Popular Science Monthly/Volume 17/May 1880/The Buffalo and his Fate

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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. Young animals are of a darker, richer brown than the old ones, age bleaching the thick masses of long, woolly hair, which falls so abundantly over the shoulders and face, to a light yellowish-brown. In the spring the hinder parts are almost naked through the molting of the hair, while that upon the shaggy fore parts remains permanently. Pied coats are occasionally met, and examination and measurements of skulls and skeletons show much individual variation in form and proportions.

In Mr. J. A. Allen's recent book[1] upon “The Bison, Past and Present, in this Country,” which is one of the most complete and admirable monographs ever written on any subject, and from which I derive my facts, an extended account of the animal's history and habits is given.

As is well known, the buffalo is preëminently gregarious—herds numbering millions of individuals, and blackening the whole landscape, having formerly been met with constantly on the Plains. Emigrant trains used to be delayed by the passing of dense herds, and during the first years of the Kansas Pacific railway its trains were frequently stopped by the same cause. These masses seem to have some sort of organization, consisting of small bands which unite in migration or when pursued, but separate when feeding. The cows, with their calves and the younger animals, are generally toward the middle of the small herd, while the older bulls are found on the outside, and the patriarchs of the herd bring up the rear. Much romancing has been wasted on this simple and natural grouping by writers who have described the supposed regularity and almost military precision of their movements. The sluggish, partly disabled old males constitute the “lordly sentinels” of such tales, who are supposed to watch with fatherly care over the welfare of their “harems.” The truth is that these protectors, fancied so alert, are the most easily approached of any of the flock, and the real guardians are the vigilant cows themselves, who usually lead the movements of the herd.

The rutting-season is July and August. The period of pregnancy is nine months, and rarely more than a single calf is born, which follows the mother for a year or more. During the rutting-season the bulls wage fierce battles, but they rarely result fatally. The short horns are not very dangerous weapons, and the masses of hair on the forehead break the force of the stunning collisions. At this season the bulls become lean, regaining their flesh in autumn, while the cows are fattest in June. During its molting in midsummer the animal possesses a very ragged and uncouth appearance, the hair hanging here and there in matted, loosened patches, with intervening naked spaces; and it endeavors to free itself from this loosened hair, by rubbing against rocks and trees, or rolling on the ground. Their coats are in prime condition for robes in December.

The buffalo is nomadic in its habits, roaming in the course of the year over vast areas in search of food or safety. The fires that annually sweep across thousands of square miles of the grassy plains, the ravages of grasshoppers, often destroying equally extensive tracts of vegetation, and the habit of keeping in compact herds, which soon exhaust the herbage of a single region, all compel constant movement. There is a popular belief that the buffaloes used to migrate from the northern plains to Texas in fall and back again in spring, but this seems erroneous. Before the intersection of the West by railroads and emigrant trails their movements were more regular, no doubt, than at present, and slight northward and southward migrations are well attested as occurring in Texas and also on the Saskatchewan plains; but the herds constantly winter as far north as the latter region, and for twenty-five years have not passed southward even to the Platte. In the extreme north they leave the exposed plains in winter and take shelter among the wooded hills. Such local movements as these were formerly very regular, and hunters knew just where to look for their game at any season of the year.

The behavior of the buffaloes is very much like that of domestic cattle, but their speed and endurance seem to be far greater. When well under way it takes a fleet horse to overtake them, and they raise a column of dust which marks their progress when miles away. They swim rivers with ease, even amid floating ice, and show a surprising agility and expertness in making their way down precipitous cliffs and banks of streams, plunging headlong where a man would pick his way with hesitation. Ordinarily, however, the buffalo exhibits commendable sagacity in his choice of routes, usually taking the easiest grades and the most direct course, so that a buffalo-trail—often worn deep into the ground—can be depended on as affording the most feasible road through the region it traverses.

When belligerent, the old bulls make the most blustering demonstrations, but are really cowardly. Facing the approaching hunter with a boastful and defiant air, they will pace to and fro,threateningly pawing the earth, only to take to their heels the next moment. The bulls greatly enjoy pawing the earth and throwing it up with their horns, digging into banks or getting down upon one knee to strike into the level surface, so that the sheaths of their horns are always badly splintered. They are very fond, too, of rubbing themselves, and evidently regard the telegraph-poles along the railroads as set there for their especial convenience in this respect. But their chief delight is in “wallowing.” Finding in the low parts of the prairie a little stagnant water among the grass, or at least the surface soft and moist, an old bull plunges his horns into the ground, tearing up the earth and soon making an excavation into which the water trickles, forming for a short time a cool and comfortable bath, in which he wallows like a hog in the mire, swinging himself round and round on his side, and thus enlarging the pool until he is nearly immersed. At length he rises besmeared with a coating of mud, which, drying,insures him immunity from insect pests for many hours. Others follow, each enlarging the “wallow” until it becomes twenty feet in diameter, remains a prominent feature in the landscape, and forms a cistern where a grateful supply of water is often long retained for the thirsty denizens of that dry region.

Like the other species of the bovine group the bison is of a sluggish disposition, and mild and timid, ferocious as his shaggy head and vicious eye make him look. He rarely attacks, except in the last hopeless effort of self-defense. “Endowed with the smallest possible amount of instinct,” says Colonel R. I. Dodge, “the little he has seems adapted rather for getting him into difficulties than out of them. If not alarmed at sight or smell of a foe, he will stand stupidly gazing at his companions in their death-throes until the whole herd is shot down. He will walk unconsciously into a quicksand or quagmire already choked with struggling, dying victims.” Having made up his mind to go a certain way, it is almost impossible to swerve him from his purpose, and he will rush heedless into sure destruction. Two trains were “ditched”in one week on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad by herds of buffaloes rushing blindly against and in front of them. Finally the conductors “got the idea,” and gave the original occupants of the soil the right of way whenever they asked it. During a voyage down the upper Missouri in 1877, our steamer more than once had to stop to allow swimming herds to get out of the way, and once we completely keel-hauled a sorry old bull. Yet, as Mr. Allen suggests, their inertness may be exaggerated by writers, as their sagacity certainly has been. This stupidity, unwariness, or liability to demoralizing panic, places them at the mercy of the hunter, who is their only enemy besides the wolves. In former times, young or weak animals straying from the herds, and all the wounded and aged that could be separated from their fellows, were quickly set upon and worried to death by wolves; but now these brutes have become so reduced as not to form a serious check upon their increase.

The early explorers of the Mississippi Valley believed that the buffalo might be made to take the place of the domestic ox in agricultural pursuits, and at the same time yield a fleece of wool equal in quality to that of the sheep; but no persistent attempts have yet been made to utilize it by domestication. That the buffalo-calf may be easily reared and thoroughly tamed has been conclusively proved, but little attention has been paid to their reproduction in confinement, or to training them to labor. During the last century they were domesticated in various parts of the colonies, and interbred with domestic cows, producing a half-breed race which is fertile, and which readily amalgamates with the domestic cattle. The half-breeds are large, fine animals, possessing most of the characteristics of their wild parentage. They can be broken to the yoke, but are not so sober and manageable in their work as the tame breed—sometimes, for instance, making a dash for the nearest water, with disastrous results to the load they are drawing. It is somewhat difficult, also, to make a fence which shall resist the destructive strength of their head and horns. But the efforts at taming buffaloes have not been many or seriously carried on, and no attempt appears to have been made to perpetuate an unmixed domestic race. Probably after a few generations they would lose their natural untractableness, and when castrated would doubtless form superior working-cattle, from their greater size, strength, and natural agility.

“The fate of extermination so surely awaits, sooner or later, the buffalo in its wild state, that its domestication becomes a matter of great interest, and is well worthy the attention of intelligent stock-growers, some of whom should be willing to take a little trouble to perpetuate the pure race in a domestic state. The attempt can be hardly regarded otherwise than as an enterprise that would eventually yield a satisfactory and profitable result, with the possibility of adding another valuable domestic animal to those we now possess.”

The precise limit of the range of the buffalo when the first Europeans visited America is still a matter of uncertainty, yet its boundaries at that time can be established with tolerable exactness. It was beyond doubt almost exclusively an animal of the prairies and the woodless plains, ranging only to a limited extent into the forested districts east of the Mississippi River. The results of the present exhaustive inquiries seem to show that its extension to the northward, east of the Mississippi, was limited by the Great Lakes. Contrary to the supposition of several recent writers, Mr. Allen has not been able to find a single mention of its occurrence within the present limits of Canada, New England, or New York State, although the name of the city of Buffalo and the neighboring “Buffalo Creek” probably imply that this animal once extended its travels to that point. All the supposed references to its being seen on the St. Lawrence, or in Canada West, turn out to mean the elk—the same indefinite terms being often used for both by early writers—or else to apply to some part of the broad territory then called Canada, but not now included within its limits. Changes in political boundaries have constantly to be borne in mind in studying ancient narratives.

Furthermore, no remains of the bison have been found among the bones in the shell-heaps along the Atlantic coast, and there is no unquestionable evidence, among all the early lists of the natural products of the country, of its occurrence anywhere on the seaboard north of the Potomac for a long period antedating the discovery of the continent by Europeans. The only well-authenticated instances of its being found east of the Blue Ridge are the apparently casual passage of small herds through the mountains from West Virginia into the upper parts of North and South Carolina by way of the New, Holston, and French Broad Rivers. They seem to have been common on the savannas about the heads of the rivers in the western parts of those States; but it is well attested that they never came down to the seacoast. Nor can good evidence be shown that they ever reached any part of Georgia, Florida, or Alabama (although possibly Mississippi), as at present bounded, not appearing habitually to have penetrated south of the Tennessee River—unless just along the bank of the Father of Waters—on account of the thickness of the forest.

The records in general then show, that at the beginning of the seventeenth century the range of the buffalo east of the Mississippi, with the exception of its occasional appearance on the eastern slope of the Alleghanies in the Carolinas and Virginia, was restricted to the area drained by the Ohio River—except over the lowlands at its mouth—and to the eastern tributaries of the Mississippi in northern Wisconsin and Minnesota; also that it was very numerous and uniformly distributed over the prairies of Illinois and Indiana, and also about the upper tributaries of the Ohio, but less numerously and uniformly over Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky, western Pennsylvania, and the northern portion of Tennessee, being everywhere restricted to the prairies and scantily wooded land along the streams.

In the appendix Professor Shaler offers a short discussion of the probable age of the bison in the Ohio Valley. In the swamps surrounding the “salt-licks” of Kentucky buffalo-bones are found packed in great quantities in the mucky soil, but only about the latest vents of the saline waters, which have from time to time changed their points of escape from the ground. The caverns of Kentucky and Tennessee, which were the homes of the aboriginal people of the region, and receptacles for their dead, and where have been found skeletons of the beaver, deer, wolf, bear, and many other mammals, have never yielded any bones of the bison. Moreover, among all the many figures of animals and birds found on the pottery and ornaments of the prehistoric races of the West, the marked form of the buffalo does not appear, making it presumable that this animal was unknown to the people who built the mounds. Professor Shaler is of the opinion, held by many ethnologists, that the “mound-builders” were essentially related to the Natchez group of Indians, and were driven southward by ruder tribes of red-men from the north and northwest. The Indians north of the Ohio are known to have been much in the habit of burning the forests, and no doubt the invaders alluded to above signalized their advance by such conflagrations. This making of plains by the repeated burning of forests, aided by “the continued decrease of the rainfall, which was “a concomitant of the disappearance of the glacial period,” permitted the buffalo to advance rapidly eastward as far as the Alleghanies, and, coincidently, as far as the mound-building people appear to have settled the country. Its advent thus seems to have been singularly recent.

The question of the origin of the buffalo and its relation to the earliest tribes of people in the Ohio Valley is made still more complicated by the fact that an earlier and closely related species of buffalo, probably coeval with the mammoth and musk-ox, and possibly with the caribou and elk, was living at the time just following the close of the glacial epoch. “I am strongly disposed to think,” writes Professor Shaler, “that in the Bison Americanus we have the descendant of the Bison latifrons, modified by existence in the new conditions of soil and climate to which it was driven by the great changes closing the last ice age.” But he adds that future explorations will probably show that there was an interval of some thousands of years between the two species along the Ohio.

Although the main chain of the Rocky Mountains has been supposed commonly to form the western limit of the range of the buffalo, there is abundant proof of its former existence over a vast area west of it, including a large part of the Utah Basin, the Green River plateau, and the plains of the Columbia, westward to the Blue Mountains of Oregon, and the Sierra Nevada. Evidence of this is found in the bleached skulls, in accounts of early explorers, and in traditions of the Indians. During the very severe and snowy winter of 1836-'37 large herds were lost through starvation; by 1840 they had retreated eastward to the forks of the Yellowstone and been extirpated in the Utah Valley and about the head-waters of the Colorado; and ten years later were never to be found west of the Rocky Mountains, between the British possessions and the Rio Grande del Norte. Westward of this great river it does not seem, within the past two centuries, to have extended itself at all into the highlands of New Mexico; but, farther south, there is proof of its former range over the northeastern provinces of Mexico to at least the twenty-fifth parallel, though it was never abundant there, and abandoned that region before the beginning of the current century.

The great center of buffalo-life in ages past was the vast expanse of treeless plains which stretch uninterruptedly from the Texas coasts almost to the Arctic Circle, and here, in restricted areas, they have survived until the present time.

When Cabeça de Vaca met them in 1530 they ranged throughout nearly the whole of Texas, the higher prairie-lands of northwestern Louisiana and Arkansas, and thence uniformly northward and westward. But soon after 1820 they disappeared altogether from Arkansas, and were not seen in western Missouri and southern Iowa later than 1825; but immense herds still roamed over the northern half of the latter State. Since 1845, however, few have been seen anywhere within Iowa, nor did they linger many years longer in Minnesota.

The stream of emigration across the plains to California about 1859 had a curious and permanent effect on the buffaloes. The overland route followed up the Kansas and Platte Rivers, and thence westward by the North Platte to the South Pass. The buffaloes were soon all driven from this line of travel; and the great herd which had stretched from the Rio Grande to the Saskatchewan was permanently divided into two—a northern and a southern herd—which were more and more widely separated by the construction of the Union Pacific Railroad. Year by year since, the limits of the range of each division have been contracting under relentless persecution and the encroachments of civilization, until now they are easily circumscribed. The poor beasts have been hunted by the Indians, have been followed incessantly by white men—professional hunters, sportsmen, hide-seekers, and soldiers—who have been afforded easy access to their haunts by the railroads which have penetrated to their ancient pastures, and been given the means of keeping up the hunt by the nearness of the frontier settlements to the resorts of each herd. Enormous destruction has ensued in Kansas and Colorado, and has had the effect to drive the southern division southward and southwestward into Texas, where hunters can not or (on account of Indians) dare not follow them. They are, therefore, just now (1876) afforded temporary rest from persecution; but, unless legal interference be quickly made and strict regulations rigorously enforced, the fate of the buffalo south of the Platte will be a repetition of its history east of the Mississippi—speedy extermination.

As to the northern herd, while twenty years ago buffaloes were accustomed to frequent the whole region between the Missouri River and the forty-ninth parallel, from the western boundary of Dakota to the Rocky Mountains, and even far into their valleys, they are now restricted to the comparatively small area drained by the southern tributaries of the Yellowstone, and northward over the most of Montana to the Missouri. North of the Missouri River almost a separate subdivision of the herd seems to exist, which feeds between longitude 106° and the Rocky Mountains, and northward to the wooded region of the Athabasca and Peace Rivers. Within thirty years they have become extirpated over half of this fertile region north of our boundary, and their numbers, probably, have correspondingly decreased.

It thus appears that in three quarters of a century the buffalo has been compelled to relinquish a habitat, covering a third of the continent, for two regions not greater together than the present Territories of Montana and Dakota; and they were formerly just as numerous over the whole extent as they now are in favored spots within their range. Hence the theory that they have not been so much reduced in numbers, as they have been circumscribed in range and concentrated upon narrow limits, will not hold good. Over much of this great region they were actually killed on the spot, not driven out.

  1. Volume I., Part II., “Memoirs of the Geological Surrey of Kentucky,” Professor N. S. Shaler, Geologist, in charge; and reprinted by the Museum of Comparative Zoölogy as one of its “Memoirs.” Cambridge, 1875.