Savior of the Buffalo!

Buffalo Bull, Grazing on the Prairie
George Catlin
oil on canvas
24 x 29 in. (60.9 x 73.7 cm)
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Mrs. Joseph Harrison, Jr.

The western plains were once known to be the home of the wild and proud buffalo.  George Catlin, a famous American painter in the 1800’s  known for capturing scenes from the west, once said that the “American bison, or … buffalo, is the largest of the ruminating animals that is now living in America; and seems to have been spread over the plains of this vast country, by the Great Spirit, for the use and subsistence of the red men, who live almost exclusively on their flesh, and clothe themselves with their skins . . . The buffalo bull often grows to the enormous weight of 2000 pounds, and shakes a long and shaggy black mane, that falls in great profusion and confusion over his head and shoulders; and oftentimes falling down quite to the ground. The horns are short, but very large, and have but one turn, i.e. they are a simple arch, without the least approach to a spiral form, like those of the common ox, or of the goat species.”

George Catlin (1849)
By William Fisk (1796–1872)
At the National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C. (owner)
1796 – 8 Nov 1872
Date of Work: 1849
Medium: oil on canvas
Place of execution: London
Dimensions: Frame: 158.8 x 133.4 x 7cm (62 1/2 x 52 1/2 x 2 3/4″)

Buffalo have been found to be roaming in herds for centuries, up until the turn of the 19th century. All across the west, buffalo killings became quite common, even encouraged. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s website, “With westward expansion of the American frontier, systematic reduction of the plains herds began around 1830, when buffalo hunting became the chief industry of the plains. Organized groups of hunters killed buffalo for hides and meat, often killing up to 250 buffalo a day… By 1883 both the northern and the southern herds had been destroyed. Less than 300 wild animals remained in the U.S. and Canada by the turn of the century out of the millions that once lived there.”

Buffalo were killed for their meat, hides (and were quite popular at the time in American and European markets found them softer and warmer than wool), bones, or often times as a trophy or for the fun of the sport of hunting, as they were easy to kill from a distance. Other reasons were to drive out the plains Indians and to make room for the expansion of the settlers and their longhorn cattle, which they had planned to replace to the buffalo with instead. To their dismay, the longhorns were not as tough or intelligent enough to survive the harsh winters of the western plains, as the buffalo were apt to do. Several ranchers such as Charles Goodnight, Buffalo Bill, and Samuel Walking Coyote understood how precious the buffalo were and captured or purchased bison for their ranches. They helped saved this species from extinction.  Today, there are 400,000 buffaloes in North America.

However, Charles could not have started his herd of buffalo without the help of Mary. In fact, it was her idea to start a herd of buffalo on the JA ranch in the first place. She was so horrified by the slaughter of starving orphan bison calves, that in the spring of 1878 she had her husband bring her a couple of calves and heifers to raise as her own. Charles also built the small herd a fenced pasture for them to graze with fourteen strands of barbed wire in order to protect them from predators.

Photos of the pen that Goodnight built for his herd.

Over the years, the herd became the fourth largest herd of buffalo at the time. The herd is now under the care of the state of Texas in the Caprock Canyon State Park.

A poem by a lady who grew up on a ranch in Texas and is fascinated by the tales of Texas history.  This one was inspired when she read excerpts from Mary Goodnight’s diary and learned of how she and her husband, Charles Goodnight, started a herd of a buffalo in order to preserve them.

Mary Ann’s Legacy By Linda Kirkpatrick
I rode to the edge of the caprock
And gazed in the canyon below
I thought of a time and a lady
And of her life of so long ago.

I watched the remains of her legacy
Thundering within the canyon wall,
While the red-tailed hawk soared peacefully
Beckoning with its lonely call.

The preservation of the buffalo
Was the center of her dream,
And because of this honored lady
The hunter was not supreme.

She had returned in desperation
To a Texas she’d once known.
Vowing to never leave the canyon
And to forever call this land home

She saw to the needs of her husband
And to the cowhands on the old JA
She was wife, mother, sister, doctor
And preacher when they’d lost their way.

Life in the canyon was lonely
Her chickens her closest friends
Her undying love for the buffalo
Stayed with her until her life’s end

Mary Ann Goodnight grieved and watched
As progress raised its vicious head
And as way was cleared for progress
They shot the buffalo dead.

During the day she heard the rifles ringing
And at night the orphan calves bawl,
As these sounds echoed the canyon
With their haunting lonely call

Her heart pained for the buffalo babies
And her feelings she did convey
So Charlie went out and roped two for her
The ancestors of these today.

The rest of the herd was swallowed up
As if it had never been
As the canyon walls loomed in silence
And Mary Ann’s buffalo lived within.

Millions once roamed the canyons
But now there are only a few
But thanks to Mary Ann Goodnight
Hers are here for me and you.

This buffalo sculpture, a tribute to Mary and Charles Goodnight, can be seen in front of their house in Goodnight Texas. The side pictured above is for Mary Goodnight.

This side of the sculpture is dedicated to Charles Goodnight.

There have been quite a few paintings and photos of the wild bison.

Artwork by Michelle Ouimette

Created by Kayla Beale

Michelle Ouimette and Kayla Beale are students of Hardin-Simmons University.

Photo by Wyman Meinzer, a famous Texan photographer.


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