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Buffalo Jumping Spurred By Spain's Horses and Guns

Updated on May 18, 2015

American Bison are No Longer Endangered

Species "Bison bison"
Species "Bison bison" | Source

The American Bison Has Returned

The Great American Bison (plains bison) is no longer an endangered species in the USA. The wood bison from the Eastern Woodlands of USA disappeared along with many natives during the Indian Removals to the West, but about 3,000 in one herd live in Alberta and Northwest Territories, Canada.

Zoos and ranchers across the nation have done the good work of breeding new members of the species and increasing the herd sizes coast to coast. Domino's Pizza Headquarters in Michigan even has a herd running on its large green spaces along Interstate I-75 and Route 23.

In Central Ohio, Busch Breweries owned a herd of bison and a group of gazelles for decades before selling them off to people who could better take care of them. Also, people in cars on the nearby Interstate I-71 were slowing down to catch a glimpse of them, congesting traffic even further than it was already jammed during rush hours.


Bison Jumps, Horses, and Rifles

A Buffalo Jump is a slang term for running bison over a cliff in order to harvest a large number at once to prepare for harsh winters. This was done to sustain very large groups of Native North American men, women and children who depended on the wildlife, native plants, and agriculture for their livelihood.

I read a rumor recently by a non-native that declared that our Indigenous people in USA and Canada ran buffalo off cliffs much as Disney staff ran hundreds of lemmings over cliffs in order to make a 1960s movie more exciting (lemmings do not jump). For the natives, staying alive was exciting enough.

How did the Native North Americans herd bison off a cliff? -- By herding them on horses originally brought to America by the Spanish and by using Spanish, French, and American whites' rifles received in trade for bison hides.

— Patty Inglish, Researcher: Native North Americans

Food, Clothing, Tools and Fertilizer

The second act of the rumor stated that natives ran thousands of bison off cliffs and left most of them to rot at the bottom. In truth,the women and children lived with their teepees at the bottom of the cliffs during this season, processing and preserving the meat, sinew (for sewing), hides (for clothing and blankets), organs (for food and ceremonies), bones and horns (for tools, weapons, jewelry, and cooking implements), and some other parts.

Some leftover bones and scattered meat were enjoyed by carrion-eaters. Canadian and American Indigenous people did not over-harvest bison. Natives began to leave mounds of bison skulls for settlers to grind into fertilizer for crops. Along the East Coast, you can see large mounds of sea shells left over from many centuries of native meals, but in the West, the bison bones could be ground to fertilizer.

Native Americans left these skulls for the settlers to grind for fertilizer in 1875.
Native Americans left these skulls for the settlers to grind for fertilizer in 1875. | Source

Women, imagine sitting at the bottom of a cliff for three months with your young children, processing the huge bison that ran over that cliff and fell to the ground with a crash several yards in front of you. This was hard work, and injuries occurred. The job would make the Most Dangerous Jobs List of today.

Eastern Woodlands vs. Plains Bison

In Ohio and the rest of the Eastern Woodlands, my ancestors harvested deer similarly before winter, and did not over-harvest the deer. For the last decade, so many deer have proliferated in Ohio that an extra hunting season for culling part of the herd is used annually by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. The meat is given largely to our food banks, although I suspect that hunters keep some of the bounty.

How did the Native North Americans in Canada and USA herd the bison to make them jump? -- By riding on horses brought to America by the Spanish and by using Spanish, French, and American rifles received in trade for bison hides. Without the Europeans, there would have been no Buffalo Jumps. Before the jumps were done on horseback, a few native men would run after the animals and succeed in only running a few off a cliff and this was not enough for their community to survive the winter.

Today, Cabela's outdoor stores have wild game meals in their restaurants and bison burgers are among them. In Ohio and other states, farmers cross bison with beef cattle and sell beefalo meat at some Kroger grocery stores. Bison is also available.

Misunderstandings Related to Native Cultures

Some opinions exist that the First Nations and Native Americans are overprotected as part of a clandestine movement within multiculturalism to remove the Caucasian from the North American Continent.

One brick in the platform to remove federal support to US reservations and Canadian reserves is the event that led Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump in Alberta to become a Canadian historic site.

The USA has a few smaller buffalo jump locations as well, but nothing to compete with Alberta's. Still, Wikipedia uses a drawing from the large Alberta buffalo jump site to erroneously portray the smaller site used by Crow Nation in Montana.

Visit some of these historic sites if you have the chance!

Native North Americans and Settlers Hunted Simultaneously

As Euro-Americans headed to the West, herds of bison died in the Midwest, the survivors moving westward as if on their own Trail of Tears. The numbers of bison consumed increased, because the settlers hunted them in large numbers.

No more buffalo jumps have occurred since the first half of the 20th century. The bison became endangered and breeding programs instituted by public and private entities began to make an impact by 2000.

Fort Macleod Buffalo Jump Site

A markerFort Macleod, Alberta -
Fort MacLeod, AB, Canada
get directions

Head-Smashed In Buffalo Jump is very near this fort.

Blackfoot Nation and Buffalo Jumps

  • It is hard to digest the fact that the makers of fine writing implements like the Blackfoot Indian Pen and upscale pens and pencils, also in the past ran bison over a huge cliff to their deaths to support the Blackfoot Nation. However, it was a must for survival in those days prior to the early 20th century.

Modern Buffalo Drive, Similar to Cattle Drive

During every Autumn and Spring, the Blackfeet Bison Herd is moved to appropriate pastures in a three day cattle drive.

Some Canadian and American Buffalo Jump Sites

show route and directions
A markerFort Macleod, Alberta, CA -
Fort MacLeod, AB, Canada
get directions

B markerBrowning, Montana -
Browning, MT 59417, USA
get directions

C markerFirst Peoples Buffalo Jump, Ulm, Montana -
First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park, Ulm Vaughn Road, Ulm, MT 59485, USA
get directions

All parts of the animal were utilized. The meat for food, the hide for lodges and clothing, bones for weapons and utensils, hoofs for glue, hair for decorations, and sinew for sewing. Internal parts were eaten as a delicacy, brains for tanning, and the head for religious purposes.

  • Ulm Pishkun Buffalo Jump is considered one of the largest in North America -- Browning Montana, on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, borders Glacier National Park and attractions include the Museum of the Plains Indian, the Blackfeet Heritage Center and North American Indian Days. See
  • Wahkpa Chugn Archaeological Site
  • Welcome to the Vore Buffalo Jump

    The web site of the Vore Buffalo Jump Foundation, including information on the Vore Buffalo Jump archaeological site in northeastern Wyoming


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    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 23 months ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      What an interesting piece. I had heard of such things as the buffalo jump and always just assumed that it was done for survival. Nice clarification here, thank you.

    • drbj profile image

      drbj and sherry 23 months ago from south Florida

      I wrote an article for another site some time ago about Head Smashed in Buffalo Jump in Canada and am happy to learn that custom is no longer observed.

    • B. Leekley profile image

      Brian Leekley 23 months ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA

      This is an interesting bit of history.

      A strategy that General Sherman used to subdue the western plains Indian tribes after the American Civil War was to slaughter the buffalo herds.

      I saw a TED talk about large, roaming herds being important to the ecology of grasslands. The speaker says that grasslands world-wide are turning to deserts.because the large, freely roaming herds are gone.

    • mckbirdbks profile image

      mckbirdbks 23 months ago from Emerald Wells, Just off the crossroads,Texas

      Well, there is no question in my mind that you are the most diverse writer on Hubpages. From John Glenn, to Population decline in Japan, to Ohio's ever increasing space/industry centers, you cover it all.

      Many pieces of information here have escaped my attention for a good number of years. Someone deserves a medal for 'beefalo'.

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