The Extermination of the American Bison Part 2

[Note 17: Sabine, Zoological Appendix to "Franklin's Journey," p. 668.]

Dr. Richardson defined the eastern boundary of the bison's range in British America as follows: "They do not frequent any of the districts formed of primitive rocks, and the limits of their range to the eastward, within the Hudson's Bay Company's territories, may be correctly marked on the map by a line commencing in longitude 97, on the Red River, which flows into the south end of Lake Winnipeg, crossing the Saskatchewan to the westward of the Basquian Hill, and running thence by the Athapescow to the east end of Great Slave Lake." Their migrations westward were formerly limited to the Rocky Mountain range, and they are still unknown in New Caledonia and on the shores of the Pacific to the north of the Columbia River; but of late years they have found out a passage across the mountains near the sources of the Saskatchewan, and their numbers to the westward are annually increasing.[18]

[Note 18: Fauna Boreali-Americana, vol. 1, p, 279-280.]

_Great Slave Lake._--That the buffalo inhabited the southern shore of this lake as late as 1871 is well established by the following letter from Mr. E. W. Nelson to Mr. J. A. Allen, under date of July 11, 1877:[19] "I have met here [St. Michaels, Alaska] two gentlemen who crossed the mountains from British Columbia and came to Fort Yukon through British America, from whom I have derived some information about the buffalo (_Bison americanus_) which will be of interest to you. These gentlemen descended the Peace River, and on about the one hundred and eighteenth degree of longitude made a portage to Hay River, directly north. On this portage they saw thousands of buffalo skulls, and old trails, in some instances 2 or 3 feet deep, leading east and west. They wintered on Hay River near its entrance into Great Slave Lake, and here found the buffalo still common, occupying a restricted territory along the southern border of the lake. This was in 1871. They made inquiry concerning the large number of skulls seen by them on the portage, and learned that about fifty years before, snow fell to the estimated depth of 14 feet, and so enveloped the animals that they perished by thousands. It is asserted that these buffaloes are larger than those of the plains."

[Note 19: American Naturalist, xi, p. 624.]

MINNESOTA AND WISCONSIN.--A line drawn from Winnipeg to Chicago, curving slightly to the eastward in the middle portion, will very nearly define the eastern boundary of the buffalo's range in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

ILLINOIS AND INDIANA.--The whole of these two States were formerly inhabited by the buffalo, the fertile prairies of Illinois being particularly suited to their needs. It is doubtful whether the range of the species extended north of the northern boundary of Indiana, but since southern Michigan was as well adapted to their support as Ohio or Indiana, their absence from that State must have been due more to accident than design.

OHIO.--The southern shore of Lake Erie forms part of the northern boundary of the bison's range in the eastern United States. La Hontan explored Lake Erie in 1687 and thus describes its southern shore: "I can not express what quantities of Deer and Turkeys are to be found in these Woods, and in the vast Meads that lye upon the South side of the Lake.

At the bottom of the Lake we find beeves upon the Banks of two pleasant Rivers that disembogue into it, without Cataracts or Rapid Currents."[20] It thus appears that the southern shore of Lake Erie forms part of the northern boundary of the buffalo's range in the eastern United States.

[Note 20: J. A. Allen's _American Bisons_, p. 107.]

NEW YORK.--In regard to the presence of the bison in any portion of the State of New York, Professor Allen considers the evidence as fairly conclusive that it once existed in western New York, not only in the vicinity of the eastern end of Lake Erie, where now stands the city of Buffalo, at the mouth of a large creek of the same name, but also on the shore of Lake Ontario, probably in Orleans County. In his monograph of "The American Bisons," page 107, he gives the following testimony and conclusions on this point:

"The occurrence of a stream in western New York, called Buffalo Creek, which empties into the eastern end of Lake Erie, is commonly viewed as traditional evidence of its occurrence at this point, but positive testimony to this effect has thus far escaped me.

"This locality, if it actually came so far eastward, must have formed the eastern limit of its range along the lakes. I have found only highly questionable allusions to the occurrence of buffaloes along the southern shore of Lake Ontario. Keating, on the authority of Colhoun, however, has cited a passage from Morton's "New English Canaan" as proof of their former existence in the neighborhood of this lake. Morton's statement is based on Indian reports, and the context gives sufficient evidence of the general vagueness of his knowledge of the region of which he was speaking. The passage, printed in 1637 is as follows: They [the Indians]

have also made descriptions of great heards of well growne beasts that live about the parts of this lake [Erocoise] such as the Christian world (untill this discovery) hath not bin made acquainted with. These Beasts are of the bignesse of a Cowe, their flesh being very good foode, their hides good lether, their fleeces very usefull, being a kinde of wolle as fine almost as the wolle of the Beaver, and the Salvages doe make garments thereof. It is tenne yeares since first the relation of these things came to the eares of the English.' The 'beast' to which allusion is here made [says Professor Allen] is unquestionably the buffalo, but the locality of Lake 'Erocoise' is not so easily settled. Colhoun regards it, and probably correctly, as identical with Lake Ontario. * *

* The extreme northeastern limit of the former range of the buffalo seems to have been, as above stated, in western New York, near the eastern end of Lake Erie. That it probably ranged thus far there is fair evidence."

PENNSYLVANIA.--From the eastern end of Lake Erie the boundary of the bison's habitat extends south into western Pennsylvania, to a marsh called Buffalo Swamp on a map published by Peter Kalm in 1771. Professor Allen says it "is indicated as situated between the Alleghany River and the West Branch of the Susquehanna, near the heads of the Licking and Toby's Creeks (apparently the streams now called Oil Creek and Clarion Creek)." In this region there were at one time thousands of buffaloes.

While there is not at hand any positive evidence that the buffalo ever inhabited the southwestern portion of Pennsylvania, its presence in the locality mentioned above, and in West Virginia generally, on the south, furnishes sufficient reason for extending the boundary so as to include the southwestern portion of the State and connect with our starting point, the District of Columbia.


Of all the quadrupeds that have lived upon the earth, probably no other species has ever marshaled such innumerable hosts as those of the American bison. It would have been as easy to count or to estimate the number of leaves in a forest as to calculate the number of buffaloes living at any given time during the history of the species previous to 1870. Even in South Central Africa, which has always been exceedingly prolific in great herds of game, it is probable that all its quadrupeds taken together on an equal area would never have more than equaled the total number of buffalo in this country forty years ago.

To an African hunter, such a statement may seem incredible, but it appears to be fully warranted by the literature of both branches of the subject.

Not only did the buffalo formerly range eastward far into the forest regions of western New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia, but in some places it was so abundant as to cause remark. In Mr. J. A. Allen's valuable monograph[21] appear a great number of interesting historical references on this subject, as indeed to every other relating to the buffalo, a few of which I will take the liberty of quoting.

[Note 21: All who are especially interested in the life history of the buffalo, both scientific and economical, will do well to consult Mr.

Allen's monograph, "The American Bisons, Living and Extinct," if it be accessible. Unfortunately it is a difficult matter for the general reader to obtain it. A reprint of the work as originally published, but omitting the map, plates, and such of the subject-matter as relates to the extinct species, appears in Hayden's "Report of the Geological Survey of the Territories," for 1875 (pp. 443-587), but the volume has for several years been out of print.

The memoir as originally published has the following titles:

_Memoirs of the Geological Survey of Kentucky. N. S. Shaler, Director. Vol. I. Part II. -- The American Bisons, living and extinct. By J. A.

Allen. With twelve plates and map. -- University press, Cambridge: Welch, Bigelow & Co. 1876._

_Memoirs of the Museum of Comparative Zoology, at Harvard College, Cambridge, Mass. Vol. IV. No. 10. -- The American Bisons, living and extinct. By J. A. Allen. Published by permission of N. S. Shaler, Director of the Kentucky Geological Survey. With twelve plates and a map. University press, Cambridge: Welch, Bigelow & Co. 1876. _

_4to., pp. i-ix, 1-246, 1 col'd map, 12 pl., 13 ll. explanatory, 2 wood-cuts in text._

These two publications were simultaneous, and only differed in the titles. Unfortunately both are of greater rarity than the reprint referred to above.]

In the vicinity of the spot where the town of Clarion now stands, in northwestern Pennsylvania, Mr. Thomas Ashe relates that one of the first settlers built his log cabin near a salt spring which was visited by buffaloes in such numbers that "he supposed there could not have been less than two thousand in the neighborhood of the spring." During the first years of his residence there, the buffaloes came in droves of about three hundred each.

Of the Blue Licks in Kentucky, Mr. John Filson thus wrote, in 1784: "The amazing herds of buffaloes which resort thither, by their size and number, fill the traveller with amazement and terror, especially when he beholds the prodigious roads they have made from all quarters, as if leading to some populous city; the vast space of land around these springs desolated as if by a ravaging enemy, and hills reduced to plains; for the land near these springs is chiefly hilly. * * * I have heard a hunter assert he saw above one thousand buffaloes at the Blue Licks at once; so numerous were they before the first settlers had wantonly sported away their lives." Col. Daniel Boone declared of the Red River region in Kentucky, "The buffaloes were more frequent than I have seen cattle in the settlements, browzing on the leaves of the cane, or cropping the herbage of those extensive plains, fearless because ignorant of the violence of man. Sometimes we saw hundreds in a drove, and the numbers about the salt springs were amazing."

According to Ramsey, where Nashville now stands, in 1770 there were "immense numbers of buffalo and other wild game. The country was crowded with them. Their bellowings sounded from the hills and forest." Daniel Boone found vast herds of buffalo grazing in the valleys of East Tennessee, between the spurs of the Cumberland mountains.

Marquette declared that the prairies along the Illinois River were "covered with buffaloes." Father Hennepin, in writing of northern Illinois, between Chicago and the Illinois River, asserted that "there must be an innumerable quantity of wild bulls in that country, since the earth is covered with their horns. * * * They follow one another, so that you may see a drove of them for above a league together. * * *

Their ways are as beaten as our great roads, and no herb grows therein."

Judged by ordinary standards of comparison, the early pioneers of the last century thought buffalo were abundant in the localities mentioned above. But the herds which lived east of the Mississippi were comparatively only mere stragglers from the innumerable mass which covered the great western pasture region from the Mississippi to the Rocky Mountains, and from the Rio Grande to Great Slave Lake. The town of Kearney, in south central Nebraska, may fairly be considered the geographical center of distribution of the species, as it originally existed, but ever since 1800, and until a few years ago, the center of population has been in the Black Hills of southwestern Dakota.

Between the Rocky Mountains and the States lying along the Mississippi River on the west, from Minnesota to Louisiana, the whole country was one vast buffalo range, inhabited by millions of buffaloes. One could fill a volume with the records of plainsmen and pioneers who penetrated or crossed that vast region between 1800 and 1870, and were in turn surprised, astounded, and frequently dismayed by the tens of thousands of buffaloes they observed, avoided, or escaped from. They lived and moved as no other quadrupeds ever have, in great multitudes, like grand armies in review, covering scores of square miles at once. They were so numerous they frequently stopped boats in the rivers, threatened to overwhelm travelers on the plains, and in later years derailed locomotives and cars, until railway engineers learned by experience the wisdom of stopping their trains whenever there were buffaloes crossing the track. On this feature of the buffalo's life history a few detailed observations may be of value.

Near the mouth of the White River, in southwestern Dakota, Lewis and Clark saw (in 1806) a herd of buffalo which caused them to make the following record in their journal:

"These last animals [buffaloes] are now so numerous that from an eminence we discovered more than we had ever seen before at one time; and if it be not impossible to calculate the moving multitude, which darkened the whole plains, we are convinced that twenty thousand would be no exaggerated number."

When near the mouth of the Yellowstone, on their way down the Missouri, a previous record had been made of a meeting with other herds:

"The buffalo now appear in vast numbers. A herd happened to be on their way across the river [the Missouri]. Such was the multitude of these animals that although the river, including an island over which they passed, was a mile in length, the herd stretched as thick as they could swim completely from one side to the other, and the party was obliged to stop for an hour. They consoled themselves for the delay by killing four of the herd, and then proceeded till at the distance of 45 miles they halted on an island, below which two other herds of buffalo, as numerous as the first, soon after crossed the river."[22]

[Note 22: Lewis and Clark's Exped., II, p. 395.]

Perhaps the most vivid picture ever afforded of the former abundance of buffalo is that given by Col. R. I. Dodge in his "Plains of the Great West," p. 120, _et seq._ It is well worth reproducing entire:

"In May, 1871, I drove in a light wagon from Old Fort Zara to Fort Larned, on the Arkansas, 34 miles. At least 25 miles of this distance was through one immense herd, composed of countless smaller herds of buffalo then on their journey north. The road ran along the broad level 'bottom,' or valley, of the river. * * *

"The whole country appeared one great mass of buffalo, moving slowly to the northward; and it was only when actually among them that it could be ascertained that the apparently solid mass was an agglomeration of innumerable small herds, of from fifty to two hundred animals, separated from the surrounding herds by greater or less space, but still separated. The herds in the valley sullenly got out of my way, and, turning, stared stupidly at me, sometimes at only a few yards' distance.

When I had reached a point where the hills were no longer more than a mile from the road, the buffalo on the hills, seeing an unusual object in their rear, turned, stared an instant, then started at full speed directly towards me, stampeding and bringing with them the numberless herds through which they passed, and pouring down upon me all the herds, no longer separated, but one immense compact mass of plunging animals, mad with fright, and as irresistible as an avalanche.

"The situation was by no means pleasant. Reining up my horse (which was fortunately a quiet old beast that had been in at the death of many a buffalo, so that their wildest, maddest rush only caused him to cock his ears in wonder at their unnecessary excitement), I waited until the front of the mass was within 50 yards, when a few well-directed shots from my rifle split the herd, and sent it pouring off in two streams to my right and left. When all had passed me they stopped, apparently perfectly satisfied, though thousands were yet within reach of my rifle and many within less than 100 yards. Disdaining to fire again, I sent my servant to cut out the tongues of the fallen. This occurred so frequently within the next 10 miles, that when I arrived at Fort Larned I had twenty-six tongues in my wagon, representing the greatest number of buffalo that my conscience can reproach me for having murdered on any single day. I was not hunting, wanted no meat, and would not voluntarily have fired at these herds. I killed only in self-preservation and fired almost every shot from the wagon."

At my request Colonel Dodge has kindly furnished me a careful estimate upon which to base a calculation of the number of buffaloes in that great herd, and the result is very interesting. In a private letter, dated September 21, 1887, he writes as follows:

"The great herd on the Arkansas through which I passed could not have averaged, _at rest_, over fifteen or twenty individuals to the acre, but was, from my own observation, not less than 25 miles wide, and from reports of hunters and others it was about five days in passing a given point, or not less than 50 miles deep. From the top of Pawnee Rock I could see from 6 to 10 miles in almost every direction. This whole vast space was covered with buffalo, looking at a distance like one compact mass, the visual angle not permitting the ground to be seen. I have seen such a sight a great number of times, but never on so large a scale.

"That was the last of the great herds."

With these figures before us, it is not difficult to make a calculation that will be somewhere near the truth of the number of buffaloes actually seen in one day by Colonel Dodge on the Arkansas River during that memorable drive, and also of the number of head in the entire herd.

According to his recorded observation, the herd extended along the river for a distance of 25 miles, which was in reality the width of the vast procession that was moving north, and back from the road as far as the eye could reach, on both sides. It is making a low estimate to consider the extent of the visible ground at 1 mile on either side. This gives a strip of country 2 miles wide by 25 long, or a total of 50 square miles covered with buffalo, averaging from fifteen to twenty to the acre.[23]

Taking the lesser number, in order to be below the truth rather than above it, we find that the number actually seen on that day by Colonel Dodge was in the neighborhood of 480,000, not counting the additional number taken in at the view from the top of Pawnee Rock, which, if added, would easily bring the total up to a round half million!

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