The Extermination of the American Bison Part 6

[Measurements, in inches, of the pelage of the specimens composing the group in the National Museum.]

+-----------------------------------------------------------------------+ Old Old Spike Young Yearling Young bull, cow, bull, cow, calf, calf, killed killed killed killed killed four Dec. 6. Nov. 18. Oct. 14. Oct. 14. Oct. 31. months Length of: old. +--------------------+-------+--------+--------+--------+--------+------+ hair on the shoulder (over scapula) 33/4 43/4 31/2 31/4 3 11/2 +--------------------+-------+--------+--------+--------+--------+------+ hair on top of hump 61/2 7 51/4 51/2 41/2 2 +--------------------+-------+--------+--------+--------+--------+------+ hair on the middle of the side 2 11/2 21/2 11/2 21/4 11/4 +--------------------+-------+--------+--------+--------+--------+------+ hair on the hind quarter 13/4 11/4 3/4 3/4 2 1 +--------------------+-------+--------+--------+--------+--------+------+ hair on the forehead 16 81/2 61/2 5 31/2 1/2 +--------------------+-------+--------+--------+--------+--------+------+ the chin beard 111/2 91/2 63/4 5 5 0 +--------------------+-------+--------+--------+--------+--------+------+ the breast tuft 8 81/2 8 6 5 3 +--------------------+-------+--------+--------+--------+--------+------+ tuft on fore leg 101/2 8 8 41/2 3 11/2 +--------------------+-------+--------+--------+--------+--------+------+ the tail tuft 19 15 15 13 71/2 41/2 +-----------------------------------------------------------------------+

_Albinism._--Cases of albinism in the buffalo were of extremely rare occurrence. I have met many old buffalo hunters, who had killed thousands and seen scores of thousands of buffaloes, yet never had seen a white one. From all accounts it appears that not over ten or eleven white buffaloes, or white buffalo skins, were ever seen by white men.

Pied individuals were occasionally obtained, but even they were rare.

Albino buffaloes were always so highly prized that not a single one, so far as I can learn, ever had the good fortune to attain adult size, their appearance being so striking, in contrast with the other members of the herd, as to draw upon them an unusual number of enemies, and cause their speedy destruction.

At the New Orleans Exposition, in 1884-'85, the Territory of Dakota exhibited, amongst other Western quadrupeds, the mounted skin of a two-year-old buffalo which might fairly be called an albino. Although not really white, it was of a uniform dirty cream-color, and showed not a trace of the bison's normal color on any part of its body.

Lieut. Col. S. C. Kellogg, U. S. Army, has on deposit in the National Museum a tanned skin which is said to have come from a buffalo. It is from an animal about one year old, and the hair upon it, which is short, very curly or wavy, and rather coarse, is pure white. In length and texture the hair does not in any one respect resemble the hair of a yearling buffalo save in one particular,--along the median line of the neck and hump there is a rather long, thin mane of hair, which has the peculiar woolly appearance of genuine buffalo hair on those parts. On the shoulder portions of the skin the hair is as short as on the hind quarters. I am inclined to believe this rather remarkable specimen came from a wild half-breed calf, the result of a cross between a white domestic cow and a buffalo bull. At one time it was by no means uncommon for small bunches of domestic cattle to enter herds of buffalo and remain there permanently.

I have been informed that the late General Marcy possessed a white buffalo skin. If it is still in existence, and is really _white_, it is to be hoped that so great a rarity may find a permanent abiding place in some museum where the remains of _Bison americanus_ are properly appreciated.


The history of the buffalo's daily life and habits should begin with the "running season." This period occupied the months of August and September, and was characterized by a degree of excitement and activity throughout the entire herd quite foreign to the ease-loving and even slothful nature which was so noticeable a feature of the bison's character at all other times.

The mating season occurred when the herd was on its summer range. The spring calves were from two to four months old. Through continued feasting on the new crop of buffalo-grass and bunch-grass--the most nutritious in the world, perhaps--every buffalo in the herd had grown round-sided, fat, and vigorous. The faded and weather-beaten suit of winter hair had by that time fallen off and given place to the new coat of dark gray and black, and, excepting for the shortness of his hair, the buffalo was in prime condition.

During the "running season," as it was called by the plainsmen, the whole nature of the herd was completely changed. Instead of being broken up into countless small groups and dispersed over a vast extent of territory, the herd came together in a dense and confused mass of many thousand individuals, so closely congregated as to actually blacken the face of the landscape. As if by a general and irresistible impulse, every straggler would be drawn to the common center, and for miles on every side of the great herd the country would be found entirely deserted.

At this time the herd itself became a seething mass of activity and excitement. As usual under such conditions, the bulls were half the time chasing the cows, and fighting each other during the other half. These actual combats, which were always of short duration and over in a few seconds after the actual collision took place, were preceded by the usual threatening demonstrations, in which the bull lowers his head until his nose almost touches the ground, roars like a fog-horn until the earth seems to fairly tremble with the vibration, glares madly upon his adversary with half-white eyeballs, and with his forefeet paws up the dry earth and throws it upward in a great cloud of dust high above his back. At such times the mingled roaring--it can not truthfully be described as lowing or bellowing--of a number of huge bulls unite and form a great volume of sound like distant thunder, which has often been heard at a distance of from 1 to 3 miles. I have even been assured by old plainsmen that under favorable atmospheric conditions such sounds have been heard five miles.

Notwithstanding the extreme frequency of combats between the bulls during this season, their results were nearly always harmless, thanks to the thickness of the hair and hide on the head and shoulders, and the strength of the neck.

Under no conditions was there ever any such thing as the pairing off or mating of male and female buffaloes for any length of time. In the entire process of reproduction the bison's habits were similar to those of domestic cattle. For years the opinion was held by many, in some cases based on misinterpreted observations, that in the herd the identity of each family was partially preserved, and that each old bull maintained an individual harem and group of progeny of his own. The observations of Colonel Dodge completely disprove this very interesting theory; for at best it was only a picturesque fancy, ascribing to the bison a degree of intelligence which he never possessed.

At the close of the breeding season the herd quickly settles down to its normal condition. The mass gradually resolves itself into the numerous bands or herdlets of from twenty to a hundred individuals, so characteristic of bison on their feeding grounds, and these gradually scatter in search of the best grass until the herd covers many square miles of country.

In his search for grass the buffalo displayed but little intelligence or power of original thought. Instead of closely following the divides between water courses where the soil was best and grass most abundant, he would not hesitate to wander away from good feeding-grounds into barren "bad lands," covered with sage-brush, where the grass was very thin and very poor. In such broken country as Montana, Wyoming, and southwestern Dakota, the herds, on reaching the best grazing grounds on the divides, would graze there day after day until increasing thirst compelled them to seek for water. Then, actuated by a common impulse, the search for a water-hole was begun in a business-like way. The leader of a herd, or "bunch," which post was usually filled by an old cow, would start off down the nearest "draw," or stream-heading, and all the rest would fall into line and follow her. From the moment this start was made there was no more feeding, save as a mouthful of grass could be snatched now and then without turning aside. In single file, in a line sometimes half a mile long and containing between one and two hundred buffaloes, the procession slowly marched down the coulee, close alongside the gully as soon as the water-course began to cut a pathway for itself. When the gully curved to right or left the leader would cross its bed and keep straight on until the narrow ditch completed its wayward curve and came back to the middle of the coulee. The trail of a herd in search of water is usually as good a piece of engineering as could be executed by the best railway surveyor, and is governed by precisely the same principles. It always follows the level of the valley, swerves around the high points, and crosses the stream repeatedly in order to avoid climbing up from the level. The same trail is used again and again by different herds until the narrow path, not over a foot in width, is gradually cut straight down into the soil to a depth of several inches, as if it had been done by a 12-inch grooving-plane. By the time the trail has been worn down to a depth of 6 or 7 inches, without having its width increased in the least, it is no longer a pleasant path to walk in, being too much like a narrow ditch.

Then the buffaloes abandon it and strike out a new one alongside, which is used until it also is worn down and abandoned.

To day the old buffalo trails are conspicuous among the very few classes of objects which remain as a reminder of a vanished race. The herds of cattle now follow them in single file just as the buffaloes did a few years ago, as they search for water in the same way. In some parts of the West, in certain situations, old buffalo trails exist which the wild herds wore down to a depth of 2 feet or more.

Mile after mile marched the herd, straight down-stream, bound for the upper water-hole. As the hot summer drew on, the pools would dry up one by one, those nearest the source being the first to disappear. Toward the latter part of summer, the journey for water was often a long one.

Hole after hole would be passed without finding a drop of water. At last a hole of mud would be found, below that a hole with a little muddy water, and a mile farther on the leader would arrive at a shallow pool under the edge of a "cut bank," a white, snow-like deposit of alkali on the sand encircling its margin, and incrusting the blades of grass and rushed that grew up from the bottom. The damp earth around the pool was cut up by a thousand hoof-prints, and the water was warm, strongly impregnated with alkali, and yellow with animal impurities, but it was _water_. The nauseous mixture was quickly surrounded by a throng of thirsty, heated, and eager buffaloes of all ages, to which the oldest and strongest asserted claims of priority. There was much crowding and some fighting, but eventually all were satisfied. After such a long journey to water, a herd would usually remain by it for some hours, lying down, resting, and drinking at intervals until completely satisfied.

Having drunk its fill, the herd would never march directly back to the choice feeding grounds it had just left, but instead would leisurely stroll off at a right angle from the course it came, cropping for awhile the rich bunch grasses of the bottom-lands, and then wander across the hills in an almost aimless search for fresh fields and pastures new.

When buffaloes remained long in a certain locality it was a common thing for them to visit the same watering-place a number of times, at intervals of greater or less duration, according to circumstances.

When undisturbed on his chosen range, the bison used to be fond of lying down for an hour or two in the middle of the day, particularly when fine weather and good grass combined to encourage him in luxurious habits. I once discovered with the field glass a small herd of buffaloes lying down at midday on the slope of a high ridge, and having ridden hard for several hours we seized the opportunity to unsaddle and give our horses an hour's rest before making the attack. While we were so doing, the herd got up, shifted its position to the opposite side of the ridge, and again laid down, every buffalo with his nose pointing to windward.

Old hunters declare that in the days of their abundance, when feeding on their ranges in fancied security, the younger animals were as playful as well-fed domestic calves. It was a common thing to see them cavort and frisk around with about as much grace as young elephants, prancing and running to and fro with tails held high in air "like scorpions."

Buffaloes are very fond of rolling in dry dirt or even in mud, and this habit is quite strong in captive animals. Not only is it indulged in during the shedding season, but all through the fall and winter. The two live buffaloes in the National Museum are so much given to rolling, even in rainy weather, that it is necessary to card them every few days to keep them presentable.

Bulls are much more given to rolling than the cows, especially after they have reached maturity. They stretch out at full length, rub their heads violently to and fro on the ground, in which the horn serves as the chief point of contact and slides over the ground like a sled-runner. After thoroughly scratching one side on mother earth they roll over and treat the other in like manner. Notwithstanding his sharp and lofty hump, a buffalo bull can roll completely over with as much ease as any horse.

The vast amount of rolling and side-scratching on the earth indulged in by bull buffaloes is shown in the worn condition of the horns of every old specimen. Often a thickness of half an inch is gone from the upper half of each horn on its outside curve, at which point the horn is worn quite flat. This is well illustrated in the horns shown in the accompanying plate, fig. 6.


1. The Calf. 2. The Yearling. 3. Spike Bull, 2 years old.

4. Spike Bull, 3 years old. 5. Bull, 4 years old.

6. Bull, 11 years old. 7. Old "stub-horn" Bull, 20 years old.]

Mr. Catlin[36] affords some very interesting and valuable information in regard to the bison's propensity for wollowing in mad, and also the origin of the "fairy circles," which have caused so much speculation amongst travelers:

[Note 36: North American Indians, vol. I, p. 249, 250.]

"In the heat of summer, these huge animals, which no doubt suffer very much with the great profusion of their long and shaggy hair, or fur, often graze on the low grounds of the prairies, where there is a little stagnant water lying amongst the grass, and the ground underneath being saturated with it, is soft, into which the enormous bull, lowered down upon one knee, will plunge his horns, and at last his head, driving up the earth, and soon making an excavation in the ground into which the water filters from amongst the grass, forming for him in a few moments a cool and comfortable bath, into which he plunges like a hog in his mire.

"In this delectable laver he throws himself flat upon his side, and forcing himself violently around, with his horns and his huge hump on his shoulders presented to the sides, he ploughs up the ground by his rotary motion, sinking himself deeper and deeper in the ground, continually enlarging his pool, in which he at length becomes nearly immersed, and the water and mud about him mixed into a complete mortar, which changes his color and drips in streams from every part of him as he rises up upon his feet, a hideous monster of mud and ugliness, too frightful and too eccentric to be described!

"It is generally the leader of the herd that takes upon him to make this excavation, and if not (but another one opens the ground), the leader (who is conqueror) marches forward, and driving the other from it plunges himself into it; and, having cooled his sides and changed his color to a walking mass of mud and mortar, he stands in the pool until inclination induces him to step out and give place to the next in command who stands ready, and another, and another, who advance forward in their turns to enjoy the luxury of the wallow, until the whole band (sometimes a hundred or more) will pass through it in turn,[37] each one throwing his body around in a similar manner and each one adding a little to the dimensions of the pool, while he carries away in his hair an equal share of the clay, which dries to a gray or whitish color and gradually falls off. By this operation, which is done perhaps in the space of half an hour, a circular excavation of fifteen or twenty feet in diameter and two feet in depth is completed and left for the water to run into, which soon fills it to the level of the ground.

[Note 37: In the District of Columbia work-house we have a counterpart of this in the public bath-tub, wherein forty prisoners were seen by a _Star_ reporter to bathe one after another in the same water!]

"To these sinks, the waters lying on the surface of the prairies are continually draining and in them lodging their vegetable deposits, which after a lapse of years fill them up to the surface with a rich soil, which throws up an unusual growth of grass and herbage, forming conspicuous circles, which arrest the eye of the traveler and are calculated to excite his surprise for ages to come."

During the latter part of the last century, when the bison inhabited Kentucky and Pennsylvania, the salt springs of those States were resorted to by thousands of those animals, who drank of the saline waters and licked the impregnated earth. Mr. Thomas Ashe[38] affords us a most interesting account, from the testimony of an eye witness, of the behavior of a bison at a salt spring. The description refers to a locality in western Pennsylvania, where "an old man, one of the first settlers of this country, built his log house on the immediate borders of a salt spring. He informed me that for the first several seasons the buffaloes paid him their visits with the utmost regularity; they traveled in single files, always following each other at equal distances, forming droves, on their arrival, of about 300 each.

[Note 38: Travels in America in 1806. London, 1808.]

"The first and second years, so unacquainted were these poor brutes with the use of this man's house or with his nature, that in a few hours they _rubbed_ the house completely down, taking delight in turning the logs off with their horns, while he had some difficulty to escape from being trampled under their feet or crushed to death in his own ruins. At that period he supposed there could not have been less than 2,000 in the neighborhood of the spring. They sought for no manner of food, but only bathed and drank three or four times a day and rolled in the earth, or reposed with their flanks distended in the adjacent shades; and on the fifth and sixth days separated into distinct droves, bathed, drank, and departed in single files, according to the exact order of their arrival.

They all rolled successively in the same hole, and each thus carried away a coat of mud to preserve the moisture on their skin and which, when hardened and baked in the sun, would resist the stings of millions of insects that otherwise would persecute these peaceful travelers to madness or even death."

It was a fixed habit with the great buffalo herds to move southward from 200 to 400 miles at the approach of winter. Sometimes this movement was accomplished quietly and without any excitement, but at other times it was done with a rush, in which considerable distances would be gone over on the double quick. The advance of a herd was often very much like that of a big army, in a straggling line, from four to ten animals abreast.

Sometimes the herd moved forward in a dense mass, and in consequence often came to grief in quicksands, alkali bogs, muddy crossings, and on treacherous ice. In such places thousands of buffaloes lost their lives, through those in the lead being forced into danger by pressure of the mass coming behind. In this manner, in the summer of 1867, over two thousand buffaloes, out of a herd of about four thousand, lost their lives in the quicksands of the Platte River, near Plum Creek, while attempting to cross. One winter, a herd of nearly a hundred buffaloes attempted to cross a lake called Lac-qui-parle, in Minnesota, upon the ice, which gave way, and drowned the entire herd. During the days of the buffalo it was a common thing for voyagers on the Missouri River to see buffaloes hopelessly mired in the quicksands or mud along the shore, either dead or dying, and to find their dead bodies floating down the river, or lodged on the upper ends of the islands and sand-bars.

Such accidents as these: it may be repeated, were due to the great number of animals and the momentum of the moving mass. The forced marches of the great herds were like the flight of a routed army, in which helpless individuals were thrust into mortal peril by the irresistible force of the mass coming behind, which rushes blindly on after their leaders. In this way it was possible to decoy a herd toward a precipice and cause it to plunge over en masse, the leaders being thrust over by their followers, and all the rest following of their own free will, like the sheep who cheerfully leaped, one after another, through a hole in the side of a high bridge because their bell-wether did so.

But it is not to be understood that the movement of a great herd, because it was made on a run, necessarily partook of the nature of a stampede in which a herd sweeps forward in a body. The most graphic account that I ever obtained of facts bearing on this point was furnished by Mr. James McNaney, drawn from his experience on the northern buffalo range in 1882. His party reached the range (on Beaver Creek, about 100 miles south of Glendive) about the middle of November, and found buffaloes already there; in fact they had begun to arrive from the north as early as the middle of October. About the first of December an immense herd arrived from the north. It reached their vicinity one night, about 10 o'clock, in a mass that seemed to spread everywhere. As the hunters sat in their tents, loading cartridges and cleaning their rifles, a low rumble was heard, which gradually increased to "a thundering noise," and some one exclaimed, "There! that's a big herd of buffalo coming in!" All ran out immediately, and hallooed and discharged rifles to keep the buffaloes from running over their tents. Fortunately, the horses were picketed some distance away in a grassy coulee, which the buffaloes did not enter. The herd came at a jog trot, and moved quite rapidly. "In the morning the whole country was black with buffalo." It was estimated that 10,000 head were in sight. One immense detachment went down on to a "flat" and laid down. There it remained quietly, enjoying a long rest, for about ten days. It gradually broke up into small bands, which strolled off in various directions looking for food, and which the hunters quietly attacked.

A still more striking event occurred about Christmas time at the same place. For a few days the neighborhood of McNaney's camp had been entirely deserted by buffaloes, not even one remaining. But one morning about daybreak a great herd which was traveling south began to pass their camp. A long line of moving forms was seen advancing rapidly from the northwest, coming in the direction of the hunters' camp. It disappeared in the creek valley for a few moments, and presently the leaders suddenly came in sight again at the top of "a rise" a few hundred yards away, and came down the intervening slope at full speed, within 50 yards of the two tents. After them came a living stream of followers, all going at a gallop, described by the observer as "a long lope," from four to ten buffaloes abreast. Sometimes there would be a break in the column of a minute's duration, then more buffaloes would appear at the brow of the hill, and the column went rushing by as before. The calves ran with their mothers, and the young stock got over the ground with much less exertion than the older animals. For about four hours, or until past 11 o'clock, did this column of buffaloes gallop past the camp over a course no wider than a village street. Three miles away toward the south the long dark line of bobbing humps and hind quarters wound to the right between two hills and disappeared. True to their instincts, the hunters promptly brought out their rifles, and began to fire at the buffaloes as they ran. A furious fusilade was kept up from the very doors of the tents, and from first to last over fifty buffaloes were killed. Some fell headlong the instant they were hit, but the greater number ran on until their mortal wounds compelled them to halt, draw off a little way to one side, and finally fall in their death struggles.

Mr. McNaney stated that the hunters estimated the number of buffaloes _on that portion_ of the range that winter (1881-'82) at 100,000.

It is probable, and in fact reasonably certain, that such forced-march migrations as the above were due to snow-covered pastures and a scarcity of food on the more northern ranges. Having learned that a journey south will bring him to regions of less snow and more grass, it is but natural that so lusty a traveler should migrate. The herds or bands which started south in the fall months traveled more leisurely, with frequent halts to graze on rich pastures. The advance was on a very different plan, taking place in straggling lines and small groups dispersed over quite a scope of country.

Unless closely pursued, the buffalo never chose to make a journey of several miles through hilly country on a continuous run. Even when fleeing from the attack of a hunter, I have often had occasion to notice that, if the hunter was a mile behind, the buffalo would always walk when going uphill; but as soon as the crest was gained he would begin to run, and go down the slope either at a gallop or a swift trot. In former times, when the buffalo's world was wide, when retreating from an attack he always ran against the wind, to avoid running upon a new danger, which showed that he depended more upon his sense of smell than his eye-sight. During the last years of his existence, however, this habit almost totally disappeared, and the harried survivors learned to run for the regions which offered the greatest safety. But even to-day, if a Texas hunter should go into the Staked Plains, and descry in the distance a body of animals running against the wind, he would, without a moment's hesitation, pronounce them buffaloes, and the chances are that he would be right.

In winter the buffalo used to face the storms, instead of turning tail and "drifting" before them helplessly, as domestic cattle do. But at the same time, when beset by a blizzard, he would wisely seek shelter from it in some narrow and deep valley or system of ravines. There the herd would lie down and wait patiently for the storm to cease. After a heavy fall of snow, the place to find the buffalo was in the flats and creek bottoms, where the tall, rank bunch-grasses showed their tops above the snow, and afforded the best and almost the only food obtainable.

When the snow-fall was unusually heavy, and lay for a long time on the ground, the buffalo was forced to fast for days together, and sometimes even weeks. If a warm day came, and thawed the upper surface of the snow sufficiently for succeeding cold to freeze it into a crust, the outlook for the bison began to be serious. A man can travel over a crust through which the hoofs of a ponderous bison cut like chisels and leave him floundering belly-deep. It was at such times that the Indians hunted him on snow-shoes, and drove their spears into his vitals as he wallowed helplessly in the drifts. Then the wolves grew fat upon the victims which they, also, slaughtered almost without effort.

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