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

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Mystery Photoset: “Calf Robes Resisting Capture,” “Susie’s Blind Husband,” and Other Unique Postcards

PC030194 – “Mrs. Mayfield’s Baby” Note the two ladies from the previous image having their photograph taken in the back1ground, likely taken on the same occasion because they are wearing the same outfits. This photograph also confirms that there were two cameras at play. This photo series may only be the results of one of those Kodak Brownies, though. Note that cameras were not held to the eye - you looked through the viewfinder from up above and hold the camera at waist height.
PC030194 – “Mrs. Mayfield’s Baby”

Postcards were not always mass produced. In the early twentieth century, one could print Kodaked images onto postcard stock and create one’s own unique postcard to mail off to friends and relations. The University of Alberta Archive’s Peel’s Prairie Provinces has just recently doubled its collection of early Western Canadian postcards to nearly 30,000 examples, some entirely unique. I had the opportunity last summer to examine some of the ones that weren’t yet digitized. Among the picture postcards of Banff’s main street, parades at the Calgary Stampede, European pioneers in Saskatoon, and everything in between, I ran across a series of privately produced postcard images that I find incredibly intriguing.  They are a set of photographic postcards that have been cut from a photo album – the backs are blank, glued to pieces of black paper from the album sheets. The same people appear in multiple images, but aside from a few telling details and a few names which may or may not be jokes or pop culture references I cannot understand over a century later, these images are now relatively anonymous. This photoset may not even be complete. I confess I was scanning them alongside about 300 other images over the course of a single day and I only noticed that they were from the same grouping later on when I began looking at them more deeply for my major research essay. I also only examined a few boxes of cards which had been separated out by the archivist for having explicitly Aboriginal subjects, so it is possible that there are other postcards from these photographers in the Peel’s Prairie Provinces Collection, yet to be digitized. I was initially hoping to incorporate them into my major research project, but they have far more in common with anonymous photo album pages than they do postcards, as fascinating as they are. Ah, well, a project for another time!

I have placed these images in an order that made sense to me, placing them either in what amounts to a sequence, or beside images that share the same photographic subjects for ease of comparison. Do not ascribe meaning to the order as it was imposed by me. I now invite you to consider these photographs for yourself. I have included a few preliminary observations, but I welcome any further commentary from my readers. Maybe we’ll find the proverbial smoking gun that identifies these people. Please click the images to enlarge them and see my annotations. (Note: The strings of numbers beginning in “PC” (“post card”) are their Peel’s Prairie Provinces call numbers, so you may cite them or look them up when they finally become digitized.)

So, in summary: these photographs were taken on at least two occasions, as evidenced by the same figures appearing at least twice in different outfits and the presence/lack of snow on the ground. These photographs were likely taken South of Calgary, as one of the figures is identified as “Sarcee” (Tsuu T’ina); that is, of course, if the writer identified the band correctly. The photographs likely date from circa 1899-1922, but are more likely from 1905 or 1912, when gigantic Merry Widow hats were popular. There were two photographers present, but these photographs may have only come from one of their cameras. I am unsure of the relationship between the people in the photographs. Why do “Calf Robes” and the others play along in staging scenes of violence? Is “Susie” truly on a first name basis with the photographer and the man she stands arm-in-arm with? Are these white folks tourists, locals visiting Tsuu T’ina friends, or the family of an Indian agent with political power over these people? Furthermore, if these photographs were all taken by the same person, there may be a (sixth?) person in the party who is never pictured because they are always behind the camera and not in front of it.

Related Posts:

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.