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A Great Plains "Sleigh Ride"

The term “Nantucket sleigh ride” goes back to the days of whaling. Men in a small wooden boat would harpoon a whale. When the whale rapidly swam off, it towed the boat behind. The whalers had to hang on for dear life as they traveled at an alarming rate of speed. When the whale tired, they could get close enough to kill it. On this date in 1906, the Washburn Leader shared the story of a “Great Plains sleigh ride” that almost happened. It didn’t involve a whale, but it was alarming in its own way.

The provisions for steamboat crews tended to be plain and scanty. Realizing that his crew was getting very tired of their meagre meals of salt pork and white bread, one steamboat captain was determined to improve the fare. Captain LaBarge told the crew that they would have the first buffalo they saw, even if the steamboat had to lay up for half a day while they got it.

LaBarge’s first mate was an experienced hand on the river, but had never been involved in a buffalo hunt. When they spotted four buffalo crossing the river LaBarge called to the first mate. “Man the yawl, John.” The captain expected they would be feasting on buffalo in no time. The two men got into a small boat and set out after their quarry. The crew had instructions to shoot a buffalo. The captain and first mate would lasso the wounded animal and bring it back. It sounded like a good plan.

The crew wounded two of the buffalo. LaBarge thought his first mate understood the plan, but there was clearly a misunderstanding. Instead of lassoing a wounded buffalo, John threw the rope over the neck of an uninjured animal. LaBarge shouted at him to stop, but the warning came too late.

The buffalo calmly continued on its way swimming across the river. The men frantically set to work with the oars, but it was no good. The bison got to the shallows and surged forward. The boat came bumping behind as the buffalo climbed the bank. The men might have had a bumpy “Great Plains Sleigh Ride,” but the entire front of the boat was yanked free. Instead of feasting on fresh bison, the disappointed crew spent the rest of the day repairing the boat.

Dakota Datebook written by Carole Butcher


Urban Dictionary. “Nantucket Sleigh Ride.” https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Nantucket%20Sleighride  Accessed April 3, 2020.

Washburn Leader. “Lassoing a Buffalo.” Washburn ND. 5/11/1906. Page1.

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