Buffalo History - North American Bison
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Bison or Buffalo
A buffalo losing his warm winter coat

June 2016 - Buffalo (more properly called bison) are a kind of cattle, like cows. Like other cows such as the aurochs, buffalo came originally from Asia, and they probably travelled over a land bridge to get to North America. This might have been around 10,000 BC. The buffalo replaced an earlier kind of bison, much bigger, which had become extinct, probably because of climate changes and human hunting, 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 - mainly the Blackfoot and the Shoshone - 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. After about 1000 AD, the Crow also started to hunt buffalo sometimes.

Once the Pueblo people captured horses from their Spanish invaders in the late 1600s AD, though, people were quick to see that this meant a great new source of food - with horses, people could hunt buffalo easily. By 1700, British and French 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 United States was pushing more and more Native people to the Great Plains, like the Cherokee and the Shawnee.

Then in the 1800s, the railroad brought many white Americans to the West, and they saw the great herds of buffalo for themselves. These Americans 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.

a huge pile of 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 Americans 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, especially the Blackfoot and the Sioux, are working to help the buffalo have more buffalo babies and raise them safely.

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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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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  • Carr, K.E. . Quatr.us Study Guides, . Web. 30 April, 2017