William Hornaday's Bitter Mission: The Mysterious Journey of the Last Wild Bison

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  • Article discusses the disappearance of bison from the American landscape in the late 19th century and the Smithsonian Institution's effort to capture bison specimens for posterity before their extinction. Smithsonian Secretary Spencer F. Baird was warned of the dire situation by the United States National Museum's Chief Taxidermist William T. Hornaday. Baird was dismayed about having to kill bison to obtain specimens, but realizing that was the only way to have the species available for museums, directed that Hornaday travel to Montana Territory and collect at least 20 skins, 10 to 15 skeletons and about 50 skulls. Hornaday took two trips to the area in 1886 to secure the bison specimens. He returned to the National Museum and worked with a taxidermy team into 1888, producing an exhibit which included six specimens.
  • The exhibit was a masterpiece, according to the author, as the animals were the most lifelike then produced in any museum and were arranged in a display case that recreated the appearance of their natural habitat. The author writes that National Museum Director G. Brown Goode praised Hornaday's work in his 1888 report. Hornaday worked at the museum until 1896, when he took the position of New York Zoological Park Director. In 1905, he became the first president of the American Bison Society, a group dedicated to saving the bison from extinction, and was instrumental in establishing bison preserves to save them from extinction. The admiring author also writes of his own successful effort to track down the whereabouts of the animals that had been displayed in Hornaday's popular exhibit until 1955.
  • While he is nostalgic about changes that have taken place in the wide open spaces of the west, the author also expresses pleasure that the bison have come back and presently number approximately 100,000. Two sub-titled sections follow the titled article. "Bison Under Glass" details the past history and happy fate of Hornaday's original bison group, scheduled for restoration in preparation for display in Fort Benton's new visitor center opening in 1992. "Camp on the Big Porcupine" describes the place used from early November to late December 1886 by Hornaday's expedition as both home and laboratory. It was located in 1989 by the author, who was guided by Hornaday's written narrative of the area which included a description of the landmark he had named Smithsonian Butte.


  • Hornaday, William Temple 1854-1937
  • Brown, William Harvey
  • Goode, G. Brown (George Brown) 1851-1896
  • Baird, Spencer Fullerton 1823-1887
  • American Bison Society
  • United States National Museum
  • Smithsonian Butte


Smithsonian Institution History Bibliography


Eleven photographs and two illustrations accompany the article.

Contained within

Montana Magazine (Journal)

Contact information

Institutional History Division, Smithsonian Institution Archives, 600 Maryland Avenue, S.W., Washington, D.C. 20024-2520, SIHistory@si.edu


February 1991


  • Scientific expeditions
  • Endangered ecosystems
  • American bison
  • Secretaries
  • Exhibit cases
  • Employees
  • Museums
  • Taxidermy
  • Zoos
  • Taxidermists
  • Collectors and collecting
  • Smithsonian Institution
  • Personnel management
  • Buffaloes
  • Biography
  • Endangered species
  • Smithsonian Institution--Employees
  • Museum exhibits
  • Museum techniques
  • Buffalo



Physical description

pp. 58-71

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