Cowboys in the Badlands, Thomas Eakins, 1888.
Cowboys in the Badlands, Thomas Eakins, 1888.

In the fifth and final installment in our series about tracking taken from “Mountain Scouting – A Hand-Book for Officers and Soldiers on the Frontiers” by Edward S. Farrow, 1881, Farrow describes how to disguise your tracks and advises how to read the behavior of various animals you encounter along the trail and what that indicates for the trail beyond. If you missed the first four installments, please click the links below.

The Difficult Art of Tracking – Part 1

The Difficult Art of Tracking – Part 2

The Difficult Art of Tracking – Part 3

The Difficult Art of Tracking – Part 4


From “Mountain Scouting – A Hand-Book for Officers and Soldiers on the Frontiers” by Edward S. Farrow, 1881.

To show to what skill a trailer may attain by constant and careful practice, I will briefly mention a few of the exploits of my chief of Umatilla scouts – Shaplish.

Being once in rapid pursuit of a few Indians who had murdered the owner of a ranch, on the south fork of the Salmon, in Idaho, and having followed them about forty miles, apparently gaining all the while, Shaplish suddenly informed me, “No catch him – hiyu run – no sun!”, meaning that we were discovered, and that the Indians were traveling at night. He pointed out to me where they had gone under low branches of trees, which might have been readily avoided, and also where they had crossed rocks and ravines at bad places, when good crossings might have been selected very close by, if there had been sufficient light for the purpose of picking the trail.

Once, while hunting on the upper Clearwater river and ignorant of the location of the renegade Bannock Indians, Shaplish become very much exercised, fearing that a hostile war party might find his ‘trail’ and attack in the rear. After a brief consultation with the other members of his party, he dismounted, cut open his shoes; and, putting them on with the heels foremost, walked, thus equipped, in the rear of all, a distance of eight or ten miles. The ruse was a perfect success, for that very day a hunting party came close in rear; but, seeing the track of what they supposed a single man going away from the party, they put their ponies about and at full speed started off, hoping to overtake him, preferring to make a sure success of capturing one rather than risk an attack upon the entire party.

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Wishing to scout in two directions, I once sent out two detachments of ten men each.

They started from camp together, followed the same ‘trail’ for about 2-½ miles, and then separated – one party going to the right, the other to the left. Having occasion to communicate with the commander of one detachment, I started Shaplish after him. It was plain sailing until he came to the diverging ‘trails.’ For a while he was puzzled to tell which detachment had gone to the right.

He soon selected the tracks on each ‘trail’ made by the men in advance (presumably those of the commanders); and, with a positive assurance, informed me that the route on the left had been taken by the party wanted.
When I asked his reasoning for so thinking, he showed me that the distance between the impressions on the left ‘trail’ was wide, and the deepest parts of the tracks were formed by the toes – all of which denoted the elasticity of youth, for which the man in question was much noted, in comparison with the commander of the other detachment.

Shaplish followed his selected ‘trail’ about ten miles, when his figuring proved correct.

Many other instances might be cited to show to what perfection the art of trailing may be carried.

By closely observing the movements and actions of animals a great deal of valuable information may be obtained. Should wild ducks be observed to swim down stream toward you, it is a sure sign that some form of man is approaching and has already been observed by the ducks.

If there be a mule with the party, it will be well worth the while to carefully watch his actions. If he stubbornly seeks a certain direction, with his head high and ears thrown forward, and seems much engaged, something is surely approaching; it may only be a bear or some smaller animal, but it will be well to be on the alert until the cause of the trouble is known.

Note from Lost Wit and Wisdom: This wraps up our series on tracking with Farrow as our guide. The next entry is related to tracking and from the same resource. We will go over means of Indian communication and the signals they used to communicate.