cold search for the elusive declining herd — Yellowstone Commemorative Silver Dollar Coin

Today, the Yellowstone Commemorative Silver Dollar Coin remembers the rapidly declining buffalo herds of the 19th century and one team’s search for the animals in March 1894.

An excerpt from “Forest and Stream’s” Yellowstone Park Game Exploration of March 1894 printed in their July 14, 1894 magazine:


The country we were now traversing must be in the summertime a very beautiful one, and even in winter it was not unpleasing. The open, rolling hills were crossed by occasional strips of timber which diversified a landscape which at that point could hardly be called mountainous, though the hills were long and often steep.

Finally the “Valley,” as this large extent of open hills is called, began to dwindle down and thin out into long arms of open country, running far up into the timber.

We followed up one of these long, narrow glades, having some amusement at a puzzled re fox which was studying us from the other side of the glade.

We kept climbing a little bit, always remembering the ski-traveler’s maxim of getting elevation wherever possible, and never losing it unnecessarily, just as a civil engineer works when laying out a railway line.

One arm of the valley dwindled out into fingers. and one of the fingers became a gorge.

We turned to the left, under a sharp run down, and were in the lovely canon known as “Trout Creek,” wrongly so, as it is really Alum Creek, Billy says.

Up this we traveled for half a mile. until finally we came to one of the littlest, tiniest, snow-coveredest and best hid little miniature log cabins in all the world—the “Trout Creek shack,” built by the U. S. Army for the use of scouting parties and known only to a few of the patrol and to a guide or two like Billy.

This small structure was set in against the rock wall of the cañon, of which it seemed a portion.

The sweep of the continuous drift of snow that lined the mountain side took in and enveloped the cabin as it went, leaving nothing visible except the end and door. Inside was a fine white drift of snow, and the chimney was full of snow and the windows were blocked with snow, and the roof was loaded with snow, and the woodpile was many feet deep under the snow.

Still, we didn’t mind that, and to our eyes the little cabin seemed a most acceptable abode.

A great trouble here was the getting of firewood, which we could only obtain at a distance of about 300 yds., and far up the steep snow-covered hillside.

Billy and l spotted a dead tree away up the cañon wall, and laboriously made our way up to it on the skis, but after we had it in lengths the worst of it was not over.

The short logs sunk in the soft snow, and would not roll down hill. I wallowed shoulder deep in the snow in getting the logs down, riding a pine branch part of the time to keep from sinking too deep.

Then Billy started my skis down to me, and at last tried to slide my ski pole down. The latter took a dive into the snow, and cost us a half hour’s hard work. We found it 6 ft. under the snow and 30 yds. from where we thought it was, it having slid under the snow like a snake in the grass.

After finding this we called out Larsen and Holte, who were busy at the cabin, and we all got on the skis and packed logs in on our shoulders. It took us an hour to get in our wood, and the sun had long since gone behind the further cañon wall.

Water we got this time out of the creek, Billy locating an open hole by a deep dimple in the level expanse of snow which filled the little cañon.

We dug down here and found a sweep of open water about 6 ft. below, which we reached by buckling our belts together and letting down a tin.

We fixed the chimney so it would not smoke by cutting a thick-foliaged young fir tree and standing it up alongside the chimney.

This was a scheme of Billy’s, who is a good deal of a schemer around a camp, and we found it worked all right.

The little fireplace in the corner was not very big, but it was active, and it kept us warm all night.

We had a good chance to dry out all our wet footwear and to put our skis in perfect order.

Of course we had no bed clothing except the meager outfit earlier mentioned, but we passed a warm enough night, for the little cabin was so covered by the snow that it was nearly air-tight.

We were all tired enough to sleep soundly, and we got a good night’s rest.

The next morning, Friday, March 23, found us up and busy before the sun had begun to look over into our little cañon.

In summer I should like to follow up that cañon, for I imagine it leads into roughish country, but it seemed we were to go in the other direction, to find an easier approach to the great divide, on whose edge we now were.

The maps show the main Continental Divide as south of where we were, and the mountains there are rougher, yet from Two Ocean Pass, below the south line of the ark, it is practically all divide along the crooked range clear up to where we were and beyond.

Alum Creek, on which we were camped, flows east into the Yellowstone, which empties into the Missouri. Nez Percé Creek, which flows west down the opposite side of the range, drains a watershed of great area into the Firehole and Madison, which in turn reaches the Missouri, it is true, though by way of a water system entirely different from that flowing to the east.

The forks of the Snake, of course, lay to the south and west from us, across the Divide proper, whose further waters find their way to the Pacific.

It was our intention to work up the east slope, across the hot country of Mary’s Mountain, and then to make down the Nez Percé Creek and the Firehole to the Fountain or Lower Geyser Basin.

This necessitated a journey of something over twenty miles, which had to be made all in one day.

We burned our bridges behind us, taking only enough food for one meal, and storing away our single blanket and sleeping bag in the tin-covered box, which Uncle Sam leaves as a mess chest in every one of these patrol houses.

This lightened up our loads considerably, and we were glad of it, for we knew we had hard enough work ahead.

We intended, if we had any luck at meeting the buffalo on Mary’s Mountain, not to return to the shack, but to keep right on. If we did not find the buffalo, we intended to hold a council, make medicine and form further plans later in the day.

Billy and Larsen started on ahead, Billy telling Holte and myself not to start for half an hour or so, in order that the approach to the buffalo might be more quietly and a better chance given than if the party were larger.

Holte was complaining of his eyes, he having carelessly left off his glasses a part of the day before and contracted a very good chance for snow blindness.

We did everything we could for the eyes that morning, after we had put out the fire and put everything in military order about the shack.

We followed the trail left by Billy and Larsen until we had climbed up to the “hot country.”

Here there were numerous wide strips of bare ground, too hot for the snow to lie upon, where the buffalo evidently were in the habit of yarding.

Abundance of sign was all about, and we saw deep fresh trails where there had been a stampede, so we knew that Billy had started the buffalo, whether he got a shot at them or not.

I could see that part of the herd had plowed their way east back to Alum Creek, and part had gone straight ahead to the higher buttes into the dense forest and apparently in the direction of the heaviest snow, though we later saw that there was more hot country further up the mountain.

As I learned from Billy later, he had had a splendid opportunity that morning. He surprised the whole herd on the lower hot strip of Mary’s Mountain, and stalked them to within 40 yds., as close as he cared to get. The light was good and he made several shots deliberately before the herd took fright.

When they did start they went like a volcano, or an earthquake, or anything that is big and in a hurry.

Billy thought that these were no doubt the same buffalo that we had photographed on Alum Creek the day before, and barring the six head we had seen lower down on Hayden Valley, we were quite sure that this constituted practically the entire Hayden Valley herd, from 80 to 100 in all—85 head as exactly as I could count it.

We concluded it was not worthwhile to trouble these same buffalo any further, more especially as Billy had had fifty-eight shots at buffalo alone with his camera.

The work on Hayden Valley seemed done.

We took the Haynes report as to the game on the Pelican Valley, and decided not to make the long trip into that region in search of what we were practically certain not to find.

The poacher Howell said there were only a few buffalo left on Pelican.

We were now well settled in the conviction that the number of buffalo left alive in the Park was not one-half or one-third that generally supposed, and from what we had seen we feared that the killing had been heavier than anyone had dreamed.


The Yellowstone Commemorative Silver Dollar Coin shows with a small group of buffalo in the park, circa 1897.

Yellowstone Commemorative Silver Dollar Coin

Yellowstone large mug