, a native son of Illinois and resident of Montana for less than a year, decided to seek his fortune as a buffalo hunter. Although Whiteside was living in Miles Town (later to be known as Miles City), which was certainly, at the time, the heart of buffalo country, he knew that he had too little experience in the ways of the West to launch such an endeavor on his own. Fred believed, however, that he knew just the man to partner up with for a winter bison hunt. Whiteside had only a few days before been introduced to another recent immigrant to Montana and, as luck would have it, his new friend had considerable experience in hunting buffalo and surviving on the High Plains. His new friend, Joaquine--a young man whose father was French-Canadian and mother was a member of the Nez Perce nation--having lost everything he owned when Joseph surrendered to General Miles, jumped at the chance to hunt with young Fred.

With the details of their partnership agreed upon, our two young nimrods began to assemble the tools of their new trade. In addition to their defensive armament, each man equipped himself with lead, powder and bullet molds for their new 45-120 caliber, single shot, Sharps breech-loaders. To haul their supplies to camp and their hides to market, the partners purchased two light-framed Shuttler wagons and eight Indian ponies. After breaking the ponies to harness, Fred and Joaquine set out for the hunt.

Based on Joaquine's recommendation the partners decided to hunt the Big Open Country, a vast and empty expanse of land lying north of Miles Town. This was familiar country to Joaquine, as for generations his people had held their buffalo hunts on the lands lying east of the Musselshell, north of the Yellowstone, and south of the Missouri. Here on the border between the hunting grounds of the Blackfeet, Crow, Sioux, and Cheyenne was a no man's land where the Nez Perce could conduct their hunts in relative peace (relative being the operative word).

In mid-November of 1878 Fred and Joaquine headed out, driving their wagons two miles west of Miles to the government ferry at Fort Keogh where they crossed the Yellowstone. Once north of the river, the partners traveled northwest along the old Sunday Creek trail. After two days on the road, they decided to establish their base camp at spot long used by the Nez Perce. Here, on the divide between Sunday Creek and Little Porcupine Creek was a fresh-water spring, forage for their horses, fuel, and, most important of all, the surrounding flats and draws were covered with buffalo.

Joaquine led Fred to an old Nez Perce campsite which lay nearby. The site, which measured about 50 by 75 feet, encompassed the top of a sandstone butte. The butte was encircled by a three foot high stone wall or breastwork. According to Joaquine his people had once fought a great battle at this site. He told how from this small stone fort twelve Nez Perce warrior had once held over 200 Blackfeet raiders at bay.

Over the next few weeks Fred and Joaquine busied themselves setting up camp. Along the leeward side of a sandstone outcrop they built a makeshift cabin of stone, sod and canvas. From a small meadow along the Little Porcupine the partners cut and dried enough fodder to keep their horses through the winter. For fuel they dug coal from an exposed seam in a nearby wash and looted twigs and cedar roots from packrat nests that riddled the sandstone bluffs. By the first of December, with their housekeeping chores complete, the partners were ready to begin the hunt.

For the most part, Joaquine did the shooting, Fred saw to the skinning and stretching of the hides, and both partners shared the camp chores. This went well, so well in fact, that the partners soon realized that if they were to maximize their profits, they would have to hire someone to help with the skinning chores. With this in mind, Fred and Joaquine headed south for Miles Town. While Joaquine stayed at the Nez Perce camp, south of town on the Tongue River, visiting with family and friends, Fred rode into Miles. As filled a wagon with additional supplies, friends of Whiteside, knowing that he was hiring, introduced him to an ex-soldier named Charles Jackson Crawford. Whiteside hired Crawford--who in the best traditions of the West, was commonly known as Charley Jackson, and preferred to be called Jack--on the spot.

One day in late January the hunters, feeling the need for a diversion from the hunt, sought out a nearby grizzly bear den that Joaquine had discovered. The den--which was about twenty-five wide, extended into the banks of gully for some 300 feet--had two openings, one in the bottom of the wash and one atop of the gully. Joaquine's plan was to light smokey fires at each entrance and drive the hibernating bears out into the open where they could be safely dealt with. The grizzlies, however, refused to cooperate and remained inside their den. Jack, showing far more bravado than wisdom, suggested that one hunter enter each opening and drive the grizzlies toward the center of the den where they could then be dispatched. Joaquine declined to hunt grizzlies the "whiteman's way." Whiteside agreed to try it Jack's way, explaining later that "it looked like a 50-50 proposition and my chance would be as good as his, so I said O.K."

As Fred described it, the hunt went as well as could be expected:
“[Jack] went to the lower end and after a few minutes I started at the upper end. I worked my way in slowly . . . and it seemed that I gone fully halfway when a small clod of dirt fell on my left shoulder. Looking intently to the left I saw two blazing eyes close by and two more eyes about ten feet further away.”

In later years, Fred Whiteside gained fame as a state senator, and political reformer. In those years, even his bitterest political opponents always credited Whiteside with exhibiting greater than average intelligence. This it would seem was a quality cultivated with age, as young Fred's next move in the great underground bear hunt of 1879 did not seem to be the action of an intellectual giant. After having spotted the two grizzlies, Fred reported "I stuck the muzzle of my gun toward the first pair of eyes . . . and blazed away." This, as you might imagine, angered the grizzly. Young Fred who was getting a little smarter with each passing second, later noted that he thereupon "started for the outside. . . . and it seemed as if I made that 50 yards in nothing flat." As Fred and the grizzly exited the den, Joaquine dispatched the bear with a single shot, thus ensuring that their partnership would last for a while longer. The bear pelt was easily worth the equivalent of several prime buffalo robes. Fred later wrote that although he knew that there was at least one more valuable bearskin lurking below, he nonetheless declined to again enter the den.

Feeling that grizzly hunting was, despite the potential profit, not their strong suit, for the rest of the winter Fred, Joaquine and Jack confined themselves to harvesting buffalo hides. By April 1, 1879, the hunt was over and Fred and Joaquine had carted over 3,000 prime hides to the steamboat landing on the Yellowstone. Whiteside later estimated that after paying for expenses he and Joaquine cleared about $8,000 for their efforts.

Sources:
Whiteside, Fred. Three Hundred Grand: Buffalo, Boodle & Bribery, the Autobiography of Fred Whiteside (Color World of Montana, 1980).

Brown, Mark H. The Plainsmen of the Yellowstone (New York: Putnam's, 1961).
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Posted by Gunnar Emilsson (+14132) one month ago
Thanks for an awesome tale, Hal.
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