1918 KANSAS AND KANSANS Chapter 11 Part 1

CHAPTER XI

THE BUFFALO

BY MRS. EDITH CONNELLEY ROSS

The history of any plains-state is so inextricably interwoven with the story of the buffalo that the two are incomplete when told separately. The place of the buffalo in the story of the plains is so important that to imagine the two separated is to imagine a new and entirely different history for the plains. They are necessary to each other. Together they were found, together they played their part in pioneer history, and together they disappeared - the buffalo exterminated, the plains metamorphosed into the well-cultivated farms of to-day. But so closely were they linked in early plains-history that even to-day the buffalo stands as the symbol of the boundless, free plains, and the pioneer life of the early hunter.

Especially is this true with Kansas history. Kansas has the distinction of having been the favorite of all the grazing-land roamed by the mighty herds of the buffalo. She provided an immense, rich pasture-land to the innumerable thousand of wild cattle that covered the prairies. Here grew in generous abundance the buffalo grass - most fattening and nutritious of stock-feeds. Sustaining beyond most other grasses, it was desired above all else by the buffalo. The Kansas plains were fairly carpeted with this wonderful vegetation. For this reason, Kansas was the Mecca of the buffalo hunter of the day. Here he was certain to find the bison, largest of all American game, in abundance Here his enterprise was always rewarded. However the herds might fluctuate in other regions, in Kansas the buffalo was invariably present, until within the last forty-two years. The earliest history of Kansas is linked with that of the buffalo. Coronado, crossing the Kansas plains in search of the "Seven Cities of Cibola" witnessed a scene familiar to the hunters of three hundred years later - the prairies blackened by huge herds of the buffalo. And probably hundreds of years before the Europeans ever dreamed of the discovery of a new world that same scene had been repeated many thousands of times on the Kansas prairies.

But of the history of the buffalo before the coming of the Europeans, nothing can be definitely stated. Had the priests of the Spanish not destroyed the written records of the Aztecs, historians would possibly be able to tell much of interest concerning the buffalo of the past ages. However, since all of this is lost to history, we must be content to begin our story with the first mention of the buffalo by the early explorers.

The first buffalo ever known to an European was seen by the members of the Cortez expedition in 1521. Fighting their way inland, in that relentless search for gold which was the chief characteristic of the early Spanish explorations, these free-booters came at last to the Aztec capital, Anahuac. Here Montezuma, the Emperor of the Aztecs, kept in captivity a large menagerie for the use and entertainment of his subjects. Concerning it, De Solis, the historian, wrote the following account:


BUFFALO, GAGE PARK, TOPEKA
[From Photograph Owned by William E. Connelley]

In the second Square of the same House were the Wild Beasts, which were either presents to Montezuma, or taken by his Hunters, in strong Cages of Timber, rang'd in good Order, and under Cover; Lions, Tygers, Bears, and all others of the savage Kind which New-Spain produced; among which the greatest Rarity was the Mexican Bull; a wonderful composition of divers Animals. It has crooked Shoulders, with a Bunch on its Back like a Camel; its Flanks dry, its Tail large, and its Neck cover'd with Hair like a Lion. It is cloven footed, its Head armed like that of a Bull, which it resembles in Fierceness, with no less strength and Agility.

Evidently this captive buffalo's appearance made a great impression on the Spanish. And, indeed, compared to the small, sleek cattle they were used to, it must have seemed a veritable monster.

The next appearance of the buffalo in history was in 1530. Alvar Nunez Cabeza, (Cabeza de Vaca), a Spanish explorer and discoverer, was wrecked on the Gulf Coast west of the Mississippi delta. In his wanderings westward through what is now Texas, he sighted buffalo, and a welcome sight it was to him, for he was literally starving. This was the earliest known discovery of the buffalo in a free state. Of it Cabeza writes:

Cattle come as far as this. I have seen them three times and eaten of their meat. I think they are about the size of those in Spain. They have small horns like those of Morocco and the hair long and flocky, like that of the merino. Some are light brown (pardillas) and others black. To my judgment the flesh is finer and sweeter than that of this country, (Spain). The Indians make blankets of those that are not full grown, and of the larger they make shoes and bucklers. They come as far as the sea-coast of Florida, (now Texas), and in a direction from the north, and range over a district of more than 400 leagues. In the whole extent of plain over which they roam, the people who live bordering upon it descend and kill them for food, and thus a great many skins are scattered throughout the country.

Twelve years later, Coronado, on his famous expedition in search of the "Seven Cities of Cibola" encountered the American bison. Pushing northward and westward, he at length reached the land of the buffalo. His first interest in the animal had been awakened by a tanned skin in the possession of one of the Indians visiting the Spaniards. At first he came upon buffalo in small groups, then, later, in the immense herds that ever covered the plains. The Spaniards were interested and amused by hunting, but they soon tired of it and returned to the only occupation that held their keen attention long - the search for gold. Writing of the buffalo, Castaneda, one of Coronado's followers, says:

The first time we encountered the buffalo all the horses took to flight on seeing them for they are horrible to the sight.

They have a broad and short face, eyes two palms from each other, and projecting in such a manner sideways that they can see a pursuer. Their beard is like that of goats, and so long that it drags the ground when they lower the head. They have, on the anterior portion of the body, a frizzled hair like sheep's wool; it is very fine upon the croup, and sleek like a lion's mane. Their horns are very short and thick, and can scarcely be seen through the hair. They always change their hair in May, and at this season they really resemble lions. To make it drop more quickly, for they change it as adders do their skins, they roll among the brush-wood which they find in the ravines.

Their tail is very short, and terminates in a great tuft. When they run they carry it in the air like scorpions. When quite young they are tawny, and resemble our calves; but as age increases they change color and form.

Another thing which struck us was that all the old buffaloes that we killed had the left ear cloven, while it was entire in the young; we could never discover the reason of this.

Their wool is so fine that handsome clothes would certainly be made of it, but it can not be dyed for it is tawny red. We were much surprised at sometimes meeting innumerable herds of bulls without a single cow, and other herds of cows without bulls.

In 1699, Don Juan de Onate, governor of New Mexico, became interested in the buffalo, and sent Vicente de Saldivar to find buffalo and report their habits, appearance, and the chance of capturing and domesticating them. The expedition met large bands of friendly Indians on their trip, and after traveling many leagues, found first one buffalo, a decrepit old bull. This occasioned great merriment among the Spanish. However, shortly afterwards, more than three hundred buffalo were sighted, about some pools. Here, too, at these same pools, were Indians, using the beautifully-tanned hides for tents and utensils, and the meat for food. Traveling still further, in their search, the explorers came at last to the main herd of buffalo. Juan Gutierrez Bocanegra, secretary of the expedition writes as follows concerning this:

Next day they went three more leagues farther in search of a convenient and suitable site for a corral, and upon finding a place they began to construct it out of large pieces of cottonwood. It took them three days to complete it. It was so large and the wings so long that they thought they could corral ten thousand head of cattle, because they had seen so many, during those days, wandering so near to the tents and houses. In view of this and of the further fact that when they run they act as though fettered, they took their capture for granted. It was declared by those who had seen them that in that place alone there were more buffalo than there are cattle in three of the largest ranches in New Spain.

The corral constructed, they went next day to a plain where on the previous afternoon about a hundred thousand cattle had been seen. Giving them the right of way, the cattle started very nicely towards the corral, but soon they turned back in a stampede towards the men, and, rushing through them in a mass, it was impossible to stop them, because they are cattle terribly obstinate, courageous beyond exaggeration, and so cunning that if pursued they run, and that if their pursuers stop or slacken their speed they stop and roll, just like mules, and with this respite renew their run. For several days they tried a thousand ways of shutting them in or of surrounding them, but in no manner was it possible to do so. This was not due to fear, for they are remarkably savage and ferocious, so much so that they killed three of our horses and badly wounded forty, for their horns are very sharp and fairly long, about a span and a half, and bent upward together. They attack from the side, putting the head far down, so that whatever they seize they tear very badly. Nevertheless, some were killed and over eighty arrobas of tallow were secured, which without doubt is greatly superior to that from pork; the meat of the bull is superior to that of our cow, and that of the cow equals our most tender veal or mutton.

Seeing therefore that the full grown cattle could not be brought alive, the sargento Mayor ordered that calves be captured, but they became so enraged that out of the many which were being brought, some dragged by ropes and others upon the horses, not one got a league toward the camp, for they all died within about an hour. Therefore it is believed that unless taken shortly after birth and put under the care of our cows or goats, they cannot be brought until the cattle become tamer than they now are.

Its shape and form are so marvellous and laughable, or frightful, that the more one sees it the more one desires to see it, and no one could be so melancholy that if he were to see it a hundred times a day he could keep from laughing heartily as many times, or could fail to marvel at the sight of so ferocious an animal. Its horns are black and a third of a vara long, as already stated, and resemble those of the bufalo; its eyes are small, its face, snout, feet and hoofs of the same form as of our cows, with the exception that both the male and female are very much bearded, similar to he-goats. They are so thickly covered with wool that it covers their eyes and face, and the forelock nearly envelops their horns. This wool, which is long and very soft, extends almost to the middle of the body, but from there on the hair is shorter. Over the ribs they have so much wool and the chine is so high that they appear humpbacked, although in reality and in truth they are not greatly so, for the hump easily disappears when the hides are stretched.

In general, they are larger than our cattle. Their tail is like that of a hog, being very short, and having few bristles at the tip, and they twist it upward when they run. At the knee they have natural garters of very long hair. In their haunches, which resemble those of mules, they are hipped and crippled, and they therefore run, as already stated, in leaps, especially down hill. They are all of the same dark color, somewhat tawny, in parts their hair being almost black. Such is their appearance which at sight is far more ferocious than the pen can depict. As many of these cattle as are desired can be killed and brought to these settlements, which are distant from them thirty or forty leagues, but if they are to be brought alive it will be most difficult unless time and crossing them with those from Spain make them tamer.

So far, all the buffalo known to Europeans had been found by the Spaniards. This was entirely natural, for the explorers from Spain operated mostly in the Southwest, in the vicinity of the Great Plains.

The French also met the buffalo in a wild state in the seventeenth century. In 1679, La Salle sent Father Louis Hennepin, a priest and explorer belonging to his retinue, from Fort Crevecoeur to descend the Illinois and explore the Mississippi River. He passed up the Mississippi and returned to Canada by way of the Great Lakes. On this journey he saw and described the buffalo. Writing of it, he says:

When the Savages discover a great Number of those Beasts together, they likewise assemble their whole Tribe to encompass the Bulls, and then set on fire the dry Herbs about them, except in some places, which they leave free; and therein lay themselves in Ambuscade. The Bulls seeing the Flame round about them, run away through those Passages where they see no Fire; and there fall into the Hands of the Savages, who by these Means will kill sometimes above six score in a day. They divide these Beasts according to the number of each Family; and send their Wives to flay them, and bring the Flesh to their Cabins. These Women are so lusty and strong, that they carry on their Back two or three hundred weight, besides their Children; and notwithstanding that Burthen, they run as swiftly as any of our Soldiers with their Arms.

Those Bulls have a very fine Coat, more like Wooll than Hair, and their Cows have it longer than the Males; their Horns are almost black, and much thicker, though somewhat shorter than those of Europe; Their Head is of a prodigious Bigness, as well as their Neck very thick but at the same time exceeding short; They have a kind of Bump between the two Shoulders; Their Legs are big and short, cover'd with long Wooll; and they have between the two Horns an ugly Bush of Hair, which falls upon their Eyes, and makes them look horrid.

The Flesh of these Beasts is very relishing, and full of Juice, especially in Autumn, for having grazed all the Summer long in those vast Meadows, where the Herbs are as high as they, they are then very fat. There is also amongst them abundance of Stags, Deers, and wild Goats, and that nothing might be wanting in that Country, for the Convenience of those Creatures, there are Forests at certain distances, where they retire to rest, and shelter themselves against the violence of the Sun.

They change their Country according to the Seasons of the Year; for upon the approach of the Winter, they leave the North and go to the Southern Parts. They follow one another so that you may see a Drove of them for above a League together, and stop all at the same place; and the Ground where they use to lie is cover'd with wild Purslain; which makes me believe, that the Cows Dung is very fit to produce that Herb. Their Ways are as beaten as our great Roads, and no Herb grows therein. They swim over the Rivers they meet in their Way, to go and graze in other Meadows. But the Care of the Cows for their Young Ones, cannot be too much admir'd for there being in those Meadows a great quantity of Wolves, who might surprize them, they go to calve in the Islands of the Rivers, from whence they don't stir till the young Calves are able to follow them, for then they can protect them against any Beast whatsoever.

These Bulls being very convenient for the Subsistence of the Savages they take care not to scare them from their Country; and they pursue only those whom they have wounded with their Arrows; But these Creatures multiply in such a manner, that notwithstanding the great Numbers they kill every Year, they are as numerous as ever.

The Women spin from the Wooll of these Bulls, and make Sacks there of to carry their Flesh in, which they dry in the Sun, or broil upon Gridirons. They have no Salt, and yet they prepare their Flesh so well, that it keeps above four Months without breeding any Corruption and it looks then so fresh, that one wou'd think it was newly kill'd they commonly boil it, and drink the Broth of it instead of Water. This is the ordinary Drink of all the Savages of America, who have no Commerce with the Europeans. We follow'd their Example in this particular; and it must be confessed that that Broath is very Wholsome.

The Skin of one of those Bulls usually weighs about six-score Pound but the Savages make use only of the thinnest part, as that of the Belly, which they dress with the Brains of all sorts of Beasts, and thereby make it as soft as our Shamoi's Skins. They paint them with several Colours, and adorn with pieces of Porcupine-Skins, red and white, the Gowns they make thereof, to appear splendidly at Feasts and on other solemn Occasions. They make other Gowns against cold Weather, wherewith they cover themselves during the Winter; but these plain Gowns, cover'd with Curl'd Wooll, are, in my Opinion, the finest as well as the best.

When they kill any Cows, their young Calves follow them, and lick their Hands. They bring them to their Children, who eat them, after having for some time played with them. They keep the Hoofs of those little Creatures, and when they are very dry, they tie them to some Wand, and move them according to the various Postures of those who sing and dance. This is the most ridiculous Musical Instrument that I ever met with.

These young Calves might be easily tam'd, and made use of to plow the Land, which would be very advantageous to the Savages. These Bulls find in all Seasons Forrage to subsist by; for if they are surprised in the Northern Countries by the Snow, before they can reach the Southern Parts, they have the dexterity to remove the Snow. and eat the Grass under it. They bellow like our European Bulls, but not so frequently.

Though these Bulls are taller and bigger than those of Europe, they are however so swift, that no Savage can overtake them; They are so timorous, that they run away from any Man, except when they are wounded; for then they are dangerous, and often kill the Savage who pursues them. Tis a diverting Prospect to see near the Banks of the Rivers several Droves of those Bulls of about four or five hundred together, grazing in those green Meadows.

It is very possible that other Frenchmen had found wild bison before this time, however, for they were determined hunters and explorers. So many minor expeditions are unknown to historians.

The English explorations and settlements were mostly on the extreme Atlantic Coast. As this was beyond the range of the bison, they of course failed to meet it.

The first Englishman known to have seen a buffalo was Samuel Argoll. In 1612, he saw a bison somewhere near the present Washington, D. C. In a letter to a friend he describes the incident thus:

As soon as I had unladen this corne, I set my men to the felling of Timber, for the building of a Frigat, which I had left half finished at Point Comfort, the 18 of March; and returned myself with the ship into Pembrook (Potomac) River, and so discovered to the head of it, which is about 65 leagues into the Land, and navigable for any ship. And then marching into Countrie, I found great store of Cattle as big as Kine, of which the Indians that were my guides killed a couple, which we found to be very good and wholesome meate, and are very easie to be killed, in regards they are heavy, slow, and not so wild as other beasts of the wildernesse.

A surveying party under Colonel William Byrd, who were determining the boundary between North Carolina and Virginia, in 1729, met three buffalo on Sugar-Tree Creek. They were regarded as great curiosities. But as the party were not in need of food, none of them were killed. On the return journey one buffalo was found in the wood and killed for food.

Again, in 1733, Colonel Byrd found buffalo in the same location.

Thus heralded for more than two centuries by explorers and hunters, the van-guard of the pioneer settlers, the buffalo entered the history of the great American plains. From the first he gave the promise, by furnishing food and utensils to the explorers, of his ultimate utility. The choice flavor of the flesh, the usefulness of the hides, the length of the warm wool, all suggested his importance in the life of the plainsman. With the history of the plains and the pioneer, also began the history of the buffalo.

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A Standard History of Kansas and Kansans , written and compiled by William E. Connelley, transcribed by Carolyn Ward, 1998.

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