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Geographical Distribution

 Native American Nations | Extermination of the American Bison                    


The range of the American bison extended over about one-third of the entire continent of North America. Starting almost at tide-water on the Atlantic coast, it extended westward through a vast tract of dense forest, across the Alleghany Mountain system to the prairies along the Mississippi, and southward to the Delta of that great stream. Although the great plains country of the West was the natural home of the species, where it flourished most abundantly, it also wandered south across Texas to the burning plains of northeastern Mexico, westward across the Rocky Mountains into New Mexico, Utah, and Idaho, and northward across a vast treeless waste to the bleak and inhospitable shores of the Great Slave Lake itself. It is more than probable that had the bison remained unmolested by man and uninfluenced by him, he would eventually have crossed the Sierra Nevadas and the Coast Range and taken up his abode in the fertile valleys of the Pacific slope.

Had the bison remained for a few more centuries in undisturbed possession of his range, and with liberty to roam at will over the North American continent, it is almost certain that several distinctly recognizable varieties would have been produced. The buffalo of the hot regions in the extreme south would have become a short-haired animal like the gaur of India and the African buffalo. The individuals inhabiting the extreme north, in the vicinity of Great Slave Lake, for example, would have developed still longer hair, and taken on more of the dense hairyness of the musk ox. In the "wood" or "mountain buffalo" we already have a distinct foreshadowing of the changes which would have taken place in the individuals which made their permanent residence upon rugged mountains.

It would be an easy matter to fill a volume with facts relating to the geographical distribution of Bison americanus and the dates of its occurrence and disappearance in the multitude of different localities embraced within the immense area it once inhabited. The capricious shiftings of certain sections of the great herds, whereby large areas which for many years had been utterly unvisited by buffaloes suddenly became overrun by them, could be followed up indefinitely, but to little purpose. In order to avoid wearying the reader with a mass of dates and references, the map accompanying this paper has been prepared to show at a glance the approximate dates at which the bison finally disappeared from the various sections of its habitat. In some cases the date given is coincident with the death of the last buffalo known to have been killed in a given State or Territory; in others, where records are meager, the date given is the nearest approximation, based on existing records. In the preparation of this map I have drawn liberally from Mr. J. A. Allen's admirable monograph of "The American Bison," in which the author has brought together, with great labor and invariable accuracy, a vast amount of historical data bearing upon this subject. In this connection I take great pleasure in acknowledging my indebtedness to Professor Allen's work.

While it is inexpedient to include here all the facts that might be recorded with reference to the discovery, existence, and ultimate extinction of the bison in the various portions of its former habitat, it is yet worth while to sketch briefly the extreme limits of its range. In doing this, our starting point will be the Atlantic slope east of the Alleghanies, and the reader will do well to refer to the large map.

District Of Columbia. - There is no indisputable evidence that the bison ever inhabited this precise locality, but it is probable that it did. In 1612 Captain Argoll sailed up the "Pembrook River" to the head of navigation (Mr. Allen believes this was the James River, and not the Potomac) and marched inland a few miles, where he discovered buffaloes, some of which were killed by his Indian guides. If this river was the Potomac, and most authorities believe that it was, the buffaloes seen by Captain Argoll might easily have been in what is now the District of Columbia.

Admitting the existence of a reasonable doubt as to the identity of the Pembrook River of Captain Argoll, there is yet another bit of history which fairly establishes the fact that in the early part of the seventeenth century buffaloes inhabited the banks of the Potomac between this city and the lower falls. In 1624 an English fur trader named Henry Fleet came hither to trade with the Anacostian Indians, who then inhabited the present site of the city of Washington, and with the tribes of the Upper Potomac. In his journal (discovered a few years since in the Lambeth Library, London) Fleet gave a quaint description of the city's site as it then appeared. The following is from the explorer's journal:

"Monday, the 25th June, we set sail for the town of Tohoga, where we came to an anchor 2 leagues short of the falls. * * * This place, without question, is the most pleasant and healthful place in all this country, and most convenient for habitation, the air temperate in summer and not violent in winter. It aboundeth with all manner of fish. The Indians in one night commonly will catch thirty sturgeons in a place where the river is not above 12 fathoms broad, and as for deer, buffaloes, bears, turkeys, the woods do swarm with them. * * * The 27th of June I manned my shallop and went up with the flood, the tide rising about 4 feet at this place. We had not rowed above 3 miles, but we might hear the falls to roar about 6 miles distant."7

Maryland.-There is no evidence that the bison ever inhabited Maryland, except what has already been adduced with reference to the District of Columbia. If either of the references quoted may be taken as conclusive proof, and I see no reason for disputing either, then the fact that the bison once ranged northward from Virginia into Maryland is fairly established. There is reason to expect that fossil remains of Bison americanus will yet be found both in Maryland and the District of Columbia, and I venture to predict that this will yet occur.

Virginia. - Of the numerous references to the occurrence of the bison in Virginia, it is sufficient to allude to Col. William Byrd's meetings with buffaloes in 1620, while surveying the southern boundary of the State, about 155 miles from the coast, as already quoted; the references to the discovery of buffaloes on the eastern side of the Virginia mountains, quoted by Mr. Allen from Salmon's "Present State of Virginia," page 14 (London, 1737), and the capture and domestication of buffaloes in 1701 by the Huguenot settlers at Manikintown, which was situated on the James River, about 14 miles above Richmond. Apparently, buffaloes were more numerous in Virginia than in any other of the Atlantic States.

North Carolina. - Colonel Byrd's discoveries along the interstate boundary between Virginia and North Carolina fixes the presence of the bison in the northern part of the latter State at the date of the survey. The following letter to Prof. G. Brown Goode, dated Birdsnest post-office, Va., August 6, 1888, from Mr. C. R. Moore, furnishes reliable evidence of the presence of the buffalo at another point in North Carolina: "In the winter of 1857 I was staying for the night at the house of an old gentleman named Houston. I should judge he was seventy then. He lived near Buffalo Ford, on the Catawba River, about 4 miles from Statesville, N. C. I asked him how the ford got its name. He told me that his grandfather told him that when he was a boy the buffalo crossed there, and that when the rocks in the river were bare they would eat the moss that grew upon them." The point indicated is in longitude 81° west and the date not far from 1750.

South Carolina. - Professor Allen cites numerous authorities, whose observations furnish abundant evidence of the existence of the buffalo in South Carolina during the first half of the eighteenth century. From these it is quite evident that in the northwestern half of the State buffaloes were once fairly numerous. Keating declares, on the authority of Colhoun, "and we know that some of those who first settled the Abbeville district in South Carolina, in 1756, found the buffalo there."8 This appears to be the only definite locality in which the presence of the species was recorded.

Georgia. - The extreme southeastern limit of the buffalo in the United States was found on the coast of Georgia, near the mouth of the Altamaha River, opposite St. Simon's Island. Mr. Francis Moore, in his "Voyage to Georgia," made in 1736 and reported upon in 1744,9 makes the following observation:

"The island [St. Simon's] abounds with deer and rabbits. There are no buffalo in it, though there are large herds upon the main." Elsewhere in the same document (p. 122) reference is made to buffalo-hunting by Indians on the main-land near Darien.

In James E. Oglethorpe's enumeration (A. D. 1733) of the wild beasts of Georgia and South Carolina he mentions "deer, elks, bears, wolves, and buffaloes."10

Up to the time of Moore's voyage to Georgia the interior was almost wholly unexplored, and it is almost certain that had not the "large herds of buffalo on the main-land" existed within a distance of 20 or 30 miles or less from the coast, the colonists would have had no knowledge of them; nor would the Indians have taken to the war-path against the whites at Darien "under pretense of hunting buffalo."

Alabama. - Having established the existence of the bison in northwestern Georgia almost as far down as the center of the State, and in Mississippi down to the neighborhood of the coast, it was naturally expected that a search of historical records would reveal evidence that the bison once inhabited the northern half of Alabama. A most careful search through all the records bearing upon the early history and exploration of Alabama, to be found in the Library of Congress, failed to discover the slightest reference to the existence of the species in that State, or even to the use of buffalo skins by any of the Alabama Indians. While it is possible that such a hiatus really existed, in this instance its existence would be wholly unaccountable. I believe that the buffalo once inhabited the northern half of Alabama, even though history fails to record it.

Louisiana and Mississippi. - At the beginning of the eighteenth century, buffaloes were plentiful in southern Mississippi and Louisiana, not only down to the coast itself, from Bay St. Louis to Biloxi, but even in the very Delta of the Mississippi, as the following record shows. In a "Memoir addressed to Count de Pontchartrain," December 10, 1697, the author, M. de Remonville, describes the country around the mouth of the Mississippi, now the State of Louisiana, and further says:11

"A great abundance of wild cattle are also found there, which might be domesticated by rearing up the young calves." Whether these animals were buffaloes might be considered an open question but for the following additional information, which affords positive evidence: "The trade in furs and peltry would be immensely valuable and exceedingly profitable. We could also draw from thence a great quantity of buffalo hides every year, as the plains are filled with the animals."

In the same volume, page 47, in a document entitled "Annals of Louisiana from 1698 to 1722, by M. Penicaut" (1698), the author records the presence of the buffalo on the Gulf coast on the banks of the Bay St. Louis, as follows: "The next day we left Pea Island, and passed through the Little Rigolets, which led into the sea about three leagues from the Bay of St. Louis. We encamped at the entrance of the bay, near a fountain of water that flows from the hills, and which was called at this time Belle Fountain. We hunted during several days upon the coast of this bay, and filled our boats with the meat of the deer, buffaloes, and other wild game which we had killed, and carried it to the fort (Biloxi)."

The occurrence of the buffalo at Natchez is recorded,12 and also (p. 115) at the mouth of Red River, as follows: "We ascended the Mississippi to Pass Manchac, where we killed fifteen buffaloes. The next day we landed again, and killed eight more buffaloes and as many deer."

The presence of the buffalo in the Delta of the Mississippi was observed and recorded by D'Iberville in 1699.13

According to Claiborne,14 the Choctaws have an interesting tradition in regard to the disappearance of the buffalo from Mississippi. It relates that during the early part of the eighteenth century a great drought occurred, which was particularly severe in the prairie region. For three years not a drop of rain fell. The Nowubee and Tombigbee Rivers dried up and the forests perished. The elk and buffalo, which up to that time had been numerous, all migrated to the country beyond the Mississippi, and never returned.

Texas. - It will be remembered that it was in southeastern Texas, in all probability within 50 miles of the present city of Houston, that the earliest discovery of the American bison on its native heath was made in 1530 by Cabeza de Vaca, a half-starved, half-naked, and wholly wretched Spaniard, almost the only surviving member of the celebrated expedition which burned its ships behind it. In speaking of the buffalo in Texas at the earliest periods of which we have any historical record, Professor Allen says: "They were also found in immense herds on the coast of Texas, at the Bay of St. Bernard (Matagorda Bay), and on the lower part of the Colorado (Rio Grande, according to some authorities), by La Salle, in 1685, and thence northwards across the Colorado, Brazos, and Trinity Rivers." Joutel says that when in latitude 28° 51' "the sight of abundance of goats and bullocks, differing in shape from ours, and running along the coast, heightened our earnestness to be ashore." They afterwards landed in St. Louis Bay (now called Matagorda Bay), where they found buffaloes in such numbers on the Colorado River that they called it La Rivière aux Boeufs.15 According to Professor Allen, the buffalo did not inhabit the coast of Texas east of the mouth of the Brazos River.

It is a curious coincidence that the State of Texas, wherein the earliest discoveries and observations upon the bison were made, should also now furnish a temporary shelter for one of the last remnants of the great herd.

Mexico. - In regard to the existence of the bison south of the Rio Grande, in old Mexico, there appears to be but one authority on record, Dr. Berlandier, who at the time of his death left in MS. a work on the mammals of Mexico. At one time this MS. was in the Smithsonian Institution, but it is there no longer, nor is its fate even ascertainable. It is probable that it was burned in the fire that destroyed a portion of the Institution in 1865. Fortunately Professor Allen obtained and published in his monograph (in French) a copy of that portion of Dr. Berlandier's work relating to the presence of the bison in Mexico,16 of which the following is a translation:

"In Mexico, when the Spaniards, ever greedy for riches, pushed their explorations to the north and northeast, it was not long before they met with the buffalo. In 1602 the Franciscan monks who discovered Nuevo Leon encountered in the neighborhood of Monterey numerous herds of these quadrupeds. They were also distributed in Nouvelle Biscaye (States of Chihuahua and Durango), and they sometimes advanced to the extreme south of that country. In the eighteenth century they concentrated more and more toward the north, but still remained very abundant in the neighborhood of the province of Bexar. At the commencement of the nineteenth century we see them recede gradually in the interior of the country to such an extent that they became day by day scarcer and scarcer about the settlements. Now, it is not in their periodical migrations that we meet them near Bexar. Every year in the spring, in April or May, they advance toward the north, to return again to the southern regions in September and October. The exact limits of these annual migrations are unknown; it is, however, probable that in the north they never go beyond the banks of the Rio Bravo, at least in the States of Cohahuila and Texas. Toward the north, not being checked by the currents of the Missouri, they progress even as far as Michigan, and they are found in summer in the Territories and interior States of the United States of North America. The route which these animals follow in their migrations occupies a width of several miles, and becomes so marked that, besides the verdure destroyed, one would believe that the fields had been covered with manure.

"These migrations are not general, for certain bands do not seem to follow the general mass of their kin, but remain stationary throughout the whole year on the prairies covered with a rich vegetation on the banks of the Rio de Guadelupe and the Rio Colorado of Texas, not far from the shores of the Gulf, to the east of the colony of San Felipe, precisely at the same spot where La Salle and his traveling companions saw them two hundred years before. The Rev. Father Damian Mansanet saw them also as in our days on the shores of Texas, in regions which have since been covered with the habitations, hamlets, and villages of the new colonists, and from whence they have disappeared since 1828."

"From the observations made on this subject we may conclude that the buffalo inhabited the temperate zone of the New World, and that they inhabited it at all times. In the north they never advanced beyond the 48th or 58th degree of latitude, and in the south, although [Pg 383]they may have reached as low as 25°, they scarcely passed beyond the 27th or 28th degree (north latitude), at least in the inhabited and known portions of the country."

New Mexico. - In 1542 Coronado, while on his celebrated march, met with vast herds of buffalo on the Upper Pecos River, since which the presence of the species in the valley of the Pecos has been well known. In describing the journey of Espejo down the Pecos River in the year 1584, Davis says (Spanish Conquest of New Mexico, p. 260): "They passed down a river they called Rio de las Vacas, or the River of Oxen [the river Pecos, and the same Cow River that Vaca describes, says Professor Allen], and was so named because of the great number of buffaloes that fed upon its banks. They traveled down this river the distance of 120 leagues, all the way passing through great herds of buffaloes."

Professor Allen locates the western boundary of the buffalo in New Mexico even as far west as the western side of Rio Grande del Norte.

Utah. - It is well known that buffaloes, though in very small numbers, once inhabited northeastern Utah, and that a few were killed by the Mormon settlers prior to 1840 in the vicinity of Great Salt Lake. In the museum at Salt Lake City I was shown a very ancient mounted head of a buffalo bull which was said to have been killed in the Salt Lake Valley. It is doubtful that such was really fact. There is no evidence that the bison ever inhabited the southwestern half of Utah, and, considering the general sterility of the Territory as a whole previous to its development by irrigation, it is surprising that any buffalo in his senses would ever set foot in it at all.

Idaho. - The former range of the bison probably embraced the whole of Idaho. Fremont states that in the spring of 1824 "the buffalo were spread in immense numbers over the Green River and Bear River Valleys, and through all the country lying between the Colorado, or Green River of the Gulf of California, and Lewis' Fork of the Columbia River, the meridian of Fort Hall then forming the western limit of their range." [In J. K. Townsend's "Narrative of a Journey across the Rocky Mountains," in 1834, he records the occurrence of herds near the Mellade and Boise and Salmon Rivers, ten days' journey-200 miles-west of Fort Hall.] The buffalo then remained for many years in that country, and frequently moved down the valley of the Columbia, on both sides of the river, as far as the Fishing Falls. Below this point they never descended in any numbers. About 1834 or 1835 they began to diminish very rapidly, and continued to decrease until 1838 or 1840, when, with the country we have just described, they entirely abandoned all the waters of the Pacific north of Lewis's Fork of the Columbia [now called Snake] River. At that time the Flathead Indians were in the habit of finding their buffalo on the heads of Salmon River and other streams of the Columbia.

Oregon. - The only evidence on record of the occurrence of the bison in Oregon is the following, from Professor Allen's memoir (p. 119): "Respecting its former occurrence in eastern Oregon, Prof. O. C. Marsh, under date of New Haven, February 7, 1875, writes me as follows: 'The most western point at which I have myself observed remains of the buffalo was in 187 on Willow Creek, eastern Oregon, among the foot hills of the eastern side of the Blue Mountains. This is about latitude 44°. The bones were perfectly characteristic, although nearly decomposed.'"

The remains must have been those of a solitary and very enterprising straggler.

The Northwest Territories (British). - At two or three points only did the buffaloes of the British Possessions cross the Rocky Mountain barrier toward British Columbia. One was the pass through which the Canadian Pacific Railway now runs, 200 miles north of the international boundary. According to Dr. Richardson, the number of buffaloes which crossed the mountains at that point were sufficiently noticeable to constitute a feature of the fauna on the western side of the range. It is said that buffaloes also crossed by way of the Kootenai Pass, which is only a few miles north of the boundary line, but the number which did so must have been very small.

As might be expected from the character of the country, the favorite range of the bison in British America was the northern extension of the great pasture region lying between the Missouri River and Great Slave Lake. The most northerly occurrence of the bison is recorded as an observation of Franklin in 1820 at Slave Point, on the north side of Great Slave Lake. "A few frequent Slave Point, on the north side of the lake, but this is the most northern situation in which they were observed by Captain Franklin's party."17

Dr. Richardson defined the eastern boundary of the bison's range in British America as follows: "They do not frequent any of the districts formed of primitive rocks, and the limits of their range to the eastward, within the Hudson's Bay Company's territories, may be correctly marked on the map by a line commencing in longitude 97°, on the Red River, which flows into the south end of Lake Winnipeg, crossing the Saskatchewan to the westward of the Basquian Hill, and running thence by the Athapescow to the east end of Great Slave Lake." Their migrations westward were formerly limited to the Rocky Mountain range, and they are still unknown in New Caledonia and on the shores of the Pacific to the north of the Columbia River; but of late years they have found out a passage across the mountains near the sources of the Saskatchewan, and their numbers to the westward are annually increasing.18

Great Slave Lake. - That the buffalo inhabited the southern shore of this lake as late as 1871 is well established by the following letter from Mr. E. W. Nelson to Mr. J. A. Allen, under date of July 11, 1877:19

"I have met here [St. Michaels, Alaska] two gentlemen who crossed the mountains from British Columbia and came to Fort Yukon through British America, from whom I have derived some information about the buffalo (Bison americanus) which will be of interest to you. These gentlemen descended the Peace River, and on about the one hundred and eighteenth degree of longitude made a portage to Hay River, directly north. On this portage they saw thousands of buffalo skulls, and old trails, in some instances 2 or 3 feet deep, leading east and west. They wintered on Hay River near its entrance into Great Slave Lake, and here found the buffalo still common, occupying a restricted territory along the southern border of the lake. This was in 1871. They made inquiry concerning the large number of skulls seen by them on the portage, and learned that about fifty years before, snow fell to the estimated depth of 14 feet, and so enveloped the animals that they perished by thousands. It is asserted that these buffaloes are larger than those of the plains."

Head of Buffalo Bull
From specimen in the National Museum Group.
Reproduced from the Cosmopolitan Magazine, by permission of the publishers.

Minnesota and Wisconsin. - A line drawn from Winnipeg to Chicago, curving slightly to the eastward in the middle portion, will very nearly define the eastern boundary of the buffalo's range in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Illinois and Indiana. - The whole of these two States were formerly inhabited by the buffalo, the fertile prairies of Illinois being particularly suited to their needs. It is doubtful whether the range of the species extended north of the northern boundary of Indiana, but since southern Michigan was as well adapted to their support as Ohio or Indiana, their absence from that State must have been due more to accident than design.

Ohio. - The southern shore of Lake Erie forms part of the northern boundary of the bison's range in the eastern United States. La Hontan explored Lake Erie in 1687 and thus describes its southern shore: "I can not express what quantities of Deer and Turkeys are to be found in these Woods, and in the vast Meads that lye upon the South side of the Lake. At the bottom of the Lake we find beeves upon the Banks of two pleasant Rivers that disembogue into it, without Cataracts or Rapid Currents."20 It thus appears that the southern shore of Lake Erie forms part of the northern boundary of the buffalo's range in the eastern United States.

New York. - In regard to the presence of the bison in any portion of the State of New York, Professor Allen considers the evidence as fairly conclusive that it once existed in western New York, not only in the vicinity of the eastern end of Lake Erie, where now stands the city of Buffalo, at the mouth of a large creek of the same name, but also on the shore of Lake Ontario, probably in Orleans County. In his monograph of "The American Bisons," page 107, he gives the following testimony and conclusions on this point:

"The occurrence of a stream in western New York, called Buffalo Creek, which empties into the eastern end of Lake Erie, is commonly viewed as traditional evidence of its occurrence at this point, but positive testimony to this effect has thus far escaped me.

"This locality, if it actually came so far eastward, must have formed the eastern limit of its range along the lakes. I have found only highly questionable allusions to the occurrence of buffaloes along the southern shore of Lake Ontario. Keating, on the authority of Colhoun, however, has cited a passage from Morton's "New English Canaan" as proof of their former existence in the neighborhood of this lake. Morton's statement is based on Indian reports, and the context gives sufficient evidence of the general vagueness of his knowledge of the region of which he was speaking. The passage, printed in 1637 is as follows: They [the Indians] have also made descriptions of great heards of well growne beasts that live about the parts of this lake [Erocoise] such as the Christian world (untill this discovery) hath not bin made acquainted with. These Beasts are of the bignesse of a Cowe, their flesh being very good foode, their hides good lether, their fleeces very usefull, being a kinde of wolle as fine almost as the wolle of the Beaver, and the Salvages doe make garments thereof. It is tenne yeares since first the relation of these things came to the eares of the English.' The 'beast' to which allusion is here made [says Professor Allen] is unquestionably the buffalo, but the locality of Lake 'Erocoise' is not so easily settled. Colhoun regards it, and probably correctly, as identical with Lake Ontario. * * * The extreme northeastern limit of the former range of the buffalo seems to have been, as above stated, in western New York, near the eastern end of Lake Erie. That it probably ranged thus far there is fair evidence."

Pennsylvania. - From the eastern end of Lake Erie the boundary of the bison's habitat extends south into western Pennsylvania, to a marsh called Buffalo Swamp on a map published by Peter Kalm in 1771. Professor Allen says it "is indicated as situated between the Alleghany River and the West Branch of the Susquehanna, near the heads of the Licking and Toby's Creeks (apparently the streams now called Oil Creek and Clarion Creek)." In this region there were at one time thousands of buffaloes. While there is not at hand any positive evidence that the buffalo ever inhabited the southwestern portion of Pennsylvania, its presence in the locality mentioned above, and in West Virginia generally, on the south, furnishes sufficient reason for extending the boundary so as to include the southwestern portion of the State and connect with our starting point, the District of Columbia.

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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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