The New International Encyclopædia/Bison

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BISON (Lat., Gk. βίσων, bisōn, wild ox; cf. OHG. Wisunt, Wisant, Ger. Wisent, bison, AS. Wesend, wild ox). A kind of wild cattle, characterized by massive and shaggy fore quarters. The name was applied by Pliny and subsequent Latin writers to a wild ox of Europe otherwise called bonasus, and probably the aurochs. More recently the term has been properly extended to the American ‘buffaloes,’ and erroneously to the East Indian gaurs. Zoölogically, the word is the name of a bovine genus, including the aurochs (Bison bonasus), the American bison (Bison Americanus), and several extinct species of both continents.

Bisons differ from other oxen in the excessive development of their fore quarters, where the line of the back arches over the withers in a hump formed by the long dorsal spines that give attachment to the very thick and strong muscles needed to support the massive head; also in their more slender limb-bones and ribs (which number 14 instead of 13), in the breadth and convexity of the front of the skull, where the horns spring from below the top line of the forehead, and in their six, instead of four, nasal bones. “Externally, they differ in having the head heavily clothed with long, bushy hair; they also possess a heavy barb, and the fore legs are heavily fringed with coarse, long hair. The clothing-hair of the body also differs from that of representatives of the restricted genus Bos and most of its allies in consisting mainly of short, curled, crisp wool in place of straight hairs. . . . Their nearest ally is probably the yak.” (Allen.) The females are smaller, less massive and shaggy in the fore quarters than the bulls, and with lighter horns. The two existing species will be treated of below. Three fossil species are recognized by J. A. Allen in his classic monograph, The American Bisons (Cambridge, 1876). One is Bison priseus, a very large, long-horned species, widely distributed in the Pleistocene formations of Europe. Another, named Bison antiquus, is found fossil in northern America, and is so closely similar that Allen thinks the two might have been local races of a then circumpolar species. Both of these are regarded by some naturalists as direct ancestors of the modern forms. The third is Bison latifrons, a more ancient type (yet belonging to the era preceding the present), which was of gigantic size, with horns that must have spread ten or twelve feet—three to four times that of any other species.

The Aurochs, bonasus, or zubr, has the general form of this type, and an old male stands about six feet high. The color is brown, much darker in the long hair of the fore parts than in the short wool of the sides and flanks. The horns are almost 18 inches long, tapering, spreading, and a little curved inward at the point, and the tail is long and heavily tufted. Once widely distributed over Continental Europe and Trans-Caucasia (avoiding the Russian steppes), it would long ago have become extinct were it not that guarded bands, numbering in 1898 about 700 individuals, have been protected in the Imperial forest preserves of Bialowicza in Lithuania, while a few hundred more roam semi-wild in the fastnesses of the Caucasus. It has never been really domesticated, though several experimental crossings have been made between it and tame cattle, the results of which have not been important. It is said to exhibit aversion to association with other cattle, and to retain its ancestral wildness and shyness with great tenacity. It moves about in small bands, which are easily provoked to anger, and become dangerous by the swiftness of their movements and the overpowering force of their weight in a charge. Its food consists of grass and brushwood, and the leaves and bark of young trees. Its cry is peculiar, “resembling a groan or grunt more than the lowing of an ox.” It does not attain its full stature till after its sixth year, and lives for about thirty or forty years.

The American Bison, more familiarly known as the ‘buffalo,’ is a slightly smaller, less massive animal than the aurochs, with more slender hind quarters, a shorter tail, and somewhat shorter and more robust horns, but with a higher hump and greater shagginess about the head and shoulders. The females are greatly inferior to the males in bulk, Audubon giving the weight of an old bull as nearly 2000 pounds, while full-grown, fat females will weigh only 1200 pounds. In habits it differs broadly from the aurochs in being highly gregarious, the nature of the country permitting it to gather into enormous herds, and in being almost exclusively a grazer.

“The habitat of the bison,” according to Allen, “formerly extended from the Great Slave Lake on the north, in latitude about 62°, to the northeastern provinces of Mexico, as far south as latitude 25°. Its range in British North America extended from the Rocky Mountains on the west to the wooded highlands about 600 miles west of Hudson's Bay, or about to a line running southeastward from Great Slave Lake to the Lake of the Woods. Its range in the United States formerly embraced a considerable area west of the Rocky Mountains, its recent remains having been found in Oregon as far west as the Blue Mountains, and farther south it occupied the Great Salt Lake basin, extending westward even to the Sierra Nevada Mountains, while less than fifty years ago (i.e. until about 1830) it existed over the headwaters of the Green and Grand rivers, and other sources of the Colorado. East of the Rocky Mountains its range extended southward far beyond the Rio Grande, and eastward throughout the region drained by the Ohio River and its tributaries. Its northern limit, east of the Mississippi, was the Great Lakes, along which it extended eastward to near the eastern end of Lake Erie. It appears not to have occurred south of the Tennessee River, and only to a limited extent east of the Alleghanies, chiefly in the upper districts of North and South Carolina.”

Restriction of range and decrease in numbers quickly followed the settlement of the interior. By 1800 it had disappeared east of the Mississippi; by 1850 it had been confined to the region of the dry plains; by 1875 it had been swept away from the central plains and limited to the region of northwestern Texas and western Kansas in the south, and in the north to Montana and northward, where isolated herds survived, with rapid diminution, until 1888, when the last remnant of the southern herd was nearly extinguished in the ‘Panhandle’ of Texas, by the capture of the last specimens by C. J. Jones (consult Inman, Buffalo Jones: Forty Years of Adventure, Topeka, 1899). Small scattered bands remained a few years longer in isolated retreats, but the end of the century saw none in freedom south of the North Saskatchewan. There, the extensive and lonely forests south of Great Slave Lake are still tenanted, sparingly, by the forest-ranging, larger and darker variety known as the Wood-Buffalo (subspecies Athabascæ), which is steadily being reduced by the Indians in spite of the efforts of Canadian officials. A few hundred also survive under legal protection in the Yellowstone National Park, on the Flathead Reservation in western Montana, and in various parks and zoölogical gardens in the United States and Europe—probably not more than 500 in all. This is the result of a century of unexampled waste of one of the most numerous, interesting, and valuable animals in the world, and it is an irretrievable national disgrace. For full particulars, consult Allen's Monograph, heretofore cited, and W. T. Hornaday's “Extermination of the American Bison,” in the Annual Report of the Smithsonian Institution for 1887.

The American bison was preëminently gregarious, and on the Western prairies and plains assembled in herds of thousands and even millions of individuals. So numerous were they that the early travelers on the plains might travel for days without losing sight of them; wagon-trains, and even the first railroad trains, were sometimes compelled to stop and wait for their passage; and the present writer has seen steamboats halted by herds swimming the Upper Missouri. These vast herds were made up of coherent bands, which had the habit of marching in files, and the paths thus made, called ‘buffalo-trails,’ are still traceable on the arid plains; also the circular ‘wallows’ where they rolled and spun in taking a dust-bath. Each band was accompanied by bulls which, when alarmed, formed a defensive circle, with lowered heads, about the cows and calves, to protect them from the attacks of the bands of wolves that followed the herds, preying upon the weaklings, or from onslaughts by a puma or a bear; the grizzly alone was able sometimes to vanquish a buffalo in single combat. During the midsummer rutting season the bulls were constantly fighting with one another also. The sexes remained together throughout the year, with the exception of an occasional solitary and morose bull. A single calf was the rule, born in spring, after a gestation of about nine months. The molting of the winter's woolly undercoat occurred early in summer, the hair coming off in great flakes; and the hide was in good condition for robes from October till May.

The buffaloes were nomadic, wandering in search of pasturage, and certain annual migratory movements took place under the influence of regional or seasonal changes in forage or weather. In such movements they swam large rivers fearlessly, and climbed mountains or made their way over rough ground with amazing agility. As a rule, however, they chose the easiest routes, and their trails were excellent guides to both travelers and engineers. One great defect in their character was their liability to panic, when the whole herd would rush headlong into a bog or over a precipice, taking no heed of the fate of those in front.

The Indians of the open interior region subsisted mainly upon the buffalo, and were able to retain their independence as long as it was numerous. The flesh was excellent beef, and was sun-dried in vast quantities for transportation; and the hides served as material for lodges, winter clothing, harness, boats (in the form of coracles on the Missouri), shields, etc. Various uses were found for the sinews, bones, and horns, while the dung or ‘chips’ formed the fuel of the plains. The Indians hunted it in companies, usually mounted, but sometimes on foot, or on snow-shoes, when various stratagems were employed to aid them. The simple chase on horseback was most exciting and perilous. When large amounts of meat were desired for winter stores, or for making pemmican, pounds were constructed, with guiding fences. At the entrance to the trap or inclosure a sudden pitch, natural or dug, would compel the animals to leap down, whence they could not return and could easily be slaughtered. This was feasible only in a somewhat wooded region. Another method was for a party of men to ride round and round a herd until they were crowded into a bewildered, stationary mass, and then kill them at leisure. White men at first hunted the buffalo for food, and thousands were recklessly killed for the sake of a single slice from the hump or a tongue. Their hides early became an article of commerce, and the Indians were encouraged to procure them for the traders. To this there was added, from about 1860 onward, an army of white hide-hunters, who made a business of following and ruthlessly slaughtering the animals, and succeeded so well that careful estimates show that on the average 2,000,000 hides a year were sent to market between the years 1865 and 1875. For these they received on the average no more than $1, out of which sundry expenses must be paid. Subsequently, as the product diminished, prices rose, but never very greatly, and robes continued to sell up to 1890, in Eastern cities, for from $15 to $40, and the few remaining are not greatly advanced in price.

A great number of poor hides were tanned for leather, but it was porous and of no great value. The coarse fleece has been spun, and small quantities of it have been made into a soft cloth used for gloves, etc.—a service certain Indians found for it prehistorically. The early settlers in the Mississippi Valley looked upon the buffalo as likely to prove domesticable and of great service; but although easily subjugated when taken young, it has not proved docile and of practical use, nor have the hybrids frequently produced between it and domestic cattle shown such qualities as make them desirable. See article on Buffalo.


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1. AMERICAN BISON or BUFFALO (Bison americanus)  2. EUROPEAN BISON or AUROCHS (Bison bonasus).