Plains Folk

Saving the Bison


One of the things I have tried to teach thirty years of students of the Great Plains is to get into primary sources, that is, documents generated by people who were there when historical events happened. This gets easier as the National Archives, the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Institution, and the various state historical societies scan primary documents and put them online to be accessed freely.


For instance, the Smithsonian makes available a remarkable letter from the taxidermist, William Temple Hornaday, dated 2 December 1887. Hornaday is writing to his boss, Professor George Brown Goode, in charge of the National Museum. His letter is a plea to save the North American bison from extinction, and Hornaday offers himself as the man for the job.


“Sir: I desire to respectfully call your attention to the fact that the United States Government has thus far taken no special measures whatever for the preservation of the Great American Bison,” is Hornaday’s greeting to Goode.


Now, cynics will point out that only a year previous, Hornaday was in Montana shooting bison to be mounted for exhibit at the Smithsonian. These six bison mounts compose the famous Hornaday group, long exhibited in lifelike poses at the Smithsonian, eventually repatriated to Montana, and now exhibited at the Museum of the Northern Great Plains, in Fort Benton. I give Hornaday a pass on this matter, as he was just doing his job.


And now, in 1887, he is pleading the cause of these great American beasts. It seems most Americans at this time think that the remaining bison are safe under federal care in Yellowstone National Park. Such is not the case. Opportunistic hunters wait on the park’s borders, lying low until park authorities and the troops assigned to assist them are out of sight, and then sneak in and shoot bison for their heads, which fetch great prices on the curio market. Hornaday exaggerates when he says, “not over twenty remain,” but the situation is indeed perilous.


Sure, there are private preservationists on the plains—Scotty Philip in South Dakota, Charley Goodnight in Texas, Buffalo Jones in Kansas—keeping bison alive. Their herds are threatened, too, however, by interbreeding with domestic cattle, destroying the purity of the native bison line.


Hornaday not only damns the destructive hunters, he also shames American federal officials for not being even as conscientiously conservationist as Czar Alexander III of Russia, who has saved “the last surviving band of Aurochs” in Lithuania.


Hornaday recommends, then, that there be gathered at the National Museum a little bunch of “six to ten buffaloes as a nucleus for a herd worthy of the name.” He says he can procure the animals through connections in Montana and take charge of them.


And so it was done—a happy ending, it seems. My sharper students point out that such a small remnant of bison is insufficient to maintain the species in healthy diversity.


Few of the students are moved to think that Hornaday, through his conversion from killer of bison to curator of bison, has created job security for himself. Hornaday was indeed placed in charge of the herd he assembled, and he went on to a career as director of the Bronx Zoo. Perhaps I shouldn’t encourage my students to be cynical.


I am more concerned with convincing them that not everything is on the Internet—that to be real discoverers of history, they will have to seek out and study dirty old documents no one else has seen. Before paper becomes as scarce as the bison was in Hornaday’s time.


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