The Extermination of the American Bison Part 3

[Note 23: On the plains of Dakota, the Rev. Mr. Belcourt (Schoolcraft's N. A. Indians, IV, p. 108) once counted two hundred and twenty-eight buffaloes, a part of a great herd, feeding on a single acre of ground.

This of course was an unusual occurrence with buffaloes not stampeding, but practically at rest. It is quite possible also that the extent of the ground may have been underestimated.]

If the advancing multitude had been at all points 50 miles in length (as it was known to have been in some places at least) by 25 miles in width, and still averaged fifteen head to the acre of ground, it would have contained the enormous number of 12,000,000 head. But, judging from the general principles governing such migrations, it is almost certain that the moving mass advanced in the shape of a wedge, which would make it necessary to deduct about two-third from the grand total, which would leave 4,000,000 as our estimate of the actual number of buffaloes in this great herd, which I believe is more likely to be below the truth than above it.

No wonder that the men of the West of those days, both white and red, thought it would be impossible to exterminate such a mighty multitude.

The Indians of some tribes believed that the buffaloes issued from the earth continually, and that the supply was necessarily inexhaustible.

And yet, in four short years the southern herd was almost totally annihilated.

With such a lesson before our eyes, confirmed in every detail by living testimony, who will dare to say that there will be an elk, moose, caribou, mountain sheep, mountain goat, antelope, or black-tail deer left alive in the United States in a wild state fifty years from this date, ay, or even twenty-five?

Mr. William Blackmore contributes the following testimony to the abundance of buffalo in Kansas:[24]

[Note 24: Plains of the Great West, p. xvi.]

"In the autumn of 1868, whilst crossing the plains on the Kansas Pacific Railroad, for a distance of upwards of 120 miles, between Ellsworth and Sheridan, we passed through an almost unbroken herd of buffalo. The plains were blackened with them, and more than once the train had to stop to allow unusually large herds to pass. * * * In 1872, whilst on a scout for about a hundred miles south of Fort Dodge to the Indian Territory, we were never out of sight of buffalo."

Twenty years hence, when not even a bone or a buffalo-chip remains above ground throughout the West to mark the presence of the buffalo, it may be difficult for people to believe that these animals ever existed in such numbers as to constitute not only a serious annoyance, but very often a dangerous menace to wagon travel across the plains, and also to stop railway trains, and even throw them off the track. The like has probably never occurred before in any country, and most assuredly never will again, if the present rate of large game destruction all over the world can be taken as a foreshadowing of the future. In this connection the following additional testimony from Colonel Dodge ("Plains of the Great West," p. 121) is of interest:

"The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad was then [in 1871-'72] in process of construction, and nowhere could the peculiarity of the buffalo of which I am speaking be better studied than from its trains.

If a herd was on the north side of the track, it would stand stupidly gazing, and without a symptom of alarm, although the locomotive passed within a hundred yards. If on the south side of the track, even though at a distance of 1 or 2 miles from it, the passage of a train set the whole herd in the wildest commotion. At full speed, and utterly regardless of the consequences, it would make for the track on its line of retreat. If the train happened not to be in its path, it crossed the track and stopped satisfied. If the train was in its way, each individual buffalo went at it with the desperation of despair, plunging against or between locomotive and cars, just as its blind madness chanced to direct it. Numbers were killed, but numbers still pressed on, to stop and stare as soon as the obstacle had passed. After having trains thrown off the track twice in one week, conductors learned to have a very decided respect for the idiosyncrasies of the buffalo, and when there was a possibility of striking a herd 'on the rampage' for the north side of the track, the train was slowed up and sometimes stopped entirely."

The accompanying illustration, reproduced from the "Plains of the Great West," by the kind permission of the author, is, in one sense, ocular proof that collisions between railway trains and vast herds of buffaloes were so numerous that they formed a proper subject for illustration. In regard to the stoppage of trains and derailment of locomotives by buffaloes, Colonel Dodge makes the following allusion in the private letter already referred to: "There are at least a hundred reliable railroad men now employed on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad who were witnesses of, and sometimes sufferers from, the wild rushes of buffalo as described on page 121 of my book. I was at the time stationed at Fort Dodge, and I was personally cognizant of several of these 'accidents.'"


Reproduced from "The Plains of the Great West," by permission of the author, Col. R. I. Dodge.]

The following, from the ever pleasing pen of Mr. Catlin, is of decided interest in this connection:

"In one instance, near the mouth of White River, we met the most immense herd crossing the Missouri River [in Dakota], and from an imprudence got our boat into imminent danger amongst them, from which we were highly delighted to make our escape. It was in the midst of the 'running season,' and we had heard the 'roaring' (as it is called) of the herd when we were several miles from them. When we came in sight, we were actually terrified at the immense numbers that were streaming down the green hills on one side of the river, and galloping up and over the bluffs on the other. The river was filled, and in parts blackened with their heads and horns, as they were swimming about, following up their objects, and making desperate battle whilst they were swimming. I deemed it imprudent for our canoe to be dodging amongst them, and ran it ashore for a few hours, where we laid, waiting for the opportunity of seeing the river clear, but we waited in vain. Their numbers, however, got somewhat diminished at last, and we pushed off, and successfully made our way amongst them. From the immense numbers that had passed the river at that place, they had torn down the prairie bank of 15 feet in height, so as to form a sort of road or landing place, where they all in succession clambered up. Many in their turmoil had been wafted below this landing, and unable to regain it against the swiftness of the current, had fastened themselves along in crowds, hugging close to the high bank under which they were standing. As we were drifting by these, and supposing ourselves out of danger, I drew up my rifle and shot one of them in the head, which tumbled into the water, and brought with him a hundred others, which plunged in, and in a moment were swimming about our canoe, and placing it in great danger. No attack was made upon us, and in the confusion the poor beasts knew not, perhaps, the enemy that was amongst them; but we were liable to be sunk by them, as they were furiously hooking and climbing on to each other. I rose in my canoe, and by my gestures and hallooing kept them from coming in contact with us until we were out of their reach."[25]

[Note 25: Catlin's North American Indians, II, p. 13.]


1. _The buffaloes rank amongst ruminants._--With the American people, and through them all others, familiarity with the buffalo has bred contempt. The incredible numbers in which the animals of this species formerly existed made their slaughter an easy matter, so much so that the hunters and frontiersmen who accomplished their destruction have handed down to us a contemptuous opinion of the size, character, and general presence of our bison. And how could it be otherwise than that a man who could find it in his heart to murder a majestic bull bison for a hide worth only a dollar should form a one-dollar estimate of the grandest ruminant that ever trod the earth? Men who butcher African elephants for the sake of their ivory also entertain a similar estimate of their victims.

With an acquaintance which includes fine living examples of all the larger ruminants of the world except the musk-ox and the European bison, I am sure that the American bison is the grandest of them all. His only rivals for the kingship are the Indian bison, or gaur (_Bos gaurus_), of Southern India, and the aurochs, or European bison, both of which really surpass him in height, if not in actual balk also. The aurochs is taller, and possesses a larger pelvis and heavier, stronger hindquarters, but his body is decidedly smaller in all its proportions, which gives him a lean and "leggy" look. The hair on the head, neck, and forequarters of the aurochs is not nearly so long or luxuriant as on the same parts of the American bison. This covering greatly magnifies the actual bulk of the latter animal. Clothe the aurochs with the wonderful pelage of our buffalo, give him the same enormous chest and body, and the result would be a magnificent bovine monster, who would indeed stand without a rival. But when first-class types of the two species are placed side by side it seems to me that _Bison americanus_ will easily rank his European rival.

The gaur has no long hair upon any part of his body or head. What little hair he has is very short and thin, his hindquarters being almost naked.

I have seen hundreds of these animals at short range, and have killed and skinned several very fine specimens, one of which stood 5 feet 10 inches in height at the shoulders. But, despite his larger bulk, his appearance is not nearly so striking and impressive as that of the male American bison. He seems like a huge ox running wild.

The magnificent dark brown frontlet and beard of the buffalo, the shaggy coat of hair upon the neck, hump, and shoulders, terminating at the knees in a thick mass of luxuriant black locks, to say nothing of the dense coat of finer fur on the body and hindquarters, give to our species not only an apparent height equal to that of the gaur, but a grandeur and nobility of presence which are beyond all comparison amongst ruminants.

The slightly larger bulk of the gaur is of little significance in a comparison of the two species; for if size alone is to turn the scale, we must admit that a 500-pound lioness, with no mane whatever, is a more majestic looking animal than a 450-pound lion, with a mane which has earned him his title of king of beasts.

2. _Change of form in captivity._--By a combination of unfortunate circumstances, the American bison is destined to go down to posterity shorn of the honor which is his due, and appreciated at only half his worth. The hunters who slew him were from the very beginning so absorbed in the scramble for spoils that they had no time to measure or weigh him, nor even to notice the majesty of his personal appearance on his native heath.

In captivity he fails to develop as finely as in his wild state, and with the loss of his liberty he becomes a tame-looking animal. He gets fat and short-bodied, and the lack of vigorous and constant exercise prevents the development of bone and muscle which made the prairie animal what he was.

From observations made upon buffaloes that have been reared in captivity, I am firmly convinced that confinement and semi-domestication are destined to effect striking changes in the form of _Bison americanus_. While this is to be expected to a certain extent with most large species, the changes promise to be most conspicuous in the buffalo. The most striking change is in the body between the hips and the shoulders. As before remarked, it becomes astonishingly short and rotund, and through liberal feeding and total lack of exercise the muscles of the shoulders and hindquarters, especially the latter, are but feebly developed.

The most striking example of the change of form in the captive buffalo is the cow in the Central Park Menagerie, New York. Although this animal is fully adult, and has given birth to three fine calves, she is small, astonishingly short-bodied, and in comparison with the magnificently developed cows taken in 1886 by the writer in Montana, she seems almost like an animal of another species.

Both the live buffaloes in the National Museum collection of living animals are developing the same shortness of body and lack of muscle, and when they attain their full growth will but poorly resemble the splendid proportions of the wild specimens in the Museum mounted group, each of which has been mounted from a most careful and elaborate series of post-mortem measurements. It may fairly be considered, however, that the specimens taken by the Smithsonian expedition were in every way more perfect representatives of the species than have been usually taken in times past, for the simple reason that on account of the muscle they had developed in the numerous chases they had survived, and the total absence of the fat which once formed such a prominent feature of the animal, they were of finer form, more active habit, and keener intelligence than buffaloes possessed when they were so numerous. Out of the millions which once composed the great northern herd, those represented the survival of the fittest, and their existence at that time was chiefly due to the keenness of their senses and their splendid muscular powers in speed and endurance.

Under such conditions it is only natural that animals of the highest class should be developed. On the other hand, captivity reverses all these conditions, while yielding an equally abundant food supply.

In no feature is the change from natural conditions to captivity more easily noticeable than in the eye. In the wild buffalo the eye is always deeply set, well protected by the edge of the bony orbit, and perfect in form and expression. The lids are firmly drawn around the ball, the opening is so small that the white portion of the eyeball is entirely covered, and the whole form and appearance of the organ is as shapely and as pleasing in expression as the eye of a deer.

In the captive the various muscles which support and control the eyeball seem to relax and thicken, and the ball protrudes far beyond its normal plane, showing a circle of white all around the iris, and bulging out in a most unnatural way. I do not mean to assert that this is common in captive buffaloes generally, but I have observed it to be disagreeably conspicuous in many.

Another change which takes place in the form of the captive buffalo is an arching of the back in the middle, which has a tendency to make the hump look lower at the shoulders and visibly alters the outline of the back. This tendency to "hump up" the back is very noticeable in domestic cattle and horses during rainy weather. While a buffalo on his native heath would seldom assume such an attitude of dejection and misery, in captivity, especially if it be anything like close confinement, it is often to be observed, and I fear will eventually become a permanent habit. Indeed, I think it may be confidently predicted that the time will come when naturalists who have never seen a wild buffalo will compare the specimens composing the National Museum group with the living representatives to be seen in captivity and assert that the former are exaggerations in both form and size.

3. _Mounted Specimens in Museums._--Of the "stuffed" specimens to be found in museums, all that I have ever seen outside of the National Museum and even those within that institution up to 1886, were "stuffed"

in reality as well as in name. The skins that have been rammed full of straw or excelsior have lost from 8 to 12 inches in height at the shoulders, and the high and sharp hump of the male has become a huge, thick, rounded mass like the hump of a dromedary, and totally unlike the hump of a bison. It is impossible for any taxidermist to stuff a buffalo-skin with loose materials and produce a specimen which fitly represents the species. The proper height and form of the animal can be secured and retained only by the construction of a manikin, or statue, to carry the skin. In view of this fact, which surely must be apparent to even the most casual observer, it is to be earnestly hoped that here no one in authority will ever consent to mount or have mounted a valuable skin of a bison in any other way than over a properly constructed manikin.

4. _The Calf._--The breeding season of the buffalo is from the 1st of July to the 1st of October. The young cow does not breed until she is three years old, and although two calves are sometimes produced at a birth, one is the usual number. The calves are born in April, May, and June, and sometimes, though rarely, as late as the middle of August. The calf follows its mother until it is a year old, or even older. In May, 1886, the Smithsonian expedition captured a calf alive, which had been abandoned by its mother because it could not keep up with her. The little creature was apparently between two and three weeks old, and was therefore born about May 1. Unlike the young of nearly all other _Bovidae_, the buffalo calf during the first months of its existence is clad with hair of a totally different color from that which covers him during the remainder of his life. His pelage is a luxuriant growth of rather long, wavy hair, of a uniform brownish-yellow or "sandy" color (cinnamon, or yellow ocher, with a shade of Indian yellow) all over the head, body, and tail, in striking contrast with the darker colors of the older animals. On the lower half of the leg it is lighter, shorter, and straight. On the shoulders and hump the hair is longer than on the other portions, being 11/2 inches in length, more wavy, and already arranges itself in the tufts, or small bunches, so characteristic in the adult animal.

On the extremity of the muzzle, including the chin, the hair is very short, straight, and as light in color as the lower portions of the leg.

Starting on the top of the nose, an inch behind the nostrils, and forming a division between the light yellowish muzzle and the more reddish hair on the remainder of the head, there is an irregular band of dark, straight hair, which extends down past the corner of the mouth to a point just back of the chin, where it unites. From the chin backward the dark band increases in breadth and intensity, and continues back half way to the angle of the jaw. At that point begins a sort of under mane of wavy, dark-brown hair, nearly 3 inches long, and extends back along the median line of the throat to a point between the fore legs, where it abruptly terminates. From the back of the head another streak of dark hair extends backward along the top of the neck, over the hump, and down to the lumbar region, where it fades out entirely. These two dark bands are in sharp contrast to the light sandy hair adjoining.

The tail is densely haired. The tuft on the end is quite luxuriant, and shows a center of darker hair. The hair on the inside of the ear is dark, but that on the outside is sandy.

The naked portion of the nose is light Vandyke-brown, with a pinkish tinge, and the edge of the eyelid the same. The iris is dark brown. The horn at three months is about 1 inch in length, and is a mere little black stub. In the male, the hump is clearly defined, but by no means so high in proportion as in the adult animal. The hump of the calf from which this description is drawn is of about the same relative angle and height as that of an adult cow buffalo. The specimen itself is well represented in the accompanying plate.

The measurements of this specimen in the flesh were as follows:

+---------------------------------------------------------+ BISON AMERICANUS. (Male; four months old.) +---------------------------------------------------------+ (_No. 15503, National Museum collection._) +---------------------------------------------------------+ Feet. Inches. Height at shoulders 2 8 Length, head and body to insertion of tail 3 101/2 Depth of chest 1 4 Depth of flank 10 Girth behind fore leg 3 1/2 From base of horns around end of nose 1 71/2 Length of tail vertebrae 7 +---------------------------------------------------------+

The calves begin to shed their coat of red hair about the beginning of August. The first signs of the change, however, appear about a month earlier than that, in the darkening of the mane under the throat, and also on the top of the neck.[26]

[Note 26: Our captive had, in some way, bruised the skin on his forehead, and in June all the hair came off the top of his head, leaving it quite bald. We kept the skin well greased with porpoise oil, and by the middle of July a fine coat of black hair had grown out all over the surface that had previously been bare.]

By the 1st of August the red hair on the body begins to fall off in small patches, and the growth of fine, new, dark hair seems to actually crowd off the old. As is the case with the adult animals, the shortest hair is the first to be shed, but the change of coat takes place in about half the time that it occupies in the older animals.

By the 1st of October the transformation is complete, and not even a patch of the old red hair remains upon the new suit of brown. This is far from being the case with the old bulls and cows, for even up to the last week in October we found them with an occasional patch of the old hair still clinging to the new, on the back or shoulders.

Like most young animals, the calf of the buffalo is very easily tamed, especially if taken when only a few weeks old. The one captured in Montana by the writer, resisted at first as stoutly as it was able, by butting with its head, but after we had tied its legs together and carried it to camp, across a horse, it made up its mind to yield gracefully to the inevitable, and from that moment became perfectly docile. It very soon learned to drink milk in the most satisfactory manner, and adapted itself to its new surroundings quite as readily as any domestic calf would have done. Its only cry was a low-pitched, pig-like grunt through the nose, which was uttered only when hungry or thirsty.

I have been told by old frontiersmen and buffalo-hunters that it used to be a common practice for a hunter who had captured a young calf to make it follow him by placing one of his fingers in its mouth, and allowing the calf to suck at it for a moment. Often a calf has been induced in this way to follow a horseman for miles, and eventually to join his camp outfit. It is said that the same result has been accomplished with calves by breathing a few times into their nostrils. In this connection Mr. Catlin's observations on the habits of buffalo calves are most interesting.

"In pursuing a large herd of buffaloes at the season when their calves are but a few weeks old, I have often been exceedingly amused with the curious maneuvers of these shy little things. Amidst the thundering confusion of a throng of several hundreds or several thousands of these animals, there will be many of the calves that lose sight of their dams; and being left behind by the throng, and the swift-passing hunters, they endeavor to secrete themselves, when they are exceedingly put to it on a level prairie, where naught can be seen but the short grass of 6 or 8 inches in height, save an occasional bunch of wild sage a few inches higher, to which the poor affrighted things will run, and dropping on their knees, will push their noses under it and into the grass, where they will stand for hours, with their eyes shut, imagining themselves securely hid, whilst they are standing up quite straight upon their hind feet, and can easily be seen at several miles distance. It is a familiar amusement with us, accustomed to these scenes, to retreat back over the ground where we have just escorted the herd, and approach these little trembling things, which stubbornly maintain their positions, with their noses pushed under the grass and their eyes strained upon us, us we dismount from our horses and are passing around them. From this fixed position they are sure not to move until hands are laid upon them, and then for the shins of a novice we can extend our sympathy; or if he can preserve the skin on his bones from the furious buttings of its head, we know how to congratulate him on his signal success and good luck.

[Illustration: From photograph of group in National Museum. Engraved by R. H. Carson. BUFFALO COW, CALF (FOUR MONTHS OLD), AND YEARLING.

Reproduced from the _Cosmopolitan Magazine_, by permission of the publishers.]

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