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The Cow Buffalo


  Native American Nations | Extermination of the American Bison                   


The Cow in the third year. - The young cow of course possesses the same youthful appearance already referred to as characterizing the "spike" bull. The hair on the shoulders has begun to take on the light straw-color, and has by this time attained a length which causes it to arrange itself in tufts, or locks. The body colors have grown darker, and reached their permanent tone. Of course the hair on the head has by no means attained its full length, and the head is not at all handsome.

The horns are quite small, but the curve is well defined, and they distinctly mark the sex of the individual, even at the beginning of the third year.

Bison Americanus
(Young cow, in third year. Taken October 14, 1886. Montana.)
(No. 15686, National Museum collection.)

  Feet Inches
Height at shoulders 4 5
Length, head and body to insertion of tail 7 7
Depth of chest   2 4
Depth of flank  1 4
Girth behind fore leg  5 4
From base of horns around end of nose  2 8
Length of tail vertebrae 1 0

The adult Cow. - The upper body color of the adult cow in the National Museum group (see Plate) is a rich, though not intense, Vandyke brown, shading imperceptibly down the sides into black, which spreads over the entire under parts and inside of the thighs. The hair on the lower joints of the leg is in turn lighter, being about the same shade as that on the loins. The fore-arm is concealed in a mass of almost black hair, which gradually shades lighter from the elbow upward and along the whole region of the humerus. On the shoulder itself the hair is pale yellow or straw-color (Naples yellow + yellow ocher), which extends down in a point toward the elbow. From the back of the head a conspicuous baud of curly, dark-brown hair extends back like a mane along the neck and to the top of the hump, beyond which it soon fades out.

The hair on the head is everywhere a rich burnt-sienna brown, except around the corners of the mouth, where it shades into black.

The horns of the cow bison are slender, but solid for about two-thirds of their length from the tip, ringed with age near their base, and quite black. Very often they are imperfect in shape, and out of every five pairs at least one is generally misshapen. Usually one horn is "crumpled," e. g., dwarfed in length and unnaturally thickened at the base, and very often one horn is found to be merely an unsightly, misshapen stub.

The udder of the cow bison is very small, as might be expected of an animal which must do a great deal of hard traveling, but the milk is said to be very rich. Some authorities declare that it requires the [Pg 407] milk of two domestic cows to satisfy one buffalo calf, but this, I think, is an error. Our calf began in May to consume 6 quarts of domestic milk daily, which by June 10 had increased to 8, and up to July 10, 9 quarts was the utmost it could drink. By that time it began to eat grass, but the quantity of milk disposed of remained about the same.

Bison Americanus
(Adult cow, eight years old. Taken November 18, 1886. Montana.)
(No. 15767, National Museum collection.)

  Feet Inches
Height at shoulders 4 10
Length, head and body to insertion of tail 8 6
Depth of chest   3 7
Depth of flank  1 7
Girth behind fore leg  6 10
From base of horns around end of nose  3  
Length of tail vertebrae 1 0

The "Wood," or "Mountain" Buffalo. - Having myself never seen a specimen of the so called "mountain buffalo" or "wood buffalo," which some writers accord the rank of a distinct variety, I can only quote the descriptions of others. While most Rocky Mountain hunters consider the bison of the mountains quite distinct from that of the plains, it must be remarked that no two authorities quite agree in regard to the distinguishing characters of the variety they recognize. Colonel Dodge states that "His body is lighter, whilst his legs are shorter, but much thicker and stronger, than the plains animal, thus enabling him to perform feats of climbing and tumbling almost incredible in such a huge and unwieldy beast."32

The belief in the existence of a distinct mountain variety is quite common amongst hunters and frontiersmen all along the eastern slope the Rocky Mountains as far north as the Peace River. In this connection the following from Professor Henry Youle Hind[33] is of general interest:

"The existence of two kinds of buffalo is firmly believed by many hunters at Red River; they are stated to be the prairie buffalo and the buffalo of the woods. Many old hunters with whom I have conversed on this subject aver that the so-called wood buffalo is a distinct species, and although they are not able to offer scientific proofs, yet the difference in size, color, hair, and horns, are enumerated as the evidence upon which they base their statement. Men from their youth familiar with these animals in the great plains, and the varieties which are frequently met with in large herds, still cling to this opinion. The buffalo of the plains are not always of the dark and rich bright brown which forms their characteristic color. They are sometimes seen from white to almost black, and a gray buffalo is not at all uncommon. Buffalo emasculated by wolves are often found on the prairies, where they grow to an immense size; the skin of the buffalo ox is recognized by the shortness of the wool and by its large dimensions. The skin of the so-called wood buffalo is much larger than that of the common animal, the hair is very short, mane or hair about the neck short and soft, and altogether destitute of curl, which is the common feature in the hair or wool of the prairie animal. Two skins of the so-called wood buffalo, which I saw at Selkirk Settlement, bore a very close resemblance to the skin of the Lithuanian bison, judging from the specimens of that species which I have since had an opportunity of seeing in the British Museum.

"The wood buffalo is stated to be very scarce, and only found north of the Saskatchewan and on the flanks of the Rocky Mountains. It never ventures into the open plains. The prairie buffalo, on the contrary, generally avoids the woods in summer and keeps to the open country; but in winter they are frequently found in the woods of the Little Souris, Saskatchewan, the Touchwood Hills, and the aspen groves on the Qu'Appelle. There is no doubt that formerly the prairie buffalo ranged through open woods almost as much as he now does through the prairies." 

Mr. Harrison S. Young, an officer of the Hudson's Bay Fur Company, stationed at Fort Edmonton, writes me as follows in a letter dated October 22, 1887: "In our district of Athabasca, along the Salt River, there are still a few wood buffalo killed every year; but they are fast diminishing in numbers, and are also becoming very shy."

In Prof. John Macoun's "Manitoba and the Great Northwest," page 342, there occurs the following reference to the wood buffalo: "In the winter of 1870 the last buffalo were killed north of Peace River; but in 1875 about one thousand head were still in existence between the Athabasca and Peace Rivers, north of Little Slave Lake. These are called wood buffalo by the hunters, but diner only in size from those of the plain."

In the absence of facts based on personal observations, I may be permitted to advance an opinion in regard to the wood buffalo. There is some reason for the belief that certain changes of form may have taken place in the buffaloes that have taken up a permanent residence in rugged and precipitous mountain regions. Indeed, it is hardly possible to understand how such a radical change in the habitat of an animal could fail, through successive generations, to effect certain changes in the animal itself. It seems to me that the changes which would take place in a band of plains buffaloes transferred to a permanent mountain habitat can be forecast with a marked degree of certainty. The changes that take place under such conditions in cattle, swine, and goats are well known, and similar causes would certainly produce similar results in the buffalo.

The scantier feed of the mountains, and the great waste of vital energy called for in procuring it, would hardly produce a larger buffalo than the plains-fed animal, who acquires an abundance of daily food of the best quality with but little effort.

We should expect to see the mountain buffalo smaller in body than the plains animal, with better leg development, and particularly with stronger hind quarters. The pelvis of the plains buffalo is surprisingly small and weak for so large an animal. Beyond question, constant mountain climbing is bound to develop a maximum of useful muscle and bone and a minimum of useless fat. If the loss of mane sustained by the African lions who live in bushy localities may be taken as an index, we should expect the bison of the mountains, especially the "wood buffalo," to lose a great deal of his shaggy frontlet and mane on the bushes and trees which surrounded him. Therefore, we would naturally expect to find the hair on those parts shorter and in far less perfect condition than on the bison of the treeless prairies. By reason of the more shaded condition of his home, and the decided mitigation of the sun's fierceness, we should also expect to see his entire pelage of a darker tone. That he would acquire a degree of agility and strength unknown in his relative of the plain is reasonably certain. In the course of many centuries the change in his form might become well defined, constant, and conspicuous; but at present there is apparently not the slightest ground for considering that the "mountain buffalo" or "wood buffalo" is entitled to rank even as a variety of Bison americanus.

Colonel Dodge has recorded some very interesting information in regard to the "mountain, or wood buffalo," which deserves to be quoted entire.34

"In various portions of the Rocky Mountains, especially in the region of the parks, is found an animal which old mountaineers call the 'bison.' This animal bears about the same relation to a plains buffalo as a sturdy mountain pony does to an American horse. His body is lighter, whilst his legs are shorter, but much thicker and stronger, than the plains animal, thus enabling him to perform feats of climbing and tumbling almost incredible in such a huge and apparently unwieldy beast.

"These animals are by no means plentiful, and are moreover excessively shy, inhabiting the deepest, darkest defiles, or the craggy, almost precipitous, sides of mountains inaccessible to any but the most practiced mountaineers.

"From the tops of the mountains which rim the parks the rains of ages have cut deep gorges, which plunge with brusque abruptness, but nevertheless with great regularity, hundreds or even thousands of feet to the valley below. Down the bottom of each such gorge a clear, cold stream of purest water, fertilizing a narrow belt of a few feet of alluvial, and giving birth and growth, to a dense jungle of spruce, quaking asp, and other mountain trees. One side of the gorge is generally a thick forest of pine, while the other side is a meadow-like park, covered with splendid grass. Such gorges are the favorite haunt of the mountain buffalo. Early in the morning he enjoys a bountiful breakfast of the rich nutritious grasses, quenches his thirst with the finest water, and, retiring just within the line of jungle, where, himself unseen, he can scan the open, he crouches himself in the long grass and reposes in comfort and security until appetite calls him to his dinner late in the evening. Unlike their plains relative, there is no stupid staring at an intruder. At the first symptom of danger they disappear like magic in the thicket, and never stop until far removed from even the apprehension of pursuit. I have many times come upon their fresh tracks, upon the beds from which they had first sprung in alarm, but I have never even seen one.

"I have wasted much time and a great deal of wind in vain endeavors to add one of these animals to my bag. My figure is no longer adapted to mountain climbing, and the possession of a bison's head of my own killing is one of my blighted hopes.

"Several of my friends have been more fortunate, but I know of no sportsman who has bagged more than one.35

"Old mountaineers and trappers have given me wonderful accounts of the number of these animals in all the mountain region 'many years ago;' and I have been informed by them, that their present rarity is due to the great snow-storm of 1844-'45, of which I have already spoken as destroying the plains buffalo in the Laramie country.

"One of my friends, a most ardent and pertinacious sportsman, determined on the possession of a bison's head, and, hiring a guide, plunged into the mountain wilds which separate the Middle from South Park. After several days fresh tracks were discovered. Turning their horses loose on a little gorge park, such as described, they started on foot on the trail; for all that day they toiled and scrambled with the utmost caution-now up, now down, through deep and narrow gorges and pine thickets, over bare and rocky crags, sleeping where night overtook them. Betimes next morning they pushed on the trail, and about 11 o'clock, when both were exhausted and well-nigh disheartened, their route was intercepted by a precipice. Looking over, they descried, on a projecting ledge several hundred feet below, a herd of about 20 bison's lying down. The ledge was about 300 feet at widest, by probably 1,000 feet long. Its inner boundary was the wall of rock on the top of which they stood; its outer appeared to be a sheer precipice of at least 200 feet. This ledge was connected with the slope of the mountain by a narrow neck. The wind being right, the hunters succeeded in reaching this neck unobserved. My friend selected a magnificent head, that of a fine bull, young but full grown, and both fired. At the report the bison's all ran to the far end of the ledge and plunged over.

"Terribly disappointed, the hunters ran to the spot, and found that they had gone down a declivity, not actually a precipice, but so steep that the hunters could not follow them.

"At the foot lay a bison. A long, a fatiguing detour brought them to the spot, and in the animal lying dead before him my friend recognized his bull-his first and last mountain buffalo. Hone but a true sportsman can appreciate his feelings.

"The remainder of the herd was never seen after the great plunge, down which it is doubtful if even a dog could have followed unharmed."

In the issue of Forest and Stream of June 14, 1888, Dr. R. W. Shufeldt, in an article entitled "The American Buffalo," relates a very interesting experience with buffaloes which were pronounced to be of the "mountain" variety, and his observations on the animals are well worth reproducing here. The animals (eight in number) were encountered on the northern slope of the Big Horn Mountains, in the autumn of 1877. "We came upon them during a fearful blizzard of heavy hail, during which our animals could scarcely retain their feet. In fact, the packer's mule absolutely lay down on the ground rather than risk being blown down the mountain side, and my own horse, totally unable to face such a violent blow and the pelting hail (the stones being as large as big marbles), positively stood stock-still, facing an old buffalo bull that was not more than 25 feet in front of me. Strange to say, this fearful gust did not last more than ten minutes, when it stopped as suddenly as it had commenced, and I deliberately killed my old buffalo at one shot, just where he stood, and, separating two other bulls from the rest, charged them down a rugged ravine. They passed over this and into another one, but with less precipitous sides and no trees in the way, and when I was on top of the intervening ridge I noticed that the largest bull had halted in the bottom. Checking my horse, an excellent buffalo hunter, I fired down at him without dismounting. The ball merely barked his shoulder, and to my infinite surprise he turned and charged me up the hill. Stepping to one side of my horse, with the charging and infuriated bull not 10 feet to my front, I fired upon him, and the heavy ball took him square in the chest, bringing him to his knees, with a gush of scarlet blood from his mouth and nostrils.

"Upon examining the specimen, I found it to be an old bull, apparently smaller and very much blacker than the ones I had seen killed on the plains only a day or so before. Then I examined the first one I had shot, as well as others which were killed by the packer from the same bunch, and I came to the conclusion that they were typical representatives of the variety known as the 'mountain buffalo,' a form much more active in movement, of slighter limbs, blacker, and far more dangerous to attack. My opinion in the premises remains unaltered to-day. In all this I may be mistaken, but it was also the opinion held by the old buffalo hunter who accompanied me, and who at once remarked when he saw them that they were 'mountain buffalo,' and not the plains variety.

"These specimens were not actually measured by me in either case, and their being considered smaller only rested upon my judging them by my eye. But they were of a softer pelage, black, lighter in limb, and when discovered were in the timber, on the side of the Big Horn Mountains."

The band of bison in the Yellowstone Park must, of necessity, be of the so-called "wood" or "mountain" variety, and if by any chance one of its members ever dies of old age, it is to be hoped its skin may be carefully preserved and sent to the National Museum to throw some further light on this question.

The shedding of the winter pelage.-In personal appearance the buffalo is subject to striking, and even painful, variations, and the estimate an observer forms of him is very apt to depend upon the time of the year at which the observation is made. Toward the end of the winter the whole coat has become faded and bleached by the action of the sun, wind, snow, and rain, until the freshness of its late autumn colors has totally disappeared. The bison takes on a seedy, weathered, and rusty look. But this is not a circumstance to what happens to him a little later. Promptly with the coming of the spring, if not even in the last week of February, the buffalo begins the shedding of his winter coat. It is a long and difficult task, and with commendable energy he sets about it at the earliest possible moment. It lasts him more than half the year, and is attended with many positive discomforts.

The process of shedding is accomplished in two ways: by the new hair growing into and forcing off the old, and by the old hair falling off in great patches, leaving the skin bare. On the heavily-haired portions-the head, neck, fore quarters, and hump-the old hair stops growing, dies, and the new hair immediately starts through the skin and forces it off. The new hair grows so rapidly, and at the same time so densely, that it forces itself into the old, becomes hopelessly entangled with it, and in time actually lifts the old hair clear of the skin. On the head the new hair is dark brown or black, but on the neck, fore quarters, and hump it has at first, and indeed until it is 2 inches in length, a peculiar gray or drab color, mixed with brown, totally different from its final and natural color. The new hair starts first on the head, but the actual shedding of the old hair is to be seen first along the lower parts of the neck and between the fore legs. The heavily-haired parts are never bare, but, on the contrary, the amount of hair upon them is about the same all the year round. The old and the new hair cling together with provoking tenacity long after the old coat should fall, and on several of the bulls we killed in October there were patches of it still sticking tightly to the shoulders, from which it had to be forcibly plucked away. Under all such patches the new hair was of a different color from that around them.

The other process of shedding takes place on the body and hind quarters, from which the old hair loosens and drops off in great woolly flakes a foot square, more or less. The shedding takes place very unevenly, the old hair remaining much longer in some places than in others. During April, May, and June the body and hind quarters present a most ludicrous and even pitiful spectacle. The island-like patches of persistent old hair alternating with patches of bare brown skin are adorned (?) by great ragged streamers of loose hair, which flutter in the wind like signals of distress. Whoever sees a bison at this period is filled with a desire to assist nature by plucking off the flying streamers of old hair; but the bison never permits anything of the kind, however good one's intentions may be. All efforts to dislodge the old hair are resisted to the last extremity, and the buffalo generally acts as if the intention were to deprive him of his skin itself. By the end of June, if not before, the body and hind quarters are free from the old hair, and as bare as the hide of a hippopotamus. The naked skin has a shiny brown appearance, and of course the external anatomy of the animal is very distinctly revealed. But for the long hair on the fore quarters, neck, and head the bison would lose all his dignity of appearance with his hair. As it is, the handsome black head, which is black with new hair as early as the first of May, redeems the animal from utter homeliness.

After the shedding of the body hair, the naked skin of the buffalo is burned by the sun and bitten by flies until he is compelled to seek a pool of water, or even a bed of soft mud, in which to roll and make himself comfortable. He wallows, not so much because he is so fond of either water or mud, but in self-defense; and when he emerges from his wallow, plastered with mud from head to tail, his degradation is complete. He is then simply not fit to be seen, even by his best friends.

By the first of October, a complete and wonderful transformation has taken place. The buffalo stands forth clothed in a complete new suit of hair, fine, clean, sleek, and bright in color, not a speck of dirt nor a lock awry anywhere. To be sure, it is as yet a trifle short on the body, where it is not over an inch in length, and hardly that; but it is growing rapidly and getting ready for winter.

From the 20th of November to the 20th of December the pelage is at its very finest. By the former date it has attained its full growth, its colors are at their brightest, and nothing has been lost either by the elements or by accidental causes. To him who sees an adult bull at this period, or near it, the grandeur of the animal is irresistibly felt. After seeing buffaloes of all ages in the spring and summer months the contrast afforded by those seen in October, November, and December was most striking and impressive. In the later period, as different [Pg 414]individuals were wounded and brought to bay at close quarters, their hair was so clean and well-kept, that more than once I was led to exclaim: "He looks as if he had just been combed."

It must be remarked, however, that the long hair of the head and fore quarters is disposed in locks or tufts, and to comb it in reality would utterly destroy its natural and characteristic appearance.

Inasmuch as the pelage of the domesticated bison, the only representatives of the species which will be found alive ten years hence, will in all likelihood develop differently from that of the wild animal, it may some time in the future be of interest to know the length, by careful measurement, of the hair found on carefully-selected typical wild specimens. To this end the following measurements are given. It must be borne in mind that these specimens were not chosen because their pelage was particularly luxuriant, but rather because they are fine average specimens.

The hair of the adult bull is by no means as long as I have seen on a bison, although perhaps not many have greatly surpassed it. It is with the lower animals as with man-the length of the hairy covering is an individual character only. I have in my possession a tuft of hair, from the frontlet of a rather small bull bison, which measures 22 inches in length. The beard on the specimen from which this came was correspondingly long, and the entire pelage was of wonderful length and density.

Length of the Hair of Bison Americanus
[Measurements, in inches, of the pelage of the specimens composing the group in the National Museum.]

 killed Dec. 6
Old cow, killed Nov. 18 Spike bull, killed Oct. 14 Young cow, killed Oct. 14 Yearling calf, killed Oct. 31 Young calf, four months old
Length of hair on the shoulder (over scapula) 3  4 3 3 3 1
Length of hair on top of hump 6 7 5 5 4 2
Length of hair on the middle of the side 2 1 2 1 2 1
Length of hair on the hind quarter 1 1 2 1
Length of hair on the forehead 16 8 6 5 3
Length of the chin beard 11 9 6 5 5 0
Length of the breast tuft 8 8 8 6 5 3
Length of tuft on fore leg 10 8 8 4 3 1
Length of the tail tuft 19 15 15 13 7 4

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.

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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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