Parkman’s Unending Buffalo

“The country before us was now thronged with buffalo,” wrote the young Bostonian Francis Parkman at the beginning of “The Chase” in The Oregon Trail, his book about his adventures out in the west in 1846. (I was immediately reminded of the similarly titled chapters in Moby-Dick, published five year later; turns out Melville read and praised Parkman’s “true wild-game flavor.”)

Parkman writes that “we waged an unrelenting war” against the bull buffalos. While his small party ate a lot of buffalo meat – dried, it was a major component of their diet on the trail – that was usually from the cows. When they were well-supplied with meat, they would sometimes just take the tongue. For the bulls, it was just the tail, as a trophy. He and his friends were still using muzzle-loading rifles, so the damage they could do was to a certain extent limited. A very skilled hunter could kill “five or six cows in a single chase” loading each shot on horseback, often by holding the rifle balls in his mouth.

“Thousands of them might be slaughtered without causing any detriment to the species,” wrote Parkman, about the male buffalo. Uh-huh. Hasn’t every fisher and hunter said something similar since time immemorial? There’s just too many of ’em for us to do any damage… they’ll always be here. Didn’t the Canadian cod-fishers say it? And before them, didn’t the people who crossed over Beringia say that about what we now call the extinct megafauna? This stuff’ll last forever, boys! And the peoples who made it to Australia? These animals will never end, mates.

By the 1880s, there were just a few hundred bison left from the millions that had been there two generations earlier.

1 Response to “Parkman’s Unending Buffalo”


  1. 1 Paul Lamb December 31, 2014 at 6:53 am

    Bitter truth, those words of yours. Thanks for the Melville connection too.


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