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Abundance of Buffalo

  Native American Nations | Extermination of the American Bison                   


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 J. A. Allen’s valuable monograph21 appear a great number of interesting historical references on this subject, as indeed to every other relating to the buffalo, a few of which I will take the liberty of quoting.

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 [Pg 388] 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

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 [Pg 390]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!

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

“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 Fé 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 Fé 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.’”

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

This site includes some historical materials that may imply negative stereotypes reflecting the culture or language of a particular period or place. These items are presented as part of the historical record and should not be interpreted to mean that the WebMasters in any way endorse the stereotypes implied.

Source: The Extermination of the American Bison, 1886-’87, By William T. Hornaday, Government Printing Office, Washington, 1889

Extermination of the American Bison


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