October/November 1979 | Volume 30, Issue 6
Piskiou,Vaches Sauvages, Buffler, Prairie Beeves—
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.”
Although the herds stood “in such immense numbers as to defy computation,” Ernest Thompson Seton, the Canadian naturalist, had a try at computing their overall numbers. In 1906 he estimated that, since 24,000,000 cattle and horses then lived on 750,000 acres of fenced plains (about half the plains available to buffalo), surely 40,000,000 buffalo could have lived here. He estimated that another 30,000,000 could have lived on the 500,000 acres of the prairies—they would support that many buffalo per acre. And he estimated that only 5,000,000 animals could have lived in the 1,000,000 square miles of forests of the East. This gave him a total of about 75,000,000 buffalo living in North America in primitive times; he conservatively lowered this to 50,000,000 or 60,000,000. As a population that expanded, he argued, at about five per cent a year until Columbus arrived, they might have come, Seton thought, to the point of overcrowding. Others believe that their enormous natural losses kept them from outgrowing their food supply. And Tom McHugh, a biologist, disagrees with Seton’s figures. Using the “carrying capacity” of the 1,250,000 square miles of grassland available to buffalo as 25 acres per buffalo, he arrives at an estimate of 32,000,000 here and 2,000,000 living in bordering areas. This seems the best estimate yet.
When the Spaniards explored north of the Rio Grande in the middle of the sixteenth century, they found buffalo. When, soon after, other Spaniards landed on the Florida peninsula and moved inland, they came upon some buffalo. When still other Spaniards came to the mouth of the Mississippi and the coast of Texas, they too found buffalo. In fact, the only early Spaniards who saw and ate no buffalo were those who settled on the Pacific coast of California: buffalo of the high plains had been turned back by the barren Sierra Mountains and Mojave Desert, their numbers had been depleted by intensive hunting, and many, due to “late” arrival on the plains, simply had not had time to expand their range that far west.
The Dutch found buffalo along the Niagara; the Scots found them along the Cumberland. Spanish de Soto heard of them being in Georgia country and French La Salle noted them along the Mississippi. Americans Lewis and Clark found them all along the Missouri, but not at all along the Columbia—nor were many there.
Buffalo filled the continent from the Great Slave Lake south to the Rio Grande and, in scatterings, a little below it. Perhaps in Mexico they had made it to the Pacific, going through Sinaloa, and perhaps a few once had wandered all the way to Nicaragua. On the Pacific side of the Rockies they fed along the dark’s Fork of the Columbia, the Bitterroot, and the Flathead, ranging as far west as the Pend Oreille region, and on into eastern Washington until the peoples there acquired the horse. Then hunting held them back and eventually destroyed them. Seldom did food scarcity or unsuitable terrain stop them (it took a formidable barrier to prevent buffalo from moving where they pleased). Buffalo found easy access to the headwaters of the Columbia from the Missouri headwaters up Divide Creek and down Silver Bow Creek over an almost prairie-like Continental Divide. Thus they should have filled the Oregon and Washington plains between the Rockies and Cascades, yet only a few scattered skeletons have been found in eastern Washington and fewer still in southern Oregon and northeast California. Herds did graze along the Pacificbound Salmon River and part way along the upper Snake and Humboldt rivers, having crossed the Divide on other easy passes—but perhaps only when chased across by the white man’s incursions.
Buffalo filled the country from the Rocky Mountains to just east of the Mississippi, and lived in fewer numbers from there almost to the Atlantic Ocean. They may have arrived in this country only a few hundred years before the first white man: the mound builders knew no buffalo, and the buffalo bones deposited in Big Bone Lick, Kentucky, indicate recent arrival. Perhaps they only crossed the Mississippi after A.D. 1000. Possibly they felt less attracted to the country east of the Mississippi because, like cattle, they need one-seventh of their diet to be protein, which only the prairie and high-plains grasses provided—1,250,000 square miles of it.
Buffalo fecundity plus a long breeding life may have made for buffalo dominance through numbers. Almost every cow on the continent dropped a calf each year—although cows sucking calves sometimes tended to miss pregnancy. (Today in protected herds the fertility rate approaches 90 per cent.) Perhaps 15,000,000 new buffalo arrived each year in the days before the white man.
Buffalo live twenty-five to forty years in captive herds. Wild buffalo undoubtedly died a little earlier, the victims of wolf attack when weak, but the species tends toward longevity; one yarn spinner said he’d seen them so old their horns “had decayed and dropped off.”
And buffalo remain fertile in old age. Some of the Texas breeder Charles Goodnight’s cows reproduced until they reached thirty-five. Their fecundity made up for the more than 50 per cent loss in each year’s calf crop, which meant about 7,500,000 small carcasses annually. Late blizzards laid low herds of them, high water along the Missouri drowned them, sweeping their bodies to lodge wherever receding waters left them. Audubon’s party one night slept on “a low island covered with dead Buffalo calves, creating a most unpleasant atmosphere to breathe.” Calves often made the mistake of adopting any nonbuffalo foster parent that happened along, even a man or a horse (calves of domestic cattle will make the same mistake). One adopted Meriwether Lewis, out for an evening walk. It dogged his heels until he regained his canoe and paddled off. Other calves followed less disinterested men, who encouraged them to tag along all the way to camp to make a veal stew; fur trader Alexander Henry’s men brought such innocents to the fort daily. Indians brought little stragglers to camp for their children to play with and, when the playing was done, butchered them. Sometimes the children killed them with their own bows and arrows. And undoubtedly, any calf, away from mother’s protection, unable to keep up with man or horse, became dinner for wolves.
Nor did the mother always protect her calf. If she found herself hard pressed by pursuers, she sometimes deserted, running off to leave him to the wolves. Meriwether Lewis observed, “The cows only defend their young as long as they are able to keep up with the herd, and seldom return any distance in search of them.” If a calf found he couldn’t climb a bluff the herd had ascended, his mother would watch awhile as he scrabbled at the cutbank, but then she would turn and follow the others. Men who wanted to begin a buffalo herd found it easy to gain a nucleus by driving a herd through rough country and picking up the calves that couldn’t follow:
Luckily for buffalo survival, calves kept up with the herd amazingly well. Once a newborn calf traveled twentytwo miles by road in a herd being moved, traveled back home again with his mother that night (cross-country in deep snow), and was herded back the twenty-two miles the next day—over sixty miles before he was three days old. And their speed and endurance increased rapidly: the William Hornaday expedition in 1886 chased a five-monthold calf fifteen miles, using a series of three fresh horses to run him down.
Careless cows often swam calves into spring floodwaters too strong for them and clambered out on the far bank without them. Hundreds of other calves died from falling through thin and melting spring ice, vanished to appear again in an ice-free ripple far below, drowned, then floated downstream to join dozens of brown buffalo carcasses that punctuated the riverbank.
Bulls and cows, too, filed out onto rotten March ice only to fall through and drown. Each spring, during the days of the breakup, thousands of buffalo carcasses floated down Western rivers, a continuous line of brown floes. One year on the Qu’Appelle, trader John McDonnell recorded 7,360 of them drifting past before he quit counting; Alexander Henry saw “drowned buffalo drift down the river day and night,” and while traveling one May, the stench from drowned buffalo was so great he couldn’t eat his supper; Maximilian, Prince of Wied, on his Missouri River trip of 1833, heard reports of complete dams formed of buffalo bodies, dams which, others have claimed, caught silt to form islands.
These drownings make buffalo appear poor swimmers, yet accounts of riverboat travelers up the Missouri abound with descriptions of them swimming this river, many of them struck by the wheels. Passengers lassoed swimming buffalo. They swam “so close together… as to make it look rather inconvenient”; they hung low in the water, just the top of heads and an occasional hump visible. In such style they paddled about in lakes and crossed the Republican, the Arkansas, and the Missouri, traveling where they pleased. Yet in the spring, four or five buffalo at a time, finding themselves adrift on a floe, would stick with it and ride to whatever crack-up lay ahead, rather than swim a river they’d swum before.
They learned nothing from numberless watery accidents. They rushed into swift waters to be swept over waterfalls. Grizzly bears hung around the Great Falls of the Missouri to feed on carcasses so killed. In mid-winter, crossing rivers on the ice, they would “rush in a dense crowd to one place; the ice gives way. …” In March, 1866, as many as 1,000 buffalo fell through the ice on the South Saskatchewan River but did not drown; they were frozen in and starved.
Deaths from accidental drowning reduced the herds far more than any other accidents. Far more than prairie fire that left herds with “the hair singed off; even the skin in many places is shriveled up and terribly burned, and their eyes are swollen and closed fast… staggering about, sometimes running afoul of a large stone, at other times tumbling down hill and falling into creeks.… In one spot we found a whole herd lying dead.…” Sometimes entire groups mired themselves in boggy mud and died in mass starvation or were eaten alive by wolves or bears. But, mostly, falling through ice did them in. Each spring the stench from carcasses snagged on riverbanks polluted the spring air, and rotting meat polluted the spring freshet.
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.
“The trees, also, furnished their evidence and every low limb was worn by the Buffaloe, while scratching his skin, after coming out of his mud or sand bath,” wrote a tenderfoot, wideeyed about buffalo doings; but such doings could make experienced men, such as Alexander Henry, equally wideeyed: “Buffalo have ravaged this small island,” he wrote of an area in Canada; “nothing remains but the large elms and oaks, whose bark has been polished to the height of the buffalo by their perpetual rubbing. Brush and grass are not to be seen in this little wood.…”
Men walking near buffalo had to watch their step as in a cattle yard because of dung. But on last year’s grazing ground the droppings sometimes dried “hard as a clamshell” and reached the color of a weathered cardboard carton. Each one became an odorless, papery disk, about twelve inches in diameter, drilled by hundreds of tiny insect holes. It made a perch for meadowlarks to sing from; it was a home for beetles and flies.
As everyone knows, buffalo chips burn—somewhat after six months drying, but very well indeed after a full year or more. They were a traditional fuel; Coronado had found Indians enjoying such fires.
These chips were the bois de vache , often the only “wood” available. Fortyniners on the Platte traveling one 160mile section on the Oregon Trail found “no place in the whole distance where timber enough could be got on ten miles square to fence ten acres,” but chips enough lay about “sufficient for any to cook by.” When a wagon master decided on a stopping place, he searched first for a chip and water supply.
Men walking beside their lumbering Conestoga wagons drew “their ramrods, not to ram home cartridges but to stick it through the largest chip they could find and string them on… like so many pancakes,” one overlander recorded in his journal. When a ramrod was filled, a man slid the cakes into one of the chip sacks that swung underneath the wagon bed, out of the reach of a sudden shower. Children ran extra miles gathering them, men gathered the “scutters” from where they hung on grass or sagebrush; they used sleeping blankets as chip hods. Women out for a stroll returned to the wagons with aprons full of the nasty burnables… all the nastier for the insects which scuttled about on the underside when a person picked one up. At first a woman hated to touch the things while cooking, another traveler noted. She began by handling the chips with two sticks, progressed to a rag, then to a corner of the apron, until, as a seasoned chip handler, “Now it is out of the bread, into the chips and back again—and not even a dust of the hands!”
Expert chip users (one became expert in a single crossing of the plainsmaking perhaps three hundred chip fires) claimed the chip made a better fire than the dead cottonwood that they occasionally found, for it “ignited quickly; a mass of them made solid but almost transparent coals, which glowed with intense heat.” A wonderful fuel, they claimed, that hardened every year until a man found it difficult to cut its surface with a knife, a fuel that the “snows of winter” didn’t change and the spring rains dampened only a sixteenth of an inch or so. Others, less smitten by the plains, wrote, “Our Buffalo Chips are of no account when it rains, and but little when dry. …” These emigrants were “careful to pick up before it began to rain,” or to get “into some scrawly timber…,” a relief after having found “nothing but buffalo chips to burn for three nights.” Alexander Henry, after trying to barbecue buffalo steak in the smudge of wet chips, decided he wanted no more “buffalo dung steaks.” Major Stephen H. Long’s 1820 expedition to the Rockies experienced a cloudburst that washed “cow dung” into the water hole and turned it mustard color; they boiled meat in this effluent, creating a soup with the gagging flavor of a cow yard.
Some men threw on buffalo tallow to make the buffalo chips burn—”a rather hard matter that the Buffalo should furnish the meat and then the fuel to cook it,” as one said. Without the tallow, a fire of chips was small comfort against the cold, but chips heaped up under ribs on a spit during the night cooked breakfast, often making a morning fire unnecessary.
Mountain men tossed buffalo liver directly onto the burning dung and popped it in their mouths when done, pausing only to dust off the thickest of the manure ash. Or if a hunk of roast rib snatched from the spit burned their fingers, they would pop it onto a chip as makeshift plate. A common joke on the plains was that steak cooked over buffalo chips needed no pepper.
The buffalo chip to the wanderer in buffalo land was almost as handy as the buffalo himself. And not only as fuel or crockery. Coronado’s men, fearful of losing themselves on the bare plains, piled “heapes of oxe-dung” to blaze the trail. A man having to sleep on the snowy prairie arranged buffalo chips in layers to insulate himself from the ground (and threw a buffalo robe over himself). Homesteaders burned chips in their soddies for winter heat; Father Megarini at St. Mary’s Mission, plagued with mosquitoes, drove them from his cabin with a buffalo-chip smudge. Marksmen piled them up as gun rests. The chip of the West: one man valued it next to the telegraph and steam engine in importance to the Western frontier.
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.
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.…”
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.
But no longer do any of us, Indian or white, think “brave as a buffalo” or “kinky as a bull with his tail raised.” Today the buffalo’s gone from the back of the nickel—the “buffalo head” it was called—as well as from the ten-dollar bill. One doesn’t now see Buffalo Brand lard or Buffalo Brand shoes. Few would understand the phrase “buffalo cripple,” the term used at the Fort Hays hospital to denote an injured hide hunter. A few years ago the Department of the Interior replaced the buffalo on its seal with a logotype. Although it’s now the fashion for ranchers to collect buffalo as an ornament for their range (a profitable ornament when sold to the specialty food market), the humpbacked beast no longer creates symbols that grip men’s minds.