Children, Buffalo Chips and Grizzle Bears

Many of us never develop the love of history until well into the span of our lifetimes.  Often, retirement is the only thing that allows some the time to learn a little of what went on before us, or the genealogy urge hits us long after those eyewitnesses to our family pasts have long since died.  It is often said that we should introduce our children to history.  While that may be true, I think it even more important not just to introduce them to history, but to do so at a young age while their tastes are still being formed – before video games, i-phones, Japanese robot cartoons, and monster trucks have time to make the world’s low technology past seem boring and tame to them.

I recall burning our pastures off one spring with my three year old son tagging along at my heels.  He spied a dried piece of horse manure smoking in the charred, sooty remains of a clump of grass.  Naturally curious and shocked by the fact that feces would burn, he was full of questions.  I explained to him that there was a time on the Western plains, a land often scarce of firewood, that the Indians, immigrants, mountain men, and explorers burned buffalo manure for their campfires.  Westerners gave the fuel the simple name of “chips.”  Buffalo chips were simply dried patties of manure, so disklike as to resemble little frisbees scattered across the terrain.  Women and children walking alongside an oxen drawn wagon train might gather chips during the day’s travels.  Accounts of travelers on the Oregon or California trails mention the women using their bunched skirts to hold such fuel.  Cowboys driving herds of longhorns north sometimes strung a tarp underneath the chuckwagon, or hooligan wagon if they had one, to store the chips the cook gathered during the day. Many a branding iron was heated on a cow chip fire.  Dried cow patties will burn just as good as the offerings of their bovine cousin, the buffalo or American Bison.  Both animals are herbirvors and grazers, and their excrement consists mostly of the undigested or partially digested grass.  Chips are nearly perfect fuel when dried, possessing a low ignition point, and making wonderfully hot coals.  Basically, they are just a ready made tinder bundle.

My son was a heap impressed (I find as he gets older it is much harder for Daddy to appear the all-knowing super being he once was).  I could see his little eyes envisioning pioneers roughing it on the trail and hunkering down over buffalo turd fires at night and staring into the darkness for signs of Indians on the warpath.  We can bore our children to death with facts, or recent theories as to what “actually” happened during famous historical events, or we can let them learn that stuff later and simply enjoy a little more romanticized past, even if not quite accurate.  Little tikes don’t care if Wyatt Earp was trully a good guy, or a gambler gunfighter who used his badge during a personal feud at the O.K. Corral.

Just recently, I gave in and purchased that same son (now 10) an X Box video game system.  I always felt that a child was better served playing outside or reading a good book rather than killing zombies on the TV, but I’ve found that even video games offer chances to talk about history with my children.  While my son was proudly showing me his ability to kill a man-eating grizzly on a Cabela’s game I took the opportunity to tell him how the mountain man, Hugh Glass, was once terribly mauled by such a bear and left for dead by his fellow trappers (Jim Bridger being one of them).  Glass, half-naked and looking like a piece of raw hamburger, crawled over a hundred miles to the nearest fort and survived.  Talk about tough.  I added how the Lewis and Clark Expedition immediately discovered on the Missouri River that their thirty something caliber rifles were far too light to be fighting a pissed-off grizzle bear.  Wouldn’t you know it?  A kid that loves video games soon had dropped his controller, forgotten all about the TV screen, and was asking me all sorts of questions.  For days his time outside was spent playing like he was tackling old Ursus arctos horriblis with the hickory stick that serves as his backyard gun.

On a recent family trail ride through the mountains he asked if he could carry his little single-shot .22 rifle in a scabbard on his saddle.  While there was no need for him to travel with artillery, I allowed him to over his mother’s protests.  He spent the day passing through the mountains imagining himself armed to the teeth and riding through woods infested with hordes of bandits, scalp hungry Indians in wild paint, and yes, even grizzle bears.  His ancient old sorrel gelding became transformed into the speediest steed Jesse James ever swung a leg over to flee a bank he’d just robbed.  Come nightime at our cabin, that little boy of mine asked me if we had some buffalo chips could we burn them in the cast iron stove.  I told him a little fat bear meat would cook well over such a fire, and he looked at me with big eyes and asked if a .22 was enough gun to tackle a grizzly.  And while the old stove ticked pleasantly and put off a toasty warmth I propped my feet up on the edge of my bunk and did a little dreaming of my own.  I remembered another boy many years before, sitting on the back of an old sorrel gelding wasting his Daddy’s cartridges pumping lead into a dead blackjack snag pretending like it was some rival gunfighter.  Once upon a time, we were all kids.

History isn’t just dusty old books, and it’s nothing without an imagination.  Take every chance to teach your children what you love.  The opportunity only comes once.

Shoot low.  They’re all ridin’ Shetlands,