1552 Bison Depiction

Bison Sketch

Courtesy Michigan State University, Special Collections

Drawing based on the description of a bison written in 1521 by Hernando Cortez's historian, Antonio de Solis y Rivadeneyra. The drawing was published in Europe in 1552.

W e cannot know with certainty how many bison there were in North America at the time of the Lewis and Clark expedition. We do know, however, that the very earliest Europeans to arrive on this continent saw them fairly near the eastern and gulf seacoasts. We also know that that throughout the 18th century, settlers along the frontier kept their bellies full of bison meat, and their bodies clothed in bison robes, until they could begin raising their own domestic herds and cultivating their favorite crops. Whereupon bison became nuisances to be driven away. They were mammalian "weeds," bovine "rats."

We know, too, that wild bison were absent from Virginia by 1730; from the Carolinas and eastern Georgia by 1760. After the Revolutionary War, settlers crossing the Appalachians likewise took their toll in meat and hides, and the surviving herds retreated steadily toward the setting sun. The animals were gone from the Ohio River valley by 1790, and from Pennsylvania by 1801. The last wild bison living east of the Mississippi River was shot in 1832.

At that moment, no one knew how many bison lived west of the Mississippi, and none cared but the half million or so native North Americans who still lived among them, and through them. Still, there were enough to amaze the first Euro-Americans who entered the Great Plains, and to spawn some tall tales. The supply was inexhaustible, like that of the similarly ill-fated passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius); which, incidentally, Lewis and Clark also observed, and ate, as far west as today's Missoula, Montana.

More certain, now, is that beginning around the middle of the 19th century, new circumstances emerged that doomed the species throughout North America. These included changes in climate, habitat, demography, technology, politics, and economics. By the end of the 1880s there were thought to be only 835 wild bison left in the United States.

In the following series of interviews, Dan Flores, A.B. Hammond Professor of History at The University of Montana, sets the scene at the time of Lewis and Clark, then discusses some of those circumstances which brought the American bison to the brink of extinction.

Further Reading

Dan Flores, "The Great Contraction: Indians and Bison in Northern Plains Environmental History," Charles Rankin, ed., The Little Bighorn Legacy (Helena: Montana Historical Society Press, 1996): 3-22.

David A. Dary, The Buffalo Book: The Full Saga of the American Animal (n.p.: Swallow Press/Ohio University Press, 1989).