Traditions of Buffalo Origin

Traditions of Buffalo Origin

In October 2016, the Nature Conservancy brought a herd of 23 bison to roam on more than 1,000 acres at Kankakee Sands. Photo credit: The Nature Conservancy.

Long ago, a tribe of Cheyenne hunters camped at the head of a rushing stream, which eventually emptied into a large cave.

The people were starving. They hunted deer, rabbits, porcupines, birds and even skunks until all were gone.

Then they would move to a new camp. But soon all wildlife was gone there too.

Because of the great need for a new food supply for his people, the Chief called a council meeting.

“We should explore this large cave,” he told his people.

“How many brave hunters will offer to go on this venture? Of course, it may be dangerous, but we have brave hunters.”

The men were silent. No one responded to the Chief’s request.

Every morning he repeated his plea.

Finally, one young brave painted himself for hunting and stepped forth in the council.

He said, “I will go and sacrifice myself for our people.”

He arrived at the cave, near the opening, where the stream rushed underground.

There to his surprise, Young Brave found two other Cheyenne hunters, also painted for hunting.

“We will go with you,” they said.

“Are they here to taunt me,” Young Brave wondered? “Will you only pretend to jump when I do?”

A large cave opened into a gumbo hill, where the stream rushed underground. Credit Nicole Haase.

But the other two braves assured him they would go with him, no matter how dangerous.

“You are mistaken about us. We really do want to enter the cave with you,” they said.

Young Brave then joined hands with them and they jumped into the opening of the cave. Together they tumbled down a long passage, then came to a stop.

They stood up, but because of the darkness, it took some time for their eyes to adjust.

Suddenly they saw what looked like an opening or door in the wall, with a hide hanging over it.

Young Brave knocked, but there was no response. He knocked again, much louder. Then they heard a frail voice.

An old Indian grandmother pulled back the hide and opened the door. “Where did you come from? And what do you want, my brave ones?” she asked.

“Grandmother, we are searching for a new food supply for our tribe,” Young Brave replied politely. “Our people never seem to have enough food to eat.”

“Are you hungry now?” she asked.

“Oh, yes, kind Grandmother, we are very hungry,” all three braves answered, hopefully.

The old grandmother pulled open her door wide, inviting the young men to enter.

She took them to a window and pointed for them to look.

“Look out there!” she said.

At first it was hard to see, but soon their eyes opened and a beautiful wide prairie stretched before their eyes. Great herds of buffalo were grazing contentedly.

The young hunters were surprised to see outside the window great herds of buffalo grazing contentedly on the beautiful green prairie grasses. SD Tourism.

The young hunters could hardly believe what they saw!

The old grandmother told them to sit and brought each of them a stone bowl filled with buffalo meat.

How good it tasted!  They ate and ate until they were full.

To their surprise, more buffalo meat still remained in their stone bowls!

“I want you to take your stone bowls of buffalo meat back to the people at your camp. Don’t spill any on the way,” said the old grandmother.

“Tell your people that soon I will send them live buffalo.”

“Thank you, thank you, thank you, kind Grandmother,” said the three young Cheyenne braves.

They took their bowls and being careful not to spill any meat, went back into the cave. It was very dark, but finally they saw a dim light and found a narrow passage.

After a time they found their way up and scaled the walls of the cave.

When the young hunters returned to their camp with gifts of buffalo meat, the people rejoiced over this new, good food.

The entire tribe ate heartily from the old grandmother’s three magic bowls, and still there was meat left over.

When the Cheyenne awoke at dawn the next day, herds of buffalo had mysteriously appeared, surrounding their village and eating the green grass in all four directions!

The people were truly thankful to the old Indian grandmother and to the Sky Spirits for their good fortune.

From then on they could hunt buffalo whenever they wanted.

But they always remembered to give thanks to all, and thanks to the buffalo—for offering up their flesh, their hides and other gifts for the Cheyenne people and their families.

How Coyote freed the Buffalo from Humpback

Another tradition told of the release of buffalo before they ran free over the earth. One of these involved a powerful being named Humpback who owned all the buffalo.

Humpback’s buffalo broke out of the corral and ran free over the earth.

In the first days a mean and powerful being named Humpback owned all the buffalo in the world. He kept them locked in a stone corral in the mountains north of San Juan, where he lived with his young son.

The buffalo were crowded into the corral, without much to eat, and most of their food was covered with dust.

They tried to reach for the green grass and sagebrush that grew outside their corral on the mountainside, but could not.

Humpback shared the buffalo with no one else and refused to give any meat to his neighbors, even though they were starving.

One summer game was very scarce. Coyote and the people hunters traveled many miles in all directions but found nothing to eat. The people and their children grew thin with hunger.

They sought help from the wily Coyote. Something had to be done to help the buffalo escape from Humpback’s corral.

Coyote and his family lived not far from the mountains. His children, too, cried because their bellies were empty.

Coyote called the people to a Council.

“Humpback will not give us any buffalo,” he said. “Let us go over to his corral and make a plan to help them escape.”

The people traveled to the mountains near Humpback’s place and camped. After dark they inspected his buffalo pens.

They found the stone walls had no opening. They were too high to climb. The only entrance was through the back door of Humpback’s home.

For four days they watched the father and son and the buffalo.

Then Coyote summoned the people to another Council and asked them to offer suggestions for releasing the buffalo.

“There is no way,” said one older man. “To release the buffalo we must go into Humpback’s house, and he is too powerful for us to do that.”

“I have an idea,” Coyote said. “For four days we have secretly watched Humpback and his young son go about their work.

“Have you noticed that the boy is lonesome? He does not own a pet of any kind?”

The people did not understand what this had to do with freeing the buffalo, but they knew that Coyote was a great schemer so they waited for him to explain.

“I will change myself into a Killdeer,” Coyote said. “In the morning when Humpback’s son goes down to the spring to get water, he’ll find a Killdeer with a broken wing.

“He will want this bird for a pet and take it back into his house.

“Once I am in the house I can fly into the corral, and the cries of the Killdeer will frighten the buffalo into a stampede. They will come charging out through Humpback’s house and be free to run upon the earth.”

The people thought this was a good plan, and the next morning when Humpback’s son came down the path to the spring he found the Killdeer with a crippled wing.

As Coyote had planned, the boy picked up the bird and carried it back into his lodge.

“Look here,” the boy cried. “This is a very good bird!”

“It is good for nothing!” Humpback shouted at him. “All the birds and animals and people are rascals.”

“It is a very good bird,” the boy repeated.

Humpback wore a blue mask over his face and fierce nose. Through its slits his eyes glittered. His basket headdress was painted black with a zigzag streak of yellow to represent lightning.

“Take it back where you found it!” roared Humpback, and his frightened son did as he was told.

As soon as the Killdeer was released it flew to where the people were camped and changed back into Coyote.

“That plan did not work,” he said, “but I will try again in the morning. Maybe a puppy will be better than a bird.”

The next morning Humpback’s son found a small dog by the spring, lapping at the water.

The boy picked up the puppy and hurried home.

“Look here!” he cried. “What a nice pet I have found.”

“How foolish you are, boy!” Humpback growled. “A dog is good for nothing. I’ll kill it with my club.”

But the boy hugged the dog tightly to his chest and began crying.

“Oh, all right,” Humpback growled. “But first let me test that animal to make certain it is a dog. All animals in the world are schemers.”

He took a coal of fire from the hearth and brought it closer and closer to the dog’s eyes until it gave three rapid barks.

“It is a real dog,” Humpback decided. “You may keep it in the buffalo corral, but not in the house.”

This was exactly what Coyote wanted.

When darkness fell and Humpback and his son went to sleep, Coyote opened the back door of the house.

Then he ran among the buffalo in the corral, barking as loud as he could. The buffalo were badly scared because they had never before heard a dog bark.

When Coyote ran nipping at their heels, they stampeded toward Humpback’s house and smashed down the rear door.

The buffalo broke through Humpback’s front door and all escaped to run free on the western plains. Nature Conservancy.

The pounding of their hooves in his house awakened Humpback. He jumped out of bed and tried to stop them, but the buffalo crashed through his front door and escaped.

All the buffalo escaped from Humpback’s corral. They scattered over all the plains and grazed on the lush green grass in the sunshine.

After the last of the big shaggy animals had galloped away, Humpback’s son could not find his small dog.

“Where is my pet?” he cried. “Where is my puppy?”

“That was no dog,” Humpback said angrily. “That was Coyote the Trickster. He has turned loose all our buffalo and we can never get them back again.”

Humpback said, “That was Coyote the Trickster. He has turned loose all our buffalo and we can never get them back again.” Photo courtesy of SD Tourism.

That was all true. The buffalo had escaped and now ran free to roam over the earth.

Coyote and the people could hunt them whenever they were hungry—but only when they thanked the buffalo for sharing their gifts.

Ancient Storytelling

Some tribes held another tradition for the origin of buffalo. Their beliefs centered on a Spirit Being who formed a buffalo shape out of mud and then breathed life into it.

Storytelling was one way that early Native Americans passed down their traditions and culture. Often families sat around the fire after dark and told stories on long winter evenings. It kept their customs, history and heritage alive from one generation to the next. Some traditional stories are still told today. Credit Cameron Nelson and Sarah VanAuken.

From this effigy came untold herds of buffalo that populated the earth.

The same traditions in different variations are often told by storytellers from different tribes, especially when those tribes shared kinship or traded with each other.

In ancient times, storytelling was an art and an important way of passing down religious beliefs, history and tribal culture.

Traditional beliefs were—and often are today—taught at a grandmother’s knee. Or told by grandfathers.

Some restrictions and taboos apply. Only special people were allowed to tell certain stories and at certain times of the year.

Some stories and traditions were passed down through a specific medicine man, and he alone was allowed to tell them.

There were traditions of the origin of buffalo, the flood that covered the earth, the close connections of the people with the spirit world of their relatives—buffalo and other wildlife and birds.

Other stories modeled good behavior such as kindness to the less fortunate and the generosity of every good hunter in sharing his game

Traditional storytellers believe the old stories are best told in the native language and to those who understand the culture.

Much of the spirit, humor and excitement are lost when stories need to be translated, they say.

Further, Cree storytellers suggest the stories lose meaning without the close connection to nature, the Great Spirit and other people, which is part of their culture and reflected in the stories told to small children from birth.

Not always do the traditional stories provide religious or cultural significance or teach a lesson

The Native American grandmother might entertain children with hilarious tales of coyote tricksters and other mischief just for the fun of it while she beaded moccasins or babysat the little ones. Credit Painting Howard Terpning.

The venerable Native grandmother, with a twinkle in her eye, might entertain with hilarious tales about coyote tricksters and other mischief.

Some stories she told just for fun of it, with twists, turns and surprises for a giggling circle of attentive children.

Francie M Berg

Author of the Buffalo Tales &Trails blog

The Buffalo Conservationists—Part 2

The Buffalo Conservationists—Part 2

Buffalo resting in the junipers at Teddy Roosevelt National Park, ND. Credit National Park Service.

William Hornaday published his amazing report on the slaughter of the buffalo herds in a government book in 1889, which he titled The Extermination of the American Bison.

It was intended to be the last word on bison.

William Hornaday hunted buffalo in remote canyons of central Montana, shot, killed and mounted his large, majestic bull with its family of six for the Smithsonian—which became an icon for the nation–wrote his amazing book on how buffalo were being exterminated, and then devoted the rest of his life to saving live buffalo in Parks and wildlife refuges throughout the country. Photographer unknown.

Determined to get it right, he spared no effort in contacting every possible source of buffalo knowledge, from Army officers at far-flung western forts to fur traders, railroaders, hide hunters and cowboys.

He learned that the end of the big herds came in Dakota Territory—on the Great Sioux reservation—but offered few details. Except to state that Sitting Bull and his band were there at the end.

He soon discovered that small herds of buffalo here and there were not only surviving—but thriving and multiplying.

Upon publishing his greatest book—on extermination of the buffalo—Hornaday could have rested on his laurels, but fortunately for us, he did not.

Instead, he spent the rest of his life fighting for the conservation of healthy, live buffalo.

No longer solely interested in carcasses, he developed a vision for living buffalo—a way they could be kept safe in parks and public lands across America.

He had a new mission—to save buffalo and other game animals in refuges where they could live out their lives in safety.

In Washington, DC and New York he lectured and wrote impassioned articles on the need to set aside national reserves for buffalo and other wildlife.

But Congress did not act.

In no uncertain terms, Hornaday expressed his anger and despair.

“We are weary of witnessing the greed, selfishness and cruelty of ‘civilized’ man toward the wild creatures of the earth. We are sick of tales of slaughter and pictures of carnage.

“It is time for sweeping reformation; and that is precisely what we now demand,” he wrote.

“If the majority of the people of America feel that so long as there is any game alive there must be an annual two months or four months open season for its slaughter, then assuredly we soon will have a game-less continent.”

A gameless continent! A sobering thought indeed.

Yet, the west teemed with wildlife and the risk of that seemed impossible.

Westerners generally opposed laws to restrict hunting, knowing many desperate pioneers on the frontier survived by hunting and selling hides and meat.

Congress shrugged the conservation concerns aside.

As for using public land for grazing buffalo, that was highly unlikely when the public clamored for even more homestead land.

As an early leader in conservation and the passionate editor of Field and Stream Magazine Grinnell, too, played an important role in influencing the saving of buffalo in America.

An early conservation writer, George Bird Grinnell earned his PhD and editorship of Field and Stream Magazine, after first joining the Pawnee’s in their last great buffalo hunt of 1872 while still in college. Credit William Notman, c 1880.

George Bird Grinnell wrote often about the need for saving the buffalo.

Born in Brooklyn, New York, Grinnell lived in Audubon Park and had connections with the Audubon family, which likely helped spur his interest in the natural world.

Like fellow conservationists Hornaday and Theodore Roosevelt, Grinnell had a special interest in the west.

Like them he hunted buffalo and in fact, had joined the Pawnee’s last great buffalo hunt of in 1872 while still in college.

He rode with General Custer’s 1874 Black Hills expedition and the next year went with Col. William Ludlow’s expedition to Yellowstone Park.

For the Ludlow report he documented the poaching of buffalo, deer, elk and antelope that was going on in Yellowstone.

Grinnell earned a PhD from Yale in 1880, where he was already an editor of Field and Stream Magazine. He continued his long-term career as senior editor and publisher of that magazine.

On his western ranch Theodore Roosevelt—who came to Dakota in 1883 to hunt big game and stayed to set up a ranch business—soon realized that the elk, bighorn sheep and buffalo that he so admired would not survive relentless overhunting or the destruction of their grasslands under modern civilization.

A frail asthmatic child, Theodore Roosevelt learned hard-riding cowboy ways on his badlands North Dakota ranch and built up his strength and endurance. He hunted big game and grew convinced of the need to preserve all forms of wildlife.

He became increasingly convinced of the need to protect the magnificent buffalo and provide large, safe places for them to live.

When the long and bitterly cold winter of 1886–1887 wiped out his herd of cattle and those of other ranchers, and with them over half his $80,000 investment, Roosevelt returned to the East.

The badlands of Theodore Roosevelt National Park after a rain, at sunset—rugged ridges, clay banks and fertile green bottomlands. Good ranching country. NPS.

After that disastrous winter, he let go of most of his ranch holdings but continued to maintain some cattle interests in the badlands.

In 1886, after his first wife’s death, Roosevelt married Edith Carow, a childhood friend.

He entered politics—first as a delegate to the Republican National Convention, then president of the NY City Board of Police Commissioners, and next as governor of NY where he battled corruption and fought for reform.

He launched the rules for his Square Deal: “Honesty in public affairs, an equitable sharing of privilege and responsibility, and subordination of party and local concerns to the interests of the state at large.”

Appointed assistant secretary of the navy by President William McKinley, Roosevelt worked for a stronger navy and railed against Spain for its interference in Cuba and North American affairs.

When war with Spain was declared in 1898, Roosevelt organized the Rough Riders and was sent to fight in Cuba. The successful charge of the Rough Riders up Kettle Hill July 1, 1898, during the deadly Battle of Santiago was well publicized and made him a national hero.

TR became Vice President of the United States in 1901—a powerless office. However, he gave one memorable speech at the Minnesota State Fair.

“I have always been fond of the West African proverb,” he told the crowd. ‘Speak softly and carry a big stickyou will go far.’”

The cartoonists picked up on his “big stick.”

It was a hint of the style he would soon put into practice. Within six months he was President, upon the assassination of William McKinley.

He continued to visit western North Dakota to hunt, renew himself and refresh his soul in the badlands, where he said “the romance of my life began.”

The American Bison Society

The American Bison Society arranged a donation of bison from the New York Zoological Society to the new Wichita National Forest and Game Preserve in Oklahoma. On Oct 11,1907, 15 of “the finest buffalo from the New York Zoological Park were shipped by rail to Oklahoma.’ Here the six bulls and nine cows were being safely returned to the plains and mountains of Oklahoma. Credit US FWS Archives.

Grinnell founded the Audubon Society of New York, and organized the New York Zoological Society. He wrote articles against market hunting and in favor of realistic game laws.

With Theodore Roosevelt he founded the Boone and Crockett Club, dedicated to the restoration of America’s wildlands. Together he and Roosevelt wrote the club’s first book in 1895.

For 35 years, until 1911, Grinnell had an ideal platform in Field and Stream for publicizing his passion on conservation and environmental issues.

Grinnell took hunting trips to what is now Glacier National Park in Montana, with the well-known guide James Willard Schultz.

In a 1885 visit they hiked over the St. Mary Lakes region naming outstanding features including the glacier named for him—Grinnell Glacier.

These experiences spurred him to write many articles urging protection of the buffalo and the American West. He spent many years studying the natural history of the region.

He was influential in establishing Glacier National Park when the park system began in 1910.

Grinnell also took a deep interest in Native Americans.

On his many trips west, he often lived with Indian tribes and became an advocate for them in the East. He wrote many books on the Native Americans, some of the most popular on the Cheyenne, the Pawnee and the Blackfeet. Also Blackfeet Indian Stories, When Buffalo Ran, and Native American Ways: Four Paths to Enlightenment

As a young man Grinnell lived with and became a friend of several Indian tribes. Later he became an advocate for them.


Then Hornaday discovered an amazingly effective route to his conservation goals.

The idea came on a lecture tour, when a listener asked, “Why not form a society dedicated to the permanent preservation of the buffalo?”

Americans could be mobilized for a cause, as Henry Osborn, president of the New York Zoological Society, wrote in his foreword to William Hornaday’s new book,   Our Vanishing Wildlife:

“Americans are practical. Like all other northern peoples, they love money and will sacrifice much for it, but they are also full of idealism, as well as moral and spiritual energy.

‘The influence of the splendid body of Americans and Canadians who have turned their best forces of mind and language into literature and into political power for the conservation movement, is becoming stronger every day.”

Hornaday passed the idea on to the new president, who often voiced his regrets at the state of conservation in his country.

“The extermination of the buffalo has been a veritable tragedy of the animal world,” Theodore Roosevelt said.

In his message to Congress on Dec 5, 1905, the Conservation President Teddy Roosevelt called for a buffalo refuge.

“The most characteristic animal of the western plains was the great shaggy-maned wild ox, the bison, commonly known as buffalo.

“Small fragments of herds exist in a domesticated state, here and there. Such a herd as that on the Flathead Reservation should not be allowed to go out of existence.

“Either on some reservation or on some forest reserve or refuge, provision should be made for the preservation of such a herd.”

At last, a president who understood both buffalo and ranching—from his time as a western rancher—and with a heart for conservation!

Three days later, on Dec. 8, the American Bison Society was born, with William Hornaday as president and Roosevelt, honorary president.

Memberships poured in and suddenly Hornaday had the power he wanted.

He immediately proposed a federal range—on or next to the Flathead Indian Reservation in western Montana, where Michel Pablo still ran his half of the original Walking Coyote herd.

Within six months Congress appropriated money to enclose 8,000 acres of the National Wichita Forest Reserve in southwest Oklahoma with a high wire fence for a wildlife refuge and stocked it with 15 donated buffalo.

One of the first wildlife parks to get buffalo was the National Wichita Forest Reserve in southwest Oklahoma, stocked with 15 donated buffalo.


By 1909 the US government owned 158 buffalo.

Most were in Yellowstone National Park, along with 40 head on the National Bison Range, 19 on the Wichita Game Reserve in Oklahoma, and 7 in the National Zoological Park in Washington, DC.

Fourteen Buffalo donated to Wind Cave National Game Preserve in the Black Hills, SD, leave New York City after a send-off by men of the American Bison Society. Credit Wildlife Conservation Society.

The American Bison Society stocked Wind Cave National Game Preserve in the Black Hills with 14 buffalo, surprisingly from the New York City Zoo, and later added six from Yellowstone Park.

This remains a special herd that tests genetically pure because of its unique origins.

Grinnell founded the Audubon Society of New York, and was an organizer of the New York Zoological Society.

He was a founding member, with Theodore Roosevelt, of the Boone and Crockett Club, dedicated to the restoration of America’s wildlands. Together he and Roosevelt wrote the club’s first book in 1895.

Buffalo arriving at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge in Colorado. NPS.

He campaigned intensely against market hunting and for realistic game laws and was influential in the enactment of the Migratory Bird Treaty in Great Britain in 1916 as well as the adoption of strong regulatory control of hunting in all states.

Hornaday came up with another startling new idea that took root: Forever prohibit the sale of wild game.

Another federal herd of six donated buffalo, launched in the Appalachian Mountains near Asheville, North Carolina, failed to grow. The last lone buffalo died there a couple of decades later.

The Teddy Roosevelt Legacy

Perhaps spurred on by the popularity of their successes with the American Bison Society, President Theodore Roosevelt wielded his “big stick” and went on to establish numerous wildlife refuges stocked with buffalo and teeming with wild animals and bird life.

As president—from 1901 to 1909—he became one of the most powerful voices in the history of American conservation.

Roosevelt set aside almost five times as much land as all of his predecessors combined, and earned himself a place on Mt. Rushmore as this country’s greatest conservationist, along with three of its greatest leaders, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln.

Teddy Roosevelt earned his place on Mt. Rushmore as the Conservation President. NPS.

The Park System grew rapidly. When the National Park Service was created in 1916—seven years after Roosevelt left office—there were 35 sites to be managed by the new organization. Roosevelt helped create 23 of those.

He took the view that the President as a “steward of the people” should take whatever action is necessary for the public good unless expressly forbidden by law or the Constitution.

“I did not usurp power,” he wrote, “but I did greatly broaden the use of executive power.”

When it came to setting aside land and resources for use of the general public he did not hesitate. He said:

”We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources.

“But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields and obstructing navigation.

“We have fallen heirs to the most glorious heritage a people ever received, and each one must do his part if we wish to show that the nation is worthy of its good fortune.”

After becoming president, Roosevelt:

  • Created the United States Forest Service (USFS) and established
  • 150 national forests
  • 51 federal bird reserves
  • 4 national game preserves
  • Set aside 230 million acres of public land

National parks are created by an act of Congress. Roosevelt worked with his legislative branch to establish these 5 parks:

  • Crater Lake National Park (OR) – 1902
  • Wind Cave National Park (SD) – 1903
  • Sullys Hill (ND) – 1904 (now managed by USFWS)
  • Platt National Park (OK) – 1906 (now part of Chickasaw National Recreation Area)
  • Mesa Verde National Park (CO) – 1906
  • Also added land to Yosemite National Park (CA)
  • Named for him is Theodore Roosevelt National Park (1978)
    in the badlands of North Dakota, where he owned two cattle ranches

and where his Presidential Library is scheduled to be built soon.

Since he did not need congressional approval for national monuments, Roosevelt could establish them much easier than national parks. He dedicated these 18 sites as national monuments:

  • Devil’s Tower (WY) – 1906
  • El Morro (NM) – 1906
  • Montezuma Castle (AZ) – 1906
  • Petrified Forest (AZ) – 1906 (now a national park)
  • Chaco Canyon (NM) – 1907
  • Lassen Peak (CA) – 1907 (now Lassen Volcanic National Park)
  • Cinder Cone (CA) – 1907 (now part of Lassen Volcanic National Park)
  • Gila Cliff Dwellings (NM) – 1907
  • Tonto (AZ) – 1907
  • Muir Woods (CA) – 1908
  • Grand Canyon (AZ) – 1908 (now a national park)
  • Pinnacles (CA) – 1908 (now a national park)
  • Jewel Cave (SD) – 1908
  • Natural Bridges (UT) – 1908
  • Lewis & Clark Caverns (MT) – 1908 (now a Montana State Park)
  • Tumacacori (AZ) – 1908
  • Wheeler (CO) – 1908 (now Wheeler Geologic Area, part of Rio Grande National Forest)
  • Mount Olympus (WA) – 1909 (now Olympic National Park)

Roosevelt also established Chalmette Monument and Grounds in 1907, site of the Battle of New Orleans, now part of Jean Lafitte National Historical Park.

Sagamore Hill, New York, was the home of Theodore Roosevelt and his family from 1885 until his death in 1919. Called his “Summer White House,” during his time in office it is now a Historic Site with 83 acres of park grounds and historic buildings. NPS.

TR’s words and actions continue to affect how we approach and appreciate the natural world.

Though his many writings describe numerous hunting trips and successful kills, they are filled with his regret for the loss of species and habitat. He wrote:

“It is also vandalism wantonly to destroy or to permit the destruction of what is beautiful in nature, whether it be a cliff, a forest, or a species of mammal or bird.

“Here in the United States we turn our rivers and streams into sewers and dumping-grounds, we pollute the air, we destroy forests, and exterminate fishes, birds and mammals—not to speak of vulgarizing charming landscapes with hideous advertisements.

“But at last it looks as if our people are awakening.”

Today, Theodore Roosevelt’s legacy is found across the country.

His words and actions continue to affect how we approach and appreciate the natural world.

He saw the effects of overgrazing, and suffered the loss of his ranches because of it.

Here in North Dakota, where many of his personal concerns inspired his later environmental efforts, Roosevelt is remembered with a national park that bears his name and honors the memory of this dedicated conservationist.

Roosevelt continued to maintain some cattle interests in the badlands until he became Vice President of the United States in 1901.

For the rest of his life he continued to visit good friends he made in the badlands and to enjoy the renewal and inspiration—and what he called the ‘hardy life’—he found here.

“I have always said I would not have been President had it not been for my experience in North Dakota.

“It was here that the romance of my life began.

“I grow very fond of this place, and it certainly has a desolate, grim beauty of its own, that has a curious fascination for me.

“There is a delight in the hardy life of the open. There are no words that can tell the hidden spirit of the wilderness that can reveal its mystery, its melancholy and its charm.

“The Bad Lands grade all the way from those that are almost rolling in character to those that are so fantastically broken in form and so bizarre in color as to seem hardly properly to belong to this earth.

“Nothing could be more lonely and nothing more beautiful than the view at nightfall across the prairies to these huge hill masses, when the lengthening shadows had at last merged into one and the faint after-glow of the red sunset filled the west.”

At age 42 TR also expanded presidential power for support of the public interest in conflicts between big business and labor.

Although he promised continuity with McKinley’s policies, he transformed the public image of the presidency at once.

He led the nation toward an active role in world politics, particularly in Europe and Asia.

Theodore Roosevelt riding with others into Yellowstone Park from the train station in Gardiner, MT. NPS.

Roosevelt wielded his big-stick diplomacy in 1903, when he helped Panama pull away from Colombia and gave the United States a Canal Zone.

He secured the route and began construction of the Panama Canal (1904–14). In 1906 Roosevelt visited the Canal–the first president to leave the US while in office.

He reached an agreement on immigration with Japan, and sent the Great White Fleet on a goodwill tour of the world.

He won the Nobel Prize for Peace (posthumously) for mediating an end to the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905).

He renamed the presidential home “the White House” and opened its doors to entertain an array of people who fascinated him—cowboys, prizefighters, explorers, writers and artists.

He gained the respect and affection of ordinary working Americans everywhere despite his wealthy upbringing.

His refusal to shoot a bear cub tied to a tree on a 1902 hunting trip inspired a toy maker to name a stuffed bear after him—and a teddy bear fad swept the nation.

The North Room in TR’s Sagamore Hill home at Oyster Bay displays his buffalo head, his hunting skills and love for the natural world, along with a touch of elegance. NPS.

TR and Edith lived all their adult lives at Sagamore Hill, an estate near Oyster Bay, Long Island. They had five children: Theodore, Jr., Kermit, Ethel, Archibald, and Quentin.

The Roosevelt family with Theodore and Edith seated in front; oldest daughter Alice, center back. NPS.

His young children played on the White House lawn—along with TR himself at times. The marriage of his oldest daughter Alice in 1905 to Representative Nicholas Longworth of Ohio became a major social event.

Always the reformer, Roosevelt gave speeches from the presidency’s “bully pulpit,” aimed at raising public consciousness about the nation’s role in world politics, the need to control the trusts that dominated the economy, the regulation of railroads and the impact of political corruption.

He appointed young college-educated men to administrative positions.

“While President, I have been President,” he said. “Emphatically; I have used every ounce of power there was in the office . . . “

“I do not believe that any President ever had as thoroughly good a time as I have had, or has ever enjoyed himself as much.”

Roosevelt’s last visit to the North Dakota badlands came in the fall of 1918, just a few months before his death January 6, 1919 at the age of 60, in Oyster Bay, New York.

His Presidential Library begins construction in 2021 within the borders of Theodore Roosevelt National Park in the badlands, where his two ranches—the Maltese Cross and the Elkhorn—were located.

Who Really Saved the Buffalo?

 So who really did save the buffalo?

William Hornaday took special delight in the new buffalo refuge in western Montana when it was finished with its magnificent view of the snow-packed Mission range.

At last his wildest dreams had come true.

“It is beautiful and perfect beyond compare,” he marveled.

Indeed. It is perfect!

There, in the shadow of the Rockies, buffalo still graze across the open grasslands of Montana’s beautiful Flathead Valley, rising in the stunning foothills and narrow canyons of what the Natives call Red Sleep Mountain to the high Missions beyond.

Big Medicine, the famous white buffalo, was born there and lived out his 26 years on the National Bison Range.

The refuge is kept as a natural, controlled ecosystem, with a target population of around 350 buffalo, 130 elk, 200 mule deer, 175 white-tailed deer, 100 antelope, 40 bighorn sheep and 30 mountain goats.

About 125,000 visitors come every year to enjoy its delights. Many drive the one-way 19-mile road that climbs up and over the mountain among grazing buffalo and other wildlife.

No going back once committed!

The road to the top and along the ridge is delightful—high switch-backs but no heart-stopping drop-offs. It’s a two hour drive—maybe somewhat longer with summer traffic. And well-worth it!

The main herds are often found with their calves along the creek bottoms.

Here and there up high on the mountain can be seen a lone buffalo bull or two.

And at the summit of Red Sleep Mountain the view of the valley and the rugged Mission Range beyond is nothing short of spectacular!

History rightly gives a great deal of credit for saving the buffalo to the Duprees and Philips, Walking Coyotes, Pablo and Allard, McKay, Goodnights and Buffalo Jones.

We honor these five family groups with ‘boots on the ground’ who rescued buffalo calves and kept them alive, healthy and multiplying.

Without them, there’d be no American bison today.

Buffalo roundup in Badlands of North Dakota via helicopter. NPS.

Still, we also need to honor these visionary conservatists for their dedication and determination to provide the buffalo with safe places to live out their lives.

For their persistence in developing wildlife sanctuaries for buffalo throughout the United States, making them available for the enjoyment of people everywhere—William Hornaday, George Bird Grinnell and President Theodore Roosevelt are Buffalo Conservation heroes.

And yes, I believe Teddy Roosevelt well deserves his place on Mt. Rushmore as our greatest Conservation President!

Bully for him!

Francie M Berg

Author of the Buffalo Tales &Trails blog

Red Sleep Mountain Range Returned to Flathead Reservation

Red Sleep Mountain Range Returned to Flathead Reservation

Long in the works, the 250 to 300 buffalo that live on this refuge as well as the National Bison Range itself have been turned over to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes as of Dec. 27, 2021, when President Donald Trump signed it into law. These tribes have strong historical, geographic and cultural ties to the land and the bison. Credit Ryan Hagerty, US FWS.

On Dec. 27, President Donald Trump signed into law an act that returns “all land comprising the National Bison Range including all natural resources interests and appurtenances of that land to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT).”

The Act further states that this restored land shall be a part of the Flathead Indian Reservation, administered as tribal trust land and managed by the Tribes. This includes all bison on the range, as well as all buildings and structures located on the land.

 The law establishes a 2-year transition period, during which the Secretary will cooperate with the Tribes in transition activities regarding the management of land, bison, and other resources. This includes providing to the Tribes, as determined appropriate by the Secretary, funds, personal property, equipment, or other resources.

 The range has been transferred to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT). Red Sleep Mountain is the historic name of the mountain which contains the National Bison Range and its one-way tourist auto route over the Red Sleep Mountain.

 The local Salish, Pend d’Oreille and Kootenai people convey how important the buffalo is to their traditional way of life. Today, the Tribe keeps their culture vibrant and alive with an annual River Honoring, Pow Wows, Native language schools, active cultural committees, and a tribal museum at the People’s Center.

“The CSKT have strong and deep historical, geographic and cultural ties to the land and the bison, and their environmental professionals have been leaders in natural resources and wildlife management for many decades,” Interior Assistant Secretary Tara Katuk Sweeney wrote in her statement. “Interior is pleased to continue its partnership and work with them on the restoration of the (National Bison Range) to federal trust ownership for the Tribes.”

Tribal Chairwoman Shelly Fyant said the transfer returned care of the bison to the people who had made it a mainstay of their culture, the Missoulian reported.

It was included as part of the Montana Water Rights Protection Act, co-sponsored by all three members of Montana’s congressional delegation: Senators Steve Daines (R) and JonTester (D) and Rep (now Gov.) Greg Gianforte (R).

That act also settled a long-standing treaty negotiation that gave the CSKT rights to major water resources inside the Flathead Indian Reservation in return for releasing claims on more than 10,000 water rights outside its boundaries.

“The restoration of this land is a great historic event and we worked hard to reach this point,” Fyant said.

“This comes after a century of being separated from the buffalo and the Bison Range, and after a quarter-century-long effort to co-manage the refuge with the FWS (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service).”

CSKT spokesman Robert McDonald said the public would see little change on the 18,800-acre wildlife refuge covering Red Sleep Mountain south of Pablo.

The Tribal Council agreed to continue following the conservation plan developed by FWS that controls how the refuge is managed for wildlife and the public.

“The Fish and Wildlife Service is still in place,” McDonald said on Friday. “The Tribal Council is in regular contact with them, and we’re working on an agreement for how things will progress and operate in the future.

“There are a lot of questions about staffing, positions, what should be added or remain—things like maintenance crews, biologists, people in the gift shop and cultural interpretation. We’re in the early process of hashing out how it’s going to go.”

McDonald said the mission of the refuge to be a publicly accessible landscape focused on preserving wild bison would not change.

On Thursday, CSKT officials announced they were replacing federal regulations governing hunting, fishing and recreation on the refuge with an essentially identical set of rules authorized by the Tribes.

The replaced regulations include rules governing user fees to enter the refuge, prohibition of fireworks, weapons or explosives except under authorized circumstances, prohibition of hunting or taking of resources from the refuge except as authorized, and use of motorized vehicles.

McDonald said the exceptions would apply to actions previously allowed by FWS. Boy Scout troops, for instance, have been allowed to gather shed elk antlers and biologists have conducted studies involving capturing or occasionally killing specimen wildlife. Those exceptions would continue under tribal management, he said.

The original herd of bison released in 1909 was purchased with private money raised by the American Bison Society and then donated to the Refuge.

Today, 250-300 bison live on this refuge. To keep track of herd health, the Refuge conducts an annual Bison capture. And to ensure the herd is in balance with their habitat, surplus bison are donated and/or sold live, according to the US Fish and Wildlife.

(ORDER NO. 3390 from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Bureau of Land Management to the Bureau of lndian Affairs and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.)

Francie M Berg

Author of the Buffalo Tales &Trails blog

The Buffalo Conservationists—Part 1

The Buffalo Conservationists—Part 1

In essence, the saving of buffalo focused on two major factors.

On the one hand were westerners, both Native American and whites, who saw what was happening to the buffalo and cared about saving them.

With boots on the ground, these people rescued, nourished and protected fragile buffalo calves until they multiplied into healthy and prolific herds.

Without them American bison would likely have gone extinct. There’d be no buffalo in North America today. It almost happened.

 On the other hand were outstanding Conservationists from the east—who came west to hunt buffalo, yes—but who also understood what was going on and fought for refuges and wildlife parks where they could live out their lives in safety.

The Buffalo Conservationists we know best are President Theodore Roosevelt, William Hornaday and George Bird Grinnell. Each made a significant impact on wildlife conservation in the United States—particularly on buffalo.

As young men, their early lives were influenced by nature, by wildlife—and by the west and western values.

Theodore Roosevelt Travels West

Theodore Roosevelt came west to hunt buffalo at age 24—just as the last of the great wild herds vanished forever. He nearly missed them all together.

Roosevelt was considered an eastern dude when he arrived in Medora. But he learned to love the badlands, developed a broad-minded viewpoint as a rancher, became an advocate for the strenuous life and the Conservationist President of the United States.

In fact, he arrived on September 8, 1883 in Medora, Dakota Territory, on the newly finished stretch of the Northern Pacific railway. It was only a month later—in mid-October—that Sitting Bull and his band killed the last 1,200 wild buffalo ranging on the nearby Great Sioux Reservation.

Born in 1858 in New York City into a wealthy family, he struggled as a frail child, was taught by a private tutor and quickly discovered a passion for the outdoors and nature.

A 6-year-old Roosevelt with his younger brother Elliott watched Lincoln’s funeral procession from the second-floor window of their grandfather’s mansion (building at center far left). Photographed at the window, as confirmed by wife Edith, who was also there as a childhood friend. Manhattan, April 25, 1865.

His favorite activities included hiking, rowing, swimming, riding, bird-watching, hunting and taxidermy.

Creating a vast collection of specimens, he filled his boyhood home and later his adult estate with insect collections and mounted animals. Some are still on display in the Smithsonian.

Roosevelt’s youth was dominated by poor health and asthma. He suffered sudden nighttime asthma attacks that terrified both him and his parents. Doctors had no cure. Here photographed in Paris at age 11.

Roosevelt graduated from Harvard and studied law at Columbia. In 1880 he married Alice Lee, a socialite he met there.

Then, deciding not to finish law school, he took an opportunity that opened to him in politics.

 Elected as a Republican to the New York State Assembly at 23, Roosevelt quickly made a name for himself as a foe of corrupt machine politics.

In Medora Roosevelt found and hired a local guide, Joe Ferris. Riding horseback on a 10-day hunt well outside the reservation they flushed out a few lone bulls and one small band of buffalo in the badlands of the Little Missouri River Valley, southwest of Medora.

In his book The Works of T Roosevelt, Memorial Edition, Hunting Trips of a Ranchman, Roosevelt writes about that hunting adventure.

As he relates it, the first buffalo bull they saw plunged out of a little side coulee, taking both he and the guide by surprise.

“A shabby looking old bull bison galloped out and, without an instant’s hesitation, plunged over a steep bank into a patch of broken ground around the base of a high butte.

“So quickly did he disappear that we had not time to dismount and fire. Getting our horses over the broken ground as fast as possible, we rode round the butte only to see the buffalo come out and climb up the side of another butte over a quarter of a mile off.

“In spite of his great weight and cumbersome, heavy gait, he climbed up the steep bluff with ease and even agility, and when he had reached the ridge stood and looked back at us for a moment.

“In another second he made off . . . he must have traveled a long distance before stopping, for we followed his trail for some miles, yet did not again catch so much as a glimpse of him.”

Later they saw three black specks—three more old bulls. They dismounted and crawled on hands and knees.

“We got within about 125 yards and as all between was bare ground I drew up and fired. The bullet told on his body with a loud crack, the dust flying up from his hide; but did not in the least hinder him, and away went all three with their tails up.

“I drew up and fired. The bullet told on his body . . . but did not in the least hinder him, and away went all three with their tails up.” Credit Missoulian, Kurt Wilson.

“For seven or eight miles we loped our jaded horses, occasionally seeing the buffalo far ahead.

“When the sun had just set, we saw all three had come to a stand in a gentle hollow. They faced us and made off, while the ponies put on a burst that enabled us to close in with the wounded one.

“Within 20 feet I fired my rifle, but the darkness and violent labored motion of my pony made me miss.

“I tried to get in closer, when suddenly up went the bull’s tail and, wheeling, he charged with lowered horns. My pony spun round and tossed his head.

“My companion jumped off and took a couple of shots, missed in the dim moonlight and to our unutterable chagrin the wounded bull vanished in the darkness.

A day or so later in the rain they came over a low divide and saw black objects in the distance. Again they crept toward them on hands and knees upwind.

“The rain was beating in my eyes and the drops stood out in the sights of the rifle so I could hardly draw a bead—and I either overshot or else at the last moment must have given a nervous jerk and pulled the rifle clear off the mark.

“At any rate, I missed clean and the whole band plunged down into a hollow and were off before I could get another shot.”

Finally, on the 10th day they passed the mouth of a steep ravine along the Little Missouri River, on Cannonball Creek, close to the Montana border.

Suddenly both horses threw up their heads and looked with alarm toward the head of the gully. 

“I slipped off and ran quickly but cautiously up along the valley. Before I had gone a hundred yards, I noticed in the soft soil at the bottom the round prints of a bison’s hooves and immediately afterward got a glimpse of the animal himself—a great bison bull—as he fed slowly up the ravine not 50 yards off.

“As I rose above the crest of the hill he held up his head and cocked his tail in the air. Before he could get off I put the bullet in behind his shoulder. 

“The wound was an almost immediately fatal one.

“Yet with surprising agility for so large and heavy an animal, he bounded up the opposite side of the ravine, heedless of two more balls, both of which went into his flank and ranged forward—and disappeared over the ridge at a lumbering gallop, the blood pouring from his mouth and nostrils. 

“In the next gully we found him stark dead, lying almost on his back, having pitched over the side when he tried to go down it. 

“He was a splendid old bull, still in his full vigor, with large, sharp horns and heavy mane and glossy coat, and I felt the most exulting pride as I handled and examined him.” 

Roosevelt shot his buffalo on September 20, 1883 on upper Little Cannonball Creek near where it is joined by the Little Missouri, just across the Dakota Territorial line into Montana, according to Joe Wiegand, Theodore Roosevelt scholar, who portrays TR with the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation in Medora. 

At the time Wiegand says Roosevelt and Joe Ferris were using the Nemilla Ranch as a base camp, hosted by Gregor Lang and his 16-year-old son Lincoln, north of today’s Marmarth, ND.  

Roosevelt was so delighted with his hunting adventure in the scenic badlands with rugged buttes and fertile green bottoms all around that he impulsively decided to become a cattle rancher.

Painted Canyon, TR National Park, at sunset. Roosevelt was so delighted with his hunting adventures in the badlands with its rugged buttes and fertile green bottoms that he invested in two cattle ranches. Medora Foundation.

He invested in two cattle ranches—the Maltese Cross seven miles south of Medora and the Elkhorn, 35 miles north. 

The next year TR suffered a double tragedy when his mother and his wife both died on the same day—Valentine’s Day. His wife had given birth two days before to a daughter, also named Alice.

He returned to Medora and spent much of the next two years on his ranch in the Badlands of Dakota Territory.

Roosevelt threw himself into ranching, determined to get a taste of the American frontier before it was gone forever, and to restore his health by living a vigorous life.

In Medora, Roosevelt lived in the saddle, learning to be an authentic cowboy, ranching, driving cattle, hunting—and at the same time overcame his physical weaknesses.

He fell in love with the Little Missouri badlands and admired the strenuous life of the outdoorsmen who lived and worked there, trying to follow their example.

In the North Dakota badlands he lived in the saddle, learning to be an authentic cowboy ranching, driving cattle—he even captured an outlaw and at the same time overcame his physical infirmities.

In Dakota Territory Roosevelt changed from the frail, New York “dude” who arrived there—into a democratic advocate for ranching and the strenuous life who became the 26th President of the United States.

William Hornaday Seeks Buffalo Carcasses

in 1886 William Temple Hornaday also came west to hunt buffalo—if he could find any. 

As chief taxidermist of the Smithsonian Museum, when he learned that buffalo were almost extinct, he surveyed the Smithsonian’s storage closets for buffalo bones and carcasses.

Shocked, he found only one poorly mounted female, a few tattered bison hides and an incomplete skeleton. 

How would future generations of Americans be able to visualize the magnificent mammal that once stampeded across the plains and prairies by the millions, if the greatest museums in the nation had none?

He wanted some buffalo carcasses for mounting, so that future Americans could view them.

William Hornaday and an unidentified man working in the taxidermy lab behind the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, DC. A bird hangs from the ceiling, and mounted animals line the shelves. Skulls and animal skins are scattered throughout the room. Credit Smithsonian Institution Archives, c. 1880.

Hornaday immediately requested permission to travel west to collect bison carcasses—dead buffalo—lots of them, preferably as many as 80. If that many still existed. 

He planned to shape them into a dramatic new Smithsonian exhibit, unlike any seen before, and share the rest with the foremost museums in the United States, so that when buffalo became totally extinct—as he had no doubt would soon happen—future generations could still view the pinnacle of America’s great wildlife heritage.

Thus began Hornaday’s fascination with the buffalo that continued all his life.

Little did he know then that American Bison would become his obsession, that he’d spend the rest of his life fighting for their survival. 

The last of the great wild buffalo herds had disappeared in October 1883, when Sitting Bull and his band killed the last 1,200 on the Great Sioux Reservation in Dakota Territory. 

But, chasing rumors, Hornaday set forth by train with two museum assistants for the little cow town of Miles City, Montana on May 6, arriving after four days. 

Since his journey was a government project, Hornaday had some clout, and managed to pry loose a few soldiers from nearby Fort Keogh to come along on a buffalo hunt. 

All inquiries, both in Miles City and at Fort Keogh, two miles distant, got the same reply, “There are no buffalo anymore and you can’t get any anywhere!” 

However, one distant rancher on the Little Dry Creek sent a message that was still a chance to find a few buffalo around the Big Dry. 

Five days later their party crossed the Yellowstone River and headed up Sunday Creek to the northwest, where a few survivors might still be living farther north in the rough badlands country known as the Missouri River Brakes.

By this time they had an escort of a Sergeant and four soldiers from Fort Keogh, plus a cook, teamster, wagon, and six-mule team. They purchased two saddle horses for hunting. 

His party rode horseback more than a hundred miles farther, deep into the most rugged country they had ever seen. 

There they had a series of hunting adventures unlike any other, as detailed in Hornaday’s government report, later published as his despairing book on how the “extinction” came about. 

They finally found and captured a lone buffalo calf, which exhausted, had been unable to catch up with its mother. But they never found the herd it came from. 

On the 10th day they found a couple of bulls. They shot one and realized he was shedding his winter coat—leaving his hide so tattered and seedy looking it could not be mounted.

The Hornaday party arrived in May and hunted the remote badlands northwest of Miles City. But when they did shoot a bull, its hide was so tattered and seedy looking they decided to return in September for hides in prime winter condition. Credit NPS, J Schmidt, 1977.

They decided to wait till fall for hides in prime winter condition.

After beseeching local ranchers to spare their intended targets, they took the live calf and returned to Washington.

In late September they returned to the same remote badlands, some 135 miles northwest of Miles City.

“Wild and rugged butte country, its sides scored by intricate systems of great yawning ravines and hollows, steep-sided and very deep and bad lands of the worst description.

“Such as persecuted game loves to seek shelter in,” wrote Hornaday.

In two months of hard riding they found a few small bands of extremely wild stragglers—a lone buffalo bull here, two or three cows with calves there. Seven in one bunch.

By this time they had 10 saddle horses and the help of a few more soldiers from Ft. Keogh.

Splitting up, they rode 25 miles or more each day in different directions.

Searching out “the heads of those great ravines around the High Divide . . . where the buffalo were in the habit of hiding,” they eventually killed 22 buffalo—bulls, cows and calves.

Not the 80 carcasses Hornaday had hoped for, but a raging November blizzard with bitter cold cut short their hunt.

Hornaday felt some pride at the big bull he shot himself.

“A prize! A truly magnificent specimen. A stub-horn bull about 11 years old. His hair in remarkably fine condition, being long, fine, thick and well colored—16 inches in length in his frontlet.”

His bull stood a full six feet tall when they added the four-inch-long hair on the hump—standing two inches taller than their next largest bull.

He was nine-feet-two inches, head to tail. In circumference, eight-foot-four around the chest just behind the foreleg.

The bull had been shot several times before. Within the carcass he carried four old bullets of various sizes—as did nearly every bull they killed in those hidden canyons.

Cover of Hornaday’s book Campfires in the Canadian Rockies. This is the story of a trip he made in 1905 with John M. Phillips to high mountain crags and ledges in the Canadian Rockies. They spent more than a month studying, as no trained naturalists ever had before, the habits of the mountain goat at close range. Phillips photographed them, he said “under conditions of utmost peril.” Photo by JM Phillips.

Returning to Washington, Hornaday and his assistants set to work.

After a full year they unveiled their masterpiece.

There in a huge glass case, visitors to the Smithsonian Museum viewed an enchanting scene.

The grouping of six buffalo in an authentic Montana setting, included Hornaday’s prize stub-horn bull.

The Washington Star described the exhibit on March 10, 1888:

A little bit of Montana—a small square patch from the wildest part of the wild West—has

been transferred to the National Museum. . .The hummocky prairie, the buffalo-grass, the sagebrush, and the buffalo.

 It is as though a little group of buffalo that have come to drink at a pool had been suddenly struck motionless by some magic spell, each in a natural attitude, and then the section of prairie, pool, buffalo, and all had been carefully cut out and brought to the National Museum.

A triumph of the taxidermist’s art!

It was a sight Hornaday feared no one would ever see alive again.

He hid a message voicing his despair in a small sealed metal box in the Montana dirt of the display.

Discovered nearly 75 years later when the exhibit was moved to Montana, curators read Hornaday’s heartfelt plea:

My illustrious Successor

Enclosed please find a brief and truthful account of the capture of the specimens which compose this group.

When I am dust and ashes, I beg you to protect these specimens from deterioration and destruction.

W.T. Hornaday

Chief Taxidermist, March 7, 1888

But Hornaday was not finished. He still had his official report to write: (ital) The Extermination of the American Bison, for the National Museum’s 1887 annual report. It was reprinted as a book in 1889.

George Bird Grinnell Joins the Cause


George Bird Grinnell and hiking party on Grinnell Glacier, Glacier National Park, MT. Credit Morton Elrod, University of Montana, Mansfield Library.

George Bird Grinnell joined the cause of saving buffalo early.

Like fellow conservationists Hornaday and Theodore Roosevelt, Grinnell had a special interest in the west—where he made more than 40 trips from his New York headquarters.

Like them he had hunted buffalo, and in fact, joined the Pawnee’s last great buffalo hunt in 1872, at the age of 22, while still in college.

That year in August Grinnell and a friend took the train to what they considered an exciting new travel destination: Nebraska.

The Pawnee were living on a small reservation along Nebraska’s Loup River. Twice a year, the army allowed the tribe to travel south to hunt buffalo in their historic Kansas hunting grounds.

These “hunts of the Indians [had] been described to me with a graphic eloquence that filled me with enthusiasm as I listened to the recital, and I determined that if ever the opportunity offered I would take part in one,” wrote Grinnell.

With the help of a guide, they found the Pawnee hunting village of 200 lodges spread across the prairie.

The head chief received them warmly telling them the hunt so far, had not been successful.

“But tomorrow,” he promised, “a grand surround will be made.” His young scouts had reported a large herd about 20 miles away.

“Here were 800 warriors, stark naked, and mounted on naked animals,” said Grinnell. “A strip of rawhide, or a lariat, knotted about the lower jaw, was all their horses’ furniture.

“Among all these men there was not a gun nor a pistol, nor any indication that they had ever met with the white men . . . Their bows and arrows they held in their hands.”

Grinnell and 800 hunters thundered across the Kansas plains.

He marveled at the skill of the bareback riders, so perfectly in tune with their horses, that the plains appeared to be “peopled with Centaurs.”

Despite the excitement of the hunters, tight discipline governed their advance. At regular intervals in the front of the procession rode the “Pawnee Police,” whose authority during the hunt was absolute.

Much was at stake. The food supply of the tribe for the next six months would be determined in the moments about to unfold.

Ten miles from camp, the lead riders, Grinnell among them, carefully crested a high bluff.

“I see on the prairie four or five miles away clusters of dark spots that I know must be the buffalo.

“Close now, the hunters change course, using the line of bluffs to conceal their advance.”

Finally, only a single ridgeline separated the mass of hunters from the mass of their prey.

“The place could not have been more favorable for a surround had it been chosen for the purpose,” according to Grinnell.

The terrain before them consisted of an open plain, two miles wide, surrounded by high bluffs.

“At least a thousand buffalo were lying down in the midst of this amphitheater.”

In a classic surround, Indians encircled the herd before the great charge. In this hunt, though, they would employ a variant of the strategy.

“All 800 hunters would ride into the herd from the same side. The objective was for the fastest riders to pass all the way through the herd, then turn back to face it.

Grinnell said great clouds of dust quickly filled the air, along with flying pebbles and clods kicked up by fleeing hooves. He realized that some buffalo were now coming back—directly at him. The herd had been turned. CM Russell painting.

 “If successful, the herd too would turn—into the charging bulk of the hunters.”

Behind the ridgeline, the hunters assembled in a long, crescent-shaped formation. Then over the hill they rode.

“[W]hen we are within half a mile of the ruminating herd a few rise to their feet and soon all spring up and stare at us for a few seconds.

“Then down go their heads and in a dense mass they rush off toward the bluffs.

“The leader of the Pawnee Police gave a cry,  “Lo?-ah!”

“Like an arrow from a bow each horse darted forward,” recalled Grinnell. “Now all restraint was removed, and each man might do his best.”

Grinnell, who had only one horse, soon fell behind the Indians on fresh mounts. Great clouds of dust quickly filled the air, along with flying pebbles and clods kicked up by fleeing hooves.

As he galloped forward, Grinnell could just make out the fastest riders, disappearing into the herd. Soon he could no longer see the ground, relying completely on his horse to navigate the field, aware that falling could mean death.

Halfway across the valley, Grinnell realized that some buffalo were now coming back—directly at him. The herd had been turned.

“I soon found myself in the midst of a throng of buffalo, horses and Indians.”

Grinnell began shooting, “and to some purpose.”

Two-thousand-pound animals tumbled and skidded to the earth around him. Shooting from a galloping horse required a skilled mount, steady hands, and even steadier nerve.

Riders attempted to come alongside a running buffalo, aiming behind the shoulder. It was difficult and dangerous.

“The scene that we now beheld was such as might have been witnessed here a hundred years ago. It is one that can never be seen again.”

Born in Brooklyn, New York, Grinnell lived in Audubon Park as a young man, on what was previously the estate of John James Audubon. His school, conducted by Madame Audubon likely encouraged his interest in the natural world.

As a graduate student and naturalist he rode with General Custer’s 1874 Black Hills expedition. The next year he went with Col. William Ludlow’s expedition to Yellowstone Park, and wrote a scathing report on the poaching of buffalo, deer, elk and antelope that was going on there.

While still a student, George Bird Grinnell went with Col. Ludlow’s expedition to Yellowstone Park and wrote a scathing document relating the disastrous poaching of buffalo and other wildlife, attached to Ludlow’s report.

Grinnell graduated from Yale University in 1870, earned a PhD in 1880 and became an anthropologist, historian, naturalist and prolific writer.

In 1876 Grinnell became editor of Field and Stream magazine and remained there as senior editor and publisher for 35 years. This gave him an excellent platform for his writings on conservation and environmental issues.

He took hunting trips with the well-known guide James Willard Schultz. During a 1885 visit they hiked over the St. Mary Lakes region, naming many of the features in what is now Glacier National Park in Montana—including Grinnell Glacier.

About this area he wrote:

“Far away in Montana, hidden from view by clustering mountain-peaks, lies an unmapped northwestern corner—the Crown of the Continent.

“The water from the crusted snowdrift which caps the peak of a lofty mountain there trickles into tiny rills, which hurry along north, south, east and west, and growing to rivers, at last pour their currents into three seas.

“From this mountain-peak the Pacific and the Arctic oceans and the Gulf of Mexico receive each its tribute. Here is a land of striking scenery.

“There is a solitude, or perhaps a solemnity, in the few hours that precede the dawn of day which is unlike that of any others in the 24, and which I cannot explain or account for. Thoughts come to me at this time that I never have at any other.”

But he also wrote, “We are a water-drinking people and we are allowing every brook to be defiled.”

Hornaday Voices his Despair

In his 1889 book, The Extermination of the American Bison, Hornaday regarded the buffalo extinction as inevitable.

“There is no reason to hope that a single wild and unprotected individual will remain alive 10 years hence,” he wrote.

“And in a few more years, when the whitened bones of the last bleaching skeleton shall have been picked up,” wrote Hornaday. “Nothing will remain of him save his old, well-worn trails along the water courses, a few museum specimens and regret for his fate.” NPS.

“The nearer the species approaches complete extermination, the more eagerly are the wretched fugitives pursued to the death whenever found.”

His official count of the surviving buffalo in 1889 totaled only 1,091 head for all of North America. Half of that total he credited to “very old rumors” of 550 wood buffalo in northern Canada.

That was likely an exaggeration, he admitted. But, “We will gladly accept it.”

However even this number was destined to drop lower. The lowest official number fell to 800 in 1895, according to the count of Canadian historian Ernest Thompson Seton.

The 200 counted in Yellowstone Park had dropped to a low of only 23, as the herd was nearly annihilated by hide hunters lurking at its borders and poachers within, according to the National Park Service.

Hornaday voiced his despair.

“If the majority of the people of America feel that so long as there is any game alive there must be an annual two months or four months open season for its slaughter, then assuredly we soon will have a game-less continent!” he said.

“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 water courses, a few museum specimens and regret for his fate.”

Francie M Berg

Author of the Buffalo Tales &Trails blog

The Buffalo Stone

The Buffalo Stone

A small stone, which is often a fossil shell, or sometimes only a queer shaped piece of flint, is called by the Blackfeet I-nĭs´kĭm, the buffalo stone.

This stone has great power, and gives its owner good luck in bringing the buffalo close, so that they may be killed.

The stone is found on the prairie, and anyone who finds one is thought to be very lucky.

Sometimes a man who is going along on the prairie will hear a queer faint chirp, such as a little bird might make. He knows this sound is made by a buffalo stone.

He stops and searches for it on the ground, and if he cannot find it, marks the place and comes back next day to look for it again. If it is found, he and all his family are glad.

The Blackfeet tell a story about how the first buffalo stone was found.

Long ago, one winter, the buffalo disappeared.

The snow was deep, so deep that the people could not move in search of the buffalo; so the hunters went as far as they could up and down the river bottoms and in the ravines, and killed deer and elk and other small game, and when these were all killed or driven away the people began to starve.

One day a young married man killed a prairie rabbit. He ran home as fast as he could, and told one of his wives to hurry and get a skin of water to cook it.

She started down to the river for water, and as she was going she heard a beautiful song. She looked all about, but could see no one who was singing.

The song seemed to come from a big cottonwood tree near the trail leading down to the water. As she looked closely at this tree she saw a queer stone jammed in a fork where the tree was split, and with it a few hairs from a buffalo which had rubbed against the tree.

The woman was frightened and dared not pass the tree.

Soon the singing stopped and the I-nĭs´kĭm said to the woman,

“Take me to your lodge, and when it is dark call in the people and teach them the song you have just heard.

“Pray, too, that you may not starve, and that the buffalo may come back. Do this, and when day comes your hearts will be glad.”

The woman went on and got the water, and when she came back she took the stone and gave it to her husband, telling him about the song and what the stone had said.

As soon as it was dark, the man called the chiefs and old men to his lodge, and his wife taught them the song that she had heard.

They prayed too, as the stone had said should be done.

Before long they heard far off a noise coming.

It was the tramp of a great herd of buffalo.

Then they knew that the stone was powerful, and since that time the people have taken care of it and have prayed to it.

Story told by Blackfeet and recorded by George Bird Ginnell.

Francie M Berg

Author of the Buffalo Tales &Trails blog

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