Buffalo

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One morning in July, 1966, a lone buffalo bull grazed near the highway on the mountain between Virginia City and Ennis, Montana, unmindful of the click of camera shutters or the rustle of hesitant tourists getting in and out of automobiles. Nor did his tail rise and kink at carloads of miners and cowboys and store owners and the rest of us, come up from the towns below. After awhile he crossed the highway, stopping on it just long enough to pose for the picture that appeared in Virginia City’s weekly newspaper, The Madisonian , showing him astraddle the center line. He was a bachelor bull, alone in the way of bachelor bulls for ever and ever, roaming a range which a hundred years ago had held so many buffalo that the valleys below stank of them. Today he roamed the thousands of acres of forest, unaware in his typical bachelor solitude that he was one of the few buffalo on earth—and lucky to be here at that—a curiosity. Big, tough, sure that nothing could harm him, he fled from men in nylon sport shirts no more than he had from early Spaniards in iron breastplates (“They remained quiet and did not flee,” reported one of the conquistadors).

Undoubtedly he belonged in Yellowstone Park, but just like his greatgrandparents, he grazed where he pleased, moving unpredictably from range to range across wide expanses of country and showing up where least expected.

Something about the cry “Buffalo nigh!” always has pulled men out for a look. One Sunday in 1835, in the country south of the Tetons, the cry stole a congregation of mountain men from the Reverend Samuel Parker’s preaching. And such a cry startled greenhorns along the Platte into realizing that those brown shapes they saw ahead in a valley were buffalo—not brown bushes. It brought forty-niners tumbling out of Conestoga wagons for a go at a buffalo run. The same cry had brought us, miner and storekeeper, tourist and cowboy, actor and reporter, to gawk at a real, live, wild buffalo on the highway.

When erratic buffalo wandered and a man saw not a single buffalo in weeks of travel, what greenhorn could believe farfetched stories of buffalo as thick as gnats? Or tales of buffalo passing camp “ten abreast” at “a long lope … for about four hours”?

Yet the frontiersman persisted in telling the greenhorn the numbers of buffalo he had seen. “We counted the buffaloes by the hour instead of trying to determine how many were in the herd,” said a hide hunter from Montana’s high country. “It was impossible to count them, so we stood and kept track of the hours a herd required to pass a given point.” One such herd took five days to pass by and was figured at 4,000,000 head.

Men saw such numbers of buffalo that they feared no one back home would believe their descriptions. A Spaniard wrote, “It might be considered a falsehood … [but] according to the judgement of all of us who were in any army, nearly every day… as many cattle came out as are to be found in the largest ranches of New Spain.” A “reliable young man” told of waiting three days between Fort Benton and Milk River for a herd to cross. He claimed that once it was gone he crossed the trail and found it eighteen miles wide, with “that whole distance being trod to finest dust to the depth of six inches.”

 

Lewis and Clark observed “buffalo in such multitudes that we cannot exaggerate in saying that in a single glance we saw three thousand of them.” Less cautious observers claimed, “We see at one time ten thousand” or, at a single “coup d’oeil,” 50,000 buffalo. And Horace Greeley estimated, on his famous cross-country stagecoach trip, “I know a million is a great many, but I am confident we saw that number yesterday … [they] could not have stood on ten square miles.…”

Many travelers shied away from giving figures, preferring to tell what they’d observed and let the reader conjure up his own numbers. Thus Thomas Farnham wrote that when traveling along the Arkansas fifteen miles a day, and able to see for fifteen miles on each side of the trail, in three days he’d seen about 1,350 square miles of land entirely covered with buffalo. Equally mind-boggling were the observations of a Canadian rancher who noted that 23,000 cattle occupied only a corner of a valley he had once seen filled with buffalo. The Indians themselves, speaking of the buffalo, said, “The country was one robe.” Similarly, a white man said, “The ground seemed to be covered with a brown mantle of fur.” Yet their numbers disappointed one young man’s expectations—immense numbers were in sight but he could “see the ground in many places.”