American bison, also known as buffalo, once roamed El Paso County’s spacious prairies. By the time the Colorado territorial legislature established El Paso County in 1861, the bison were largely gone; their sun-bleached bones marked their passing.
Across the nation, these animals once numbered over 60 million; and by the close of the 19th century, only a few hundred remained. What caused the near extermination of the bison is a subject of debate. Three essential factors have been under consideration in this debate.
First, buffalo hunters slaughtered the slow-grazing bison for their hides and left behind the rest of the animal to decay in the blazing sun. The rotting flesh gave off a smell of primal origins. A. M. Bede, a county judge in North Dakotas, remembering his pioneering days on the northern plains said, “The county out here used to look like a charnel house with so many skulls staring at a man and so many bones that newcomers felt nervous, and in some cases, could hardly plow the land” (Henninger-Voss, 2003). Buffalo hunters sold hides for about $2.00 to $3.50 each ($51 to $89 in today’s money). In towns, workers were busy stacking bison hides for shipment by rail. (Fig. 1).
Third, the government ordered the Army to kill bison in order to starve Native American tribes into submission. To hasten this procedure, the Army hired buffalo hunters to kill bison in large numbers. This attempt at obliteration was effective in destroying the food source and placed the Native Americans in dire strait. The Native American population, by the end of the 19th century, numbered 237,000; down from about one million from the previous century (Slaughter of the Bison, 2011).
What is not debated, however, is that in 20 short years, near the conclusion of the 19th century, America’s bison herd was near extinction. Historians estimate 31,000,000 bison were killed between 1868 and 1881.
|Fig. 2. Swiss painter Karl Bodmer depicts Native Americans hunting bison. |
The painting is part of Bodmer’s collection to illustrate Prince Maximilian of Wied's travels
in the interior of North America, circa 1836. Public domain.
Not long after the pioneering photographer William H. Jackson took the photo in Figure 3, the bison had vanished from Colorado’s eastern plains, killed for their hides. The near extinction of this magnificent animal is one of the ugliest episodes in the history of American wildlife (Andrews, 2016).
On May 9, 2016, President Obama signed the National Bison Legacy Act, designating the bison as the national mammal. The bison joined with the bald eagle to represent the United States (Andrews, 2016).
Andrews, E. (2016, May 13). Bison Selected as the Official Mammal of the United States. Retrieved from https://www.history.com/news/bison-selected-as-the-official-mammal-of-the-united-states
Bringing the West’s wild bison back from the brink – The Denver Post. (2015, January 23). Retrieved from http://www.denverpost.com/2015/01/23/bringing-the-wests-wild-bison-back-from-the-brink/
El Paso County Government. (2010). 2010 Citizen's Guide to El Paso County Government.
Henninger-Voss, Mary. (2003). Animals in Human Histories: The Mirror of Nature and Culture. Boydell & Brewer, Limited: Suffolk.
The Library of Congress. (n.d.). The Buffalo Hunter. Retrieved from http://www.americaslibrary.gov/aa/cody/aa_cody_hunt_3.html
Time Line of the American Bison. (n.d.). U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Retrieved from https://www.fws.gov/bisonrange/timeline.htm
Phippen, J. W. (2016, May 13). Kill Every Bison You Can! Every Bison Dead Is an Indian Gone. Retrieved from The Atlantic: https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2016/05/the-bison-killers/482349/
Slaughter of the Bison. (2011). Retrieved from Inter Tribal Bison Council: http://itbcbison.com/node/22