Magazine article Sunset

Back Home on the Range

Magazine article Sunset

Back Home on the Range

Article excerpt

In Fort Benton, Montana, America's most famous buffalo can now rest in peace

They stand on a grassy hill. A moist-eyed cow presses close to her calf. Behind them, a young bull-his head too big for his bodyand a second cow bend down to graze. A second calf peers up, startled, like a clerk interrupted from his duties. Commanding this circle is the mature bull, 6 feet wide at the shoulder, 2,200 pounds. His posture is one of great power held at bay, his gaze less aggressive than watchful. Presumably this was the expression he wore when shot.

"When I first saw the bull in the Montana Fish and Game office, they were trying to get rid of him," John Lepley says. "I said, 'I'll take him for our little museum.' Then my friend said, 'You know, I think that's one of the Hornaday buffalo.' I said, 'What are the Hornaday buffalo?"'

What are the Hornaday buffalo? They are, or were, the most famous buffalo in the world. Their story ends at the Museum of the Northern Great Plains in Fort Benton, Montana. It began 111 years ago and a hundred miles east, in the country between the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers.

There, in 1886, Smithsonian zoologist and taxidermist William T. Hornaday searched for the last members of the species Bison bison. A generation earlier, as many as 30 million buffalo had roamed between the Rocky Mountains and the Mississippi River. But by 1886 they had been slaughtered by the millions, shot for robes, shot for sport, shot to push the Plains Indians to starvation-induced submission. Hornaday's mission was to find the few remaining bison and bring back a few specimens for exhibit.

He was aware of the irony. "Under different circumstances," he wrote, "nothing could have induced me to engage in such a mean, cruel, and utterly heartless enterprise." But the buffalo were doomed. At least through his taxidermist's art, future Americans would know what they had lost. Hornaday and his party scoured the Missouri breaks country for three months, and the bull was the last bison they encountered. "With the greatest reluctance I ever felt about taking the life of an animal, I shot the noble beast through the lungs, and he fell down and died."

Hornaday did the dead bison proud. He labored over them for a year, then installed them at the entrance to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D. …

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