The Wild West of Yester-Year

Frank H. Mayer

By Rachel Kovaciny

Frank H. Mayer may not have been the most famous buffalo hunter of them all, but he was probably the longest-lived! In fact, when he died in 1954, he was only a couple months shy of his 104th birthday. Mayer left behind three books filled with his reminiscences about life in the Wild West. While he had a master storyteller’s tendency to exaggerate or embellish from time to time, his writings still provide fascinating details for every student of our nation’s history.

Five years after little Frank was born in Louisiana in 1850, the Mayer family moved to Pennsylvania. There, Frank grew up in a community where hunting and shooting were important activities, as most families relied on hunting for a significant part of their food supply. Mayer had a natural aptitude for shooting, and liked to hang around gun shops and learn as much as he could about how firearms were made, repaired, and cared for. At age ten, Frank traded all the furs he had trapped himself over the past two years for a Kentucky rifle he used for the next seven decades. He fired that rifle so often he had to have its rifling recut multiple times. Three years later, in 1863, Frank joined the Union Army as a drummer boy during the American Civil War, presumably serving in the same artillery unit where his father was an officer. Since underage drummer boys were often semi-unofficial members of the military, it’s not surprising we don’t have actual records for his service in the war, but it’s disappointing that we can’t pinpoint exactly what unit Frank Mayer served with. According to his own memoirs, he was present at the battles of Gettysburg and Fredericksburg, then at Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.

After the Civil War ended, Frank Mayer attended the Columbia School of Mines in New York. His advanced schooling and natural inclinations led him to become a “scientific hunter” who pursued hunting in a logical and professional way. When he became a buffalo hunter in the 1870s, he put his knowledge of guns, hunting, and science to use. Mayer could usually bring an animal down with a single shot, which minimized damage to the valuable hides. Mayer’s weapon of choice for hunting buffalo was a breech-loading Sharps rifle with a German scope. He is credited with inventing a steel bipod that attached to his rifle’s barrel to provide more reliable accuracy. The combination of scope and bipod allowed him to fire from far enough away from the buffalo herd so as not to spook them, but without the risk of wounding an animal instead of killing it cleanly. He did not slaughter as many buffalo in a day as he could, but restricted himself to thirty animals each day. That was how many his team could skin and butcher by the end of the day, which meant his kills were all profitable instead of some going to waste.

In 1877, Frank Mayer married Marjorie Monroe. Their marriage lasted until her death in 1921. Even though Mayer outlived his wife for three decades, he remained devoted to her memory. When he was more than a hundred years old, he still became emotional whenever he talked about Marjorie. Mayer rejoined the U.S. Army as an adult, serving in the Indian Wars and the Spanish-American War. He retired with the rank of colonel. While in his sixties, he traveled to Australia and Brazil, searching for gold and diamonds. He eventually returned to the United States and settled in Colorado, where he served as a U. S. Marshal. 

In the early 1900s, Mayer wrote three books: The Buffalo Harvest (with Charles Roth), The Song of the Wolf, and The Unmuzzled Ox. He also wrote a series of articles about firearms in the 1930s. He continued to be an avid hunter, particularly of big game, and reportedly killed his last buck when he was 102. Frank Mayer died in Fairplay, Colorado, on February 12, 1954. He is buried in the cemetery there, and his house has been preserved and restored as part of the South Park City museum of Fairplay, one of over forty buildings you can explore and where you can learn about the gold mining history of Colorado in the 1800s.