The Extermination of the American Bison

The Extermination of the American Bison

by William T. Hornaday

The Extermination of the American Bison – It is hoped that the following historical account of the discovery, partial utilization, and almost complete extermination of the great American bison may serve to cause the public to fully realize the folly of allowing all our most valuable and interesting American mammals to be wantonly destroyed in the same manner.

The wild buffalo is practically gone forever, and in a few more years, when the whitened bones of the last bleaching skeleton shall have been picked up and shipped East for commercial uses, nothing will remain of him save his old, well-worn trails along the watercourses, a few museum specimens, and regret for his fate.

If his untimely end fails even to point out a moral that shall benefit the surviving species of mammals _which are now being slaughtered in a similar manner_, it will be sad indeed.

Although _Bison americanus_ is a true bison, according to scientific classification, and not a buffalo, the fact that more than sixty millions of people in this country unite in calling him a “buffalo,” and know him by no other name, renders it quite unnecessary for me to apologize for following, in part, a harmless custom which has now become so universal that all the naturalists in the world could not change it if they would.



The discovery of the American bison, as first made by Europeans, occurred in the menagerie of a heathen king.

In the year 1521, when Cortez reached Anahuac, the American bison was seen for the first time by civilized Europeans, if we may be permitted to thus characterize the horde of blood thirsty plunder seekers who fought their way to the Aztec capital. With a degree of enterprise that marked him as an enlightened monarch, Montezuma maintained, for the instruction of his people, a well-appointed menagerie, of which the historian De Solis wrote as follows (1724):

“In the second Square of the same House were the Wild Beasts, which were either presents to Montezuma, or taken by his Hunters, in strong Cages of Timber, rang’d in good Order, and under Cover: Lions, Tigers, Bears, and all others of the savage Kind which New-Spain produced; among which the greatest Rarity was the Mexican Bull; a wonderful composition of divers Animals. It has crooked Shoulders, with a Bunch on its Back like a Camel; its Flanks dry, its Tail large, and its Neck cover’d with Hair like a Lion. It is cloven footed, its Head armed like that of a Bull, which it resembles in Fierceness, with no less strength and Agility.”

Thus was the first seen buffalo described. The nearest locality from whence it could have come was the State of Coahuila, in northern Mexico, between 400 and 500 miles away, and at that time vehicles were unknown to the Aztecs. But for the destruction of the whole mass of the written literature of the Aztecs by the priests of the Spanish Conquest, we might now be reveling in historical accounts of the bison which would make the oldest of our present records seem of comparatively recent date.

Nine years after the event referred to above, or in 1530, another Spanish explorer, Alvar Nuñez Cabeza, afterwards called Cabeza de Vaca–or, in other words “Cattle Cabeza,” the prototype of our own distinguished “Buffalo Bill”–was wrecked on the Gulf coast, west of the delta of the Mississippi, from whence he wandered westward through what is now the State of Texas.

In southeastern Texas he discovered the American bison on his native heath. So far as can be ascertained, this was the earliest discovery of the bison in a wild state, and the description of the species as recorded by the explorer is of historical interest. It is brief and superficial.

The unfortunate explorer took very little interest in animated nature, except as it contributed to the sum of his daily food, which was then the all-important subject of his thoughts. He almost starved. This is all he has to say:[1]

“Cattle come as far as this. I have seen them three times and eaten their meat. I think they are about the size of those in Spain. They have small horns like those of Morocco, and the hair long and flocky, like that of the merino. Some are light brown (_pardillas_) and others black. To my judgment the flesh is finer and sweeter than that of this country [Spain]. The Indians make blankets of those that are not full grown, and of the larger they make shoes and bucklers. They come as far as the sea-coast of Florida [now Texas], and in a direction from the north, and range over a district of more than 400 leagues. In the whole extent of plain over which they roam, the people who live bordering upon it descend and kill them for food, and thus a great many skins are scattered throughout the country.”

Coronado was the next explorer who penetrated the country of the buffalo, which he accomplished from the west, by way of Arizona and New Mexico. He crossed the southern part of the “PaPanhandleof Texas, to the edge of what is now the Indian TTerritory andreturned through the same region. It was in the year 1542 that he reached the buffalo country, and traversed the plains that were “full of crooke-backed oxen, as the mountains Serena in Spaine is of sheep.” This is the description of the animal as recorded by one of his followers, Castañeda, and translated by W. W. Davis:[2]

“The first time we encountered the buffalo, all the horses took to flight on seeing them, for they are horrible to the sight.

“They have a broad and short face, eyes two palms from each other, and projecting in such a manner sideways that they can see a pursuer. Their beard is like that of goats, and so long that it drags the ground when they lower the head. They have, 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. Their horns are very short and thick, and can scarcely be seen through the hair. They always change their hair in May, and at this season they really resemble lions. To make it drop more quickly, for they change it as adders do their skins, they roll among the brush-wood which they find in the ravines.

“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; but as age increases they change color and form.

“Another thing which struck us was that all the old buffaloes that we killed had the left ear cloven, while it was entire in the young; we could never discover the reason of this.

“Their wool is so fine that handsome clothes would certainly be made of it, but it cannot be dyed for it is tawny red. We were much surprised at sometimes meeting innumerable herds of bulls without a single cow, and other herds of cows without bulls.”

Neither De Soto, Ponce de Leon, Vasquez de Ayllon, nor Pamphilo de Narvaez ever saw a buffalo, for the reason that all their explorations were made south of what was then the habitat of that animal. At the time De Soto made his great exploration from Florida northwestward to the Mississippi and into Arkansas (1539-’41) he did indeed pass-through country in northern Mississippi and Louisiana that was afterward inhabited by the buffalo, but at that time not one was to be found there. Some of his soldiers, however, who were sent into the northern part of Arkansas, reported having seen buffalo skins in the possession of the Indians, and were told that live buffaloes were to be found 5 or 6 leagues north of their farthest point.

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