The Extermination of the American Bison Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

William Hornady was the director of the newly established National Zoological Gardens in Washington when this article was published. As a staff member of what is now the Smithsonian Institution, Hornady was assigned the task of making certain it had enough buffalo specimens. Having ascertained that there were not enough, he traveled to the western United States to secure more. There, he discovered that the tens of millions of wild buffalo had been reduced to about one thousand. The following report is an impassioned plea for the conservation of the species. In this document, the author briefly outlines parts of the known history of the buffalo, the cause of the decrease in numbers, and some initial plans for keeping the species from going extinct. This is the first formal plea for saving the North American Bison, and it was instrumental in their preservation.

Summary Overview

William Hornady was the director of the newly established National Zoological Gardens in Washington when this article was published. As a staff member of what is now the Smithsonian Institution, Hornady was assigned the task of making certain it had enough buffalo specimens. Having ascertained that there were not enough, he traveled to the western United States to secure more. There, he discovered that the tens of millions of wild buffalo had been reduced to about one thousand. The following report is an impassioned plea for the conservation of the species. In this document, the author briefly outlines parts of the known history of the buffalo, the cause of the decrease in numbers, and some initial plans for keeping the species from going extinct. This is the first formal plea for saving the North American Bison, and it was instrumental in their preservation.

Defining Moment

The wilderness of the American West had been rapidly disappearing since the end of the Civil War. The movement of people seeking new opportunities through mining, faming, or ranching; the completion of the transcontinental railroad; and the push to force the Native Americans to adopt a new way of life, all meant that much of the wilderness was being transformed to meet the needs of people in the East. While the first national park had preserved one unique location almost two decades prior to the publishing of Hornady's call to action, most of the land had been open to development. Where there were expanses of grass, people saw the opportunity for cattle to graze as well as the possibility of tilling the soil. The buffalo that roamed there were a nuisance for travelers and could be killed for their meat and hides. Thus, just as trees had been cleared for fields when people settled east of the Mississippi River, most non-Native Americans believed the buffalo needed to be cleared from the Great Plains in order that the land could be used. A second benefit, as perceived by the American government, was that the Native Americans would lose their traditional source of food and hides, forcing them to move to the reservations and follow a more “civilized” way of life.

Thus, while the decrease in the number of North American bison had begun when the first people arrived with guns, it had rapidly declined during the 1830s and then at a much faster rate in the two decades since the Civil War. When Hornady researched the situation, he was astounded and appalled. His resulting work was the first major effort in North America, and probably the world, to save what had become a highly endangered species. Unlike some who have become interested in an environmental cause, Hornady had the position and resources to make a substantial contribution to saving the buffalo. He was able to raise public awareness regarding the issue, and he was able to use zoological resources for a captive breeding program, to help the species survive. The reprinting for the general public of what had originally been part of a much longer internal government report, meant that people were made aware that their vision of the past, with millions of buffalo roaming the plains, was not an accurate picture of the world in 1889. Although there are other more famous conservationists from this era, for the North American bison, Hornady was the person who should be credited with the survival of the species.

Author Biography

Dr. William Temple Hornady (1854–1937) was born to William Hornady, Sr. and Martha Varner Hornady in Indiana. However, his education in zoology was obtained at two schools in Iowa. He became a taxidermist, creating scientific displays for Wards National Science Foundation. After visiting Florida and the Caribbean, and then South and Southeast Asia, collecting museum specimens, he became the head taxidermist at the United States National Museum, a part of the Smithsonian Institution. It was during this time that he traveled through the territory previously inhabited by buffalo and then wrote this document as part of the museum report. He then helped to create, within the National Museum section of the Smithsonian, what became the National Zoological Park. He was its first director in 1888, but resigned in 1890 in a dispute with his superiors. In 1896, he became the director of the Bronx Zoo, for the New York Zoological Society, where he stayed until retiring in 1926. During that time he helped form the American Bison Society and served as its president.

Historical Document

Of all the quadrupeds that have lived upon the earth, probably no other species has ever marshaled such innumerable hosts as those of the American bison. It would have been as easy to count or to estimate the number of laves in a forest as to calculate the number of buffaloes living at any given time during the history of the species previous to 1870. Even in South Central Africa, which has always been exceedingly prolific in great herds of game, it is probable that all its quadrupeds taken together on an equal area would never have more than equaled the total number of buffalo in this country forty years ago….

Between the Rocky Mountains and the States lying along the Mississippi River on the west, from Minnesota to Louisiana, the whole country was one vast buffalo range, inhabited by millions of buffaloes. One could fill a volume with the records of plainsmen and pioneers who penetrated or crossed that vast region between 1800 and 1870, and were in turn surprised, astounded, and frequently dismayed by the tens of thousands of buffaloes they observed, avoided, or escaped from. They lived and moved as no other quadrupeds ever have, in great multitudes, like grand armies in review, covering scores of square miles at once. They were so numerous they frequently stopped boats in the rivers, threatened to overwhelm travelers on the plains, and in later years derailed locomotives and cars, until railway engineers learned by experience the wisdom of stopping their trains whenever there were buffaloes crossing the track….

No wonder that the men of the West of those days, both white and red, thought it would be impossible to exterminate such a mighty multitude. The Indians of some tribes believed that the buffaloes issued from the earth continually, and that the supply was necessarily inexhaustible. And yet, in four short years the southern herd was almost totally annihilated….

Causes of Extermination

The causes which led to the practical extinction (in a wild state, at least) of the most economically valuable wild animal that ever inhabited the American continent, are by no means obscure. It is well that we should know precisely what they were, and by the sad fate of the buffalo be warned in time against allowing similar causes to produce the same results with our elk, antelope, deer, moose, caribou, mountain sheep, mountain goat, walrus, and other animals. It will be doubly deplorable if the remorseless slaughter we have witnessed during the last twenty years carries with it no lessons for the future. A continuation of the record we have lately made as wholesome game butchers will justify posterity in dating us back with the mound-builders and cave-dwellers, when man's only known function was to slay and eat.

The primary cause of the buffalo's extermination, and the one which embraced all others, 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; and, as has ever been the case, the wild creatures were gradually swept away, the largest and most conspicuous forms being the first to go.

The secondary causes of the extermination of the buffalo may be catalogued as follows:

(1) Man's reckless greed, his wanton destructiveness, and improvidence in not husbanding such resources as come to him from the hand of nature ready made.

(2) The total and utterly inexcusable absence of protective measures and agencies on the part of the National Government and of the Western States and Territories.

(3) The fatal preference on the part of hunters generally, both white and red, for the robe and flesh of the cow over that furnished by the bull.

(4) The phenomenal stupidity of the animals themselves, and their indifference to man.

(5) The perfection of modern breech-loading rifles and other sporting fire-arms in general.…

Effects of the Extermination

The buffalo supplied the Indian with food, clothing, shelter, bedding, saddles, ropes, shields, and innumerable smaller articles of use and ornament. In the United States a paternal government takes the place of the buffalo in supplying all these wants of the red man, and it costs several millions of dollars annually to accomplish the task.…

The Indians of what was once the buffalo country are not starving and freezing, for the reason that the United States Government supplies them regularly with beef and blankets in lieu of buffalo. Does any one imagine that the Government could not have regulated the killing of buffaloes, and thus maintained the supply, for far less money than it now costs to feed and clothe those 54,758 Indians?…

Preservation of the Species from Absolute Extinction

There is reason to fear that unless the United States Government takes the matter in hand and makes a special effort to prevent it, the pure-blood bison will be lost irretrievably…

At least eight or ten buffaloes of pure breed should be secured very soon by the Zoological Park Commission, by gift if possible, and cared for with special reference to keeping the breed absolutely pure, and keeping the herd from deteriorating and dying out through in-and-in breeding.

The total expense would be trifling in comparison with the importance of the end to be gained, and in that way we might, in a small measure, atone for our neglect of the means which would have protected the great herds from extinction. In this way, by proper management, it will be not only possible but easy to preserve fine living representatives of this important species for centuries to come…

Glossary

pure-blood bison: an reference to the fact that bison can breed with cattle, resulting in animals whose genes derive from both species, making some buffalo non-pure-blood

red man: a commonly used term in the nineteenth century for Native Americans

Document Analysis

Originally written as part of the 1886–87 Annual Report of the United States National Museum, the full 178-page document was encyclopedic in its description of the history, social and economic value, extermination, and present state of the North American bison. The historical document in this article was extracted from several sections of this extensive report, and contained key facts regarding the then current status of the buffalo and proposals for public policy that would keep the species alive. Hornady's ability to have this section of the annual report made it much more widely available to the general public resulted in his ideas having a greatly increased impact. Although he understood that history could not be undone, Hornady did believe that the poor policy choices of the past should be pointed out and that better ones (for the buffalo) should be adopted for the future.

As can be seen from the various subtitles in the document, Hornady discusses the interaction between people and buffalo from the time the first European observed one in 1521. As a zoologist, he then discusses the biological aspects of the animal. Moving on to the extermination of the great herds, he writes not only about the economic reasons, but also the social. People's desire to kill hundreds of thousands of buffalo each year made Americans, in his view, no more advanced than “cave-dwellers” whose “function was to slay and eat.” Obviously, as Hornady points out, the introduction of the rifle made this a much more efficient proposition. Secondarily, he blames the local and national governments for not protecting at least part of the herds. Hornady points to the facts that people's greed, in conjunction with the buffalo's lack of fear, meant that, with modern weapons, they were easy to kill.

While Hornady was aware of the desire by the American government and the western settlers to move the Native Americans onto reservations, and to transform them into copies of white Americans, he also knew the tremendous cost of this effort. In the section of the document reprinted here, Hornady mentions the millions of dollars that would be needed to support those who had previously lived off hunting buffalo. He had done a survey of the number of Native Americans living on reservations, but hailing from tribes that had once extensively hunted buffalo, to come up with the exact number of 54,758. While the conservation movement was growing at that time, yet not totally accepted, Hornady focuses on the economic costs of having almost wiped out the buffalo, rather than appealing to people's social conscience.

Toward the end of the report, Hornady does put forward proposals to help secure a future for pure-bred buffalo. His proposal for the National Zoo to acquire a small number of buffalo was only a start. To prevent in-breeding, other zoos would have to acquire buffalo as well, in addition to whatever pure-bred animals might be found elsewhere. (In the full text, he estimates that 541 buffalo existed in the United States, with about the same number in Canada.) One of the missions of the National Zoo was to help preserve animals that were on the verge of extinction, so that his proposal was not out of line. Hornady was opinionated on a number of topics, as can be seen in his report, and one of them was that the North American bison should be saved from extinction.

Essential Themes

Looking back on the interaction between people and buffalo, Hornady sees that people took the animals—and all parts of nature—for granted. While hunters knew that they were decreasing the number of buffalo in the immediate area, neither they nor the general population understood the dramatic change that had been occurring across North America. As people expanded the area they needed, or desired, to provide a living, the buffalo herds had continually shrunk. His view that people in general had “reckless greed” was the foundation for his understanding of why the buffalo had been pushed out of the way. However, Hornady strongly objected to this philosophy. He warned that this approach to nature would lead to the disappearance not only of the buffalo, but of other large wild mammals as well. Although he was not the first conservationist, he was focused on the issue and had the means to take action to help buffalo survive. For him, the growing conservation movement was following the correct path, and his writing and his work assisted and strengthened this movement.

While supporting conservation, versus the more normal “wanton destructiveness” of humanity, Hornady had a vision for the future of the buffalo. While, obviously, this was expounded upon in greater length in the full report, the closing paragraph of what is reprinted here gives the essence of what was possible. By using human understanding to preserve nature rather than destroy it, Hornady believes, it would be “easy to preserve fine living representatives of this important species for centuries to come.” Since being assigned the task of gathering buffalo specimens for the National Museum, this had become Hornady's focus in life. And in this, he was successful. In the century since his report was written, there has been a large amount of discussion regarding how best to preserve buffalo and even how to expand the species' range. The question as to whether the buffalo should be preserved has not been a part of the conversations. While not all other animal species have been as fortunate, Hornady's view, that civilization must take the needs of non-human inhabitants into consideration, has become far more mainstream than it was at the time he was writing.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Branch, E. Douglas, J. Frank Dobie (introduction), & Andrew C. Isenberg (introduction). The Hunting of the Buffalo. 1929. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1997. Print.
  • Czajka, Christopher W. “The Descent of Civilization: The Extermination of the American Buffalo.” Frontier House. PBS, 2014. Web. 13 Oct. 2014.
  • Hornaday, William T. The Extermination of the American Bison. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1889. Project Gutenberg, 2006. Web. 13 Oct. 2014.
  • Patent, Dorothy Hinshaw, & William Munoz. The Buffalo and the Indians: A Shared Destiny. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006. Print.
Categories: History Content