Frontier Expansion vs. the American Bison

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Frontier Expansion vs. the American Bison

“The wilderness masters the colonist. It finds him a European in dress, industries, tools, modes of travel, and thought. It takes him from the railroad car and puts him in the birch canoe. It strips off the garments of civilization and arrays him in the hunting shirt and the moccasin. It puts him in the log cabin.... Before long he has gone to planting Indian corn and plowing with a sharp stick.... In short, at the frontier the environment is at first too strong for the man. He must accept the conditions which it furnishes, or perish, and so . . . little by little he transforms the wilderness, but the outcome is not the old Europe.... The fact is, that here is a new product that is American....”

--Frederick Jackson Turner, 1893

The great westward expansion of European American pioneers is one of the most celebrated periods in our country’s history. We idealize its ruggedness, its characters, and the many sure dichotomies of the frontier: good versus evil, civilizations versus savagery, man versus the wilderness. The pioneers set out to create a new world, to push the boundaries of home, morality, and familiarity. In the process they irreversibly affected the established ecosystems and Native American dwellers. The challenges and harshness of the environment had their own effects upon the settlers, effects that have engrained themselves into our national consciousness. We celebrate “rugged individualism” while at the same time ignoring the price we pay for that stubbornness and strength of character. Westward expansion resulted in the extinction or endangerment of hundreds of native species of flora and fauna, altered entire ecosystems, such as the Great Plains, and impacted aquifers and watersheds across the entire nation.

One species famously affected by these pioneers and settlers was the American Bison, a relic of the last ice age. It is estimated that over 40 million of these great beasts roamed the American Plains in 1800. By 1883 the population was down to less than 6001. What happened? Why did those pioneers, so appreciative of the bounty that the “new” territory had given them, slaughter the bison throughout the 19th century?

“They lived and moved as no other quadrupeds ever have, in great multitudes, like grand armies in review, covering scores of square miles at once. They were so numerous they frequently stopped boats in the rivers, threatened to overwhelm travelers on the plains, and in later years derailed locomotives and cars, until railway engineers learned by experience the wisdom of stopping their trains whenever there were buffaloes crossing the track.

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