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The American Buffalo
A Sketch of the Animal in its Picturesque Relation
to the West
BY LEVI EDGAR YOUNG, M. A.
"I go to kill the buffalo.
On hills, in plains and woods.
-Ute Song of the Buffalo.
Before the white man settled the present confines of the United States, two kinds of thoroughfares led to the most remote and isolated parts of our country. These were the Indian and buffalo trails. The buffalo were the earliest pathfinders. They made great roads across the continent, and on the summits of the watersheds of North America; not only across the Appalachian mountains into the interior of the country, but from the Missouri river westward, into the Rocky Mountains. Long before the old Oregon and Santa Fe trails were made famous by the trappers, freighters, and pony express, they were the highways of the buffalo. From the Missouri up the Platte river to the site of Fort Bridger, then on to the valley of the Great Salt Lake, the buffalo made his way to the salt licks of the Great Basin. He roamed all over the Mississippi Valley from the height of land separating the waters of the Arctic and the Hudson Bay country to the Gulf of Mexico. He knew full well the fertile valleys of the Rocky Mountains, and the canyons and valleys of the present Utah, Idaho, and Columbia River country. Peter Skeene Ogden, who established a trading post on the Weber River where Ogden City now stands, in 1824, speaks of the many herds he saw in the Valley of the Great Salt Lake; and the Ashley party which established a trading post on the west shore of Utah Lake, in 1826, report having killed many antelope and buffalo during their first winter of rendezvous on the lake. We know that he was a persistent occupant of the valleys of the Wasatch, and it was a buffalo trail that was first made from the prairie region east of the Rockies through the canyons to the Valley of the Great Salt Lake.
The buffalo needed extensive feeding grounds, and the area traveled by a herd was thousands of miles in a single season. They also had their wallows, stamping grounds, and licks. The Platte River was a famous place for wallows, as was also the Jordan River in Salt Lake Valley. In the heat of summer, the buffalo found good wallows where they could immerse themselves in a slimy mud, which dried upon their bodies and protected them from flies, mosquitoes, and gnats. The salt licks were the “foci of all their roads.' Since salt was as necessary to the buffalo as grain is to the horse, salt springs and lakes were hunted out. The shores of the Great Salt Lake were favorite haunts for this animal. On the old Oregon Trail which followed the Platte and North Platte to the Green River valley, thousands of bison were killed
by the emigrants in the very early days of the westward migration. In fact the bones of millions of these animals were found upon the banks of those streams and over the entire prairie region. The killing of the buffalo is one of the tragedies of our American history. They were needlessly sacrificed at times, not only by the old trappers and colonizers, but by the western Indian tribes
*Mr. Fairbanks is a promising young Utah artist in his sixteenth year whose work has received flattering notices in New York papers. He dedicated this buffalo to the public schools of the United States. Many casts of his work have been made, some in bronze by Tiffany & Co., New York. -THE EDITORS.
as well. It is a pity that something was not done in the early fifties to protect the animal from utter annihilation.
That the buffalo were extremely numerous there can be no doubt. Colonel Dodge describes a herd fifty miles wide, and says that it took five days to pass a given point. In 1868, a train on the Kansas Pacific Railroad traveled for one hundred and twenty miles through a continuous herd of buffalo, "packed so densely that the earth was black, and the train was compelled to stop several times.” Colonel Inman in his Old Santa Fe Trail concludes that from 1868 to 1881, over thirty-one millions of buffalo were killed on the great plains. In Kansas alone there was paid out between these two dates two million five hundred thousand dollars for buffalo bones found on the prairies. These bones were used by the various carbon factories in the manufacture of fertilizers. With the building of the Union Pacific railroad, thousands of travelers, to the Rocky Mountains spent their time in a wanton slaughter of the animals of the plains. Those who killed for the skins alone, made it a lucrative business, and a great demand for buffalo robes sprang up all over America. “Buffalo Bill” while employed as a hunter for the Kansas Pacific Railroad, in 1867-69, killed nearly five thousand buffalo in less than eighteen months. The buffalo were a great boon to the pioneers of the West. Constituting the main source of food supply not only for the Indians of the plains, but the frontiersman as well, they have a setting in western history that is unique. Their hides and flesh were useful especially in winter. In fact, an old Sioux chief declares that "The whites never could have taken the lands from the Indians, had the buffalo been preserved.”. It was not until the buffalo had almost been exterminated that the great Indian wars were brought to a close in the early seventies. Buffalo with other wild animals of the American wilderness were looked upon by the Indians as gifts of the Great Spirit for the welfare of the Red Men. Red Jacket, a famous chief of the Six Nations, delivered an address, in the summer of 1805, before a council of his people. Christian missionaries were present and spoke about the desire of the white man to educate the Indian in the "ways of righteousness." Red Jacket, or better Sogoyewapha, which was his Indian name, said among other things:
“Brothers, listen to what we say,
There was a time when our forefathers owned this great land. Their seats extended from the rising to the setting sun. The Great Spirit had made it for the use of the Indians. He had created the buffalo, the deer, and other animals for food. He had made the bear and the beaver. Their skins served us for clothing. He had scattered them over the country and taught us how to take them. He had caused the earth to produce corn for bread. All this he had done for his red children because he loved them. If we had some disputes about our hunting grounds, they were generally settled without the shedding of much blood.”
Pathetic words ! The buffalo with the beaver and antelope were gifts of the Great Spirit to his children. They formed a part of the life of the Indian; they were the denizens of plain and mountain, wilderness and forest, without whom the Indian could not have lived the many ages on this continent.
Among the Sioux the buffalo was considered the “King of beasts,” and his image played an important part in the ghost and sun dances. The Siouxan tradition as to the origin of the buffalo is full of suggestion. I give it in the words of Bushotter, the American ethnologist:
ORIGIN OF THE BUFFALO
The buffalo originated under the earth. It is said that in the olden times, a man who was journeying came to a hill where there were many holes in the ground. He explored them, and when he had gone within one of them, he found plenty of buffalo chips, and buffalo tracks were on all sides; and here and there he found buffalo hair which had come out when the animals rubbed against the walls. These animals were the real buffalo, who dwelt underground, and some of them came up to this earth and increased here to many herds. These buffalo had many earth lodges, and there they raised their children. They did many strange things. Therefore when a man can hardly be wounded by a foe, the people believe that the former has seen the buffalo in dreams or visions, and on that account has received mysterious help from those animals. All such men who dream of the buffalo, act like them and dance the buffalo (bull) dance. And the man who acts the buffalo is said to have a real buffalo inside him, and a crysalis lies within the flat part of the body near the shoulder-blade; on account of which the man is hard to kill; no matter how often they wound him, he does not die. As the people know that the buffalo live in earth lodges, they never dance the buffalo dance in vain.
Here is the story of the mythic buffalo:
It is said that a mythic buffalo once attacked a party of Indians, killing one of them. The others fled and climbed a tree, at which the buffalo rushed many times, knocking off piece after piece of the tree with his horns till very little of it was left. Then one of the Indians lighted some tinder and threw it far off into the tall grass, scorching the buffalo's eyes, and seriously injuring his horns, causing the hard • part of the latter to slip off, so that the animal could no longer gore any one. But as he was still dangerous, one of the men determined to fight him at the risk of his own life, and so he slipped down from the tree, armed with a bow and some arrows. He finally gave the buffalo a mortal wound. Then all the men came down the tree and cut up the buffalo after flaying him. They were about to carry off the body of their dead comrade in a robe, when they were obliged to climb a tree again because another mythic buffalo had appeared. He
did not attack them, but went four times around the body of the slain Then he stopped and said, “Arise to your feet.”
All at once, the dead man came to life. The buffalo addressed him, saying, “Hereafter you shall be mysterious, and the sun, moon, four winds, day and night shall be your servants.' It was so. He could assume the shape of a fine plume, which was blown often against a tree, to which it stuck, as it waved repeatedly.
The members of Cabeza de Vaca's company first saw the buffalo of the American plains in 1538. De Vaca with his fellow Spaniards roamed through what is now the coast of the Gulf of Mexico from Florida to Mexico. This was some three years before the famous march of Coronado from the City of Mexico to the great plains of what is now Kansas and Nebraska. It was Coronado, however, who gives us our first description of these denizens of the plains. He found the Indians of Cibola or the Seven Cities using buffalo meat, and from them he obtained a supply for his journey further eastward. Coronado's description of the buffalo is full of interest, and it shows how closely he with other old Spanish explorers studied the fauna and flora of the present confines of the southwestern United States. In speaking of the Buffalo bulls, he says:
“They have very long beards, like goats, and when they are ning, they throw their heads back, with their beard dragging on the ground. There is a sort of girdle around the middle of the body. The hair is very woolly, like sheep's, very fine, and in front of the girdle, the hair is very long and rough like a lion's. They have a great hump, larger than a camels. The horns are short and thick, so that they are not seen much above the hair. In May they change the hair in the middle of the body, for a down, which makes perfect lions of them. They rub against the small trees in the little ravines to shed their hair, and they continue this until only the down is left, as a snake changes his skin. They have a short tail with a bunch of hair at the end. When they run, they carry it erect like a scorpion.”
The Spanish explorers not only described the buffalo, but made drawings of them. These pictures are preserved in many of the old manuscripts, and one is produced especially for this article.
During the westward migration of the American people in the nineteenth century, the buffalo were driven from their old "haunts, and in the palmy days of the hide-hunting industry, large tundles of the skins were shipped to St. Louis, Fort Leavenworth, and in the fifties to the tannery at Greelev, Colorado. In those days, one could have bought a robe for $2.50, which would now easily be worth some $200. Petition after petition was sent to Congress during the sixties and seventies asking for some act which would prevent the terrible slaughter of these animals, but nothing was ever done in the way of Congressional enactment.