Buffalo Stampede

Buffalo Stampede, what I think of as a stampede is a wild, out-of-control run. 

Do bison really stampede?
I have searched through old journals, books, and articles of the first explorers and have yet to find an instance of a stampede. Once a great herd was encountered by a small group and they remarked how they had to wait for it to pass in fear of being attacked. (no mention of them running)

Despite speaking with numerous ranchers, producers, tribes, and even government herds, only one instance of a bison stampede has been witnessed. Interestingly, the cause of this stampede is still unknown to this day, but witnesses share that no bison suffered severe harm.

Bison have been roaming the lands for centuries and it’s hard to believe that they would not be accustomed to the sounds of wolves howling, lightning striking, and severe storms brewing. Even before settlement, hail storms as large as 8 inches were recorded on the East Coast. However, it’s important to note that the presence of humans did trigger some running behaviors/stampedes from being chased.

Coronado Journey 1540-1542

“They came across so many animals that those who were on the advance guard killed a large number of bulls. As these fled they trampled one another in their haste until they came to a ravine. So many of the animals fell into this that they filled it up, and the rest went across on top of them. The men who were chasing them on horseback fell in among the animals without noticing where they were going. Three of the horses that fell in among the cows, all saddled and bridled, were lost sight of completely.”


While it’s unclear whether naturally occurring bison stampedes took place in the past, we do know they did happen while being hunted.  If the circumstances are just right – cracking lightning, falling trees, and raging fires – any animal could be caught up in the chaos. To further support this, explorers from the past only remarked on waiting for great herds to pass in fear of being attacked – not running behavior.

Another explorer is Dakota: 1822  “that all the buffalo in the world were running in those plains…. over the hills and plains they moved in deep dense and dark bodies resembling the idea I have formed of the heavy columns of a great army. As they took the wind of the party they ran making the ground tremble with the moving weight of animal life.” 
As a proud bison owner, I spend my time observing my majestic herds – watching them interact with nature and each other. These incredible creatures boast an exceptional level of intelligence, although not everyone seems to realize this. Perhaps that’s because they are not truly looking at things from the bison’s world. The key is to put yourself in their shoes, to see things as they do. Only then can you truly appreciate their greatness and understand why they are our beloved National Mammal. By understanding the reasons behind their every move, you’ll be able to forge a deeper connection with them and enhance your appreciation for these amazing creatures. And let’s be honest, while a wild buffalo stampede makes for an exciting story, it’s important to be able to separate fact from fiction – which is something I take seriously as a researcher.
I’ve been around some pretty waspy cattle in my life, some who have never even seen people before. These bovines were ready to stampede at any moment, and I’ve witnessed them frantically trying to hide behind anything in their reach. In fact, even in the wild Longhorn days, cowboys had to put in some effort to track them down. Sadly, I also recall some halter-broke Salers at a show decades ago, which broke free from their restraints and ended up running straight into a gate, resulting in their untimely deaths. I’ve seen Tarentaise crosses on the run, darting down the highway, trying to take on any vehicle that came their way. While we eventually got them under control, things certainly got intense at times. Interestingly, I don’t recall experiencing any wild tales with bison, although I must admit that I’ve learned a lot since my fleeting days working with cattle. It’s amazing how much of a difference the right approach can make.

Speaking of bison behavior, an intriguing tale comes to mind. There once was a ranch that had been sold, and the seller had to remove the last few remaining bison—a mature bull and several cows. “Cowboy” collectors were brought in for the task. Details of the gathering process on that ranch remain unknown, but what we do know is what we eventually received—two exhausted cows and one incredibly furious bull. This enraged animal took us several hours to load onto our trailer, gearing up for the battle of his lifetime.

We were uncertain if he would suddenly rip the pens to shreds. However, upon arriving at their new home, the bull seemed to calm down slightly. But whenever my husband appeared within his line of sight, the bull would bellow loudly and gather his cows protectively behind him, constantly moving his head to keep a close watch over them—and Tim.

To me, that gathering experience seemed to teach the bison more about humans than those people ever learned about bison behavior. Interestingly, this aggressive reaction only occurred when it was Tim nearby and not when I was around. Perhaps it was because Tim played a more active role in the loading process, waiting for the bull to cooperate 90% of the time. Our conclusion was that this stubborn creature must have linked Tim with those who gathered him initially—an association worth pondering over.

Can you make a bison herd stampede? Yes. 
David Dary sums it up best when he says “Some early observers consider that any herd of running buffalo was a stampeding herd.” 
Stampede: A stampede is an act of mass impulse among herd animals or a crowd of people in which the herd collectively begins running with no clear direction or purpose. Species associated with stampede behavior include cattle, elephants, blue wildebeests, walruses, wild horses, rhinoceros, and humans. This from Definitions.net

Stampede Definition & Meaning | Britannica Dictionary
https://www.britannica.com › dictionary › stampede
1. : an occurrence in which a large group of frightened or excited animals or people run together in a wild and uncontrolled way to escape from something, get out of a place, etc. a buffalo stampede.

777 Bison roundup 2016 video
Thanks to the 777 Bison Ranch for sharing their great footage of the 2016 Round-up. I wanted to show you what it looked like to see Bison move en mass. A glimpse of what early settlers witnessed. (not a stampede)
There are many reasons why animals stampede, it’s not what you see, it’s what they see as a threat. Fight or Flight. To them the threat is real. If they cannot run from it, they will fight.  I’m sure you’ve seen animals in the wild that may hear a twig snap and their heads perk up and listen. They then decide if they should scatter or ignore it. Depending on the type of animal, will determine the outcome. 

Even when we see a herd of Zebra being chased by a Lion, they don’t look like a stampeding herd. They are scared and running, but out of control, no, as soon as the Lion has given up or makes his catch the rest of the herd moves on and goes back to grazing when they feel safe. 

If you run into a deer in the wild, chances are it will run from you. You run into a bear or large cat….chances are you wish you hadn’t. The Deer did not stampede away, it ran, knowing where it was going and to get away from you. 

If someone yells ‘fire’ in a crowded room, you will have yourself a human stampede. 

In history, we have some wild tales, one of them is the buffalo stampedes. I take some of those with a grain of salt, news can spin a good tale. Once you remove the drama and look at it in more detail, you’ll find that there was a cause, usually manmade. 

It’s fascinating to envision a buffalo stampede that doesn’t require any external prodding. Picture the indigenous people rounding them up into pounds – rather than stampeding, the buffalo would huddle together within a makeshift corral, ingeniously crafted from stacked branches and twigs to appear sturdy. Despite their strength and ability to demolish these enclosures in no time, the buffalo remained contained, making it an astoundingly effective hunting technique for the Native people.

If they didn’t have a pound they used cliffs and were run over the edge. And yes, when the ones in front saw the edge, they could not stop, they were being pushed by the force of the herd behind them. 

In these instances, there was no natural stampeding, they were being driven. 

Imagine a prairie fire ignited by a lightning strike, and picture the animals desperately trying to flee. A stampede, though? That’s not so certain. It’s possible that a few high-strung individuals within the herd might kick-start a panic, causing the entire group to become agitated. I’ve witnessed this phenomenon in my own herd when they’re feeling playful. Left to their own devices, the herd will eventually slow down, recognize there’s no real danger, and return to their peaceful grazing.

Natives often used fire to control a herd of bison and pick them off when they ran for the one opening. Again, no stampede. If this was a stampede, they would have run through the fire and out the other side. 

During the frenzied stampede of Pablo’s herd, it wasn’t a random outburst. Instead, it happened as they were being corralled for loading out – they didn’t just spontaneously bolt without cause.

Trains colliding with Bison.

The only time I can think of seeing bison really panic to point of acting frantic is by separating them, where they can still see the rest of the herd. In one case in 1874 when a train separated the herd, the bison panicked and tried to get back with their tribe. To make matters worse, the passengers would begin firing upon them.  

More than once during his career Colonel Dodge, witnessed stampeded herds of buffalo racing to cross railroads in front of oncoming locomotives, or else to outpace a train moving along the tracks alongside it, so as to cross to the other side. Railroad men had learned to stop their trains when stampeded herds were in sight, for to do otherwise was to court disaster. Dodge believed that the stampeded buffalo was “as dangerous a beast collectively as can be found in the world.”

John R Cook in 1875: The wind, what there was at a certain time, came from the southwest for seven consecutive days, and every buffalo was either traveling or headed that way; on the eighth day the wind changed to the east about midnight, and blew pretty strong all the next day. All day long the buffaloes moved eastward. That night there was heavy thunder and sharp lightning in the south, and just before daylight the wind whipped to the south and rain began to fall. As soon as it was light we noticed the buffaloes were headed south, and moving en masse. 


The Buffalo Commercial
Buffalo, New York 19 Jul 1855

Buffalo Stampede.

Buffalo Stampede
The Buffalo Stampede-Frederick A.Verner 1893

A correspondent of the Nebraskian, printed at Omaha City, on the Missouri, opposite to Council Bluffs, writes that an exploring party to which he was attached saw immense numbers of buffalo between Ash Hollow and Loupe Fork. The valley and hills were black with them. On the night of the 22d June having encamped on the bank of a creek in a narrow valley, about 12 o’clock they were alarmed by the approach of an immense herd of buffalo, causing the earth to tremble beneath their tread, as they came dashing down the valley a full speed. The camp chanced to be directly in the path through which this army of shaggy quadrupeds were making their rapid march, and it was with extreme difficulty by the discharging of rifles and revolvers in quick succession that our travelers succeeded in turning them from their direct course, thus saving their own lives and the lives of their horses. They succeeded in shooting several as they passed, among which was a fine, fat yearling, some choice cut lets of which served them as food on their journey. 

Some idea may be formed of the number of buffalo in this vast herd, from the fact that though running at full speed they were at least an hour in passing the camp.

They never mention what caused the stampede or if it really was a stampede or just bison on the move en masse. 


Manitoba-published 1889  (1867)

“I saw, in 1867, on the Loup Fork of the Platte River, an emigrant camp which had been ran over by a stampede. There had been seven wagons and 24 people, with about 30 head of horses and cattle. The rushing, terror-stricken herd struck the camp just at daybreak and was 15 or 20 minutes passing. Only one human being escaped, a man who was carried off on the back of a buffalo, and left at a spot 10 miles away. Not an animal was left, not a vehicle escaped destruction. I saw the site of the camp about noon of that day, and there wasn’t a piece of any of the heavy wagons which I could not have carried off under my arm. The people had been tramped into the earth annihilated wiped out. The remains could scarcely be recognized as those of human beings.”  (I have questions)


Hide Hunters

I asked an old buffalo hunter, noted as a very conservative man, how many buffalo he thought there were when the slaughter began. He said he had never made but one estimate, and thatMan in Tree safe from stampede under circumstances where a slight error was possible. He said that one night a big herd stampeded and ran over his tent and other camping utensils, and that during the prolonged process he calculated that there were at least two billion in that bunch, and that there were probably a hundred thousand bunches of the same size scattered over the range throughout the country. I asked him how he kept from being trampled upon during the passing of the stampeded herd, and he said that he had never heard of a buffalo climbing a cottonwood tree, and he had never heard of a buffalo hunter failing to climb one if it was available when the earth began to tremble and hoofs began to clatter two or three miles away and a thunderous sound rolled through the air.

I inferred from this that he heard the buffaloes coming, and went out and climbed a cottonwood tree, probably not taking time to reflect that during his absence everything in his camp would be ruined and trampled into the earth. I didn’t ask him whether this occurred away out on the lonesome prairie where there were no trees of any kind, or whether it was near some creek where there were plenty of them. Sometimes it isn’t a good idea to ask too many immaterial questions.  (Don H. Biggers)


Western Home Journal
Lawrence, Kansas 11 Jun 1874

Buffalo Stampede

 Indianapolis, June-5. During the parade of John Robinson’s circus through the streets of this city to-day, two buffaloes became frightened and got away from their keepers, rushing into the crowd on the side walk, knocking down Mrs. Sarah Harold, an elderly lady, who was holding a baby in her arms. Mrs.Harold was struck upon the head by one of the buffaloes, cutting a gash several inches in length, and also had her right hip broken. The baby received a terrible blow upon the temple, rendering it unconscious and producing spasms from which it is feared it will not recover. The buffalos ran down the street, but were soon under, control of their keepers. The excitement at the time was intense, and quite a number were crushed and bruised by the crowd. A team became frightened and ran into a carriage in which were two ladies and a child, who were thrown out and dragged some distance with the wreck, but escaped unhurt.



Burlington Daily Sentinel
March 3, 1876

Passing out between the hills, the young fellows found themselves on a nearly level plain. Here, too, was a dense throng of buffaloes, stretching off to the undulating horizon. As the two explorers walked on, a wide lane seemed to open in the mighty herds before them. Insensibly, and without any hurry, the creatures drifted away to the right and left, browsing or staring, but continually moving. Looking back, they saw that the buffaloes had closed up their ranks on the trail which they had just pursued; while before, and on either hand, was a wall of animals.

 ” We are surrounded I” almost whispered Arthur, with some alarm.

“Never mind, my boy. We can walk out, just as the children of Israel did from the Bed sea. Only we have waves of buffaloes, instead of water, to close behind and open before and be a wall on each side. See !'”‘

And, as they kept on, the mass before them melted away in some mysterious fashion, always at the same distance from them.

“See 1 We move in a vacant space that travels with us wherever we go, Arty.” Yes,” said the lad. “It seems just as if we were a candle in the dark. The open ground around us is the light we shed; the buffaloes are the darkness outside” “A good figure of speech, that, my laddie. I must remember it. But we are getting out of the wilderness.”

They had now come to a sharp rise of ground, broken a rocky ledge, which turned the ____ more to the northward.  A ____________________out of the buffaloes for the time, but beyond them were thousands more. Turning southward, they struck across the country for the wagon track, quite well satisfied with their explorations.

Between two long divides, or ridges, they came upon a single wagon, canvas-covered, in which were two little children. Two boys one about seven and the other eleven years old were playing nearby, and four oxen were grazing by a spring.

In reply to Mont’s surprised question as to how they came off the trail, and why they were here alone, they said that their father and uncle had come up after buffaloes, and were out with their guns. Their mother was over on the bluff pointing to a little rocky mass which rose like an island in the middle of the valley. She had gone to hunt for ” service berries.” They were left to mind the cattle and the children.

 “Pretty careless business, I should say,” murmured Mont. ” Well, youngsters,” he added, “keep by the wagon; if your cattle stray off, they may get carried away by the buffaloes. Mind that! “

They went on down the valley, looking behind them at the helpless little family alone in the wilderness. A man ought to be licked for leaving his young ones here in such a lonely place,” said Mont.

Suddenly, over the southern wall of the valley, like a thunder cloud, rose a vast and fleeing herd of buffaloes. They were not only running, they were running like a mighty flood. “

A stampede ! a stampede I” cried Mont; and, flying back to the unconscious group of children, followed by Arthur, he said: “Run for your lives, youngsters! Make for the bluff! “

Seizing one of the little ones, and bidding Arthur take the other, he started the boys ahead for the island bluff, which was some way down the valley. There was not a moment to lose. Behind them, like a rising tide, flowed the buffaloes in surges. A confused murmur filled the air; the ground resounded with the hurried beat of countless hoofs, and the earth seemed to be disappearing in the advancing torrent. Close behind the flying fugitives the angry, panic-stricken herd tumbled and tossed. Its labored breathing sighed like a breeze, and the warmth of its pulsations seemed to stifle the air.

“To the left! to the left!” screamed Arthur, seeing the bewildered boys, who fled like deer, making directly for the steepest part of the bluff. Thus warned, the lads bounded up the little island, grasping the underbrush as they climbed. Hard behind them came Arty, pale, his features drawn and rigid, and bearing in his arms a little girl. Mont brought up the rear with a stout boy on his shoulder, and breathless with excitement and the laborious run.

Up the steep side they scrambled, falling and recovering themselves, but up at last. Secure on a bare rock, they saw a heaving tide of wild creatures pour tumultuously over the edge and fill the valley. It leaped from ledge to ledge, tumbled and broke, rallied again and swept on, black and silent save for the rumbling thunder of many hoofs and the panting breath of the innumerable multitude. On it rolled over every obstacle. The wagon disappeared in a twinkling, its white cover going down in the black tide like a sinking ship at sea. Past the island like bluff, where a little group stood spellbound, the herd swept, the rushing tide separating at the rocky point, against which it beat and parted to the right and left. Looking down, they saw the stream flow by, on, and up the valley. It was gone, and the green turf was brown where it had been. The spring was choked, and the wagon was trampled in a flat ruin.

Fascinated by the sight, Mont and Arthur never took their eyes from it until it was over. Then returning to their young charges, they saw a tall, gaunt woman, with a horror-stricken face, gathering the whole group in her arms. It was the mother.

“I don’t know who you be, young men, but I thank yon from the bottom of my heart,” she said. “Yes, I thank yon from the bottom of my heart and, oh! I thank God, too !” And she burst into tears.

Arthur, at loss what else to say, re-marked: “Your wagon is all smashed.” ” I don’t care don’t core’ said the woman, hysterically rocking herself to and fro where she sat with her children clasped to her bosom. ” So’s the young ones are safe, the rest may go to wrack.”

As she spoke, a couple of horsemen came madly galloping down the valley, far in the wake of the flying herd. They paused, thunderstruck, at the fragments of their wagon trampled in the torn soil. Then, seeing the group on the rock, they hastened on, dismounted, and climbed the little eminence.

“Great powers above, Jemimy! we stampeded the buffaloes ! ” said the elder of the pair of hunters.

Arty expected to hear her say that she was thankful so long as they were all alive. – ” Yes, and a nice mess you’ve made of it.” This was all her comment.

“Whar’s the cattle, Zeph?” asked the father of this flock. “Gone off with the buffaloes, I reckon, dad,” was the response of his son Zephaniah.

The man looked up and down the valley with a bewildered air. His wagon had been mashed and crushed into the ground. His cattle were swept out into space by the resistless flood and were nowhere in sight. He found words at last: Well, this is perfeckly rediclus.”
St. Nicholas for March.


June 7 1888 Bad For The Buffalo

Nothing so overwhelming as to be seen on the plains as a buffalo stampede, and no man was daring enough to try and stay the rush of that living Niagara. Behind and on every side followed the crowd of horsemen, their rifles unslung, and each man eager for the slaughter.

Jan 10 1889- Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada

“In the early days,” said Mr. Norbert, “Regina was known as ‘Pile o’ Bones,’ or rather it was named ‘Pile o’ Bones’ by the pioneer element of the town. Some years ago a great number of wild buffalo perhaps 50,000 or 75,000 were stampeded by Indians and half-breeds, and driven for many miles northward. It was in the spring, and the ice on the rivers and lakes was about to break up. The Saskatchewan river runs through Regina, and upon the ice the infuriated herd ran. A few got across in safety, but their great weight soon destroyed the ice, and to this day the bottom of the river is strewn with skulls, ribs and bones of every kind belonging to the unfortunate animals. When the Canadian Pacific railway opened up for business, Yankee speculators, who had heard of the accident, came up and quietly raised the bones and shipped many a car load south, where they were disposed of at an enormous profit. The only stray bones now in that country are in the hands of roving Indians, who polish them up, decorate them with coyote hair and sell them to wandering travelers.”