Where the buffalo roamWritten by George Ellison
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Buffalo Branch ... Buffalo Creek ... Buffalo Cove ... all are common place names that indicate the prior residence of that mammal here in Western North Carolina.
Whenever I conduct workshops on the region’s natural history or Cherokee lore, the buffalo topic always comes up. I used to think that the species that was formerly here was the wood bison (Bison bison athabascae), one of the two bison subspecies recognized in North America. After looking into the matter more closely, however, I now know better. More about that after we take a look at the historical record.
The buffalo was certainly here long before the Cherokees emerged as a distinctive culture about a thousand years ago. They knew the great beast as “yansa,” and utilized it for clothing and food. According to Arlene Fradkin’s Cherokee Folk Zoology (N.Y.: Garland, 1990), the horns were made into surgical instruments for curing swellings from boils and toothaches as well as for war trumpets. Buffalo hoofs were sometimes worn on warriors’ feet during war expeditions so as to deceive the enemy. To this day the buffalo dance is still a favorite among the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.
John Henry Preston in Western North Carolina: A History (Asheville: Daughters of the American Revolution, 1914) notes that some of Hernando de Soto’s men exploring this area in 1540 were presented with a dressed buffalo skin by the Cherokees. This, Arthur speculates, was perhaps the first such skin “ever obtained by white men.” The Spaniards described it as “an ox hide as thin as a calf’s skin, and the hair like a soft wool between the coarse and fine wool of sheep.”
The first recorded British observation of a buffalo in eastern North America was documented by William T. Hornaday in The Extermination of the American Bison (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1889):
“The earliest discovery of the bison in Eastern North America ... was made somewhere near Washington, District of Columbia, in 1612, by an English navigator named Samuell Argoll, and narrated in a letter published as follows in ‘Purchas: His Pilgrimes’ (1625): ‘And then marching into the Countrie, I found great store of Cattle as big as Kine, of which the Indians that were my guides killed a couple, which we found to be very good and wholesome meate, and are very easie to be killed, in regard they are heavy, slow, and not so wild as other beasts of the wildernesse.’”
While helping to run the dividing line between North Carolina and Virginia in 1729, Col. William Byrd of Virginia recorded several buffalo sightings in the Piedmont sections of those states. According to Hornaday, Byrd noted that a bull “was found all alone, tho Buffaloes Seldom are,” and “the meat is spoken of as ‘a Rarity.’”
Most authorities feel that buffaloes had been extirpated from the mountains of Western North Carolina by 1865 or so. The last reference I have been able to locate comes from a diary kept by Bishop Augustus Gottlieb Spangenberg in which he portrayed in detail his exploration of the Blue Ridge in 1752-53 on behalf of the Moravian Church.
In 1752, Bishop Spangenberg traveled westward from the coast. By Nov. 24, they had reached the mountains east of present-day Asheville. He recorded that this was a land where timber wolves still howled at night and panthers were a menace. The land was also “frequented by buffalo, whose tracks are everywhere, and can often be followed with profit. Frequently, however, a man cannot travel them, for they go through thick and thin, through morass and deep water, and up and down banks so steep that a man could fall down but neither ride nor walk!”
Before many more years had passed, the buffalo was a thing of the past in the Blue Ridge. But what kind of buffalo was it? I had always read and been told it was the wood bison, but that’s not possible. Let’s look at the taxonomic background.
The online edition of the Encyclopedia Britticana indicates that a bison is “either of two species of ox-like grazing mammals that constitute the genus Bison of the family Bovidae. The American bison (Bison bison), commonly known as the buffalo, or plains buffalo, is native to North America, while the European bison (B. bonasus), or wisent, is native to Europe ... Some authorities distinguish two subspecies of American bison, the plains bison (Bison bison bison) and the woodland bison (Bison bison athabascae).
Various Internet sites describe the wood bison as having been a resident of boreal forests in western Canada. Today, there are small remnant herds of wood bison in that region. Whereas plains bison have a full beard and neck mane, wood bison have a thin pointy beard and a rudimentary neck mane. There are differences in weights as well, with the wood bison being considerably larger. Canadian research teams recorded just one instance of a plains bison bull weighing more than 2,000 pounds, while over one-third of the wood bison bulls exceeded this weight.
OK, we’ve ruled out the wood bison as a candidate for historical residence here in the Blue Ridge. That leaves us with the plains bison ... but what kind? The authors of Mammals of the Carolinas, Virginia and Maryland (UNC Press, 1985) observe that “Very little is known about the biology of the eastern bison, but it was presumably similar to the plains-dwelling bison of the west.”
Roger A. Caras in North American Mammals (N.Y.: Galahad, 1967) mentions in passing two sub-types of the plains bison: a “pale mountain bison of Colorado” and an “eastern bison of Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.”
The bison found here in the east were usually described as being smaller and better adapted to woodlands than the western form. I’m now of the opinion that our Blue Ridge bison was Caras’ ‘eastern bison,” and that it was an ecological (not a genetic) variant of the plains bison.