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Homestead History
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Written by Christopher W. Czajka

"The primary cause of the buffalo's extermination, and the one which embraced all others was the descent of civilization, with all its elements of destructiveness, upon the whole of the country inhabited by that animal."

-- William T. Hornady, in THE EXTERMINATION OF AMERICAN BISON (1889)

n 1889, William T. Hornady, the Superintendent of the National Zoological Park in Washington, DC, wrote a detailed report about the disappearance of the bison, a.k.a. American buffalo, from the North American continent. At the time of Hornady's writing, there were less than 200 bison living in the wild. Five years later, in 1894, the number was believed to be 25.

cabin interior
Comanche Buffalo hunters and their tepee lodges. 1871. Photo courtesy of the National Archives.

It is generally agreed that, ninety years prior to Hornady's writing, more than 60 million bison roamed the plains and prairies of the American West. Most of the bison -- millions upon millions upon millions -- were destroyed between the 1830s and the 1870s.

How did this happen? How could the most dominant animal on the continent be driven to the verge of extinction in the course of forty years?

William T. Hornady had his own theories. The primary reason for the bison's extermination, Hornady maintained, was the "settling" and "civilizing" of the bison's habitat. The secondary causes could be catalogued as follows:

"1) Man's reckless greed, his wanton destructiveness, and improvidence in not husbanding such resources as come to him from the hand of nature ready made, 2) The total and inexcusable absence of protective measures and agencies on the part of the national government and of the Western states and territories, 3) The fatal preference of hunters generally, both white and red, for the robe and flesh of the cow over that furnished by the bull, 4) The phenomenal stupidity of the animals themselves, and their indifference to man, and 5) the perfection of modern breech-loading rifles and other sporting fire-arms in general."

Though greed, ignorance, technology, and stupidity all certainly played a part in the destruction of the buffalo, the cause of their near-demise was a relentless, swirling combination of economic, environmental, and cultural factors that resulted from the meeting of two societies: that of the Plains Indians, and that of European explorers and, later, American settlers.

American bison originally ranged from modern-day Nevada and Oregon in the west, to Tennessee and Pennsylvania in the east. The immense herds -- which could comprise tens of thousands of animals -- could cover the land as far as the eye could see. Prior to European colonization and American settlement, the bison population was limited only by environmental factors, such as droughts, prairie fires, and predation by wolves, and the limited hunting efforts of native tribes. Before the introduction of horses and firearms by Europeans, American Indians hunted bison by stampeding them over cliffs, or "buffalo jumps." Since the bison followed no particular migratory patterns, and therefore could not be counted on as a consistent source of food, most tribes adopted an economy that combined both hunting and agriculture.

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