Domesticating Bison for Survival

Domesticating Bison for Survival


The idea of domesticating bison for survival arrived with the early explorers and later settlers.  Since cattle were imported into North America, crosses have been made with the bison, sometimes out of vicinity and other times more purposeful. Early arrivers saw the bison and wanted to make them more useful to their needs, like the oxen, milk cow, or even the horse. Being wild as they are, it was not so easy, but if they could tame them down by crossing them on their common cattle, they thought they would really have something useful. (Understanding that all their supplies had to be brought here by ship, so the more they could create here, the better for them) This practice changed from a necessity to financial as the bison’s numbers were diminishing, today it’s out of personal wants. 

It was in the year 1542 that he (Coronado) reached the buffalo country and traversed the plains that were “ full of crooked backed oxen, as the mountain Serena in Spain is of sheep. ” This is the description of the animal as recorded by one of his followers, Castañeda, and translated by W. W. Davis:

“Another thing which struck us was that all the old buffaloes that we killed had the left ear cloven, while it was entire in the young; we could never discover the reason of this.”


In the 1600s, the Monks of St. Frances in Zacatecas, (central Mexico), had two buffalo that pulled a two-wheeled cart. (David Dary, The Buffalo Book)


“The capture and domestication of buffaloes in 1701 by the Haguenot settlers at Manikin town, which was situated on the James River, about 14 miles above Richmond. Apparently, buffaloes were more numerous in Virginia than in any other of the Atlantic States.” “Present State of Virginia”  1737


In 1709 John Lawson wrote: “I have eaten of their Meat, but do not think it so good as our Beef; yet the younger Calves are cry’d up for excellent Food, as very likely they may be. It is conjectured, that these Buffelos, mixt in Breed with our tame Cattle, would much better the Breed for Largeness and Milk, which seems very probable.”


1749 – Peter Kalm -The wild cattle in general are said to be stronger and bigger than European cattle, and of a brown red colour. Their horns are but short, though very thick close to the head. These, and several other qualities, which they have in common with, and in greater perfection than the tame cattle, have induced some to endeavour to tame them; by which means they would obtain the advantages arising from their goodness of hair, and, on account of their great strength, be able to employ them successfully in agriculture. With this view some have repeatedly got young wild calves, and brought them up in Quebec, and other places, among the tame cattle ; but they commonly died in three or four years time; and though they have seen people every day, yet they have always retained a natural ferocity. They have constantly been very shy, pricked up their ears at the fight of a man, and trembled, or run about; so that the art of taming them has not hitherto been found out. Some have been of opinion that these cattle cannot well bear the cold; as they never go north of the place I mentioned, though the summers be very hot, even in those northern parts. They think that, when the country about the Illinois is better peopled, it will be more easy to tame these cattle, and that afterwards they might more easily be used to the northerly climates.


**But by this means they would lose that superiority which in their wild state they have over the tame cattle; as all the progenies of tamed animals degenerate from the excellence of their wild and free ancestors. F.


1771 – Peter Kalm The Wild Cows and Oxen, of which several people of distinction have got young calves from these wild cows, which are to be met with in Carolina, and other provinces to the south of Pennsylvania, and brought them up among the tame cattle ; when grown up, they were perfectly tame, but at the same time very unruly, so that there was no enclosure strong enough to resist them, if they had a mind to break through if ; for as they possess a great strength in their neck, it was easy for them to overthrow the pales with their horns, and to get into the corn-fields 5 and as soon as they had made a road, all the tame cattle followed them ; they likewise copulated with the latter, and by that means generated as it were a new breed. This American species of oxen is Linnaeus Bos Bison.


 1776- Bernard Roman –“The bounteous hand of nature has here given us an animal, which, by experience, we know may easily be domesticated, whose fine wooll might yield good profit, and whose flesh is equal at least to our beef, and yields as much tallow; i mean the buffaloe: if instead of wantonly destroying this excellent beast, (for the take of perhaps his tongue only) we were to endeavor its domiciliation, either by a pure breed, or by raising a spurious one with him and our common cattle, I think we would find our account in it.”


1796 -A farmer, on the great Kenhawa, (West Virginia) broke a young Buffalo to the plough having yoked it with the steer taken from his tame cattle. 


1802  -The rage for experiments in improving our breed of cattle, would render it matter of little surprise to us if we saw the Buffalo domesticated on our farms. Mr. Turner, an English breeder, of very respectable character, gives us an account of that animal, which is very interesting and he declares came within his own knowledge:

“A farmer on the great Kenhawa, broke a young Buffalo to the plough; having yoked it with a steer taken from his tame cattle. The Buffalo performed to admiration. Enquiring of the man, whether he had any fault to find with the Buffalo’s performance, he answered, there, was, but one objection to it: the step of the Buffalo was too quick for that of the tame steer.

” My friend,”, said, ” the fault lies not in the Buffalo, but in the steer: what you term a fault in the former is really an advantage on its side.” Till this moment, the man labored under one of those clouds of prejudice but too common among farmers. He had taken the ox off his father’s farm, as the unit whence all his calculations were to be made, and his conclusions drawn: it was his unchangeable standard of excellence, whether applied to the plough or draft. No sooner was my observation uttered, than conviction flawed on his mind. He acknowledged the superiority of the Buffalo. ” But there is another property in which the Buffalo far surpasses the ox: his strength, judging from the extraordinary size of his bones, and the depth and formation of his chest,’ I should not think it unreasonable to assign near a double proportion of strength to this powerful inhabitant of the forest. Reclaim him and you gain a capital quadruped for the draught and for the plough: his activity peculiarly sits him for the latter, in preference to the ox.


1803-There is a non-descript quadruped found high up the Missouri, about the size of a fall grown elk. He is covered with a coat of long fine hair, and has a horn on each side of the head, which turning upwards describes a volute and passes off horizontally parallel with the nose. Some of these horns were presented to the commandant of St. Louis, who informed me, that their diameter, at the root, was equal to the crown of his hat. He has sent them to the Baron de Carondolet, gov. general of Louisiana which deprived me of the satisfaction of seeing them. This animal is said to be docile, and very useful to the natives, as a beast of burden or an article of food.
[Definition of beast of burden: an animal employed to carry heavy loads or to perform other heavy work -such as pulling a plow.]

1816-STRAYED from the subscriber, at Greenwich, on Friday. 26th April, a large brindle COW, with the tip of her horn sawed off; the above cow went away with two others- one a red and white buffaloe, the other a black, with the tip of her horns sawed off. It is supposed she is now detained by some person, as the two cows which did not give any milk were suffered to return on Sunday evening without her. Whoever will give information where she is detained, or will return her, shall be handsomely rewarded, by WM. C. LUDLOW. Greenwich. May1 – 1w


1818– He states that flax and currants are found wild in perfection, 1,500 miles up the Missouri territory, where also buffaloes are tamed for the yoke. Rev. Devan


1836 Gallatin-“The bison is but a. variety of the European ox; and the mixed breed will again propagate.* is very intractable, and is not known to have ever been domesticated by the Indians.”
• As doubts have lately been raised upon that point, I must say that the mixed breed was quite common fifty years ago, (1786) in some of the northwestern counties of Virginia; and that the cows, the issue of that mixture, propagated like all others. No attempt that I know of was ever made by the inhabitants to tame a buffalo of full growth. But calves were occasionally caught by the dogs and brought alive into the settlements. A bull thus raised  was for a number of years owned in my immediate vicinity by a farmer living on the Monongahela, adjoining Mason and Dixon’s line. He was permitted to roam at large, and was no more dangerous to man than any bull of the common species. But to them he was formidable, and would not suffer to any approach within two or three miles of his own range. Most of the cows I knew were descended from him. For want of a fresh supply of the wild animal they have now merged into the common kind. They were no favorites, as they yielded less milk. The superior size and strength of the buffalo might have improved the breed of oxen for draught; but this was not attended to,  horses being almost exclusively employed in that quarter for agriculture purposes.


About 1815, Wickliffe trained some for oxen work. (only, still very wild)

Mr. Robert Wickliffe, in a letter addressed to Messrs Audubon and Bachman. dated Lexington, Ky., November 6, 1843, has quite fully recorded the results of his own efforts at domesticating the buffalo. He says: “The herd of buffalo I now possess have descended from one or two cows that I purchased from a man who bought them from a country called the Upper Missouri; I have had them for about thirty years, but from giving them away and the occasional killing of them by mischievous persons, as well as the other causes, my whole stock does not exceed ten or twelve. I have sometimes confied them in separate parks from other cattle, but generally they herd and feed with my stock of farm-cattle. On getting procession of the tame buffaloes, I endeavored to cross them as much as I could with my common cows, to which experiment I found the tame bull unwilling to accede, and he was always shy of the buffalo cow, but the buffalo bull was willing to breed with the common cow.

“From the domestic cow I have crossed half breeds, one of which was a heifer; this I put with a domestic bull, and it produced a bull calf. This I castrated and made it a very fine steer, and when killed produced very fine beef. I bread from the same heifer several calves, and then, that the experiment might be perfect, I put one of them to the buffalo bull, and she brought me a bull calf, which I raised to be a very fine March animal, perhaps only one in the world of his blood, namely, a three-quarter, half-quarter, and a half-quarter of common blood. After making these experiments, I have left them to propagate their breed themselves, so that I have only had a few half-breeds, and they always proved the same, even by a buffalo bull. The full-blood is not as large as the improve stock, but as large as the ordinary stock of the country. The crossed or half-blood are larger than either the half-blood or common cow. The hump, brisket, ribs, and tongue of the full and half-blooded are preferable to those of the common beef, but the round and the other parts are much inferior. The utter or bag of the buffalo is smaller than that of a common cow, but I have allowed the calves of both to run with their dams upon the same pasture, and those of the buffalo were always the fattest; and old hunters have told me that when a young buffalo is taken, it requires the milk of two cows to raise it. Of this I have no doubt, having received the same information from hunters of the greatest veracity. The bag or utter of the half-breed is larger than that of full-blooded animals, and they would, I have no doubt, make good milkers.

“The wool of the wild buffalo grows on their descendants when domesticated, but I think they have less of wool then there progenitors. The domesticated buffalo still retains the grunt of the wild animal, and is incapable of making any other noise, and they will observe the habit of having within their feeding-grounds to wallow in.

“The buffalo has a much deeper shoulder than the tame ox, but is lighter behind. He walks more actively than the latter, and I think has more strength than a common ox of the same weight. I have broken them to the yoke, and found them capable of making excellent oxen; and for drawing wagons, carts, or other heavily laden vehicles on long journeys, they would, I think, be greatly preferable to the common ox. I have as yet had no opportunity of testing the longevity of the buffalo, as all mine that have died did so from accident, or were killed because they became aged. I’ve some cows that are nearly twenty years old, that are healthy and vigorous, and one of them has now a sucking calf.

“The young buffalo calf is of a sandy red or rufous color, and commences changing dark brown at about six months old, which last color it always retains. The mixed breeds are of various colors; I have had them striped with black, on a gray ground, like the zebra, some of them brindled red, some pure red with white faces, and others red without any markings of white. The mixed bloods have not only produced in my stock from the tame and the buffalo bull, but I have seen the half blood reproducing, viz, those that were the product of the common cow and wild buffalo bull. I was informed that, at the first settlement of the country, cows that were considered best for milking were from the half blood, down to the quarter, and even eighth, of the buffalo blood. My experience have not satisfied me that the half-buffalo bull will produce again. That the half-breed heifer will be productive from either race, as I have before stated, I have tested beyond the possibility of the doubt.

The domesticated Buffalo retains the same haughty bearing that distinguish him in his natural state. He will, however, feed or fatten on whatever suits the tame cow, and requires about the same amount of food. I have never milk either the full blood or mixed breed, but have no doubt they might be made good milkers, although their bags or utters are less than those of the common cow; yet, from the strength of the calf, the dam must yield as much or even more milk than the common cow.”*

From the foregoing the following facts are sufficiently attested: (1) That the buffalo is readily susceptible of domestication; (2) that it interbreeds freely with the domestic cow; (3) that the half breeds are fertile; and (4) that they readily amalgamate with the domestic cattle. The advantages that arise from the mixed race are less clearly apparent, as their adaptability to labor seems as yet to have not been properly tested, although the experiments of Mr. Wickliff offer encouragement and this direction. A larger race than either of the original stock seems however, to result from the crossing of the buffalo with the cow, and a probable improvement in milking qualities.

“Audubon and Bachman’s Quadrupeds of North America, Vol. 1, pp. 52-54. Mr. Wickliffe’s account of his observations and experiments has been repeatedly quoted by different writers on the subject of the domestication of the buffalo (see Baird, Patent-Office Report, Agriculture, Part II, 185-52, pp, 126-128; Hind, Canadian Exploring Expedition, Vol. II, p. 113), and embraces nearly all of importance as yet published relating to the subject.

In this connection may be noticed the astonishing dogmatism with which Schoolcraft, four years after the publication of Mr. Wickliffe’s account of his experiments in domesticating the buffalo, and three years after its republication by Professor Baird, asserts that while “the calf of the bison has often been captured on the frontiers, and brought up with domestic cattle,” and been “measurably tamed,” that ‘it produces no cross,” and “is utterly barren in this state.” He alludes also to the statement of Gomara that it is susceptible of domestication, his statement being revived, Schoolcraft adds, and “in a manner galvanized by a justly eminent writer [Humboldt], after the uniform observation of the French and English colonists of America, disaffirming [1], for more than two centuries, the practicability of its domestication”; and further states that “all visitors and travelers who have spoken on the subject coincide in the opinion that the bison is incapable of domestication, and that it is not without imminent peril to themselves that the fierce and untamable herds of it are hunted.”—History, Condition, and Prospects of the Indian Tribes of the United States, Part V (1856), p. 49.

The domestication of the buffalo has heretofore been undertaken only in regions where farm-labor was done chiefly by the use of horses or mules. Galissoniere, as already noticed (see anfed, p. 198), writing a century and a quarter ago, believed the buffalo would “be adapted to ploughing and that “they would possess the same advantage that horses have over domestic oxen, that is, superior swiftness,” but the question has as yet received little attention. Being more active than the domestic ox, it seems highly probable that they might make a superior farm animal, especially since, as Professor Shaler suggests to me, they would be far better able to endure the intense heat of summer than ordinary cattle, besides being swifter and stronger.

From what is already known of the behavior of the buffalo under domestication, it seems altogether tractable and docile. A letter written by Mr. P. B. Thompson, sr., to Professor Shaler, respecting the domestication of the buffalo in Kentucky bears further on this point. Mr. Thompson says (under date of “ Harrodsburgh, Ky., October 30, 1875”): “In reply to your inquiry relative to the buffaloes formerly owned by Col. George C. Thompson, of Shawnee Springs, Mercer County, permit me to say that my remembrance of them runs back at least fifty years. My first recollection is that there was a bull and three cows. They were kept in a park of about sixty acres of blue-grass. In the same park were about fifty deer, and from seven to twelve elk. The animals in the park were fed but little, and given the same food as other cattle. The elk and deer were but slightly domesticated, but the buffaloes became as gentle as any other cattle that were not constantly handled. I have been often within a few feet of them, and have no doubt that they could have been used as beasts of labor, or that the females would have submitted to milking. There were but few young, they being poor breeders, which was probably the effect of neglect. They were very long-lived; one of them must have been thirty years old, the others over twenty. The bull died many years ago; the last cow about a year since.

“During the whole time I do not think they ever broke a fence, or went beyond the limits of the park unless driven. Other cattle were put in the park, and it was used at times for a calf lot. They were not vicious to either, cattle, horses, hogs, or sheep. The two last left were cows, who survived the bull at least fifteen years. They were calved in the park, and, as I have said before, were docile and harmless.”

No attempt appears as yet to have been made to perpetuate an unmixed domestic race of the buffalo. Probably after a few generations they would lose much of their natural untractableness, and when castrated would doubtless form superior working cattle, from their greater size and strength and great natural agility. While on the plains in 1871 I made extensive inquiries as to the possibility of the buffalo being domesticated and trained to work, and while the general opinion seemed to be that such a thing was wholly feasible, I could not learn that it had been properly attempted. I heard of instances where buffaloes had been broken to the yoke, and, though strong and serviceable, they were at times rather unmanageable, When on a journey they are liable, it is said, when thirsty, ‘to break for water,” rushing precipitately down the steep banks of the nearest stream to slake their thirst, dragging after them the wagon to which they may be attached, with, of course, rather unpleasant results.

The fate of extermination so surely awaits, sooner or later, the buffalo in its wild state that its domestication becomes a matter of great interest, and is well worthy of the attention of intelligent stock-growers, some of whom should be willing to take a little trouble to perpetuate the pure race in a domestic state. The attempt can be hardly regarded otherwise than 18 an enterprise that would eventually yield a satisfactory and probably a profitable result, with the possibility of adding another valuable domestic animal to those we already possess. It seems probable, also, that a mixed race might be reared to good advantage.[*]

(* Since the original publication of this paper, some months since, I have met with the following interesting account of the successful attempt to domesticate the buffalo in Howard County, Nebraska, published in the Turf, Field, and Farm newspaper of New York City, in the issue of November 10, 1276. An attempt to communicate with Mr., Cunningham, the authority for the statements given below, having proved unsuccessful, I can only give the matter at second-hand. The account in full is as follows:

“It has been fully demonstrated, and may be now set down as an established fact, that the cross of the buffalo with milch cows are of a gentle disposition, and yield a fair amount of very rich milk, The male produce of this cross make excellent bulls, and when crossed with good milkers of any of the milch families, yield largely of a rich quality of milk, from which the finest butter can be made. In certain sections of Nebraska, especially in Howard County, half and quarter bred buffalo stock is quite common, Notwithstanding the dairy stock in that State, crossed originally with the buffalo, were of an ordinary character, the half-breeds yield an average of fourteen to sixteen quarts per day, the milk being of a rich and fine flavor, making the best of butter, and very nearly equaling the Jerseys in the quantity obtained from a given proportion. These facts are obtained from J. W. Cunningham, now of Erie, Pa., formerly of Howard County, Nebraska, who vouches for their correctness, having largely experimented with these half and quarter bred buffalo cows. This will prove of great value to thousands of breeders and farmers in the far West, and notably go in view of the fact that besides the dairy quality which these half-breeds possess in a remarkable degree, they take on flesh and fat rapidly, and make excellent beef.”

Domesticating Bison for Survival

1853 – “Although the summer hunt is the most favorable for catching and domesticating the calves, I was smitten with the desire to secure one. At my request, a hunter pursued and lassoed a youngster, but it died five or six days after of fatigue, as was asserted; but in my opinion its death was caused by ennui, as it refused nourishment and appeared to pine away. In the spring the calves are easily weaned, and when trained to labor become quite useful. One farmer, who had broken a bull to the plough, performed the whole work of the field with his aid alone.” Schoolcraft-


The Baltimore Sun Maryland June 11 1864  Advertised Trained Buffalo in town belonging to Dan Rice. 


Extermination of the American Bison by WTH 1889

The bison as a beast of burden On account of the abundance of horses for all purposes throughout the entire country, oxen are so seldom used they almost constitute a curiosity. There never has existed a necessity to break buffaloes to the yoke and work them like domestic oxen, and so few experiments have been made in this direction that reliable data on this subject is almost wholly wanting. While at Miles City, Mont., I heard of a German “granger” who worked a small farm in the Tongue River Valley, and who once had a pair of cow buffaloes trained to the yoke. It was said that they were strong, rapid walkers, and capable of performing as much work as the best domestic oxen, but they were at times so uncontrollably headstrong and obstinate as to greatly detract from their usefulness. The particular event of their career on which their historian dwelt with special interest occurred when their owner was hauling a load of potatoes to town with them. In the course of the long drive the buffaloes grew very thirsty, and upon coming within sight of the water in the river they started for it in a straight course. The shouts and blows of the driver only served to hasten their speed, and presently, when they reached the edge of the high bank, they plunged down it without the slightest hesitation, wagon, potatoes, and all, to the loss of everything except themselves and the drink they went after!

It seems probable that, in the absence of horses, the buffalo would make a much more speedy and enduring draught animal than the domestic ox, although it is to be doubted whether he would be as strong. His weaker pelvis and hind quarters would surely count against him under certain circumstances, but for some purposes his superior speed and endurance would more than counterbalance that defect.


“The buffalo has been broken to the yoke, but is said to be unreliable and dangerous.”
Mr. Hayes-artist. Harpers Magazine Sept. 1866


1860’s during the Civil War, a pair in Kansas, extremely gentle and trained for yoke.


In 1881, one of the Trail Drovers spotted a buffalo for the first time. “Here I saw my first buffalo, but it was a tame animal and was branded a long S on each side”


Buffalo Jones-1892- The training of these huge animals to drive was a task that required great patience and plenty of help. They were yoked to a cart, the driver holding wire cables for reins by means of a windless, and a cowboy with lariat fast to a buffalo on either side standing by to assist. But the task was accomplished and the bison has learned a new trade. They are very good travelers, in time become quite tractable, and their immense strength would make them valuable as draught animals.

1898– The difficulties of buffalo farming are not so great as would be expected by those who have not experimented. According to the popular idea the buffalo farmer would have frequent fierce encounters with the wild stock that he is trying to raise. There is no such trouble. We turn the herd out to pasture with merely barb wire fence to keep them from straying. We have yet to find that they make any effort to escape. The only thing to guard against in building the fence is to make it just high enough to prevent the animals from jumping over. This is one of the things that we have to teach the calves at an early age. Taken in hand young and properly trained they become as tame as the domestic animal. Up to the age of two years the calves are inclined to be frisky and have to be taught that any attempt to jump over or break down fences will meet with prompt punishment. They very soon learn that lesson, and once having learned it they give us no trouble, provided the fence is properly constructed.

Tethered to a post
Training Bison

1904 – Speaking of the reasons for the movement to save the bison, Mr. Baynes described several experiments he had made to prove that the animals were superior to domestic cattle as draft beasts. He borrowed two baby bulls from the Corbins, who own a herd of 160 head in New Hampshire, and trained them to the yoke. Within a few months they were entirely serviceable and could give points in pulling a load to any oxen of their own age, They were also drilled in single harness, and throughout their rearing were cared for like ordinary calves.


As a beast of burden, the bison is almost unknown, yet I suspect that if properly broken when young, he would prove superior to the domestic ox for speed, strength, and endurance. My own experience with the team of buffalo calves which I borrowed and broke to the yoke and to harness last summer, tends to confirm this suspicion; at any rate, I do not believe any pair of domestic calves of the same age in New England can either travel so fast or handle so heavy a load as those eight-months-old buffaloes. They have already shown what they are made of at the Sullivan County (N. H.) fair, and they will be tested again at the coming Sportsmen’s Show at Boston.

This New Hampshire breeder finds that if the calves are properly weaned his herd increases as rapidly as a herd of ordinary cattle. He has broken two bull calves to the yoke, has trained them to draw a heavily loaded cart over the mountainous roads of the Granite State and will exhibit them.

_____”Old plainsmen have told him that the Cherokee Indians tried this experiment and abandoned it years ago.”  -Local farmers referring to Jones of Kansas crossing bison with cattle. 

1905-Faye Longbrake, who is the granddaughter of Hjalmer Nordvold, shared these pictures of her Grandfather breaking bison for Scotty Phillips’.


1908 Goodnight Herd, Ed Harrell driving a team of Goodnight buffalo. 


1928 Oregon offers a circus act of a trained buffalo. Al. G. Barnes Show



This list of trying to Domesticate Bison grows, but takes a turn into “for profit”, New Mexico rodeos have used them for years. Bison are under constant acts of people trying to “train” them. One guy posted his saddling of a calf just three weeks old, for hours at a time.  They don’t even start horses under saddle until two years of age. (For a more mature bone structure to handle training)