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 Texas : Features : Columns : "Texas Tales"

Last Buffalo

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
Endings 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 seen it.

“I rode in among them, some were lying down and some were grazing,” he recalled, estimating the herd amounted to about 200 head.

When the 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.

“I galloped 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 said.

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.

One 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 is past.”

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
"Texas Tales"
June 15 , 2004 column
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