The Extermination of the American Bison Part 7

Although buffaloes did not often actually perish from hunger and cold during the severest winters (save in a few very exceptional cases), they often came out in very poor condition. The old bulls always suffered more severely than the rest, and at the end of winter were frequently in miserable plight.

Unlike most other terrestrial quadrupeds of America, so long as he could roam at will the buffalo had settled migratory habits.[39] While the elk and black-tail deer change their altitude twice a year, in conformity with the approach and disappearance of winter, the buffalo makes a radical change of latitude. This was most noticeable in the great western pasture region, where the herds were most numerous and their movements most easily observed.

[Note 39: On page 248 of his "North American Indians," vol. I, Mr.

Catlin declares pointedly that "these animals are, truly speaking, gregarious, but not migratory; they graze in immense and almost incredible numbers at times, and roam about and over vast tracts of country from east to west and from west to east as often as from north to south, which has often been supposed they naturally and habitually did to accommodate themselves to the temperature of the climate in the different latitudes." Had Mr. Catlin resided continuously in any one locality on the great buffalo range, he would have found that the buffalo had decided migratory habits. The abundance of proof on this point renders it unnecessary to eater fully into the details of the subject.]

At the approach of winter the whole great system of herds which ranged from the Peace River to the Indian Territory moved south a few hundred miles, and wintered under more favorable circumstances than each band would have experienced at its farthest north. Thus it happened that nearly the whole of the great range south of the Saskatchewan was occupied by buffaloes even in winter.

The movement north began with the return of mild weather in the early spring. Undoubtedly this northward migration was to escape the heat of their southern winter range rather than to find better pasture; for as a grazing country for cattle all the year round, Texas is hardly surpassed, except where it is overstocked. It was with the buffaloes a matter of choice rather than necessity which sent them on their annual pilgrimage northward.

Col. R. I. Dodge, who has made many valuable observations on the migratory habits of the southern buffaloes, has recorded the following:[40]

"Early in spring, as soon as the dry and apparently desert prairie had begun to change its coat of dingy brown to one of palest green, the horizon would begin to be dotted with buffalo, single or in groups of two or three, forerunners of the coming herd. Thicker and thicker and in larger groups they come, until by the time the grass is well up the whole vast landscape appears a mass of buffalo, some individuals feeding, others standing, others lying down, but the herd moving slowly, moving constantly to the northward. * * * Some years, as in 1871, the buffalo appeared to move northward in one immense column oftentimes from 20 to 50 miles in width, and of unknown depth from front to rear. Other years the northward journey was made in several parallel columns, moving at the same rate, and with their numerous flankers covering a width of a hundred or more miles.

"The line of march of this great spring migration was not always the same, though it was confined within certain limits. I am informed by old frontiersmen that it has not within twenty-five years crossed the Arkansas River east of Great Bend nor west of Big Sand Creek. The most favored routes crossed the Arkansas at the mouth of Walnut Creek, Pawnee Fork, Mulberry Creek, the Cimarron Crossing, and Big Sand Creek.

"As the great herd proceeds northward it is constantly depleted, numbers wandering off to the right and left, until finally it is scattered in small herds far and wide over the vast feeding grounds, where they pass the summer.

"When the food in one locality fails they go to another, and towards fall, when the grass of the high prairie becomes parched by the heat and drought, they gradually work their way back to the south, concentrating on the rich pastures of Texas and the Indian Territory, whence, the same instinct acting on all, they are ready to start together on the northward march as soon as spring starts the grass."

[Note 40: Our Wild Indians, p. 283, _et seq._]

So long as the bison held undisputed possession of the great plains his migratory habits were as above--regular, general, and on a scale that was truly grand. The herds that wintered in Texas, the Indian Territory, and New Mexico probably spent their summers in Nebraska, southwestern Dakota, and Wyoming. The winter herds of northern Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska, and southern Dakota went to northern Dakota and Montana, while the great Montana herds spent the summer on the Grand Coteau des Prairies lying between the Saskatchewan and the Missouri. The two great annual expeditions of the Red River half-breeds, which always took place in summer, went in two directions from Winnipeg and Pembina--one, the White Horse Plain division, going westward along the Qu'Appelle to the Saskatchewan country, and the other, the Red River division, southwest into Dakota. In 1840 the site of the present city of Jamestown, Dakota, was the northeastern limit of the herds that summered in Dakota, and the country lying between that point and the Missouri was for years the favorite hunting ground of the Red River division.

The herds which wintered on the Montana ranges always went north in the early spring, usually in March, so that during the time the hunters were hauling in the hides taken on the winter hunt the ranges were entirely deserted. It is equally certain, however, that a few small bauds remained in certain portions of Montana throughout the summer. But the main body crossed the international boundary, and spent the summer on the plains of the Saskatchewan, where they were hunted by the half-breeds from the Red River settlements and the Indians of the plains. It is my belief that in this movement nearly all the buffaloes of Montana and Dakota participated, and that the herds which spent the summer in Dakota, where they were annually hunted by the Red River half-breeds, came up from Kansas, Colorado, and Nebraska.

While most of the calves were born on the summer ranges, many were brought forth en route. It was the habit of the cows to retire to a secluded spot, if possible a ravine well screened from observation, bring forth their young, and nourish and defend them until they were strong enough to join the herd. Calves were born all the time from March to July, and sometimes even as late as August. On the summer ranges it was the habit of the cows to leave the bulls at calving time, and thus it often happened that small herds were often seen composed of bulls only. Usually the cow produced but one calf, but twins were not uncommon. Of course many calves were brought forth in the herd, but the favorite habit of the cow was as stated. As soon as the young calves were brought into the herd, which for prudential reasons occurred at the earliest possible moment, the bulls assumed the duty of protecting them from the wolves which at all times congregated in the vicinity of a herd, watching for an opportunity to seize a calf or a wounded buffalo which might be left behind. A calf always follows its mother until its successor is appointed and installed, unless separated from her by force of circumstances. They suck until they are nine months old, or even older, and Mr. McNaney once saw a lusty calf suck its mother (in January) on the Montana range several hours after she had been killed for her skin.

When a buffalo is wounded it leaves the herd immediately and goes off as far from the line of pursuit as it can get, to escape the rabble of hunters, who are sure to follow the main body. If any deep ravines are at hand the wounded animal limps away to the bottom of the deepest and most secluded one, and gradually works his way up to its very head, where he finds himself in a perfect cul-de-sac, barely wide enough to admit him. Here he is so completely hidden by the high walls and numerous bends that his pursuer must needs come within a few feet of his horns before his huge bulk is visible. I have more than once been astonished at the real impregnability of the retreats selected by wounded bison. In following up wounded bulls in ravine headings it always became too dangerous to make the last stage of the pursuit on horseback, for fear of being caught in a passage so narrow as to insure a fatal accident to man or horse in case of a sudden discovery of the quarry. I have seen wounded bison shelter in situations where a single bull could easily defend himself from a whole pack of wolves, being completely walled in on both sides and the rear, and leaving his foes no point of attack save his head and horns.

Bison which were nursing serious wounds most often have gone many days at a time without either food or water, and in this connection it may be mentioned that the recuperative power of a bison is really wonderful.

Judging from the number of old leg wounds, fully healed, which I have found in freshly killed bisons, one may be tempted to believe that a bison never died of a broken leg. One large bull which I skeletonized had had his humerus shot squarely in two, but it had united again more firmly than ever. Another large bull had the head of his left femur and the hip socket shattered completely to pieces by a big ball, but he had entirely recovered from it, and was as lusty a runner as any bull we chased. We found that while a broken leg was a misfortune to a buffalo, it always took something more serious than that to stop him.


It is obviously impossible to enumerate all the grasses which served the bison as food on his native heath without presenting a complete list of all the plants of that order found in a given region; but it is at least desirable to know which of the grasses of the great pasture region were his favorite and most common food. It was the nutritious character and marvelous abundance of his food supply which enabled the bison to exist in such absolutely countless numbers as characterized his occupancy of the great plains. The following list comprises the grasses which were the bison's principal food, named in the order of their importance:

_Bouteloua oligostachya_ (buffalo, grama, or mesquite grass).--This remarkable grass formed the _piece de resistance_ of the bison's bill of fare in the days when he flourished, and it now comes to us daily in the form of beef produced of primest quality and in greatest quantity on what was until recently the great buffalo range. This grass is the most abundant and widely distributed species to be found in the great pasture region between the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains and the nineteenth degree of west longitude. It is the principal grass of the plains from Texas to the British Possessions, and even in the latter territory it is quite conspicuous. To any one but a botanist its first acquaintance means a surprise. Its name and fame lead the unacquainted to expect a grass which is tall, rank, and full of "fodder," like the "blue joint" (_Andropogon provincialis_). The grama grass is very short, the leaves being usually not more than 2 or 3 inches in length and crowded together at the base of the stems. The flower stalk is about a foot in height, but on grazed lands are eaten off and but seldom seen.

The leaves are narrow and inclined to curl, and lie close to the ground.

Instead of developing a continuous growth, this grass grows in small, irregular patches, usually about the size of a man's hand, with narrow strips of perfectly bare ground between them. The grass curls closely upon the ground, in a woolly carpet or cushion, greatly resembling a layer of Florida moss. Even in spring-time it never shows more color than a tint of palest green, and the landscape which is dependent upon this grass for color is never more than "a gray and melancholy waste."

Unlike the soft, juicy, and succulent grasses of the well-watered portions of the United States, the tiny leaves of the grama grass are hard, stiff, and dry. I have often noticed that in grazing neither cattle nor horses are able to bite off the blades, but instead each leaf is pulled out of the tuft, seemingly by its root.

Notwithstanding its dry and uninviting appearance, this grass is highly nutritious, and its fat-producing qualities are unexcelled. The heat of summer dries it up effectually without destroying its nutritive elements, and it becomes for the remainder of the year excellent hay, cured on its own roots. It affords good grazing all the year round, save in winter, when it is covered with snow, and even then, if the snow is not too deep, the buffaloes, cattle, and horses paw down through it to reach the grass, or else repair to wind-swept ridges and hill-tops, where the snow has been blown off and left the grass partly exposed.

Stock prefer it to all the other grasses of the plains.

On bottom-lands, where moisture is abundant, this grass develops much more luxuriantly, growing in a close mass, and often to a height of a foot or more, if not grazed down, when it is cut for hay, and sometimes yields 11/2 tons to the acre. In Montana and the north it is generally known as "buffalo-grass," a name to which it would seem to be fully entitled, notwithstanding the fact that this name is also applied, and quite generally, to another species, the next to be noticed.

_Buchloe dactyloides_ (Southern buffalo-grass).--This species is next in value and extent of distribution to the grama grass. It also is found all over the great plains south of Nebraska and southern Wyoming, but not further north, although in many localities it occurs so sparsely as to be of little account. A single bunch of it very greatly resembles _Bouteloua oligostachya_, but its general growth is very different. It is very short, its general mass seldom rising more than 3 inches above the ground. It grows in extensive patches, and spreads by means of stolons, which sometimes are 2 feet in length, with joints every 3 or 4 inches. Owing to its southern distribution this might well be named the Southern buffalo grass, to distinguish it from the two other species of higher latitudes, to which the name "buffalo" has been fastened forever.

_Stipa spartea_ (Northern buffalo-grass; wild oat).--This grass is found in southern Manitoba, westwardly across the plains to the Rocky Mountains, and southward as far as Montana, where it is common in many localities. On what was once the buffalo range of the British Possessions this rank grass formed the bulk of the winter pasturage, and in that region is quite as famous as our grama grass. An allied species (_Stipa viridula_, bunch-grass) is "widely diffused over our Rocky Mountain region, extending to California and British America, and furnishing a considerable part of the wild forage of the region" _Stipa spartea_ bears an ill name among stockmen on account of the fact that at the base of each seed is a very hard and sharp-pointed callus, which under certain circumstances (so it is said) lodges in the cheeks of domestic animals that feed upon this grass when it is dry, and which cause much trouble. But the buffalo, like the wild horse and half-wild range cattle, evidently escaped this annoyance. This grass is one of the common species over a wide area of the northern plains, and is always found on soil which is comparatively dry. In Dakota, Minnesota, and northwest Iowa it forms a considerable portion of the upland prairie hay.

Of the remaining grasses it is practically impossible to single out any one as being specially entitled to fourth place in this list. There are several species which flourish in different localities, and in many respects appear to be of about equal importance as food for stock. Of these the following are the most noteworthy:

_Aristida purpurea_ (Western beard-grass; purple "bunch-grass" of Montana).--On the high, rolling prairies of the Missouri-Yellowstone divide this grass is very abundant. It grows in little solitary bunches, about 6 inches high, scattered through the curly buffalo-grass (_Bouteloua oligostachya_). Under more favorable conditions it grows to a height of 12 to 18 inches. It is one of the prettiest grasses of that region, and in the fall and winter its purplish color makes it quite noticeable. The Montana stockmen consider it one of the most valuable grasses of that region for stock of all kinds. Mr. C. M. Jacobs assured me that the buffalo used to be very fond of this grass, and that "wherever this grass grew in abundance there were the best hunting-grounds for the bison." It appears that _Aristida purpurea_ is not sufficiently abundant elsewhere in the Northwest to make it an important food for stock; but Dr. Vesey declares that it is "abundant on the plains of Kansas, New Mexico, and Texas."

_Koeleria cristata._--Very generally distributed from Texas and New Mexico to the British Possessions; sand hills and arid soils; mountains, up to 8,000 feet.

_Poa tenuifolia_ (blue-grass of the plains and mountains).--A valuable "bunch-grass," widely distributed throughout the great pasture region; grows in all sorts of soils and situations; common in the Yellowstone Park.

_Festuca scabrella_ (bunch-grass).--One of the most valuable grasses of Montana and the Northwest generally; often called the "great bunch-grass." It furnishes excellent food for horses and cattle, and is so tall it is cut in large quantities for hay. This is the prevailing species on the foot-hills and mountains generally, up to an altitude of 7,000 feet, where it is succeeded by _Festuca ovina_.

_Andropogon provincialis_ (blue stem).--An important species, extending from eastern Kansas and Nebraska to the foot-hills of the Rocky Mountains, and from Northern Texas to the Saskatchewan; common in Montana on alkali flats and bottom lands generally. This and the preceding species were of great value to the buffalo in winter, when the shorter grasses were covered with snow.

_Andropogon scoparius_ (bunch grass; broom sedge; wood-grass).--Similar to the preceding in distribution and value, but not nearly so tall.

None of the buffalo grasses are found in the mountains. In the mountain regions which have been visited by the buffalo and in the Yellowstone Park, where to-day the only herd remaining in a state of nature is to be found (though not by the man with a gun), the following are the grasses which form all but a small proportion of the ruminant food: _Koeleria cristata_; _Poa tenuifolia_ (Western blue-grass); _Stipa viridula_ (feather-grass); _Stipa comata_; _Agropyrum divergens_; _Agropyrum caninum_.

When pressed by hunger, the buffalo used to browse on certain species of sage-brush, particularly _Atriplex canescens_ of the Southwest. But he was discriminating in the matter of diet, and as far as can be ascertained he was never known to eat the famous and much-dreaded "loco"

weed (_Astragalus molissimus_), which to ruminant animals is a veritable drug of madness. Domestic cattle and horses often eat this plant; where it is abundant, and become demented in consequence.


(1) _Reasoning from cause to effect._--The buffalo of the past was an animal of a rather low order of intelligence, and his dullness of intellect was one of the important factors in his phenomenally swift extermination. He was provokingly slow in comprehending the existence and nature of the dangers that threatened his life, and, like the stupid brute that he was, would very often stand quietly and see two or three score, or even a hundred, of his relatives and companions shot down before his eyes, with no other feeling than one of stupid wonder and curiosity. Neither the noise nor smoke of the still-hunter's rifle, the falling, struggling, nor the final death of his companions conveyed to his mind the idea of a danger to be fled from, and so the herd stood still and allowed the still-hunter to slaughter its members at will.

Like the Indian, and many white men also, the buffalo seemed to feel that their number was so great it could never be sensibly diminished.

The presence of such a great multitude gave to each of its individuals a feeling of security and mutual support that is very generally found in animals who congregate in great herds. The time was when a band of elk would stand stupidly and wait for its members to be shot down one after another; but it is believed that this was due more to panic than to a lack of comprehension of danger.

The fur seals who cover the "hauling grounds" of St. Paul and St. George Islands, Alaska, in countless thousands, have even less sense of danger and less comprehension of the slaughter of thousands of their kind, which takes place daily, than had the bison. They allow themselves to be herded and driven off landwards from the hauling-ground for half a mile to the killing-ground, and, finally, with most cheerful indifference, permit the Aleuts to club their brains out.

It is to be added that whenever and wherever seals or sea-lions inhabit a given spot, with but few exceptions, it is an easy matter to approach individuals of the herd. The presence of an immense number of individuals plainly begets a feeling of security and mutual support. And let not the bison or the seal be blamed for this, for man himself exhibits the same foolish instinct. Who has not met the woman of mature years and full intellectual vigor who is mortally afraid to spend a night entirely alone in her own house, but is perfectly willing to do so, and often does do so without fear, when she can have the company of one small and helpless child, or, what is still worse, three or four of them! But with the approach of extermination, and the utter breaking up of all the herds, a complete change has been wrought in the character of the bison. At last, but alas! entirely too late, the crack of the rifle and its accompanying puff of smoke conveyed to the slow mind of the bison a sense of deadly danger to himself. At last he recognized man, whether on foot or horseback, or peering at him from a coulee, as his mortal enemy. At last he learned to run. In 1886 we found the scattered remnant of the great northern herd the wildest and most difficult animals to kill that we had ever hunted in any country. It had been only through the keenest exercise of all their powers of self-preservation that those buffaloes had survived until that late day, and we found them almost as swift as antelopes and far more wary. The instant a buffalo caught sight of a man, even though a mile distant, he was off at the top of his speed, and generally ran for some wild region several miles away.

In our party was an experienced buffalo-hunter, who in three years had slaughtered over three thousand head for their hides. He declared that if he could ever catch a "bunch" at rest he could "get a stand" the same as he used to do, and kill several head before the rest would run. It so happened that the first time we found buffaloes we discovered a bunch of fourteen head, lying in the sun at noon, on the level top of a low butte, all noses pointing up the wind. We stole up within range and fired. At the instant the first shot rang out up sprang every buffalo as if he had been thrown upon his feet by steel springs, and in a second's time the whole bunch was dashing away from us with the speed of race-horses.

Our buffalo-hunter declared that in chasing buffaloes we could count with certainty upon their always running against the wind, for this had always been their habit. Although this was once their habit, we soon found that those who now represent the survival of the fittest have learned better wisdom, and now run (1) away from their pursuer and (2) toward the best hiding place. Now they pay no attention whatever to the direction of the wind, and if a pursuer follows straight behind, a buffalo may change his course three or four times in a 10-mile chase. An old bull once led one of our hunters around three-quarters of a circle which had a diameter of 5 or 6 miles.

The last buffaloes were mentally as capable of taking care of themselves as any animals I ever hunted. The power of original reasoning which they manifested in scattering all over a given tract of rough country, like hostile Indians when hotly pressed by soldiers, in the Indian-like manner in which they hid from sight in deep hollows, and, as we finally proved, in _grazing only in ravines and hollows_, proved conclusively that _but for the use of fire-arms_ those very buffaloes would have been actually safe from harm by man, and that they would have increased indefinitely. As they were then, the Indians' arrows and spears could never have been brought to bear upon them, save in rare instances, for they had thoroughly learned to dread man and fly from him for their lives. Could those buffaloes have been protected from rifles and revolvers the resultant race would have displayed far more active mental powers, keener vision, and finer physique than the extinguished race possessed.

In fleeing from an enemy the buffalo ran against the wind, in order that his keen scent might save him from the disaster of running upon new enemies; which was an idea wholly his own, and not copied by any other animal so far as known.

But it must be admitted that the buffalo of the past was very often a most stupid reasoner. He would deliberately walk into a quicksand, where hundreds of his companions were already ingulfed and in their death-struggle. He would quit feeding, run half a mile, and rush headlong into a moving train of cars that happened to come between him and the main herd on the other side of the track. He allowed himself to be impounded and slaughtered by a howling mob in a rudely constructed pen, which a combined effort on the part of three or four old bulls would have utterly demolished at any point. A herd of a thousand buffaloes would allow an armed hunter to gallop into their midst, very often within arm's-length, when any of the bulls nearest him might easily have bowled him over and had him trampled to death in a moment.

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