Stories from the Smithsonian

Get to know the people who have shaped the Smithsonian since its founding in 1846, through their letters, diaries, oral histories, and photographs.

Scroll to explore this topic

Letter dated December 2, 1887, to Professor George Brown Goode, Director of the National Museum, expressing concerns about the conservation of bison

William Temple Hornaday Letter - Dec 2, 1887 - Page 1

Respectfully referred to Professor Langley, Secretary SI.
G. Brown Goode
Please return to GBG
Noted and acted on. S.P.L.
Washington, Dec 2, 1887
Prof. G. Brown Goode.
Assistant Secretary Smithsonian Institution
In charge of the National Museum
Sir: --
I desire to respectfully call your attention to the fact that the United States Government has thus far taken no special measures whatever for the preservation of the Great American Bison, either in confinement or on a public reservation. Until very recently we have had reason to believe that the band of buffaloes know to be in the Yellowstone Park was adequately protected, and that the animals composing it were breeding in real security. From the reports 

William Temple Hornaday Letter - Dec 2, 1887 - Page 2


that have been published we have been led to believe that there are between 100 and 125 head of buffaloes in the Park.
While recently in the vicinity of the National Park I learned from competent and reliable sources that the buffaloes in the Park have been killed off as they wandered out or were drive out of the Park limits, until now it is the general belief amongst those most interested that not over twenty head remain! It is a well known fact that a number of hunters, some of whom distinguished themselves in past years in the slaughter of buffalo, have been, and are now living along the Park boundaries on the East and South for the purpose of killing buffaloes and other game that wanders out of the reservation, or can be safely frightened out. In Mandan, Dak. I saw the heads of two Park Buffaloes, and in Helena, Montana three out of a lot of six more, that 

William Temple Hornaday Letter - Dec 2, 1887 - Page 3


had been killed by those worthies, some of whom I could name. The six heads in Helena had been hidden in the snow all winter, in order to keep them from the eyes of law officers, and had been mutilated by coyotes.
The fact that the game in the Park is not adequately protected, is notorious. While there is no doubt that the troop charged with police duty is vigilant and active, and well directed, the force is entirely too small, and not sufficiently provided with posts of rendezvous to cover the ground which should be covered. In winter the men all retreat to the hotels, which are the only winter quarters provided, and the best game districts of the park are thus left entirely without protection, and for quite a long period. It would seem that a wire fence eight feet high is imperatively needed around the entire park. 

William Temple Hornaday Letter - Dec 2, 1887 - Page 4


and I respectfully submit the question whether it is not the duty of the Smithsonian Institution to memorialize Congress on this point at the next session. With the entire park so enclosed, it would be a comparatively easy matter to make of it the greatest game preserve in the world.
In view of the fact that thus far this government has done nothing to preserve alive any specimens of the American Bison, the most striking and conspicuous species on this continent, I have the honor to propose that the Smithsonian Institution, or the National Museum, one or both, take immediate steps to procure either by gift or purchase, as may be necessary, the nucleus of a herd of live buffaloes. Having been spared the misfortune, thanks to the Smithsonian Institution, of being left without a series of skins and skeletons of the species suitable for the wants of the National Museum, it now 

William Temple Hornaday Letter - Dec 2, 1887 - Page 5


seems necessary for us to assume the responsibility of forming and preserving a herd of live buffaloes which may, in a small measure, atone for the national disgrace that attaches to the heartless and senseless extermination of the species in a wild state.
There are quite a number of buffaloes alive in captivity in the hands of private individuals, and a few more in publics parks and gardens. Those in the hands of private owners are in many instances being allowed to cross with domestic breeds, and it is to be feared that it will soon become a difficult matter to find a buffalo of absolutely pure breed. Is it not only desirable but imperative that we should have a herd fit to be shown as one belonging to the National Government, and one not to be equaled by that of any private individual? It is unnecessary for me to do more than refer 

William Temple Hornaday Letter - Dec 2, 1887 - Page 6


to the painstaking and severe manner in which the last surviving herds of Aurochs has for years been protected in the forest of Bialowskza, in Lithuania, by the Emperor of Russia, to prove the degree of interest which other governments manifest in such questions as that now before us.
It seems to me that we should have from six to ten buffaloes as a nucleus for a herd worthy of the name, and also that the animals should be procured immediately. I have ascertained by correspondence the various prices at which private parties would sell some of their stock, and I submit a few letters herewith which will serve well to show the high value already set on these animals. While several parties ask $500 each for buffaloes, and some refuse to sell females at any price, I believe that by prompt action it will be possible to secure what we need at about $100. per head, plus 

William Temple Hornaday Letter - Dec 2, 1887 - Page 7


the expenses of transportation. But the price is steadily & very rapidly advancing, and in another year it may be impossible to find a buffalo of any size for sale at less than double its present price.
In view of all the foregoing facts, I now respectfully urge that immediate steps be taken in the matter. I am ready to undertake the task of procuring the animals needed, and providing for them here, if called upon, and provided with the funds that will be necessary.
I think it might prove profitable, in case anything can be done, to engage Mr. M.C. Rousseau (see letter) at once, at a maximum cost of $15. to visit the man mentioned in his letter and ascertain the lowest price at which ten head of buffaloes can be bought on the spot. In order to definitely present the matter, I have 

William Temple Hornaday Letter - Dec 2, 1887 - Page 8


the honor to enclose a requisition for the services of Mr. Rosseau immediately.

Respectfully submitted
W. T. Hornaday