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The Food of the Bison

  Native American Nations | Extermination of the American Bison                   


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 piŤce de rťsistance 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 1Ĺ 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.

BuchloŽ 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."

Kúleria 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: Kúleria 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.

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-í87, By William T. Hornaday, Government Printing Office, Washington, 1889

Extermination of the American Bison


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