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Discovery of the Species

 Native American Nations | Extermination of the American Bison                    


The discovery of the American bison, as first made by Europeans, occurred in the menagerie of a heathen king.

In the year 1521, when Cortez reached Anahuac, the American bison was seen for the first time by civilized Europeans, if we may be permitted to thus characterize the horde of blood thirsty plunder seekers who fought their way to the Aztec capital. With a degree of enterprise that marked him as an enlightened monarch, Montezuma maintained, for the instruction of his people, a well-appointed menagerie, of which the historian De Solis wrote as follows (1724):

"In the second Square of the same House were the Wild Beasts, which were either presents to Montezuma, or taken by his Hunters, in strong Cages of Timber, rang'd in good Order, and under Cover: Lions, Tygers, Bears, and all others of the savage Kind which New-Spain produced; among which the greatest Rarity was the Mexican Bull; a wonderful composition of divers Animals. It has crooked Shoulders, with a Bunch on its Back like a Camel; its Flanks dry, its Tail large, and its Neck cover'd with Hair like a Lion. It is cloven footed, its Head armed like that of a Bull, which it resembles in Fierceness, with no less strength and Agility."

Thus was the first seen buffalo described. The nearest locality from whence it could have come was the State of Coahuila, in northern Mexico, between 400 and 500 miles away, and at that time vehicles were unknown to the Aztecs. But for the destruction of the whole mass of the written literature of the Aztecs by the priests of the Spanish Conquest, we might now be reveling in historical accounts of the bison which would make the oldest of our present records seem of comparatively recent date.

Nine years after the event referred to above, or in 1530, another Spanish explorer, Alvar Nuñez Cabeza, afterwards called Cabeza de Vaca-or, in other words "Cattle Cabeza," the prototype of our own distinguished "Buffalo Bill"-was wrecked on the Gulf coast, west of the delta of the Mississippi, from whence he wandered westward through what is now the State of Texas. In southeastern Texas he discovered the American bison on his native heath. So far as can be ascertained, this was the earliest discovery of the bison in a wild state, and the description of the species as recorded by the explorer is of historical interest. It is brief and superficial. The unfortunate explorer took very little interest in animated nature, except as it contributed to the sum of his daily food, which was then the all-important subject of his thoughts. He almost starved. This is all he has to say:1

"Cattle come as far as this. I have seen them three times, and eaten of their meat. I think they are about the size of those in Spain. They have small horns like those of Morocco, and the hair long and flocky, like that of the merino. Some are light brown (pardillas) and others black. To my judgment the flesh is finer and sweeter than that of this country [Spain]. The Indians make blankets of those that are not full grown, and of the larger they make shoes and bucklers. They come as far as the sea-coast of Florida [now Texas], and in a direction from the north, and range over a district of more than 400 leagues. In the whole extent of plain over which they roam, the people who live bordering upon it descend and kill them for food, and thus a great many skins are scattered throughout the country."

Coronado was the next explorer who penetrated the country of the buffalo, which he accomplished from the west, by way of Arizona and New Mexico. He crossed the southern part of the "Pan-handle" of Texas, to the edge of what is now the Indian Territory, and returned through the same region. It was in the year 1542 that he reached the buffalo country, and traversed the plains that were "full of crooke-backed oxen, as the mountaine Serena in Spaine is of sheepe." This is the description of the animal as recorded by one of his followers, Castañeda, and translated by W. W. Davis:2

"The first time we encountered the buffalo, all the horses took to flight on seeing them, for they are horrible to the sight.

"They have a broad and short face, eyes two palms from each other, and projecting in such a manner sideways that they can see a pursuer. Their beard is like that of goats, and so long that it drags the ground when they lower the head. They have, on the anterior portion of the body, a frizzled hair like sheep's wool; it is very fine upon the croup, and sleek like a lion's mane. Their horns are very short and thick, and can scarcely be seen through the hair. They always change their hair in May, and at this season they really resemble lions. To make it drop more quickly, for they change it as adders do their skins, they roll among the brush-wood which they find in the ravines.

"Their tail is very short, and terminates in a great tuft. When they run they carry it in the air like scorpions. When quite young they are tawny, and resemble our calves; but as age increases they change color and form.

"Another thing which struck us was that all the old buffaloes that we killed had the left ear cloven, while it was entire in the young; we could never discover the reason of this.

"Their wool is so fine that handsome clothes would certainly be made of it, but it can not be dyed for it is tawny red. We were much surprised at sometimes meeting innumerable herds of bulls without a single cow, and other herds of cows without bulls."

Neither De Soto, Ponce de Leon, Vasquez de Ayllon, nor Pamphilo de Narvaez ever saw a buffalo, for the reason that all their explorations were made south of what was then the habitat of that animal. At the time De Soto made his great exploration from Florida northwestward to the Mississippi and into Arkansas (1539-'41) he did indeed pass through country in northern Mississippi and Louisiana that was afterward inhabited by the buffalo, but at that time not one was to be found there. Some of his soldiers, however, who were sent into the northern part of Arkansas, reported having seen buffalo skins in the possession of the Indians, and were told that live buffaloes were to be found 5 or 6 leagues north of their farthest point.

The earliest discovery of the bison in Eastern North America, or indeed anywhere north of Coronado's route, was made somewhere near Washington, District of Columbia, in 1612, by an English navigator named Samuel Argoll,3 and narrated as follows:

"As soon as I had unladen this corne, I set my men to the felling of Timber, for the building of a Frigat, which I had left half finished at Point Comfort, the 19. of March: and returned myself with the ship into Pembrook [Potomac] River, and so discovered to the head of it, which is about 65 leagues into the Land, and navigable for any ship. And then marching into the Countrie, I found great store of Cattle as big as Kine, of which the Indians that were my guides killed a couple, which we found to be very good and wholesome meate, and are very easie to be killed, in regard they are heavy, slow, and not so wild as other beasts of the wildernesse."

It is to be regretted that the narrative of the explorer affords no clew to the precise locality of this interesting discovery, but since it is doubtful that the mariner journeyed very far on foot from the head of navigation of the Potomac, it seems highly probable that the first American bison seen by Europeans, other than the Spaniards, was found within 15 miles, or even less, of the capital of the United States, and possibly within the District of Columbia itself.

The first meeting of the white man with the buffalo on the northern boundary of that animal's habitat occurred in 1679, when Father Hennepin ascended the St. Lawrence to the great lakes, and finally penetrated the great wilderness as far as western Illinois.

The next meeting with the buffalo on the Atlantic slope was in October, 1729, by a party of surveyors under Col. William Byrd, who were engaged in surveying the boundary between North Carolina and Virginia.

As the party journeyed up from the coast, marking the line which now constitutes the interstate boundary, three buffaloes were seen on Sugar-Tree Creek, but none of them were killed.

On the return journey, in November, a bull buffalo was killed on Sugar-Tree Creek, which is in Halifax County, Virginia, within 5 miles of Big Buffalo Creek; longitude 78° 40' W., and 155 miles from the coast.4 "It was found all alone, tho' Buffaloes Seldom are." The meat is spoken of as "a Rarity," not met at all on the expedition up. The animal was found in thick woods, which were thus feelingly described: "The woods were thick great Part of this Day's Journey, so that we were forced to scuffle hard to advance 7 miles, being equal in fatigue to double that distance of Clear and Open Ground." One of the creeks which the party crossed was christened Buffalo Creek, and "so named from the frequent tokens we discovered of that American Behemoth."

In October, 1733, on another surveying expedition, Colonel Byrd's party had the good fortune to kill another buffalo near Sugar-Tree Creek, which incident is thus described:5

"We pursued our journey thro' uneven and perplext woods, and in the thickest of them had the Fortune to knock down a Young Buffalo 2 years old. Providence threw this vast animal in our way very Seasonably, just as our provisions began to fail us. And it was the more welcome, too, because it was change of dyet, which of all Varietys, next to that of Bed-fellows, is the most agreeable. We had lived upon Venison and Bear till our stomachs loath'd them almost as much as the Hebrews of old did their Quails. Our Butchers were so unhandy at their Business that we grew very lank before we cou'd get our Dinner. But when it came, we found it equal in goodness to the best Beef. They made it the longer because they kept Sucking the Water out of the Guts in imitation of the Catauba Indians, upon the belief that it is a great Cordial, and will even make them drunk, or at least very Gay."

A little later a solitary bull buffalo was found, but spared,6 the earliest instance of the kind on record, and which had few successors to keep it company.

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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