Alexander Henry the Younger’s Bison Observations
If I had one wish, I would choose time travel, and the first place I would visit would be the northern Great Plains during the time of the buffalo. It is hard to imagine what 40-60 million bison would have looked like on the North American landscape. However, thanks to written accounts by some early explorers and others, we can get a sense of what it was like.
Alexander Henry the Younger established a North West Company trading post near the confluence of the Park River with the Red River ~1797-1800. He would survey his domain each day by climbing a large oak tree. Here’s an excerpt from his journal from 1800:
“This morning as usual I took my morning view from the top of my oak tree and saw more buffalo at one view than I had seen at any other time. They no more appeared to be in distinct herds, but formed all one body, commencing about half a mile from our camp and then in a manner adhering to each other. The plains was covered in every direction on the west side of the river as far as the eye could see.”
His observations following ice out on the Red River in the spring of 1801 are particularly interesting. Here are some excerpts, starting with his journal entry from 208 years ago this coming Monday:
March 30: “great numbers of dead buffalo which come from above, must have been drowned in attempting to cross the river while the ice was in a weak state.” April 1: “one continual line in the middle of the river for two days and two nights.” April 18: “drown’d buffalo still continue to drift down the river, but not in such vast numbers as in the beginning, as many are lodged on the banks and along the beach.” April 30: “buffalo continue to drift as usual.” May 4: “annoyed by the stench arising from the vast numbers of drown’d buffalo that lay on the banks, and are now in a state of putrifaction, I was actually prevented from taking my supper.”
Isn’t that incredible? Time travel might not be a possibility, but Henry’s journal certainly gives us a sense of what things were like back then. In the future I’ll occasionally incorporate some other early observations of the flora and fauna of our state when it was a much more natural North Dakota.
Natural North Dakota is supported by NDSU Central Grasslands Research Extension Center and Minot State University-Bottineau, and by the members of Prairie Public. Thanks to Sunny 101.9 in Bottineau for their recording services.
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