‘Wapiti Are the Stupidest Brutes’—An 1874 elk hunt with the Earl of Dunraven


An early photo by William Henry Jackson shows elk killed during a hunt similar to one described by the Earl of Dunraven. (Yellowstone Digital Slide File)

By M. Mark Miller

Most early Yellowstone National Park tourists came from the adjacent territories, because getting to the park was too expensive for those living far away. But a few wealthy adventurers from distant places found the time and money to make the long trip. Hunting, which was perfectly legal until the Army took over administration of Yellowstone Park in 1886, was a prime attraction.

One such traveler was Windham Thomas Wyndam-Quin, the fourth Earl of Dunraven. A fabulously wealthy Irish nobleman, Lord Dunraven hired several men to accompany him. One of them was Fredrick Bottler, a rancher who settled in the Paradise Valley on the Yellowstone River in 1868. Bottler was familiar with Yellowstone’s wonders, and served as an outfitter, guide and hunter for several early expeditions.

Dunraven, who had been a war correspondent for British newspapers, was an astute observer with a droll wit. In addition to his stories about watching geysers and hunting big game, he offers humorous advice on how to pack a mule, and tells about roasting fresh elk meat over a campfire.

He wrote several books about his travel adventures. Here’s his description of elk hunting in Yellowstone from The Great Divide, one of his most popular works.

We wound our way towards the head of the valley, half asleep, for the day was very hot. Before long, I jerked my horse on to his haunches and slid quietly off. The others followed my example without a word, for they too had caught a glimpse of the dark brown forms of some wapiti (elk) feeding quietly in the wood. Bottler, in his enthusiasm, seized me violently by the arm and hurried into the timber, ejaculating at every glimpse of the forms moving through the trees.

“There they go! There they go! Shoot! Now then! There’s a chance.” At the time he was dragging me along, and I could no more shoot than fly. At last I shook myself clear of him, and, getting a fair, easy shot at a large fat doe, fired and killed her.

Wapiti are the stupidest brutes in creation; and, instead of making off at once, the others all bunched up and stared about them, so that we got two more before they made up their minds to clear out. There was a fine stag in the herd, but, as is usually the case, he managed to get himself well among the hinds out of harm’s way, and none of us could get a chance at him.

Bottler and I followed his tracks for an hour, but could not come up with him; and, finding that he had taken clear up the mountain, we returned to the scene of action. There we found the rest of the party busily engaged in cutting up the huge deer. One of them was a hind, in first-rate condition and as fat as butter. We were very glad of fresh meat, and, as the ground was very suitable, determined to camp right there, and send some of the flesh down to the main camp in the morning. We pitched our Lilliputian tents at the foot of one of a hundred huge hemlocks, set a fire, and proceeded to make ourselves comfortable for the night.

We were all smoking round the fire—a most attentive audience, watching with much interest the culinary feats which Bottler was performing—when we were startled by a most unearthly sound.

Bottler knew it well, but none of us strangers had ever heard a wapiti stag roaring before, and it is no wonder we were astonished at the noise. The wapiti bellows forth one great roar, commencing with a hollow, harsh, unnatural sound, and ending in a shrill screech like the whistle of a locomotive.

In about ten minutes this fellow called again, a good deal nearer, and the third time he was evidently close to camp, so we started out. Advancing cautiously, we presently, through a bush, distinguished in the gloom I saw a body and antlered head of a real monarch of the forest as he stalked out into an open glade and stared with astonishment at our fire.

He looked perfectly magnificent. He was a splendid beast, and his huge bulk, looming large in the uncertain twilight, appeared gigantic. He stood without betraying the slightest sign of fear or hesitation; but, as if searching with proud disdain for the intruder that had dared to invade his solitude, he slowly swept round the branching spread of his antlers, his neck extended and his head a little thrown back, and snuffed the air.

I could not see the fore sight of the little muzzle-loader, but luck attended the aim, for the bullet struck high up the shoulder; and, shot through the spine, the largest wapiti stag that I had ever killed fell stone-dead in his tracks.

It was early in the season, and his hide was in first rate condition, a rich glossy brown on the sides and jet black along the back and on the legs; so we turned to, cut off his head and skinned him; and, by the time we had done that and had packed the head and hide into camp, it was pitch dark, when we were ready for supper and blankets.

Read more tales of early travel in Yellowstone, like this excerpt from Dunraven’s The Great Divide, in M. Mark Miller’s Adventures in Yellowstone: Early Travelers Tell Their Tales.

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