RSS News


    Return to...
Natural HistoryMammals - LargeAmerican Bison - Bos bisonBison in Decline
2. A Peaceable Kingdom

1. An American Serengeti

Page 2 of 10

One of the wonderful things about the Lewis and ClarkExpedition, of course, is the image of America as the Garden of Edenthat their journals present. I think one of the ones that's resonateda lot for people over the years, reading their journals, is the imageof a kind of American Serengeti, from North Dakota across the Montanaplains to the Rocky Mountains.

No American Serengeti, of course, is complete without vast herds of buffalo, andyou have descriptions of those kinds of herds throughout the Lewis andClark journals, from the time they reached the borders of Montana right on through the Three Forks and beyond, basically to theContinental Divide.

And then, one of the things lotsof people noticed over the years is that if you follow Lewis and Clarkacross the Continental Divide, down into the Bitterroot Valley, thenover the Lolo Trail into Idaho, progressively, the images that you getare of fewer animals. In fact, the accounts of Lewis and Clarkcrossing the Lolo Trail, of course, is an account of people who arebasically having to eat their own horses. Once they arrive among theNez Perce they're purchasing dogs in order to eat. And one of theinteresting new developments in Western environmental history thatsort of reflects on the differences between what Lewis and Clark saweast of the divide, and what they saw west of the divide, has to dowith an argument that centers around something called Indian buffer zones.

If you remember from reading the Lewis anClark journals you know that after they leave the MandanVillages...after the winter of eighteen-four/eighteen-five...theyjourney for more than a thousand miles up the Missouri River, andnever see an Indian. They don't see Indians again until they cross over the Continental Divide and encounter Sacagawea's band of LemhiShoshonis.

So, one of the arguments that scholarsare making for the tremendous abundance of animals east of the Divide,as opposed to the relative paucity of animals west of the Divide, isthat those two situations reflect as much as anything else thedifferent diplomatic situation of Indians on the two sides of theDivide. East of the Continental Divide, the Blackfeet for severalgenerations had done everything they could to keep other tribes out ofthe great bison region along the upper Missouri River. The difference in animal populations, in any case, east andwest of the Divide, a lot of people are arguing now, has a good dealto do with the idea of buffer zones.

Thedistinction is this: The tribes west of the Divide were mostly atpeace with one another--when you consider the Bitterroot Salish, the Nez Perce, the Cayuse, and the tribes along the Columbia River--thosepeople were able to move freely through the mountain country and theplateau country to the west of the mountains without fear of gettinginvolved in skirmishes with one another. As a result of the relativepeace west of the Divide, then, animal populations could be huntedthroughout that region, and were, to the point that Lewis and Clarkencountered relatively few animals.

East of theDivide, however, what scholars call buffer zones existed in severalplaces along the Great Plains, and one of the areas where there was amajor buffer zone in the 19th century--especially the early part of the 19th century--was along the upper Missouri. In that region, the Crows,the Arapahoes, the Mandan-Hidatasas, and the Blackfeet, all competedfor buffalo. And in those regions where tribes competed for buffalo,you found, usually, no people living permanently--groups living out onthe far periphery of those areas, and only making forays--huntingforays--into the interior, and often those forays ended up producingskirmishes with other tribes.

So the evidence isthat the reason Lewis and Clark didn't see anybody from the MandanVillages to the Continental Divide had a great deal to do with thefact that this was a contested region.

In fact, onthe way back down the Missouri River in 1806, William Clark noted inhis journal that, after traveling all the way to the Pacific Coast andback, they had encountered larger wildlife populations, as he put it,in regions that are contested by the tribes, than anywhere else. So that's an explanation for why so many animals in Montanaand on the upper Missouri. That sort of Garden of Eden look probablydidn't prevail everywhere across the Plains, but Lewis and Clarkhappened to travel right through the middle of one of the regions thatpresented this image of America as the Garden that we've all absorbedand loved, ever since.

--Dan Flores

2. A Peaceable Kingdom

From Discovering Lewis & Clark ®, http://www.lewis-clark.org © 1998-2014
by The Lewis and Clark Fort Mandan Foundation, Washburn, North Dakota.
Journal excerpts are from The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, edited by Gary E. Moulton
13 vols. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983-2001)