Buffalo

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Later, other European explorers of the new continent mentioned seeing buffes , but this term referred as much to the buff leather that a beast might provide as it did to the beast—as much to elk or moose as to buffalo. And it’s hard to tell from an occasional description just what animal was seen. David Ingram, who walked from the Gulf of Mexico to St. Johns River about 1570 (see April/May, 1979, A MERICAN H ERITAGE ), wrote, “great plentye of Buffes … w ch are Beastes as bigge as twoe Oxen in length almost twentye foote, havinge longe eares like a bludde hownde w th long heares about there eares, ther homes be Crooked like Rames homes, ther eyes blacke, there heares longe blacke, rough and hagged as a Goate, the Hydes of these Beastes are solde verye deare.”

The most accurate part of this description, “Hydes … solde verye deare,” fascinated European fortune hunters. Coronado interviewing the chiefs of the pueblo of Pecos, queried one closely about the cattle in his land. What did they look like? He couldn’t tell from the matted hides brought as gifts. A young chief brought forth one of his men; there on his skin Coronado saw a likeness of a cow painted. The general sent Captain de Alvarado and twentyone men to size up the prospects of the real animal.

Profit was the gleam in the Spaniard’s eye, whether from the gold in the supposed coffers of Quivira or from the free cattle in sight. Captain Zaldivar said that not a man in his command expected to own less than 10,000 of the leather-bearing wild animals. Reports sent to the King of Spain emphasized the wealth in cattle. One overexuberant subject went so far as to ship the King two buffalo bulls and four cows as a gift. Only a cow and a bull survived the voyage to surprise and—somewhatplease His Majesty. He instructed the giver to refrain from sending animals in the future.

 

The French, too, saw the buffalo more as a commodity than as a wild animal, and thought of them as “ownerless herds.” Although some Frenchmen at first called the buffalo by the ancient Algonquin name piskiou , they soon called him le boeuf , le boeuf sauvage , Islinois cattle, or vaches sauvages , and finally le bison . Englishmen also saw him as an ox and knew that “their flesh [was] good foode, their hides good lether, their fleeces very useful. …” They sometimes referred to him by the biblical “kine,” but more often by “buffe,” or “buf.” Later he came by such English names as: prairie beeves, shag-haired oxen, wild ox, and cattle. But the name de Soto had given in 1544 to the beast he’d never seen—“buffalo”—finally came into common usage after it appeared in Catesby’s The Natural History of Carolina Florida, and the Bahama Islands in the mid 1700’s. And so the beast garnered his rolling name to go with his rolling gait.

Today we still hear the expression “He sure had him buffaloed,” meaning “bluffed”; it’s about the only remnant of buffalo imagery except for “hightailed it,” which might equally refer to deer or antelope. But dozens of apt buffalo phrases arose to the lips of those who lived surrounded by buffalo and buffalo doings. Prairie adventurer and novelist George Ruxton, describing an Indian who was stabbed eight times before he died, wrote: “As much life in him as a buffalo bull.” A hide hunter laconically called a human corpse “dead as a buffalo chip.”

A mountain man’s speech was filled with buffalo metaphor, the most common image in his life. He called the animal “buffler”; to him “a buffalo” meant a buffalo robe. When he said “robe season,” he meant a cold spell; “old bull thrower” referred not to a liar but to his rifle. He would say “making meat” or “running meat” to mean chasing buffalo, for which he first had to “raise the herd”—put it into a full run. If he knocked a buffalo down in one clean shot, he “throwed him in his tracks,” but he might prefer to shoot to make him “pump blood.” As he butchered he ate raw, body-warm liver over which he had dripped “buffalo cider”—bitter buffalo gall.

If he needed analogy or simile, the mountain man as often as not used the buffalo; he might describe a man as “a big feller with hair frizzed out like an old buffler’s just afore sheddin’ time.” When a mountain man felt brave, he felt “as brave as a buffler in the spring,” but when he fled, “I ran as ef a wounded buffler was raisin’ my shirt with his horns.” And in telling a yarn of monsters, he described horrible dogs as having heads “bigger an’ a buffler’s in summer” (a buffalo’s head looks larger in the summer, when he’s shed most body hair). He swore to the truth of such a yarn by saying, “an” ef it aint fact, he doesn’t know ‘fat cow’ for ‘poor bull.’ ”

The Plains Indians also saw much of the world in buffalo terms. The Crows measured big trees as one-robe, two-robe, or three-robe trees—however many robes would stretch about a trunk; likewise they spoke of tepees as twelve-robe or fifteen-robe tepees, indicating how many robes sewed together created it. They used the term “drop his robe”—similar to our “died with his boots on”—to mean a man who had died where he stood.