Shenandoah Hills Store – Bison and Man
Bison and Man
Discovery after the drought stricken Dust Bowl years (1930 to 1940’s) have uncovered evidence of bison kill sites throughout a wide area of the west, from western Canada and the US to Mexico and Central America. As the Spanish traveled across Mexico, they brought horses into the Americas, along with cattle, and other domestic livestock, but it’s the horses that allowed hunters to range much farther to find bison. Very quickly, Indian riders learned to use horses to help stampede bison and also to herd them together. Slaughter would take place basically in one area, leaving bones, etc., as evidence. They also attacked them from horseback using spears, bows and arrows, and sometimes European long guns.
There is very little archeological evidence about bison east of the Mississippi, perhaps due to the difference in habitat and presence of humans. Most seem to have been in small herds.
In the West, bison herds stretched from horizon to horizon and to the Indians, they provided food, raw materials for clothes, tools, etc. and a connection with a spiritual universe. However, to the early European explorers, they represented easy wealth, profit and freedom. Conservation to sustain a specie didn’t exist, and in the 1880’s, bison were almost exterminated! Steam powered engines in the Industrial Revolution needed leather belts and bison were slaughtered relentlessly for their hides leaving carcasses to spoil and decay. By the end of the Great Slaughter (1860-1880’s) the number of bison was reduced to 1000-1500. What started out as over 30 million was now down to a “hand full”.
In 1905 the American Bison Society was formed by a small group of influential and wealthy individuals who recognized the importance of saving, protecting and preserving the bison. Consequently, in 1908 the National Bison Range was established. Canada also established preserves to help save the animals from extinction. Many organizations have come and gone, but today hard work by the National Bison Association and the Canadian Bison Association demonstrated the importance and success of private enterprise to manage bison.
In the first half of the 20th century though, there was little recognized economic value to bison. The newly created preserves provided the only significant outlet for the excess animals in the private herds. Some were acquired by Yellowstone National Park in 1902 to restock the herd that was nearly wiped out. 34 head were purchased by the American Bison Society in 1909 to serve as a starting point in the National Bison Range and 36 were sold to South Dakota in 1914 to stock the Custer Game Preserve herd. By the end of the early 1940’s, the number had grown to 2500 animals.