PERHAPS no indigenous animal of this country has attracted more attention or met with a greater number of biographers than the bison or buffalo. Its history has been a tale of extermination, and a very few years are likely to see the last of these noble beasts roaming over the Plains. For hundreds of years the few that remain of the herds of aurochs, the European bison, have been kept in the parks of the nobility; but, in this “free” country, not even this means of safety seems left to our persecuted buffalo.
To the Spanish colonists the American bison was commonly known under the name of cibola, while the French usually called it le bœuf, buffle, vache sauvage, or bison d'Amérique. Peter Kalm, who traveled through America in 1749, spoke of them as wilde ochsen and kühe. But the word buffalo — at first spelled buffelo — soon replaced the earlier names. Scientific men claim that our species (Bison Americanus, Smith) should be called bison, as buffalo is applicable only to the East Indian genus Bubalus.
It appears that our bison has already outlived at least two other races, which exceeded it in size — the Bison latifrons and the Bison antiquus. The former was contemporary with the mastodon, and was an ox of gigantic bulk, the tips of whose horns were eleven or twelve feet apart, and which probably stood as high as an elephant. Of the latter species more abundant remains have been dug up, particularly from the ice-cliffs at Escholtz Bay, on the Arctic coast north of Alaska. This fossil ox was of smaller size than the Bison latifrons, but much larger than the existing buffalo, although not greatly different from it in form. It seems to have been spread over the northwestern half of the continent from the Ohio Valley to Alaska, and everywhere its remains occur with those of the larger extinct mammalia, yet it may have survived to a comparatively recent date.
With the appearance of the buffalo, which only a few decades ago swarmed in prodigious herds over nearly a third of North America, all are familiar. The male measures about nine feet from the muzzle to the insertion of the tail; the female about six and a half feet. The height to the top of the hump of the male is five and a half to six feet, and of the female about five feet, sloping in each case to a height at the hips of four and a half to four feet. The weight of the old males is nearly two thousand pounds, while the cows weigh one thousand to twelve hundred pounds. The horns are short, thick at the base, curved, and sharply pointed; the hoofs are short and broad; the short tail ends in a tuft of long hairs. In winter the head and whole under parts are blackish-brown; the upper surface lighter, fading as spring advances.