Mrs. Irvine, the “Dashing Lady Rider” of the 1907 Buffalo Roundup

As someone who is a bit of a bison history nerd, I was absolutely delighted when I found this article published in the November 8th, 1907 edition of the Edmonton Bulletin (thanks, Peel’s Prairie Provinces, you wonderful database you!):

The Round Up of the Second Herd of Pablo's Buffalo.PNG

It is three solid full-length newspaper pages of dense text describing the trials and tribulations of the roundup of the Pablo-Allard bison herd in Montana in 1907. And the writing is so evocative! Fascinating details include:

  • Among the herd were a few older bison with brass caps on their horns, which marked them as bison that had once been in a wild west show ages before. (Probably from the stock once owned by Buffalo Jones.)
  • Charles Allard Jr. (an expert cowboy and the son of the original co-owner of the herd) was such a badass he had a habit of “hurdling” fences instead of taking the time to walk around to the nearest gate like everyone else.
  • Charles Allard Jr. “selected his riders with the greatest care, engaging only those who were inured to the life and wise in all the lore of the ranges in addition to being thoroughly acquainted with the ground. He went on the principle that one poor man might defeat the efforts of all the rest by failure at a critical moment or by an injudicious move. He thus gathered a little coterie of riders the majority of whom were of his own dare-devil stamp.”
  • Apparently the busiest guy at the roundup was Jim, Allard’s Japanese cook?
  • Ayotte, one of the representatives from Canada, was nearly killed twice in a short period of time. The first time, it was when a bull burst through a fence right next to him. The man he was standing next to had his arm broken, but Ayotte was unharmed. Ayotte decided to leave after this incident. As he left left, according to the article: “… the struggles of a buffalo inside the [train] car shook a spectator off the roof, who fell directly on Ayotte’s head. As Ayotte wandered away he was heard to remark that ‘a man is not safe anywhere around here.’”
  • “On another occasion a bull charged the stock yard fence, going through it like a paper wall, less than four feet from where some little children were playing on the grass. However, as they were not directly in his path, he did not injure them.”
  • Evocative descriptions of the roundup: “The drives during these two days were as spectacular as anything ever seen on the range. The battle grounds were in the bad lands of Pend d’Orielle and in the foothills of the mountains, where every man took his life in his hands in the dare-devil dashes hither and thither, through cuts and ravines, over ridges and foothills or down the valleys honeycombed by the dry courses of the mountain torrents, in fast and furious pursuit of the bands of buffalo …”

Interspersed throughout the text are cropped photographs from Norman Luxton of Banff. These full-sized images were recently reproduced in Harvey Locke’s book, The Last of the Buffalo Return to the Wild, so I recognized them immediately. A poor quality scan of the original souvenir pamphlet with the images can be seen here on Peel’s Prairie Provinces if you can’t reach for your copy of Locke’s book on your shelf. (Do you have a birthday coming up? Ask for a copy! Totally worth it!) Anyway, what I found absolutely thrilling was what the Edmonton Bulletin article said about a woman named Mrs. Irvine.

mrs-irvine-in-1907-edmonton-bulletin-article
The caption beneath the image on the far left says “Mrs Irvine. This remarkable old lady who was the heroine of the round up, in spite of the fact that she was a grandmother, rode over seventy-five miles one day through a wild and broken country. She was accompanied by her grand-daughters, the Misses Marion, of Lethbridge.” Screenshot from Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

Later on, it described how she had saved the day by being the only one to get a bison into the corral during that day’s work:

“While the round up was resumed and for two days they waged a losing battle with the buffalo, capturing only eleven head in that time, although large herds were driven almost to the corrals on several occasions. Of this eleven head one was the prize of Mrs. Irvine, a dashing lady rider, and sister-in-law of the late C.A. Allard. She joined in the round up for pleasure, as she had often done before, and was rewarded by the distinction of driving into the corral the only buffalo secured that day.”

Mrs. Irvine was also mentioned further down:

Lady Prevents a Stampede. . . . Here Mrs. Irvine, with her son and daughter-in-law and two grand daughters, who had been wolf hunting with their hounds in the valley joined in the chase finding bigger game and more exhilarating excitement. Mrs. Irvine in spite of her age and her sex did Trojan work on the firing line in that terrible gallop up the mountain side and down into the valley beyond. One desperate ride of hers at a critical time no doubt turned the fortunes in favor of the men, preventing a stampede which threatened to carry the entire herd beyond control.”

The newspaper then goes on to describe “a fight between a buffalo bull and Mrs. Irvine’s three big stag hounds.” These were no yappy little lapdogs; they were hounds capable of taking out wolves and could apparently fight a massive bison bull “to a standstill.”

I, with my modern mindset, can only call her a badass.

Mrs. Irvine’s picture does appear in the pamphlet The Last of the Buffalo. You can compare the image above with the copy in The Last of the Buffalo here. However, the caption in the facsimile in Locke’s book merely reads “an Indian woman.” This dissatisfying caption, all too common in historical images of Indigenous people, completely erases her remarkableness. She becomes anonymous – an out-of-context hanger-on with no clear relationship to the bison roundup aside from the implicit cultural link between Indigenous people and bison.

With the context from the contemporary newspaper article, we learn her name, that she had a personal family connection with the herd, and that she was a badass that participated in the roundup for fun and because it was important to her.

pc005103
Bison being unloaded at Buffalo National Park. Were any of these once herded by Mrs. Irvine? PC005103. Image courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

This is a classic example of why initiatives like Project Naming are so impactful. Project Naming aims to circulate images of Indigenous people in archives among people who may be able to identify the people pictured. By reconnecting the people in these historical  photographs with their names and identities, you can reconnect these images to existing communities. The image then becomes not just that of an “Eskimo trader”, but that of an Inuk man, perhaps an uncle or grandfather of people who are still alive and who may never have seen this photograph of their relative or friend.

Historically, many people publishing images of Indigenous people, particularly women, didn’t think it important to list their names – even if every other person in the image (white folks) did have their names recorded. By reproducing this image with the caption “an Indian woman”, the publisher stripped this woman of her identity, erasing her remarkable story from the narrative of this round-up. Names matter. These stories should not be lost.

Remember Mrs. Irvine. Tell the story of how a grandmother rode for seventy-five miles in one day after bison her brother-in-law helped to save and raise. Tell the story of how her hunting dogs fought a bull bison and won. Tell the story of how she prevented a stampede. And tell the story of how one day she corralled a bison that dozens of other “dare-devil” male riders could not. Remember Mrs. Irvine’s name and story.

Further Resources

A Bison Called Old Pink Eye

Historical newspapers seem to love talking about charismatic bull bison, characterising them as curmudgeonly grumps and giving them cool names. I uncovered this great account of an older bull at Elk Island National Park in 1908 in the Edmonton Bulletin. I get exhilarated just reading about this epic bison battle, nearly 110 years later:

the-buffalo-at-elk-park-edmonton-bulletin-august-1908
“The king of the largest herd in the park is Pink Eye, a mammoth bull, who is known to be 29 years old, and who may be several years older. He is a monarch without doubt. He rules his herd with a rod of iron. He is an autocrat. . . . Pink Eye is loved because he gives voice to a profoundly continuous roar, and because he has the weight to retain his hold upon the throne. His sway is not undisputed. There are ambitious young bulls who resent Pink Eye’s authority, but their insolent and defiant questioning of the monarch’s rule [illegible] opportunity for revision when the king locks with them. No bull in all the 400 is a match for Pink Eye, even though his left horn is but a stub, crumpled by many fierce conflicts. His immense weight and tremendous strength and his sagacity makes him unconquerable. But though he could rule the whole herd he is content to lord it over but 60.”

pc006887
This isn’t Pink Eye (photo is circa 1930) – but it is a photograph of the current “King of the Herd.” PC006887. Photograph courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

“Pink Eye has been called upon to defend his throne against only one serious revolutionary movement of a pretender since the herd entered the park. In this fierce battle he was returned victorious – not unscarred, but with a deeper rumble to his bellow, and a more dangerous gleam in his eye.

It was a fierce battle. The scene of it was on the top of a knoll, which capped a rise overlooking the lake. The bull who essayed to oust Pink Eye from command of the herd was a giant himself, but young and inexperienced, unversed in the plan of battle. The keepers say the fire of the approaching battle had been smouldering for some days. Pink Eye was loathe to engage in it, but when the point was reached where his dignity could suffer no further insult and permit him retaining his prestige, he gave battle.

Like a general he selected a strategical position. He worked his way to the knoll, and there, with head lowered, and bellowing defiance, he withstood the charges of his enemy, until the young bull, worn out by repeated charges up the hill, and meeting head on each time a force which sent him back like a stone from a sling, became utterly exhausted, and, unable to meet the terrific onslaught of Pink Eye, made at the psychological moment, he was carried down the hill and completely vanquished. The keepers saw the battle. They were unwilling to interfere, even had intervention been possible, for until one bull gains supremacy over all others with ambitions, there is trouble in the herd. There has to be a battle, and the sooner it is over the better. To-day Pink Eye is supreme.”

Excerpt from “The Buffalo at Elk Park,” The Edmonton Bulletin (August 29, 1908): page 3.

Buffalo Refuses to be unloaded - Forsyth
This (probably) isn’t an image of old Pink Eye either, but I like to think the rage in his eyes is the same. Photograph of a bull bison from the Pablo-Allard herd being loaded up in Montana on his way to being shipped up to Elk Island, circa 1909. “Buffalo Refuses to be Unloaded,” by N.A. Forsyth. Image from the Montana Historical Society.

“I have had enough buffalo” : the photographer who was nearly trampled to death

Last Buffalo Chase in America
“Last Buffalo Chase in America,” by N.A. Forsyth. Image from the Montana Historical Society.

As visitors to this blog may note, I never get tired of stories of bison, past and present. I was recently trying to track down some images of the roundup of bison in Montana from the Pablo-Allard herd – the bison that were sold and shipped North to Canada to Elk Island National Park in 1907-1909. The last great roundup of wild bison was quite the media event and newspapers in Montana and Alberta are full of epic death-defying stories.

One of the men on the scene to document this event was N.A. Forsyth, who took a large number of stereoscope images of the “Buffalo Roundup.” A while back, I ran across this story of how he nearly died for his craft in a Wainwright, Alberta newspaper.

“The entry of the buffalo into the corral came nearly being accompanied by a regrettable fatality. Mr. Forsyth, an enterprising photographer from Butte, Mont., being anxious to get some photos of the animals in the water, had stationed himself at a point of vantage amidst a clump of trees close to one of the booms in the river where he judged he would be out of path of the oncoming herd. However they chose to take the bank directly below where he was standing, and before he could reach safety they were upon him in a mad, irresistible stampede. How he escaped being trampled to instant death is a miracle which even he cannot realize. He has a recollection of the herd rushing upon him and of having in some way clutched a passing calf which he clung to until it passed under a tree. He then managed to grasp a branch and although he was unable to pull himself up out of danger he was able to keep himself from under the feet of the plunging herd. His dangling legs were bruised and cut by their horns and his clothes were torn to shreds, but he still clung to the limb for life. Twice the herd passed under him as they circled back in an attempt to escape, but fortunately before he became exhausted they rushed into the corral. The Canadian Pacific officials and the riders who knew the location chosen by Forsyth shuddered when they saw the animals rush in there and expected to find his body trampled out of semblance in the clay. Consequently they were rejoiced to find the luckless photographer slightly disfigured, but still hugging his friend the tree in his dishevelled wardrobe. His two costly cameras were trampled to pieces and his opinion of his predicament was summed up in the words, ‘I have had enough buffalo.’”

Source: Wainwright Star, January 8, 1909, Page 1, Item Ar00104, at Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

Recently, I discovered the digitized collection of this photographer’s images in the collection of the Montana Historical Society… and one image really struck me. I believe that this photograph may well have been taken only moments before the photographer was nearly trampled half to death. Several details stick out.

"After the Swim, Herd of Wild Buffaloes, Mont." by N. A. Forsyth. Courtesy of the Montana Historical Society Archives. http://mtmemory.org/cdm/singleitem/collection/p267301coll3/id/2468/rec/12
“After the Swim, Herd of Wild Buffaloes, Mont.” by N. A. Forsyth. Image from the Montana Historical Society.

Firstly, the description of the scene: bison swimming across a river, near some trees, but the photographer was out of the perceived path of the herd. He was near some trees, which he clung to as the bison went by not once but twice.

Secondly, the reference to “two costly cameras.” Why would he need two cameras? To take stereoscopic images like this one. You need two lenses to create two near-identical photographs simultaneously – hence, two cameras. Though if they were smashed, would that necessarily ruin the film…?

Anyway, perhaps I am wrong. Maybe this photograph wasn’t taken right before this photographer was nearly stampeded by bison. I can tell you for certain that this photograph was taken by the same photographer of the same herd of Michel Pablo’s bison, and based on his photographs he didn’t always stay a safe distance away from these wild animals.

Here is a selection of more photographs Forsyth took of the roundup. These are all stereoscopes. With a special reader, these photographs would have appeared 3D, so you too could experience the Great Buffalo Roundup from the comfort of your own home! All of these images are from the Montana Historical Society. Please click on the images to follow the link to the archive’s page to zoom in on high definition digital scans of these stereoscopes.

A buffalo calf six months old

“A Buffalo Calf Six Months Old,” by N.A. Forsyth. Image from the Montana Historical Society.

A Fine Pair in the World's Finest Buffalo Herd

“A Fine Pair in the World’s Finest Buffalo Herd,” by N.A. Forsyth. Image from the Montana Historical Society.

Bringing in a Bunch to Load

“Bringing in a Bunch to Load,” by N.A. Forsyth. Image from the Montana Historical Society.

Buffalo escaping from the wagon

“Buffalo Escaping from Wagon,” by N.A. Forsyth. Image from the Montana Historical Society.

Forsyth A Very Mad Little Buffalo

“A Very Mad Little Buffalo,” by N.A. Forsyth. Image from the Montana Historical Society.

Buffalo Refuses to be unloaded - Forsyth

“Buffalo Refuses to Be Unloaded,” by N.A. Forsyth. Image from the Montana Historical Society.

Forsyth - a buffalo is good on the turn

“A Buffalo is Good on the Turn,” by N.A. Forsyth. Image from the Montana Historical Society.

Forsyth - Bufaloes roll like a horse

“Buffaloes Roll Like a Horse,” by N.A. Forsyth. Image from the Montana Historical Society.

Subdued Prisoners Waiting for their Exile - Forsyth

“Subdued Prisoners Waiting for Their Exile,” by N.A. Forsyth. Image from the Montana Historical Society.

The Great-Grandmother of the Herd - Forsyth

“The Great-Grandmother of the Herd,” by N.A. Forsyth. Image from the Montana Historical Society.

Forsyth - Making a last and fierce struggle for freedom

“Making a Last and Fierce Struggle for Freedom,” by N.A. Forsyth. Image from the Montana Historical Society. Note that this escapee is in fact a female bison. Newspapers said that Pablo had to specially reinforce cattle cars because bison would burst right through the sides of normal cow cars.

All Bison, All the Time: Related Blog Posts on Bison 

Pemmican Production During the Fur Trade: 100 lb Bags of Protein – and More!

Bison are full of tasty, tasty meat. However, in an age before refrigerators, even killing a single bison could net you hundreds of pounds of meat which would soon spoil. If you were hunting bison en masse with buffalo jumps or buffalo pounds, you and your entire community could have enough meat to lasts months… if you could prevent it from spoiling. One of the main means of preserving meat was by turning it into pemmican.

What was pemmican? At it’s heart, it’s two, perhaps three ingredients: dried meat (usually bison, but it could be the flesh of moose, elk, deer, or even fish) combined with melted and rendered fat, and sometimes berries.

Postcard 2477 Indian drying meat, Loon Lake, Sask.. c1940.peel.library.ualberta.ca/postcards/PC002477.html
Drying meat (possibly for pemmican) at Loon Lake, Saskatchewan, circa 1940. Postcard 2477.  Courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

Paul Kane, an Irish-Canadian artist who travelled to the prairie west in the 1840s, described the process of making what he called “pimmi-kon”:

“The thin slices of dried meat are pounded between two stones until the fibres separate; about 50lbs. of this are put into a bag of buffalo skin with about 40lbs. of melted fat, and mixed together while hot, and sewed up, forming a hard and compact mass; hence its name in the Cree language, pimmi signifying meat, and kon, fat. Each cart brings home ten of these bags, and all that the half-breeds do not require for themselves is eagerly bought by the Company, for the purpose of sending to the more distant posts, where food is scarce. One pound of this is considered equal to four pounds of ordinary meat, and the pimmi-kon keeps for years perfectly good exposed to any weather.”

Pemmican was essential to survival on the prairies for First Nations peoples and fur trade company employees alike. Blood was shed over control of the pemmican trade. During the nineteenth century, it was being industrially produced in such large quantities that shovels had to be used to stir the ingredients. Pemmican was packed into bison hide bags and sewn together in packets weighing 100 lbs or 45 kg: the standard packet size for portaging. It was recorded that to produce one of these bags of pemmican, you needed the dried meat from one and a half bison cows.

Drawing of a nineteenth century Métis buffalo hunt, circa 1920s, by Jeffries. http://collectionscanada.gc.ca/ourl/res.php?url_ver=Z39.88-2004&url_tim=2015-10-13T21%3A52%3A53Z&url_ctx_fmt=info%3Aofi%2Ffmt%3Akev%3Amtx%3Actx&rft_dat=2834709&rfr_id=info%3Asid%2Fcollectionscanada.gc.ca%3Apam&lang=eng
Drawing of a nineteenth century Métis bison hunt, circa 1920s, by Charles William Jefferys. Image via Library and Archives Canada.

While it was a great source of protein and lasted an incredibly long time, not everyone was enamoured with its taste or texture. For fur traders on the boats eating pemmican day in and day out, pemmican became exhaustively monotonous. Company boatmen, like William Gladstone, tried preparing pemmican in every variation they could imagine, trying to make it slightly more interesting to eat: mixing it with flour and frying it, re-hydrating it with other ingredients to make soup, or just eating it straight. Gladstone, bemoaning eating pemmican decades later, said that:

“We used to call it rab-a-bo at breakfast, bo-a-rab at dinner and rab-bo-a at supper, but in spite of the change of name, the food used to taste much the same at each meal.”

  • Brock Silversides, Fort de Prairies: The Story of Fort Edmonton (Victoria; Calgary; Vancouver Heritage House Publishing Company Ltd., 2005), 29.

Recently, I found an incredibly evocative description of pemmican from someone who was clearly not a fan. This description was quoted by Garrett Wilson in his book Frontier Farewell: The 1870s and the End of the Old West and was written by a Hudson’s Bay Company employee at Fort Garry in 1879.

“Take the scrapings from the driest outside corner of a very stale piece of cold roast-beef, add to it lumps of tallowy, rancid fat, then garnish all with long human hairs, on which string pieces, like beads upon a necklace, and short hairs of dogs or oxen, or both, and you have a fair imitation of common pemmican. Indeed, the presence of hairs in the food has suggested the inquiry whether the hair on the buffaloes from which the pemmican is made does not grow on the inside of the skin. The abundance of small stones or pebbles in pemmican also indicates the discovery of a new buffalo diet heretofore unknown to naturalists….

The flavor of pemmican depends much on the fancy of the person eating it. There is no article of food that bears the slightest resemblance to it, and as a consequence it is difficult to define its peculiar flavor by comparison. It may be prepared for the table in many different ways, the consumer being at full liberty to decide which is the least objectionable. The method largely in vogue among the voyageurs is that known as ‘pemmican straight,’ that is, uncooked. But there are several ways of cooking which improve its flavour to the civilized palate. There is rubeiboo, which is a composition of potatoes, onions, or other esculents, and pemmican, boiled up together, and, when properly seasoned, very palatable. In the form of richot, however, pemmican is best liked by persons who use it, and by the voyageurs. Mixed with a little flour and fried in a pan, pemmican in this form can be eaten, provided the appetite be sharp, and there is nothing else to be had. The last consideration is, however, of importance.”

  •  Garrett Wilson, Frontier Farewell: The 1870s and the End of the Old West (Regina, SK: University of Regina Press, 2007; 2014), 263-5.

I’m not sure I’d like my pemmican filled with pebbles or hair, but properly prepared pemmican will get you through the time between bison hunts. This simple food – dried meat, melted fat, and berries – fed the West.

Resources

The Great Roundups: Getting Michel Pablo’s Bison Herd To Canada, 1907-1912

By 1890, the once great wild North American bison herds, which had at one point numbered in the tens of millions, were all but extinguished. Within a single human lifetime of slaughter,  less than a thousand individuals were left, scattered across North America in small pockets. A few wild bison remained in areas which became national parks: plains bison in Yellowstone (1872) and wood bison in Wood Buffalo (1922). Most of the remaining stragglers elsewhere were soon after hunted down or captured by ranchers.

Granny and her calf, Wainwright Buffalo Park. [Wainwright: Photo Carsell, Wainwright, Alberta, 1931].peel.library.ualberta.ca/postcards/PC005137.html
“Granny and her calf, Wainwright Buffalo Park.” Wainwright: Photo Carsell, 1931. PC005137. Image Courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.
In the 1870s, during one of the last great buffalo hunts in Montana, a First Nations man named Samuel Walking Coyote captured and raised about four orphaned calves after they followed his horse home. After his herd had grown to about thirteen head, he sold them to two Métis men: Charles Allard and Michel Pablo. Pablo and Allard raised these animals over the next few decades, bolstering their stock with animals from other sources such as Charles “Buffalo” Jones. But by the turn of the century, Pablo (Allard had since died) lost the right to graze his bison on the Flathead reservation land where they’d been flourishing because the American government decided to open up native reserve land in the area for white settlement.

Pablo offered to sell his bison – a symbol of the American West – to Teddy Roosevelt’s government, but they vacillated and couldn’t commit. Some say Pablo felt personally insulted and when the Canadian government agreed to buy his bison he went out of his way to ensure that every last animal possible would be sent north above the Medicine Line (the 49th parallel) to Canada.

The roundup was to be no easy task.

You try moving over 700 of these guys somewhere they don't want to go. Image of bison at Buffalo National Park at Wainwright (descendants of the Pablo-Allard herd) in 1931. PC005106, courtesy of Peel's Prairie Provinces.
You try moving over 700 of these guys somewhere they don’t want to go.
Image of bison at Buffalo National Park at Wainwright (descendants of the Pablo-Allard herd) in 1931. PC005106, courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

Pablo had underestimated the number of bison that he actually grazed: instead of perhaps 300, he had over 700. The bison were temporarily housed at Elk Island National Park from 1907-1909, because the fences at the newly-created (and ill-fated) Buffalo National Park, were not completed until 1909. But those are stories for another time. Rounding up all of Pablo’s bison took far more than the one summer they had planned, but due to the tenacity of the cowboys on horseback working over the course of nearly five years over rugged terrain with the largest and wildest of remaining bison herds, and the significant financial investment Pablo made in wooden corrals and specialized, reinforced train cars, Pablo succeeded in his goal.

These roundups were by no means safe. Like their descendants, these bison were wild and objected to being moved about. The Wainwright Star recounts the dramatic story of a photographer who was nearly trampled to death during one of the roundups in Montana:

“The entry of the buffalo into the corral came nearly being accompanied by a regrettable fatality. Mr. Forsyth, an enterprising photographer from Butte, Mont., being anxious to get some photos of the animals in the water, had stationed himself at a point of vantage amidst a clump of trees close to one of the booms in the river where he judged he would be out of path of the oncoming herd. However they chose to take the bank directly below where he was standing, and before he could reach safety they were upon him in a mad, irresistible stampede. How he escaped being trampled to instant death is a miracle which even he cannot realize. He has a recollection of the herd rushing upon him and of having in some way clutched a passing calf which he clung to until it passed under a tree. He then managed to grasp a branch and although he was unable to pull himself up out of danger he was able to keep himself from under the feet of the plunging herd. His dangling legs were bruised and cut by their horns and his clothes were torn to shreds, but he still clung to the limb for life. Twice the herd passed under him as they circled back in an attempt to escape, but fortunately before he became exhausted they rushed into the corral. The Canadian Pacific officials and the riders who knew the location chosen by Forsythe shuddered when they saw the animals rush in there and expected to find his body trampled out of semblance in the clay. Consequently they were rejoiced to find the luckless photographer slightly disfigured, but still hugging his friend the tree in his dishevelled wardrobe. His two costly cameras were trampled to pieces and his opinion of his predicament was summed up in the words, ‘I have had enough buffalo.’” (emphasis added)
Source: Wainwright Star, January 8, 1909, Page 1, Item Ar00104, at Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

Bison are still rounded-up today. For the past century, Elk Island National Park has actively handled bison for disease control, population reduction (earlier through culling and now through transfers), and sample taking for academic study. It is no easy task. Last week, I had the amazing opportunity to help with the roundup of wood bison: the largest land mammals in North America. After over a century of work, the conservation of plains and wood bison continues today.

Further Resources

“Buffalo” Jones: The Man Who Tried to Lasso an Elephant

…and according to at least one account, seems to have successfully roped a giraffe, a cougar, and a rhino.

Portrait of Charles Jesse "Buffalo" Jones. Courtesy of the Kansas Memory Archive.
Portrait of Charles Jesse “Buffalo” Jones (1844-1919), circa 1880-1900. Courtesy of the Kansas Historical Society Archive.

“Buffalo” Jones, as his nickname would suggest, is most famous for his role in bison conservation. He was one of the first ranchers to successfully capture and raise bison. I had heard his name connected in relation to the Pablo-Allard herd – which had stock from Jones and which formed the basis for Elk Island’s herd and therefore most cattle-gene and disease-free bison stock in North America. Only recently did I read the account of how he actually captured his first set of calves:

“I will tell the story of how the great American bison was saved. I roped 8 calves and saved them, although the wolves and coyotes were there by hundreds. As soon as I caught one, I tied my hat to it, as I knew the brutes never touched anything tainted with the fresh scent of man. The next, my coat, then my vest, then my boots, and last, my socks, thus protecting 7. The 8th I picked up in my arms and rode back to the 7th as it was surrounded by wolves and coyotes. When I arrived where it was bound down, I saw the vicious brutes snapping at the sixth one, so reached down and drew up the seventh one and galloped back to the sixth to protect it. I let the two calves down, one with legs tied and the lasso around the eight calf’s neck, the other end of the rope around my horses’ neck. The strain was so great, I fainted, but revived when my boys came up and gave me some whiskey we had for snake bites.”

  • Buffalo Jones, letter to the American Bison Society, 1912, cited in Ken Tingley, Recalling the Buffalo: The Martin S. Garretson Collection (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2012.

In summary: Jones, by his own account, reportedly fended off hundreds of wolves and coyotes to save eight bison calves by tying his own clothing onto lassoed calves to give them the scent of human beings. If nothing else, it makes for an amazing story.

The first chapter of his biography, written in 1911 by a friend of his, Ralph T. Kersey, is basically a series of anecdotes listing all of the crazy dangerous animals that he has allegedly successfully lassooed and wrestled to the ground. Kersey wrote that  Rightly or wrongly, [Jones] firmly believes that all wild animals, from the elephant down, can be lassoed, captured and subdued by man if, as he expresses it, ‘one has courage in his heart and determination in his soul.'”  Kersey recounted an impressive anecdote about Jones capturing a live cougar:

“I shall never forget his lassoing a 200 pound cougar which our dogs had chased up a big spruce tree a thousand feet down the Colorado Canyon. Jones climbed the tree without gun or knife and faced the ugly brute, which at times was not three feet above his head. Deliberately and cooly he threw the noose of the lariat over the head of the animal, which was lashing its tail and raising its ominous paw – seemingly at any second about to strike him – while in a quiet voice, alert and confident, with no trace of fear, he carried on an amusing and running talk with the savage beast. When the cougar came crashing through the limbs to the ground amidst the dogs and men, with nothing to hold him save a half-inch rope around his neck, more lively things happened in a second than I could describe in an hour. . . . In such a hunt there are no dull seconds.”

  • Ralph T. Kersey on Buffalo Jones, Buffalo Jones: A True Biography, 5-6.

According to Kersey, Jones had an amazing “successful” trip – in lassoing terms, at least – to Africa well into his old age.

“I knew, of course, the chances were that the African trip, absurd and impossible as it seemed to be, might end in failure and ridicule. Jones might be seriously injured and the expedition wrecked.

‘He is certain to be killed,’ a friend said to me.

‘Well,’ I replied, ‘what of it? He is sixty-five years old, and I am sure would far rather die fighting on the plains than in his bed at home.’

The expedition started on its long journey; no one save Jones, perhaps, having much confidence in its success.

At last a cablegram came from Nairobi announcing the lassoing and capture of giraffes, cheetah, warthog, zebras, and many other animals; and best of all, it told of a six-hours’ fight and capture of a large rhinoceros and later, of the lassoing and capture of a full-grown lioness. We were disappointed that the expedition did not have more time at its disposal. Jones wanted to tackle an elephant, which he thought would be easier than a rhino. ‘An elephant,’ he said, ‘stands high; while a rhino is built low and is much harder to overturn.'”

  • Ralph T. Kersey on Buffalo Jones, Buffalo Jones: A True Biography, 7-8. (Bolded emphasis added)

No-one with the nickname “Buffalo” Jones could have a boring life.

Further Reading:

  • Ralph T. Kersey, Buffalo Jones: A True Biography (Garden City, Kansas: Elliott Printers, 1958).
  • Ken Tingley, Recalling the Buffalo: The Martin S. Garretson Collection (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2012.

Postcards That Intrigue Me #5: Bison With an Amazing Head of Hair

Living and Elk Island National Park, I see a lot of bison on a daily basis. I am very familiar with how they look, move, sound, and smell. That makes looking at historical photographs of bison all the more fascinating. While Elk Island’s herd is fairly genetically diverse, thanks to the seed stock from which they originated, historical photos and descriptions indicate that there was much greater variety in appearance than I am used to seeing. Some historians say that photographs of gigantic piles of buffalo skulls from the 1880s and 1890s show more diversity in horn shape and size than anything we see in museum collections – and presumably living herds – today.

Case in point: this image of bison at the now-defunct Buffalo National Park (1909-1939) near Wainwright, Alberta. Yes, wood bison in particular have shaggier heads (often reminding observers of teenage “emo” hairstyles) but plains bison caps don’t normally have hair that looks so straight or… wig-like.

Bell [Frank W.] (Photographer) . Buffalo Park. [Wainwright: 1910-1930]. PC010949. Courtesy of Peel's Prairie Provinces.
Bell [Frank W.] (Photographer) . Buffalo Park. [Wainwright: 1910-1930]. PC010949. Courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.
References:

  • For more information on Buffalo National Park, see: Brower, Jennifer. Lost Tracks: Buffalo National Park, 1909-1939. Edmonton: Athabasca University Press, 2008.
  • For more information on the diversity of bison anatomy in archaeology, see: Michael Clayton Wilson, “Bison in Alberta: Paleontology, Evolution, and Relations with Humans,” in Buffalo: Alberta Nature and Culture Series, edited by John Foster, Dick Harrison, and I.S. MacLaren (Edmonton, Alberta: University of Alberta Press, 1994): 1-17.

Bison, Past and Present

Buffalo in Wainwright's Park. [Wainwright]: Bell Photo, [1910]. PC005127, courtesy of Peel's Prairie Provinces.
Buffalo in Wainwright’s Park. [Wainwright]: Bell Photo, [1910]. PC005127, courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.
Working as an interpreter at Elk Island National Park this summer (obligatory disclaimer: I am in no way an official spokesperson for EINP, merely a passionate employee who wants to talk a lot about historical bison), I have been conducting a tremendous amount of research into the history of bison extirpation and conservation. As a historian keenly interested in the history of Western Canada, I have been reading and rereading some of the same sources I’ve known about for a while – the journals of explorers and fur traders, postcards of the first conservation herds, etc. – but I am looking at them with a new eye. Why? Because I interact with these iconic animals every day.

When I read some of these historical sources, I find myself nodding along.  Suddenly, certain passages make much more sense than they did only months ago as I read them in my grad student office in Ottawa. Jack Brink, in his work Imagining Head-Smashed-In (PDF on publisher’s website linked below), wrote of one unfortunate explorer’s experience with the massive bison herds in the West:

“In 1820, Edwin James provided the most harrowing account when, struck by a torrential thunderstorm on the Plains, the river rose and ‘was soon covered with such a quantity of bison’s dung, suddenly washed in from the declivities of the mountains and the plains at its base, that the water could scarcely be seen.’ Dinner that night, made with brown river water, tasted like a ‘cow-yard’ and was thrown away.”

When you have on more than one occasion found yourself tripping over a dry pattie on a hike or toeing apart the layers of the spiralled winter dung of a bison before the horrified gazes of city raised fifth graders, you come to realize that bison poop is a fact of life in the park. If a mere 900 or so individual animals can produce enough dung for me to encounter dozens of examples every day, what must it have been like for those people on the prairies at a time when an estimated 60 million bison roamed the continent?

“I am conscious that with many, I run the risk of being thought to indulge in romance, in consequence of this account: but with those who are informed of the astonishing number of the buffaloe, it will not be considered incredible. . . On the hills in every direction they appeared by thousands. Late in the evening we saw an immense herd in motion along the sides of the hill, at full speed: their appearance had something in it, which, without incurring ridicule, I might call sublime – the sound of their footsteps, even at the distance of two miles, resembled the rumbling of distant thunder.”

    – H.M. Brackenridge, 1811, travelling up the Missouri river, cited by Brink in Imagining Head-Smashed-In

What ecological effect did removing 60 million megafauna from the ecosystem have? Prairie fires were one unexpected result. I read that from about 1880, when bison numbers had dropped to an inconsequential and shocking few thousand head, to about 1920, when most of the land in the west was under cultivation, terrible and destructive prairie fires swept through the western prairies. Why? Because bison were no longer keeping those prairie grasses trimmed and so they were growing as high as a person’s waist or more. A single spark in those long grasses could cause devastating fire that would spread quickly. (Having had to mow the lawn in front of my staff residence in the park on many an occasion I can definitely tell you that grass can easily grow higher than my head at great speed if not kept trimmed.)

Bison also maintained the grassland by keeping aspen trees from establishing themselves by trampling seedlings. Many forested areas – including Elk Island National Park – were once grassland, over a century ago when the bison roamed the area. You can’t understand the current ecology of the region without an understanding of the impact of the bison and of their removal.

When it comes to other primary sources, I reexamine them with incredulity and ask myself whether they ever actually saw a real bison. Here, for example, is a painting by George Catlin of a “Buffalo Hunt,” cited by Jack Brink in his book Imagining Head-Smashed-In. What’s so strange about it? I can now easily see that this is a sizable bison bull.  Bison cows were hunted 10:1 to bulls because bull meat has less fat, is tougher, and tastes rank. But bulls sure do look impressive for painters, right?

"Buffalo Hunt." George Catlin's North American Indian Portfolio (London: J.E. Adlard, 1844), Plate No. 5. Courtesy of Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN No. 2833501.
“Buffalo Hunt.” George Catlin’s North American Indian Portfolio (London: J.E. Adlard, 1844), Plate No. 5. Courtesy of Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN No. 2833501.

To conclude: bison may have played a huge part in the past in the North American West, and while their numbers have been mindbogglingly reduced, they certainly aren’t yet history. Elk Island has played a huge role in bison conservation over the last century, and while I am occasionally late for work because bison tend to cross the road at their convenience and not mine, I marvel at the fact that I get to have these encounters nearly every day. At least I can observe the bison and reflect on their historical and current presence from the safety of my metal vehicle.

Further Reading

Postcards That Intrigue Me, Part II: Bison/Cow Hybrids and “Domesticated Buffalo”

When discussing the history of the North American West, the disappearance of the vast “buffalo” (bison) herds must inevitably make an appearance. Over hunting (largely by Europeans and arguably the Métis in Canada during the late fur trade period), competition with domestic cattle in the United States, fencing in previously open prairies, droughts, and the barriers created by railway tracks all contributed to the decline of herds that once contained millions of animals. Photographs of small mountains of bison skulls are a dramatic and tragic depiction of European excess and appear frequently in museums and basic histories of the West.

However, as early as the first decades of the twentieth century, some individuals were seriously trying to tackle new questions of animal conservation. At the now-defunct Buffalo National Park (1909-1939), near Wainwright, Alberta, a new “breed” of animal was created: the “cattalo” (cattle + buffalo), created by breeding together domesticated cattle with bison. These animals were bred back with full-blooded bison to remove their cattle-like physical characteristics, which are still evident in the photographs below of animals that are 5/8 bison. These photographs largely date from the 1910s and 1920s and most were taken in Wainwright.

Edit: I have since also been informed that at Buffalo National Park also conducted hybridization experiments with yaks (“yakkalo“?), under the belief that yaks were a transition species between buffalo and domesticated cattle – that given the right conditions, bison would become yak-like and then cow-like.

PC005148
‘”Quintoporto 5/8 Buffalo Bull, Wainright Park.” PC005148. Courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.
PC010948. http://peel.library.ualberta.ca/postcards/PC010948.html Courtesy of Peel's Prairie Provinces.
“5/8   Buffalo Bull.” PC010948.
Courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.
PC005145. Courtesy of Peel's Prairie Provinces.
“Pretty Maid 5/8 Buffalo Mother of Cattalo in Wainright Park.” PC005145. Courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.
PC005144
“Hybrid Buffalo Cow, Wainright Park, Alta.” PC005144. Courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.
PC005146
“Fort Royal Cattalo Bull, Buffalo Park, Wainright.” PC005146. Courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.
Herd of Cattalo at Wainright, AB, circa 1910: http://peel.library.ualberta.ca/postcards/PC005142.html
Herd of Cattalo at Wainright, AB, circa 1910. Courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

And speaking of “domesticated” bison, I would be remiss in not including this fascinating postcard, for which I have unfortunately little context: “The only chariot buffalo team in the world, owned by Bob Yokum and Edd Carr.” Only in Calgary, eh?

The Only Chariot Buffalo Team in the world owned by Bob Yokum and Edd Carr. [Calgary: cca. 1912. peel.library.ualberta.ca/postcards/PC006004.html
PC006004. “The Only Chariot Buffalo Team in the world, owned by Bob Yokum and Edd Carr.” Calgary: cca. 1912. Courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.
Side note about terminology: though they are colloquially known as “buffalo” and referred to almost exclusively by that name in the nineteenth-century historical record, “bison” is the preferred term in my generation. “Buffalo” was a misnomer imposed on the animal by European explorers who believed they resembled buffalo from Africa. “Bison” is considered the correct term by many, though some, particularly some Métis groups, still argue that the term “bison” is prescriptivist and “buffalo” still enjoys popular usage and cultural recognition. (“Li buffalo” is still how one says “bison” in Michif, the most widely-spoken Métis language.)

Further Reading: