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Goodbye to the Bison

As Professor Isenberg tells us, the final destruction of free-ranging herds of bison on the American Great Plains occurred in the 1870s and was the work of a handful of white men interested only in stripping hides from dead buffalo carcasses and shipping them off for sale in the East. But why was urban America eager to pay good money for millions of buffalo hides when cattle hides were readily available close at hand? The answer is simple. Before the invention of rubberized belting for use in factories, industrializing America required leather belts to connect steam engines with all the new machines that were turning out manufactured goods in unprecedented quantity. Buffalo hides, being larger and thicker than cow hides, could be made into stronger and more durable drive belts for America’s burgeoning factories.

This sidelight on the tumultuous ecological history of the Great Plains is characteristic of Isenberg’s short, elegant book. He does not subscribe to naive, romanticized notions of a pre-Columbian Eden, inhabited by Native Americans living in reverent harmony with benign, unchanging nature. On the contrary, he argues that the grassy plains of North America were subject to perpetual ecologi-cal disturbance, caused primarily by changes in rainfall that provoked incessant and quite drastic fluctuations in plant, animal, and human populations. After the die-off of larger species in Late Pleistocene times, bison became the dominant herbi-vores throughout the short-grass prairie. Their numbers seemed infinite to human observers when, during the rutting season, thousands upon thousands of animals assembled into enormous herds, spreading across the landscape as far as the eye could see.

Rough calculations persuade Isenberg that “the maximum possible sustainable bison population was probably between 27 and 30 million”; and his major thesis is that this huge presence was inherently precarious:

The near-extinction of the species cannot be understood simply as the result of hunting. It was surely also the consequence of less direct alteration of the bison’s habitat: displacement of bison from river valleys by Indians’ horses and the livestock of Euroamerican emigrants; and the introduction of cattle to the bison’s range. More important, however, the volatile plains environment itself contributed to the near-extinction of the herds. The pressures of drought, fires, blizzards, and other animals chronically depressed the bison’s numbers. Favorable conditions—rain, abundant forage, and mild winters—could also ultimately be disastrous, as an eruption of the population could lead to overgrazing and a population crash. Human hunters pressured the bison in combination with these unpredictable environmental forces. Thus, the destruction of the bison was not merely the result of human agency, but the consequence of the interactions of human societies with a dynamic environment.

Nonetheless, as he tells the tale, human agency was clearly the dominant factor in upsetting older ecological regimes and eliminating free-ranging bison herds from the Great Plains. Radical transformation began in the late seventeenth century, when a few Indians took to riding on horseback, abandoning older village settlements in the river valleys where mixed subsistence patterns, combining horticulture and gathering with hunting, cushioned human populations against even the sharpest fluctuations of the environment. Cortez had introduced horses to mainland North America in 1519 and horses arrived in New Mexico in 1598 when an armed Spanish expedition conquered the Pueblo Indians. But only after 1680, when the Pueblos rose in revolt and temporarily drove out their Spanish oppressors, did Indians gain any significant control of horses; and by the time the Spanish returned to Santa Fe a generation later, “the Pueblos had already opened an intertribal trade in horses.” Such trade quickly extended northward across the plains, diffusing “not only horses but the techniques, equipment, and knowledge of riding and caring for them. The nomads’ acquisition and use of domesticated horses depended as much on this information as it did on the animals themselves. Wild horses may have diffused into the plains, but equestrianism spread by trade.”

Learning to ride on horseback had drastic consequences for Indian communities that accepted the new animals and embraced a nomadic way of life built around hunting bison all year round. At least some Indians soon came to recognize costs as well as gains, for, according to Cheyenne tradition, when neighboring Comanches first offered horses to the tribe, a priest consulted their chief god, and reported back:

If you have horses everything will be changed for you forever. You will have to move around a lot to find pasture for your horses. You will have to give up gardening and live by hunting and gathering, like the Comanches. And you will have to come out of your earth houses and live in tents…. You will have fights with other tribes, who will want your pasture land or the places where you hunt. You will have to have real soldiers, who can protect the people. Think, before you decide.

In the short run, however, the advantages of horse nomadism were real, and gave young men a chance to escape from their elders’ authority by carving out independent new careers for themselves. Because bison dispersed into small groups in winter, taking refuge in river bottoms and other protected areas, their Indian pursuers did likewise, wintering in small groups with shifting membership. These groups persistently engaged in exchanges with nomadic rivals, whether in the form of trade or raids, since from the beginning their new way of life was precarious. In particular, “many Indian horses died in the winter months when they were unable to find sufficient forage,” making “continual infusions of horses from New Mexico,” where “southern plains nomads eventually became as much horse pastoralists as hunters,” a necessity for northerners. Trade with sedentary villagers who remained in the river-bottom lands was also important, since exchange of hides, robes, and meat for corn, beans, and squash benefited both parties.

Horsemen-hunters therefore built up a far-ranging trade/raid network across the Great Plains in the course of the eighteenth century. As Isenberg sums things up:

In one sense, the increased importance of intertribal exchange was merely a new form of ecological safety net: the Indians depended on trade rather than on their own labor to insure a diversity of resources. In another sense, the transition to nomadism was a rational economic adjustment: equestrian bison hunting yielded greater wealth at less expense than a combination of hunting, gathering, and planting. At any rate, once the plains nomads had become decentralized bands of economic specialists who produced a surplus for the purpose of intertribal exchange…it was a comparatively small step to commercial exchange with Euroamerican beaver pelt traders.

By about 1750, accordingly, trade in beaver pelts spread across the northern plains, bringing an infusion of European goods—guns, tobacco, kettles, and much else—and almost exterminating beaver by about 1800. This ecological upheaval did not escape Indian attention either. In 1796 an elderly Cree Indian told a fur trader: “We are now killing the Beaver without any labor, we are now rich, but [shall] soon be poor, for when the Beaver are destroyed we have nothing to depend on to purchase what we want for our families.”

For the Indians a sinister side effect of trade with Euroamericans was exposure to an array of new and highly lethal infections. A serious epidemic of smallpox raged across the plains between 1780 and 1782 and Isenberg concludes that it killed “no fewer than one-third to one-half of the sedentary horticulturalists living along the Missouri.” Some nomad encampments also suffered equally heavy losses from smallpox, but the fact that nomads lived in small, dispersed groups kept most of them safe. Subsequent outbreaks of smallpox and other diseases followed the same path, with devastating results. A rough calculation leads Isenberg to believe that

between 1780 and 1870, the population of plains sedentary horticulturalists probably declined by 79 percent. During the same period, the population of the nomads likely declined by 45 percent, with most of that loss occurring at the end of the nineteenth century.

And, not surprisingly, “The 1780-82 epidemic shifted the balance of power in the plains from the villagers to the nomads,” thus creating the basis for our prevailing popular image of horseback-riding cowboys and Indians chasing one another across the open range.

As long as Indian horse nomads hunted bison for subsistence and traded only with their sedentary neighbors, Isenberg believes, their way of life was precariously sustainable. That is to say, the kills they made, combined with those inflicted by wolves, did not exceed bison birthrates in good years when grass abounded. Nonetheless, the nomadic experiment was always insecure, alternating between periods of acute food shortage, when game disappeared for weeks on end, and periods of glut, when wasteful killing sometimes occurred, despite traditional rules against excessive slaughter. Isenberg concludes that

irreconcilable contradictions characterized the nineteenth-century nomadic societies…. These ongoing tensions were not resolved until Euroamericans brought trade in bison robes to the plains. When the robe trade tipped the balance in the nomadic societies toward commerce and individual ag-grandizement, their communalism proved to be fleeting. With the onset of the robe trade, the plains nomads, like the Paleoindians who had helped to destroy the large herbivores of the Pleistocene epoch, turned to the destruction of the bison.

As a result, Indian bison hunting rapidly became unsustainable after steamboats began to traverse the rivers of the plains in the 1820s. By the 1840s, Indian hunters

were annually bringing to the steamboats over 100,000 bison robes. This commercial production was in addition to their annual harvest of roughly half a million bison for subsistence and intertribal trade—an amount that the bison population could withstand only in the absence of drought….

But in 1846, after forty years of more than average rainfall, a drier than normal decade set in. New diseases (perhaps anthrax) may also have ravaged the bison, and a renewed epidemic of smallpox between 1837 and 1842 also disrupted Indian societies on the plains. Smallpox was swiftly followed by cholera in 1849-1850, so that, by 1890, “the Indian population of the plains had declined by no less than 60 percent from its late eighteenth-century level.”

The result was crippling disaster both for the bison and for the Indians dependent on them. Customary restraints against reckless slaughter collapsed as the trade in buffalo robes became central to the Indians’ way of life. Access to whiskey, blankets, and other enticing goods depended on having buffalo robes to sell; and it was far easier to kill and skin an animal than to process the hide into a saleable robe. That was women’s work; and successful hunters needed multiple wives to work up a suitable number of robes for sale. Under these circumstances, after about 1830, the hunters’ entire social-economic system became radically unstable. As bison herds decreased, raiding for slaves became the best way to accumulate the necessary female labor force for processing robes, and this practice was matched by horse stealing to repair chronic shortages of horses. Isenberg characterizes what happened as follows: “Patterns of authority eroded under the pressures of commerce” when “younger hunters resisted the authority of established leaders as they accumulated individual wealth” at the cost of allowing “anomie and inequality” to prevail among survivors.

All the same, Isenberg writes, “plains nomads and the bison dominated the grasslands until the 1860s,” but as the Civil War ended, the United States “faced the prospect of an Indian war in the Great Plains.” Yet in 1867, Congress declined to support a war of extermination proposed by Generals Sherman and Grant, preferring to set up a peace commission to negotiate treaties with the Indians. These treaties reserved specific areas where particular Indian tribes remained free to pursue diminishing herds of bison for as long as they survived, but the treaties also affirmed the federal government’s claim to all the rest of the grasslands, thus permitting white settlers and ranchers and the new railroads to surge forward and take over. Moreover, despite solemn treaties, Indian land rights were seldom observed by white hide-hunters and encroaching settlers. As a result, “by 1883, the bison was nearly extinct and the plains nomads submitted to the reservation system,” becoming resentful wards of a federal government that tried to make them into farmers while assuming, in the words of a New York Times editorial, that “survival of the fittest” made it inevitable that “the red man will be driven out, and the white man will take possession. This is not justice, but it is destiny.”

Isenberg’s book concludes with a chapter describing how the bison survived by dint of an odd alliance of Eastern conservationists with commercial ranchers who found it profitable to fence in a few bison and offer tourists the opportunity to hunt them for trophy heads and robes. A small free-roaming herd also survived in Yellowstone National Park (established in 1872) and soon became another semidomesticated tourist attraction. Finally, after World War II, a fad for buffalo steak made raising bison for slaughterhouses into a profitable variation on cattle ranching.

In this connection, perhaps it is fitting to mention—as Isenberg does not—that when the Argonne National Laboratory for atomic research was built outside Chicago after World War II, a spacious area within the circular accelerator path was reserved for native grasses, and the atomic scientists imported a small herd of bison to decorate the scene and, presumably, to replicate the state of nature as of pre-Columbian times, before the upheavals that Isenberg analyzes so persuasively got underway. The Argonne National Laboratory, by situating a simulated pristine landscape within the ring of an ultra-new technology, thus serves as an apt example of how new and old fused together. The atom smashers, like other conservation-minded Americans, came to view the bison as symbolic of a wild, free, and revered part of our national past, and, by fencing them in, converted a few survivors into a quaint decoration to amuse and instruct the public at large. As such, like the Indians who hunted them, the species is no longer in any danger of extinction.

Isenberg’s analysis of the tumultuous history of the Great Plains between 1750 and 1920 provides a very well documented example of the process of the expansion of civilization that has in fact dominated human history ever since civilized societies first arose. For it is a fact that simple societies, where cooperative and more or less egalitarian custom prevailed, began to be disrupted by contact with city-based outsiders from the time when, as an ancient Babylonian epic tells us, Gilgamesh, king of Uruk in the land of Sumer, set out to coerce labor from inhabitants of distant Syrian mountains in order to bring back cedar wood for roofing the temple of his native city. The Epic of Gilgamesh says nothing about how the peoples of the Syrian forest were induced to disrupt their forested landscape by cutting trees for the benefit of distant urban consumers. It is equally silent about infectious disease as a factor in destroying traditional life patterns among them; but as shown in my book, Plagues and Peoples, * cities became seats of endemic infections almost from the start, so that civilized populations that had been exposed to disease carried inherited and acquired immunities in their bloodstreams and started to transmit death-dealing infections to isolated, marginal populations not very long after the time of Gilgamesh.

But in the deeper past, and as recently as the sixteenth century, surviving records make it next to impossible to find out in any detail how local communities collapsed when contact with civilized soldiers, traders, and missionaries altered the ecological and demographic systems that had previously sustained them. Isenberg’s book shows how such a collapse occurred among the Indian peoples of the Great Plains. In this case, surviving documents, and contemporary understanding of ecological, epidemiological, demographic, and cultural processes, allow a perceptive historian to construct a detailed, precise, and nuanced analysis of what really happened, decade by decade and in some instances year by year or even month by month, as disasters caused by disease spread from community to community.

Isenberg has found an impressive array of sources for his history. Some derive from Indians themselves, consisting mostly of pictographic calendars that recorded key events of successive years. Most come from the Euroamerican side. Many of the travelers, traders, soldiers, and settlers who first made contact with the Indians were literate, and some were alert observers. Their writings allow Isenberg to weave together a surprisingly precise record of how Euroamerican civilization encroached upon the peoples of the Great Plains, and provoked Indian responses that ruthlessly upset older ecological balances and cultural patterns, until the advancing Euroamericans finally succeeded in encapsulating the surviving remnants of bison herds and their Indian hunters within American society at large.

The story is sobering and sad, showing how pursuit of short-term gain and individual advantage disrupted older subsistence and more or less sustainable ways of life among the Plains Indians. At the same time, as a detailed, convincing instance of how civilizations expand, it is profoundly instructive. And it may also be read as reassuring, since the current condition of the human inhabitants of the Great Plains, including farmers, ranchers, and the inhabitants of thriving cities like Denver and Kansas City, is, in nearly everyone’s estimation, preferable to the simple horticulture, gathering, and hunting that sustained the villagers who occupied that landscape before the painful civilizing process began.

But even if the general trend of human affairs on the Great Plains in particular, and throughout the recorded past in general, may perhaps conform to our preferences, no one reading Isenberg’s account of what actually happened can doubt that the costs of civilized expansion were very great indeed. It may be seen as a gain in the long run; but every such gain—indeed every change—implies the destruction of whatever was there before. And since the restless change that characterizes civilized society is inherently unstable, costs continue to mount, and our niche in earth’s ecosystem becomes ever more precarious even as it also, in accord with human wishes, becomes larger and larger.

That, it seems to me, is the lesson of Isenberg’s book. It is a lesson worth pondering as we teeter toward a new world of virtual reality, largely ignorant of the ecological, demographic, cultural, and political upheavals such a world will bring in its train.

  1. *

    Doubleday, 1976 (revised 1998).

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