Buffalo

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Some areas of the grassland contained big, mysterious rings of verdant grass that people laid to buffalo doings. Not gouged out like the wallows, these looked like the mushroom-inspired circles called “fairy rings.” Some men claimed that buffalo bulls, trudging around calves and cows to protect them from the wolves, had scuffed out the rings in which later the grass grew tall. Another man, observing seventy-five-year-old, horseshoeshaped fairy rings on sidehills, reasoned that “the calf if born on a side hill, the cow would face the wolf which would stay on the upper side and try to make a downhill run to get the calf. The cow would make the half circle run and back until it wore a deep rut.…” Other men thought the cows, bedded down in a circle about the calves, dropped seeds from their shaggy manes that later sprouted to form the rings. Some Indians laid the rings to the wear caused by dances of the buffalo, large circles caused by large buffalo, small circles by small buffalo. None of these explanations seem as good as the one given in the 1830’s by George Catlin for the nonfungus-caused rings. He surmised the rank, circular growth occurred in old wallows that had filled partially with “vegetable deposits” and soil.

 

Buffalo changed the grasslands as no other beast had done: they made trails down hillsides into deep, eroded trenches, they bared the ridges even as their droppings fertilized them (certainly any favorite place of theirs became well-fertilized as well as denuded). They smashed down the alder and quaking aspen; they often denuded .areas of grass (one buffalo eats as much as two elk or four deer). Men continually ran across places where the grass “was eaten to the earth, as if the place had been devastated by locusts.” Journal after journal complains of such stripping of the land: “The grass would be rather long were it not for the buffalo”; “our horses are starving”; “they ate up all the grass, it looked as though fire had burned the prairies… I lost all my cattle”; “the teams began to grow weak and thin in flesh.” The herds ate themselves out of forage: “The front herds swallow every herb and leaf. The rear masses now get nothing and they die like the forests strewn by the summer thunder.” In the same way, a large herd moved through water holes, sucking them dry. But the erratic herds moved continually, and travelers soon found that “outside the buffalo runs, the grass was fine” and the water untouched.

 

To the Indian, also, buffalo meant hazard and nuisance. Corn raisers had to live outside of buffalo country to keep their fields beyond the range of the trampling herds. Indians living in buffalo country worried about buffalo trying to graze within the tepee circle or the occasional snorting bull who charged into camp. Sometimes, rather’ than staging a hunt for them, they could kill the animals grazing amongst thé’ lodges. Sometimes a buffalo would1 dodge into a tepee, and the men would** shoot him down from the opening in the= top. Once a bull entered a tepee in the” middle of the night, snapped the lodge poles, and carried the lodge skin with him off into the darkness where the former occupants could see it dimly “careening about the corral as if it were endowed with life… dancing round and round, a fiendish dance to a step of its own,” according to an Indian trader. Grandparents had to watch that children playing away from the tepees might not fall into the path of a moving herd. Boys guarding the horse herd had to stop any horse from wandering off with a stray buffalo, as horses loved to do.

White men lost themselves in the madness of the buffalo chase and wandered until starved, or killed or rescued. Railway engineers braked their trains to a stop rather than risk stalling the cars in a collision with buffalo bodies. (Yarns have it that herds occasionally pushed cars from the tracks.) Men driving yoked oxen had to jump from the wagon and run for it when buffalo bulls attacked their team. Small prairie settlements awoke to gardens mangled and fences downed by buffalo night visitors. At forts, buffalo wandering about the parade ground sometimes proved a nuisance.

But buffalo occasionally seemed the saviors of the plains. Men crawled into buffalo carcasses to escape the blizzard. Some slept snug and warm, others lay awake through a long night listening to wolf teeth tearing at the meat all about them. Others, legend says, awoke to find the pliable carcass of last night now frozen stiff, making a prison of ribs and backbone, and died before a thaw could release them. A green hide, rolled into for the night, sometimes froze and also “boxed in” a man. However, to a starving man, buffalo seemed a blessing. John Bozeman and friend, robbed of everything by Crows, avoided starving by killing an old, blind bull with a hunting knife fastened to a long pole.

The buffalo experience equaled the Western experience. Moreover, the beasts offered such easy living—steaks and roasts for the butchering—that most eighteenth-century Kentuckians living west of the mountains ate meat instead of bread. They could make do with a tiny clearing of garden patch.