Standing Rock Sioux Tribe
The Last Great Hunts
Communities resurrect story of dwindling herd of buffalo in Dakotas Plains animals 'part of the circle of identity'
Bushy Bluff, a wooded hill rising from the grassy floor of Hiddenwood Creek Valley, was prized for years as a good picnic spot.
Until recently, its primary claim to historical significance was the fact that Col. George Armstrong Custer camped at its base in 1874 when he led an expedition that discovered gold in the Black Hills.
But Bushy Bluff and Hiddenwood Creek have another story to tell.
This was where one of the last great buffalo hunts involving the Lakota Sioux began, back in days when the bison were on the brink of extinction.
That long-overlooked chapter of 1880s Dakota Territory history was recently resurrected by communities with connections to the hunts. Hettinger, for instance, located a few miles from the Hiddenwood Creek site, promotes the hunt as an attraction to visitors.
The fledgling historic preservation movement coincides with a renewed effort by conservation groups to increase the number of buffalo in the wild, since only a fraction of the estimated 500,000 bison today can roam large grassland preserves.
When the last remnants of the great northern buffalo herd wandered into western Dakota Territory in the early 1880s, word spread quickly to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation south of Bismarck.
The Standing Rock Sioux, who were struggling to adapt to a life of confinement on the reservation, believed the buffalo had come back to sacrifice themselves for the tribes' benefit.
It was an epic plains safari. Six-hundred hunters mounted on horseback, most carrying repeating rifles but some wielding bow and arrows, downed 5,000 buffalo in a matter of days, decimating a herd estimated at 50,000.
"The slaughter had been awful but not wanton, and I was impressed with the fact then that the Indian displays more restraint in hunting, even though his desire to kill makes his blood boil, than the white man," James McLaughlin, the Standing Rock agent and member of the hunting party, wrote later.
The hunts were largely forgotten, even by locals who were vaguely aware that some sort of big buffalo hunt once happened in the area, says Francie Berg of Hettinger, an amateur historian who happened upon McLaughlin's account years ago.
"This happened right on the border between North Dakota and South Dakota," Berg says. "I think it fell through the cracks."
Berg, who has written a booklet about the hunts, is working with others to resurrect the history of the "last great buffalo hunts" as a way to draw tourists to this remote area of southwest North Dakota.
Along southwest North Dakota's U.S. Highway 12, which skirts wheat fields and pasture that fan out from the base of Bushy Bluff – actually Hiddenwood Bluff – local tourism boosters, with help from the state Historical Society, have erected interpretive signs commemorating the buffalo hunts.
Tepee rings still can be found in a nearby pasture, a testament to the site's popularity as a camping area to generations of Plains Indians. Cattle have replaced the buffalo, except for one small herd 45 miles away.
"It's easy to visualize buffalo here," Berg says as she scans the Hiddenwood Valley. "It's productive land now. The homesteaders' first crop was picking buffalo bones."
One of the more exotic artifacts from Bruce Colgrove's boyhood was an old hunting rifle tucked away in a bedroom closet of his parents' home in Mott.
This wasn't just any old hunting rifle. The Sharps, so heavy that it required its own tripod, was used by his pioneer great-grandfather, Levi Colgrove, in a hunt that took place months after the one at Hiddenwood Creek.
It was very likely the grand finale of the last great hunts.
As a boy, Bruce Colgrove would admire the big gun once used by his ancestor, who was the first white settler in North Dakota's Hettinger County. A painted mural of Levi Colgrove and one of his son's hunting buffalo hangs in the courthouse lobby.
The hunt took place in October 1883 southwest of Mott, less than 30 miles from Haynes, when the buffaloes' fall coats would make thick robes.
Once again, several hundred Sioux took part, including Sitting Bull, according to the memoirs of Yellowstone Vic Smith, a frontiersman and former scout, who was one of several white hunters who joined the hunt.
By then the buffalo, which once populated the Great Plains in seemingly endless herds numbering in the millions, were scarce.
So scarce that Theodore Roosevelt, who'd hopped off the train a month earlier in the Badlands intent on bagging a buffalo, had a hard time finding one to shoot.
But better fortunes awaited Levi Colgrove, Vic Smith and the others. A herd of 10,000 buffalo was foraging between the Black Hills and Bismarck, and some of them were roaming near the Cannonball River.
By fall 1883, their number in Cannonball country had dwindled to 1,200. Once discovered by the hunters, however, that bunch was quickly reduced to hides and steaks.
A remorseful Smith, regarded as a champion buffalo hunter of his day, recalled years later, "When we got through the hunt there was not a hoof left." He once told an interviewer, "I wish now that my aim hadn't been so good."
Bruce Colgrove, who retired in Mott four years ago after a career as a computer programmer in the Twin Cities, is one of a group of local history buffs who are working to do more to commemorate the historic hunt. There's talk of cooperating with boosters in Hettinger to draw visitors with an interest in the hunts.
He's trying to locate Levi's gun, now in the hands of another branch of the family.
Three years after the buffalo hunt near Cannonball River in Dakota Territory, a taxidermist from the East Coast traveled to Montana to gather bison specimens for display.
William Temple Hornaday shot several buffalo in 1886 so future generations would know what they looked like, assuming the buffalo were destined for extinction. The stuffed buffalo is exhibited at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
The experience had a profound effect on Hornaday, who later embarked on a methodical quest to find and account for all remaining buffalo in North America.
In 1889, he published a survey of the American bison, estimating the population of bison, alive in captivity and in the wild, at 1,091. More than half were roaming in the remote Northwest Territory of Canada.
Hornaday's tally found 85 wild buffalo remaining in America, including four in western Dakota. He wrote that in 1888, a solitary bull was shot three miles from the town of Oakes, in Dickey County. He thought three stragglers were all the buffalo left east of the Missouri River.
Hornaday's studies left him with a grim outlook of the bison's future. He predicted that no American buffalo would be left in the wild within five years. By then a thriving trade in buffalo bones, shipped east by rail to make fertilizer, had replaced the hide trade.
Despite his pessimism, Hornaday decided to try to save the buffalo. Together with Roosevelt, whose interest in conservation was galvanized by the vanishing buffalo and other game he witnessed in the Dakota Badlands, he founded the American Bison Society in 1905.
That group was credited with helping to spare bison from extinction. Today, 500,000 buffalo remain in the United States. More than 90 percent are in private hands, mostly livestock raised for meat.
Over time, the American Bison Society languished. But the organization was revitalized a century after its founding, in 2005, with the goal of gradually increasing the number of bison in the wild. Partners include the National Park Service, The Nature Conservancy and the InterTribal Bison Cooperative, whose 57 member tribes have an estimated 15,000 buffalo.
Restoring prairie ecosystems and grasslands is an integral part of increasing the population of bison in the wild.
"The conservation herds probably consist of fewer than 20,000 animals," says Kent Redford of the Wildlife Conservation Society, a leader in the bison restoration collaborative, which takes a voluntary approach. "This isn't about pushing anybody into anything."
Mike Faith was a schoolboy when the buffalo returned to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation.
The day came in 1968, when the tribe received five buffalo, one bull and four cows, from Theodore Roosevelt National Park in western North Dakota.
"It was kind of like a homecoming," says Faith, who now manages the tribe's herd, but then was in the sixth or seventh grade. "It was exciting to see."
The Standing Rock herd now numbers 260 buffalo, which roam in two pastures, including a sprawling 3,500-acre buffalo range and game preserve that once was set aside for cattle.
The tribe furnishes buffalo for ceremonies including sun dances and powwows, and for a food program for the elderly and others in need. Before a buffalo is taken down by a high-powered rifle, a prayer is offered.
The Standing Rock Sioux have long-range plans to increase the size of their buffalo herd to 1,000. To handle a herd of that size, the tribe would need 20,000 acres of rangeland.
The resurrection of the buffalo is part of a broader return to Lakota and Dakota traditions, Faith says, including language instruction, dances and other cultural and religious practices.
"I think all in all it's coming full circle back," he says of the tribes' embrace of their heritage. "The buffalo are part of the circle of identity."
But the Standing Rock Sioux will be careful not to grow too fast. The top priority is the health of the herd, not its size, Faith says.
"They took care of our ancestors, back in the day," he says of the buffalo. "The tribe feels now we have to take care of them."
Readers can reach Forum reporter
Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522 or
Patrick Springer / The Forum
Mike Faith, who manages the Standing Rock buffalo herd, says the tribe has a long-term goal of expanding the herd from 260 head to 1,000. He's surveying the reservation's 7,000-acre buffalo range and game reserve near Fort Yates. To accommodate 1,000 buffalo, the tribe would need about 20,000 acres.
Filson Historical Society "Hunting the Buffalo," by Thomas Loraine McKenney is dated 1855. Plains Indians were experts in hunting buffalo on horseback. The animal provided food, hides for shelter and clothing and sinews for bow strings, among other uses.
Patrick Springer / The Forum
This painted mural in the lobby of the Hettinger County Courthouse in Mott, N.D., commemorates a buffalo hunt in October 1883. Levi Colgrove, the county's first white settler, took part in the hunt. According to historical accounts, other participants included Yellowstone Vic Smith, "champion buffalo hunter," and Sitting Bull. The mural was painted by Marie Weinberger in 1948.
Patrick Springer / The Forum
This lone buffalo bull is one of 260 bison in the Standing Rock Sioux herd today. Buffalo returned to the Standing Rock Reservation 40 years ago, at the start of a revival in interest in native practices.
State Historical Society of North Dakota photo C0469
Hunting pressures on the buffalo became much more intense in the 1870s and 1880s, when hide hunters flocked to the Great Plains to slaughter bison.
Posted with permission from The Forum – Author Patrick Springer. For more information please see their website at www.inforum.com.