The Bison Story


Picture this view from a train window:

“a rolling mass of humps as far as we could see.”

Imagine the thundering sound:

“Hunters have heard the roaring of buffaloes at a distance of from 3 to 5 miles, and that the earth trembled when they charged we can well imagine when the large bulls are known to weigh 2,000 pounds, the cows 1,200 pounds.”

Or imagine seeing bison herds grazing on the grounds of what’s now the Capitol building in Washington, DC, in 1612, or seeing herds in North Carolina and Virginia, as reported by Col. William Byrd in 1729.

Perhaps the most jaw-dropping description of the expanse of these giants en masse is found in “Plains of the Great West” by Col. R. I. Dodge. In May, 1871 he writes,

“The great herd on the Arkansas through which I passed could not have averaged, at rest, over fifteen or twenty individuals to the acre, but was, from my own observation, not less than 25 miles wide, and from reports of hunters and others it was about five days in passing a given point, or not less than 50 miles deep. From the top of Pawnee Rock I could see from 6 to 10 miles in almost every direction. This whole vast space was covered with buffalo, looking at a distance like one compact mass, the visual angle not permitting the ground to be seen. I have seen such a sight a great number of times, but never on so large a scale.”

Muybridge:Buffalo galloping

From these scenes depicting the astounding predominance of the American bison—unimaginable to us today – we must now turn to a painful chapter in our history: the virtual extinction of the bison.

An army officer made this report:

“In 1870, and later the plains were alive with bison, and in crossing at places I had difficulty in avoiding them, so vast were the herds. If anyone had told me then that in 20 or 30 years they would have become almost entirely extinct, I should have regarded the statement as that of an insane person.”

As of January 1, 1889, only 456 bison were said to exist, according to renowned zoologist, author and conservationist William Temple Hornaday in his landmark government study, The Extermination of the American Bison.

In his May 1 entry, he wrote these chilling words: “Although the existence of a few widely-scattered individuals enables us to say that the bison is not yet absolutely extinct in a wild state, there is no reason to hope that a single wild and unprotected individual will remain alive ten years hence.”

Fortunately, due to conservation efforts beginning in the early 20th century, his prophecy was not fulfilled.

Mass hunting for commercial purposes and sport has long been regarded as the reason for the bison’s tragic demise, and an abundance of anecdotal and historical records support the view. Consider, for example, this all-too-cheerful account in Harper’s Weekly, from around 1860 when the new railroad companies were competing to attract passengers:

“Nearly every railroad train which leaves or arrives at Fort Hays on the Kansas Pacific Railroad has its race with these herds of buffalo; and a most interesting and exciting scene is the result. The train is ‘slowed’ to a rate of speed about equal to that of the herd; the passengers get out fire-arms which are provided for the defense of the train against the Indians, and open from the windows and platforms of the cars a fire that resembles a brisk skirmish. Frequently a young bull will turn at bay for a moment. His exhibition of courage is generally his death-warrant, for the whole fire of the train is turned upon him, either killing him or some member of the herd in his immediate vicinity.”

Slaughter of Buffalo on the Kansas Pacific Railroad Hornaday, William T. (William Temple)
(Wikimedia Commons)

Native Americans killed bison by the thousands for meat, hides, bones, and even their tail hairs, and believed the earth gave an inexhaustible supply of the creatures so vital to their existence. However, given the immense bison herds, these killings had no appreciable impact on the population as a whole. But when horses, guns, and steamboats on the Missouri River entered the picture, Indians, like white hunters, joined the massacre for commercial profit.

An article in the New York Times cites Professor Andrew Isenberg’s estimate: “...before the 1840's, 60,000 Plains Indians were killing half a million bison a year for sustenance. After the robe trade began in the 1840's, that total went over 600,000 a year.”

Even so, white hunters dealt the deadliest blows, killing around four million in the West. “Some wish to make records, and killed for sport; some killed for the hides and heads; some became professional buffalo butchers to provide the gangs of the railroad men with meat, slaughtering a magnificent animal for its tongue alone.” Hornaday asserted that the hides “were the greatest feature, and one firm in New York between 1876 and 1884 paid the killers nearly $1,000,000 or, to be exact $923,070 for the Robes and hides, which represents the final extinction of the animal.”

Buffalo Bill Cody was paid to kill bison and slaughtered more than 4,000 in two years.

Rath & Wright's buffalo hide yard in Dodge City, Kansas, showing 40,000 buffalo hides.

Massive pile of bison skulls, 1870
(Wikimedia Commons)

The extermination of the American bison by such insidious means and motives sickens us today, living as we do in an age where the collective conscience has been awakened to our responsibility to care for the planet and the animals who inhabit it. However, some recent studies by scientists provide evidence that other factors contributed heavily to the bison’s destruction; namely, habitat degradation and the spread of diseases like anthrax and tick fever. This is the position of researcher Sierra Stoneberg Holt, who holds degrees in botany and range science.

In her article “Reinterpreting the 1882 Bison Population Collapse,” she cites Hornaday’s 1889 study stating that “records of animals shot and hides traded show the number of animals killed has never exceeded the natural increase.”

She suggests that the bison population collapse could have been due to lack of human management of the range, which led to overpopulation and damage of vegetation. “Then you had crowded, starving bison in severely degraded range that couldn’t begin to support them. That meant that their immunity was gone, and epidemic could rage unchecked.”

She points out that “tick fever and anthrax both seem to be native here [Montana and Nebraska, respectively]. Bison had suffered from them for maybe thousands of years without ever being driven extinct by then. But once they were no longer managed, once their range was destroyed from neglect, then the weakened bison were wiped out by familiar diseases.”

She quotes a trapper named Yellowstone Kelly from around 1867 who found bodies of “dead buffalo as far as the eye could see that bore no mark of a bullet or arrow wounds.”

“The graph shows estimates of bison numbers, kills, and tick fever mortality. Kill estimates are extreme maximums. Using moderate kill numbers from the ranges in the sources has the herd increasing slightly before 1882. ‘Shipped hides’ combine early estimates and historical records; ‘wasted hides’ and ‘tribal use’ are from early estimates.” (from Reinterpreting the 1882 Bison Collapse)

Regardless of who and what’s to blame, more and more influencers began waking up to the tragic elimination of the bison, and various states and territories passed laws to protect this noble creature, but were either too late (Idaho, for example, passed the first law to protect the bison in 1864 but by then they had disappeared entirely from the state), vetoed, or unenforced. But the early 20th century saw the creation of the American Bison Society and increasing conservation laws and measures that began the process of recovering this American symbol of freedom and ruggedness, so that today, the estimated herd size in North America is 362,406. “Today, bison live in all 50 states including Native American lands, wildlife refuges, national parks and private lands,” notes the U.S. Department of the Interior.

We are happy for you to use the content on our historical pages if you will reference the source, and send an email to explain your intended use to Jessi at 


J. Albert Rorabacher, The American Buffalo in Transition, North Star Press 1971

“How Bison Perished,” The Morning Post, North Carolina, December 27, 1899. https://allaboutbison.- com/bison-in-history

William T. Hornaday, The Extermination of the American Bison, Government Printing Office, 1899.

“Buffalo Hunting: Shooting Buffalo from the Trains of the Kansas Pacific Railroad,” Harper’s Weekly, December 14, 1867. 3067904

Jim Robbins, “Historians Revisit Slaughter on the Plains,” New York Times, November. 16, 1999. https://

The Buffalo War, ITVS.

Sierra Dawn Stoneberg Holt, “Reinterpreting the 1882 Bison Population Collapse, Rangelands, August 2018. article/pii/S0190052818300087

“Bison by the Numbers: Data and Statistics,” National Bison Association. s=Data+%26+Statistics

“Fifteen Facts about Our National Mammal,” May 9, 2016. mammal-americanbison#:~: text=The%20American%20bison%20was%20named,success%20stories%20of%20all%20time

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