For many people, the Lewis and Clark Expedition is forever linked with the American bison as a symbol of the great, unspoiled American west. Lewis and Clark encountered numerous herds of buffalo on their travels, some of which numbered thousands of animals. Yet it is surprising to realize that when the Corps of Discovery set out from St. Louis in 1804, the buffalo was already a species in retreat.
The American plains bison (or buffalo) originally had a range that encompassed most of the continental United States, from the Rocky Mountains in the west to the Appalachian Mountains in the east. In his book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, author Charles C. Mann theorized that early Native Americans in the east not only lived off the bison, but kept the herds regulated. Mann suggested that decades of heavier-than average rainfall, and the devastation of Native populations by the arrival of European diseases, enabled the bison herds to flourish in artificially large numbers.
However, this didn’t last long. As European populations got established on the East Coast and hunters and frontiersmen pushed west over the Appalachian mountains, they drove the buffalo before them. By the time Lewis and Clark were born, buffalo had already disappeared from western Virginia, Georgia, and the Carolinas. William Clark, who grew up in Kentucky and served in the militia in the Ohio River Valley, had no doubt seen and perhaps hunted buffalo as a youth. But the animals had all but disappeared from these places by the 1790’s. By the time the Corps of Discovery set out from St. Louis in 1804, a buffalo sighting east of the Mississippi River was an increasingly rare sight.
Still, Lewis and Clark knew that vast herds were out there to the west, and were on the lookout. On June 6, 1804, Clark noted in his journal, “Some buffalow Sign to day.” The first buffalo were spotted by the Corps’ hunters at the Kansas River on June 28.
August 23, 1804, was a red-letter day for the Corps. Joseph Fields shot and killed a large buffalo bull. It took Lewis and about a dozen men to butcher and carry the buffalo meat to a bend in the river so it could be picked up by the Corps’ boats. The Corps salted two barrels of buffalo meat that day. Sergeant John Ordway, a native of New Hampshire, was in Lewis’s party and was especially excited because he had never seen a buffalo before. Ordway wrote in his journal, “I walked about 1 mile & ½ in it when I went for the abo. ment. Buffelow, I Saw the beds & Signs of a great many more Buffelow But this was the first I ever Saw & as great a curiousity to me.”
As the Corps pushed up the Missouri through Nebraska and into present-day South Dakota, the herds grew in number. In early September, Clark noted a herd which numbered about 500; a couple of weeks later, Lewis observed a herd which he estimated at 3000.
Lewis and Clark had their share of close encounters with buffalo, including a buffalo bull that charged Lewis and another that rampaged through their camp, coming precariously close to stepping on the heads of sleeping men. On April 22, 1805, Lewis recorded probably his most charming encounter with a buffalo:
I asscended to the top of the cutt bluff this morning, from whence I had a most delightfull view of the country, the whole of which except the vally formed by the Missouri is void of timber or underbrush, exposing to the first glance of the spectator immence herds of Buffaloe, Elk, deer, & Antelopes feeding in one common and boundless pasture. we saw a number of bever feeding on the bark of the trees alonge the verge of the river, several of which we shot, found them large and fat. walking on shore this evening I met with a buffaloe calf which attatched itself to me and continued to follow close at my heels untill I embarked and left it. it appeared allarmed at my dog which was probably the cause of it’s so readily attatching itself to me.
Buffalo meat became a staple in the Corps’ diet, and they relished the rich, nutritious meat during their travels in the great plains. Lewis recorded that he even “ate of the small guts of the buffaloe cooked over a blazing fire in the Indian style, without any preperation of washing or other clensing, and found them very good.”
To the Corps’ dismay, the “immence herds” of buffalo disappeared as they crossed the Rocky Mountains. After a long winter at Fort Clatsop subsisting on elk meat and fish, they were drooling for the taste of buffalo by the time they finally recrossed the Rocky Mountains and descended back into the Great Plains in the summer of 1806. On July 8, 1806, Lewis wrote happily in his journal:
Josh. Fields saw two buffaloe below us some distance which are the first that have been seen. We saw a great number of deer goats and wolves as we passed through the plains this morning but no Elk or buffaloe. saw some barking squirrils much rejoiced at finding ourselves in the plains of the Missouri which abound with game.—
The Corps ate hearty on buffalo as they descended the Missouri River. In August, near present-day Chamberlain, South Dakota, Lewis noted with awe that he had seen the biggest herd yet: “I must have Seen near 20,000 of those animals feeding on this plain.”
Lewis and Clark would have been staggered if they had known that within 75 years of their expedition, the bison would be driven to the edge of extinction. At the time of the expedition, the supply of bison west of the Mississippi seemed inexhaustible. But considering the rate at which the bison had disappeared from the East, the decline of the “immence herds” of bison in the west seems almost inevitable. Towns, farms, and railroads are incompatible with grasslands and giant free-roaming bands of large animals. As people had already seen in the east, the doom of the bison was written in the relentless western expansion of the frontier.
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