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:

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Postcards That Intrigue Me #1 – The First Car in Canada

While writing blog posts about historical motorcars (Click here for Parts One, Two, and Three) this summer, and preparing for my recent trip to archives in Alberta in July, I did a lot of searching and browsing through the University of Alberta’s extensive digitized collection of historical postcards on Peel’s Prairie Provinces. Here is but one of the intriguing images I found.

Cost $1700, Rate - 20 m.p.h., 8 miles per gallon of water. Driver needed, 2 assistants. 1 to go in front & warn people of the car's coming, 1 to go behind & extinguish the prairie fires started by the exhaust. Bought by Senator Cochrane Ranch, Calgary.
First Car in Canada (1898) Still Going Strong. Owned by Chas. Jackson, Calgary.  Courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

This transcription of the back of this postcard provides a tongue in cheek description of the vehicle’s capabilities:

Cost $1700, Rate – 20 m.p.h., 8 miles per gallon of water. Driver needed, 2 assistants. 1 to go in front & warn people of the car’s coming, 1 to go behind & extinguish the prairie fires started by the exhaust. Bought by Senator Cochrane Ranch, Calgary.”

Now, this postcard is undated, but let’s see what information we can tentatively identify about it:

  •  Judging by the “still going strong” caption on the front, one could assume that the vehicle was old even at the time that this postcard was made. I would guess that this picture maybe even dates to the mid- to late 1920s.
  • I would assume from the outfit of the matronly woman in the back that it would be at least the late 1910s. Furthermore, note the view of the girl in the front’s stockinged leg. Opaque stockings were still a thing in the 1920s – nude colour was still a bit racy, particularly in conservative Canada – but she is showing a lot of leg for the early 1900s. The posture of the girls and the flatness of their chests tells me that they aren’t wearing Edwardian corsets – their figures and slouching postures seem more 1920s than anything else. Their hats look more like bonnets, which were going out of style for young ladies even in the 1890s, but there is a strap chin strap, so perhaps they are special driving hats. (Edwardian hats had a tendency to fly off while motoring, due to their large size, resulting in many ladies securing them with scarves.)
  • The road is also paved, which was rare in many cities in the west until the 1930s. Or perhaps it is a cobblestone road?
  • The flags behind the heads of the two passengers in the back appear to be red ensigns, which were of course the official flag of Canada until the adoption of our current flag in the 1964, but we already knew that this photograph predated the 1960s.

Incidentally, the vehicle itself is fascinating. You can really see the influence of bicycles in the design of this automobile, particularly in the wheels. Look at those spokes! And the chain! The shocks also look like they come from a Victorian carriage.  Note, too, the dashboard – a little shield – and the fact that the steering wheel, strictly speaking, is more of a rudder than a wheel.

All in all, a fascinating glimpse into early motor history in Canada.