“Like Distant Thunder: Canada’s Bison Conservation Story”

After years of work, I’m pleased to announce the publication of my book Like Distant Thunder: Canada’s Bison Conservation Story!

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Those who know me well know that I am always eager to share stories of bison history. Like Distant Thunder gathers together stories of bison conservation in what is now Canada, with a focus on the origins of the herds now protected by Parks Canada. These are tales full of twists and turns, successes and mistakes, and of course people with amazing names.

Much has been said about individual bison herds like Yellowstone, but I feel the stories north of the Medicine Line haven’t been told nearly as much. The story of wood bison in particular, the lesser-known but larger of the two subspecies of North American bison, is hardly discussed by historians. I’ve also come to learn a lot about what came to be known as the Pablo-Allard herd and its importance. An estimated 80% of plains bison today are descended from Pablo-Allard stock via either Elk Island or the National Bison Range in the US. Elk Island National Park has played an important role in bringing back both plains bison and wood bison from the brink of extinction. If you’ve seen a bison in Canada today, odds are they had an ancestor who passed through Elk Island. What came to be known as the Pablo-Allard herd initially began with the capture of a small number of bison calves by Indigenous men (Samuel Walking Coyote, or possibly/probably Peregrine Falcon Robe) in what is now Montana. These bison were raised by Metis men (Michel Pablo and Charles Allard), who expanded the herd until it was the largest and most genetically diverse bison herd in all of North America. Since 1907 they have been protected by Canadian national park staff. Getting these bison to Canada? Well, that’s an exciting story that deserves to be its own movie.

While studying at Carleton University I became particularly interested in the history of photography and the use (and misuse) of images of the past. Because of that, I was very conscious of my choice of images to illustrate this text. I’d like to draw your attention to the following images:

One of the things I find most fascinating about the history of bison conservation is how very nearly it came to failure on multiple occasions. All bison herds today (plains and wood bison) are descended from about 7 discrete populations: wild-caught and raised herds (Bedson/McKay, Buffalo Jones, Goodnight, Pablo-Allard, a handful of others) and wild herds that had national parks formed around them (Wood Buffalo National Park and Yellowstone National Park). When we say that bison were on “the brink of extinction”, we really mean it. It’s only due to a lot of hard work that bison still live in the world today.

I also wanted to highlight the continuous role of Indigenous people in bison conservation all the way through to today. Too often textbooks only speak of First Nations in their introductions and first chapters. From Walking Coyote to Michel Pablo to signatories of the Buffalo Treaty, Indigenous people have continued to protect bison through to the present day. The importance of bison to different Indigenous cultures isn’t a thing of the past; it’s an ongoing relationship that still informs the activism and actions of people today.

When I speak about this history in brief with visitors, I often say that many people know a little bit about the history of bison. They know that bison were important to First Nations people, that there used to be a lot of them, and that bison nearly went extinct. What I want to do with this work and in my interpretation is to fill in a bit of detail in that picture, but also to tell the sequel to the story that people kind of half know: what’s happened to bison since their historic lows of the 1890s, and how they came to be here on the landscape today.

Like Distant Thunder has been published by Parks Canada. Because it’s a government of Canada publication, it is of course available in both official languages. It was expertly translated into French by Claudine Cyr from the Translation Bureau. I swear some of the passages are even more evocative in French than in my English! If you are a French reader I highly encourage you to read that version as well.

We currently an to print Like Distant Thunder in the fall, but digital versions are currently available for free on Elk Island National Park’s website. Below are the download links. I recommend the PDF version on desktop computers and tablets, for printing, and to admire the beautiful layout. The PDF versions are how I intended this book to be read. There are also HTML versions, which are for accessibility: good for visually impaired folks using readers, or if you are reading it on your phone and would find HTML easier to read.

Please enjoy! Don’t hesitate to contact me to start a conversation about the fascinating history of bison conservation.

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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.

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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.

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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

“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 

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