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

Edwardian Street Life

Happy New Year everyone! I can never escape from historical research. I have attempted to relax over the holidays (though scholarly pursuits are never far from my mind), and through the joys of the internet I have run across a few gems I’d like to share with you.

I’ve run across historical videos of “everyday scenes” before. Here, for example, is a link to a video taken from a tram in San Francisco in 1906, just prior to the famous earthquake and fire. I’m fascinated by historical videos and pictures of everyday life. One can learn a lot about portraits taken in studios, but of course most people would dress up for that, and until exposure times were shortened in the late 19th century poses were often very stiff and formal. (See here for an interesting article with photographs of Edwardian “street style” from London and Paris.)

Videos of everyday life can tell us so many things. They generally aren’t as posed. One can see how real people dressed (and moved in those dresses), how people interacted with their environment and the people around them, etc. You can see things like garbage and horse dung in the streets, cyclists taking risks, children running and laughing, and so on. It’s amazing.

Below is a video taken from a tram on various streets in Barcelona in 1908. I find it absolutely fascinating. I am intrigued by how people interacted with the tramway. The trams moved at about the same pace as the motorcars, the horses, and the cyclists. There is a wonderful flow to traffic in the video that I feel is absent today. When everything moves at about the same pace, there’s less of a chance of accidents, not as many sudden stops and starts, and everyone seems to interact more and be more aware of their surroundings. You can see children running ahead of the tram, men shaking hands and parting from the tracks at the last instant before the tram runs them over, cyclists constantly weaving in and out of traffic…

I also find the history of fashion to be quite fascinating. One person that caught my attention appears at about 4:15: a young girl with an enormous feathered hat. One tends to see the Merry Widow Hat on young women instead, so this is an intriguing example of children’s fashion to me. It’s interesting to see how the feathers of the hat actually move, too.

Some of the people seem to be aware of the camera and wave their hats at the cameraman, or at least the tram. If you pay close attention to one of the male figures near the front of the screen at about 5:05, I think he tries to “moon” the camera. At the very least he cheekily turns and presents his rear end to the camera and then grins.

On a slightly more adorable note, at about 5:20 a cart starts trundling along in front of the tram. During that time, many men lining the road wave their hats at the camera, and one of the men on the cart looks back several times. At about 5:45 they seem to have been told about the camera and the man on the left waves. I don’t suppose that these men were filmed very often! There’s something endearing to me about their reaction. (A subjective view, yes, I know.) Still, due to the power of moving pictures, people from over a hundred years ago seem to wave at me, out of history.

These films of everyday life are well worth a view.