Western Heritage: A Selection of Wrangler Award-Winning Articles

Western Heritage: A Selection of Wrangler Award-Winning Articles


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806142067
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 05/10/2011
Series: The Western Legacies Series , #9
Pages: 292
Sales rank: 916,020
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Paul Andrew Hutton is Distinguished Professor of History at the University of New Mexico and author of Soldiers West: Biographies from the Military Frontier and numerous other books and articles.

Charles P. Schroeder is Executive Director of the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum.

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Western Heritage

A Selection of Wrangler Awardâ"Winning Articles

By Paul Andrew Hutton


Copyright © 2011 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-8973-4


When the Buffalo Roamed


Late in the nineteenth century, a member of the Piegan band of the Blackfeet—a people so synonymous with the northern plains that their identity is merged with the very topography of the country along the Rocky Mountain front of Montana—told writer George Bird Grinnell a story of the beginning of the Great Change. By historical standards, Wolf Calf's story was not an old one, for it came from memories extending back only 175 years at the most. Perhaps that was why it seemed so fresh, so resonant.

Many years before, a group of Piegans had been camped on the Belly River near a very ancient and important place the Blackfeet called Smash the Heads. As they and other people of the northern plains had done for at least seven thousand years, they were driving buffalo over the cliff—a practice that gave the place its name—and they had just made a successful drive. Many buffalo were already dead, killed by their fall from the rimrock (this trap for buffalo was called a pishkun); those only crippled were being slaughtered along the foot of the cliff.

Then something very strange happened. From over the backbone of the mountains to the west, apparitions appeared, moving rapidly down the foothills like birds in flight but trailed by clouds of dust. As details came into focus, some must have thought the apparitions were elk, but as they drew closer, they took on a human look, too. As Wolf Calf told the story, "All the Piegans were astonished and wondered what this could be. None of them had ever seen anything like it, and they were afraid. They thought it was something mysterious. The chief of the Piegans called out to his people, 'This is something very strange. I have heard of wonderful things that have happened from the earliest times until now, but I never heard of anything like this. This thing must have come from above [i.e., from the sun], or else it must have come out of the hill [i.e., from the earth].' ... As it drew nearer, they could see that it was a man coming, and that he was on some strange animal."

The apparitions were Kutenai Indians from west of the Rockies—a man and his wife and children—and they were all mounted on horses, the first the Piegans had ever seen. They rode up with a matter-of-fact request: they had come to trade for meat from the drive. But of course the Piegans had eyes only for the strange, snorting, dancing animals. What of them? They were new animals from the country to the south, the Kutenai told the Piegans, but there were already plenty at hand beyond the mountains. The leader of the Piegan band that day was named Dog, Wolf Calf recalled, but the impression those mounted Kutenais made on him must have been powerful, because eventually he became known as Many Horses, one of the first Blackfeet headmen to lead his people into horse owning, riding, and buffalo hunting. This had happened only six generations before Wolf Calf's time, when he and other Blackfeet witnessed that whole world crashing down around them.

From any perspective, that world of sunlight and grass, bison, Indians, and horses seems cometlike, building to the historical brilliance that made it provocative and compelling, then winking out, apparently forever. Being born Native American was and is no prerequisite for mourning the loss of a world like that, a wilder life in nature. A similar sentiment fueled Henry David Thoreau's musings about the difference between the New England described by the Pilgrim Fathers and those same woods in the 1850s. Compared to the America the Pilgrims had found, Thoreau reflected, his experience in the forests was analogous to listening to a symphony played without most of the instruments. As he concluded in his famous essay "To Know an Entire Heaven and an Entire Earth," previous generations had acted like demigods and impoverished his world by, in effect, plucking from the heavens many of the brightest stars.

Looking out my windows at the American West from a Rocky Mountain valley in Montana on the eve of the twenty-first century, I can understand both Wolf Calf's pathos and Thoreau's lament. Outside my door is a classic western landscape that, at first glance, seems very little different from what the Salish and Kutenai buffalo hunters saw. The mountain valley and its sagebrush foothills haven't gone anywhere, and neither—in places—have the fescues and bluebunch wheatgrasses, the cottonwood and aspen groves along the river. But, in fact, I inhabit an impoverished nature. The bison herds that the early British traders described as frequenting this valley two centuries ago are entirely gone from here now.

In your mind's eye, picture the process of the erasure: Sizable herds right to the end, but more and more sporadic in their appearances until the last time or two it was almost magical and they seemed like echoes of a past world rather than tangible beasts of the present. Soon the foothills no longer smelled of them, and their tracks no longer appeared along the creeks. Two winters' worth of snow melted their droppings into the soil, and magpies eventually hauled off all the lingering tufts of hair still snagged on the sagebrush. Their wallows gradually filled in with vegetation and disappeared. Their trails, which through the centuries had significantly shaped the very topography of the West, were appropriated by cattle, were deepened into gullies, or drifted in and became unrecognizable. Today, the only physical evidence that the great animals were ever here is the infrequent skull or scapula eroding out of a stream bank. These bones and accounts, such as those of the Snake River brigades and the oral memories of the Native peoples, are about all that remain to testify that a century ago the Bitterroot Valley was at the western edge of a great buffalo continent.

Yet only an instant of time ago—and for more than ten thousand years before that—it was. Most people interested in the West probably assume that they have a working knowledge of the cause of this impoverishment. Certainly, the ultimate fate of the great bison herds that once were found throughout America is one of the most famous and stunning stories of modern environmental history. But unless you have kept up with recent work in bison paleontology, Native American studies, and environmental history, chances are, your knowledge is incomplete. In fact, what we thought we knew about how the buffalo country worked and what happened to the buffalo in the nineteenth century almost certainly is a gross historical simplification. Understanding the larger bison story requires a perspective on history that bites off chunks of time a lot larger than the ones we are used to dealing with, plus an acknowledgment of forces that traditional history has often been too myopic to see.

In an evolutionary sense, bison, like humans, are not true natives of North America. The giant species of bison from which our modern animal springs were Eurasian in origin and migrated to North America across the Bering land bridge when ocean levels dropped during the Pleistocene glaciation pulses of the past 2 million years. Bison latifrons, the great long-horned bison, adapted to the northern tundra but then declined when a gradually drying climate opened up the great western grasslands. By establishing an ecological beachhead—the beginnings of an eventual Great Bison Belt on the plains east of the American Rockies—another large, imposing herd of bison called Bison antiquus became an important, although by no means dominant, feature on the grasslands of 12,000–14,000 years ago. In a kind of American mirror of Africa, it shared those grasslands with elephants (mammoths), herds of equine grazers (several species of horses), antelopes (pronghorns), and dromedaries (one-humped camels). This American Serengeti had all the expected predators, too, including lions (on the Great Plains, both Panthera, the steppe lion, and sabertoothed cats) and canid pack predators (dire wolves and coyotes). Giant terratorns (Pleistocene birds of prey, now extinct) played the role of vultures.

Isolated from Eurasia since the breakup of the hypothetical supercontinent of Pangaea, the Americas had long lacked one significant species that Africa had—humans. By 11,200 years ago, if not before, that was no longer true; the people we know as the Clovis big-game hunters had followed the Asian herds into America.

America's large animals, having long evolved in the absence of human predators, seem to have been in no way prepared for that arrival. Within two thousand years of the first evidence of humans in North America, a great wave of large faunal extinctions swept the Americas, and the resemblance to Africa ended forever. Exactly why almost three-quarters of all the species of large mammals and birds (all the mammoths, mastodons, horses, camels, and sloths and all their predators and scavengers, along with the giant species of bison) became extinct in the North America of a hundred centuries ago is a hotly debated topic in paleontological circles. A warming, drying climate seems certain to have played a role, but the majority of respected biologists of recent years are convinced that the arrival of the Clovis people was critical. Possessed of a remarkable flint-tool kit, the Clovis hunters were big-game specialists whose concentration on female and juvenile animals probably pushed animals with long gestation periods and few defenses against human predation into a barrage of remarkable extinctions.

That great extinction crash of a hundred centuries ago set in motion ecological ripples that enormously affected later times. Nature's response to the stress of new hunting pressure and all those now-vacated grazing niches was to evolve a dwarfed species of bison (our modern animal) that possessed a much faster reproductive turnover time and other traits more adaptive to the new conditions. Bison bison appeared as a fully emerged species about five thousand years ago, and in the absence of any real grazing competition, it performed an ecologically normal but historically remarkable adaptation—it filled the vacuum, occupied the niches of dozens of now-dead competitors, and multiplied into the enormous herds that boggled the imagination of all those who saw them. In an evolutionary sense, the modern bison can best be understood, perhaps, as a "weed species" that proliferated in America as a result of a major ecological disturbance. Subsequent Indian societies that hunted bison thus were exploiting a situation that has had few parallels in world history, one that played out in American history as it did because of a very singular sequence of events.

That bison were still here when the Europeans arrived is fairly reasonable evidence that the 8,500-year-old ecology that emerged in the West after the Pleistocene extinctions ended had achieved some kind of dynamic equilibrium. Bison populations, grassland carrying capacity, and predation—including Indian populations and level of hunting stress—over more than eighty centuries evidently had settled into a sustainable balance. Certainly, there were ebbs and flows, periods when droughts on the plains pushed bison and Indians both eastward and westward to wetter areas and at least once shifted the entire Bison Belt north of present-day Colorado for many hundreds of years. Dozens of cultures came and went on the plains over the thousands of years between the Pleistocene extinctions and the arrival of Europeans, and some existed during periods when bison were regionally quite scarce. But the herds' adaptation to the Great Plains grasslands was such a remarkable fit that, even with relatively wasteful methods of harvest such as the buffalo jump, Indians never pressured them out of existence. In fact, the northern Great Plains were occupied by a succession of bison-hunting cultures that lived substantially the same life for more than eight thousand years, the longest sustained human lifeway in the history of the continent. A continuum such as this provoked a natural and entirely appropriate awe. Indians who were interviewed at the end of it all spoke of the spiritual significance that the bison plains held for their people. In many Indian religions, bison joined the winds and the stars as supernatural in origin. According to the mythologies of dozens of different plains tribes, including groups as disparate as the Kiowas, the Crows, the Comanches, and the Blackfeet, bison had their origins in the earth itself. Every spring, immense herds of new animals swarmed out of tribally significant places such as the Sweetgrass Hills or the canyons of the Llano Estacado, to overspread the plains once again. Like the stars, like the winds, bison could never be made to disappear. Of course, we know now that bison were almost entirely erased from the West in the nineteenth century. The question is how.

Among the things we know today that we didn't know when the near-extinction of the bison became a national scandal is the influence of weather on bison. About the time when Europeans were first becoming a presence in the Americas, a major climatic cycle set in across the Northern Hemisphere: the Little Ice Age. For western buffalo hunters, it was a boon, setting the stage for the efflorescence that followed. The moister climate that began around ad 1500 benefited the western grasslands and gave rise to so many bison that they spilled over into the Rocky Mountain valleys and followed the meadows created by Indian burning practices all the way to the Atlantic shore.

Judged on grassland carrying capacity for modern livestock, the Great Plains never could have supported the numbers of bison—45–100 million—that our histories have often cited. Extrapolations from agricultural census data for the turn of the twentieth century indicate that, depending on weather cycles, the Great Plains had a carrying capacity for bison that fluctuated around 25 million, with perhaps another 5 million animals east and west of the plains. With the climate in a long, wet phase after 1500 or so, the bison herds were at peak size.

But changes resulting from contact between Europeans and Indians quickly began to shrink both the range and the number of bison. Although those changes had their origins in the arrival of Europeans, they were very much implemented by the Native peoples. Horses, which the Europeans reintroduced to the Americas after an absence of more than eight thousand years, became widely distributed through intertribal trade after the Pueblo Indians successfully revolted against Spanish rule in New Mexico in 1680. Feral horses reestablished themselves in their old grazing niche in a fraction of ecological time—by 1800, an estimated 2 million horses roamed wild below the Arkansas River. Indian horse herds, reckoned as a new form of wealth, were growing rapidly as well and drew many new groups to the source of supply on the plains, where the lives of Indians in the West would be altered dramatically. In addition, because horses and bison have an 80 percent dietary overlap, horses competed directly with the bison for grass. When almost three dozen Native tribes abandoned old ways of life and flocked to the plains as mounted hunters, pressures on the bison populations increased considerably.

After 1700, a new ecological situation emerged. New arrivals to the plains, such as the Comanches and Sioux, were not only drawn to the core of the bison's range but also were engaging in wars over hunting territories with Apaches, Crows, Blackfeet, and others. At the same time, starting with the Taos trade fairs around 1705 and in the horticultural villages on the Missouri and Red rivers in the 1730s, the bison country was being opened to trade with Europeans. Trade between Indian groups in the West was old, but it had been conducted primarily as symbiotic gift exchanges. But Euro-American agents of the big fur companies began to probe the plains with the goods of the industrial world, and their interests lay in acquiring large quantities of products for the global market—furs, mostly, but also horses to supply the advancing American frontier.

This was a new kind of trade, and fairly early on, the buffalo-hunting tribes learned that there was yet another item the traders found desirable. Indian women worked long hours to produce beautifully tanned bison robes, different from later dried hides in that they were softly pliable and finished with the hair on. Traded at places such as Fort Benton, Fort Union, and the Hudson's Bay posts in Canada, the robes created an insatiable demand in the East and Europe. They became a major hunting motive for Plains Indians at least as early as the 1820s, when nearly 100,000 robes were shipped to New Orleans every year. By the 1840s, another 85,000–100,000 Indian-produced bison robes were arriving in St. Louis annually. The Hudson's Bay trade eventually nearly rivaled the trade farther south, reaching an annual peak of 73,278 robes between 1841 and 1845.


Excerpted from Western Heritage by Paul Andrew Hutton. Copyright © 2011 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Maps ix

Foreword Charles P. Schroeder xi

Introduction xiii

Part I The Native West

1 When the Buffalo Roamed Dan Flores 3

3 The Remodeling of Geronimo C. L. Sonnichsen 47

4 Charlie's Hidden Agenda: Realism and Nostalgia in C.M. Russell's Stories about Indians Raphael Cristy 57

Part II Cowboys and Cattle Country

5 Bringing Home All the Pretty Horses: The Horse Trade and the Early American West, 1775-1825 Dan Flores 83

6 Tales of the Texas Rangers Robert M. Utley 117

7 The Last Empire William Broyles 131

8 Powder River Country: The Movies, the Wars, and the Teapot Dome Oakley Hall 205

Part III Battles Lost and Won

9 "It Was But a Small Affair": The Battle of the Alamo Paul Andrew Hutton 219

10 What Happened at Mountain Meadows? Sally Denton 239

11 Lakoto Noon at the Greasy Grass Greg Micho 263

12 T.R. Takes Charge Paul Andrew Hutton 279

Western Heritage Magazine Article Award Winners, 1961-2010 297

About the Authors 301

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