Ron McCoy

Until the late 1800s, buffalo meant life itself for Plains Indian tribes. When buffalo virtually disappeared, so did the Indians' way of life. Their "buffalo culture" was dependent on these animals for meat and a myriad of other purposes, including:

  • hides for making tipis, leggings, shirts, dresses, pipe bags, quivers, moccasin tops, dolls, and robes-the most prized buffalo robes were "winter robes," taken between October-December, when the animals' hair was at its thickest
  • rawhide for moccasin soles, shields, ropes, quirts, belts and parfleches-cylindrical or envelope-shaped containers used for all-purpose storage
  • hair collected and stuffed into buckskin pillows
  • tails used as fly swatters and whips
  • brains for tanning hides
  • horns transformed into spoons, cups and ladles
  • hooves boiled down and prepared into a glue
  • muscles and tendons for bowstring and sinew (a kind of thread)
  • bones for making awls, handles for quirts and war clubs, toys and flat dice
  • excrement, called "chips," provided good fuel for fire (as early non-Indian settlers on the Plains soon learned)

Estimates of how many buffalo existed at the start of the 19th century range from 30 million to as high as 200 million. Actually, "buffalo" is a misnomer-true buffalo belong to a different genus and live in Africa and Asia-but the name, applied long ago, endures. Their scientific name is Bos bison. Relatives of Bos taurus, ancestor of today's domestic cattle, bison entered North America by crossing the land bridge that united Alaska and Siberia during the last Ice Age. These early bison weighed as much as two-and-a-half tons, with horns measuring six feet or more from tip to tip. As time passed, they evolved into a smaller animal.

But "smaller animal" is relative term, and at maturity-2-3 years after birth-the buffalo earns its status as the continent's largest land animal. Bulls can reach a height of five-and-a-half feet at the shoulder, perhaps a foot longer in length, and weigh as much as a ton. These are truly "wild" animals, capable of posing considerable danger in a 35-mile-per-hour charge. Under good conditions, they eat 2%-3% of their body weight each day. (That's 20-30 pounds of grass for every 1,000 pounds of buffalo.) Their life span generally runs 15-20 years, though some have survived as long as three decades.

Buffalo mate between July and October. Bulls compete for cows by breaking off into pairs, standing 20 feet apart and charging one another. Eventually, one gives up and relinquishes breeding rights to the victor. Calves undergo an 8-9 month gestation period, almost identical to a human's, and are usually born singly in late spring and summer. They arrive in time for the Sun Dance-a ritual of world renewal celebrated by many Plains tribes--and signal the earth's reawakening after the long Plains winter. Calves' fur is usually a light tan or yellowish in color. Hence, the Plains Indian name "Yellow Calf" really means "Young Buffalo Calf." As they age, the animals' hair grows heavier and darker, with colors usually running from chocolate brown to nearly black. Other colors are seen occasionally, such as the famous albino, or "white," buffalo.

The original buffalo range apparently ran north-to-south from Mexico to the territory around Canada's Great Slave Lake, and east-to-west from Pennsylvania and the Carolinas as far as the Rocky Mountains. Over time, the range compressed so that the animals are almost always associated with the history and lore of the Great Plains.

There was never a single great buffalo herd, or the two implied by the frequently used terms "northern herd" and "southern herd." There were many herds-numbering from several hundred to a hundred thousand or more animals-moving in elliptical patterns covering routes of up to 400 miles. In late spring they moved north, then south in late fall. A typical arrangement of the herd saw the bulls arranged as an enveloping circle of protection outside the cow-calf core.

Early on, Plains Indians hunted buffalo by stampeding herds over cliffs called "buffalo jumps." The horse's arrival after the mid-16th century provided them with a vehicle for pursuing buffalo more effectively. But the horse came in tandem with other changes wrought by Europeans, including guns, increased competition with for territory, and the hide hunters of the 1860s and 1870s so often credited with single-handedly pushing the buffalo to near extinction.

Hide hunters certainly contributed to the buffaloes' population crash. But modern researchers see a more complex pattern than the single-cause explanation that found favor for so long. For example, prior to 1850 Plains Indians became active partners in the fur trade, swapping buffalo robes for such luxury goods as sugar, coffee, jewelry, and beads. Beginning in the 1830s, population pressures on the Plains-and increased competition for buffalo-built as the U.S. government forced tribes living east of the Mississippi River westward. As more hunters killed more buffalo cows for their tender meat and easily worked hides the herds' birthrate declined. There was also a biotic invasion: waves of white immigrants brought cattle, oxen, mules and sheep onto the Plains, thereby introducing brucellosis, tuberculosis, and new parasites into the buffaloes' habitat. Starting in the late 1840s, this habitat was further altered when twenty years of abnormally heavy rainfall were followed by drought. Thus, it was in response to a combination of causes that the number of buffalo on the Plains plummeted in a classic "population crash." By the 1880s fewer than 1,000 survived in North America, two-thirds living in Canada.

Today, about 120,000 buffalo are found in America's national parks or other reserves, such as Yellowstone, and on privately owned ranches.

Resources:Center for Bison Studies (; National Bison Association (; Bison (; Friends of the Prairie Learning Center (; Yellowstone National Park (

Dary, David A. The Buffalo Book: The Full Saga of the American Animal (Ohio University Press, 1990); Haines, Francis. The Buffalo: The Story of American Bison and their Hunters from Prehistoric Times to the Present (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995); McHugh, Tom, The Time of the Buffalo (University of Nebraska Press, 1979)