Cowboy Tuesday: The American Bison

Bison herd on the move. Photo by Neal Herbert, National Park Service.

American bison (Bison bison) are commonly referred to as buffalo, although that name is not technically correct. Before 1800, there were an estimated 30 million buffalo and maybe as many as 70 million roaming the Trans-Mississippi West. These massive beasts are an integral part of the American story.

Bison have excellent hearing and smell, but terrible eyesight. Consequently, they are relatively easily spooked, which can result in stampedes. Cowboys report that encounters with bison while on the trail often resulted in stampedes of both bison and cattle.

Bison bulls can be 5 ½’ – 6 ½’ tall to the top of their shoulder hump and 9’ -12 ½’ long. Females are smaller at about 5’ tall and 7’-10’ long. Bison can weigh between 1,800-2,400 pounds. Calves weigh 30-70 pounds at birth.  Despite their size, bison can run up to 35 mph. These impressive animals can also live up to 20 years.

In 1865, there were 360,000 Indigenous people in the Trans-Mississippi West with more than 500 culturally diverse tribes, each with own language, religion, and traditions. The most powerful tribe was the Lakota Sioux. Indigenous peoples depended on the buffalo for food, clothing, shelter, tools, jewelry and for use in their ceremonies.

The arrival of the railroads devastated the bison on the Great Plains. During migration season, herds blocked train traffic for hours at a time and occasionally even derailed locomotives. Passengers on trains reported seeing unbroken herds for 120 miles. The railroad companies offered bounties for the killing of buffalo and organized hunting parties for passengers to shoot them from open windows on moving trains. Buffalo Bill Cody got his nickname because of his excellent marksmanship and efficacy as a professional hunter. Working for the Kansas Pacific Railroad, Cody killed 4,200 bison in the 1860s. He claimed to have killed more than 20,000 throughout his career as a “buffalo hunter.” The Kansas Pacific and Union Pacific railroads sent 825,000 bison hides eastward for processing in 1872-1873 alone.

Bison were systematically slaughtered during the period of “Indian removal” and ranch development in the American West. The slaughter of the buffalo displaced Native tribes, while grazing cattle displaced bison. By the 1890s, there were fewer than one thousand buffalo remaining.

Significant conservation efforts began with President Teddy Roosevelt in 1905 and the founding of the American Bison Society. In 1992, the Inter-Tribal Buffalo Council was established, which includes 69 federally recognized Tribes in 19 states. Their mission is to not only restore buffalo to Indian Country but to preserve historical, cultural, traditional, and spiritual relationships between Indigenous peoples and bison.  The Council works with the National Park Service to transfer bison from national park lands to tribal lands.

Today, there are approximately 500,000 bison in the West, but their status remains as “Near Threatened” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Some of the best places to see buffalo in the wild are our National Parks, particularly Yellowstone National Park in northwestern Wyoming, southern Montana, and eastern Idaho.

To buy the book about Eugene’s time as a cowboy, please visit  


Department of the Interior (2022) 15 Facts about our National Mammal: The American Bison.

Jancer, Matt (2018) “Gun Control is as Old as the Old West: Contrary to the popular imagination, bearing arms on the frontier was a heavily regulated business. Smithsonian Magazine, February 5.

Knowlton, Christopher (2018) Cattle Kingdom: The Hidden History of the Cowboy West. HMH Books, New York.

Love, Nat. (1907) The Life and Adventures of Nat Love Better Known in the Cattle Country as Deadwood Dick by Himself. Los Angeles, California. Call number Duke 326.93 L897L. Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, Duke University Libraries, Durham, North Carolina. Available at

Morrow, Julie (2021) “Adapting Against Assimilation: Recovering Anishanaabe Student Writings in Carlisle Indian School Periodicals, 1904-1918. Australasian Journal of American Studies 40(2, December):71-102.

National Park Service (2022) People and Bison.,of%20Indian%20people%20and%20society

Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute (2022) American Bison.

Taylor, M. Scott (2009) “Buffalo Hunt: International Trade and the Virtual Extinction of the North American Bison.” The American Economic Review 101(7, December):3162-3195.

Weidel, Nancy. (2014) Wyoming’s Historic Ranches. Images of America Series by Arcadia Publishing, Charleston, South Carolina.

White, John H., Jr. (2009) “Hunting Buffalo from the Train: Buffalo, Iron Horses, and the Path Toward Extinction.” Railroad History 201(Fall-Winter):42-49.


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