Plains Folk

Hornaday’s Bison

Irony drips from the story of William T. Hornaday, sportsman, taxidermist, curator, and author of The Extermination of the American Bison, 1889. Chief taxidermist of the Smithsonian Institution, he feared that the bison was doomed to degenerate in captivity, if it escaped extinction.

Hornaday even feared no good likenesses of bison would survive. Stuffed buffalo in museums had been badly handled, he mourned—stuffed with straw or excelsior, so they sagged sadly. “It is impossible for any taxidermist to stuff a buffalo-skin with loose materials and produce a specimen which fitly represents the species,” he said. “The proper height and form of the animal can be secured and retained only by the construction of a manikin, or statue, to carry the skin.”

Hornaday traveled the West documenting the natural history of and human experience with bison. He was intrigued with individuals such as S.L. Bedson of Manitoba and C.J. “Buffalo” Jones of Kansas who kept bison in captivity and crossbred them with domestic cattle. This, he thought, would “introduce a strain of hardy native blood in their stock” and make it “capable of resisting a much greater degree of hunger and cold.” He noted, “A buffalo can weather storms and outlive hunger and cold which would kill any domestic steer that ever lived.”

He was both appalled and fascinated by the wanton slaughter of buffalo on the plains. “The primary cause of the buffalo’s extermination,” wrote Hornaday, “was the descent of civilization, with all its elements of destructiveness, upon the whole of the country inhabited by that animal. From the Great Slave Lake to the Rio Grande the home of the buffalo was everywhere overrun by the man with a gun.”

His response was—to go and shoot some buffalo himself. Given the near extinction of the species, and the poor quality of museum specimens, the Secretary of the Smithsonian in 1886 ordered Hornaday “into the field at once to find wild buffalo, if any were still living, and in case any were found to collect a number of specimens.”

Working out of Miles City, Montana, that spring, Hornaday’s party scoured the countryside. They caught a calf alive, the mother escaping. Then they found two bulls, killing one of them. Having determined there were still bison in the area, they resolved to return in the fall to take prime specimens. That hunt was successful, culminating in Hornaday himself wounding a large bull in a horseback chase. Before dispatching the wounded beast, he sketched it as it stood, studying its form and posture.

The results of the hunt, as well as Hornaday’s taxidermy, was “The Group”—an aggregation of six bison displayed in a monster glass case at the national museum. Front and center among the life-like beasts was Hornaday’s own bull, “the giant of his race.” This was not just an exhibit; it was a trophy.

The Smithsonian dismantled the exhibit in 1955 and shipped the bison to the University of Montana. Eventually the people of Fort Benton raised money to bring the Hornaday buffalo to their Museum of the Northern Great Plains. Following some restoration work, the animals went on display again in 1996.

The Extermination of the Bison, Hornaday’s publication, contains some remarkable illustrations. There are line drawings of buffalo skinning made from photos taken by the classic Montana frontier image-maker, L.A. Huffman, as well as drawings by Ernest E. Thompson (a.k.a. Ernest Seton Thompson, founder of boy scouting in America). The images partake of the same irony as Hornaday’s writings and life. How fortunate he was wrong—that the bison was not, indeed, doomed to extinction.

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