Perhaps the greatest animal in the world is the American bison. Majestic, strong, oblivious, and hairy, it contains all the best features of America itself. The animal is doing just fine today, thriving all across the plains and also roaming around the streets of Buffalo, New York as a result of an aggressive marketing campaign gone terribly wrong. But there was a time when the bison, or Buffalo as the people of Buffalo still insist on calling it, was nearly extinct, hunted and slaughtered to the brink of disappearing from this world altogether.
Now, back in the early 1800s, there were billions of bison roaming the great plains. They covered the very ground in a thick blanket of fur or hair or whatever they have. In fact, all of Nebraska was once covered up with bison. Every square inch. During that time, there were so many bison in Nebraska that new bison were forced to walk around on the backs of existing bison because there was nowhere else to fit. They were forced to eat the hair of older bison just to survive, but most did not survive because, man, that’s just crazy. The ones that made it were able to wedge into a slot vacated by a dead and decaying bison.
For a brief time, one bison ran a fur trading post in what is now Pierre, South Dakota, until the guilt over what he was even doing overwhelmed him and he resigned, fading into the crowd of billions of his bison brethren. That bison’s name was Pierre, which is not where the city’s name came from because he was just some dumb animal. His parents were Francophilic bison.
In fact, there were so many bison back then that it became a real problem. They stared unnervingly at members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, and sometimes trampled them, too. Bison blocked the way for people trying to build a railroad and when they were told to move, they moved, like, an inch, which was super annoying and clearly passive-aggressive (the source of the passive-aggressive behavior that still plagues much of the upper Midwest.)
Often, the trains would depart the station only to find that down the line the tracks hadn’t even been laid, so thick was the bison ground cover and so stubborn the stubbornness of the beasts. It was on one of these trains that a decision was made which would prove pivotal. An itinerant entertainer by the name of “I Have No Nickname Yet” Bill Cody was trying to get to the next town to perform his act of, oh, let’s say juggling, but the train was blocked. After waiting for hours, he finally took up a rifle and shot the nearest bison. This stunned everyone into standing still, bison and human alike, except for the shot bison, of course, who teetered over, clearing a bit more space for track to be laid. That result led Cody to shoot the next bison and the one after that. Everyone was now very impressed with this man who could kill so many bison, this man they now called Buffalo Bill Cody. He shot another bison, then two more, and soon the bison were nervously backing away from where track would be laid. Finally: progress!
As the track stretched forward, more people got into the shooting act. Conductors, engineers, railroad workers, train passengers, some of their dogs somehow, everyone was shooting bison to death and having a grand old time. Even a few bison got on the trains, intent on homicide, but their efforts were quickly rebuffed. By being shot.
Soon, the legend of Cody and his merry band of progress murderers began to spread throughout the land, carried by telegrams or something and people were booking train voyages to get in on the act and shoot a bunch of bison. And it seemed fine! After all, there was still a problematic glut of bison. Humans were really forming a military alliance with the poor grass, when you think about it.
Now, the popular legend of American history has it that the bison corpses were left to rot there in the hot sun amongst their increasingly skittish brethren. But this was not always the case. In fact, after a bison was shot from one train, it could be collected by the next train using a large steam-powered spatula-like thing. The dead bison was then transported to the next town where a burgeoning industry had sprung up to harvest and process the animals. The mid-1800s saw a boom in the manufacture of bison pelt dresses for ladies, bison top hats for the gentlemen, and a very early version of the Pokemon trading card game for children where the cards were all made out of dried bison tissue (often the stomach linings). Thanks to American ingenuity, the inventions became even more inventive. By 1850, you could ride on a brand new train made entirely of bison parts, the cars constructed out of bison bones and covered in bison skin, the engine made of dried bison organs and fueled by bison fat, and the whole of the train covered with terrified bison faces frozen in their death masks, both inside the cars and out. You could take your gun made out of bison bones and shoot bullets made out of other bison bones and you could, yes, kill more bison. Kids weren’t allowed to shoot the guns for safety reasons but they were still encouraged to help out so when the train stopped they would pour out of it and stomp the nearest bison to death, all the while dressed as bison themselves, thus causing a horrible existential crisis for the victim-bison in its final moments. This was the way of the West.
Well, you already know what happened next. All this bison killing became so popular that soon there were hardly any bison left. Travel agencies still offered chances to shoot a rotting bison corpse for a reduced fee, but the magic wasn’t there. The trains built of bison were disassembled, their parts reassembled into vaguely bison-looking piles of parts. It was hoped that the bison would then come back to life so they could be shot a second time. “Go!” the railway bosses would yell, encouragingly, “Run away!” but the structures would just wobble a bit and then collapse.
Whatever bison were left took to disguising as cows, horses, chickens (very unsuccessful), and storage sheds. More enterprising bison crafted highly realistic human costumes and blended right into society, going by such names as “Pa Ingalls.” By 1890, the few bison still alive were rounded up and frozen deep in the Rocky Mountains and then promptly forgotten about because, honestly, who cares?
These bison were discovered there 11 years later by a bare-chested bespectacled hiker by the name of President Theodore Roosevelt who melted the ice with his muscles and then hugged each rescued beast, killing 15% of them but rescuing the rest. He ordered the survivors transported to the White House at once, where they could live under armed guard. There they remained for both terms of Roosevelt’s presidency, although he would frequently take his favorite bison with him on official diplomatic trips, dressing them up as young ladies if the occasion warranted and referring to them as “my homely nieces.”
The bison were moved to the basement for added security after William Howard Taft took office and ate two of the bison when no one was looking. There they remained, breeding in the darkness for several decades, building up their numbers, until that fateful day in 1955 when Dwight Eisenhower accidentally opened the wrong door, sending vast herds of bison rampaging through our nation’s capital. Over time and after many deaths — all human — the bison were rounded up and placed in the still-unmapped sections of the Dakotas. Since then, their numbers have grown and grown with barely any shot from trains and only a few shot from jet skis.
The mighty American bison. Once a plentiful resource, then a vanishing giant, and now a successful growing epidemic that will soon need to be blindly massacred once more.