The Amazing History Of The American Buffalo

Thirty to seventy million of them roamed free throughout North America. They were the majestic Bison Bison, more commonly known as the American buffalo. Then they almost became extinct. Where did they come from? What was their purpose? What caused the death of so many? Let's find out together.

During the Pleistocene Ice Age, ancestors of the Bison Bison crossed the land bridge from Siberia into Alaska. They were the Bison Priscus that descended from the European Wiscent. The Bison Priscus evolved into the Bison Latifrons who lived in North America for three hundred thousand years. Twenty two thousand years ago Bison Latifrons evolved into Bison Antiquus who became Bison Bison about ten thousand years ago.

It is estimated that there were between thirty to seventy million buffalo in North America in the early 1800's. They roamed from the east coast of the United States to the Rocky Mountains. They were as far north as Canada and as far south as northern Mexico. They were the most numerous species of large wild mammal in the world.

When the people now referred to as Native Americans first came to North America they saw vast herds of the buffalo. Because the bison is the largest land animal in North America it has little to fear from other animals. Wolves would occasionally kill a weak or ill buffalo at the edge of the herd. Not many would challenge a grown buffalo. So the herds grew in size adding even more protection for the herd.

The bison were an unending supply of everything for the American Indian. The problem was that the bison were constantly on the move. Bison are ruminants. They eat grasses and grains. They later regurgitate the contents of their stomachs to chew as cud. This aids the digestive process and allows them to feed quickly and eat as they move on.

In order for the Indians to stay near the buffalo herd, they became nomadic and followed the buffalo. The Indians learned to use every part of the buffalo and waste none of it. They ate the meat, used the hides as clothing and coverings for shelters, used the bones as tools. The hides were tanned using the juices of the brains and livers. Stomachs were used as water pouches and bags for carrying medicines. They made dished and eating utensils from the buffalo. Medicines and religious objects came from the buffalo. Ornaments, decorations, glue, weapons, paint, toys... all these and much more were provided by the buffalo.

The bison was such a huge animal. How did the Native Americans successfully hunt them? Because bison are massive and bulky they would seem to be easy prey. In reality buffalo can outrun and out maneuver most horses. They have great stamina and can run for many miles. They are as agile as a deer. They can sprint at about 40 miles per hour and break through fairly strong corrals. Buffalo can jump straight up from a standstill. They can travel rough, rocky terrain  as easily as a mountain goat. They move well on flat prairies.

Buffalo are quite docile and a human can approach them safely at most times. However, they are unpredictable and might charge without provocation. They can pivot on their hind feet as well as their front feet. They are incredibly fast.

The difficulties in hunting the bison arose because of their thick hides. The spears and arrows used by the Indians couldn't pierce the hide, much less cause enough damage for a kill. The Native Americans came up with an idea.

The Indians found high cliffs. If necessary they would create narrow runs of rocks and greenery. Then they would herd the easily stampeded buffalo to the edge of the cliff. As they fell over the edge, the rest of the tribe would be ready to harvest everything from the dead buffalo.

The Native Americans used other tricks too. The buffalo weren't disturbed by other wild animals in their midst. After all the bison was stronger. Unfortunately, the bison was not too bright. Using machetes and sometimes very sharp spears and arrows, Indians would drape animal pelts over themselves and mingle with the herd. At such close range they could use the machetes to mortally wound the buffalo.

When the Spaniards introduced horses to the continent, hunting ponies became a prized possession of the Indians. A horse that had stamina, was fearless, and had the ability to separate a buffalo from the herd was valuable indeed.

Another method of hunting was the "horse surround". Hunters on horses would form a loose circle around the buffalo herd and begin to tighten the circle. The milling buffalo would become confused and stampede into each other. In the confusion it was easier for the hunters to cut buffalo from the herd.

The white man came to North America. With him came more modern weapons. The Indians now had guns which made it easier to kill the buffalo. And the white men saw the uses of the buffalo as well.

The newcomers to North America saw the value of buffalo for their hides. Buffalo were often hunted for the hides and the carcasses left to rot. The American Army employed scouts to find and hunt the buffalo to feed the troops. When the Americans were building a railway system to reach from one side of the country to the other, buffalo meat was the cheapest and handiest way to feed the workers.

Hunting buffalo became a great sport. Sportsmen paid to be able to shoot and kill buffalo from trains. The tongue was considered a delicacy, so often the tongue was cut out and the hide taken. The rest of the animal was wasted.

There were millions and millions of buffalo. The supply seemed endless. But bovine tuberculosis took a toll on the numbers of some herds. Indiscriminate hunting drastically cut the numbers of buffalo.

Suddenly the Native Americans were beginning to have a hard time. They couldn't always find enough buffalo to help them survive. They were becoming angry.

Ranchers who were raising cattle saw buffalo as an enemy. They grazed the same lands as the cows. The bison ate and freely moved on to the next meal. Cows were kept in a much smaller area.

The United States government saw no reason to place limits on buffalo kills. After all there were millions of them.

When buffalo hides weren't bringing as much money because they were so plentiful in the market, people began to gather the bleached bones left after carcasses had been left earlier. White men and some Indians gathered them and sold them. Eventually that market would also be glutted.

American Indians were finding it hard to live without the plentiful buffalo to provide the things they needed. The United States government saw diminishing numbers of buffalo as a good thing for many reasons. Land for new settlers would be easier to settle if the buffalo weren't a problem. Eliminating the buffalo would make it easier to handle the Native Americans. So as far as the government was concerned, killing off all the buffalo was a good thing. In some cases, wholesale slaughter was ordered by the government.

Luckily for the bison, there were a few people who saw that preservation of the species would be a good thing. Buffalo Bill Cody, who bragged that he had killed more than 4,000 buffalo by himself, set aside part of his ranch as a preserve for buffalo.  He spoke in favor of limiting kills. Ulysses Grant and Phillip Sherman were among officials who limits as unnecessary.

Other men set aside areas for the buffalo. By the early 1900's it is estimated that fewer than 1,000 buffalo remained of the millions that had once roamed the continent. But the protected bison slowly began to get strong again. They began to multiply in numbers. They will never be as plentiful as they once were but they are no longer in danger of extinction.

In fact buffalo are now being raised for their meat. It is close to beef in taste with less fat. That means less cholesterol for health conscious diners. In some cases there are even enough in a herd to allow for limited hunting. Bison are found in all fifty states and Canada.

Buffalo are still regarded as sacred by many of the Native American tribes. Their majestic beauty is a sight to behold. The hardy animal is a triumph of nature.



  1. I'm glad the problem of the dwindling buffalo numbers was spotted before extinction took place and that there were then preserves put in place for them. I know animals do become extinct and evolve which is fine if it's through the natural course of evolution....but not through the pure greed of man!!

    I really enjoyed reading about the buffalo.

    1. That is a good observation. The buffalo would have dwindled in numbers because their grazing land was also dwindling, but they would not have become so close to extinction. Thanks for stopping by.

  2. The buffalo herds are a good example of how man's greed can not only bring a species to near extinction but also bring about war and strife between people.

    1. There are so many things the buffalo represents. The cruelty of some people aimed at other people is another besides the points you make. Thanks for commenting.

  3. One of may favorites to be close to.There is a white one in a herd near me.

  4. An interesting read Copas! I have only seen a few might buffalo in game ranches. It would be so cool to have seen them running wild across the plains.

    1. Can you imagine seeing so many buffalo that the plains looked like a giant dark moving wave? It must have been quite the sight to see.

  5. Perhaps our most majestic mammal in N. America. This was a nice piece. Thank you!

    1. Thanks for stopping by. The buffalo is indeed a most majestic animal.


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