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Early travelers to Yellowstone Park often woke up in the morning to discover that their horses and wandered away in the night. That’s because the tourists faced a dilemma. Their horses needed to graze to keep up their strength, so the travelers had to give them some freedom. But with too much freedom, the animals would wander away leaving the travelers afoot in the remote wilderness.

 Rossiter Raymond, who led the first group of tourists to visit Yellowstone Park in 1871, solved the problem by picketing his men’s horses and posting a guard to keep their roped untangled. His Raymond’s description of what it was like to be on guard duty.

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grazing horsesOur practice, at night was to pour water on the fire after supper, and picket the animals close around us where we lay on the ground. After reaching the Upper Madison we took turns in standing guard, to watch again possible stealing or stampeding of the stock and also, from time to time, to see to it that the picket-ropes were clear.

When you want to pasture one horse for one night on an ample lawn, the business is easy enough. You drive your picket pin deep enough to hold, and leave enough of it above ground to permit the firm fastening of the rope, but not to permit the winding up of the rope oil the pin by possible circular promenades on the horse’s part; after which, you bid the horse, and all care on his behalf, goodnight.

Unless he is a very raw recruit at picket-duty, he will move about with perfect freedom over the whole circle of which the rope is the radius; and you will hear him nibble and crunch the squeaking grass at all hours of the night. But, when you apprehend Indians you can’t afford to hunt up a smooth lawn for each horse. As the higher mountains are entered, the grass grows scanty, and it is necessary to make the best of such patches as occur.

So the animals get picketed where bushes interfere with the free circulation of the ropes, or so near together that they can (and accordingly do) get up mutual entanglements. Every such performance shortens the radius, and the realm of food. An experienced picketer generally makes one or two attempts to disentangle himself, by traveling around in the direction that first occurs to him. If this happens to be the right one, he may work out again to the, full arc of his destined supper: otherwise he winds himself up, and then (unlike a clock) stops going.

It is the duty of the guard to go out, unwind him, and start him again, lest, standing in patient disgust all night, he be found in the morning empty of grass and of spirit for the day’s work. It is solemnly amusing to march in a moony midnight hither and thither, followed by a silent steed, through all the intricacies of the knot he has tied, with the aid of stumps, bushes, his own legs, and his neighbor’s rope. Fancy yourself unraveling a bad case of shoestring, and obliged to pull a horse through every loop at the end of the string. The Lancers ” is nothing to it. For a real mazy dance, to puzzle the floor-committee, give me the nine-horse pick picket cotillion.

At daylight the animals are let loose, and stray about, trailing their long ropes, in search of untrampled grass for breakfast. It is easy to catch them by means of the ropes, though now and then an experienced old fellow has learned the exact length of his lariat, and will not let you get near enough to clutch the end of it.

This keeping guard at night without the companionship of the campfire is a chilly and dispiriting affair. The first watch is not very lonely. There is generally some wakeful comrade who sits up in his bed to talk; or perhaps the whole party linger around the flameless embers, exchanging stories of adventure. But he who “goes on” from midnight till dawn, surrounded only by mummies rolled in blankets on the ground, is thrown upon his thoughts for company.

The night-noises are mysterious and amazingly various, particularly if the camp is surrounded by woods. There are deer and elk going down to the water to drink; there are unnatural birds that whistle and answer, for the world, like ambuscading savages; there are crackling twigs; the picket-ropes crawl through the grass with a dreadful sound; the grass itself squeaks in an unearthly way when it is pulled by the horses’ mouths.

The steady crunching of their grinders is a re-assuring, because familiar sound; but ever and anon it stops suddenly, all the horses seeming to stand motionless, and to listen. Their ears are quicker than yours: they hear something moving in the forest, -doubtless the wily Sioux. You glide from tree to tree, revolver in hand, until you get near enough to see that they are all asleep. Old Bony is dreaming unpleasantly besides: it is an uncanny thing—a horse with the nightmare. You make the rounds. They all wake and go to eating again: so you know they were not scared except the blooded bay, who mistakes you for an Indian, and snorts and cavorts furiously.

I remember well such a night, near the banks of the Yellowstone Lake, when we were doubly suspicious, because we had heard a rifle-shot close by our camp, not fired by any member of our party. I was on guard at about 1 a.m., and keenly alive to all the blood-curdling sensations I have mentioned, when suddenly the trees above and the ground beneath were shaken by a brief but unmistakable earthquake. The shock was in the nature of a horizontal vibration; and the emotion produced by the experience at such an hour, in the solemn woods, was a unique combination of awe and nausea. I was not sorry that one or two of the party were waked by it: under the circumstances, I was grateful for a little conversation.

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 — Pages 173-176 in  Rossiter W. Raymond, Camp and Cabin. New York: Ford Howard and Hulbert, 1880.

— B.H. Alexander Postcard, Pioneer Museum of Bozeman.

— You might also enjoy these tales about Raymond’s expedition.

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