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Bison jump sites part of prairie history

July 21, 2012
By GARRY BRANDENBURG , Times-Republican

BUFFALO, or more correctly bison, were so numerous at one time that naturalists later estimated the peak population of these giant beasts of the prairie lands at 60 million. Of course they were originally spread out across much of the West and Midwest and from Canada to Texas, even Mexico. Bison were so numerous that early passenger trains across Kansas and other places were forced to stop and let the big herds move across the tracks. To force the locomotive through the herd was to invite derailment.

There are hundreds of known buffalo jump sites in North America. Iowa has several, one being located in the northwest part of the state. What constituted a bison jump site was any cliff face or high straight cut above river or creek bank with sufficient height that any animal forced over the edge would be injured or killed by the fall. From that point, the Native American tribe members could finish the dispatching job with bows and arrows or spears. Then they worked to skin, butcher and save as many pieces of meat as possible, along with many internal organs and bones, to help lay up sufficient food for a long, cold winter.

To make a buffalo jump site work in the first place required a thorough knowledge of the land and an intimate knowledge of bison behavior. For Native Americans, that was one of the many things they knew very well. When attempting to gently push or herd the animals in a desired direction, buffalo robes helped. With the robes draped over their backs, they could decoy the main herd into thinking that all was well along the horizon. Once the herd started to come closer, a carefully-timed rush from well behind the herd caused panic and a stampede. During the panic running of the bison, the cliff edge drew closer and closer only to be seen at the last moment. Then it was too late. Over they went, bounding and bouncing off the rocks and each other in a massive bone-breaking event.

Article Photos

This pair of museum-mounted bison at the edge of a simulated cliff help depict the plight of the animals just before other bison behind them forced them over the edge. What made the bison jump plan work was a carefully crafted stampede by Native Americans on the prairie lands beyond the cliff face. Bison jumps are what these death sites are called. In reality bison jumps were places to quickly provide enough food stores for a long winter to come, an essential task to survive a long winter. Today’s photo was made at First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park near Great Falls, Mont.

This scribe stood on the very edge of the bison jump site at First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park in Montana several years ago. From the top, I could imagine a large collection of teepees on the plains below, filled with anxious people who would be watching and listening as the hoof- pounding thunder of hundreds of bison drew closer. And when the animals hesitated at the brink, they were forced to lose their balance. They fell to their death or were severely injured. All the observers below knew that all the hard work was paying off. The meat of the bison, its hides for clothing and teepee covers, its bones and skulls and even all of its internal organs would be put to good use. Survival of native peoples depended upon success at sites like this.

Eighteen miles northwest of Fort Macleod, Alberta, Canada, at a place where the foothills of the Rocky Mountains meet the plains, is one of the world's oldest and largest and best preserved buffalo jump's known to exist. It is called Head-Smashed-In. It is also a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site since its dedication in 1981. Head-Smashed-In was used continuously by aboriginal peoples of the plains for 5,500 years. Scientific excavations of the site have documented its long history of supplying food for native peoples.

There is another site in northeast Wyoming near the little City of Beulah, WY. It is called the Vore Buffalo Jump, named after the ranch family that owned the land. It is located on the north edge of the Black Hills of South Dakota. Known to local ranchers to have a mysterious sink hole, the Jump is most likely the collapsed roof of a cave system deep underground in this otherwise gently rolling prairie landscape. Survey work for the then proposed interstate highway 90 probed the site to determine its suitability for construction. What they found was layer upon layer of bison bones in the bottom of the pit. University of Wyoming teams were called to investigate. They finally put the pieces together after careful excavation at the pit bottom. Here is what they discovered.

At the edge of this conical-shaped sinkhole, with a diameter of about 100 yards, bison were stampeded off the edge during a 300-year period of time between the years 1500 to 1800. Each event was the scene of bison dismemberment with many bones left behind once the meat was packed out. Then each year, natural siltation covered the bones and protected them from decay. Bones and artifacts were not washed away or carried away by scavengers. The site was not used every year. Archaeologists estimate it was used on average about every 20 to 30 years. The result is a pit that contains at least 20,000 skeletal remains of bison in 20 distinct layers that are over 25 feet deep. Each layer is clearly delineated. Each layer can be precisely dated. The quality of preservation at this site is excellent. Pollen grains from plant life of past centuries is also preserved to tell scientists what the climate may have been like during those times.

The time frame in which the Vore site was used corresponds with rapid development and climax of the Plains Indians' culture as free-roaming buffalo hunters. Various tribes were inter-marrying, exchanging ideas and fighting wars. Customs and technologies were changing swiftly. Tribes using the site included the Cheyenne, Kiowa, Kiowa-Apache, and possibly Lakota. When the horse became a standard hunting and pack animal for Native Americans, jump sites were used less and less because the horse allowed hunters to more easily find buffalo. The Native Americans could take fewer buffalo but do so more often with the help of fast running ponies.

My donation of money to the Vore Buffalo Jump Site may hopefully add to a long-term fund raising plan that will culminate in an interpretive center to be built on the site. Classrooms, artifact displays and the history of the people of the prairies are part of the plan. As I stood on the rim of the Vore site in early June of this year, I could almost visualize the sound of pounding bison hooves approaching, dust whirling behind them high in the air and then the bellowing grunts of panicked bison as they fell into the pit. Prairie history has many lessons to learn. Jump sites are just one piece of the puzzle.


More prairie information is available for you this weekend at the Conservation Center at the Grimes Farm. St. Anthony Prairie Farmer Carl Kurtz will lead an informative hike through the reconstructed praire to help participants learn about the diverse native grasses and forbs that once covered 85 percent of Iowa's 52,000-plus square miles of land. The hike will be at 10 a.m. during an OPEN HOUSE event to highlight a new Tallgrass Prairie exhibit. The open house is from 9 a.m. until noon today. Come see Tallgrass Prairie: Past, Present and Future. This exhibit will be available for all to see and learn from until Sept. 11 of this year.

Naturalist Diane Hall has also initiated a Prairie Passport program where people can get a 'passport' to use as they visit prairie remnants in all four corners of Marshall County. Completed passports will be entered into a random drawing for a prize. Only Diane knows what the prize is so help her out with this fun activity. Enjoy a prairie near you. You will be glad you did.


This scribe can only dream about being good enough to participate in the World Olympics. For one Iowa girl from Des Moines, Miranda Leek, a trip to London is underway right now. She shoots a recurve bow and is so well trained that putting arrow after arrow into the 10 ring of a downrange target is normal stuff for her. She is part of the USA archery team this year. Other young men and women from America are representing us in various shooting sports of skeet/trap, 10m and 50m air rifle, double trap, 50m Rifle prone, 10 and 50m air pistol, rapid fire pistol, sport pistol and others. The best of luck to all of them as they compete against the best of the best from all over the world. Let's hope they bring in some gold medals.


A big thank you to Project AWARE participants that searched the Iowa River last week during the heat wave and extra low water flows. All totaled, they removed 60 tons, yes folks, that is what I said, 60 tons of stuff that should not be found in a river. Included were 1,350 old tires. The team dubbed this event the "Year of the Tire." They also found swing sets, televisions, car engine blocks, bicycles and lots of plastics. Starting at Dows, and ending at Three Bridges Park, the volunteers are to be congratulated for a job well done. Hurray!


Since the weather is dry, dry, dry ... take this bit of advice: "Timing has a lot to do with the success of a rain dance." -Anonymous


Garry Brandenburg is a graduate of Iowa State University with BS degree in Fish & Wildlife Biology. He is the retired director of the Marshall County Conservation Board. Contact him at PO Box 96, Albion, IA 50005.



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