Buffalo

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The herds marked their territory with trails, thousands of them, some shallow traces, some eightto ten-inch trenches, others “so deep that the animal’s sides would rub the embankments.” Millions of buffalo in thousands of years, buffalo feeding in the hills and walking down slopes to valley water and crossing ridges in search of new pasture, produced trail crossing trail. They abandoned deep ones for shallow new ones, until the paths led in any direction a man might go. They created mazes that frustrated prairie travelers. As Henry Kelsey, wandering Canadian plains in 1691, wrote, “by reason of so many beaten paths w[hich] y[e] Buffillo makes we lost y[e] track.” One hundred and fifty years later, Zebulon Pike, when lost on the plains, tried to follow the trail of Spaniards, who, he felt, had good guides and would know where to find wood and water, but he lost their trail, it “being so much blended with the traces of the buffalo.” An Oregon-bound emigrant of the 1850’s wrote, “It is astonishing to see the ground stamped, worn, hoofed & trod upon by these old fellows.” Often, a wagon train traveling west along the Platte was forced to stop and repair wheels loosened by the constant thumping from crossing buffalo trails. Emigrants who had been forewarned would stow away extra tire irons and felloes—the wooden rim of a wheel—to repair this damage.

But sometimes the trails were more help than hindrance. Buffalo had nosed into almost every place a man wanted to go. If he wanted to ride through seemingly impenetrable canebrake in bottoms east of the Mississippi, he usually found a buffalo trail going his way. Mountain men such as Zenas Leonard, weak and fighting deep snow, came upon trails broken for them by the buffalo (and were further saved when they shot the buffalo who had made the trails). Traders on the snowdrifted Canadian prairie saved their horses’ strength by following the winding buffalo paths. Indians dragged travois in the convenient trails. Wagons followed paths beaten wide through the wilderness.

A lone traveler such as artist George Catlin, riding chartless across the plains, did as many other wanderers: he looked to cross rivers where a buffalo trail broke steep cutbank into a slope his horse could manage. Sometimes these travelers found buffalo hooves had squished such a crossing into quagmire, though at other times they had pounded it pavement-hard; often a hoped-for spring had been worked “into a loblolly of mud.”

Trails led out of creek bottoms toward feeding grounds, forking, curlicuing across the grass in patterns as erratic as the whimsies of the beast. As many as twenty paths together crossed ridges, going over them a couple of feet apart like old corn rows but not so wide. (Men still run upon such trails in these low crossing places.) Father Hennepin noted: “Their ways are as beaten as our great Roads, and no Herb grows therein.” The trails eroded hillsides, left ridges barren and washing away, made gullies down steep coulees and clay cutbanks. In wet weather, two hundred buffalo would wear an instant muddy trail in one crossing of a meadow. Where the buffalo fed, men found big footprints “cloven, and bigger than the feete of Camels” running “in all directions”; where the tracks lay thick, men found soil so “absolutely manured with dung of buffalo” it appeared as “a stallyard.”

Between the trails, tufts of buffalo hair fluttered amongst the grass, bits of it waved in the breeze from thorn-apple spikes and from lodgepole bark, a Spanish moss of the sagebrush country. If a man found a red squirrel’s nest or a bird’s nest, he likely found it lined with buffalo hair.

Sign of elk, deer, and antelope also imprinted itself on the land, but the prairie traveler’s journal mostly noted buffalo sign. Like the beast itself, the quantity of sign outdid anything a woodsman or hunter had seen before… an animal bigger than an ox wandering seemingly as thick as the prairie dog, the pigeon, or the mosquito.

Buffalo dimpled the range with thousands of wallows, shallow dusty saucers horned and pawed in the bunch grass. At sunset and sunrise, when the wallows threw long, crescent shadows, the landscape looked pocked like the moon. These hollows stood brimful of rainwater in the spring, the “innumerable ponds which bespeckle the plains, and kept us at least well supplied with water,” a traveler wrote, but by May these hollows were “thick and yellow with buffalo offal”—watering holes for buffalo only; buffalo could stomach anything. In late spring such manure and moisture produced a rank growth of gras.s, circular growths all about the prairie—“hay lakes” old-timers called them. By midsummer they dried completely, the grass disappeared under wallowings, and the soil became sifted by constant horning and pawing.

Although a man easily could pile the soft soil of the ubiquitous buffalo wallow into a hasty breastwork for protection from Indian attack, the wallows usually proved a nuisance. They forced wagons to wind amongst them and, in the buffalo hunt, caused steeplechase jumps across or wild springings to the side. And the homesteader found some of them almost impossible to plow because, a farm child recalled years later, “down in the bottom of each of them wallows was a thick alkali deposit … the only way Father could handle them wallows when it come to farming was to haul in, wagonloads of sand and dump them in to sort of loosen the ground up. …” (Homesteaders were still plowing around buffalo wallows in Montana in 1910.) In barren sand spots, wallows grew to cover an acre or more.