Last of the Wild Buffalo | Science | Smithsonian
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Last of the Wild Buffalo

Long displayed, long dispersed, the famous Hornaday bison "family" is reunited in a new home

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One day in 1957, workers undertaking a major, much-needed refurbishment of the Smithsonian's U.S. National Museum discovered a metal box embedded in the base of an antiquated display of American buffalo. Inside was a note dated March 7, 1888, written by naturalist, hunter and conservationist William Temple Hornaday. Chief taxidermist at the National Museum from 1882 to 1890, director at various times of both the Institution's first zoo and the New York Zoological Park, and president of the American Bison Society, Hornaday was one of the best-known naturalists of his time.

The Buffalo Group, created as an exhibit between 1887 and 1888, was among the earliest products of Hornaday's wide and varied career as taxidermist, writer and activist. The note Hornaday had enclosed within the Buffalo Group's case read:

My Illustrious Successor, Dear Sir:
Enclosed please find a brief and truthful account of the capture of the specimens which compose this group. The Old Bull, the young cow and the yearling calf were killed by yours truly. When I am dust and ashes I beg you to protect these specimens from deterioration and destruction....

W.T. Hornaday, Chief Taxidermist

During the two decades before Hornaday had written this plea to future generations, sportsmen, ranchers and professional hunters had killed millions of buffalo, or bison, as these mammals of North America and Europe are more correctly called. Perhaps as many as 60 million American bison ultimately became the victims of progress.

Unlike most others of his day, Hornaday was concerned about the imminent extinction of the buffalo. A prolific writer of popular magazine articles and books, and an outspoken public figure, Hornaday was a leading spokesman for the early conservation movement between around 1880 and his death in 1937. A contemporary of the equally impassioned outdoorsman Theodore Roosevelt and a fellow member of the Boone and Crockett Club, Hornaday earned the special admiration of several generations of young boys for his volumes on hunting and natural history.

Concerned that the rapid disappearance of the buffalo would soon make it impossible for the museum to acquire top-quality specimens for posterity, Hornaday and a crew went in the spring and fall of 1886 to eastern Montana where they collected 25 buffalo of both sexes and various ages. From these, Hornaday chose a massive bull, a hefty cow, a smaller cow, a young spike bull, a yearling and a suckling calf for his exhibit. He mounted the six specimens in a 16-by-12-by-10-foot glass-and-mahogany case.

Finally, in March 1888, before an ecstatic public, the National Museum lifted the screen that surrounded the completed Buffalo Group. The Washington Star ran an article with the following headline: "A scene from Montana — Six of Mr. Hornaday's Buffaloes form a picturesque group — A bit of the Wild West reproduced at the National Museum — Something novel in the way of taxidermy — Real buffalo-grass, real Montana dirt, and real Buffaloes."

The newspaper described the large male as "the huge buffalo bull, the giant of his race...the one believed to be the largest specimen of which there is authentic record."

The Buffalo Group quickly achieved acclaim as a symbol of the early conservation movement and as an outstanding example of the new school of taxidermy of the 1880s and 1890s. Scientists as well as laypeople recognized that the group exhibit, with its suggestion of habitat, was innovative both in method and effect. The director of the National Museum, G. Brown Goode, hailed it as a "triumph of the taxidermist's art." And soon after the first public viewing, the president of the rival American Museum of Natural History was already rallying funds to build his own buffalo group in New York City.

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