A Mournful 1876 Map Tracks the Disappearance of the American Bison

Historical Treasures, Oddities, And Delights
May 19 2014 12:30 PM

A Mournful 1876 Map Tracks the Disappearance of the American Bison

The Vault is Slate's history blog. Like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter @slatevault, and find us on Tumblr. Find out more about what this space is all about here.

The Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that North American bison, which early settlers called “buffalo” because of their resemblance to Asian and African buffaloes, comprised a herd of 30 million to 60 million individuals in the 16th century. By 1876, when this map was published in a book by Harvard zoologist Joel Asaph Allen, the herds were gone from the southern plains. By 1884 there were only about 300 wild bison left in the United States. 

In his book about bison extirpation, historian Andrew C. Isenberg points out that the reasons for the mass 19th-century slaughter were many. There was drought, affecting the grasslands where bison grazed; pressures from domesticated livestock exacerbated erosion; and Native American tribes forced from traditional hunting grounds and lifeways killed bison for food and for profit.  

Advertisement

But most of all, white American settlers moving west with the railroads killed millions, both for sport and for hides to sell to markets both domestic and foreign. Federal authorities, Isenberg writes, “supported the hunt because they saw the extermination of the bison as a means to force Indians to submit to the reservation system.”

It might seem strange that the Kentucky Geological Survey, which commissioned Allen's book, would be interested in the history of the bison, but the area known as Big Bone Lick (now a state park 25 miles southwest of Cincinnati) contained one of the best fossil records of ancient bison in the United States. As this map shows, bison once roamed the whole of the state.

Thanks to Susan Schulten, who featured this map on the website that accompanied her book Mapping the Nation: History and Cartography in Nineteenth-Century America. Click on the image to reach a zoomable version.

BisonMap
"Map of Bison Distribution Over Time." Kentucky Geological Survey, 1876.

Newberry Library, via Mapping the Nation.

TODAY IN SLATE

Jurisprudence

Scalia’s Liberal Streak

The conservative justice’s most brilliant—and surprisingly progressive—moments on the bench.

Colorado Is Ground Zero for the Fight Over Female Voters

There’s a Way to Keep Ex-Cons Out of Prison That Pays for Itself. Why Don’t More States Use It?

The NFL Explains How It Sees “the Role of the Female”

The Music Industry Is Ignoring Some of the Best Black Women Singing R&B

Culturebox

Theo’s Joint and Vanessa’s Whiskey

No sitcom did the “Very Special Episode” as well as The Cosby Show.

Television

The Other Huxtable Effect

Thirty years ago, The Cosby Show gave us one of TV’s great feminists.

Cliff Huxtable Explains the World: Five Lessons From TV’s Greatest Dad

Why Television Needs a New Cosby Show Right Now

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 18 2014 8:20 PM A Clever Attempt at Explaining Away a Vote Against the Farm Bill
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 18 2014 6:02 PM A Chinese Company Just Announced the Biggest IPO in U.S. History
  Life
The Slate Quiz
Sept. 18 2014 11:44 PM Play the Slate News Quiz With Jeopardy! superchampion Ken Jennings.
  Double X
Doublex
Sept. 18 2014 8:07 PM Crying Rape False rape accusations exist, and they are a serious problem.
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 18 2014 1:23 PM “It’s Not Every Day That You Can Beat the World Champion” An exclusive interview with chess grandmaster Fabiano Caruana.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 18 2014 4:33 PM The Top 5 Dadsplaining Moments From The Cosby Show
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 18 2014 6:48 PM By 2100 the World's Population Could Be 11 Billion
  Health & Science
Science
Sept. 18 2014 3:35 PM Do People Still Die of Rabies? And how do you know if an animal is rabid?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.