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The Bison Comeback - How one man saw the future of the bison and saved the species from oblivion

The 1870's midday heat was intolerable. An unforgiving June sun was bearing down for some time on John Cook and his partner, Charlie Hart.


All morning, the pair observed a herd of bison grazing along Wolf Creek in the northern Texas Panhandle. Watching soon gave way to the task at hand. The booming gunfire from the big Sharp's .50 caliber rifle held a steady cadence as Cook carefully aimed at individual animals and pulled the trigger. Soon, all was quiet. Only the bawling of some calves and Cook's slow, deliberate breath could be heard. 


Standing up to stretch his legs, Cook stared toward the dead bison. Smoke from his rifle lingered around his position and mixed with the smell of hides and blood. Eighty-eight bison lay dead.


A herd of bison on the prairie.
Herd of Bison

As he walked through the area where "the carcasses lay the thickest," Cook had a sinking feeling. What was a thriving herd just a few fleeting moments earlier was nothing more than a cash crop waiting to be harvested. Staring into their glassy eyes, Cook could not help but think he had done something terribly wrong in slaughtering the animals for their hides alone. 

One by one, shot by shot, the great bison herds were gone. Cook, approximately 1,500 other professional hide hunters, and a nation's hunger for fine leather products eventually led to the near extinction of the shaggy creatures from the Texas Plains and the rest of the bison range to the north.


Attempts were made on the state and national levels to save the bison from possible extinction. Legislation was introduced and passed through the House and Senate in Washington D.C. but vetoed by President Grant's failure, or unwillingness, to sign the bill. Back in Texas, a similar debate was going on in Austin.


Where the government failed to save the bison, a few individuals succeeded in saving the American bison.


Colonel Charles Goodnight, legendary cattleman, trailblazer, and the first permanent settler of the Texas Panhandle, is credited for singlehandedly saving the Texas bison herd.
Colonel Charles Goodnight, legendary cattleman, trailblazer, and the first permanent settler of the Texas Panhandle, is credited for singlehandedly saving the Texas bison herd.

Colonel Charles Goodnight, legendary cattleman, trailblazer, and the first permanent settler of the Texas Panhandle, is credited for singlehandedly saving the Texas bison herd.

Before the great herds had succumbed to the constant barrage of the big Sharps and the governmental officials began slinging bills around state capitols, Goodnight had already shown interest in accumulating a few head of bison to start his own herd. From his days as a trailblazer and U.S. Army scout, Goodnight had developed a keen appreciation for the shaggy beasts.


"From the late 1850s until he died 70 years later, Goodnight knew and lived with the bison," attests J. Evetts Haley in his biography of the legendary cattle rancher. "I doubt if any man, red or white, has so loved the breed or known them better."


Goodnight's knowledge of the bison was immense. From a historical standpoint, his recollections on the Texas bison herd have proven to be invaluable. It was said that during his time, there was no greater authority on the subject. Goodnight once pointed out in an interview with a staff member of the Panhandle Plains Museum in Canyon, Texas, that the Texas herd of bison traveled in a great brown and black mass that was 120 miles long and 35 miles wide. He also mentioned that although the Texas and the northern herds of bison were "no doubt the same species," there was enough difference in them to tell them apart.


In the spring of 1866, some eight years before the buffalo hunters started crisscrossing the Texas plains, Goodnight began the arduous task of putting his own herd together. While riding along his Elm Creek Ranch near present-day Newcastle, Texas, Goodnight encountered a big group of bison grazing on the lush grasses along the creek bottom. From the experiences he had gained earlier in life, Goodnight knew that by riding up behind a group of cows and getting them to run ahead of him at a moderate gait, the younger calves would soon grow tired and fall behind the rest of the herd. Then, he could ride alongside the calf, and it would eventually follow the horse he was riding.


 From the experiences he had gained earlier in life, Goodnight knew that by riding up behind a group of cows and getting them to run ahead of him at a moderate gait, the younger calves would soon grow tired and fall behind the rest of the herd.
From the experiences he had gained earlier in life, Goodnight knew that by riding up behind a group of cows and getting them to run ahead of him at a moderate gait, the younger calves would soon grow tired and fall behind the rest of the herd.

In his first attempt at this technique, Goodnight recalls in a typewritten manuscript titled Recollections he had some success. "The first time I went out to get some bison calves, I moved up a little until three calves fell behind. I cut them off, and they followed me home to the corrals."


At the home place, Goodnight placed the calves in the care of some domestic cows that would serve as foster mothers to the young bison. But Goodnight wanted six calves in all. In a couple of days, he set out to capture some more.


During his next outing, Goodnight cut two calves from the herd like he did the first three. He found one calf. However, that calf was barely a day old and, after running the mother off, put the calf across the forks of his saddle to carry it back to the headquarters.

Soon, the mother returned to claim her baby and viciously attacked him. To save himself and his horse, Goodnight had to kill the cow — an act he deeply regretted until the day he died. Soon after he had gathered his first six calves, Goodnight moved the little shaggies, along with their foster mothers, south to a friend's ranch in Parker County, Texas.

Although the initial Goodnight herd settled in well with their adopted parents, the Colonel's friend soon grew tired of the animals and sold them without splitting the profits with Goodnight.


The elemental factors involved in ranching and settling the Panhandle soon led to Goodnight's dream of putting a herd of bison together. A partnership with financier John Adair took up most of his time. Together, the two eventually platted and formed the now famous JA Ranch.


Twelve years after Goodnight caught his first six bison calves, the great herds of the Texas plains were beginning to wane.
Twelve years after Goodnight caught his first six bison calves, the great herds of the Texas plains were beginning to wane.

Twelve years after Goodnight caught his first six bison calves, the great herds of the Texas plains were beginning to wane. Distraught by their inevitable extinction, Mary Ann Goodnight wanted Charles to start another herd. At his wife's insistence, Goodnight once again set out to capture a few more calves.


Sometime in 1878, Goodnight rode out from the headquarters to join the rest of the JA outfit in the Palo Duro Canyon. While driving cattle out of the Wagon Creek Canyon, Goodnight rode up on a group of bison cows and calves. Getting his horse into a run, he roped a heifer calf, then dismounted to tie her legs. Soon, he roped a bull calf in the same way. After catching up to the other cowboys in the outfit, Goodnight sent the cook with the wagon to retrieve the two bound calves. Once again, the herd was started.


Back at the headquarters, the two calves were placed on domestic cows to be reared like the first bison he caught. According to Haley, the move was "much against the will of the cows." 


Soon, Leigh and Walter Dyer roped two more calves and gave them to Goodnight. The T Anchor Ranch of Canyon, Texas, contributed one to the herd and Colonel B.B. Groom gave him two more calves that came from Groom's ranch along the Canadian River.


One of the calves caught that day was named Old Sikes. The young bull eventually grew into adulthood and became the patriarch of the entire JA herd. Goodnight, in an attempt to once again collect a few animals of his own, became the ultimate savior for an entire subspecies.


In 1887, Goodnight and Adair dissolved their partnership and the Colonel relocated himself and his 13 head of bison to Goodnight, Texas - a small community located between the Texas Panhandle towns of Clarendon and Claude.


After the breakup, Goodnight began toying with the notion of breeding a cross between a bison and a bovine: an inspiration that struck him when, during one of the round-ups, a branded calf was brought in that was no doubt a half-breed.


Bison on the prairie.
A bison skirmish on the prairie

From that day, the Colonel began experimenting with crossing the two species and evaluating the results. He would breed Angus heifers to bison bulls, resulting in the Cattalo, the forerunner to the contemporary beefalo.


Through trial and error, Goodnight finally arrived upon a ratio he thought best suited the breed one one-quarter Angus and three-quarter bison. The resultant hybrid was touted to be immune to common bovine diseases, more uniformly marbled meat, resistant to flies, and docile.


As time passed, however, reproductive and financial problems plagued the new composite breed and Goodnight eventually sold them all off.


By 1910, his herd of bison had grown to 125 animals. Many of the offspring from the herd were shipped to the New York Zoo and Yellowstone National Park to establish herds at the respective locations. The Handbook of Texas postulates that a large percentage of the world's supply of the American Bison originated from the herd that Goodnight put together.


To offset the cost of the herd and help finance the budding Goodnight College, the Goodnight Ranch started a drive to sell stock in the ranch and the herd for $10 a share. The H.A. Fleming Company of Dallas, Texas, in a flyer distributed all over the United States, advertised that "Col. Goodnight has endeavored both with the State and the Government to get these rare animals perpetuated, but could not do so satisfactorily even as a gift to them.


Having no immediate heirs and desiring, as he states in his letter to Mr. Fleming, to have the bison perpetuated for the sake of generations yet unborn, Col. Goodnight could decide only to have a company with a charter from the State of Texas to take over and continue what he has begun and the company will pay him only $150,000."


The drive proved somewhat successful and the ranch and bison were eventually sold to private investors with the stipulation that the Goodnights could live on the ranch indefinitely. Goodnight also got into the business of selling bison products. Since the world's bison supply was extremely limited at the time, the demand for hides and meat was enormous. The Goodnights advertised their goods through mail order and, around 1910, were selling a whole carcass for 30 cents a pound. A first-class head, which was skinned, salted, boxed, and shipped to a taxidermist, sold for $50. And a hide, which barely brought $1.35 years earlier, was selling for $40.


Since the herd did provide a little return on their investment, Goodnight kept nurturing them until they numbered nearly 250. As some historians have observed, his reasons for keeping the herd stemmed not only for financial gain but also purely for the sake of nostalgia.


In October of 1916, Goodnight staged a bison hunt in which four Kiowa braves, armed only with bows, chased a lone cow across a pasture. The spectacle, which recreated a piece of history that had only been a generation removed, was witnessed by more than 11,000 spectators from Amarillo and the surrounding communities. The event was filmed and eventually blazed across Panhandle movie screens as a trailer.


Time marched on and soon ran out on Goodnight, who died at the age of 93 in December of 1929. After his death, the Texas Legislature authorized the Texas Game and Fish Commission (now known as the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department) to purchase the Goodnight herd of bison provided an "appropriate place could be found for them." A place was never located, however, and funds were never set aside to acquire land for the bison.


After the Texas Game and Fish Commission pulled out, the Great Southern Life Insurance Company of Dallas formed a syndicate and purchased the herd. For several years, the syndicate provided for the herd's well-being and kept them on the ranch.


Today, descendants of the original seven bison once again roam their ancestral home in Caprock Canyons State Park.


Now, nearly a century and a half after the height of the great hunt, the bison's existence in the United States is no longer a lingering question mark. Today, the role of the bison is no longer that of an ecological caretaker of the plains. Instead, the bison now takes on the role of an alternative to beef. An exponential amount of credit is extended to Charles and Mary Ann Goodnight for bringing the species back from the brink of extinction.


American bison
Now, nearly a century and a half after the height of the great hunt, the bison's existence in the United States is no longer a lingering question mark

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