Hunting Before Horses, Part2: The Surround

Hunting Before Horses, Part2: The Surround

The surround may have been the earliest method for communal hunts before prehistoric people had horses or guns. The defensive buffalo gradually began to mill into a circle. As buffalo on the outside were killed, they piled up and trapped others within the circle until all were killed. Later on, with horses as in this painting, the herd was more easily kept together in a tight circle. “Buffalo Hunt, Surround” by George Catlin, courtesy Amon Carter Museum.

The first successful method of group hunting from the days before horses was likely the surround, in which a line of people on foot gradually approached a herd of about as many buffalo as they felt they could handle, moving into the wind, according to David A. Dary, in The Buffalo Book: Full Saga of the American Animal.

This may have required less preparation than later drives, but considerable good luck and certainly an understanding of buffalo behavior.

In the surround, a band of prehistoric people, both men and women, cautiously encircled a band of buffalo of manageable size.

“Then running in circles around the terrified animals, yelling loudly, they would slowly close the circle, making it smaller and smaller. . . At the appropriate time they would let go with their lances and arrows,” writes Dary.

If all went according to plan, the confused buffalo began to mill in a defensive circle, instead of running away. Typically, the bulls would tend to circle protectively around the outside, with cows and calves in the middle.

The hunters fired their lances, darts and arrows, killing the bulls in front of them.

As they fell, they piled up a barrier of bodies around the circle, trapping the live buffalo within the circle until all were killed.

George Bird Grinnell, author of The Cheyenne Indians, described a surround that used a decoy from early interviews he did with tribal elders.

“The people would go out on the prairie and conceal themselves in a great circle, open on one side. Then some man would approach the buffalo and decoy them into the circle.

“Men would now show themselves at different points and start the buffalo running in a circle, yelling and waving robes to keep them from approaching or trying to break through the ring of men.

“Of necessity this required great judgment and care, for once the herd started through in one direction it was impossible to turn. It would rush through the ring and be gone.”


Scouts are sent out ahead to find buffalo herds and consider how best to approach them. They follow time-honored protocol in going out and reporting back to the main hunting party. Credit CMRussell painting, Montana Historical Society.

Weasel Tail, an aged Blood Indian raised by his grandparents, described a surround by his ancestors from the days before horses.

“After swift-running men located a herd of buffalo, the chief told all the women to get their dog travois. Men and women went out together, approaching the herd from downwind so the animals wouldn’t get their scent and run off.

“The women were told to place their travois upright in the earth, small end up. The travois were so spaced that they could be tied together to form a semicircular fence. Women and dogs hid behind them.

“Two fast-running men circled the buffalo herd, approached the animals from upwind, and drove them toward the travois fence. Other men took positions along the sides of the route and closed in as the buffalo neared the travois.

“Barking dogs and shouting women kept the buffalo back. The men rushed in and killed the buffalo with arrows and lances.

“After the buffalo were killed the chief went into the center of the enclosure, counted the dead animals and divided the meat equally among the participating families.

“He also distributed hides to the families for making lodge covers. The women hauled the meat and hides to camp on their dog travois. This was called a surround of the buffalo.”

The Surround took advantage of the landscape when possible, such as driving the buffalo into natural traps, and bogs in blind canyons.

Logs, trees or large rocks may have been incorporated to form a barrier or fence on one side.

The risk was that sometimes the frantic buffalo would break through a weak spot—with all the others following close behind. Once they began to escape, hunters on foot could not stop or turn the fleet and agile buffalo.

Likely the earliest of these prehistoric hunters used the Spearthrower or atlatl—a tool that uses leverage to achieve greater velocity in dart of javelin-throwing. It’s a long-range weapon that can reach speeds of 93 mph. Stone age spear-throwers—could send a dart 100 meters or yards, but it was most accurate at 20 meters or less.

Impounding—Building Corrals

Impounding is viewed as more difficult than the surround, since it required building a buffalo-proof enclosure and finding a buffalo herd nearby.

However, once set up, it was likely more successful.

“Cree Indians impounding buffaloes.” An Impound often included drive lines leading down a hill into some kind of corral or enclosure. There the herd could be trapped and slaughtered. Prof HY Hind’s Red River, Assiniboine and Saskatchewan Expedit. Credit Wm Hornaday.

In rocky or wooded country, the hunters built strong enclosures of rocks and trees. These were used over and over in areas frequented by buffalo, successfully when the animals cooperated.

Old Weasel Tail described the impound method, thus: 

“Near the edge of timber and toward the bottom of a downhill slope the Indians built a corral of wooden posts set upright in the ground to a height of about seven feet. They connected the posts by cross-poles tied in place with rawhide ropes.”

The downward slope was important—as were drive lines and wings bringing the Buffalo to the entrance.

“Around three sides of the corral they laid stakes over the lowest cross-poles. Their butt ends were firmly braced in the ground outside the corral. These stakes projected about three feet inside the corral at an angle, so their sharpened ends were about the height of a buffalo’s body.

“If the buffalo tried to break through the corral they would be impaled on these stakes.”

The hunters fired their weapons until all the buffalo in the corral were slaughtered, while women and children guarded any weak sections with waving robes and shouting.

The scene was bloody.

As one observer said, “The scene was more repulsive than pleasant or exciting. A great number were already killed and the live ones were tumbling about furiously over the dead bodies of their companions, and I hardly think the space would have held them all alive without some being on top of others, and in addition the bottom of the pound was strewn with fragments of carcasses left from former slaughters in the same place.”

 And another: “People running frantically around the mound of animals trying to kill the wounded and yet avoid being killed. . . After firing their arrows they generally succeeded in extracting them again by a noose on the end of a pole, and some had even the pluck to jump into the area and pull them out with their hands—but if an old bull or a cow happened to observe them they had to be very active in getting out again.”

“Even mere boys and young girls”—were stationed on the walls of the corral—”all busy plying bows and arrows, guns and spears and even knives, to compass the destruction of the buffalo.

“Bison stumbling, rolling, dragging themselves from the pyramid.

“Animals of every age were huddled together in all the forced attitudes of violent death. Some lay on their backs with eyes starting from their heads and tongue thrust out through clotted gore. . . One little calf hung suspended on the horns of a bull which had impaled it in the wild race round and round the pound.”

Jack Brink in his book Imagining Head-Smashed-In recorded that every animal in the pound had to be killed, to enable the people to get to the meat. Also he said there was a spiritual belief that the buffalo now knew too much and if some escaped, would alert others and ensure the failure of future attempts.

Drive Lines Critical in Moving Buffalo

With the development of the Impounding method of trapping buffalo, drive lines comparable to the often-complex drive lines of Buffalo Jumps began to take shape.

Old Weasel Tail explained how Drive Lines worked above the impoundment corral.

“From the open side of the corral the fence of poles extended into two wings outward and up the hill. These lines were further extended by piles of cut willows in the shape of conical lodges about half the height of a man, tied together at their tops. . . spaced at intervals of several feet.

“On the hill just above the corral opening a number of poles were placed on the ground crosswise of the slope and parallel to each other. The buffalo had to cross these poles to enter the corral. The poles were covered with manure and water, which froze and became slippery so that once the buffalo were in the corral they couldn’t escape by climbing back up the hill.

“Before the drive began, a beaver bundle owner removed the sacred buffalo stones from his bundle and prayed.

“He sang a song, ‘Give me one buffalo or more. Help me to fall the buffalo.’”

The hunters had numerous special rites, adds Brink, “Ceremonies and taboos associated with buffalo and the hunting of this animal. It is absolutely correct to state that everything about a buffalo hunt, from beginning to end, was steeped in spiritual beliefs and appropriate ceremony.”

Buffalo have an excellent sense of smell and hearing. The wind brings both, and the ancient hunters clearly understood that.

Brink quotes one observer, who travelling through vast herds of buffalo one day in 1820, wrote:

“The scent of our party was borne directly across the Platte, and we could distinctly note every step of its progress through a distance of 8 or 10 miles, by the consternation and terror it excited among the buffaloes. The moment the tainted gale infected their atmosphere, they ran with as much violence as if pursued by a party of mounted hunters.”

Brink explains his version of the meaning conveyed by the moving drive lines of waving “fences” along the heights.

He wrote that the waving branches and grasses struck fear into the buffalo, because this kind of fence—waving along the high points was unknown to them. They feared what they did not know.

“Indians are stationed by the side of some of these stakes, to keep them in motion, so that the buffaloes suppose them ALL to be human beings,” notes Brink. This kept the buffalo down low as they moved on toward the trap.

Then Jack Brink imagined two more tricks of the wily hunters—the “array of ingenious ruses that allowed them to direct the path of bison movement.”

One was placing a trail of buffalo chips in the valley between the drive lines leading to the trap, so the buffalo thought they were following an existing trail.

“A herd of bison, frightened by hunters circling around them, could see and smell a safe path of escape in the form of a beaten trail marked with a line of chips,” says Brink.

He said he had never seen this recorded anywhere before. And obviously, any evidence would have been long gone over the centuries. But it makes perfect sense.

Grinnell wrote of using the manure patties in winter, “The line of buffalo chips. . . was conspicuous against white snow, and when the buffalo were running down the chute, they always followed it, never turning to the right nor to the left.”

 The second, maybe even stronger lure, came as a couple of ‘buffalo calves’ came into position between the herd and the drive lanes, moving just as young buffalo would, draped in calf skins and emitting perfect lost-calf bleats.

 “Since the herd consists mainly of cows and calves—the preferred target group for nearly all Plains hunters—the trick has the desired effect,” wrote Brink.

“Cows raise their heads and check for their calves. Even if she knows her own calf is nearby, maternal instinct dictates that every cow will investigate the source of the plaintive bleating. A calf in danger cannot be ignored. The cows respond and start after the ‘lost calves.’

“The buffalo runners continue their hoax, wandering slowly away from the herd, into the mouth of the funnel, toward a mighty hunting party laying in wait . . . the herd continues to follow, walking into the jaws of the trap.”

Jack Brink talks about the stampede in his book as the buffalo entered the drive lanes. “It might sound as if a full-blown stampede of bison was in progress. Far from it.

“The great majority of movement leading up to and through the drive lanes was almost certainly of a much more gentle, though deliberate, nature. . . The drive probably consisted of short bursts of movement where the herd scampered ahead, followed by a lull where the hunters purposefully allowed them to rest and remain calm.

 “Patiently, the hunters waited for the herd to regroup, perhaps resume grazing and then looked for an opportunity to nudge them ahead another short distance.”

Even today in corralling their buffalo, herd manager Robbie Magnon, of Fort Peck Sioux and Assiniboine Reservation in northeastern Montana, tells me the best way to avoid stressing the buffalo is by spending a couple of days bringing them in.

 He says between their large pasture and the working corral are two or three successively smaller pastures. The first day, driving several pickup trucks, the Fort Peck crew might not bring the buffalo through the first gate, but by exerting gradual pressure from a distance, patiently haze them closer.

That night the herd might walk through the open gate on its own. The handlers drive through, close the gate and proceed in the same way toward the next one.

 Near the end of the trap, writes Brink, “The tapering of the funnel permitted greater numbers of people to congregate along the narrowest parts of the lane, where the need for control, and the danger, was greatest.”

The Box Canyon or Arroyo Trap

Box Canyons and natural traps have claimed less attention than buffalo jumps—which left great heaps of bones and arrow points beneath the jumps. But Marcel Kornfeld, George C. Frision and Mary Lou Larson in their book  Prehistoric Hunters-Gatherers of the High Plains and Rockies, say that likely more buffalo died in various kinds of traps than were ever killed in buffalo jumps.

 A classic example of what archaeologists call a ‘box canyon’ or ‘arroyo trap’ is the Hawkin site just south of Sundance, Wyoming. Bones and artifacts show that as many as 80 animals were driven from the bottom up to the headcut where they were trapped and killed. Dating analysis shows the Hawkin site was used as early as 6,600 years ago.

The Agate Basin arroyo site has been researched in northeastern Wyoming, as well as to some extent in the surrounding area in Montana and the Dakotas. Others are along the Cheyenne River south of the Black Hills, where arroyo traps have been identified.

Wyoming archeologists twice excavated the Wardell Buffalo Trap northeast of Big Piney. Used 800 to 1,600 years ago, hunters drove their herds as far as a mile, with sagebrush and grease-wood wings extending about a half mile toward the river to help funnel buffalo into that trap.

A turn in this washout above the South Grand to the left of where a Forest Service Ranger is standing—hides the steep headcut around the corner that could have acted as a trap or box canyon. Credit Francie M Berg.

A gulch that could have been used as an arroyo or dry gulch trap can be seen on our own community Buffalo Trails in the Dakota Buttes tour (Site 5) on the South Grand River. To investigate the terrain at this point, hikers follow the fence southeast.

At the fence corner they take the steep sandy trail down toward the water. About halfway down the trail, off to the right, is a dry gulch with steep sides and a headcut that could have acted as a trap or box canyon.

Like other Plains rivers, the South Grand repeatedly cuts into the buttes lining its banks, washing away the face of steep cliffs and breaking out new gulches and draws. Some gulches lead to an abrupt headcut where floodwaters have dropped in waterfalls—forming a steep wall at the upper end of the gulch.

Let’s imagine a family group of 5 to 8 prehistoric hunters looking down on a band of buffalo here in the low grassy area along the South Grand River among the cottonwood trees.

From the plateau above, the hunters would have planned their approach. Scanning the area for drive lines used in previous hunts would have perhaps revealed two or three possibilities. They’d want the breeze in their faces coming from the buffalo to avoid sending early warnings.

They decide to bring the buffalo into the gulch at an opening along the near side of the river on the narrow strip of land that runs below the bank.

For this they will need to drive the buffalo up along the north side of the river, past the point where it turns abruptly against the bank. The hunt leaders recognize the weak links in this plan and determine where to station persons to step out of hiding at just the right moment.

If all goes well, three or four hunters haze the entire herd from a careful distance along the trail under the bank.

As the buffalo reach an opening in the bank, imagine that a woman and dog step out ahead. Seeing her, they turn smoothly into the gulch, relieved to find an escape route. Twists and turns in the brushy gulch disguise what lies ahead—a deep box canyon with high straight sides.

The hunters rush forward to slaughter as many buffalo as possible, piling up large bodies across the narrow entrance. Up above wait women with children and dogs, ready to jump out of hiding when needed, to guard any weak points and keep the panicked animals down in the gulch.

Off to the left of the sandy trail is another long draw with sides too gradual for trapping buffalo. An ideal route for hikers to return to the flat above—it’s a nice draw for climbing, following one of the many deer trails going up both sides through shady cottonwoods.

Although this dry gulch trap has not been excavated, others in this general have been, several nearby in northeastern Wyoming.

In this sketch early hunters take advantage of a small, tight canyon with steep sides where buffalo could be prevented from climbing out by hunters stationed at the weak points. Jack Brink points out that buffalo running downhill are at a disadvantage because of the weight of their large heads and forequarters. Courtesy “Imagining Head-Smashed-In,” JBrink.

How buffalo were trapped in a dry gulch or box canyon is a method that archaeologists are paying closer attention to today, thanks to the diligence of Wyoming researchers.

The difficulty in researching arroyo traps and box canyons are the reason they’ve been neglected, the Wyoming experts tell us.

The evidence of traps tends to wash far downstream and scatter in many directions, in contrast to buffalo jumps—where big piles of bones, arrowheads and butchering tools are preserved at the site, usually protected by layers of earth.

With traps, the bones and artifacts lie in the bottom of draws and canyons washed by every flood. Heavy runoff through the centuries carries most of the remains farther on downstream.

However, some collect with mud and trash to form a barrier—even changing the course of streams. The solid barrier may be waiting for the next bone-hunting anthropologist to expose it at a later time with more runoff.

Note: Just a few miles downstream from Site 5, the Shadehill Buffalo Jump (Site 6) rises from the lake, dammed during the 1950’s. The same prehistoric hunters who might have hunted box canyons higher up the river likely used that jump for large communal hunts.

Trapped in Deep Snow or Sand

“Buffalo Hunt on Snow shoes,” George Catlin lithograph from his American Indian Portfolio. Credit Wm Hornaday.

In winters of deep snow Cheyenne hunters led trained dogs on the hunt, according to Grinnell. They chased the buffalo into the deepest drifts in draws, set free dogs to worry them and then ran up and killed them with lances.

Buffalo floundering in pockets of deep snow, fighting off dogs, were easy prey even for hunters on foot. After killing and cleaning buffalo, the ancient owners fed the dogs, then loaded packs on the dogs or harnessed them into dog travois to carry the meat back to camp.

After the packs were taken off, the dogs circled back to the kill to eat their fill. Females with young pups returned to camp to disgorge food for their young—and then raced back for more.

Another hunt in deep snow is described by Paul Kane, the Canadian artist:

“Upon ascending the bank, we found ourselves in the close vicinity of an enormous band of buffaloes, probably numbering nearly 10,000. The snow was so deep that the buffaloes were either unable or unwilling to run far and at last came to a dead stand.

“We therefore secured our horses and advanced towards them on foot to within 40 or 50 yards when we commenced firing, which we continued to do until we were tired of a sport so little exciting. For, strange to say, they never tried either to escape or to attack us.”

Some tribes fashioned snow shoes for deep-snow winters. Buffalo could also be trapped on ice in wintertime.

Similarly, at times a buffalo herd could be trapped in deep sand.

Disguises—Making a Calf or Snake

Sometimes hunters disguised themselves with animal skins to get close to their prey without startling them.

The skins of wolves were often used, as wolves commonly hung out with buffalo herds. They were not much of a risk to healthy buffalo in a herd, but often picked off any isolated weak or old animals.

This famous George Catlin painting provided two versions of Native hunters disguised in wolf skins. In this version the hunters carry weapons. Perhaps hunting alone, they may intend to kill a fat-looking buffalo that comes close. The second version, without weapons, may have been about enticing a curious herd to follow prancing ‘wolves’ into a trap during a communal hunt. Courtesy Amon Carter Museum, Ft Worth, Texas.

Another trick was performed by two men, one covering himself with a wolf pelt, the other with a buffalo robe, said Kane, hunting in Canada.

“We fell in with a small band of buffaloes and Francois initiated me into the mysteries of ‘making a calf,’” explained Kane.

“They crawl on all fours within sight of the buffaloes and as soon as they have engaged their attention, the pretend wolf jumps on the pretend calf, which bellows in imitation of a real one. The buffaloes seem to be easily deceived in this way.

“As the bellowing is generally perfect, the herd rush to the protection of their supposed young with such impetuosity that they do not perceive the cheat until they are quite close enough to be shot.

“Indeed, Francois’ bellowing was so perfect that we were nearly run down. As soon, however, as we jumped up, they turned and fled.

“We shortly afterwards fell in with a solitary bull and cow and again ‘made a calf.’

“The cow attempted to spring toward us, but the bull seeming to understand the trick, tried to stop her by running between us. The cow dodged and got round him and ran within ten or fifteen yards of us, with the bull close at her heels, when we both fired and brought her down.

“The bull instantly stopped short and, bending over her, tried to raise her up with his nose, evincing the most persevering affection for her. Nor could we get rid of him so as to cut up the cow without shooting him also, although bull flesh is not desirable at this season of the year.”

In using disguises, Native people took on not just the appearance of the animal they had become, but they moved as it did.

“Having thousands of years to observe the behavior of all the game of the Plains, these fellow residents of the land would have an intimate knowledge of how each species walks, runs, sways, pauses, sniffs the air, lowers its head and paws the earth . . . They transformed themselves,” wrote Jack Brink.

Another ruse of the two Canadians was ‘Making a snake.’

“Which we often practiced with great success at Edmonton. It consisted in crawling on our bellies and dragging ourselves along by our hands, being first fully certain that we were to the leeward of the herd, however light the wind, lest they should scent us.

“Should there be twenty hunters engaged in the sport, each man follows exactly in the track of his leader, keeping his head close to the heels of his predecessor.

“The buffaloes seem not to take the slightest notice of the moving line, which the Indians account for by saying that the buffalo supposes it to be a big snake winding through the snow or grass.”

Other Ways of Slaughter

When food was scarce good hunters went out often, alone or with a few friends.

In oral histories gathered by A.B. Welch is a story told of an outstanding hunter named John Grass from the Mandan, Arikara and Hidatsa tribes in northern Dakota.

One extremely cold day Grass took a small hunting party out from camp on foot.

“John Grass was carrying his bow. He carried his arrow carrier in front that time. His left hand froze tight about the bow. They could not open his fingers.”

Then they found a buffalo, which they killed.

“They cut it open along the belly and shoved his arm and bow inside. His hand was melted then. That was a very bad thing that time.”

Single hunters could pick off old bulls separated from the herd and wounded by wolves, provided they could hold off the pack of wolves.

It was said that Flathead hunters were skilled at killing buffalo by rock throwing, choking or knifing them.

A South Dakota report tells of Native hunters digging hiding places or caves in soft banks near trails leading down to water. Then they hid in the cave and killed buffalo as they came to drink.

Then came the horse. Soon after, trade guns. And the exciting horse culture of running buffalo on the Plains prevailed for 150 years!


Brink, Jack W. “Imagining Head-Smashed-In: Aboriginal Buffalo Hunting on the Northern Plains, 2008. Athabasca University Press, Edmonton, Canada.

Dary, David A. “The Buffalo Book: Full Saga,” Chicago: Swallow Press, 1974. Davis, Leslie B. and John W. Fisher Jr., Editors. “Pisskan: Interpreting First Peoples Bison Kills at Heritage Parks,” 2016. University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City, Utah.

Densmore, Frances. “Teton Sioux Music: Song to Secure Buffalo in time of Famine.”;read/77737640/teton-sioux-music.

Ewers, John C. “The Blackfeet: Raiders on the Northwestern Plains.” Norman: U of Oklahoma Press, 1958., p11-13. ACLib)

Garcia, Louis. Personal Communication and “The History and Culture of the Spirit Lake Dakota,” Tokio, ND.

Gilfillan, Archer. SD Highway Magazine, 1939. South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks. Grinnell, George Bird. “The Cheyenne Indians,” Vol 1 and Vol 2, 1928, Bison Books.

Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, Personal visit, June 15-23, 2016. Hornaday, William T. “The Extermination of the American Bison,” Report of the National Museum, 1887. Reprinted in book form by Gov. Printing Office, 1889.

Johnsgard, Paul A. “Prairie Dog Empire: Saga of the Shortgrass Prairie.” Lincoln: U of Nebraska Press, 2005.

Kornfeld, Marcel, George C. Frison and Mary Lou Larson. “Prehistoric Hunters-Gatherers of the High Plains and Rockies,” 3rd Edition, 2010. Left Coast Press, Walnut Creek, CA.

Lame Deer, John (Fire) and Richard Erdoes. “Lame Deer Seeker of Visions.” NY: Simon and Schuster, 1972.

Magnon, Robert. Fort Peck Sioux and Assiniboine Reservation, Visit and Personal Communication.

Merriman, Don. ShadeHill, Personal Communication, 2015.

Ulm Pishkun State Park, Personal visit, June 15-23, 2016.

Vore Buffalo Jump, Personal Visit and Interviews 2016, Vore Buffalo Jump

Waggoner, Josephine. “Witness: A Hunkpapha Historian’s Strong-Heart Song of the Lakotas.” Edit Emily Levine. U of Nebr Press, Lincoln, 2013.

Welch, A.B. Colonel. Source: Online “Oral history of the Dakota Tribes 1800s-1945: As Told to Colonel A.B. Welch.”

Francie M Berg

Author of the Buffalo Tales &Trails blog

Secrets of the Buffalo Jump

Shadehill Buffalo Jump, 13 miles south of Lemmon, SD, as seen from the north side of Shadehill Lake, which was dammed in the 1950s here where the north and south Grand Rivers come together. A South Dakota Game and Fish sign at left explains archeologists’ recent findings about this buffalo jump. Photo courtesy Vince Gunn.

This is our Hettinger ND/Lemmon SD community’s own Shadehill Buffalo Jump—on the cliff opposite.

This buffalo jump is best viewed from the Shadehill Recreation Area, here on the north side of Shadehill Lake. You can also drive around to the other side and hike above Shadehill Cliff.

As Native tribes grew larger, they discovered a spectacular way to obtain the large quantities of meat they needed—in the communal Buffalo Jump.

Buffalo provided many gifts to the Native people. Everything they needed to live—food, shelter, clothing, medicine, tools, religious icons and much, much more. Every part was honored, right down to the dried manure, used for fuel to warm the tepee in treeless areas.

At the same time, buffalo hunting was a spiritual experience for Plains hunters. They sought divine intervention before, during and after hunts.

Ancient people thanked buffalo daily for their generosity and prayed for them to continue protecting and helping them survive.

The close cultural relationship between the people and buffalo is expressed by John Fire Lame Deer, “His flesh and blood being absorbed by us until it became our own flesh and blood… It was hard to say where the animals ended and the human began.”

Native Americans sometimes explain this as, “You know, the buffalo are our relatives.”

In traditional Plains belief, the buffalo gave themselves willingly as food for Native people. They honored the buffalo as sacred in ceremonies, stories, artwork, song and dance.

Buffalo jumps vary, but all have three parts:

  1. At the bottom of the jump is a bone pile where an array of artifacts—meaning tools and weapons showing evidence of human involvement—are mixed with buffalo bones and the dust of ages. This tells archaeologists a clear story of what happened here. 
  1. A steep cliff rises above the bone pile—with enough drop to kill or cripple buffalo—this need not be a 400-foot drop, as some imagine. Many successful jumps dropped only 50 or 60 feet before the bone pile began building up, and perhaps 30 feet in its most recent use. 
  1. Above the jump is some kind of plateau with rich grasses where buffalo liked to graze. Here can sometimes be found the drive lines, marked by small rock piles. These are one of the keys to success of the Buffalo Jump. 

At one time two layers of buffalo bones were clearly visible on the face of Shadehill Cliff and well known to early settlers in this area. Local folks wondered about the bone site, but they did not claim it as a buffalo jump. 

They decorated their flower gardens with buffalo skulls from the jump. School children from the area—including my aunt Margaret Durick Barrett and her sister Dorothy Durick Kroft from White Butte—went to Shadehill on field trips and school picnics to view the bones which “could be a buffalo jump.” Or not, as their teachers told them.

These bone layers were described in 1939 by Archer Gilfillan, local sheepherder and author of the classic book Sheep. He wrote: 

South of Lemmon SD, 13 miles to Shadehill and then 3 miles west on a scenic road along the Grand River, is what has become known as the mass buffalo burial. This is a mass of buffalo bones exposed in a steep bank on the south side of the river. The river bank at this point is about 150 feet high. 

The bones are in two layers. The first layer 12 feet thick, is about 25 feet below the top of the bank. Beneath this is a 4-foot layer of earth. Then comes a second 4-foot layer of bones, the bottom of which is still 100 feet above the bed of the river. 

The two layers of bones are exposed for approximately 100 feet up and down the river. Many of the bones are well preserved, although not fossilized. 

Shadehill has been excavated 3 times by teams of archaeologists, including from the University of North Dakota, the US Forest Service and South Dakota Game and Fish, which now claims the land around the lake. 

All declared it an authentic buffalo jump and reported it was used from 5,000 to 7,500 years ago for hunting buffalo. They recorded some 115 possible prehistoric sites in the Shadehill area. 

Unfortunately, our archaeologists came late to the table, after most evidence was gone. Shadehill Buffalo Jump was bulldozed during World War II, in the early 1940s, and the bones shipped by rail to west coast munitions factories to be manufactured into bombs and explosives.

It happened to buffalo jumps throughout the west—in both the US and Canada. This was called mining bones. Few buffalo jumps had been fully studied by that time, but people agreed it was important to support the war effort on the home front.

Buffalo jumps were bulldozed in both Canada and the US during WWII and the bones shipped by train to munitions factories on the west coast. There the phosphorus was extracted for explosives and bombs. Courtesy National Park Service.

“Many buffalo jump sites were vigorously mined . . . to the end of WWII,” reports a Canadian source. “Much of the natural phosphorus extracted from the bones went for the manufacture of munitions.” 

The landowner of Shadehill Cliff brought in a bulldozer, scooped out the top layer of bones, then the next layer and shipped them out by train, according to Don Merriman, an old-timer in the area.

During the early 1950s the north and south Grand Rivers were dammed here where they ran together and covered any deteriorating bones with water.

We’ve searched the plateau above the cliff for clues of drift lines—but found only one small pile of rocks that appear may have been carried there by human hands. 

Two Spectacular Buffalo Jumps

Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump near Fort MacLeod, Alberta, first used about 5,700 years ago, is one of the oldest known buffalo jumps in the world. It is off a large flattop butte with rocky drop-offs on nearly all sides, but with areas for the buffalo to graze their way to the top. Photo by Francie M. Berg.

In 2016 my sisters Anne and Jeanie and I drove up to investigate two of the most spectacular and famous buffalo jumps in the world—one in Canada, just north of Glacier Park—and the other some 300 miles south. 

They are Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump near Fort MacLeod in southern Alberta and First Peoples Buffalo Jump, near Great Falls, Montana. 

Both jumps are off large mesa-like flat-top buttes with cliffs and rocky drop-offs on nearly all sides—but with one or more easy ways for buffalo to travel up there on top to graze. Both have extensive visitor centers that exhibit artifacts from their bone piles. 

Head-Smashed-In was ideally located for buffalo in hilly, broken country close to a river, with excellent grazing of the massive basin area and wide plateaus above the jump.

It was first used about 5,700 years ago, one of the oldest known buffalo jumps in the world. 

The Head-Smashed-In name comes from a Blackfoot oral tradition of a young boy who wanted to watch the buffalo fall from the cliff. He found a protective overhang and hid as they came thundering over.

The hunt was unusually good that day. Unfortunately, as the buffalo bodies piled up, the small boy became trapped between them and the cliff. When his family came for the butchering, they found him—to their sorrow—with skull crushed by the heavy buffalo carcasses. 

Originally the drop off the rocky cliff was around 65 feet, but bone and other deposits have piled halfway up over the thousands of years, leaving only a 33 ft. drop.

We learned that the hunting parties quick-butchered their carcasses at the jump site, then finished processing meat and hides farther below at a camping site near water. Both areas were rich in artifacts. 

In the same area, several other jumps are known, as are additional camping and processing sites, a vision-quest site, a historic burial site, eagle-trapping pits, bedrock quarries and a series of petroglyphs. 

Named as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981, Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump has a magnificent interpretive center with outstanding exhibits. Research began there in the early 1960s.

It is being operated with the close involvement of Native Blackfoot people from the area whose ancestors hunted here. The Blackfoot guides help design exhibits and tell stories passed down by their elders. 

First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park, west of Great Falls MT, formerly known as the Ulm jump, is located on a rocky escarpment so long that it is called ‘possibly the world’s largest buffalo jump.’ 

First Peoples has a spectacular location in the Missouri River valley where the Rocky Mountains rise rapidly to the Continental Divide on the west and south, and nearby Highwood and Little Belt Mountains stand out as dramatic uplifts in the surrounding plains. 

The rocky crest has an average drop of 21 feet on the nearly mile-long butte.

In places an optical illusion seems to disguise the rocky drop-off below. Looking down the final run of the drive, the rocky cliff seems to disappear and the lower prairie to merge with it. Perhaps the buffalo saw only the vast prairie in front of them—leading to escape and relief from the pressing force of the hunters—as they stampeded toward green grass below.

First People’s Buffalo Jump near Great Falls MT, is located in the Missouri River valley with a view of the Rockies and Little Belt Mountains. On the plateau above, an optical illusion seems to blend into the grasslands below, so buffalo stampeding down this last slope could easily mistake the grass ahead for a continuation of the gradual slope—and end up smashed on the rocks below. Photo FB.

Beneath the drop-off, concentrated cultural materials of bones and artifacts stretch for over 1,000 feet along the butte, and less dense remains extend nearly 10,000 feet. 

The earliest of three carbon datings is 1,000 years ago, with many areas as yet undated. 

Artifacts found here include tools, arrowheads and lance points, scrapers, cutting tools, broken pottery and a maul for pounding dried meat and berries into pemmican. The Interpretive building opened in 1999 and is staffed full time. People were concerned over looting, being so close to the population center of Great Falls. 

During World War II, 328 tons of bones were shipped out to munitions plants on the west coast from below the First People jumps and its butchering sites. 

These two famous jumps are amazing—and we learned a lot about how the buffalo could be driven from the plateau above the jump. It was not simple—and everything had to work just right. 

We highly recommend both jumps to everyone interested in buffalo. 

When we arrived we knew about the two lower parts of the buffalo jump—the cliff and the bone piles. But what we didn’t know—secrets of the drive lines on the plateau above the jumps—proved to be even more interesting. 

Cairns—Small, Flat Rock Piles

 One key to success of buffalo jumps lay with skilled use of the ‘gathering basin’ and the cairn lines on the plateau above the jump.

Hunters and stone cairns held the high ground on both sides, pressuring the buffalo to stay low. Buffalo handlers today often say that their buffalo prefer to stay high, rather than to graze in low areas. 

Native hunters could use alternate ways as they set up drive lines—depending on where the buffalo were grazing and the wind direction. Other likely sites on the butte apparently exist but have yet to be excavated.

Seeing all this required us to drive way up on top—first challenge, the road could be steep, and a bit of hiking—to understand connections between the red flags that marked rock piles. But it was worth it. An amazing system indeed!

 What we saw was a lot of small flat piles of rock wandering in lines several directions, up and down the hills for miles. But we couldn’t even imagine how they’d work as drive lines to force a herd of wild buffalo to jump off a cliff.

Snaking over the broad plateau at First People’s Jump, a complex of rock piles can be seen leading off to the center right and also to Anne’s left and the center of this photo. Lighter circles indicate flat rock piles or cairns. This is believed to be part of the ‘Gathering Basin’ where the herd was gradually being brought together for the final stampede. Credit FB.

We had no idea of just how knowledgeable and precise those ancient engineers were in forcing the buffalo to go exactly where they wanted them.

Prehistoric engineers—who studied every nuance of buffalo behavior—knew buffalo habits, their movements, how they swayed when they walked. Covered by a buffalo robe—they could move exactly like a buffalo and repeat their exact sounds, like the plaintive cry of a buffalo calf who had lost its mother.

They worked in harmony with the buffalo’s natural instinct and traits—such as their herding instinct, their tendency to stampede and run faster and faster when panicked and threatened by heavy horned animals pressing on every side, unfocused eyesight that took in 90% of their surroundings but failed to focus clearly straight ahead, the reassurance of a well-used trail, and their natural curiosity that caused them to follow a dancing, prancing shaman closer to the cliff’s edge.

Some rock piles on First People’s Jump are more extensive than others, especially as they cluster nearer to the drop-off itself. Many, but not all sites are marked with a red flag. The rocks had evidently been carried here, but were lying on top of the ground, with seemingly no intent to bury them deeper. FB.

On the plateau above Head-Smashed-In, a massive drive lane complex and hundreds of small rock piles extend over six miles back from the drop-off cliff. They snake over the hills, wings spread wide across the plain, and then like a funnel converge into a narrow drop-off at the edge of the cliff. 

Spaced 5 to 10 yards apart, the rock piles stretch out to the west from what is called the gathering basin and form drive lanes coming in from several directions. 

At one time anthropologists believed that such rock piles—called cairns—were built up high enough for women and children to hide behind, appearing and waving hides when needed.

However, Archaeologist Jack Brink, curator at the Royal Alberta Museum in Edmonton, Canada, who works with the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump and also wrote the book Imagining Head-Smashed-In says, “The cairns at Head-Smashed-In are low platforms of stone. Our digging confirmed that they were never tall piles.

“In and of themselves, I could not imagine that cairns would help direct the course of stampeding herds of buffalo, but they could have served as the base on which to construct organic structures.”

Justly proud of not only his gathering basin, but the extensive drive lines leading to it at Head-Smashed-In—low piles of flat rocks—reaching back for miles, Brink explains how the system works. 

Current thinking is that the rock piles were locations that prehistoric people built up with fresh brush or tree branches and long grasses, held in place by rocks, clumps of sod and dried manure. 

This would appear as a living structure to wave in the breeze and give a sense of motion, as if hunters were waving hides all along the drive lines.

Prehistoric people likely propped up tree branches, brush and grasses with rocks, clumps of sod and buffalo chips at each rock location. There they’d wave in the breeze conveying a sense of motion, as if hunters were waving hides all along the drive lines. Courtesy of Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump Heritage Site, JBrink.

It is believed that buffalo saw these lines as solid walls along the heights. This would have tended to keep them down low as they moved away from them, feeding deeper into the funnel that led toward the cliff.

“Indians are stationed by the side of some of these stakes to keep them in motion, so that the buffaloes suppose them ALL to be human beings,” was reported.

“We can be certain that a great deal of thought, planning, and trial and error went into discovering the only suitable places that drive lanes would successfully control the movement of bison,” writes Brink. 

“Mistakes were no doubt made, lanes placed in wrong locations, and herds escaped from the trap. Reassessment would have been made, cairns shifted to create slightly different land direction or perhaps more cairns added to strengthen a particularly vulnerable spot. 

“With such a great amount of effort going into each drive, and considering the importance of success, it is not surprising people designed a method to mark the proper route of the drive in a way that would last for generations to come. 

“Small rock piles accomplished this goal. The rock piles would serve as a permanent marker of the correct route for the drive. If the jump was not returned to for several years, the organic materials might be all gone.” 

Preparation began days or even weeks before the actual hunt. The medicine leaders began ceremonies that prepared both people and buffalo. 

When the time was right, women and others began building up the living fence as indicated by previous hunters over the centuries. How these were used would depend on the terrain, the location of the herd and wind direction on the day of the hunt.           

Wind was important, Brink reminded us. “Buffalo are constantly checking the wind . . . wind is the carrier of the smells [and sounds] that reach the noses of the animals.”

He says that a successful hunt depended on the hunters being downwind of the herd—“that is . . . the wind blows from the buffalo.

“But if the reverse, [the hunter] will find it impossible to approach them, however securely he may have concealed himself from their sight.” 

Over his years there, Jack Brink, now retired, extensively studied the rock piles for clues on how the drive lines were rebuilt each time they were used. 

He gave us some clues—and even imagined ideas for which the evidence is long gone.

One was placing a line of buffalo chips that might have indicated a well-used trail between the drive lines for the buffalo to follow to the drop-off. 

That certainly made sense to us. He credits Billy Strikes With a Gun, an elderly Blackfoot hunter, with giving him that idea. 

Raised by his grandparents, Strikes With a Gun was familiar with ancient stories. He told Brink how buffalo runners rubbed their bodies and moccasins with sage to hide their human smell. Then they heaped buffalo chips on buffalo hides and dragged them until they reached the place where the drive would begin.

When finished, the drive lines may have looked like this, snaking over the hills for miles, with the aim of keeping buffalo down in the lower valley, funneling toward the drop-off. Jack Brink suggests we imagine a line of buffalo chips coming down a center trail between the drive lines to entice the buffalo to keep moving forward. Sketch courtesy of Head-Smashed-In, JBrink.

There they walked backwards dragging the hides to cover their footprints. At the same time they tossed out chips in a long row of dark manure patties leading all the way to the cliff.

Ancient hunters knew bison prefer to follow an existing trail. After all, a beaten track marked by dark patties of manure surely must lead to safety.

Brink said he has never read about hunters making such a trail in any report on the jumps.

But of course, such evidence would have been long gone by the time our anthropologists arrived. No expert could have dug this idea out of the bone pile.

With scattered piles of buffalo manure, “A herd of bison, frightened by hunters circling around them, could see and smell a safe path of escape,” explained Brink.

A second lure to handling a herd of buffalo, he suggests—would likely happen if a couple of boys disguised as buffalo calves went into position between the herd and the drive lanes, moving precisely as a buffalo calf would and crying plaintive lost-calf bleats.

He says a calf in danger cannot be ignored by female buffalo.

The buffalo cows would respond and walk “into the jaws of the trap.”

“What a great ruse the Plains people pulled off!” Brink exclaims. “Drive lines worked extraordinarily well to keep the bison contained in a specified area because, by their movement, the stacks of brush gave the appearance of something to be feared—a strange object moving in the distance.”

Moving buffalo from the gathering basin to the drop-off was not necessarily the work of a single day.

Sometimes a line of smoke and flames held the secret to the jump’s success.

When using fire, hunters gradually formed a semicircle behind the herd. At a signal from the hunt leader, each fired the dry prairie grass in front of him, creating a wave of crackling flames. Panicked, the buffalo ran faster and faster in their final stampede.

“Before the buffalo run, a ceremony took place, with prayers to the Great Spirit that all would go well, for success in the hunt with no injury or accidents,” wrote Josephine Waggoner, an early Hunkpapa historian.

When all was ready and the medicine was right, the hunters gradually directed their prey between the lanes. Religious rites, prayers and thanksgiving played an important part in every hunt, as in daily life.

Frison’s Research on Stampedes

An early researcher of buffalo jumps was George Frison—head of the Anthropology Department at the University of Wyoming. He spent his early years in cattle ranching in Wyoming, while at the same time volunteering with archaeology teams digging dinosaur bones in the area.

He came to believe that archaeologists of the day did not consider the behavior of wild animals and often portrayed buffalo hunters using unrealistic and illogical methods. He became a scientist because of his dissatisfaction with theories that didn’t make sense to him as a rancher and hunter.

At the age of 37 Frison enrolled at the University of Wyoming and received his PhD five years later. Soon he was organizing field work with his students at numerous Wyoming sites and began publishing articles and books on their findings and how they fit his theories.

“Prehistoric hunters were capable of killing the animals under their own terms and not those of the animals,” write George C. Frison, Marcel Kornfeld and Mary Lou Larson in their authoritative 2010 book, Prehistoric Hunters-Gatherers of the High Plains and Rockies, now in its third edition.

George Frison, who wrote the first two editions of that book in 1978 and 1991, revolutionized theories on early hunting cultures. Today we have much data on the early hunting technique of the buffalo jump due largely to his work.

Jack W. Brink—long expert at Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump—calls Frison the “Dean of the great people in the research and study of buffalo jumps.”

“Nowhere else on earth, at any point in time, did people obtain more food in a single moment than they did at a communal bison kill,” Brink writes.

He says Frison investigated “More buffalo jumps than any other person on earth.”

When he toured the plateau above Brink’s own favorite buffalo jump he is quoted as saying only, “Now that’s a Gathering Basin!”

Frison and his students excavated many buffalo jumps over the years, testing out their theories.

As the animals moved into the gathering basin, other hunters fell in behind—at some distance—to keep the lead buffalo from turning back.

Unlike this careful planning, Jack Brink, the expert at Head-Smashed-In, says many visitors come there believing that ancient hunters simply climbed to the top of the cliff and waved hides at a herd of buffalo—while they jumped off the cliff.

As hunters ourselves we knew that never could that have worked! No way.

One day I was walking up there across the plateau—looking for rock piles—when 2 deer came trotting across between me and the drop-off.

And I thought: Even if I could run fast—faster than those deer: Could I turn them back and chase them down over the cutbank?

Absolutely not! It would be impossible.

As wild animals, buffalo are very smart, alert, acutely aware of their surroundings–and not easily tricked, even today. We know they are fast and agile—can run 40 miles an hour and spin on a dime.

They were not likely to just accidentally fall off a cliff, especially in their own territory. And if one escaped and turned back, likely all would follow.

The Stampede Had to be Just Right

The Wyoming team reported that using a stampede successfully would have required a rather large number of buffalo.

If hunters on foot tried to bring a small herd to the cliff, the leaders would detect trouble in time to stop, turn aside or do a sudden 180 turn and escape.

This sketch shows the buffalo above the cliff probably would had have a good chance to escape—there’s space to lunge either to the right or the left. It looks as though this stampede has failed and the men waving robes are in a very dangerous position.

They speculated that even three or four experienced cowboys on well-trained horses could never force a single buffalo or even a group of 10 or so off a jump-off. But with 50 or more buffalo, they would have had better luck. 

No one knew their prey better than did these ancient hunters of the prairies and plains. 

One secret of every jump was how to get the stampede right. 

The Frison team said all the buffalo need to be running hard and closing up on each other—to the very last moment. 

Starting the stampede fairly close to the cliff, perhaps less than a half-mile away, the hunters would press hard, plunging them into an all-out stampede. With huge bodies packed tight on all sides, stout horns slashing from behind, all charging at full speed—the animals in the lead could not stop or slow down. 

The mass of horned animals behind would have prevented it and carried them over the precipice.

Also, if there ‘just happened’ to be a surprisingly sudden turn at the end—planned of course—all the better. The leaders could not focus on that abrupt danger until too late. And over they went.

This painting shows the high risk for hunters stationed at the end of the drive, as stampeding buffalo finally realize their desperate choice—to take on the men waving hides or the cliff. Credit Shane Tolman, artist, from the book “Imagining Head-Smashed-in,” by Jack Brink.

The cliff scene is summed up by George Frison, expert of countless buffalo jumps: 

“The final moments of a great buffalo drive were without parallel in the events of world prehistory. Nowhere else, on any continent at any time, did human beings kill such a staggering amount of food in a single moment. 

“For sheer raw power, unbridled danger, nail-biting suspense and rampant drama, there may be nothing in the archaeological record that can match the final few seconds of a herd of stampeding buffalo arriving at the edge of a steep cliff.”  

After the buffalo plunged over, hunters rushed to finish off injured animals that survived the fall, killing them with clubs, bows and arrows and lances shaped with stone tools and tipped with stone, bone or shells. 

They completed the butchering process at a nearby camp using stone scrapers and knives, fleshers of shoulder blade bones, and punches from elk antlers and they pounded dried meat into pemmican with grooved mauls made from smooth river stones. 

Over a thousand years later many such artifacts have been dug out of bone beds beneath the jumps. 

Other known Jumps

Searching for artifacts—is meticulous work for archaeologists and their helpers as a bone pile site is laid open. Likely it will be covered over again when the dig period is finished. Credit ‘Pisskan,’ Leslie Davis and John Fisher, Edit.

Known buffalo jumps number in the hundreds across the Plains, and experts say they likely represent only a small percent of what is out there.

Other well-known Canadian sites include the Old Women’s Buffalo Jump, and Dry Island Buffalo Jump Provincial Park. 

Montana reportedly has the highest concentrations of Buffalo Jumps, but only three with interpretive centers. In addition to First Peoples, these are Madison Buffalo Jump State Park, west of Logan and the Little River site west of Havre. 

Other jumps are known in southeastern Montana, Big Horn County, where HooDoo Creek runs into Dry Head Creek, used by the Crow Indians. 

The complex of drive lanes and jump cliffs is known to the Crow Tribe as Where They Get Their Meat, says Joseph Medicine Crow of the Crow Indians. 

Other jumps include the Yonkee complex near Broadus MT, and nearby, the Vore site in that corner of Wyoming.

Jumps had many variations, depending on the terrain, herd location and wind direction. 

The Vore Buffalo Jump, not far from Devil’s Tower in northeast Wyoming, does not involve a cliff at all, but rather, a trap. Vore, named for the rancher who found it and donated the land, is a large natural sinkhole at the base of a long sloping ravine that opens out into a broad, flat valley, conveniently just off Highway I-90. 

In fact, it was discovered in scoping out that Interstate, which now takes a sudden turn to avoid the sinkhole, which opened up around 1550 and was used by many tribes through 1800. 

Many jumps that have been investigated in the past are really begging for reworking and reinterpretation, given the knowledge and methods now available, wrote Frison. 

Many other likely sites, doubtless well used in their day, are located but have not been excavated or verified.

*Note: This buffalo jump off the cliffs at Shadehill Lake is labeled Site 6 (south side) and 6b (north side) on our historic Buffalo Trails Tour. The Shadehill Buffalo Jump is best viewed from the north side of the lake. Visitors can also drive close to the actual Buffalo Jump on the south side. There they will find, in addition to what is left of the buffalo jump, the Hugh Glass monument honoring the heroic struggle of the fur trapper mauled by a grizzly bear here in 1823. In 2016 Leonardo DiCaprio won an Oscar by re-imagining that epic struggle in the movie The Revenant, also an Oscar winner. However, the true facts are stark enough. Pursued by vengeful Arikara, injured, defenseless and without weapons, Glass crawled, mostly by night, the 200 miles to safety at Fort Kiowa, SD. But the tough mountain man did not rest long in his quest for valuable furs. He joined up with another party of trappers and immediately headed west. 


Brink, Jack W. “Imagining Head-Smashed-In: Aboriginal Buffalo Hunting on the Northern Plains, 2008. Athabasca University Press, Edmonton, Canada.

Davis, Leslie B. and John W. Fisher Jr., Editors. Pisskan: Interpreting First Peoples Bison Kills at Heritage Parks, 2016. University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City, Utah.

Gilfillan, Archer. SD Highway Magazine, 1939. South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks.

Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, Personal visit, June 15-23, 2016.

Hornaday, William T. “The Extermination of the American Bison,” Report of the National Museum, 1887. Reprinted in book form by Gov. Printing Office, 1889.

Kornfeld, Marcel, George C. Frison and Mary Lou Larson. “Prehistoric Hunters-Gatherers of the High Plains and Rockies,” 3rd Edition, 2010. Left Coast Press, Walnut Creek, CA.

Lame Deer, John (Fire) and Richard Erdoes. “Lame Deer Seeker of Visions.” NY: Simon and Schuster, 1972.

Merriman, Don. ShadeHill, Personal Communication, 2015.

Ulm Pishkun State Park, Personal visit, June 15-23, 2016.

Vore Buffalo Jump, Personal Visit and Interviews 2016, Vore Buffalo Jump

Waggoner, Josephine. “Witness: A Hunkpapha Historian’s Strong-Heart Song of the Lakotas.”  Edit Emily Levine. U of Nebr Press, Lincoln, 2013.



Francie M Berg

Author of the Buffalo Tales &Trails blog

Buffalo Trucking for 24 Years

Buffalo Trucking for 24 Years

Tim Omilusik is a 42-year-old Canadian trucker from Coronation, Alberta, who runs a short- and long-haul livestock business from one end of Canada to the other, with 2,000-mile trips across the border down into Texas in between—or maybe a leg to Missouri or Wyoming.

Bison loads preferred. In fact, he says, he now hauls only buffalo to the USA.

Omilusik shares his bison-moving adventures on Twitter. A man of few words—Twitter is an ideal platform for him. 

Omilusik shares his bison-moving adventures on Twitter. Bison loads preferred. Photo courtesy of Tim Omilusik.

Day by day he briefly describes his load, in terse, but positive terms: “Beautiful set of bulls.”

“Bunch of beauties!

“Oh my goodness. These are big boys.


“Beautiful set of bull calves. Very quiet. It was a long journey for them.

Speedy ladies…..Don’t matter how fast you think you are, you ain’t beating no bison. So incredibly athletic”

 There’s an appreciation for the scenery:

“You can’t beat the fresh mountain air.

“Scenic rip through Montana

“Idaho skies.” A brilliant sunrise—or sunset.

On some days he only gives his viewer-readers a video—no words.

Sure enough, a video tells it all.

He provides great movies of buffalo charging into the big trailer—with large grunting, groaning sound effects.

Big bulls duck their gigantic heads to avoid scraping the ceiling—as they lunge up or down a ramp to other decks. Credit TO.

Big bulls duck their big heads to avoid scraping the ceiling—as they lunge up or down a ramp to another deck.

 Now and then it’s a startled-looking gang of youthful horned heads standing together. Loaded, but turned back toward you—the viewer—as if wondering whether a full charge out the back door might succeed.

 Omilusik apparently lets them know in a calm way that’s not going to work. From a corner of the camera you see a wave of his flag-on-a-long-stick—and he swings shut a divider gate.

 Sometimes there’s a ‘thank you’ from a happy customer:

“Announcing the arrival of a lovely group of 23 Canadian bison heifer calves from Wolverine Bison. This has been a long journey from the seed of an idea a year ago to their arrival today. Special thanks—Tim from Eastland Transport Ltd. who safely transported these bison calves all the way from Saskatchewan—and was totally amazing during the unload!”

Sometimes Tim’s videos show the buffalo running full-tilt out of the trailer.

Or—already unloaded—they are investigating a new green pasture, a corral or galloping through a long narrow chute.

Omilusik’s big new truck might be washed shiny clean and brilliant red in the sunshine, cruising toward home.

Or it might have the full load of a long trip, splashed with mud, manure, and gobs of buffalo hair bristling out the airholes.

At times it’s just a video of a narrow highway, running ahead of that bright red truck hood taking the curves down a mountain road through Black Hills pine trees—Hiway 85, the scenic route back home to Alberta, I think.

Yes, this is a man of few words—and yet, he’s not. Just get him started on his favorite subject—Bison.

Omilusik Loves his Bison

“I just love them,” he’ll say. And you know he’s grinning into the phone.

“They are so big. So majestic, so strong. Magnificent!

“It’s awesome to see Bison walking the land again.”

“I just love their nature. Their strength. Bison move at full strength all the time. Always going at full speed. You really have to be on your game. 

“It’s 40 miles an hour coming on to the trailer. And 40 miles an hour coming off.

‘It’s not something somebody can do alone. It takes a good group of people.”

Tim likes to work alone inside the trailer. And outside, just a few people who know what they’re doing—not many just standing around.

Stout bull buffalo horns broke through the side of the trailer one day, and the bull could have escaped—ripped it like a tin can, Tim says. But he did not. “Never had nothing come out yet,” he chuckles. TO

“That’s what happened one time.” When a bull buffalo smashed out a hole in the side of the trailer.

“Too many people working the outside got ahead of the bull and seeing them he spooked while I was trying to close the gate.”

He definitely prefers working alone inside the trailer when loading or unloading. It helps keep “these animals’ stress level at a minimum—better for the Bison.”

“Beautiful set of bull calves. Very quiet. First time on a truck an very little pressure to load an pretty much open the gate an they walked out behind me to unload.”

He loads them up—in the video you can see Tim’s boot and half a leg as he waves his flag—and deftly swings the divider gate at the same time.

Can that be a grocery-store plastic bag on the end of the long stick he’s waving?

He dips his head to the lower gate as a ‘Load of little ladies’ heads down a ramp into the front ‘Nose.’

A final wave and sweep of the plastic flag, shut the gate, and one more compartment is loaded and ready to go.

Tim Omilusik calls riding in his truck, driving a load of yearlings or the big guys, being in his Happy Place. TO.

He calls hauling bison his “Happy Place.”

Riding his truck, driving a load of yearlings or maybe ‘the big guys.’ Getting out on the open road that stretches ahead for hundreds of miles—travelling south, east or west. That’s being in a happy place.

Winter Driving and Icy Roads

And yes, there’s some winter driving in January. Of course, there is, when you live 10.5 hours north of Minot, ND, with a full load of Bison and a huge truck!

On Jan 14, 2021, he shared: “Never have I ever felt the true force of the wind until last night. I’m loaded in this pic, parked. Highway is a sheet of ice. The wind literally blew my trailer sideways towards the shoulder. Scary stuff.”

He’s realistic. Frustrated, probably, but mostly concerned about those buffalo on the trailer. What’s best for them?

“I was NE bound–but forced to turn back.”

 On March 17, “Wyoming got hit hard. Interstate I25 finally opened. I only was shut down for 12 hours but lots of trucks had been parked since Saturday when the storm hit.”

Another time he writes, “Been sitting at the truck stop for 2 days waiting for Sunday to load and I’m getting bored.

I had a close call a few years ago at a rest area in Montana. I was coming out of the restroom and caught a couple of animal rights activists trying to open the liftgate on my trailer and release the bison. They figured what I was doing was cruel and they should be set free to roam.

“After a heated argument, they got into their car and drove away.

“Now I padlock every door and gate to keep that from happening. Somebody could have been seriously injured or even killed.

“They had no idea what they were dealing with or the situation they were putting themselves and others in.

One day an insurance agent friend tells him about a retired veterinarian who was awarded a medal for bravery. He had fought off a bison bull who had another fellow down in a chute and dragged that fellow to safety.

Tim’s comment, “Very lucky he was there to help.”

Tim’s a bit reticent about who and where he’s serving his clientele—which I expect, many bison ranchers appreciate.

He gets the load where it’s going in the best shape possible, and no complaints.

His 2013 Kenworth Truck

I first encountered Tim Omilusik last year on the internet when John Hitch, editor of the magazine ‘American Trucker’ wrote an article on a ‘Day In The Life Of A Bison Hauler,’ featuring his work, dated Oct 21, 2020.

Turned out to be more than one day. In fact, Omilusik has been doing this for 24 years, and he told Hitch he learns something new every day when working with Bison.

Readers of the trucking magazine, of course, wanted to know about the kind of truck he drove—and the big trailer he hauled behind.

“What’s your current truck-trailer set up?” asked Editor Hitch.

A 2013 Kenworth W900L. I ordered it brand new September of 2012. It was my first truck with a DPF (diesel particulate filter) on it. It took a little bit to get used to. It is equipped with a Cummins 550 ISX/1850 torque.

“I’ve had Cummins all my life and was pretty impressed with the performance of the new emission engine. I have got just under 950,000 miles on it.

“I’ve spec’d out a new truck, but with the way the economy is and the new prices, it’s pretty scary to jump into a new one. A truck I spec’d a little while ago came in at $265,000 Canadian (US $219,685). That’s just a lot of money.
As for the big trailer: “I have a 2017 Merrick quad-axle trailer—built a little bit heavier than your typical regular livestock trailer. It’s still pretty weak when it comes to hauling bison.”

A New Truck in Viper Red

But that was last year.

Since then Omilusik has upgraded to a new 2022 Peterbilt 389-special truck.

After all, he had driven his 2013 Kenworth nearly a million miles in less than 9 years—a total of 950,000 miles.

He ordered the new one in December—in a bright shiny red—a color called ‘Viper Red,’ his father’s favorite color—purchased in his honor, he says.

Tim ordered his new 2022 Peterbilt 389-Special in Viper Red—his father’s favorite color. Here it’s hooked up to his ‘Mobile Barn’ and ready to pick up a load of Bison. He can haul 100 feeder calves or about half that many cows at once. TO.

Unfortunately, his father had a stroke on New Year’s Eve and passed away soon after. He never got to see the new brilliant red truck.

For a time in March Tim was between trucks. His old one was sold. The new one hadn’t arrived.

“8.5 years of my life I put into driving this truck and now she’s on her way to the new owner. I’m impatiently waiting to get into my other one so we can start some new miles.”

On April 7, 2021 the truck arrives, and he reports, “We are back in action!! Time to make some miles.”

A few days later the trailer—which Tim refers to as his ‘Mobile Barn’–is attached and ready to roll.

“I think it looks pretty darn good hooked up to the mobile barn.”

Next day he’s off. “Wow !! I missed this.”

A Day in the Life of a Buffalo Hauler

So what’s a day like in the life of a Bison hauler?

Lots of prep work. I’ll get up, do my precheck, and get myself psyched up for the day. Hauling bison is no easy task.

“It’s a lot different than just hauling regular cattle. They’re quite a bit bigger and more aggressive and can cause quite a bit of damage to you, themselves and each other.

“You need to be calm and cool about it. Relax and have a plan in your head if something goes wrong.

“For instance, one night I stopped just north of the U.S. for a morning border crossing. I had a lot of bulls on, and they started fighting in the trailer. I was up all night keeping an eye on all the bison so they wouldn’t tear my trailer apart.

“I’ll haul slaughter bison or fats used for meat, most of which are to packing plants in Canada or the U.S.

“I haul feeder bison to feedlots and breeding stock all over as well. I have done some stuff for the Canadian government that was for scientific research, such as tuberculosis testing in bison.

“One load will be 55,000 to 60,000 lbs.

“You can get about 100 feeder calves on board or 45 to 50 fats at 1,200 lbs. each. Most runs usually take a few days to complete.

Tim Omilusik prefers working alone inside the trailer when loading or unloading. It’s better for the Bison, he says. It helps keep stress levels down. Credit TO.

“If I load in Canada, it’s a day to the border and then another one or two to the destination.

“USDA law mandates the time the animals can be on the trailer is 28 hours before they have to be unloaded for feed an water.”

Canada has similar rules.

“These runs could be short or long. I’ve hauled bison up to 2,000 miles on one trip. It can be a pretty stressful ordeal.

“I’ve also brought yak from the U.S. over the years. I had to quarantine them on the trailer for three days. They’re smaller, but a little more intimidating because their horns are so much longer.

“14 deer 1 moose. Driving wide eyed !!”

Partitioning the Load

Tim tells me that his latest trailer with two decks can divide into 6 or 7 compartments, depending on what he’s hauling.

“I try to load the same weights together. We never load buffalo of different sizes in one compartment—they would just kill each other.”

“I load the top first—depends on how the trailers are set up. For some in the Nose—the front compartment, which is a little narrower—they have to go down a ramp to get there.

“The Nose can also be in 2 decks—so they might go up or down a ramp. For big animals there’s only 1 level in the nose. For smaller animals of 400 to 700 pounds, it’s a double layer in the nose.

“The ‘dog house’ is on the back end.”

If the bison have been living together they have already established their ‘pecking order’ and they usually get along fine, he says.

“Recently I took a big load of 25 bigger bulls—from 3 different herds—2,000 to 2500 pounds. Put them together in smaller bunches.

“I have several dividers—can make 6 or 7 partitions in 2 decks. I had 3 in one pen in the nose, 4 in another, 5 and then 6.

“It went really good, smoothly.

“Some compartments are smaller than others on the trailer, so you have to watch where you place them. You could really run out of room before you can get them all on.

“Hauling Bison is a lot different than hauling cattle. Bigger, more aggressive and can cause quite a bit of damage to you, themselves and each other.” TO.

A reader asks, “If you end up with the least dominant one last and it won’t go into a compartment do you swap it out or ever just give up on filling the compartment?”

“I have never had to give up. Patience always seems to work,” Tim replies.

 “If I have cows and small calves—I separate them into different compartments.

“I have never had any issues with bulls but cows seem to get pretty aggressive with one another.”

He loads them up. In the video you can see a boot and half-leg of Tim Omilusic waving his long-handled flag—and swinging the divider gate.

He dips his head to the lower gate as a ‘Load of little Ladies’ head down a ramp into the front Nose.

A final sweep of the flag, shut the gate and one more compartment loaded.

Then they are off. Mostly things go smoothly.

“These guys escaped an been hiding in the bush for quite some time before being caught. Loaded up an hauled out. They were very unhappy.

“This load of bulls this week definitely were a little on the wild side. No respect for anything. Kept me on my toes.”

The trailer looks strong and well built, and is re-enforced. But with the size and strength of the big bulls, Tim says they could smash through and get out if they really wanted to.

“One time when I was hauling herd bison weighing just under 3,000 pounds, a big bull didn’t like me on the roof an tore a hole through it trying to get at me.”

Tim was unloading from the roof, prodding with his flag to get one pen to leave the trailer.

“He ripped through the roof like it was a tin can. His horn came through right by my foot. A big hole—he could have come right through it.

“Bison horns have the strength to rip open even a re-enforced trailer like a tin can, so staying alert is key to staying safe for a bison hauler, Tim Omilusik warns.

“Never had nothing come out yet, though.

“Occasionally a ruckus is going on the the trailer.”

What do you do then? I wondered.

“Really can’t do anything. Usually there’s less fighting if you just keep going.”

Watering and Feeding Hay

“Feed and water can be a problem. You can’t unload bison and then load them up again. You can do that with cattle, but not bison.

“Their welfare is all I care about. I worry about the welfare of the animals. How to get them to their destination an unload safely

“On super long trips we have 2 drivers.

“If I think it’s going to be a problem I take a long garden hose, tubs for water and connect to a hydrant.

“Tubs are about the size of a half 50 gallon drum—I usually tie them to the walls so they can’t tip. All that has to be put together before leaving home.

“It’s a lot of work. I took a load to Missouri where we didn’t have access. I had to have hay and water. Setting all that up before we leave, it’s just a lot of work.

When they stop he tries to fill the animals up. They can also drink while travelling.

Sleeping in the Truck

“I always sleep in the truck—the trailer is behind, but they move around a lot more when we’re stopped. It all depends on their mood. Sometimes they are good. Other times they will thrash around the whole time.

“After 24 years of trucking you get used to it. Sometimes I stick in ear plugs.

“You definitely feel the movement with the larger ones. Most of the time they are pretty calm. It’s when you get stopped, there can be trouble. 

“The animals mostly are bumping the walls and when you stop, they kick a lot and bump the walls. 

“Little calves just weaned—300 to 500 pounds—they are agitated and paw the floor a lot.

“Buffalo carry their head low and sometimes one gets stuck between another animal’s legs. Sometimes they can get all tangled up together.

 “Just gotta stop, use flags to split them up—usually just a couple animals together, but sometimes more. Need to reposition them.

 “Bison are very smart—If one is tired they position themselves against the wall to lie down—out of the way. Where they have room to lie down.

 You learn something new every day when you’re working with bison. It’s a job that takes focus and patience. You always have to be alert and ready for anything.

“These runs could be short or long. I’ve hauled bison up to 2,000 miles on one trip. It can be a pretty stressful ordeal.”

 At the end of the run, he reports a delicious meal.

“Friday night supper in the truck. Bison tenderloin compliments of my good friends of Bison Coulee Contracting. Baked potato, broccoli and a salad. I’m going to sleep well tonight!”

When Buffalo Don’t Want to Get Out

Then sometimes he arrives at the destination and the bison don’t want to leave the truck.

“On a long haul they get attached to their surroundings and sometimes they don’t want to get out.

“It’s happened to me three times this year with big herd bulls—they didn’t want to get out.

“Bison have their own mindset. If they don’t want to go, they’re not going to go. You can’t really force them.

And they have to come off the trailer in reverse order of the way they entered, right? One pen at a time? Right.

“Get off the ones you can. I went to bed in the truck with the trailer backed up to the unloading chute.

“You get whatever sleep you can. Some of them will walk off in the night, others early morning when it gets light and they can see where they’re going.”

“I love them to death, so much it’s hard to describe. They are a magnificent animal, so awesome.”

What age do you like the most, I asked Tim. The young ones? The big bulls? The grumpy old bulls?

“All of them. I like them all. The little calves right up to the big guys.

“The little red dogs—(as they call the newborns)—so frisky. I get to watch them bound around, so exciting to watch. How can you not just sit there and watch them?

“And the big guys—I’m just astonished how big and how strong they are. I love hauling them.

“Load of little ladies,” is his verbal output for one day.

It’s a stressful job, yet it’s very enjoyable for me. Their welfare is all I care about.

“Hauling bison is no easy task.

“Once in a while I have to haul cattle—usually in the spring. But I’d rather just haul bison.

“I’d move them 365 days a year if I could, but it’s seasonal work.

Cleaning the Trailer after Hauling a Load

Tim cleans his trailer after every load—to keep down any spread of disease. He’s usually alone for the job, wielding a shovel, bar and pitchfork.

And no, it’s not just manure and wood chips.

There’s more. There’s the hair, coming off in huge clumps in the spring.

Buffalo shed winter hair in huge clumps in spring. TO.

Yes the Hair!

How does he clean buffalo hair out of the truck?

“It can be pretty overwhelming. During shedding season, you have more hair in the trailer than wood shavings or straw. I’ll find a place to shovel out everything and then find a washout [with a hydrant] to finish the cleaning.

“There’s usually so much hair it plugs up their system. I have been kicked out of more places than I can count.”

“The buffalo shed worst in spring. Yearlings and adults shed the most hair. And then they are also stressed from getting loaded in the transport trailer, so they rub on the walls. Not so much the calves.”

Some of his Twitter comments about hair:

“Shedding season. There will be more hair in the trailer than shavings when I’m unloaded.

“More hair than shavings on the floor by the end of the trip.

“Aftermath of hauling bison in the spring. Hair for days. Most loads during shedding season will leave more hair than there will be manure an shavings.

“And this is why washouts don’t like me coming around.”

“Get a leaf blower,” suggests one reader.

He rejects that with a genial, “Haha ya right. It’s packed in like concrete. Hence the pitchfork.”

And later: “Concrete. Exactly why it was used for many building projects for ages—hair, dung, straw.”

He’s right. I’ve seen those early homes in our Ukrainian communities! Hair, dung, straw and mud. Who knew you could build a home with that kind of ‘lumber?’ They did. And some are still standing—after more than a hundred years!

Beautiful set of bull calves. Very quiet. First time on a truck an very little pressure to load an pretty much open the gate an they walked out behind me to unload. TO.

How Tim got Started Trucking

Tim explains how he got into trucking:
“After high school, I wanted to be a cowboy and started working on a feed lot close to home.

“They had their own truck and trailer, and they needed an extra driver, so I got my commercial driver’s license in 1998 and started driving an old 1980s Ford LTL 9000 and pulling a Wilson 50-ft. tandem.

“I did that for a couple of years.

“There was a commercial cattle hauler back home in Alberta. He had three trucks and I started working for him. and it took off from there.

“I just loved it. I got my first truck in 2009 and pulled as a lease operator until I got my own in 2010. I hauled cattle for quite a few years and hauled bison in between.”

Today Tim Omilusik owns the trucking company—Eastland Transport. He also has a wife and a 15-year old daughter who are involved in the business.

His daughter is into 4-H and Rodeo. She’s feeling somewhat disappointed right now because of Covid-19 restrictions and cancellations, which are still widespread throughout Canada. (I wish her many successful shows. As a former 4-H Leader and Extension Agent, I know how hard these kids work and what the shows mean to them. It takes patience—she will get through this and things will soon be better!)

Tim owns no buffalo, but would like to. “Maybe when I retire. Like to have a herd someday, maybe—20 to 50 cows.

“Every year is different—summer months trucking tends to dry up some until fall.

“Feed prices are so high this year—corn prices—that hurts the livestock feeders

Tough to feed animals—When that changes, more animals will be moving.”

Finally, there’s a photo of Tim’s shiny new red truck proudly parked, clean and ready to go again.

“Wow !! I missed this. Happy to be back in my happy place.” TO.

“Ah. That’s looks better. The bugs were starting to take control.

“Washed up. Washed out. Ready to rock n roll in the morning!”

Next day he’s off.

“Wow !! I missed this. Happy to be back in my happy place.”

And off goes Tim Omilusik in a clean truck to pick up another load of Bison.

All’s well in his Happy Place.

(Twitter @eastland09) Eastland Transport Ltd. Is for “Hire’ for all your Bison hauling needs locally and or long distance Canada or the USA. People can reach out to me at

Eastland Transport Ltd; Box 817; Coronation, Alberta Canada; T0C 1C0. Cell Phone: 1-403-578-8705. Email:

Next: Secrets of the Buffalo Jump

Francie M Berg

Author of the Buffalo Tales &Trails blog

White Buffalo Calf Woman Brings Gifts, as told by Lame Deer

White Buffalo Calf Woman Brings Gifts, as told by Lame Deer

There are many versions of the White Buffalo Woman tradition, passed down in the Lakota Sioux culture from one storyteller to another. This version was told by John Fire Lame Deer at Winner on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota, 1967. Although the White Buffalo Woman tradition differs in details, at its core it is the same—and each telling adds yet another layer of beauty to the traditional story.


Storytelling was an important way Native traditions and history were passed down through the generations. John Fire Lame Deer told of the White Buffalo Calf Woman tradition at a gathering in Winner in 1967.


One summer so long ago that nobody knows how long, the Oceti-Sakowin, the seven sacred council fires of the Lakota Oyate, the nation, came together and camped.

The sun shone all the time, but there was no game and the people were starving. Every day they sent scouts to look for game, but the scouts could find nothing.

Among the bands assembled were the Itazipcho, the Without-Bows, who had their own camp circle under their chief, Standing Hollow Horn.

Early one morning Chief Standing Hollow Horn sent two of his young men to hunt for game.

They went on foot, because at that time the Sioux didn’t yet have horses. They searched everywhere but could find nothing.

Seeing a high hill, they decided to climb it so they could look over the whole country. Halfway up, they saw something coming toward them from far off, but the figure was floating instead of walking.

Map of the Rosebud Reservation communities covers four counties in South Dakota. At a 1967 gathering in the town of Winner, Tripp County, John Fire Lame Deer told of the White Buffalo Calf Woman tradition on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

From this they knew that the person was “wakan”—or holy.

At first they could make out only a small moving speck and had to squint to see that it was a human form. But as it came nearer, they realized that it was a beautiful young woman, more beautiful than any they had ever seen, with two round, red dots of face paint on her cheeks.

She wore a wonderful white buckskin outfit, tanned until it shone a long way off in the sun. It was embroidered with sacred and marvelous designs of porcupine quill, in radiant colors no ordinary woman could have made.

This wakan stranger was Ptesan-Wi, White Buffalo Calf Woman.

In her hands she carried a large bundle and a fan of sage leaves. She wore her blue-black hair loose except for a strand at the left side, which was tied up with buffalo fur. Her eyes shone dark and sparkling, with great power in them.

The two men looked at her with mouths open. One was overawed, but the other desired her body and stretched his hand out to touch her.

This woman was ‘lila wakan,’ very sacred, and could not be treated with disrespect.

Lightning instantly struck the brash young man and burned him up, so that only a small heap of blackened bones was left. Or some say that he was suddenly covered by a cloud, and within it he was eaten up by snakes that left only his skeleton, just as a man can be eaten up by lust.

To the other scout who had behaved well, the White Buffalo Calf Woman said, “Good things I am bringing, something holy to your nation. A message I carry for your people from the buffalo nation.

“Go back to the camp and tell your people to prepare for my coming. Tell your chief to put up a medicine lodge with 24 poles. Let it be made holy for my coming.”

This young hunter returned to the camp. He told the chief, he told the people, what the sacred woman had commanded.

The chief told the ‘eyapaha,’ the crier.

And the crier went through the camp circle calling: “Someone sacred is coming. A holy woman approaches. Make all things ready for her.”

So the people put up the big medicine tepee with 24 poles and waited. After four days they saw the White Buffalo Calf Woman approaching, carrying her bundle before her.

Her wonderful white buckskin dress shone from afar. The chief, Standing Hollow Horn, invited her to enter the medicine lodge. She went in and circled the interior in the direction the sun moves through the sky.

The chief addressed her respectfully, saying: “Sister, we are glad you have come to instruct us.”

She told him what she wanted done. In the center of the tepee they were to put an ‘owanka wakan,’ a sacred altar, made of red earth, with a buffalo skull and a three- stick rack for a holy thing she was bringing.

They did as she directed, and she traced a design with her finger on the smoothed earth of the altar.

She showed them how to do all this, then circled the lodge again in the same direction. Halting before the chief, she now opened the bundle. The holy thing it contained was ‘chanunpa,’ the sacred pipe.

She held it out to the people and let them look at it. She was grasping the stem with her right hand and the bowl with her left, and thus the pipe has been held ever since.

Again the chief spoke, saying: “Sister, we are glad. We have had no meat for some time. All we can give you is water.”

They dipped some ‘wacanga,’ sweet grass, into a skin bag of water and gave it to her, and to this day the people dip sweet grass or an eagle wing in water and sprinkle it on a person to be purified.

White Buffalo Calf Woman showed the people how to use the pipe. She filled it with ‘chan-shasha,’ red willow-bark tobacco.

She walked around the lodge four times after the manner of Anpetu-Wi, the great sun. This represents the circle without end, the sacred hoop, the road of life.

The woman placed a dry buffalo chip on the fire and lit the pipe with it. This was ‘peta-owihankeshni,’ the fire without end, the flame to be passed on from generation to generation.

In the holy woman tradition the White Buffalo Woman brought the Pipe and showed the Lakota how to use it in a prayerful way. In this 1898 photo, Oglala Lakota Chief Red Cloud smokes the pipe on the South Dakota Rosebud Reservation. Photo by Jesse H. Bratley.

She told them that the smoke rising from the bowl was Tunkashila’s breath, the living breath of the great Grandfather Mystery.

The White Buffalo Calf Woman showed the people the right way to pray, the correct words and the gestures to use.

She taught them how to sing the pipe-filling song and how to lift the pipe up to the sky, toward Grandfather, and down toward Grandmother Earth, to Unci, and then to the four directions of the universe.

“With this holy pipe,” she said, “you will walk like a living prayer. With your feet resting upon the earth and the pipe stem reaching into the sky, your body forms a living bridge between the Sacred Beneath and the Sacred Above.

“Wakan Tanka smiles upon us, because now we are as one—earth, sky, all living things, the two-legged, the four-legged, the winged ones, the trees, the grasses. Together with the people, they are all related, one family. The pipe holds them all together.

“Look at this bowl,” said the White Buffalo Woman. “Its stone represents the buffalo, but also the flesh and blood of the red man. The buffalo represents the universe and the four directions, because he stands on four legs, for the four ages of creation.

“The buffalo was put in the west by Wakan Tanka at the making of the world, to hold back the waters. Every year he loses one hair, and in every one of the four ages he loses a leg.

“The sacred hoop will end when all the hair and legs of the great buffalo are gone, and the water comes back to cover the Earth. The wooden stem of this ‘chanunpa’ stands for all that grows on the earth.

“Twelve feathers hanging from where the stem—the backbone—joins the bowl—the skull—are from Wanblee Galeshka, the spotted eagle, the very sacred bird who is the Great Spirit’s messenger and the wisest of all flying ones. You are joined to all things of the universe, for they all cry out to Tunkashila.

“Look at the bowl: engraved in it are seven circles of various sizes. They stand for the seven sacred ceremonies you will practice with this pipe, and for the Oceti Sakowin, the seven sacred campfires of our Lakota nation.”

The White Buffalo Calf Woman then spoke to the women, telling them that it was the work of their hands and the fruit of their bodies which kept the people alive.

The White Buffalo Woman told Native American women “You are from Mother Earth. What you are doing is as great as what the warriors do.” In this 1923 photo Sicangu women with baby and young child show off their fine clothing on Rosebud Reservation.

“You are from the mother earth,” she told them. “What you are doing is as great as what the warriors do.”

And therefore the sacred pipe is also something that binds men and women together in a circle of love.

Man and woman with tepee. When a man takes a wife, they both hold the pipe at the same time and red trade cloth is wound around their hands, thus tying them together for life, said the White Buffalo woman. This photo is said to be of a Lakota wedding, possibly taken on the Rosebud reservation about 1912. Credit Tuell.

It is the one holy object in the making of which both men and women have a hand. The men carve the bowl and make the stem; the women decorate it with bands of colored porcupine quills.

When a man takes a wife, they both hold the pipe at the same time and red trade cloth is wound around their hands, thus tying them together for life.

The White Buffalo Woman had many things for her Lakota sisters in her sacred womb bag— corn, ‘wasna’ (pemmican), wild turnip. She taught them how to make the hearth fire.

She filled a buffalo paunch with cold water and dropped a red-hot stone into it. “This way you shall cook the corn and the meat,” she told them.

The White Buffalo Calf Woman also talked to the children, because they have an understanding beyond their years.

She told them that what their mothers and fathers did was for them, that their parents could remember being little once, and that they, the children, would grow up to have little ones of their own.

She told them: “You are the coming generation, that’s why you are the most important and precious ones. Some day you will hold this pipe and smoke it. Some day you will pray with it.”

She spoke once more to all the people: “The pipe is alive; it is a red being showing you a red life and a red road. And this is the first ceremony for which you will use the pipe. You will use it to keep the soul of a dead person, because through it you can talk to Wakan Tanka, the Great Mystery Spirit.

The Buffalo woman spoke to the people telling them that they were the purest among tribes and that is why they were chosen to be caretakers of the pipe for all people. This early photo shows a group of Sicangu Lakota men and women leaders from Rosebud Reservation.

“The day a human dies is always a sacred day. The day when the soul is released to the Great Spirit is another. Four women will become sacred on such a day. They will be the one to cut the sacred tree—the ‘can-wakan’—for the sun dance.”

She told the Lakota that they were the purest among the tribes, and for that reason Tunkashila had bestowed upon them the holy ‘chanunpa,’ They had been chosen to take care of it for all the Indian people on this turtle continent.

She spoke one last time to Standing Hollow Horn, the chief, saying, “Remember: this pipe is very sacred. Respect it and it will take you to the end of the road.

“The four ages of creation are in me; I am the four ages. I will come to see you in every generation. I shall come back to you.”

The sacred woman then took leave of the people, saying: “Toksha ake wancinyankin (wacinyanktin) ktelo—I shall see you again.”

The people saw her walking off in the same direction from which she had come, outlined against the red ball of the setting sun.

As she went, she stopped and rolled over four times. The first time, she turned into a black buffalo; the second into a brown one; the third into a red one. And finally, the fourth time she rolled over she turned into a white female buffalo.

The fourth time she rolled over, the White Buffalo Woman turned into a white buffalo and disappeared over the horizon. Credit White Cloud mounted in the National Buffalo Museum, Jamestown Sun.

A white buffalo is the most sacred living thing you could ever encounter. The White Buffalo Calf Woman disappeared over the horizon. Sometime she might come back.

Great herds of buffalo came to the Lakota in the White Buffalo woman tradition—and she brought many other gifts. Today Native Americans celebrate their modern tribal Buffalo herd on the Rosebud Indian Reservation—as on most other reservations in the Plains states. Credit Rosebud Tribe.

As soon as she had vanished, buffalo in great herds appeared, allowing themselves to be killed so that the people might survive.

And from that day on, our relatives, the buffalo, furnished the people with everything they needed—meat, skins for their clothes and tepee’s and bones for their many tools. 

Other versions:

NEXT: Buffalo Trucker for 24 Years

Francie M Berg

Author of the Buffalo Tales &Trails blog

Assisted Reproduction in Bison

Researcher Miranda Zwiefelhofer surveys herd of wood bison at one of the University of Saskatchewan’s Livestock and Forage Centre of Excellence’s facilities. Photo credit Eric Zwiefelhofer.


North American bison are made up of two distinct subspecies, the smaller plains bison and the larger wood bison. They are considered Near Threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.

Threats that impact the bison today include diseases in large free-roaming wild herds, hybridization between the bison subspecies and historical hybridization with cattle.

The wood bison are at an increased risk as all accessible wood bison herds in the world can be traced back to 11 founding bison. The remaining bison are locked away in the Greater Wood Buffalo National Park Region in Canada. The region is endemically infected with diseases such as Tuberculosis and Brucellosis making the herds inaccessible. Wood bison cannot be removed from these herds and assisted reproduction is a feasible method for accessing these valuable genetics in a bio-secure manner.

Bison Reproduction

Great strides have been taken in the past 15 years by academic institutions and zoological societies to better understand bison reproduction and create tools to assist in bison reproduction—otherwise known as assisted reproduction.

Female reproductive anatomy is primarily composed of two ovaries, two oviducts, a uterus with two uterine horns, a cervix and vagina. The ovaries have many fluid-filled follicles, each containing one oocyte which is the technical term for a mammalian egg.

Many people have heard of the bison “rut” each fall. From mid-July to September bison males bellow, wallow and fight for the top position in the herd. The victorious winner is rewarded with mating the females and the chance to share his genetics. This testosterone-driven phenomenon results in a synchronous calving event in the spring.

Plains bison bull at Custer State Park during the rut. Photo credit Miranda Zwiefelhofer.


One major difference between cattle and bison is that bison are seasonal breeders. Many people do not know that if female bison do not get pregnant in the short “rut” window, they can still get pregnant for several months, resulting in the odd calf born in late summer and fall.

Non-pregnant female bison will ovulate a follicle and release an oocyte for fertilization approximately every 20 days from August to February. This is called the ovulatory season. Unlike in cattle, bison stop ovulating from March to July in what is called the anovulatory season. Meanwhile, female cattle continually ovulate throughout the entire year.

The onset of reproductive seasonality in male (the rut) and female (ovulation of follicles) bison is triggered by the decreasing photoperiod (shorter day lengths) at the end of summer.

Each oocyte includes an inner ooplasm (the 1-cell egg), a tough outer protective casing called the zona pellucida and the hundreds of tiny granulosa cells which are attached to the outside of the zona pellucida and nurture the inner cell.

Bison oocytes (eggs). If the oocyte gets fertilized by a sperm, the cell will begin to divide and continue to migrate into the uterus. In about 265 days, happy and healthy bison calves are born. Credit MZ.

After the follicle ovulates, the oocyte is picked up by the hair-like fingers at the tip of the oviduct and is pushed further down the oviduct by contractions. The oocyte only has approximately 8 hours to be fertilized by a sperm. If a sperm does not find the oocyte, the oocyte will die and the female bison will ovulate another follicle in ~20 days.

If the oocyte does get fertilized by a sperm, the cell will begin to divide and continue to migrate into the uterus. The embryo will secrete a protein that maintains pregnancy. In approximately 265 days, the gestation length of the bison, happy and healthy bison calves are born.

Assisted Reproduction

The use of assisted reproductive techniques has become increasingly popular in humans, domestic species such as cattle, and for use in threatened and endangered species. The term assisted reproduction encompasses several techniques that simply unite bison germplasm (egg and sperm) which would not have a chance to meet because of geographical restrictions or other limiting factors.

Assisted reproductive techniques are tools that can help with infertility, commercial gain and conservation efforts. We emphasize that there is no genetic editing that occurs in any of the techniques described here.

Artificial Insemination (AI)

Eric Zwiefelhofer, PhD: A single semen sample can be loaded into a straw containing millions of sperm, then frozen and stored indefinitely in liquid nitrogen at -320.5° F until used. Credit MZ.

The use of ‘artificial’ can be somewhat misleading—when in fact all that is happening is the replacement of a live bull with a straw of semen, containing millions of sperm.

Semen can be collected from bison bulls in a chute system or even from a bull that is sedated. The semen is then brought to the laboratory where it is assessed for quality. This includes tests for concentration and movement of the sperm (motility) by microscopy.

A single semen collection from a bison bull can yield billions of sperm in a 5-10 mL sample. To freeze the semen, the semen sample is diluted using an extender which contains nutrients and cryoprotectants for the sperm to survive freezing. The semen sample can then be loaded into a straw containing millions of sperm and frozen.

The sample can then be stored indefinitely in liquid nitrogen (-320.5° F) until use. In 2015 the Toronto Zoo reported a bison calf born using artificial insemination from semen frozen for 35 years (!newsite-Releases.asp?pg=20150817). A single semen collection can yield hundreds of straws of semen to inseminate hundreds of cows.

The artificial insemination procedure is safe and quick (~1 minute) in bison. Female bison can either be inseminated after natural estrus occurs or after estrus is induced. Estrus is the natural behavior of a female for a short time where she is receptive to the male for breeding. This phenomenon occurs approximately 24 hours prior to ovulation described above.

The straw of semen is retrieved from the liquid nitrogen vessel and thawed in water at approximately 98°F for 1 minute. The straw is then loaded into a special pipette. The female is brought to the chute and a gloved hand is inserted into the rectum, while the pipette containing the semen straw is inserted into the vagina. The pipette is manipulated through the cervix using the gloved hand in the rectum. Once the uterus is reached, the semen (containing millions of sperm) is deposited and the sperm will begin the migration to the uterine horn and oviduct in search of an egg to fertilize.

In Vitro Fertilization

Simply stated, in vitro fertilization (more commonly referred to as IVF) combines an egg and a sperm in the laboratory. We can collect eggs from bison in a hydraulic chute, sedated bison on the ground and even from bison that have recently died.

The oocyte collection process is simple, quick, and pain free. It is very similar to oocyte collection in women, they even get an epidural so they do not feel a thing. With the use of ultrasonography, the ovaries are imaged and the follicles, which contain the oocytes, are aspirated (i.e. removed) using a vacuum pump. The follicular fluid is then filtered and the oocytes are recovered using a microscope. The oocytes are then washed and matured overnight.

Bison in vitro fertilization (IVF) combines an egg and a sperm in the laboratory. Credit MZ.

The following day, either fresh, cooled or frozen bison semen can be used to fertilize the matured oocytes. Unlike in artificial insemination, where one straw of semen can fertilize one female, in IVF a single straw of semen can fertilize hundreds of oocytes. This means that if you have rare and valuable semen, IVF allows these genetics to be passed on in many individuals rather than a single offspring. A small sperm sample is added to the media containing the oocytes.

The following day after fertilization the extra sperm and granulosa cells are removed and the fertilized oocytes (now referred to as embryos) are placed in clean media. We then culture them in an incubator for another 6 to 7 days.

During this time the embryo cells divide until it reaches around 32 cells where it begins to compact into one single cell mass. The cell mass then creates a small bubble inside it called a blastocoel. The blastocoel gets bigger and bigger until it actually hatches out of the zona pellucida (the outer casing).

For the purpose of conservation, it is best to freeze the embryo prior to hatching. Freezing the embryo allows us to keep the embryo in liquid nitrogen at -320.5° F. This allows us to keep the embryo indefinitely and transport the embryos in a bio-secure manner. Embryos are also able to be washed free of disease-causing agents such as bacteria and viruses.

IVF is an important tool for conservation. When there are only a few remaining animals in a herd or in a species, it is essential to make the most out of the situation. The northern white rhino is technically extinct with only two remaining females in existence. Embryos have been produced from collected oocytes and frozen semen preserved from a dead northern white rhino male through IVF. This breakthrough technology has also resulted in the birth of cheetah cubs which are considered a vulnerable species.

In vitro fertilization can also be used in domestic species when a small amount of semen is available from an old bull or when a bull dies unexpectedly. Two units of semen from a superior Wagyu bull (Mayura Itoshigenami Jnr) from Australia just recently sold for $140,000 AUD ($108,000 USD). These two units of semen could be used in IVF to fertilize hundreds of oocytes from multiple cows.

Embryo Transfer into Surrogate Bison Females

The incorporation of embryo transfer (ET) is a bio-secure approach to bring new genetics into a bison herd as it doesn’t require the movement of the animals themselves. Embryo transfer has been used since the 1970s in cattle with great success. The primary goal of ET in bison is for conservation purposes.

Wood bison IVF embryo produced at the University of Saskatchewan, SK, Canada. In embryo transfer it’s important to match the age of the embryo to the estrus cycle of the surrogate mother. But none of the calf’s genetics will come from the surrogate mother. Credit MZ.

An important aspect of ET is to match the age of the embryo to the time since estrus has occurred in the surrogate female. Naturally, ovulation and fertilization of an egg will occur approximately 1 day after estrus in a bison female. However, if there isn’t a male to naturally breed the female, the female will still ovulate, but no fertilization will occur. The infertile egg will continue to migrate into her uterine horn.

This is where we can incorporate the use of ET in female bison. Embryos produced in the lab will be approximately 7 to 8 days old (i.e., 7 to 8 days since fertilization has occurred).  This means that in order to have success using ET, a surrogate female must be selected that was in estrus 8 to 9 days before as she will have an infertile egg in her uterus that is the same age as the embryo.

The in vitro-produced embryo can then be transferred non-surgically into the uterus. The body thinks that the embryo that was transferred is its own and nourishes it.

Probably the most interesting part about a calf produced through ET, is that none of its genetics will come from its surrogate mother. This means that you could produce an embryo from a pure plains bull and cow and transfer it into a pure wood bison surrogate—the resulting calf will be 100% plains genetics even though a wood bison carried it around for over 8 months in her uterus.

Wood and plains bison calves have been born from transferred frozen IVF embryos. Check out one of our more recent press releases from frozen IVF embryo bison calves born; Future work focuses on improving these technologies to increase effectiveness.

2020 Wood bison calf from frozen IVF embryo at the University of Saskatchewan. Credit MZ.

Embryo transfer is a widely-accepted technology in the cattle industry. In 2019, more than 1.4 million embryos were produced in cattle according to the International Embryo Technology Society. The National Bison Association currently does not allow “in-vitro fertilization or other artificial reproduction practices for any purposes other than scientific research.”

However, these technologies are vital for conservation efforts. They can move genetics without transporting live bison which can be a huge biosecurity issue. With the assistance of wildlife veterinarians, bison can be sedated from a helicopter and semen or oocytes can be safely collected from them. Less than 30 minutes later, the sedation can be reversed and the bison is free to rejoin the herd.

The semen and eggs can then be sent back to the laboratory where eggs can be fertilized with sperm and produce embryos. Both the embryos and semen can be frozen for long-term usage and stored in vessels containing liquid nitrogen.

These frozen embryos and semen could then be shipped thousands of miles using FedEx or UPS (I’m not kidding—used extensively in the cattle industry) to other herds both domestically and internationally. Embryos/semen are transported in a dry shipper which holds liquid nitrogen vapor at a temperature of less than -238° F for upwards of two weeks. A single tank containing hundreds of units of semen and embryos could be shipped for less than $1000—I can’t imagine how much it would cost to ship hundreds of live bison over a thousand miles.

Eric Zwiefelhofer traveling with IVF wood bison embryos using a dry shipper. Credit MZ.

Imagine if the early bison conservationists had access to these reproductive technologies. Bison wouldn’t have to be rounded up off the prairies for days, placed in corrals, and forced onto rail cars to be transported for hundreds or thousands of miles. Semen and embryos could be produced from them and could be transported safely through FedEx or even as your checked-baggage on a flight.

The movement of genetics is a more economic option through the use of reproductive technologies. It also substantially decreases the transport stress of moving live bison resulting in fewer deaths.

Research is constantly evolving making assisted reproduction more effective and easier to accomplish. As seen in many endangered species, it is crucial to develop these technologies prior to them being needed. For the purpose of conservation in bison, collaborative efforts are in the works to implement these technologies to access rare genetics locked away in wild herds.

A commercial bison herd in Alberta Canada. Photo credit MZ.

We hope that these technologies will help the long-term health and resilience of plains and wood bison for future generations and that this article may ease some anxiety about the mystery which is assisted reproduction.

Miranda and Eric Zwiefelhofer

Author bio: Eric and Miranda Zwiefelhofer are a husband and wife team from Wisconsin and Minnesota. They attended the University of Wisconsin-River Falls for their undergraduate education where Miranda graduated with a degree in Biology and Secondary education and Eric in Dairy Science. They are currently living in Saskatoon, SK, Canada for their graduate studies in the Department of Veterinary Biomedical Sciences at the University of Saskatchewan which is a research-based program. They both specialize in reproductive physiology and advanced reproductive techniques. Eric specializes in oocyte collections, artificial insemination and embryo transfer while Miranda specializes in the in vitro production of embryos. Miranda is a PhD Candidate and will defend her thesis soon on Strategies for the use of reproductive technologies in bison. Eric obtained his PhD in January 2020 on Ovarian synchronization in cattle. He is currently working as a postdoctoral researcher for a second year with the University of Saskatchewan and the Toronto Zoo working on protocols to produce female offspring in bison. (Recent press release;

Buffalo Traces—’Path of the Buffalo,’ Part 2

Buffalo Traces—’Path of the Buffalo,’ Part 2

Reenactment of the establishment of Initial Point on the bicentennial of the setting of this significant survey point. Deputy federal surveyors in period dress surveying the buffalo trace as in 1806. Ebenezer Buckingham Jr. U.S. Deputy Surveyor, established the original wooden post on September 1, 1805. The wooden post that marks the Initial Point was replaced by a corner stone in 1866. It was inscribed with an “S 31” for Section 31 by J.H. Lindley, Orange County Surveyor. This site is open to the public. Photo courtesy of the Initial Point Chapter of the Indiana Society of Professional Surveyors. US Forest Service.

Award Won

BEDFORD Oct 18, 2017—The Buffalo Trace Working Group with the Hoosier National Forest received the 2017 Indiana History Outstanding Event and Project Award from the Indiana Historical Society. The group was recognized as instrumental in uncovering the history of the Buffalo Trace and mapping its route through southern Indiana.

In December 2014 a group of interested Hoosiers—22 to 30 volunteers—met with the National Forest personnel and began searching for and documenting the remnants of Indiana’s oldest trail, known as the Vincennes Buffalo Trace through the National Forest and across the southern part of Indiana.

Within 3 years the group succeeded in mapping the original buffalo pathway, created a website devoted to the Buffalo Trace and an online interactive map highlighting historic resources along the route.

They were following the lead of early surveyors with William Rector and Crew in 1805 to 1807 —President Thomas Jefferson’s “army of young men”—who went through southern Indiana marking 160-acre farms with “north-south and east-west lines” with wood posts and dirt mounds every half mile.

Indiana was the first state to be completely laid out under the rectangular Public Land Survey System where the state was divided into six mile by six mile square townships, each containing 36 numbered sections of 640 acres each.

The buffalo left their mark in Indiana and Kentucky in deep, hard-packed roads—called Buffalo Traces.

David Ruckman, a retired surveyor and author who helped to locate the Trace, says it is the notes these young surveyors kept long ago that he and other modern surveyors relied on.

Their best resource became the notes and descriptions of those young surveyors.

They had marked the points where each quarter-section intersected the path of the buffalo—through the length and breadth of the Vincennes Buffalo Trace and the various routes that it took.

It was not a single route, but sometimes multiple trails—caused by local conditions such as years of flooding that may have changed routes.

In places the Vincennes Buffalo Trace was 12 to 20 feet wide and worn down to a depth of 12 feet, even cutting down through solid rock.

These routes forged a hard-packed swath through hills, creeks and forests that were easily followed by Native Americans, early pioneers, soldiers during the Revolutionary War and later even automobiles. The pathways made travel easy through dense forests.

They helped to mark Hwy 150—the main route of ancient buffalo migrations between what are now Vincennes and Louisville. Huge herds of buffalo summered on the Illinois prairie and followed this trail to winter in Kentucky.

However, over the years most of these pathways were covered over and hidden by the new roads, corn fields and the urban sprawls of civilization.

Location of the Buffalo Trace cabin in the Smokey Mountains. The trace cut a broad swath through the dense trees in a wide, deep road traveled by Native Americans and many pioneers coming into Indiana as well as commercial traffic.

The working group—county surveyors, former surveyors, archeologists, research scientists, U.S. Forest Service workers and others—shared information they discovered about the Buffalo Trace, showing maps from the early 1800s with a road that followed the old bison trail across southern Indiana, with smaller trails that led to springs near where French Lick now stands and other salt licks into Kentucky.

Their mission was to research, locate and preserve the location and historical significance of the Buffalo Trace in southern Indiana and to present their information to schools and the public.

Within those 3 years they reached most of their goals:

  • Use historical records to determine the location for the primary trail from the Ohio River crossing at Clarksville to the Wabash River in Vincennes.
  • Physically locate the remaining remnants of the Trace in all the counties, which include Clark, Floyd, Harrision, Crawford, Orange, Dubois, Pike and Knox.
    • Preserve the historical information and document its significance by publishing brochures and developing other resources that will educate the public about the Buffalo Trace.
    • Produce a final document compiling all that the group has learned—in time to have it be part of Indiana’s bicentennial celebration in 2016. This included putting up signs, developing a website and planning special events, such as re-enacting early surveys.

Path of the Buffalo

According to David Ruckman buffalo were actually “The new kids on the block.” They arrived east of the Mississippi River about the time of European discovery of America in 1492, he writes, and had vanished from Indiana by 1810 –about 300 years in all.

By the year 1800, bison had mostly disappeared from east of the Mississippi River. Settlers were filling the lands known as the Northwest Territory—the area around the Great Lakes and farther south. Urban sprawl began covering most of their pathways.

Still, though it’s rare, the careful observer may find an ancient rut made by the buffalo.

Today, local historians and researchers are trying to piece together those ruts and knobs of the Buffalo Traces.

Reinactment: Indiana was the first state to be completely laid out under the rectangular Public Land Survey System where the State was divided into six mile by six mile square townships/ ranges containing 36 numbered sections of 640 acres each. Townships run north-south and ranges run east-west. Courtesy US Forest Service.

Today, US Route 150 between Vincennes and Louisville, Kentucky, follows a portion of this path. Sections of the improved Trace have been designated as part of a National Scenic Byway that crosses southern Indiana.

Historians have been alert too—surveying the ancient routes from historic documents, establishing parks along the way and placing signs at the salt licks.

Work in the Field

One part of the project that took hours was walking through fields and along creeks, looking for visible signs of the Buffalo Trace. Not easy, as it is covered nearly everywhere with layers of civilization.

David Drake, a retired surveyor from Orange County, shared the recent findings from some treks he took in Orange County with fellow surveyor Tom Moore. The two were using the 1805 survey by William Rector, who surveyed the Buffalo Trace to establish the Indian treaty lines through the state.
Rector followed the Trace, establishing on paper where it was located and then had to mark a line for the treaty that was at least a half mile north of the most northerly turn of the Trace.

Drake said he used old maps to locate parts of the Trace just south of French Lick, but other segments were missing. Some parts follow roads but end in fields and woods before picking up again on another road.

The area the group walked was one of the locations Drake believes may contain part of the Trace. The land is owned by Drake’s relative. In one area, the Rector map showed the Trace traveling up a hill.

“It went up a hill and we couldn’t figure out why,” he said.

After walking up the hill, Drake and Moore discovered the reason.

Depressions in the soil showed there was once a salt lick at the top—the attraction that led the buffalo up the hill. Then on the other side, the buffalo went down the hill and on their way.

Another time, Ruckman noted that an early trading post had been built at a certain point in the trail. For several years the activity there caused migrating buffalo herds to make a new trail veering around it.

Ruckman’s Retracement Notes

David Ruckman made extensive notes on his section of the Vincennes Trace—which began at the Ohio River crossing from Kentucky into Indiana.

Ruckman began his survey at the Ohio River crossing in its shallowest point—as the buffalo had chosen for their crossing.

He said he had difficulty matching up his survey with the first notes of the early surveyors of 1805 to 1807 because “they did not start their Historic Survey at the Falls of the Ohio where our study starts, but northwest in Floyd County on the west line of the George Rogers Clark Military Grant on Greybrook Lane in New Albany.”

“[This] caused me many visits to the area looking for scars of the trace where I found none.”

Below is a sampling of his report:

  • “The Trace mounts the north bank of the Ohio River at the intersection of Croghan and Vincennes Streets, (1107730.78 n, 294361.34 e ), in the original William Clark Survey Map of the 1000 acre town of Clarksville, being our true place of beginning;

A sketch of the rapids in the Ohio River. The Falls in the Ohio between what is now Louisville and Clarksville made a rapid descent over a series of ledges formed by Devonian rock rich in fossils. In high stages of water the falls disappeared completely. During low water times, the whole width of the river had the appearance of a series of waterfalls with great flats of rock beds. There is now a state park in the location where the buffalo and the historic trace crossed from Kentucky into Indiana. This site is open to the public. Sites listed as having limited access are private sites with specific areas or times that they are accessible to the public. Clark County. Falls of the Ohio State Park website.

  • “Thence meandering north with the present day Emory Lane about one half mile to a Dry Trace Fork, whereupon the Dry Trace Fork went northwest, crossing Silver Creek at a point 90 feet north of the original McCullough Pike—Market Street Bridge location over Silver Creek, the other, northern Wet Weather Fork, continues north with said Emory Lane to cross State Road 62, ( Chief White Eye Trail).
  • “Thence the Trace spread out across the flat Silver Creek Valley just west of Providence High School, as it continues north to intersect with the Gutford Road at the southeast high bank overlooking Silver Creek, fifty feet below.
  • “Thence northeasterly and northwesterly following the present Gutford Road and said high bluff, passing Jane Sarles home and continuing about 5/8 mile to break northwest away from the present road, along the scar of the original Trace, ( 1116904.56 N, 292354.84 E ), to cross the slate bottom Silver Creek into Floyd C ounty at the Gutford crossing just east of Armstrong Bend;
  • “Thence this northern fork mounted the west bank of Silver Creek, to join the present Old Ford Road meandering up the hill to the flat ridgetop known as Lone Star and the intersection with the Indiana Ancient Trail—Charlestown Road and the ongoing Ancient Trail out Klerner Lane through the Indiana University Southeast Campus to join Bald Knob Road and the ascent up the steep Floyd County Knobs;
  • “Thence returning back to the Lone Star intersection, the Trace turned southwest following present day Charlestown Road about two miles to the intersection of the Trace where the Market Street Dry Fork Trace meets at Limerick Hill, the present intersection of Charlestown Road and the Vance Avenue;
  • “Thence returning back to Silver Creek and the Market Street/ McCullough Pike crossing point 90 feet north of the now vanished bridge;
  • “Thence, from there, it can be ascertained that the Trace made a fairly direct route nearly due west crossing the Ancient Trail “ Slate Run Trace”, through the east end of New Albany, passing Silver Street School, the National Cemetery and Hazelwood Jr. High,
  • “Thence climbing 7 Vance Avenue continuing west crossing the Ancient Trail Charlestown Road at a high point of the old Limerick Hill ;
  • “Thence continuing northwest along Vance Avenue to Falling Run;
  • “Thence from Falling Run Valley the 1805 Trace jogs south to avoid Parkers Station at Daisy Lane;

Ruckman then discussed going uphill at the southwest “to join the Rector Survey beginning point on Greybrook Lane and Country Club Lane just south of the 1790 Parker Family Settlement at Daisy Lane and the Grant Line, the Parker Family being one of the very first settlements in Floyd County.“
Allowable error for the Rector Linear Survey was noted to be 1 survey chain per mile. Later Ruckman pointed out the surprising accuracy of that 1805 survey, considering this allowed error.

“Now forward West, based on Rector and other Surveyor notes.

  • “Thence from the jog at Parkers Station at Greybrook and Country Club Drive hilltop the Rector notes of the 1805 Trace bend northwesterly following Greybrook Ridge past Elliott Phillips apartments and then descending down into the Falling Run Valley, where I once was a wild child swinging on grapevines and catching Falling Run catfish for dinner;
  • “Thence across the Daisy Radio Tower tract to cross Daisy lane near Falling Run Creek and joining the Original Trace from Greybrook Hill;
  • “Thence bending due west parallel to Daisy Lane to cross Green Valley Road just north of the intersection of Daisy Lane and Green Valley Road;
  • “Thence bending northwest curving just south of Trinity Run and proceeding through the New Albany Water Park to cross State Street at I-265;
  • “Thence meandering west through the Psi Duke substation and continuing along Trinity Run Valley (Binford road being on north edge), to exit said valley (1116508.54 N, 273038.37 E ) at the Holtz farm in the northwest quarter of Section 28 -2s-6e;

Buffalo sculptures are popular attractions in gardens and parks along the Buffalo Trace.

  • “Thence turning northwest following the old Trace and stone mining road winding now up the east face of the Floyd County Knobs.

Ruckman wrote that the Trace at that point had been widened by stonemason wagons, mining and hauling stone downhill to the upstart New Albany Village, whose only stone was slate. He said this strip mine scar is over a mile in length and is sometimes mistaken for the Trace. “The Trace winds and wraps its way up the steep ridge bone knob spine from the Trinity Run Valley through the Holtz farm in Section 28, on its way to the top of the Knobs at Fawcett Fox Ridge, now Chambord.”

  • “Thence [it goes] westerly, crossing Old Hill Road in Section 20 ( 1118875.25 N, 270921.35 E ), at the Hanka driveway proceeding along west, passing the William and Edith Hanka 1800’s hand hewn log lodge home in the southeast quarter of Section 20, 2s, – 6e; continuing west just north of the old Copler home along the ridge top through the tall oak timber. The Trace is barely visible in the woods, bending just south of a stone at the center of section 20, to follow a flat top wooded ridgetop and descending the west side of the Floyds Knobs through Charles Roberson’s land down a well-trod fork on the left (1119161.03 N, 267869.44 E and an existing incline pathway on the right (1119657.49 N, 268075.82 E), before coming together in the Floyds Knobs Valley;
  • “Thence west crossing said valley and Little Indian Creek (1119748.48 N, 267683.89 E) at the existing road creek crossing, (about 1, 000 feet south of Paoli Pike at Schupert’s corner);
  • “Thence westerly up the western side of the Floyds Knobs Valley and grassy field, passing just south of the Jim Bezy machine shop and a Doe Creek Tributary intersecting said Indian Creek,
  • “Thence westerly up the hill across Knable Court, meandering west just south of Luther Road, crossing Lawrence Banet Road at Luther Road;
  • “Thence continuing west, crossing a small tributary at Ken and Sandy Groh’s driveway and the center of Section 19;
  • “Thence meandering west with the Ken Groh driveway ( 1120461.31 N, 263204.64 E ), departing same west up the gentle grass hillside, passing just north of the Dennis Richard’s home and then the Monte Givens home before crossing US 150, about 700 feet south of Luther Road;
  • “Thence northwest through the Sperzel Woods to join Luther Road at the Highlander Ridge high point in Section 24 – 2s,- 5e;
  • “Thence flowing west along Luther Road, diverting from the existing road at the Yeager farm entrance;
  • “Thence westerly through the Ray Yeager farm and following the Rector calls in a direct line through the lands of Richard Libs and passing the Dr. Ragan home place, about 528 feet west of the common corners of Sections 13,14,23 and 24. Both Rector and the Rectangular Surveyors agree that the Trace crossed approximately 528 feet west of the northeast corner of Section 23, t-2-s, r-5-e, on the border between Mt. Saint Francis and Dr. Ragan’s home place;
  • “Thence proceeding west and northwest, passing just north of Floyd Central High School in Section 14 2s, 5e, proceeding northwest through the south portions of Benchmark and Quailwood, crossing northwest into Section 15 and through the Ruckman/ McWilliams Farm Plat in Sections 15 and 10, in a direct course about 5,412 feet, to a turn near the NW corner of the SW ¼ of the SE ¼ of Section 10- t-2-s, r-5-e , just southwest of Galena, and being one of the most northeasterly turns of the Trace, whereupon Rector’s return treaty line was to be at least ½ mile north of this turn.

Ruckman briefly hints at the excitement and discouragement that drove him on, day by day.

“In my retracement, I had many exciting ‘discovery’ moments. . . sometimes standing and or walking where the Buffalo trod.

“However, there were many disappointing days wandering and searching for any possible faint Trace scars, nearly invisible now. Or following an old abandoned former roadway only to find it turn away from the overall westerly Trace direction, proving it was not evidence of the Trace, merely a now-abandoned farm road.”


Parks along the Trace

Historians have been active too—surveying the ancient routes from historic documents, establishing parks along the way and placing signage to identify Buffalo Licks and other historic points.

Historic and modern signs mark the Buffalo Traces. Parts of the Original Trace have been protected for years and marked with hand-painted signs as the above which warns “Experienced Hikers & Mountain bikers—if in doubt please stay out!!!” Presumably this warning is an after thought to spare the fragile trail from wear and tear of experts who have been here before.

Parts of the Original Trace have been protected, including sections in the Hoosier National Forest and a small tract within Buffalo Trace Park, a preserve maintained by Harrison County, Indiana—and with these recent revelations—perhaps there’ll be more signage to come.

Distilleries along the trace attempt to usurp the Buffalo Trace Designation for their own purposes—and make it appear that the Trace and even buffalo themselves are overshadowed by Buffalo Trace Bourbon. Note the spectacular water tower! Try googling Buffalo Trace and see how many liquor bottles pop up! But despite this emphasis from some quarters, we have George Bird Grinnell’s nineteenth century statement of fact that “Americans are water-drinking people!” He contrasts this with drinking habits of people in many other places in the world—and therefore, he points out that we Americans need to keep our water clean.

Are historic roads important? Many major transportation routes of prehistoric and early historic times have been lost to history. Some are completely forgotten, both their story and their location lost.

For others, remnants of the road exist but their history is lost, and for some their physical location is lost, still the background of the road lingers in local folklore and histories

However, growing interest in prehistoric and historic trails has led to an increase in archaeological and historical research of these cultural resources, as remnants of old roads and trails abound. As here in Indiana they can be recognized as areas of over grown ruts, wide paths free of trees in forested areas and pathways eroded into the landscape.

Some can be found with a dry laid stonewall or single course of stone along the side of the road. Most of these can be attributed to small lanes used to get around the property by the landowner, or for farming or logging.

Survey notes, plat maps and other documents provide clues as archeologists continue to discover more sections, aided by modern technologies such as GIS and GNSS. Today some are part of the newly designated Historic Pathways and National Scenic Byway.

Buffalo Trace website:

Story Map:

Hoosier National Forest:



Francie M Berg

Author of the Buffalo Tales &Trails blog

Pin It on Pinterest