Buffalo Hunt by Ma-Pe-Wi c.1928.



You see the ghost of the buffalo
Moving both fierce and slow

Like glittering prophesies
On the edge of the horizon
    (Jewel Kilcher, "The New Wild West)

     Like most people I have a certain affinity for non-human animals and like most people this affinity is directed more towards some animals than others and for different reasons.  For instance, I love cats, having owned (or been owned by) two of them.  Just being around a cat is somehow comforting and makes my day seem brighter.   I was once terrified of horses, those stoic yet fiery beasts.  I took riding lessons in an attempt to overcome that fear.  While I would never have been hired by Bill Cody's Wild West Show as a trick rider, I can at least sit in a saddle with a modicum of confidence.  Recently some farms nearby where I live out in the country started getting involved with goats. I have the opportunity to observe them on a regular basis. Goats emanate sweetness.  I almost feel that in a past life I'd might have been a goat herder.   When I first moved into my place almost 25 years ago, a family just a stone's throw away had a mini farm.  The father was a veterinarian and they owned some horses, a pig, 3 llama, chickens and a donkey.  Coming from the city, I'd never seen any of these animals up close, but the donkey stole my heart.  They moved when I'd been there only about 2 years but since then, many farms in my area have gotten donkeys to ward off coyotes who've become invasive.  One place has 4 or 5 painted donkeys who are quite handsome.  Donkeys ooze serenity.  I'm sure Sancho was perfectly content with Dapple.   I've never seen a tiger in person either yet tigers, for whatever reason, fill me with both awe and terror and sometimes even infiltrate and dominate my dreams.  William Blake in his prescience probably knew this.

      But there is one animal, however, that affects me in a way I can only describe as mystic.  That would be the American Icon, the Bison (no, not the bald eagle, a beautiful creature but a terrible icon).  The bison, often called the American buffalo, once roamed North America from where I live in mid-North Carolina to eastern California and from Northern Mexico clear through western Canada into Alaska anywhere from 30 to 60 million strong.  By the 18th century, their range areas had shrunk to Northern Texas, western Oklahoma, eastern New Mexico, eastern Colorado, western Kansas, most of Wyoming Nebraska, Montana and the Dakotas in the US and most of Alberta and southwest Saskatchewan in Canada but still the thunderous herds that darkened the prairies fed and clothed the Plains Indians.

     The verse I selected and placed under the top image talks about the ghost of the buffalo.  It's this ghost, the spectral memory, more than the bison itself that might be deemed iconic. The buffalo intricately forms a connection, real and symbolically, between the European (predominately) Americans and the Native Americans, between the old and the new, between the fabric and the stitching in the quilt work of America.

     The most eastern record of a bison in North Carolina was described at a place called Buffalo Ford, about 10 miles from my home.  That ford no longer exists but buffalo did indeed ford the Catawba River at that point.  [see The Buffalo in North Carolina. Douglas Rights. The North Carolina Historical Review, July 1932.].   This area was inhabited by Cherokee and Catawba Indians.  Buffalo probably helped sustain them but the animals rolled out from this area before the 19th century rolled in.  In fact the last known buffalo to be hunted in all of North Carolina was in its western mountains in 1799:

     I'm only mentioning these N.C. facts to show my connection to bison has certain roots.

     Bison is the correct name for these animals, but it's also one of the most recent. The early Spanish conquistadors called them cibola.  The early French-Canadian fur traders and voyageurs called them les boeufs.  Boeuf became bufflo, then buffelo.  The regular Canadian settlers called them  bisons d' Amerique.   William Clark and Meriwether Lewis who led Jefferson's Corps of Discovery, alternately called them buffalow or buffaloe in their writings.  Of course, the Lakota called them Tatanka.

     About a dozen years ago my long interest in buffalo was whetted by a book written by Steven Rinella called American Buffalo: In Search of a Lost Icon.  Although the book dealt primarily with Mr. Rinella's winning the buffalo hunt lottery allowing him to be one of the very few people to legally hunt and kill a single bison that year (bison are a protected species), and despite the fact that killing anything for sport is totally abhorrent  to my nature,  Rinella's spiritual approach to the process proved fascinating and somewhat understandable, that is to say Indian-like.  What I liked most about the book is what he called his "game association."  I'll relate some below, but remember these are his, not mine:
     He mentions that his friends like to throw in the Lakota-Sioux word for bison, Tatanka, to seem knowledgeable on the subject but he knows they learned the word when it was popularized in a film called ""Dances with Wolves."  He then goes on to say that the bison used in that film were supplied from a ranch owned by Neil Young;  that Neil Young had written a song called "Cortez the Killer," and that Cortez was the first European too ever see an American buffalo;  that Young performed the song with his early group, Crazy Horse and that Chief Crazy Horse, one of the tribal leaders at Little Big Horn,  had an affair with a woman named Black Buffalo Woman and that it's possible that Crazy Horse's maternal grandparents were Black Buffalo and White Cow.    
     [What Rinella doesn't mention is that Sitting Bull who was also at Little Big Horn and who, unlike myself, was part of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, was named Tatanka Iyotake.  Also that the Indian (one of three) who served as a model for the observe side of the Buffalo Nickel was Two Moons, a Cheyenne chief who also fought at Little Big Horn.]
     Rinella extends the Neil Young connection by mentioning Young's membership (with Stephen Stills) in Buffalo Springfield, noting the bizarre unintended combination of the group's name (actually derived from the name of a steamroller manufacturer) as the Springfield rifle was partly instrumental in the destruction of the buffalo.

     Above is the reverse side of the Buffalo Nickel (less commonly, though more correctly called the Indian Head Nickel).  On the left is James Earl Fraser's original cast.  Fraser designed both sides. Fraser recorded in a letter that his bison-model  was Black Diamond who lived in the Bronx Zoo.  This has some incongruities. Black Diamond lived in the Central Park Menagerie, a short walk from Fraser's residence.  The Bronx Zoo did indeed own a large bison --named Bronx-- who some think was the actual model. In a twist of irony, buffalo from the Bronx Zoo were sent west in both 1907 and 1913 to help restock the western buffalo population, giving many Indian youths their first look at the animal that sustained their grandparents.   So Fraser was confusing either the location or the name of the Bison.  At any rate, Black Diamond, aka Toby, will forever be tied to the nickel. He was famous in his day -- the NY Times in his "obituary," called him the largest buffalo in captivity.  Black Diamond was bought for $300 by meat wholesaler, August A. Silz, known as the King of Poultry,  and paraded by Silz at a clambake for his 600 employees at Donnely Grove in College Point. Silz then had him killed and butchered at the Joseph Stern & Co. slaughterhouse, after which Fred Sauter of 42 Bleeker St. (misspelled as 'Santer' at most places I'd read) skinned him, making a robe (a pelt) into a car seat-cover  and mounted his head for Silz to display on his wall.   Poor Black Diamond was born to a pair Barnum and Bailey bison and never spent a moment in the wild.   This symbol of the Wild West led both an ignominious life and death.  

Black Diamond

     The Indian Head/Buffalo Nickel, as lovely as the design might be (1.2 billion were minted), was a rather strange conception.  It commemorated two entities, the Indians and the Bison-- both of whom the U.S.  had focused on eliminating during a good part of the previous century-- as symbols of the American spirit.

     If you study the images below,  you'll notice the bison on the $10 note, the $1 Military Payment Certificate (from the Vietnam War) and the 30 cent stamp are the same.  I've seen it written that this was also Black Diamond, but it's definitely another, less famous, creature. In fact, the $10 note, issued in 1901, predated the Buffalo Nickel (1913).  This bison's name was Pablo.  Pablo lived at the National Zoo in Washington D.C., arriving there from the herd of  his namesake, Michel Pablo,  who, seeing the imminent extinction of the buffalo, had amassed a private herd on land he owned in Montana starting in 1884.  Pablo is credited as being one of the more important preservers of the American bison.  The original sketch, done from life, was made by Charles R. Knight, a commercial artist who is most famous for his dinosaur drawings and watercolors at the American Museum of Natural History and other similar museums. The actual engraving was performed by Marcus Wickliffe Baldwin of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing . The story how it occurred is somewhat curious:

The Essay-Proof Journal, vol. 23, 1966


[Smithsonian Institution Archives, 81-2138, Created by National Zoological Park (U.S.), "Buffalo Barn, National Zoo", 81-2138-000002, Retrieved on 2020-03-06]
"A caption for the photo reads 'The model for the ten dollar bill'"

Pablo the Buffalo

     Under the highfalutin sounding concept of Manifest Destiny, the U.S. embarked on a mission of expansion, displacement, destruction and acquisition in which the only thing really predestined was the obliteration of the bison and Indians.  Fearing (sometimes rightfully so) and unable to relate to the Indians, but mostly coveting their land,  the government relocated Indians (under Andrew Jackson), and forced them out of sight (the Trail of Tears) to land they neither wanted nor were equipped to use.  Following the Indian removal to west of the Mississippi came a boost in the white westward expansion. The Homestead Act gave away land; the discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill ignited the famous California Gold Rush; the construction of the first transcontinental railroad right after the Civil War (connecting Omaha with San Francisco) invited convenient transport of both people and supplies and so young men (and women) followed Horace Greeley's admonition in droves. The increased influx of white population rekindled the same fires that sparked the original relocation of the Indians. People feared, distrusted and despised these indigenous peoples and coveted their land.   Meanwhile... there were still buffalo.... the golden spike at the railroad terminal went straight through the animal's heart.
     Buffalo herds interfered with the railroad.  Gen. Sherman, named after the great Shawnee Indian leader, Tecumseh, was put in charge of the Military Div. of the Mississippi --as a reward for having scorched Confederate earth-- in which his primary function was the protection and facilitation of the railway construction.  After a very bloody Indian reprisal,  Sherman wrote to is boss, U.S. Grant, "“we must act with vindictive earnestness against the Sioux, even to their extermination, men, women and children.”  Tecumseh would have been proud.   Sherman was promoted and replaced by Gen. Phil Sheridan, another earth-scorcher who laid waste the beautiful Shenandoah Valley in Virginia under orders from Grant but with a certain Arrogant Avenging Angel attitude.  Against these type of men the Indians hadn't a prayer.   Anyway, only gods hear prayers, not avenging angels.
     Buffalo hunters were hired by the railroad (Buffalo Bill Cody worked for the Kansas Pacific) to kill buffalo for two reasons: one, to feed the workers and two, to rid the Plains of what the railroad thought to be a nuisance.  Buffalo robes had become vogue (in 1876, 360 boxcars holding 3,000 robes each, traveled eastward) giving further incentive not only for professional hunters but for amateurs and the worst of all, sport hunters who came en masse, sometimes doing their killing though the train windows.

A train hunt published in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, June 3, 1871

1873 photo by Robert Benecke, the inscription says:

No. 2 Taxidermist's Department of the Kansas Pacific Railway.
Buffalo Heads used for advertising purposes.
Robert Benecke, St. Louis, Mo.

     Frank H. Mayer details his career as a buffalo hunter -- showing that, as with most things, it wasn't all it was cracked up to be. 

     For centuries prior to European intervention, Indians had their own method of mass killing, though their end was survival, not profit, utilizing the skins, the meat (drying what they couldn't eat then into pemmican) and about every other part of the animal.  This method of hunting, used in widely spread places,  was called the Buffalo Jump.

Driving Buffalo Over the Cliff by Charles Marion Russell, 1914

This excellent video dramatizes the Buffalo Jump

    Meriwether Lewis' Corps of Discovery Journal entry for May 29th 1805 describes a Buffalo Jump (Buffalo Jump refers to both the physical cliff formation and the manner of hunting.)

from the St. Joseph's Indian School
Indians left nothing to waste.

     Tatanka was so important to the Indian culture and so revered by the people that much of their daily life involved buffalo products and many sacred ceremonies revolved around the animal.  It took about 15 robes to make just one tipi (teepee).  Pemmican (or wasná, as the Lakota people called it), which is pulverized dried meat mixed with hot fat and other ingredients, and left to dry, would last all winter, or longer if necessary. 

Buffalo Dance by Frederick Remington (Harper's Weekly, May 7, 1887. p.332 -depicting Crow Indians)

       While there was never any official military or governmental policy, there is absolutely no doubt that the extermination of the buffalo to undermine the Indian way of life and independence was condoned and encourage by both,   a plan that came into fruition in an almost impossibly short time.  By the turn of the century the wild west was tamed, the buffalo all but wiped out and the Indians relegated to being wards of the state. 

     Several names can be tied with preserving the American bison:  ranchers such as Samuel Walking Coyote, Michel Pablo, Charles Allard, Charles Goodnight,  Frederick Dupree, James “Scotty” Philip, and showmen such as Pawnee Bill and Bill Cody (yes, even the man who personally killed over 4,000 bison).

Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show
see: How William F. Cody Helped Save the Buffalo Without Really Trying


a photo of a lonely herd from the National Archives

     In my own mind it seems reasonable to conclude that even without these deliberate actions the bison would never have fared well.  Bison roam from one grassy plain to the next as they graze. This type of behavior requires extraordinary amounts of undeveloped prairie land.  Natural (human) population growth and development would have eventually crowded out the bison even with the best intentions.  The buffalo were doomed from the moment Europe set its sight on the New World but this in no way pardons the draconian assault on the species, the shadow of whose specter will forever haunt this nation.