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The repeated mentions of bison in the Journals of Lewis and Clark describe them, with rare exceptions, as dramatically numerous, a perception which may have contributed to their near-extermination in later decades.
The buffalo as a useful and plentiful food source crops up repeatedly on both legs of the expedition. With few exceptions, they appear as an abundant resource, reflecting the contemporary ignorance of extinction. While perhaps accurate in the context of foot-based hunting with spear or arrow, this perception became maladaptive in an era of horseback or train-mounted pursuit with rifle. It is very possible that the image of buffaloes as almost limitless in number helped settlers to rationalize subsequent wasteful killing.
Most buffalo mentions imply overwhelming numbers. After the first kill on August 23, 18042, they appear in crowds of “500”3, or “immence”4, “numerous”5r “innumerable herds”6. Towards the end of the western trip, Clark mentions”20,000” visible7. This gives an impression of limitless extent.
“Buffalow Was Very Plenty in Those Plains”8
The few mentions of missing buffalo populations, for example, on July 14, 18069, pass without comment. To modern ears, this absence suggests local over-hunting by someone; Shoshones perhaps10. This reflects that a distinctly pre-extinction-theory worldview shaped their observations.
“At Least a Hundred Carcases”11
On May 29, 180512, Lewis documents the apparently wasteful Native American technique of piskun stampeding13. Thus, when June 14, 1805, a buffalo kill is interrupted by a bear attack14, we are somewhat unsurprised at the carcass’ abandonment. Furthermore, although the expedition depended heavily on buffalo, they go un-mentioned in Lewis’ summary letter to Jefferson15
The journals emphasized buffalo abundance. Lewis and Clark, despite their gifts of observation, were ignorant to the possibility of species extinction, as was everyone at the time. This deficit blinded them to the significance of absent populations.
Their description of the superficially wasteful and careless techniques of the Native Americans, their own wasteful hunting, and their oversight of the buffalo in reporting to Jefferson, all sent a dismissive message. All these three characteristics of their observations may have contributed to an oblivious attitude on the part of East Coast residents.
As settlers moved west, the buffalo may have seemed like an obstacle to settlement, or an immensely convenient and free source of meat and hides. Buffalo were not, however, recognized as the crucial element they represent in a larger Great Plains ecosystem. Buffalo, sadly, were therefore not deemed worthy of conservation. The journals of Lewis and Clark may have played a significant part in the misperception of this species.
1 Jones, Landon. Y. The Essential Lewis and Clark. Harper Collins. 2000. Page 15.
2 Jones, Page 9.
3 Jones, page 13.
4 Jones, page 15 and page 36.
5 Jones, page 11.
6 Jones, page 54.
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7 Jones, page 190.
8 Jones, page 183.
10 Ibid. Consider this tantalizing statement:
“I saw Elk, deer, Antelopes, and a great deel of old Signs of buffalow. their roads is in every direction. The Indian woman informs me that a fiew years ago Buffalow was very plenty in those plains & vallies quite as high as the head of Jeffersons River, but fiew of them ever come into those valleys of late years owing to the Shoshones who are fearful of passing into the plains west of the mountains and subsist on what game they can catch in the mountain principally and the fish which they take in the E. fork of Lewis’s River.”
This seems to be saying that the Shoshones have hunted in concentrated fashion in the mountains to avoid confrontation with another tribe, and the buffalo have either been killed off, or migrated elsewhere.
11 Jones, page 53.
12 Ibid. The previous evening, the camp was disturbed by the midnight stampede of a solitary buffalo bull. This incident gives the impression of the buffalo’s terrifying strength coupled with unexpected and unpredictable behavior on the animal’s part. It may have contributed to the perception of buffalo as dangerous and worthy of extirpation.
13 Jones, page 54. This technique involves decoying a herd over a cliff. Many carcasses remained to rot in a way that even today, resonates as something one wish could have been avoided. What must this have looked like to European readers? Today, we can imagine that there may have been sufficient reasons for this method other than deliberate waste, given the pattern of respect for the prey that Native Americans are popularly understood to have exhibited. However, at the time, it is reasonable to infer that it looked as though the buffalo could safely be wasted.
14 Jones, page 64.
15 Jones, page 198-202.