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A Man by the Name of Crego

It was in 1941 that America’s great Shakespearean scholar, George Lyman “Kitty” Kittredge, slipped the surly bonds of Cambridge, Massachusetts, never more to enthrall and terrify the boys of Harvard. Kitty would not have been at home on the range, but he was a mentor to the greatest of all collectors of western ballads, John A. Lomax of Texas.

The eminent Harvard scholar was himself a student, too, of the ballad tradition. Kitty Kittredge pronounced “The Buffalo Skinners,” or as I prefer to call it, “The Range of the Buffalo,” the greatest of all American ballads. The admiring Lomax in turn dedicated his published text of the ballad “in honor of Miss Dora Kittredge,” a cryptic dedication that leaves it uncertain whether the admiration was for Kitty or for daughter Dora, a mystery on which I occasionally muse. Before I slide off into soap opera, however, let me get back to the serious business (ahem!) of folkloristic scholarship.

The origins of “The Range of the Buffalo” are complex and obscure. The song tells the story of a naive buffalo skinner who signs on with “a man by the name of Crego,” a hard and unscrupulous buffalo hunter on the plains of West Texas, operating out of Jacksboro, in 1873. (Within a few years the center for buffalo-hunter outfitting would shift north to Dodge City, Kansas, and eventually to Dickinson, Dakota Territory.)

Crego takes the gang into desolate country across the Pease River, treats the men badly, and worst of all, tries to skin his way out of paying them their just wages. Consequently, the narrator says, they “left his damned old bones to bleach on the range of the buffalo.”

In his autobiography Lomax recounts his meeting with “an old-time buffalo hunter” in Abilene, Texas, who claimed to have been on the ill-fated expedition with Crego and who said he and his comrades not only perpetrated the murder but also composed the ballad! This story of origin is dubious.

At any rate the song circulated widely. Lomax culled his compiled verses from scores of singing informants. Young songcatcher Franz Rickaby of the University of North Dakota found the song in the Flickertail State; I have located the version he collected in his notebook at the University of Wisconsin.

Most ballad scholars trace the genealogy of “The Buffalo Skinners” back to lumberjack ballads of the northwoods such as “Canaday-i-o” and “Michigan-i-o.” It was in 1991 that I discovered the connection back to a seaman’s ballad, “The Voyage of the Buffalo,” set down in the journal of 2d Master T. F. Cheeseman of the HMS Buffalo during a visit to New Zealand in 1836. I stumbled onto his original journal in the Turnbull Library of Wellington.

Oddly, given the memorable villainy of this man by the name of Crego, it seems odd no one has attempted to determine whether there was such a man hunting buffalo on the plains in 1873. In fact, I learn, there was! A fellow named Crego was among the original builders of Adobe Walls, the famous buffalo hunting outpost in the Texas Panhandle.

I believe this Crego was the same chap who was encountered by Missourian Robert M. P. Cooper on the buffalo range in 1877. Companions warned Cooper not to sign on with this Joseph Crego, saying he was wanted for crimes back in the states, but Cooper did go west with Crego, although he found him eccentric. By his account (published in Missouri newspapers in 1899), Cooper saved Crego from a stampede. Nobody killed Crego, and when he died in 1899, he named Cooper the beneficiary of his estate.

It may be true, as the song says, that “God’s forsaken the buffalo range and the damned old buffalo”--but the ballad remains to confirm Kitty Kittredge’s blessing upon it.

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