Buffalo History - North American Bison
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Buffalo

Bison or Buffalo
A buffalo losing his warm winter coat

Buffalo (more properly called bison) are a kind of cattle, like cows. Like other cows, they came originally from Asia, and they probably travelled over a land bridge to get to North America. This was around 10,000 BC. The buffalo replaced an earlier kind of bison, much bigger, which had become extinct, probably because of climate changes, at the end of the last Ice Age. The big open grassy plains of North America were just what buffalo liked, and soon there were millions of buffalo in North America, anywhere that there was grass, from what is now eastern Oregon all the way to the Great Lakes, and from Canada down south nearly to Mexico.

Before 1500 AD, only a few groups of people hunted buffalo much. It was too hard to chase them. You had to chase them so that they would run off cliffs or get trapped in valleys, and then you could kill them.

Once the Spanish invaders brought horses to North America, though, about 1600 AD, people were quick to see that this meant a great new source of food - with horses, men could hunt buffalo easily. By 1700, European settlers were pushing many tribes, like the Sioux, the Crow, the Cheyenne, and the Ute, off their usual land and on to the Great Plains. Here these people stopped farming, bought horses from the Pueblo people to their south, and used them to hunt buffalo.

Buffalo herd
A herd of buffalo

This worked okay during the 1700s. But it couldn't work forever: in the wintertime, Plains people had to shelter themselves and their horses in the canyons. But that had also been the buffalos' shelter. Once people and horses were there, the buffalo couldn't shelter in the canyons anymore. They had to stay up on the open prairie. Many of the buffalo died of cold and starvation in the winters. And the Europeans were pushing more and more Native people to the Great Plains, like the Cherokee and the Shawnee.

Then in the 1800s, the railroad brought many Europeans to the West, and they saw the great herds of buffalo for themselves. These Europeans wanted to conquer the West from the Sioux and the other people who lived there, and they realized that if they killed all of the buffalo it would make it much harder for people to live on the Great Plains.

Buffalo skulls
A pile of buffalo skulls waiting to be made into fertilizer.
Courtesy of the Burton Historical Collection,
Detroit Public Library. � 1999

So the Europeans began to kill off all of the buffalo. They killed them in huge heaps, not even taking the heads or the skins or the meat, just leaving them there to rot. When people began to really kill the buffalo, their bodies piled up across the Plains. By the 1880s only a few hundred buffalo were left in North America.

Today scientists are trying to bring back the buffalo. There are some growing herds on the Great Plains, protected by law. Many Native people are working to bring back the buffalo.

Learn by doing: go see buffalo (bison) in a zoo or a preserve
More about the Sioux

Bibliography and further reading about the American buffalo:

More about the North American environment
More about Native Americans
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Professor Carr

Karen Eva Carr, PhD.
Assoc. Professor Emerita, History
Portland State University

Professor Carr holds a B.A. with high honors from Cornell University in classics and archaeology, and her M.A. and PhD. from the University of Michigan in Classical Art and Archaeology. She has excavated in Scotland, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, and Tunisia, and she has been teaching history to university students for a very long time.

Professor Carr's PSU page

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