he history of the American bison, at least since the arrival of Europeans on the continent, reflects the opposing premises of two European philosophers. René Descartes (1596-1650) the progenitor of the Age of Reason, maintained that animals are "mechanical robots" incapable of feeling pain. The English jurist Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) answered for a later generation: "The question is not, Can they reason? Nor, Can they talk? But, Can they suffer?"
The legal code of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, enacted in 1641, had decreed that "No man shall exercise any Tirranny or Crueltie towards any bruite Creature which are usuallie kept for man's use." But there was the rub. Clearly, bison could not easily be "kept for man's use," although some men tried. In the first place, compared with European cattle, that had been domesticated for more than 8,000 years, bison were too dangerous, too destructive, and too much trouble to control in close quarters. The final solution was obvious, so by the early 1830s they were exterminated east of the Mississippi.
Was it the flush of sympathy for abused animals that ignited the movement to preserve American bison? Or was it the realization that, as one of F. Scott Fitzgerald's characters in The Great Gatsby says, in a comparable context, they were "face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to their capacity for wonder."
Almost as soon as frontiersmen began to push westward from the Alleghenies, a few individuals began to protest the wanton killing of bison. Given the apparent plenitude of the herds, however, plus the evident impossibility of domesticating them, a majority of westerners failed to see any problem with killing them. The old mechanistic view served well enough.
Meriwether Lewis noted on one occasion that the Corps of Discovery killed only as many animals as they needed to feed themselves, although he himself evidently felt no compunction about killing a bison for his own solitary meal (June 14, 1805). Nevertheless, within only a few years following the end of the expedition, other observers saw and deplored needless and wasteful killing. George Catlin predicted in 1832 that the buffalo's doom was sealed. Another naturalist-artist, John J. Audubon, said it again in 1845. Others spoke of the need for laws to protect the species, and a few gutless statutes were enacted in western states and territories during the 1860s and 70s.