are not always obvious at first. |
Charlie Norris, a cowboy from Clayton,
N.M., could have testified to that. It took about seven years before it finally
sank in on him that he had seen the last substantial herd of buffalo in Texas.
To put the enormity of that into perspective, in the 1500s,
when Spanish explorers first came to the Southwest, buffalo ranged over almost
all of Texas. In 1850, the shaggy beasts still could be found in roughly half
the state. Twenty years later, their range had decreased to the high plains even
though hundreds of thousands of them still thundered across the landscape. Only
a decade after that, in 1880, the buffalo remaining in Texas could fit into a
very small circle on the map in the Panhandle.
In the spring of
1886, Norris rode up on that circle. Twenty years later, Ernest Thompson Seton
preserved Norris’ story in the October 1906 issue of Scribner’s Magazine.
“I was driving a bunch of horses from Coldwater
[in present-day Sherman County, long since a ghost town] to Buffalo Springs, and
when 35 miles east of Buffalo Springs,” Norris told Seton, “saw the buffalo herd
about three miles off. I knew at once they were buffalo, because they were all
of one color.”
Norris, who had been serving as guide, left the horses
with their owner at their destination and went about his business. The next day,
heading back west, he saw the herd about 15 miles from the point he had first
“I rode in among them, some were lying down and some were grazing,”
he recalled, estimating the herd amounted to about 200 head.
animals saw Norris, he continued, they bunched like cattle and started milling
around. Norris watched as a succession of bulls tried to interest the herd in
stampeding, but the herd seemed to have little spirit for it.
behind trying to rope a calf, but the mother turned on me,” Norris said. “I had
no gun, my horse was tired, so I gave up.”
Norris rode on to his outfit’s
camp, about 15 miles from the buffalo. The camp had been set up near a small lake,
the only water in the area.
Two days later, the herd showed up at the
water hole. “They drank very heavily, and then played about like calves,” Norris
After watching them for a while, Norris killed a cow and his range
boss killed a bull. Then they roped three calves. When the mother of the third
calf tried to defend her offspring, someone shot and killed her.
of the calves died fairly soon afer its capture, another ended up in Charles
Goodnight’s herd in Palo Duro Canyon and the third got traded to someone riding
through from Kansas for “a span of colts.”
That November, Norris had
occasion to pass through the area again. This time he saw only 12 head and never
saw another buffalo in the Panhandle after that.
Norris later learned
that someone killed four buffalo at Buffalo Springs in 1889, “the very last individuals
that I have knowledge of.”
Seton closed his article with a big question
and an answer reflective of the times. “Why was it allowed?” he wrote, referring
to the virtual extinction of the species. “Why did the government not act?”
Then Seton offered this: “There is one answer – the extermination was absolutely
inevitable.... It had to be; he [the buffalo] served his time and now his time
That’s a hard answer, but the only alternative would have been
keeping about a fourth of the continent as one vast game preserve.
© Mike Cox
June 15 , 2004
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