“Twas in the town of Jacksboro, in the spring of '83.” So recounts one of the great ballads of the Great Plains, “The Buffalo Skinners,” also known as “The Range of the Buffalo.” Tis the tale of an unfortunate lot of men who sign on to “spend one summer pleasantly” skinning buffalo on the Texas plains for a man named Crego. The song concludes when they “left old Crego’s bones to bleach on the range of the buffalo.”
If you are a documentary film buff, then you may know the “The Buffalo Skinners” figures largely in the musical sound track of the 1936 production, The Plow That Broke the Plains. If you do TV trivia, there is even a chance you recall Merle Haggard, as the character Cisco Houston, singing the ballad in a cantina scene of the 1979 epic, Centennial.
Twas in the spring of 1992 that I disclosed in print that this great American folksong had apparent origins in an episode on the other side of the world, in New Zealand. I had spent most of 1991 rummaging through the manuscript collections of the Turnbull Library, in Wellington. Among these were the papers of one Thomas F. Cheesman, 2nd Master of a trading ship called--the Buffalo.
This was the vessel that in 1836 delivered the original colonists of South Australia to Glenelg, now a suburb of Adelaide. I have clambered around on a cheesy replica of the ship there.
After the call in South Australia the captain needed a cargo, so he put ashore on the North Island of New Zealand and put the crew to work cutting kauri pine for ship masts. The result was a long ballad in which the men recounted their adventures and misadventures. Back home in England, the ballad was published as a broadside, I suspect on the initiative of Cheesman, who had written the entire text down in his journal.
“The Voyage of the Buffalo” begins, “Come all you jolly seamen and listen to my song.” “The Range of the Buffalo” begins, “Come all you jolly fellows and listen to my song.”
Singers and scholars in New Zealand now are aware of this mysterious connection between the New Zealand bush and the Texas plains. Americans are not.
The genealogy of the song is indeed complicated. It is tangled up with other songs of work crews, especially the shanty songs of lumberjacks, such as “Canaday-i-o” and “Michigan-i-o.”
It is also unclear just how far up and down the plains the buffalo-skinner ballad spread from Texas. The Texas hide hunters largely operated out of Dodge City, Kansas. Dickinson, North Dakota, later was a great shipping point for buffalo hides, as was Regina, Saskatchewan, the town originally known as Pile of Bones.
People in North Dakota know the name of George Will as a horticulturalist who lifted native varieties of crops, such as the Great Northern Bean, and marketed them. He also collected folksongs. He reported to the Journal of American Folklore the text of a shanty song in the same ballad family as “The Buffalo Skinners” and another ballad of the Texas Rangers that is obviously derivative from “The Buffalo Skinners”--but no text of the buffalo-skinning ballad itself.
I suspect there are missing links out there, and I’m looking for them.