The Extermination of the American Bison (almost)
Updated: Jan 24, 2022
Warning this post contains some graphic content- This photo was taken by LA Huffman in eastern Montana in 1880. It captures one of the very last wild bison herds in one of the last unfenced, uncolonized corners of the United States. For years, I'd been wondering if there were any photos of the original American bison herd like this in existence. Until I came across Huffman's work earlier this week, such an image had been about as elusive as a photo of a woolly mammoth.
This photograph is poignant because it captures a piece of the native, wild, vibrancy that once existed on every acre of what is now the United States. It's more than a photo of a few dozen animals, in a way it's a photo of the entire country and the entire planet before humans had come to dominate every inch of it. It's a photo of the time before people set foot on this continent, and it's a photo of 600 generations of time when Native communities managed this hemisphere's landscapes. The story behind this photo bridges these pasts with today.
Born in 1854, Laton Alton Huffman trained as a photographer and moved to eastern Montana in the late 1870s. With the bulky equipment, photographers of his day rarely ventured out onto the landscape to capture live action. Not only was Huffman an exception to this, but often took his camera to the other side of the frontier. His photographs uniquely capture beautiful, tragic, and powerful scenes: a traditional tipi with a train rolling by it, cowboys at work on the open range, native prairie being plowed under with a horse, everyday life in Native communities, and buffalo. As I scoured through
Huffman's images, I soon found that not only was he possibly the only photographer to capture the wild bison herds of this era, but he also recorded the final scenes of the continent-wide slaughter of this animal. He participated in it too, to a small degree. The slaughter of the bison is a story that most Americans know in a general way. Yet, few know its scope and even less know that the actions of a few dedicated individuals played a pivotal role in bringing this magnificent animal back from the edge of extinction. Through this post, we'll share a little bit of this story, illustrated with a few of Huffman's images captioned with their original titles.
In an earlier post, we traced the developmental history of the American bison. Through most of the past 10,000 years, herds of bison lived on the Great Plains, expanding their range eastward in times of prolonged dryness, and moving back to the west during times with lots of rain. With the arrival of Europeans in the Americas, the Native American population crashed. With hunting pressure diminished, bison expanded their range all the way to the Atlantic Coast during the 1600s. Around 1700, they were the most numerous hooved animal on the planet, numbering as many 60 million.
For a century or so, buffalo in herds as large as 200 head lived in east-central Mississippi, right in the heart of Choctaw country. Multiple 18th century European writers chided the Mississippi Tribes for their wastefulness on the buffalo hunt, yet Europeans initiated their own bison hide trade in the region. Choctaw oral histories say that the last bison herd near Choctaw country held out in the Yazzoo River basin until the 1740s, when they were finished off by a severe drought. Be that as it may, bison were disappearing across the eastern half of what is now the United States primarily as a result of over hunting and habitat destruction. By 1820, there were only tiny pockets of bison left east of the Mississippi River.
Choctaw people began arriving in what is now southeastern Oklahoma via the Trail of Tears in the early 1830s. They encountered a landscape dotted with prairies and crisscrossed by bison trails (Nutthal 1821). The herd's presence is recorded in local names. Yannash, meaning "buffalo" in Choctaw is a small community located near the Choctaw Nation Capitol. Buffalo Head hill is located here in Atoka County. Choctaw people hunted the animals while they could (Conlan 1928:220), as the bison herds continued to shrink towards the west.
By the time the Transcontinental Railway crossed the United States in 1869, the great bison herds had been confined mostly to the High Plains in a narrow band running from Saskatchewan to south Texas. Wanton slaughter by railroad men and passengers along the rail line soon compelled the bison to avoid the tracks. This divided the remaining animals into separate northern and southern herds. The southern herd concentrated in western Kansas, Oklahoma, and the Texas Panhandle. The northern herd concentrated in the western Dakotas, eastern Montana, and Canada.
The cattle brought to this country by ranchers carried diseases and parasites that the bison had no immunity to. This had an impact on the herd. It is clear that over hunting by some Native American communities did as well. However, only one group intentionally sought the animal's extermination. Bison are powerful animals that manage the land to be native prairie. They competed with horses and cattle for range land, and they had even been known to push steam engines off the tracts. Bison also supported Plains Indian Tribes that continued armed resistance to colonization. Guided by the concept of Manifest Destiny, military leaders, land speculators, and Euro-American farmers/ranchers decided the bison should no longer exist. This happened to coincide with developments in riffle technology, the completion of new rail lines across areas still densely populated by bison herds, and a technological development that made bison hides easier to tan commercially.
Hunting bison for their skins became a profession for thousands of Euro-American men, who outfitted parties each year. The hides were sold to be made into wool-on carriage blankets, upholstery, or leather belts to run machinery in industrial plants back east. With their powerful new riffles, hide hunters developed the technique for extermination. A lone hunter would conceal himself downwind at 100-250+ yards from a herd. From this position, he would shoot a lead bison cow then pick off every member of the confused group.
The slaughter picked up pace with the southern herd. In some of the most active hunting zones, two thousand professional hunters killed thousands of animals each day. With so many bison hides on the the market, the going rate for a hide was often less than $1. The hide hunters were famous for their waste. The number of animals killed was many times the number of hides saved. It was estimated that less than 1/1,000 of the meat was used.
The system was effective. By 1874, more than 3.5 million animals had been killed over a 3-year span, and the southern herd had been effectively exterminated. By 1883, the northern herd was gone too- Huffman had photographed it in its final days. Now, only a few small groups of bison living in the most remote areas of the continent held out against extinction. In 1886, William Hornaday set out to procure a set of bison to be taxidermied for the Smithsonian collections. Despite an exhaustive cross country search and letter campaign, there were almost none to be found. Hornaday records that upon finding one of the last tiny remnants of the northern herd, his group chased a young buffalo from it. Running for its life, it exhausted the horse pursuing it. When a fresh horse was sent to chase it, the buffalo exhausted that horse too. The Smithsonian team used a third fresh horse to finally run the little buffalo to death. The Smithsonian eventually succeeded in killing 25 of the last wild bison. Hornaday wrote a book with nearly the same title as this post, and predicted that the American bison would inevitably go extinct except for a few animals in captivity that amounted to little more than declining zombies. Sportsmen clamored for the distinction of being the person to kill the last animal in the wild.
Taken in 1894, the image above is not what it appears to be. The soldiers in this photo had stopped the activity of a poacher who had been killing animals from a remnant herd that had taken refuge on the Yellowstone Park. For years, when the herds were in serious decline, bills intended to provide them some level of protection had been tabled by Congress or pocket vetoed by the President. The brutality of this image, combined with such a complete destruction of such an impressive animal finally led to a public outcry. Laws were passed to promote the bison's survival. Yet, no law could be effective if there were no animals left to protect.
Four rural families from diverse backgrounds played a tremendous role in saving the American bison (visit here for a fuller story). One of these families was of the Pen d'Oreille Tribe in Montana. Another was a French Canadian/Lakota family from South Dakota. One was a Euro-American ranch family from Texas. One of the people who worked the hardest to save the bison was a former hide-hunter from Kansas, who wanted to make some amends for the "evil" (his own word) that he had done.
Each of these families had once killed bison, but as they noticed them becoming alarmingly scarce, they rode out to remnant herds, captured a few calves and/or bison cows, and put them on protected land where they could not be hunted. In at least two cases, female family members were central in making this decision and caring for the animals. Bison are incredibly tough, possessing an almost miraculous ability to survive if given any chance at all. Under these families' protection, the little herds numbers soon exploded. They were used to bolster surviving wild populations and to get other bison ranches set up.
For his part, Hornaday's experience with bison inspired him in conservation. He later wrote of the impact that killing the animals had on him, wishing that the bison would haunt the dreams of its other slayers just as it haunted his own. During his bison-hunting trip, he had acquired at least one live animal, which he put on live display at the Smithsonian. That exhibit played a role in raising public support for the new laws. Hornaday went on to serve as the first president of the American Bison Society. By 1919, the organization had established nine conservation herds in the United States.
Hornaday wrote about how the last buffalo holdouts in the wild (and by extension the ranch-protected animals that came from these last wild remnants) were the toughest of the tough, surviving on the worst land where there had been few humans to be found. He reasoned that through survival of the fittest, their genes represented the best. In the 120 years since reaching a low point of maybe 1,000 animals alive in the world, the American bison population has rebounded by 30,000%. Today an estimated 362,406 American bison are living in North America. Within the United States, an estimated 9,855 bison live on federal lands; 183,780 live on 1,775 private ranches and farms, and 20,000 live in herds owned collectively by Tribes (www.bisoncentral.com). The American bison is now honored as the national mammal of the United States.
This image is of one of Nan Awaya Farm's '21 crop of buffalo calves. Looking into its eyes, you can connect with the vibrant spirit of this continent, with the original bison herd photographed by Huffman, and with an incredible story of survival in the face of sheer destruction. If there were no fences, no highways, and no people to shoot them, this calf and the little herd it is a part of would survive and grow just fine on their own. Given enough time, they could potentially repopulate the whole American heartland and start managing the region's landscapes for healthier, native habitat just as the herds did for millennia. What an amazing creature!