Buffalo

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Such freedom from want also made the frontier settler impatient with the constraints of government and community. Almost everywhere on the continent the availability of buffalo meat slowed down progress. Spanish emigrants in Texas followed the buffalo rather than the plow until Governor Cordero ordered that each man had to cultivate land. Settlers of the Red River Colony in Canada cared little for “rich homesteads so long as buffalo could be found… so long as we could get buffalo within three hundred miles we would prefer buffalo steaks to barley-meal. …” The presence of buffalo on the Kansas plains retarded the introduction of cattle there. The homesteader ate free buffalo meat and spent his money for plows and seed.

The Indian himself preferred hunting buffalo to farming. With the coming of the horse (and the pressure of white settlement), several agricultural tribes moved onto the plains and gave up the corn harvest in exchange for the buffalo harvest.

Seeds caught in shaggy buffalo pelts were carried from Milk River to Musselshell River, from Canadian River to Arkansas River. The buffalo distributed them to sprout elsewhere, doing the job the wind did for the flying seed carriers of the cottonwoods. Buffalo chips fertilized the soil the seeds had dropped on.

Wherever buffalo congregated, their droppings, their urine, their musky smell, their stagnant wallows, their rotting dead left an odor on the wind. A branch of the Jefferson River, a headwater of the Missouri, was referred to by the Indians as Passamari (“the Stinkingwater”) because the place smelled so of buffalo.

Buffalo smell disappeared soon after the buffalo disappeared; first his smell, then his thousands of footprints and his tufts of hair. His chips disappeared next, and then his bones. Underbrush sprang up again in cottonwood groves, canebrake resprouted about the salt licks. The tall grasses of the eastern prairie edged west a ways and spread a little in the shortgrass prairie—until cattle grazing removed them again. Wallows became grassy hollows. Grass grew in the maze of trails.

Yet today when j ust a powder of snow whitens the Canadian prairie, airplane pilots can see below them zigzags that look like faint tracings done by a giant scratch stick. Old buffalo trails.

We on the hill above Virginia City had seen the old eternal buffalo wandering, satisfying his 100,000-year wanderlust, a wildness no government hay could feed out of him. We, in our gathering here, were kin to the Frenchmen of Gallipolis, Ohio, in 1795. Resident Monsieur Duteil, coming upon buffalo near the town’s outskirts, fired without aiming at any particular bison and— voilà —he killed one and scampered back to town with the news. The windfall brought on a Gallic celebration, music, wine, parading, dancing in the streets—and feasting on Monsieur Le Bison. On Ennis Hill we faced on foot the original roarer of the West and wondered if we could outrace him should that tail come up and he charge us. We stood as if we were Spanish Conquistadors … or forty-niners… or literary sightseers, as anxious to tell of our buffalo experience as, say, Captain Vicente de Zaldivar. He, sent to search for the “cattle” that Governor Juan de Ofiate hoped to raise on a hacienda in New Mexico, saw his first buffalo in 1598 near the Pecos River and wrote, “Its shape and form are so marvelous and laughable or frightful, that the more one sees it the more one desires to see it, and no one could be so melancholy that if he were to see it a hundred times a day he could keep from laughing heartily as many times, or could fail to marvel at the sight of so ferocious an animal.” Washington Irving described the buffalo aspect as “most diabolical,” and went on to say, “There is a mixture of the awful and the comic in the look of these huge animals, as they bear their great bulk forwards.…” Another prairie sightseer wrote, “Nothing can be more revolting, more terrific, than a front view of an old bull buffalo … a dirty drunkard beard… altogether the appearance and expression of some four-legged devil.…”

In fact, if ever animal inspired man to write, the buffalo did. Antelope, elk, deer, rattlesnake, prairie dog, sage hen—these often went undescribed in the journals of prairie travelers, but few men crossed the prairie without having a go at buffalo description.

The early Spaniards tried to picture him in simile. Fernando del Bosque’s diary described “the hips and haunches … like those of a hog… to the shoulder there is much bristle-like hair, like he-goats… they gaze at people… with hair abristle.” Pedro de Castaneda, with Coronado, also tried comparing buffalo to other animals: “Their beard is like that of goats … on the anterior portion of the body a frizzled hair like sheep’s wool; it is very fine upon the croup, and sleek like a lion’s mane.… They always change their hair in May, and at this season they really resemble lions … they change it as adders do their skin. … Their tail is very short, and terminates in a great tuft. When they run they carry it in the air like scorpions. When quite young they are tawny, and resemble our calves.…”