The Tragedy of The Buffalo

Royal Canadian Mounted Police Quarterly July, 1942 p. 28 – 41

The Tragedy of The Buffalo

By John Peter Turner

America,” I heard a voice complain,

The first-born children of your broad domain,

The nurselings of your prairies vast and broad,

Look to them – they were given you by God,

And what he gives he will not give again.”

John Hall Wheelock

In the romantic annals of the New World, covering a period of more than four hundred years, no native animal bulks so largely or so tragically as the American bison or ‘buffalo’.

Stories having to do with the western march of civilized mankind, narratives dealing with the dispossession of the Indian, accounts innumerable telling of the headlong conquest across the Western plains reveal in the aggregate the swift yet inevitable doom that, within the memory of men still living, struck down the most imposing, the most numerous and the most vulnerable ruminant that ever trod the earth.

Far in the shadowy past, in that dimly-revealed Pleistocene period before Asia and America were divided by the disappearance of the Bering land bridge, when the great wild ox of Europe, the towering Irish elk, the hairy mammoth, the sabre-toother tiger and other large prehistoric mammals reached their evolutionary peak of existence, massive bison slowly grazed their way from Siberia to the central plains of North America what was then a more temperate zone. These were the progenitors of the still ponderous, prairie buffalo of modern time.

Strangely enough, the discovery of the American bison by initial new-comers from the Old World occurred at a spot considerably removed from the animal’s native heath. On a day in the year 1521, the swashbuckling Hernando Cortez and his murderous following of horse and foot entered the Mexican city of Anahuac. There, in the menagerie of Montezuma the Aztec emperor, were found, according to De Solis (1724), “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.” This all-but-forgotten historian goes on to relate in a profusion of capital letters that the seemingly extraordinary creature had “crooked Shoulders with a Bunch on its back like a Camel; its Flanks dry, its Tail large, and its neck covered with Hair like a Lion:” that it was “Cloven footed, its Head armed like that of a Bull,” and that it was similar “in Fierceness, with no less strength and agility.” Just how Montezuma’s hunters had transported a buffalo bull to the Mexican capital from the state of Coahuila, four or five hundred miles away (the nearest locality whence it could have come) must remain a mystery. Vehicles were unknown to the Aztecs in that far-off day, and surmise alone suggests that it had been carried as a calf upon the shoulders of the stalwart natives.

Cortez had revealed an animal whose teeming existence was to give it a prominent place in the forefront of world expansion; incidentally, the same lurid discovered had brought to American shores the European horse – the forbear of the fleet-footed Indian pony, so precisely timed by fate to play a major part in the decimation of the bison horde.

Nine years later (1530), sailing in the wake of the blood-thirsty Cortez, came another dare-devil explorer from old Spain – Alvar Nunez Cabeza, known

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