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Plains Bison Mysteries That Remain Part I:

 The Buffalo Population and Why It Crashed By Gene Gade President, Vore Buffalo Jump Foundation

Volumes have been written about buffalo. Most emphasis has been placed on the historic period, immediately after the use of the Vore Buffalo Jump stopped (about 1800) through the era of Anglo American expansion into the Plains to the near-extinction of bison some 80 years later.

How Many Buffalo Were There? Estimates of bison numbers vary from 30 to 75 million. 50,000,000 to 60,000,000 are the most common numbers cited as total buffalo population in the early 1800s.

Multiple Causes of the Bison “Crash” It’s very well documented that over-hunting was a dominant factor in the near-extinction of the buffalo. However, massive outright slaughter was not the only cause. Disease and drought also contributed to the catastrophe. At the end, even the hunting exploitation was not quite as simple as it is commonly portrayed. Up through the period of Vore site use (i.e., prior to 1800 A.D.), Plains Indians hunting was only for subsistence. Archaeological evidence from the Vore site and elsewhere indicates that bison kills were completely butchered and processed. There was minimal waste. However, as the fur trade involving companies from the United States and Britain expanded into the West after 1800 and as Indians in the region acquired horses and improved weapons, the tribes were increasingly involved in the “robe trade”…trading buffalo robes for manufactured trade items. Demand was high for metal items, such as cooking pots, eating utensils, knives, guns, (even metal arrow points), as well as cloth, glass, tobacco, sugar and flour. It was a classic case of rising material expectations. Especially as the supply of and demand for beaver pelts declined in around 1830, buffalo robes, hunted by male Indians and tanned by Indian women, became the “currency” of trade.

Very well written document, to read in full


The Philadelphia Inquirer
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (published Aug 25, 1919)

Historians Visit Site Where Last Pennsylvania Bison Were Killed
Starving Animals Invaded Cabin, Crushing Women and Children

Special to The Inquirer. SELINSGROVE, Aug. 24. Central State Historians made, a pilgrimage today out along Jack Mountains in the northwestern part of Snyder county to the high ground a short distance east of the old distillery near Troxelville, and from that height looked down into the memorable “Sink,” or Boney’s Hole, where 120 years ago two-score of angry pioneers avenged the murder of a mother and her three children by slaughtering more than 300 buffaloes, exterminating the last herd of bison in Pennsylvania. The excursion was under the auspices of the Pennsylvania Alpine Club, of which the president is Colonel Henry W. Shoemaker, of Mc Elhatton, one of the best-informed men in the Commonwealth on intimate history of Pennsylvania. By the close of the eighteenth century the last buffalo herd of Pennsylvania bison numbering nearly 400 animals, of all ages had taken refuge in the wilds of the Seven Mountains. The settlement in Middle Creek Valley prevented them from wintering there and the slaughter in West Branch Valley made it unsafe to try to escape to the north. Hemmed in, they survived a while by hiding in the most inaccessible mountains, or in the deepest vines. The winter of 1799 – 1800 was particularly severe, the starving brutes had to penetrate into the valleys, where grass could be dug out from under the snow. Led by a giant coal black bull called “Old Logan. ” after the Mingo chieftain of that name, the buffaloe herd started in single file one winter’s morning for the clear stretches of the Valley of Middle Creek. A count of the herd had been made, and it numbered 345. The herd fell afoul of the barnyard and haystack of Martin Bergstresser, a settler, who had recently arrived from Berks county. His first season’s hay crop was a good-sized pile. stood beside his recently completed barn. Ruin at Bergstresser Farm With “Old Logan” at their head, the famished bison herd broke through the stump fence, crushing the domestic animals, and were soon pulling to pieces the hay pile. Bergstresser, who was in a nearby field cutting wood, heard the commotion and rushed to the scene. Aided by his daughter Katie, a girl of 18, and Samuel McClellan, who joined the party, four buffaloes were slain. The deaths of their comrades and the attacks of the settlers’ dogs terrified the buffaloes and they swept up the frozen bed of the creek. When they were gone the barn was still standing, but the fences, springhouse, and haystack were gone as if swept away by a flood. Six cows, four calves, and thirty-five sheep lay crushed and dead among the ruins. McClellan started homeward after the departure of the buffaloes, but when he got within sight of his clearing he uttered a cry of horror. Three hundred or more bison were snorting and ‘trotting around the lot where his cabin stood. The pioneer rushed bravely through the roaring mass, only to find “Old Logan,” his eyes bloodshot and flaming, standing guard in front of the cabin door. He fired at the monster, wounding ‘him. which so further infuriated the giant bull that he jumped and plunged headlong through the door of the cabin. The buffalo herd, accustomed at all times to follow their leader, forced their way after him as best they could through; the narrow opening. Inside were the pioneer’s wife and three little children, the oldest 5. He could not stop the buffaloes, which continued filing through the doorway until they were jammed in the cabin as tightly as wooden animals in a toy Noah’s ark. Cabin Is Torn Down No sound came from the victims inside all he could hear was the snorting and bumping of the giant beasts. The sound of the crazy stampede brought Martin Bergstresser and three other neighbors to the spot, all carrying guns.  It was decided to tear down the cabin as the only possible means of saving the lives of the McClellan family. When the cabin had been battered down, the bison herd, headed by “Old Logan.” swarmed from the ruins like giant black bees from a hive. McClellan shot “Old Logan” as he emerged. When the men entered the cabin they found the bodies of the pioneer’s wife and three children dead and crushed deep into the mud of the earthen floor. The news of the tragedy spread all over the valley, and it was suggested that the murderous bison be completely exterminated. About fifty hunters were assembled at the Bergstresser home, and marched in the direction of the mountains. Among them were Jacob Stuck, George Ott, Emmanuel Snyder, Abraham Sourkill. George Schnable, John Young, William Doran, George Everhart, Gottfried Fryer. Jacob Fryer, Dennis Mucklehenny, Peter Fisher, Christian Fisher, John Hager, Jacob Long. Sr., George Michael. Francis Rhoads, Conrad Weiser, Jr., Peter Arbogast, Joseph Pawling. Albert Swimeford, George Swimeford, Jacob Jarrett. Sr., John Middlesworth. George Good, John Hitterdentive, Harry Lauder. Harvey Lehr, Jonathan Farnesworth. George Wickersham. George Weirick, John Hartman, Adam Dressler. George Kessler. John Kreighbaum, George Benfer. John Hummel, Solomon Miller, Moses Troup and Peter Troup. After all these years, some of the names have a strangely familiar ring. Many dogs, some partly wolf, accompanied the hunters. They were out two days before discovering their quarters as the fresh snow had covered all the buffalo paths. The brutes were all huddled together up to their necks in snow in a great hollow space known as the “Sink” formed by Boonestiel’s Tongue in the heart of the White Mounnear the present town of Wickert, Union county. When they got among the animals they found them numb from cold and hunger, but had they been physically able they could not have moved, so deeply were they “crusted” in the drifts. The work of slaughter quickly began. Some used guns, but the most killed them by cutting their throats with long bear knives. The snow was too deep to attempt skinning them, but many tongues were saved. After the last buffalo had been dispatched the triumphant hunters climbed back to the summit of Council Kup, where they lit a huge bonfire which was to be a signal to the women and children in the valleys below that the last herd of Pennsylvania bison was no more and that the McClellan family had been avenged.

The Times, London March 15 1800

1800's bison history

Bison Ecology and Bison Diplomacy:
The Southern Plains from 1800 to 1850

Dan Flores  (The Journal of American History, Vol. 78, No. 2. (Sep., 1991), pp. 465-485) In bright spring light on the Great Plains of two centuries ago, governor  Juan Bautista de Anza failed in the last of the three crucial tasks that his superiors had set him as part of their effort to reform New Mexico’s Comanche policy. Over half a decade, Anza had followed one success with another. He had brilliantly defeated the formidable Comanche nomnekaht (war leader) Cuerno Verde in 1779, and as a consequence in 1786, he had personally fashioned the long-sought peace between New Mexico and the swelling population of the Southern Plains. His third task was to persuade the Comanches to settle in permanent villages and to farm. But the New Mexico governor found the third undertaking impossible. Observers of Plains Indian life for 250 years and committed to encouraging agriculture over hunting, the Spaniards were certain that the culture of the horse Indians was ephemeral, that the bison on which they depended were an exhaustible resource. Thus Anza pleaded with the tribes to give up the chase. The Comanches thought him unconvincing. Recently liberated by horse culture and by the teeming wildlife of the High Plains, their bands found the Arkansas River pueblo the governor built for them unendurable. They returned to the hunt with the evident expectation that their life as buffalo hunters was an endless cycle. And yet Anza proved to be a prophet. Within little more than half a century, the Comanches and other tribes of the Southern Plains were routinely suffering from starvation and complaining of shortages of bison. What had happened? Environmental historians and ethnohistorians whose interests have been environmental topics have in the two past decades been responsible for many of our most valuable recent insights into the history of native Americans since their contact with Euro-Americans. Thus far, however, modern scholarship has not reevaluated the most visible historic interaction, the set piece if you will, of native American environmental history.* On the Great Plains of the American West during the two centuries from 1680 to 1880, almost three-dozen native American groups adopted horse-propelled, bison-hunting cultures that defined “Indianness” for white Americans and most of the world. It is the.end of this process that has most captured the popular imagination: the military campaigns against and the brutal incarceration of the horse Indians, accompanied by the astonishingly rapid elimination of bison, and of an old ecology that dated back ten thousand years, at the hands of commercial hide hunters. That dramatic end, which occurred in less than fifteen years following the end of the Civil War, has by now entered American mythology. Yet our focus on the finale has obscured an examination of earlier phases that might shed new light on the historical and environmental interaction of the horse Indians and bison herds on the Plains.   Dan Flores is a professor of history at Texas Tech University. The author would like to thank Richard White, Bill Cronon, Donald Hughes, Peter Iverson, Donald Berthrong, Eric Bolen, Jim Sherow, and Kenneth Owens for reading and critiquing all or parts of this article. See Jacobo Loyola y Ugarte to Juan Bautista de Anza, Oct. 5, 1786, roll 10, series 11, Spanish Archives of New Mexico, microfilm (New Mexico State Archives, Santa Fe). Ibid One line reads: “use all your sagacity and efficiency, making evident to the [Comanche] Captains . . .that the animals they hunt with such effort at sustenance are not at base inexhaustible.” See also Alfred B. Thomas, ed., Forgotten Frontiers: A Study of the Spanirh Indian Policy of Don Juan Bautista de Anza, Governor of New Mexico, 1777-1787 (Norman, 1932), 69-72, 82. Stable URL: http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0021-8723%28199109%2978%3A2%3C465%3ABEABDT%3E2.0.CO%3B2-X The Journal of American History is currently published by Organization of American Historians.

The Cheyenne

By 1800, the Cheyenne had acquired horses and abandoned village life to become buffalo hunters on the plains of Wyoming. Here the tribe divided. Part of the Cheyenne continued southward into Colorado. The Northern Cheyenne, who remained behind, fought to keep the whites out of their new homeland. The Lakota (Sioux) By 1800, what became South Dakota was labeled as “Lakota land” on maps, even though they had been pushed onto the Plains during the 1700s. Their population numbered in the thousands. The Lakota were also the master hunters of the region. Next to corn, bison meat was the main food for the Lakota. One bison provided enough meat to feed one person for one year. But, by the 1800s, the Lakota were also involved in commercial hunting of bison, selling hides to European traders. http://www.nebraskastudies.org/

Blackfoot Nation

By 1800, the Blackfoot nation controlled a lot of north-western North America . In this period, Blackfoot people were nomads. In the summer, they followed the buffalo and hunted them for most of their food. They traveled in small bands of just a few families. If people weren’t getting along, they just changed their band. The Blackfoot were always fighting wars to defend their own land or to get more of somebody else’s land. They fought often with the Cree and the Sioux to their east and the Crow to their south. These wars, combined with frequent epidemics of small pox beginning in 1780, killed many people by the late 1800s.

Nomadic Cheyennes and Arapahos continue to migrate south from Great Lakes Region, ranging south to the Missouri River, and west into the Plains

From the  Lewis Riel Institute Buffalo Hunt

(read more) The Métis Nation became a dominant force on the plains during the late 1700s and way into the 1800s. They were a highly organized body of people. They enacted laws, rules and regulations around the buffalo hunt which later became the “Laws of the Prairie” and the beginning of law enforcement in the area, subsequently adopted by the North West Mounted Police. The initiation of these laws brought the Métis Nation the solidifying process of self-government. The hunt involved organizing hundreds of men, women, children, Red River carts and horses for the westward journeys extending hundreds of miles to where the buffalo grazed. On the return trip, tons of processed buffalo meat and hides had to be transported. The buffalo hunts provided the Métis with an impressive organizational structure and by 1820 was a permanent feature of life for all individuals on or near the Red River and other Métis communities. There were usually two organized hunts each year: one in the Spring and one in the Autumn. The buffalo hunts of this time were carried out through almost militaristic precision and the combined force of a Métis hunt was larger than any other force of its time.