American Bison: A Story of Near Extinction and Conservation

From the Lecture Series: Experiencing America — A Smithsonian Tour through American History

By Richard Kurin, Ph.D., The Smithsonian

With the American bison nearing extinction, William Temple Hornaday, a Smithsonian taxidermist, took it upon himself to lead a conservation effort to save the buffalo.  His pioneering efforts led to the founding of the National Zoo in Washington, D.C.

photo of Hornaday in his Smithsonian taxidermy lab

Buffalo in the Wild

photo of William Hornaday
Photo of William Hornaday

The story begins with an unlikely character, a Smithsonian taxidermist working in the 1880s by the name of William Temple Hornaday. Hornaday was a pioneer of realistic, lifelike, large dioramas. His work helped define modern museum taxidermy, and he wanted to create at the Smithsonian’s National Museum the world’s first display of an entire family group of buffalo so that people could see what this creature looked like before it became extinct. As part of his duties, he had conducted a census of living buffalo and found that while there might have been as many as 15 million buffalo living at the end of the Civil War, by the 1880s, they were on the very verge of extinction. This was an enormous decline in the species.

...a census of buffalo estimated 15 million living buffalo at the end of the Civil War... Click To Tweet

The buffalo lived in the vast American grassland prairies. An herbivore, in the wild, the buffalo slowly roamed to different foraging sites, grazing on grass during the day. They’re large animals; an adult male may weigh up to 2,000 pounds, females, a bit less. But the buffalo can be surprisingly quick and agile, able to gallop at more than 30 miles an hour, and jump up to 6 feet in the air.

Butchery was perfected so as to remove the meat and make maximum use of body parts for making tools, clothing, items for shelter, and ritual objects.

Buffalos are characterized by their horns and shaggy, wooly coat, which protects them from the winter’s cold, and that coat is shed in the summer…  Natural threats against buffalo are very limited; its most dangerous predator is man. Native Americans valued and revered the buffalo as a source of food, clothing, and shelter, as well as for social and ritual needs. Ancient rock drawings depict buffalo as a symbol of power, freedom, and plenty.

This is a transcript from the video series Experiencing America: A Smithsonian Tour through American History. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Plains Indians likely realized how dependent the buffalo were on grasslands, and probably managed the herds through selective and deliberate fire burns. Even before the widespread introduction of the horse by European settlers, American Indians learned to stampede herds of buffalo over cliffs for mass slaughter. Butchery was perfected so as to remove the meat and make maximum use of body parts for making tools, clothing, items for shelter, and ritual objects. Hides were often turned into leather for recording winter counts, these pictorial depictions of community events.

The Fate of the American Bison

photo of painting by John Mix Stanley, Buffalo Hunt on the Southwestern Prairies
Scene of Buffalo Hunt on the Southwestern Prairie by John Mix Stanley

By the time European explorers and settlers started to reach the plains, there were perhaps fifty million buffalo in North America, making them one of the most populous species of large mammals on the planet! While most American Indian buffalo hunts were relatively modest and controlled, as depicted in the contemporaneous paintings of John Mix Stanley and George Catlin in the Smithsonian collections, some tribes, by the 1830s, were engaged in mass exploitation. The Comanche, for example, were then killing hundreds of thousands of buffalo annually and selling their meat and skins. After the Civil War, as Hornaday documented, buffalo killing really went into high gear.

photo of buffalo coat
According to legend, this coat was made from the skin of a buffalo killed by Buffalo Bill

The combination of guns, railroads, commercial activity, and war between European settlers and American Indians proved deadly to the species. Horses provided greater mobility in tracking down and reaching herds, and ever- evolving guns allowed for increased killing efficiency. Railroads enabled both easier access of hunters to the herds and the mass shipment of hides and skins to consumer markets back in the East and even beyond. There was a huge market for buffalo skins and hides in the Northeast United States and in Europe. A good buffalo skin would sell for $3 in Kansas, and a finished buffalo-hide winter coat would sell for $50. Buffalo leather was also well suited and in high demand for the belts used in pulleys and for steam engines in factories of the time.

A hunter could kill 100 buffalo in one session, and there were hundreds of such teams operating daily.

Commercial hunters spread across the country and turned their techniques for slaughtering and processing buffalo into a highly organized business enterprise. Teams of professional hunters were accompanied by congeries of wranglers, and gun loaders, and cleaners, and skinners, and cooks, and blacksmiths, guards, and teamsters with their horses and wagons. A hunter could kill 100 buffalo in one session, and there were hundreds of such teams operating daily. An estimated 100,000 buffalo could be slaughtered in a single day; their hides taken, cleaned, stacked, and shipped eastward by wagon and railroad.

photograph of Buffalo Bill Cody
William F. Cody became known as Buffalo Bill Cody. He claims to have killed 4,280 head of buffalo in 17 months.

Given the scope of this carnage, some hunters, including Buffalo Bill Cody, spoke out in favor of protecting the bison, but President Ulysses S. Grant refused to sign legislation to that effect. The U.S. Army actually encouraged the excessive killing of buffalo as a way of eliminating food supplies for Indian communities, enabling them to starve Indians off their land and onto reservations. Realizing there was a real prospect of true extinction, some ranchers in Montana, South Dakota, Oklahoma, and Texas actually started to preserve very small herds of surviving buffalo

Learn more about extinction and conservation of species in America

Conservationists to the Rescue

In the spring of 1886 taxidermist from the Smithsonian, Hornaday, and a team headed to Montana to collect specimens for the museum to observe their natural movement so they could be taxidermied and displayed in natural poses. Hornaday, when he went west, was stunned to find no live buffalo on the plains, only thousands of skeletons bleaching in the sun. It took a second trip three months later and hunting in the fall for Hornaday to actually find the specimens he needed. The impact of killing some of the last buffalo was not lost on Hornaday, and he began to think about how to save the species.

photo of Hornaday with Sandy the Buffalo
Hornaday with Sandy the Buffalo

Hornaday actually brought back to Washington a calf he named Sandy, on account of the animal’s wavy, yellowish-brown hair. Sandy, who was kept tied to a stake outside the National Museum, right there in Washington, was a great hit with visitors, but to Hornaday’s disappointment, Sandy died only a few weeks after his arrival in Washington from pasture bloat, a result of eating damp clover. Hornaday, again sadly, skinned and mounted the animal to add to the bison family group exhibit at the museum.

Learn more about the West through the eyes of both settlers and natives

Legislative Efforts to Protect Wild Animals

photo of bison on the Mall behind Smithsonian castle
Buffalo were housed in pens on the National Mall

But Sandy inspired Hornaday to initiate what he called at the time the Smithsonian’s Department of Living Animals, part of a plan to establish a breeding program to actually help save the buffalo. Housed in pens on the south lawn of the Smithsonian Castle, the popular living animal exhibit soon grew to 172 mammals and birds and drew many visitors. Hornaday advocated for a National Zoological Park, for the conservation and study of wild animals sacred to national heritage. He wanted to preserve buffalo not only in museum exhibits, but as a living herd in captivity to educate Americans, and, as he said, to help atone for America’s extermination of the species. He was successful on both counts. The Smithsonian acquired six buffalo, the first ever to become the property of the U.S. government.

In 1889 Congress passed legislation creating the National Zoo, and Hornaday was appointed its head.

In 1889 Congress passed legislation creating the National Zoo, and Hornaday was appointed its head. Now, he left soon after that to become the head, and founding, and long-term director of the Bronx Zoo. But to spread his message, Hornaday published The Extermination of the American Bison, considered the first important book of the American conservation movement. He cofounded the National Bison Society with President Theodore Roosevelt, and he sent 15 of the zoo’s buffalo west to seed a herd, and established the National Bison Ranges in Kansas and Montana to ensure the survival of the American buffalo.

photo of buffalo nickel
The buffalo nickel was first minted by the U.S. government in 1913

These efforts inspired the use of the buffalo and, as well, the American Indian, on the buffalo nickel, first minted by the U.S. government in 1913. And subsequently, numerous universities, and organizations, and even several states adopted the buffalo as a mascot or a logo for their of official seal. Thanks to Hornaday’s pioneering efforts, western herds were slowly built up. And today there are, perhaps, 500,000 American buffalo, though only about 30,000 are in the wild in national parks.

Learn more about the struggle for an inclusive role for women in American society

Native American Buffalo Dance

photo of buffalo dance from 1989 Smithsonian Folklife Festival
Buffalo dance being performed at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in 1989

Hornaday’s decision to bring live buffalo to the National Mall was reprised 100 years later in 1989, when Mandan and Hidatsa tribes from South Dakota participated in the Smithsonian’s annual Folklife Festival. During the festival, they tanned buffalo hides, performed buffalo songs and dances, made buffalo-hide boats and buffalo regalia, all to demonstrate the importance of buffalo in their culture and herd regeneration. One of their female buffalo unexpectedly gave birth to a baby calf just after midnight on June 24th, within a stone’s throw of the Washington Monument. The calf was given the Mandan name Nasca Nacasire, or Summer Calf. Indian elders, that summer, connected the calf’s birth to the legislative process, then moving forward, to give birth to another Native American presence on the Mall, the National Museum of the American Indian. Both, the museum and the buffalo, would signal the resurgent vitality of America’s oldest inhabitants.

Learn more about key artifacts at the Smithsonian

Common Questions About American Bison

Q: Are American bison actually extinct?

American bison are considered ecologically extinct, which means there are not millions which would be a considerable sustainable amount. Instead there are a few thousand in protected parks.

Q: Is there a difference between American bison and American buffalo?

Yes. The American bison are indigenous to America and parts of Europe while buffalo are indigenous to Africa and South Asia. Physiologically, the bison also have beards while the buffalo do not.

Q: What habitat does the American bison prefer to live in?

The American bison prefers plains, prairies and river valleys.

Q: Who is responsible for the near extinction of the American bison?

The colonists and American military are responsible for the near extinction of the American bison as a means of war against the Native Americans.

This article was updated on 9/5/2019

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William Temple Hornaday, National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center, Smithsonian Institution; John Mix Stanley, Buffalo Hunt on the Southwestern Prairies, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Misses Henry Buffalo hide coat, National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center, Smithsonian Institution; William Temple Hornaday exhibit with Sandy the Buffalo, Smithsonian Institution Archives; Buffalo Behind Smithsonian Institution Castle, South Yard, ca. 1886-1889, unknown photographer, photographic print, 4 X 3 in. (10.16 X 7.62 cm.)(Smithsonian Institution Archives, Smithsonian Institution, ID: 8008A or MAH 8008A; Buffalo dance being performed at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, Smithsonian Photo, Ralph Rinzler, Folklife Archives and Collections, Smithsonian Institution; “Buffalo Bill” Cody (William Frederick Cody), by Unidentified Artist, 1887 Woodburytype, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, NPG.83.145SaveSaveSaveSaveSaveSaveSaveSaveSave