Dakota Datebook

Fort Yates Buffalo

Thursday, December 3, 2009


A buffalo bull made headlines this week in 1900 on the Fort Yates Reservation. The bull was spotted among a herd of cattle near Rock Creek, and was the first seen in the area since 1885. The reservation agent quickly issued an edict against killing the animal, hoping more would appear. Although wild and dangerous, bison on the prairie did not fare well against the droves of hunters arriving with settlement during the 19th century. The American bison once roamed as far east as the Appalachians and south to Mexico. Early settlers reported that herds covered the prairie at times for miles in every direction.
The bison arrived on the continent ten thousand years ago when they crossed the Bering Strait land bridge from Siberia. Here, the American bison met a distant relative, the much larger steppe bison. The larger bison soon went extinct, but the American bison proved highly adapted to the post-Ice Age environment of North America. Native American used several methods to hunt the large bovines, including running the animals into corrals or funneling them off cliffs. Once a bison was butchered, Native Americans used nearly every part of the animal to fulfill their daily needs. The meat provided the fats and protein for their diet; the thick, shaggy fur was employed to make clothing, decorations, rugs, and blankets. Bison leather was used in the construction of tepees, footwear, and clothing. Sinew was used for sewing and bow strings, and the hooves were boiled for an adhesive. Even the marrow was extracted from the bones for nourishment.
In the 19th century, this way of life changed for both the Native Americans and the bison. American hunters came to the plains to hunt the animals under a U.S. Army sanction that endorsed killing them in large numbers. These hunters skinned the bison for their pelts, leaving the carcass to rot. After rotting, men would collect the bones and ship them back east to be used in the manufacture of china and fertilizer. These “bone collectors” received between four and eight dollars for every ton of bones collected. By the mid-1880s, the enormous bison herds were reduced to only a few hundred animals. Fortunately however, bison are a protected species and are found in twenty U.S. states today.

Dakota Datebook written by Jayme L. Job

The Fargo Forum and Daily Republican. Wednesday (Evening ed.), Dec. 5, 1900: p.1.

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Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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