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Mental Capacity and Disposition of the Buffalo

 Native American Nations | Extermination of the American Bison                    


Reasoning from cause to effect.

The buffalo of the past was an animal of a rather low order of intelligence, and his dullness of intellect was one of the important factors in his phenomenally swift extermination. He was provokingly slow in comprehending the existence and nature of the dangers that threatened his life, and, like the stupid brute that he was, would very often stand quietly and see two or three score, or even a hundred, of his relatives and companions shot down before his eyes, with no other feeling than one of stupid wonder and curiosity. Neither the noise nor smoke of the still-hunter’s rifle, the falling, struggling, nor the final death of his companions conveyed to his mind the idea of a danger to be fled from, and so the herd stood still and allowed the still-hunter to slaughter its members at will.

Like the Indian, and many white men also, the buffalo seemed to feel that their number was so great it could never be sensibly diminished. The presence of such a great multitude gave to each of its individuals a feeling of security and mutual support that is very generally found in animals who congregate in great herds. The time was when a band of elk would stand stupidly and wait for its members to be shot down one after another; but it is believed that this was due more to panic than to a lack of comprehension of danger.

The fur seals who cover the “hauling grounds” of St. Paul and St. George Islands, Alaska, in countless thousands, have even less sense of danger and less comprehension of the slaughter of thousands of their kind, which takes place daily, than had the bison. They allow themselves to be herded and driven off landwards from the hauling-ground for half a mile to the killing-ground, and, finally, with most cheerful indifference, permit the Aleuts to club their brains out.

It is to be added that whenever and wherever seals or sea-lions inhabit a given spot, with but few exceptions, it is an easy matter to approach individuals of the herd. The presence of an immense number of individuals plainly begets a feeling of security and mutual support. And let not the bison or the seal be blamed for this, for man himself exhibits the same foolish instinct. Who has not met the woman of mature years and full intellectual vigor who is mortally afraid to spend a night entirely alone in her own house, but is perfectly willing to do so, and often does do so without fear, when she can have the company of one small and helpless child, or, what is still worse, three or four of them! But with the approach of extermination, and the utter breaking up of all the herds, a complete change has been wrought in the character of the bison. At last, but alas! entirely too late, the crack of the rifle and its accompanying puff of smoke conveyed to the slow mind of the bison a sense of deadly danger to himself. At last he recognized man, whether on foot or horseback, or peering at him from a coulée, as his mortal enemy. At last he learned to run. In 1886 we found the scattered remnant of the great northern herd the wildest and most difficult animals to kill that we had ever hunted in any country. It had been only through the keenest exercise of all their powers of self-preservation that those buffaloes had survived until that late day, and we found them almost as swift as antelopes and far more wary. The instant a buffalo caught sight of a man, even though a mile distant, he was off at the top of his speed, and generally ran for some wild region several miles away.

In our party was an experienced buffalo-hunter, who in three years had slaughtered over three thousand head for their hides. He declared that if he could ever catch a “bunch” at rest he could “get a stand” the same as he used to do, and kill several head before the rest would run. It so happened that the first time we found buffaloes we discovered a bunch of fourteen head, lying in the sun at noon, on the level top of a low butte, all noses pointing up the wind. We stole up within range and fired. At the instant the first shot rang out up sprang every buffalo as if he had been thrown upon his feet by steel springs, and in a second’s time the whole bunch was dashing away from us with the speed of race-horses.

Our buffalo-hunter declared that in chasing buffaloes we could count with certainty upon their always running against the wind, for this had always been their habit. Although this was once their habit, we soon found that those who now represent the survival of the fittest have learned better wisdom, and now run (1) away from their pursuer and (2) toward the best hiding place. Now they pay no attention whatever to the direction of the wind, and if a pursuer follows straight behind, a buffalo may change his course three or four times in a 10-mile chase. An old bull once led one of our hunters around three-quarters of a circle which had a diameter of 5 or 6 miles.

The last buffaloes were mentally as capable of taking care of themselves as any animals I ever hunted. The power of original reasoning which they manifested in scattering all over a given tract of rough country, like hostile Indians when hotly pressed by soldiers, in the Indian-like manner in which they hid from sight in deep hollows, and, as we finally proved, in grazing only in ravines and hollows, proved conclusively that but for the use of fire-arms those very buffaloes would have been actually safe from harm by man, and that they would have increased indefinitely. As they were then, the Indians’ arrows and spears could never have been brought to bear upon them, save in rare instances, for they had thoroughly learned to dread man and fly from him for their lives. Could those buffaloes have been protected from rifles and revolvers the resultant race would have displayed far more active mental powers, keener vision, and finer physique than the extinguished race possessed.

In fleeing from an enemy the buffalo ran against the wind, in order that his keen scent might save him from the disaster of running upon new enemies; which was an idea wholly his own, and not copied by any other animal so far as known.

But it must be admitted that the buffalo of the past was very often a most stupid reasoner. He would deliberately walk into a quicksand, where hundreds of his companions were already ingulfed and in their death-struggle. He would quit feeding, run half a mile, and rush headlong into a moving train of cars that happened to come between him and the main herd on the other side of the track. He allowed himself to be impounded and slaughtered by a howling mob in a rudely constructed pen, which a combined effort on the part of three or four old bulls would have utterly demolished at any point. A herd of a thousand buffaloes would allow an armed hunter to gallop into their midst, very often within arm’s-length, when any of the bulls nearest him might easily have bowled him over and had him trampled to death in a moment. The hunter who would ride in that manner into a herd of the Cape buffaloes of Africa (Bubalus caffer) would be unhorsed and killed before he had gone half a furlong.


The buffalo of the past possessed but little curiosity; he was too dull to entertain many unnecessary thoughts. Had he possessed more of this peculiar trait, which is the mark of an inquiring mind, he would much sooner have accomplished a comprehension of the dangers that proved his destruction. His stolid indifference to everything he did not understand cost him his existence, although in later years he displayed more interest in his environment. On one occasion in hunting I staked my success with an old bull I was pursuing on the chance that when he reached the crest of a ridge his curiosity would prompt him to pause an instant to look at me. Up to that moment he had had only one quick glance at me before he started to run. As he climbed the slope ahead of me, in full view, I dismounted and made ready to fire the instant he should pause to look at me. As I expected, he did come to a fall stop on the crest of the ridge, and turned half around to look at me. But for his curiosity I should have been obliged to fire at him under very serious disadvantages.


With the buffalo, fear of man is now the ruling passion. Says Colonel Dodge: “He is as timid about his flank and rear as a raw recruit. When traveling nothing in front stops him, but an unusual object in the rear will send him to the right-about [toward the main body of the herd] at the top of his speed.”


It was very seldom that the buffalo evinced any courage save that of despair, which even cowards possess. Unconscious of his strength, his only thought was flight, and it was only when brought to bay that he was ready to fight. Now and then, however, in the chase, the buffalo turned upon his pursuer and overthrew horse and rider. Sometimes the tables were completely turned, and the hunter found his only safety in flight. During the buffalo slaughter the butchers sometimes had narrow escapes from buffaloes supposed to be dead or mortally wounded, and a story comes from the great northern range south of Glendive of a hunter who was killed by an old bull whose tongue he had actually cut out in the belief that he was dead.

Sometimes buffalo cows display genuine courage in remaining with their calves in the presence of danger, although in most cases they left their offspring to their fate. During a hunt for live buffalo calves, undertaken by Mr. C. J. Jones of Garden City, Kans., in 1886, and very graphically described by a staff correspondent of the American Field in a series of articles in that journal under the title of “The Last of the Buffalo,” the following remarkable incident occurred:41

“The last calf was caught by Carter, who roped it neatly as Mr. Jones cut it out of the herd and turned it toward him. This was a fine heifer calf, and was apparently the idol of her mother’s heart, for the latter came very near making a casualty the price of the capture. As soon as the calf was roped, the old cow left the herd and charged on Carter viciously, as he bent over his victim. Seeing the danger, Mr. Jones rode in at just the nick of time, and drove the cow off for a moment; but she returned again and again, and finally began charging him whenever he came near; so that, much as he regretted it, he had to shoot her with his revolver, which he did, killing her almost immediately.”

The mothers of the thirteen other calves that were caught by Mr. Jones’s party allowed their offspring to be “cut out,” lassoed, and tied, while they themselves devoted all their energies to leaving them as far behind as possible.


While the buffalo cows manifested a fair degree of affection for their young, the adult bulls of the herd often displayed a sense of responsibility for the safety of the calves that was admirable, to say the least. Those who have had opportunities for watching large herds tell us that whenever wolves approached and endeavored to reach a calf the old bulls would immediately interpose and drive the enemy away. It was a well-defined habit for the bulls to form the outer circle of every small group or section of a great herd, with the calves in the center, well guarded from the wolves, which regarded them as their most choice prey.

Colonel Dodge records a remarkable incident in illustration of the manner in which the bull buffaloes protected the calves of the herd.42

“The duty of protecting the calves devolved almost entirely on the bulls. I have seen evidences of this many times, but the most remarkable instance I have ever heard of was related to me by an army surgeon, who was an eye-witness.

“He was one evening returning to camp after a day’s hunt, when his attention was attracted by the curious action of a little knot of six or eight buffalo. Approaching sufficiently near to see clearly, he discovered that this little knot were all bulls, standing in a close circle, with their heads outwards, while in a concentric circle at some 12 or 15 paces distant sat, licking their chaps in impatient expectancy, at least a dozen large gray wolves (excepting man, the most dangerous enemy of the buffalo).

“The doctor determined to watch the performance. After a few moments the knot broke up, and, still keeping in a compact mass, started on a trot for the main herd, some half a mile oft”. To his very great astonishment, the doctor now saw that the central and controlling figure of this mass was a poor little calf so newly born as scarcely to be able to walk. After going 50 or 100 paces the calf laid down, the bulls disposed themselves in a circle as before, and the wolves, who had trotted along on each side of their retreating supper, sat down and licked their chaps again; and though the doctor did not see the finale, it being late and the camp distant, he had no doubt that the noble fathers did their whole duty by their offspring, and carried it safely to the herd.”


I have asked many old buffalo hunters for facts in regard to the temper and disposition of herd buffaloes, and all agree that they are exceedingly quiet, peace loving, and even indolent animals at all times save during the rutting season. Says Colonel Dodge: “The habits of the buffalo are almost identical with those of the domestic cattle. Owing either to a more pacific disposition, or to the greater number of bulls, there, is very little fighting, even at the season when it might be expected. I have been among them for days, have watched their conduct for hours at a time, and with the very best opportunities for observation, but have never seen a regular combat between bulls. They frequently strike each other with their horns, but this seems to be a mere expression of impatience at being crowded.”

In referring to the “running season” of the buffalo, Mr. Catlin says: “It is no uncommon thing at this season, at these gatherings, to see several thousands in a mass eddying and wheeling about under a cloud of dust, which is raised by the bulls as they are pawing in the dirt, or engaged in desperate combats, as they constantly are, plunging and butting at each other in a most furious manner.”

On the whole, the disposition of the buffalo is anything but vicious. Both sexes yield with surprising readiness to the restraints of captivity, and in a remarkably short time become, if taken young, as fully domesticated as ordinary cattle. Buffalo calves are as easily tamed as domestic ones, and make very interesting pets. A prominent trait of character in the captive buffalo is a mulish obstinacy or headstrong perseverance under certain circumstances that is often very annoying. When a buffalo makes up his mind to go through a fence, he is very apt to go through, either peaceably or by force, as occasion requires. Fortunately, however, the captive animals usually accept a fence in the proper spirit, and treat it with a fair degree of respect.

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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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