Buffalo shaped the culture of Kansas
06/12/2011 12:00 AM
06/12/2011 1:34 PM
BARBER COUNTY — Buffalo dot the prairie like a scene from Frederic Remington's Old West.
The 2,000-pound giants walk across ridges and clearings, noses to the ground, biting blades of grass, bellowing primordial sounds, deep and guttural.
Dust rises with each step.
Could this be what the first Kansans saw and heard?
"They sounded like a continuous roll of thunder," wrote George Martin, a 19th-century state printer and secretary of the Kansas State Historical Society.
No other animal has such an iconic legacy in Kansas. The buffalo is featured on our state quarter and seal, and sung about in our state song.
"The reason there is prairie is due to the buffalo," said Bill Kurtis of Sedan, a native Kansan and nationally known TV documentary host and producer.
Buffalo symbolize free will and free range.
"The buffalo is so emblematic of the West and the great grasslands that people found when they came out here," said Thomas Fox Averill, a Kansas historian and a professor of English at Washburn University in Topeka.
And in Barber County, the mighty animals have made a comeback. This spring, more than 3,300 roam over the Z Bar Ranch's 43,000 acres.
They are creating new trails and wallows, and helping to foster new ecosystems on the prairie.
More than 25 million buffalo once spread across the prairies.
In 1541, when Spanish explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado came through what would become Kansas, he would write that the Plains were filled with such a quantity of bison "that it is impossible to number them."
Later, Martin, the printer and historian, wrote:
"General (Philip) Sheridan and Maj. Henry Inman attempted to make an estimate of the buffalo they had passed. Taking a strip about 100 miles wide, they figured ten billions. Sheridan said nobody would believe that. They figured again and made it one billion. Finally, they reached the conclusion that they had passed one hundred million and, although they were doubtful if any one would believe these last figures, they firmly believed them."
Over the decades, the buffalo became the spark in cultural conflicts between Plains Indian tribes and the U.S. government.
"Many of the tribes see the buffalo as a sacred animal," said Milton Youngbird Hamilton, a Cheyenne. "Many tribes believe God gave them the buffalo — its hide would be used as shelter in their tepees, their thread, their moccasins, their robes for warmth in winter. It is a very sacred animal. Many creation stories begin with the buffalo."
But for 19th-century Americans, the buffalo were a nuisance. They stood in the way of garden-like farms.
The federal government launched a campaign to eradicate the animals.
Ridding the Great Plains of the buffalo would be more than a simple act of conquering the wilderness. It would require removing not only the animals but the people of the prairie.
"Some see this as the Native American policy of extermination — get rid of the buffalo and you get rid of the Native Americans," said Jay Price, director of the public history program at Wichita State University.
"The whole western mindset favors organized garden over untamed wilderness," Price said. "The whole essence is to use up this resource. Since we couldn't really domesticate the bison, we treat it as a resource and use it until you have used it up."
After the Civil War, three advancements in technology changed the Great Plains — a tanning method that allowed more buffalo hides to be turned into high-grade leather, the repeating rifle, and railroads.
Turning buffalo hides into luxurious rugs and robes became a lucrative industry. Buffalo tongues were harvested and, when pickled in salt, considered a delicacy.
In less than 20 years, the buffalo culture was replaced by cowtowns and cowboys.
Durfee's trading post
More than a century before Walmart, Elias Hicks Durfee supplied the people of the prairie through his trading posts, including one he established in 1867 in what is now the 400 block of West Ninth Street in Wichita.
He encouraged American Indians, trappers and frontiersmen to bring him the skins of otter, beaver, buffalo, wolf, elk, bear, fox, deer and raccoon.
His company became the largest fur and robe company in the West.
In 1868, Durfee offered instructions to the Leavenworth Daily Conservative for anyone wanting to hunt buffalo:
"The buffalo are killed mostly by arrows, as they are not only less expensive, but can be withdrawn and used again," he said.
Durfee said a large buffalo herd should be surrounded and gradually driven together. The straggling buffalo should be shot in the liver so they could bleed internally and go another 4 or 5 miles. When the circle was closed, the hunters would shoot the remaining animals in the heart.
After a successful hunt, Durfee said, a hunter would be faced with hungry wolves wanting to scavenge buffalo meat. Because wolf fur also was sought after by the Eastern companies, hunters would poison hunks of buffalo meat with strychnine to kill dozens of wolves at a time.
J.R. Mead, early Kansas trader and Wichita developer, wrote in "Hunting and Trading on the Great Plains, 1859-1875" that "we put bait round our buffalo carcasses for wolves ... In the course of the day we found eighty-two dead wolves ... As wolf pelts were worth $2.50 apiece, we had no fault to find with the wolves."
After the buffalo had been killed and carcasses finished rotting, bone collectors scoured the prairie, gathering thousands of bleached bones and shipping them East by railroad to be used to make fertilizer.
The mass extermination of wildlife angered the Indians.
"They kill my buffalo and when I see that, my heart feels like bursting," Kiowa Chief Satanta is quoted as saying.
Bring back the buffalo
By the 1890s, the Indians had been relocated to Oklahoma and the ranks of buffalo had been reduced to less than a thousand.
The last buffalo killed in Kansas was in April 1887 in Cheyenne County.
In the late 19th century, C.J. "Buffalo" Jones, a Garden City buffalo hunter and promoter, was credited with saving the animal from extinction.
He captured a dozen wild buffalo and began building his own herd to sell to parks and zoos. He eventually worked at Yellowstone National Park and began building the herd there.
Slowly, the numbers grew.
Until about 40 years ago, seeing a buffalo anywhere in Kansas was almost a novelty. Then, it became fashionable to raise buffalo.
Now, it's not uncommon to see small ranchettes throughout Kansas sporting a buffalo or two on 20 acres of pasture.
"I think raising buffalo is still a novelty," said Eva Yearout, office manager for the Z Bar Ranch. "A lot of people buy to raise them and eat them — keep themselves and families stocked with meat.
"Right now, the buffalo are more profitable than beef and healthier. They are leaner, higher in protein and low in cholesterol. The meat, calorie-wise, is leaner than beef, chicken and fish."
Some of the best places in Kansas to spot bison are the Maxwell Wildlife Refuge near Canton and the Sandsage Bison Range and Wildlife Area near Garden City. There are smaller herds throughout the state.
But for sheer numbers and to capture what early Kansans once saw, you have to go to the Z Bar in Barber County.
As his pickup rattles over the open prairie, Z Bar ranch manager Keith Yearout contemplates how much the land has changed in the decade since the buffalo returned.
Before, cattle were allowed to overgraze, nearly killing the native mixed prairie of big bluestem, switch, Indian and little bluestem grasses. Invasive red cedar were everywhere.
The buffalo have changed that, he says. The prairie is reawakening.
On this land, western meadowlarks, lesser prairie chickens and quail call out. Rugged red earth mixes with sagebrush, sand plum bushes and giant cottonwoods. The stars at night seem brighter and closer.
Along with the buffalo and native grasses have come prairie dog villages, burrowing owls, golden eagles, prairie chickens and antelope.
In groupings of 20 to 60, the buffalo stay within five to six feet of each other. The groups stretch across the horizon.
"They have the whole range from the meanest one in the bunch to the most timid," Yearout said. "They have a distinct pecking order. And, each of them know where they are on the line. Some will fight.
".. They are aware who is next to them. They graze. They walk. And if one of the neighbors' cattle gets in with them, they will walk a beef cow to death because they travel so much more than a beef cow."
The buffalo are herd animals, social creatures by nature.
As they meander across the prairie, the buffalo create new paths and follow some of the old ones.
"They go the path of least resistance, the gentlest slope," Yearout said. "If I ever get lost out here, all I have to do is get on a buffalo path and it will be the easiest way to get across the prairie."
He doesn't believe the reports by early Kansans of great herds stretching for miles.
"You will see a group of 200 and then maybe a quarter of a mile away, you will see another group of 200. But like a 'Dances with Wolves' scene? I don't think that ever happened. We don't experience that behavior.
"We have 3,000 buffalo and when you get that many together, the dust would be too much. They kick up dust, and they don't want to breathe it anymore than anybody else."
Never underestimate the power of a buffalo: They can run up to 35 mph and turn faster than a horse.
Smart and ever watchful, the buffalo can determine which pickup is Yearout's across the horizon.
"They are very aware and can hear the rattle of my truck from 2 miles away," he said.
They will come in a thundering stampede and surround his pickup if they suspect he is carrying cake feed.
Looking out over the buffalo as they graze in the rugged Red Hills of Kansas, it's easy to see why they are one of the most iconic animals of the Old West.
In 1804, President Jefferson ordered Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to set out on an expedition exploring the Louisiana Purchase, in part to prove the New World was larger, grander and superior to the Old World's standards.
"The buffalo is the perfect example of that," Washburn's Averill said. "It is a creature that proved to be the sturdiest.
"By its numbers and size, it showed the power of the American continent."
Reach Beccy Tanner at 316-268-6336 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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