Where the Buffalo Roam


The red man was pressed from this part of the West
He’s likely no more to return,
To the banks of Red River where seldom if ever
Their flickering camp-fires burn.
A verse of “Home on the Range” as rewritten by John Lomax

While it wasn’t the first change of course along the way, when I came to Denver on my trek east last fall that was roughly following Horace Greeley’s journey west in 1859, I did briefly head back to the west to seek out Central City and the former site of a large gold strike at that place from back in that time. As I was rolling along I-70, at one point I noted a group of cars parked on the shoulder with their occupants all out wandering on the edge of the road and standing, gazing and pointing to a hillside field in the valley below which was dotted with what appeared to be furry brown things that I could not quite make out as I hauled by. I assumed that such a spectating crowd would not be so attracted to and fascinated by cows, and a sign a little ways up the road indicated that there was a place to view buffalo nearby. I took note of the area and carried on to my original goal, what at one point in Greeley’s time had been known as Gregory’s diggings, but was now a restored historical mining site and a wonderland of  hi-rise casinos tucked away in the narrow valley along side  and below the old town.

On my way back to Denver I took one of my self-allotted diversion tours and spun down a dirt road off an exit that allowed me to get more up close and personal with the fenced and contained buffalo herd than the view from the highway shoulder above would allow. In truth, the signs posted along the eight foot field fence that kept this herd from wandering too far from view all said that one should not stand within x number of feet of the fence. The exact, set back safety distance I fail to recall at this point because I ignored all those warnings anyway and held my camera lenses right up to the square holes formed by the fence wiring so as to avoid those troublesome wires in order to get an unobstructed shot of the grazing buffalo. In doing a bit of reading about the noble buffalo recently, I found that if one took careful note of how these wild and crazy beasts carried their tails, one could discern the animal’s attitude toward your less than welcome intrusion into its space. It seems that a loose and limply hanging tail indicates a general level of concern somewhere around ‘whatever’. A tail in any other attitude other than limply vertical is indicative of two things- an impending poop storm or a full on charge in your general direction, or both.

In reviewing the photos that I shot of the buffalo, it looks like their telling tails were indicating a general disregard for my presence. Of the ten or fifteen in the group nearest to the fence, none of them seemed interested in doing anything other than eating through the grass that was before them. All were content to chew and wander. Not one even broke into a trot or a canter, although it would have been impressive to see that 35mph speed they are said to be capable of, in spite of their lumbering and oafish appearance. What really would have been impressive though would have been to be around back in the mid 1800’s or before, back when their numbers in North America were said to have been somewhere between 30 and 60 million. While they mostly traveled in herds of 15-50 animals, during times of migration their roving gatherings on the plains were sometimes seen to stretch from horizon to horizon. As Greeley observed somewhere in Kansas: “Consider that we have traversed more than one hundred miles in width since we first struck them, and that for most of this distance the buffalo have been constantly in sight…”

To the plains Indians the buffalo were beings who could speak, feel and think. It has been noted that the buffalo were also a kind of general store for the tribes, providing food, clothing and formable tools. To the white settlers and emigrants the buffalo were an annoyance that spooked their livestock and were an impediment to their movement. Fur traders from early in the days of westward expansion killed them by the hundreds, taking their pelts and cutting out their tongues which were considered delicacies when salted. After the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, one of the things that was considered sport when traveling west was to shoot buffalo from the trains. This was done and encouraged in part because herds could sometimes block the tracks and delay trains for days. By the 1870’s, laws had been passed in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho for the purpose of protecting the buffalo population although they were difficult or impossible to enforce. Around that same time there was an economic downturn and buffalo furs were seen as a relatively easy way to make money. This led to a surge in buffalo hunters- at one point numbering more than 5000- which led to a glut of hides and a resulting drop in market price. To make up for the monetary losses, the hunters just killed more buffalo. By the early 1880’s the entire buffalo population had been reduced to thousands as opposed to the tens of millions just forty years before.

After the Civil War, president Grant asked Gen. William Sherman and Major-General Phillip Sheridan to be in charge of dealing with the “Indian Problem” on the Great Plains. Both men saw the dependence the native populations had on the buffalo herds, so they put forward a policy that encouraged the extermination of the buffalo in order to deprive the Indians of their main food staple and starve them into submission and surrendering to life on the reservations that had been set aside for them. Not having the resources to deal with the vast numbers of buffalo, the Army set out to encourage private buffalo hunters to accelerate the task. By 1884 there were 325 wild buffalo left in the U.S.

For the rest of the nineteenth century there were both private and public efforts made to bring back the buffalo. In 1913 a new design for the five cent piece in U.S. currency was designed in part to show purely American images, as well as to commemorate the return of the buffalo. It is unclear as to whether or not the irony of having the head of an Indian chief and the image of a buffalo (both actively driven into near extinction by our U.S. Government) on either side of the nickel was lost on the American public or not. Currently there are buffalo herds in every state of the union, with close to half a million in both private and public herds. In 2016 President Obama signed the National Bison Legacy Act making the American buffalo the national mammal. To the best of my google searching knowledge,  it appears that this is perhaps one bit of  Obama’s legacy of legislation that the current cheese puff in residence at the White House has not yet rescinded.