The Story Of Wild Animals:
Story Of The Beaver
Story Of The Lion
Story Of The Elk
Story Of The Tiger.
Story Of The Mountain- Lion
Story Of The Camel
Story Of The Jaguar
Story Of The Buffalo.
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Story Of The Buffalo
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
Were a second Col. W. F. Cody to become a scout in the great West, he could not win the title borne by the illustrious "Buffalo Bill," for the innumerable herds of buffaloes of thirty years ago, have disappeared. When "Buffalo Bill" shot and brought in hundreds and thousands of buffalo to feed the laborers building the Kansas Pacific railway, and later to the United States troops stationed at the Nebraska and Wyoming forts, the number of buffaloes roaming the western plains was estimated at four or five millions. To-day the total number of buffaloes in the United States does not exceed one thousand. And these few would have been exterminated years ago had they not been given government protection. Such in brief is the story of the most characteristic animal of the great plains.
When the first railroads were built west of the Missouri river, the trains were often stopped by the immense herds of buffaloes which in migrating were crossing the tracks. But these same trains carried many hunters to the region inhabited by the buffalo, and the animal was doomed, for his extirpation was only a question of years.
In 1901 there were but three herds of any size remaining; the one in the Yellowstone National Park, another in Lost Park, Colorado, and a third at Goodnight, Texas. The Goodnight herd is the largest in the country and is supported by the Goodnight estate. A ranch of several thousand acres has been set aside for the herd and great care is taken with the animals to prevent their wandering off and getting shot. A number of the buffaloes are sold annually and the proceeds are devoted to the support of a school in the town.
While the name by which the animal is generally known is buffalo, the correct name is bison, and by naturalists and scientific men is used solely. In the West, however, the name buffalo has been in vogue for so long a time that it will no doubt continue to be used, while there are any of the animals left to be given a name. The bull buffalo, measures about 6 feet at the withers and weighs about 2,000 pounds. This refers to, the largest specimens now extant.
In earlier days the range of the buffalo was from the Alleghany Mountains to Mexico and the far Northwest, but by 184o few were to be found east of the Mississippi and the magnificent animal gathered on the plains of Kansas and Nebraska, although large herds roamed through the Indian Territory and Texas.
I am of the opinion that, if left to itself, the buffalo, would have crossed the Sierra Nevada and coast-ranges to reach the Pacific slopes ; while it would ultimately have developed into several distinct races according to the climate of the different regions it inhabited. An example of the formation of such a race is afforded, indeed, by the variety known in the States as the mountain, or wood, buffalo. The gradual opening up of the interior of this country, with the advance of civilization, soon, however, put an effectual stop to further increase of the species, and eventually led to its practical extermination.
Of all the quadrupeds that have ever lived upon the earth, probably no other species has ever marshaled such innumerable hosts as those of the American buffalo. It would have been as easy to count or to estimate the number of leaves in a forest as to calculate the number of buffalo living at any given time during the history of the species previous to 187o. Even in South Central Africa, which has been exceedingly prolific in great herds of game, it is probable that all its quadrupeds taken together on an equal area would never have more than equaled the total number of buffalo in this country forty years ago. As an instance of these enormous numbers, it appears that, in the early part of the year 1871, Col. Dodge, when passing through the great herd on the Arkansas, and reckoning that there were some fifteen or twenty individuals to the acre, states from his own observation that it was not less than twenty-five miles wide and fifty miles deep. This, however, was the last of the great herds, and the number of individuals comprising it could not be reckoned at less than four millions. Many writers at and about the date mentioned speak of the plains being absolutely black with buffalo as far as the eye could reach. One man passed through a herd for a distance of upwards of one hundred and twenty miles right on end, in traveling on the Kansas Pacific railroad. Frequently, indeed, trains on that line were derailed in attempting to pass through herds of buffalo, until the engineers learned it was advisable to bring their engines to a standstill when they found the line blocked in this manner.
When I was on the Arkansas river in 1867 the whole country appeared one great mass of buffalo moving slowly to the northward ; and it was only when actually among them that it could be ascertained that the apparently solid mass was an agglomeration of numerous small herds, of from fifty to two hundred animals, separated from the surrounding herds by greater or less space, but still separated. The buffalo on the hills, seeing an unusual object in their rear, started at full speed directly towards me, stampeding and bringing with them the numberless herds through which they passed, and pouring down upon all the herds, no longer separated, but one immense compact mass of plunging animals.
In their periodical journeys across the country in search of water regular tracks were formed by the buffalo, and as the water was approached several tracks united, with the result that in some places tracks of about twelve inches in width, and from a foot to two feet in depth, may be seen following the level of the valleys; the buffalo in these journeys having always marched in single file. These old buffalo-tracks still remain as a memento, of a vanished race, and are now used by the domestic cattle which have supplanted the monarchs of the prairie. After reaching the watering-place, the herd, instead of returning to its original feeding-ground, would wander right and left in search of fresh pastures. When undisturbed in good pasture, buffalo, were always in the habit of lying down for a few hours during the middle of the day; and they were at certain seasons fond of rolling either in dust or mud. In districts where salt lakes occurred, the buffalo would resort to them in great numbers. All the great herds were in the habit of moving southwards for a distance of from two hundred to four hundred miles with the approach of winter; and during such journeys it frequently happened that numbers were lost in crossing quick-sands, alkali-bogs, muddy fords, or on treacherous ice. It is stated that in 1867 upwards of two thousand buffalo out of a herd of four thousand were lost in a quicksand; and that an entire herd of about one hundred head perished when crossing the ice on a lake in Minnesota.
I have seen buffalo boldly face the cutting blizzards of the Northwest, instead of turning tail to them after the manner of domestic cattle; although they would at the same time seek such shelter as might be obtainable by retiring to the ravines and valleys. In heavy falls of snow, which lay long on the ground, the buffalo were often compelled to fast for days, or even weeks, together; but they suffered most when the surface of the snow was covered with a thin crust of ice after a slight thaw, as their ponderous weight would drive their feet deep into the snow, and leave them at the mercy of the Indians, by whom they were slain by hundreds when thus helpless.
The method of stalking, or "still-hunting," where the hunter creeps up to a herd and shoots one after another of its members, appears to be one the most deadly modes of hunting the buffalo, owing to the crass stupidity of the animals themselves. The plan adopted was first to shoot the leader, when the remainder of the herd would come and stupidly smell round the body, till another animal assumed the post of leader, and was shot down when it was about to make a move; the same process being repeated almost without end. Riding down, surrounding, impounding, or hunting in snow-shoes were, however, other equally effective methods of destruction.
In captivity the American buffalo breeds freely, not only with its own kind, but also with other species of cattle. In the United States a herd has been established by crossing bull buffalo with domestic cows; the buffalo cow not producing a hybrid offspring. This hybrid race is perfectly fertile, either with itself or when again crossed with domestic cattle; and it is considered that a strain of buffalo-blood will lead to the cattle in the Northwestern states being better enabled to withstand the blizzards of those districts.
In general the buffalo has no reason to fear any of the other animals that frequent the regions it inhabits, for if an individual should be attacked, the bulls rally to its assistance, and compel the assailant to flee before the blows which they inflict with their armed heads. It is only when wounded by the Indian's arrow, or by the bullet of the white man's rifle, or else from becoming sick from any cause, that this great beast falls a victim to its four-footed enemies. The cunning white wolf is the one it has most to dread ; for these stealthy, thick-coated Arabs of the prairies soon ascertain when a buffalo is in feeble condition, and, banding together, easily pull it to the ground and tear it to pieces. But the buffalo does not succumb to its foes without an effort to preserve its fast-ebbing life. Bold and gallant to the last, staggering to his sole remaining spot of vantage ground, the feeble knees bending beneath the weight of the mighty body weak with loss of blood, yet still unconquered the noble bull tosses his fierce-looking head and bids defiance to his lurking foes. With eager, bloodshot eyes, and the keen white fangs glistening in their powerful jaws, the wolves set on him from every side. By sudden springs they seize and tear his flesh with their sharp teeth, darting away too quickly to be injured by horn or hoof. Vain are his efforts to reach the nimble assailants, until, summoning all his remaining strength, he rushes upon one that, more daring than the rest, attacks him in front, and even in the act of trampling him down, falls upon the body of his prostrate foe, too feeble to carry out the unequal combat. Never will he rise again, for instantly the angry wolves fairly swarm upon him, and soon nothing will be left to tell of the mighty buffalo but a well picked skeleton whitening in the summer sun.
Mounted on a swift horse, and armed with a spear and bow and arrows, the Indians killed great numbers of these animals. They rode up close to the buffalo, and with the greatest apparent ease buried an arrow up to its feather in the creature's body. Indeed many instances are known where the slight Indian bow, drawn without any perceptible effort, has thrown the arrow completely through the body of the huge animal. Many modes of destroying this animal were in vogue among the Indians and white settlers. The skin was so valuable that every exertion was made to procure it. Of the buffalo's hide they made their wigwams or tents, their shields, their robes, their shoes, etc. The Indians could also sell the hides to the traders for a considerable sum, so that an Indian would almost measure his importance and wealth by the number of hides that he took.
Their ferocity of appearance was not evident in the buffaloes' true nature, for their disposition was sluggish and fearful. Endowed with the smallest possible amount of instinct, the little the buffalo has seems adapted rather for getting him into difficulties than out of them. If not alarmed at the sight or smell of a foe, he will stand stupidly gazing at his companions in their death-throes, until the whole herd is shot down. He will walk unconsciously in a quicksand or quagmire already choked with struggling, dying victims. Having made up his mind to go a certain way, it is almost impossible to swerve him from his purpose.
The flesh of the buffalo is tolerable eating, but the "hump" is unapproachable in delicacy. It is exceedingly tender, and possesses the property of not cloying even when eaten in excess. The fat is devoid of that sickening richness which is usually met with in our domesticated animals.
The cow is smaller than the bull, and considerably swifter. She is also generally in better condition and fatter than her mate, and in consequence the hunters who went to "get meat" always selected the cows from the herd.
The principal use of the flesh of the buffalo was to make "jerked meat" of it. This is made by cutting the meat into. lone, narrow slips, and drying them in the sun. There is a peculiar art in cutting these slips. The operator takes a large lump of the flesh, and holding his knife firmly in one hand, presses the meat against its edge with the other, continually turning it round and round, until the whole piece is converted into one long strip. The strips thus prepared are pegged out on stakes, as washerwomen peg their clothes, or suspended in festoons on the branches of trees, like red snakes, until they are dry enough to be packed up. Three days is considered sufficient for the purpose. The cow is preferred to the bull for conversion into jerked meat, while the skin of the bull is more valuable than that of the cow, from the mass of woolly hair about the shoulders.