The American Bison
Nature Bulletin No. 323-A November 30, 1968
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Richard B, Ogilvie, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation
THE AMERICAN BISON
In Montezuma's Zoo, Hernando Cortes marveled at a curious beast
which he said was "a rare composite of several divers animals"; and
when the first Spaniards reached the plains of Texas and Oklahoma
they were awestruck by vast herds of those "crooked-backed- oxen".
Pere Marquette, who spent the winter of 1674 on the shore of Mud
Lake, now part of Chicago, wrote in his diary about the "wild cattle"
that saved them from starvation. Father Hennepin and Tonty's nephew
left detailed accounts of how the Indians killed such "cattle" along the
Kankakee and DesPlaines rivers, and on the prairies of Illinois.
What these men saw was the American Bison which, like the beaver
and the deer, was to greatly influence the history of the United States.
Since the Ice Age, it has been the largest animal in America. The moose
is taller but not so compact and ponderous. An old bull bison may be 10
feet long, stand 6 feet high at the shoulder, and weigh considerably
more than a ton. It is not a buffalo. The true buffaloes of Africa and
Asia, dangerous animals in the wild, do not have that broad hump over
the shoulders, covered with a dense mat of shaggy hair, nor that long
beard under the chin. Our bison is rather stupid, and in spite of its great
strength and formidable appearance, conceals a peaceful retiring nature
inside that massive curly head. There are many records of men passing
unharmed through a grazing herd, and of migrating herds calmly
dividing to pass around a team and wagon. However, although the
bison's senses of smell and hearing are very acute, their eyesight is
poor, and it meant almost certain death to be caught in the path of a
frenzied thundering stampede.
originally ranged over about one-third of North America, from
Mexico to Great Slave Lake in northern Canada, and from the
Columbia River to the Alleghenies. The eastern race was exterminated
in New York and Pennsylvania by about 1800. The Woodland Bison of
Canada is a little larger and darker, with more slender, longer horns.
Frontiersmen told of herds numbering 100,000 that wore deep trails to
the salt licks in Kentucky and elsewhere. The B & O Railroad follows
an ancient buffalo trail through the mountains of West Virginia.
On the Great Plains, however, their movements were largely north and
south. Roughly divided into a northern, a central, and a southern herd,
they made mass migrations in autumn and spring. In May of 1971, in
western Arkansas, Col. R. I. Dodge traveled 25 miles through the path
of a herd that, moving slowly northward, required a day and a night to
pass that point. Actually, such masses were a conglomeration of
innumerable small herds of from 50 to 200, somewhat separated and
each led by an old bull. The plains were not black with buffalo all the
time. They were constantly on the move, feeding on the short but highly
nutritious gramma grass and buffalo grass, so that no area was
According to the most generally accepted estimate, by Ernest
Thompson Seton, there were at least 60 million bison in North America
when the white man came. There were probably about one million
Indians, including 100,000 on the Great Plains, but the red men killed
only what they could use. The wolves and panthers killed many but
these were usually very old, sick and crippled. The natural increase --
one calf per cow each year -- was largely offset by those that perished
in blizzards, prairie fires, in the treacherous quicksands of those western
rivers, and especially by the tremendous losses that occurred when they
attempted to cross those rivers on rotten ice in spring.
What hoppen? You'll find out next week.
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Update: June 2012