One of the great things about working at a local history museum is never knowing what new and fascinating piece of history is going to be unearthed each day. When a Little Falls resident left a message on the museum’s answering machine earlier this summer stating that he and his grandsons had found some bison bones buried in their yard and did the museum want them, our interest was certainly piqued. After gathering more information and learning that the bones had been examined by a scientist from the Science Museum of Minnesota, who estimated they are probably around 300-400 years old, it did not take long for the decision to be made to accept them for the collection. Once prevalent on the great plains of North America, bison have played an important role in Morrison County’s history. Despite being virtually wiped out during the early 1800s, the American bison has made an impressive comeback. Protection, captive management and a greater understanding of their importance in the natural world has helped bring bison numbers up to what many consider a reasonably healthy level for a species that has faced extinction.
Vast herds of bison once covered North America’s great plains and wide open prairies. The varied landscape of Morrison County includes prairie and has provided a suitable environment for bison as well as for many other animals. Bison are massive creatures that weigh about a ton when fully grown and measure about ten feet long and six feet high at the shoulders. Big eaters, they can consume up to fifteen pounds of vegetation per day. In the summer they prefer grasses and sedges. Typical winter food includes dried shrubs, winter lichens and mosses. The size and density of the teeth on the jawbones of the Little Falls bison look well-suited for the eating and chewing that must have taken up a good chunk of a bison’s day. Among the bison’s distinctive features are a thick coat of shaggy hair, much of which is shed in the spring, beard under the chin, short curved horns and humped shoulders. Though large, they can move fairly swiftly, reaching speeds of over thirty miles per hour. Early explorers and pioneers quickly learned to stay out of the way of fast moving herds.
Before European settlement, an estimated 30-60 million bison once roamed the nation’s prairies. Among the most conspicuous and significant of Minnesota’s big game animals during pioneer days, bison provided native people with food and with the raw materials needed to make clothing, tools and shelter. Other big game in the state at the time included moose, elk, white-tailed and mule deer, woodland caribou and antelope. The bison’s daily habits played a crucial role in the prairie ecosystem. According to the Minnesota Zoo, which has been working with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to preserve the American plains bison, the continuous grazing, trampling and defecating helped to keep the prairie healthy and strong.
The rich grasses of Minnesota were a favorite feeding place for bison and vast herds were noted by early explorers, many of whom crossed Morrison County territory. Groseillers, Radisson, Keating, Hennepin and Pike all marveled at the bison’s abundance. When Zebulon Pike made his expedition up the Mississippi River in 1805, he documented buffalo sitings in his daily journal:
Nov. 1st. Finding that my canoe would not be finished in two or three days, I concluded to take six men and go down the river about 12 miles [vicinity of Buffalo cr. (Two River)], where we had remarked great sign of elk and buffalo. Arrived there about the middle of the afternoon. All turned out to hunt. None of us killed anything but Sparks, one doe. A slight snow fell. (Coues, 110.)
The eastern limits of bison in Minnesota were identified by William T. Hornaday, a prominent zoologist and conservationist and the first director of the New York Zoological Park (now the Bronx Zoo) in his report from 1886-87, “The Extermination of the American Bison,” as a line that ran roughly from Pine County, which is located near the eastern edge of Minnesota and north of St. Croix State Park, north to Lake of the Woods in the far northern reaches of the state.
The bison were hunted to almost near extinction during the nineteenth century. While many thought their numbers were limitless, by the mid-1800s reports were being made of the animal’s demise. In 1832, Henry H. Sibley, a prominent early Minnesotan who became the first governor of the state, registered his belief that two bison killed by Sioux in the Trempealeau River in Wisconsin were “…the last specimens of the noble bison, which trod, or will ever again tread, the soil of the region lying east of the Mississippi River.” (Breckenridge, 126.) At one point, the bison population in the nation was estimated to be less than six hundred. Protective measures were put in place virtually at the last minute as concerned citizens and organizations, such as the American Bison Society (formed in 1905), worked to secure the survival of the species.
Today bison can be found in Minnesota in state parks and zoos and on farms that raise the animal for its highly-prized lean meat. In Blue Mounds State Park in the southwestern portion of the state, a herd of approximately one hundred bison roam a vast landscape of 1,830 acres. At the Minnesota Zoo, bison are part of the institution’s increased focus on saving the native animals of the state. The zoo’s purebred herd is one of the last of its kind in the nation. The more than fifty bison bones and bone fragments that are now part of the museum’s collection, thanks to a thoughtful local resident and his inquisitive grandsons, will help to tell the history of bison in Morrison County, a history that runs the gamut from abundance to near extinction to what is now considered by many as a conservation success story. While they most likely will never again be as vast in numbers as they once were, sizeable herds of bison may again graze the open lands that still form a part of the beautiful landscape of Morrison County.
Ann Marie Johnson
Curator of Collections
This article was originally published in the Morrison County Historical Society’s newsletter, Volume 28, Number 2, 2015.
Breckenridge, W. J. “A Century of Minnesota Wild Life.” Minnesota History Magazine June 1949: 123-134. Print.
Coues, Elliot. The Expeditions of Zebulon Montgomery Pike. New York: Francis P. Harker, 1895. Print.
Hornaday, William T. “The Extermination of the American Bison with a Sketch of its Discovery and Life History.” Report of the United States National Museum. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1887. 385.
Kutner, Max. “The Historic Return of the American Bison.” Smithsonian Magazine, 27 August 2014. Accessed 22 July 2015.) http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/return-american-bison-180952488/?no-ist
Minnesota Zoo. Web. Accessed 25 July 2015. http://mnzoo.org/blog/animals/american-bison/
Sawyer, Liz. “Minnesota Zoo focuses on conservation of native animals.” Star Tribune, 10 March 2015. Web. Accessed 25 July 2015. http://www.startribune.com/minnesota-zoo-focuses-on-conservation-of-native-animals/295699061/
Welsch, Chris. “Home on the Plains.” Minnesota Conservation Volunteer July/August 2008: 40-53. Print.