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The Yearling, Spike and Bull Buffalo

  Native American Nations | Extermination of the American Bison                   


The Yearling.

During the first five months of his life, the calf changes its coat completely, and becomes in appearance a totally different animal. By the time he is six months old he has taken on all the colors which distinguish him in after life, excepting that upon his fore quarters. The hair on the head has started out to attain the luxuriant length and density which is so conspicuous in the adult, and its general color is a rich dark brown, shading to black under the chin and throat. The fringe under the neck is long, straight, and black, and the under parts, the back of the fore arm, the outside of thigh, and the tail-tuft are all black.

The color of the shoulder, the side, and upper part of the hind quarter is a peculiar smoky brown ("broccoli brown" of Ridgway), having in connection with the darker browns of the other parts a peculiar faded appearance, quite as if it were due to the bleaching power of the sun. On the fore quarters there is none of the bright straw color so characteristic of the adult animal. Along the top of the neck and shoulders, however, this color has at last begun to show faintly. The hair on the body is quite luxuriant, both in length and density, in both respects quite equaling, if not even surpassing, that of the finest adults. For example, the hair on the side of the mounted yearling in the Museum group has a length of 2 to 2 inches, while that on the same region of the adult bull, whose pelage is particularly fine, is recorded as being 2 inches only.

The horn is a straight, conical spike from 4 to 6 inches long, according to age, and perfectly black. The legs are proportionally longer and larger in the joints than those of the full-grown animal. The countenance of the yearling is quite interesting. The sleepy, helpless, innocent expression of the very young calf has given place to a wide-awake, mischievous look, and he seems ready to break away and run at a second's notice.
The measurements of the yearling in the Museum group are as follows:

Bison Americanus. (Male yearling, taken Oct. 31, 1886. Montana.)
(No. 15694, National Museum collection.)

  Feet Inches
Height at shoulders 3 5
Length, head and body to insertion of tail 5  
Depth of chest   1 11
Depth of flank  1 1
Girth behind fore leg  4 3
From base of horns around end of nose  2 1
Length of tail vertebrae   10

The Spike Bull.

In hunters' parlance, the male buffalo between the "yearling" age and four years is called a "spike" bull, in recognition of the fact that up to the latter period the horn is a spike, either perfectly straight, or with a curve near its base, and a straight point the rest of the way up. The curve of the horn is generally hidden in the hair, and the only part visible is the straight, terminal spike. Usually the spike points diverge from each other, but often they are parallel, and also perpendicular. In the fourth year, however, the points of the horns begin to curve inward toward each other, describing equal arcs of the same circle, as if they were going to meet over the top of the head.

Spike Bull.
From the group in the National Museum

In the handsome young "spike" bull in the Museum group, the hair on the shoulders has begun to take on the length, the light color, and tufted appearance of the adult, beginning at the highest point of the hump and gradually spreading. Immediately back of this light patch the hair is long, but dark and woolly in appearance. The leg tufts have doubled in length, and reveal the character of the growth that may be finally expected. The beard has greatly lengthened, as also has the hair upon the bridge of the nose, the forehead, ears, jaws, and all other portions of the head except the cheeks.

The "spike" period of a buffalo is a most interesting one. Like a seventeen-year-old boy, the young bull shows his youth in so many ways it is always conspicuous, and his countenance is so suggestive of a half-bearded youth it fixes the interest to a marked degree. He is active, alert, and suspicious, and when he makes up his mind to run the hunter may as well give up the chase.

By a strange fatality, our spike bull appears to be the only one in any museum, or even in preserved existence, as far as can be ascertained. Out of the twenty-five buffaloes killed and preserved by the Smithsonian expedition, ten of which were adult bulls, this specimen was the only male between the yearling and the adult ages. An effort to procure another entire specimen of this age from Texas yielded only two spike heads. It is to be sincerely regretted that more specimens representing this very interesting period of the buffalo's life have not been preserved, for it is now too late to procure wild specimens.

The following are the post-mortem dimensions of our specimen:

Bison Americanus
("Spike" bull, two years old; taken October 14, 1886. Montana.)
(No. 15685, National Museum collection.)

  Feet Inches
Height at shoulders 4 2
Length, head and body to insertion of tail 7 7
Depth of chest   2 3
Depth of flank  1 7
Girth behind fore leg  6 8
From base of horns around end of nose  2 8
Length of tail vertebrae 1  

The Adult Bull.

In attempting to describe the adult male in the National Museum group, it is difficult to decide which feature is most prominent, the massive, magnificent head, with its shaggy frontlet and luxuriant black beard, or the lofty hump, with its showy covering of straw-yellow hair, in thickly-growing locks 4 inches long. But the head is irresistible in its claims to precedence.

Bull Buffalo in National Museum Group
Drawn by Ernest E. Thompson

It must be observed at this point that in many respects this animal is an exceptionally fine one. In actual size of frame, and in quantity and quality of pelage, it is far superior to the average, even of wild buffaloes when they were most numerous and at their best.30 In one respect, however, that of actual bulk, it is believed that this specimen may have often been surpassed. When buffaloes were numerous, and not required to do any great amount of running in order to exist, they were, in the autumn months, very fat. Audubon says: "A large bison bull will generally weigh nearly 2,000 pounds, and a fat cow about 1,200 pounds. We weighed one of the bulls killed by our party, and found it to reach 1,727 pounds, although it had already lost a good deal of blood. This was an old bull, and not fat. It had probably weighed more at some previous period."31 Our specimen when killed (by the writer, December 6, 1886) was in full vigor, superbly muscled, and well fed, but he carried not a single pound of fat. For years the never-ceasing race for life had utterly prevented the secretion of useless and cumbersome fat, and his "subsistence" had gone toward the development of useful muscle. Having no means by which to weigh him, we could only estimate his weight, in which I called for the advice of my cowboys, all of whom were more or less familiar with the weight of range cattle, and one I regarded as an expert. At first the estimated weight of the animal was fixed at 1,700 pounds, but with a constitutional fear of estimating over the truth, I afterward reduced it to 1,600 pounds. This I am now well convinced was an error, for I believe the first figure to have been nearer the truth.

In mounting the skin of this animal, we endeavored by every means in our power, foremost of which were three different sets of measurements, taken from the dead animal, one set to check another, to reproduce him when mounted in exactly the same form he possessed in life-muscular, but not fat.

The color of the body and hindquarters of a buffalo is very peculiar, and almost baffles intelligent description. Audubon calls it "between a dark umber and liver-shining brown." I once saw a competent artist experiment with his oil-colors for a quarter of an hour before he finally struck the combination which exactly matched the side of our large bull. To my eyes, the color is a pale gray-brown or smoky gray. The range of individual variation is considerable, some being uniformly darker than the average type, and others lighter. While the under parts of most adults are dark brown or blackish brown, others are actually black. The hair on the body and hinder parts is fine, wavy on the outside, and woolly underneath, and very dense. Add to this the thickness of the skin itself, and the combination forms a covering that is almost impervious to cold.

The entire fore quarter region, e. g., the shoulders, the hump, and the upper part of the neck, is covered with a luxuriant growth of pale yellow hair (Naples yellow + yellow ocher), which stands straight out in a dense mass, disposed in handsome tufts. The hair is somewhat woolly in its nature, and the ends are as even as if the whole mass had lately been gone over with shears and carefully clipped. This hair is 4 inches in length. As the living animal moved his head from side to side, the hair parted in great vertical furrows, so deep that the skin itself seemed almost in sight. As before remarked, to comb this hair would utterly destroy its naturalness, and it should never be done under any circumstances. Standing as it does between the darker hair of the body on one side and the almost black mass of the head on the other, this light area is rendered doubly striking and conspicuous by contrast. It not only covers the shoulders, but extends back upon the thorax, where it abruptly terminates on a line corresponding to the sixth rib.

From the shoulder-joint downward, the color shades gradually into a dark brown until at the knee it becomes quite black. The huge fore-arm is lost in a thick mass of long, coarse, and rather straight hair 10 inches in length. This growth stops abruptly at the knee, but it hangs within 6 inches of the hoof. The front side of this mass is blackish brown, but it rapidly shades backward and downward into jet-black.

The hair on the top of the head lies in a dense, matted mass, forming a perfect crown of rich brown (burnt sienna) locks, 16 inches in length, hanging over the eyes, almost enveloping both horns, and spreading back in rich, dark masses upon the light-colored neck.

On the cheeks the hair is of the same blackish brown color, but comparatively short, and lies in beautiful waves. On the bridge of the nose the hair is about 6 inches in length and stands out in a thick, uniform, very curly mass, which always looks as if it had just been carefully combed.

Immediately around the nose and mouth the hair is very short, straight and stiff, and lies close to the skin, which leaves the nostrils and lips fully exposed. The front part of the chin is similarly clad, and its form is perfectly flat, due to the habit of the animal in feeding upon the short, crisp buffalo grass, in the course of which the chin is pressed flat against the ground. The end of the muzzle is very massive, measuring 2 feet 2 inches in circumference just back of the nostrils.

The hair of the chin-beard is coarse, perfectly straight, jet black, and 11 inches in length on our old bull.
Occasionally a bull is met with who is a genuine Esau amongst his kind. I once saw a bull, of medium size but fully adult, whose hair was a wonder to behold. I have now in my possession a small lock of hair which I plucked from his forehead, and its length is 22 inches. His horns were entirely concealed by the immense mass of long hair that nature had piled upon his head, and his beard was as luxuriant as his frontlet.

The nostril opening is large and wide. The color of the hairless portions of the nose and mouth is shiny Vandyke brown and black, with a strong tinge of bluish-purple, but this latter tint is not noticeable save upon close examination, and the eyelid is the same. The iris is of an irregular pear-shaped outline, 1-5/16 inches in its longest diameter, very dark, reddish brown in color, with a black edging all around it. Ordinarily no portion of the white eyeball is visible, but the broad black band surrounding the iris, and a corner patch of white, is frequently shown by the turning of the eye. The tongue is bluish purple, as are the lips inside.

The hoofs and horns are, in reality, jet black throughout, but the horn often has at the base a scaly, dead appearance on the outside, and as the wrinkles around the base increase with age and scale up and gather dirt, that part looks gray. The horns of bulls taken in their prime are smooth, glossy black, and even look as if they had been half polished with oil.

As the bull increases in age, the outer layers of the horn begin to break off at the tip and pile up one upon another, until the horn has become a thick, blunt stub, with only the tip of what was once a neat and shapely point showing at the end. The bull is then known as a "stub-horn," and his horns increase in roughness and unsightliness as he grows older. From long rubbing on the earth, the outer curve of each horn is gradually worn flat, which still further mars its symmetry.

The horns serve as a fair index of the age of a bison. After he is three years old, the bison adds each year a ring around the base of his horns, the same as domestic cattle. If we may judge by this, the horn begins to break when the bison is about ten or eleven years old, and the stubbing process gradually continues during the rest of his life. Judging by the teeth, and also the oldest horns I have seen, I am of the opinion that the natural life time of the bison is about twenty-five years; certainly no less.

Bison Americanus
(Male, eleven years old. Taken December 6, 1866. Montana.)
(No. 15703, National Museum collection.)

  Feet Inches
Height at shoulders 5 8
Length, head and body to insertion of tail 6 -
Depth of chest   10 2
Depth of flank  2 0
Girth behind fore leg  8 4
From base of horns around end of nose  3 5
Length of tail vertebrae 2 2

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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