Frank H. Mayer: Legendary Buffalo Hunter Lived Up to the Tall Tales

Wild West icon sought out adventure, even killed his last buck at 102 years of age

Friday, June 23, 2017

By Emily Glaser

There are some lives worthy of the fables that arise around of them. One of those is the story of the legendary buffalo hunter, colonel and marshal Frank H. Mayer.

Mayer’s legends were, in part, his own creation. The jack of all (manly) trades wrote three books describing his life and misadventures, detailing the exploits of a life that lasted over a century. Many of the tales Mayer claimed of his life were simply impossible, but many of them were possible — and true.

Born in 1850 in New Orleans, Mayer moved to Pennsylvania with his family in 1855, where he spent his childhood outdoors in the rough woods. The forests of his home proved fertile grounds for sharpening his interests in fishing, hunting and firearms.

At 13, he saw combat — not with a rifle in his hands, but a drum. His father, an artillery officer in the Union Army, recruited his son as a drummer boy. According to Mayer’s accounts, he saw such pivotal battles as Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, and even the surrender of Robert E. Lee at Appomattox, all from behind the limp shield of his drum. (Admittedly, the hunter was prone to exaggeration and tall tales, but it’s a romantic vision nonetheless.)

Following the conclusion of the Civil War, Mayer — now a young man — felt the fire of fight still in his limbs, with no battles to expend it. He searched instead for a new kind of battle. A battle on the Great Plains.

Mayer writes in his book, The Buffalo Harvest, of the thrilling pursuit he found following the war:

At the close of any war there are bound to be thousands of young men who find peacetime pursuits too dull for their adventure-stirred lives. Maybe that was truer after the Civil War than at any other time. I know how I felt. I was restive. I wanted out. Fortunately for us then we had what you don't have now: we had a frontier to conquer. It was a very good substitute for war.

And on this frontier, old mountain men who drifted in and kept brass rails and cuspidors of crude saloons in high polish, told us there were literally millions of buffalo. They didn't belong to anybody. If you could kill them, what they brought was yours. They were walking gold pieces, the old timers said, and a young fellow who had guts and gumption could make his fortune.

Guts and gumption the young Mayer certainly was not lacking. To the West he went, where he became one of the most successful and notorious buffalo hunters of all time. Or, as he called himself, a buffalo runner (despite the fact that even he admitted the “running” part was no longer applicable).

Because bison couldn’t be corralled or domesticated (not to mention they were the very lifeblood of the Plains tribes), Mayer wrote in his accounts that he and his comrades received a nod from the federal government to decimate their numbers.

In 1878 alone, Mayer recorded killing and shipping some 250 big game animals back east, including 89 mule deer over the span of just 78 days.

Mayer’s weapon of choice? The incomparable and rare .45/120 550 Buffalo Sharps. With a 32-inch barrel and 16 pounds of heft, the rifle was deadly. Outfitted with a Vollmar telescopic sight, Mayer argued his was the most deadly rifle ever made in America.

Though Mayer was most famous for his tenure as America’s premier buffalo hunter, he was also a U.S. Army Colonel, serving 35 years and in a number of Indian conflicts and even the Spanish American War at age 48. He was also a U.S. Marshal in the western outpost of Buckskin Joe, where he corralled Western icons and wildmen. He traveled the world (supposedly to every country except Tibet and Siberia), wrote three books and a long series of articles for the National Rifle Association.

Though Mayer was a man of many talents, his truest definition was hunter and remained so until the end. He killed his last buck at the ripe old age of 102, just two years before his death in 1954.