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William T. Hornaday's "The Extermination of the American Bison"
June 15, 2011 9:59 AM   Subscribe

William Temple Hornaday was an early--and probably a founding--member of the American conservation movement, and was also director of the National Zoological Park. He wrote a tremendously bitter and accurate report for the U.S. National Museum in 1894 on the extermination of the American bison, an absolute head-shaker, detailing the history of the bison in North America and its destruction at the hands of sportsmen, hunters, mindless dolts and many others who massacred tens of millions of the animal ("murdered" is the word Hornaday uses constantly). To put the whole issue in perspective, Hornaday issued a famous map showing the shrinkage of the North American bison herd, setting out the enormity of the issue instantly on one piece of paper, a summary of hundreds of pages of bad stories and big numbers.
posted by Trurl (18 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite

 
Hornaday was a pioneering advocate for conservation, and we probably owe the survival of the bison to him - it's important to keep his shortcomings as both a scientist and a human being in mind, though.
posted by ryanshepard at 10:19 AM on June 15, 2011


I'd never seen the pictures of the mountains of bison skulls in the 'famous map' link. Absolutely incredible.
posted by jedicus at 10:21 AM on June 15, 2011


God damn it.

When I was elementary school, my teacher acted like we just didn't know what happened to the bison herd. It was like "Well, they all died from Manifest Destiny."

You know, we all sang the Elbow Room song and admired the fortitude of the pioneers and stuff. I'm just now realizing how unspeakable it was.

For the millions of bison .

More than I can count ..................... for the original residents of this continent I call home.
posted by S'Tella Fabula at 10:24 AM on June 15, 2011


When I was elementary school, my teacher acted like we just didn't know what happened to the bison herd. It was like "Well, they all died from Manifest Destiny."

PBS' "American Buffalo: Spirit of a Nation" should be required elementary school viewing:

... commercial killers ... weren’t the only ones shooting bison. Train companies offered tourists the chance to shoot buffalo from the windows of their coaches, pausing only when they ran out of ammunition or the gun’s barrel became too hot. There were even buffalo killing contests. In one, a Kansan set a record by killing 120 bison in just 40 minutes. “Buffalo” Bill Cody, hired to slaughter the animals, killed more than 4,000 buffalo in just two years.
posted by ryanshepard at 10:29 AM on June 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


As soon as I saw the date of Hornaday's report on the extermination of the bison, I had a sinking feeling he'd have been a buddy of the ghastly, embryonic nazi Madison Grant. As was duly confirmed by wiki:


"As the controversy [see ryanshepard's first link for details of the Ota Benga controversy, above] continued, Hornaday remained unapologetic, insisting that his only intention was to put on an “ethnological exhibit.” In another letter, he said that he and Madison Grant, the secretary of the New York Zoological Society, who ten years later would publish the racist tract “The Passing of the Great Race,” considered it “imperative that the society should not even seem to be dictated to” by the black clergymen.[5]

So many of the late 19th/early 20th century conservationists could be moved to tears about dwindling species of animals & even trees - while harboring contempt for the "lesser human races".
posted by Jody Tresidder at 10:33 AM on June 15, 2011


The bison were wiped out in the end to finally starve the last of the plains tribes onto the reservation. The Blackfoot & Comanche really only gave up at the end because there was no point in going on, without the bison.
posted by Devils Rancher at 11:10 AM on June 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


One of the ideas in "1491", is that the massive herds of buffalo and teeming fisheries that colonial Americans marveled at may have been artificially and grossly inflated by the rapid post-Columbus decimation of native American populations. When those civilizations collapsed, the populations exploded to unnaturally huge from the lack of hunting and herd management. Not sure how strong the evidence is for that, but it puts the thundering herds into a different perspective.
posted by jetsetsc at 11:16 AM on June 15, 2011


Citation:
"Mann concludes that Indians were a "keystone species," one that "affects the survival and abundance of many other species." By the time the Europeans arrived and settled in the Americas, the "boss" (Indians) had been almost completely eliminated. Disease ran rampant and killed off the Indians, disrupting their control of the environment. When Indians died, animal populations, such as that of the buffalo grew immensely. "Because they (Europeans) did not burn the land with the same skill and frequency as its previous occupants, the forests grew thicker." The world discovered by Christopher Columbus was to begin to change from that point on, so Columbus "was also one of the last to see it in pure form.""
posted by jetsetsc at 11:18 AM on June 15, 2011


To be fair to Buffalo Bill, he hunted as part of a job providing meat for a railroad company, and he later stopped hunting buffalo and spoke out in favor of limitations on hunting buffalo.*

*Note: All facts I know about Buffalo Bill were learned from the Buffalo Bill Museum and might be wrong
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 11:24 AM on June 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


Maybe I'm missing some FPP syntax here but why is the entire post in italics? Is that the 'Trauma of American History' flag?
posted by serif at 11:26 AM on June 15, 2011




why is the entire post in italics?

Because it's a continuous quote from the second link.
posted by Trurl at 11:28 AM on June 15, 2011


Butcher's Crossing is a fabulous novel about bison hunting.
posted by OmieWise at 11:52 AM on June 15, 2011


Isn't there a lot of research which suggests that the thundering herds were an artifact of specific environmental and hunting practices by native people? Changes in the Land and 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus both talk about this, IIRC.

Not that this justifies virtually exterminating the buffalo at all, much less as part of war against indigenous people - it's just fascinating to me that many of the things we assume are long-standing and natural are often recent/transitory/the result of human effort.
posted by Frowner at 11:57 AM on June 15, 2011


One of the ideas in "1491", is that the massive herds of buffalo and teeming fisheries that colonial Americans marveled at may have been artificially and grossly inflated by the rapid post-Columbus decimation of native American populations.

Yes, I found that one of the more intriguing ideas in Mann's book and would love to hear how much credence it has in the scientific community.
posted by stargell at 12:32 PM on June 15, 2011


This is funny. I read a book in the past year, whose name I cannot recall, arguing the exact opposite. That in fact because record keeping started relatively late, after some slaughter of North American animals had already taken place by Europeans, the size of herds and flocks may have been seriously underestimated. The book was pretty well sourced. I wish I could remember the name.
posted by OmieWise at 1:20 PM on June 15, 2011


I don't remember how old I was when I saw my first picture of a huge pile of buffalo skulls, but I am sure that its memory gradually made me doubt much of what I had been learning in school about America's virtuousness.

Now that I've accumulated more examples than any one human being needs, -that- one still stands out as bespeaking volumes about -some- of the people who settled this country. I needn't point out that there are still more than enough of them around these days ... the two syllables 'BP' are proof enough. Can't help but notice that they're running out of killing fields.
posted by Twang at 8:36 PM on June 15, 2011




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