|Across The Fence: Billy Dixon; Plainsman, Hunter, Indian fighter and Scout|
|August 15, 2013 M. Timothy Nolting|
William ‘Billy’ Dixon as a scout.
William ‘Billy Dixon began his life’s journey on September 25, 1850 in Ohio County, West Virginia. His father, an emigrant and adventurer, had crossed the Atlantic to settle in America and had taken a Native American woman as his wife. At age 12 Billy Dixon was orphaned.
After the deaths of his parents, Billy lived with an uncle in Missouri until age 13 when he struck out on his own, following the Missouri River northward. His life on the river eventually found him at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas Territory where he met a seasoned old plainsman by the name of Tom Hare. Under the tutelage of Mr. Hare, Billy was soon employed as a bull-whacker for a government freight contractor. This employment took him across the open plains of Kansas, along the Overland Stage route in Nebraska and into Colorado. The wide expanse of wilderness, the abundance of game and the constant, underlying threat of Indian attacks built young Bill’s appetite for adventure and the life of a plainsman.
On his first passage across the Plains, between Plum Creek and Julesburg, the train encountered a huge, square stone and on the top was inscribed ‘Daniel Boone’ along with numerous other names and an etched instruction to obtain additional information ‘on the other side.’ Hitching a yoke of oxen to the mammoth stone, which all indications were that others had done the same, the rock was overturned in order to find what was written on the bottom. Once the stone was turned, they found that it had been identically inscribed on the opposite side as well. One can only imagine how many times this clever ‘joke’ was played on unsuspecting travelers. I wonder where that stone is today?
Billy continued his employment with various freighting companies, under government contracts, to supply multiple military posts across the territories. As a youngster, barely 17 years of age and full of the excitement of adventure and danger, two of Billy’s strongest desires were to shoot a buffalo and to engage in a battle with hostile Indians. Little did he know that he would fulfill both of those desires, perhaps more so than he had ever hoped.
Billy’s first up-close encounter with the Plains Indians came not in battle but rather in one of the largest assemblages of Native Americans ever to occur on the Kansas Plains. In the early fall of 1867, Billy was with a government train at Fort Harker when they were ordered to accompany a group of peace commissioners to Medicine Lodge Creek, a sacred, ceremonial location chosen by the Southern tribes. The purpose of this peace council was to remove the threat of Indian reprisals in retaliation for previously broken treaties.
Of this gathering Billy Dixon wrote:
“I shall never forget the morning of October 28, 1867. At a distance of about two miles from our camp was a crest of a low swell in the Plains. The background was blue sky – a blue curtain that touched the brown Plains. For a moment I was dumbfounded at sight of what was rising over that crest and flowing with vivid commotion toward us. It was a glittering, fluttering, gaily colored mass of barbarism, the flower and perfection of the war strength of the Plains Indian tribes. The resplendent warriors, armed with all their equipment and adorned with all the regalia of battle, seemed to be rising out of the earth.”
Out of the Medicine Lodge Treaty, the Plains Indians hoped to prevent further intrusion of white settlers on their hunting grounds. Chief Satank of the Kiowas unwittingly predicted the harsh realities of the plight of his people if the number of buffalo continued to be diminished across the southern Plains. However, this treaty, like all others before failed to bring a lasting peace.
Later, in the early 1870s, General Phil Sheridan would encourage the buffalo slaughter in order to conquer the Plains tribes and bring about the fulfillment of Satank’s fears. In fact, it had been said that General Sheridan encouraged state legislators to give every buffalo hunter a bronze medal, one side depicting a dead buffalo and the other side a discouraged Indian.
“These men [buffalo hunters],” General Sheridan later boasted, “have done more in the last year to settle the vexed Indian question than the entire regular army has done in the last thirty years. They are destroying the Indians’ commissary… for the sake of lasting peace, let them kill, skin, and sell until the buffaloes are exterminated.
Then your prairies can be covered with speckled cattle, and the festive cowboy, who follows the hunter as a second fore-runner of an advanced civilization.”
Billy Dixon continued to work as a freighter under military contract until 1869 when he turned his hand to trapping. Beaver and otter were still in good supply and pelts brought fair prices. Wolves also roamed the prairies in great numbers and pelts brought from $2.50 to $3 apiece. On at least one occasion, Dixon and his hunting partner took a large load of elk hides to Hays City and sold them for $20 each.
Billy Dixon proved to be an exceptional marksman and hunting became his passion. The simple, rugged and adventurous lifestyle of a hunter appealed to his character and provided a comfortable livelihood for one who preferred sleeping under the stars and dining beside a campfire. In the spring of 1870 an eastern hide buyer came to Hays City, and other prairie towns that bordered the buffalo ranges, and offered handsome prices for buffalo hides. The Kansas Plains offered the best buffalo country between the Canadian border and the Rio Grande. Billy quickly grasped the significance of such an opportunity and turned his sights from wolves to buffalo. Initially, hide buyers offered $1 for cowhides and $2 for bulls.
Later, by the fall of 1872 as the numbers of buffalo diminished, bull hides were bringing as much as $4.
A team of buffalo hunters usually consisted of one shooter and a crew of two skinners. Dixon claims that he was always the shooter and stated matter-of-factly “…there were very few men who could excel me in marksmanship… I always did my own killing, and generally had two experienced men do the skinning.”
Experienced hunters knew that a successful stand could net dozens of animals in a single day. If a shooter could position himself downwind and at sufficient distance to be undetected by the herd, a hunter could drop an animal without alarming the rest of the herd and continue to shoot one after another, stopping only when there were more animals killed than could be processed by the skinners. A good skinner could process up to fifty buffalo a day and was paid up to $50 a month. Dixon would have his crew drag the day’s kill of buffalo back to camp and skin them the day following.
For little more than three years Billy Dixon hunted the buffalo on the Plains of western Kansas and southern Nebraska until the numbers were so greatly diminished that it was no longer profitable.
Throughout this time Billy had several partners come and go, as they grew tired of the work of skinning, or had earned enough of a stake to carry them to the next adventure. But Billy continued to hunt and continued to build his reputation as a plainsman and a marksman. His ability for long-range shooting became the subject of numerous conversations and the basis for multiple contests of skill.
The buffalo hide trade had lured hundreds of hunters and their crews to the Great American Desert where thousands upon countless thousands of buffalo had once freely grazed as they migrated, in season, from grass to grass. The Union Pacific laid its steel ribbon across the migratory path of these great beasts and divided their masses into two separate herds, the northern and the southern. And in 1874, after the southern herds had become increasingly scarce on the western Kansas Plains and began to migrate southwesterly, into Texas, Billy Dixon followed.
At the beginning of the buffalo trade, in 1871, 18-year-old Bat Masterson and his older brother Ed had ventured west to the booming cow town of Wichita, Kansas and joined the buffalo slaughter for the quick money it offered. Through circumstance and perhaps destiny, Billy Dixon and Bat Masterson became partners as they each traveled from Kansas into Texas, following the buffalo into near extinction.
Together, the two of them would join a small band of buffalo hunters and find themselves on the precarious verge of extinction as they defended themselves and a tiny settlement of merchants. These merchants had organized in an effort to supply the last remnant of buffalo hunters, market their hides and reestablish an historic Texas outpost known as Adobe Walls. Ten years earlier, Colonel Christopher (Kit) Carson, successfully defended this outpost, against a force of 1,500 Kiowa and Comanche, with a fighting force of only 300 men. After that skirmish the outpost had been abandoned.
On the 26th day of June, 1874 William ‘Billy’ Dixon could not have known that he was walking, unarmed, onto the pages of history and into the second battle of Adobe Walls.
Editor’s note: M. Timothy Nolting is an award-winning Nebraska columnist and freelance writer. To contact Tim, email; firstname.lastname@example.org