Last of the Wild Buffalo

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

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.

During the spring expedition to Montana, one of Hornaday's crew had captured a live male buffalo calf. Hornaday had long been interested in exhibiting live animals at the National Museum and decided to bring the calf back to the Smithsonian, where he was penned up on the lawn of the National Museum, today the Arts and Industries Building. Named Sandy for his yellowish-blond color, the calf remained in his enclosure during the summer months of 1886.

Over the course of a few weeks, however, Sandy began to acquire a humped back, more bulk and increasingly unruly tendencies. Andrew, Sandy's human attendant, had to cope with the fat and fractious animal. In 1887, Hornaday described the violent confrontations between animal captive and human keeper in the Cosmopolitan magazine: "Going up to the now quite demure looking calf...[Andrew] muttered, ‘Confound your hide! You son of a gun, if I wasn't so attached to ye, I'd kick the stuffing out o' ye right now!'"

A few days later the calf died, probably from eating too much damp clover. Hornaday eventually decided to incorporate Sandy into the unfinished group, draping his treated hide over a wood-and-clay form.

Before Sandy's untimely death, Smithsonian visitors had enjoyed watching the calf's daily activities through the fence of his pen near the National Museum. Inspired partly by this interest, Hornaday returned to another project, the establishment of the Department of Living Animals at the Smithsonian.

In October 1887, Director Goode implemented Hornaday's proposal on a trial basis, naming Hornaday the department's first curator. Goode and Hornaday justified the department's existence on the grounds that it would afford museum taxidermists an opportunity to observe the habits and positions of the various species as they were in life.

In December 1887, the initial collection of live North American mammals and birds moved into its quarters by the National Museum building. When the mini-menagerie was opened to the public, it was instantly popular with young and old alike. By April 1888, the collection had grown to 172 creatures. Hornaday admitted to the Washington Star that he hoped to establish a full-fledged national zoo for the conservation and study of wild animals sacred to the national heritage. He wanted living as well as dead buffalo preserved for posterity, arguing that preservation of a living herd in captivity would atone partially for America's extermination of the species.

In 1888, Hornaday and Smithsonian Secretary Samuel Langley drafted the zoological park proposal and forwarded it to congressional sponsors. The bill finally passed in 1889. Said a sponsor, Senator James Beck of Kentucky, "It is the duty of the National Government to secure a herd of American bison, and preserve it under the best conditions."

The legislation established the Zoological Park Commission to oversee the park's construction. Langley named Hornaday as temporary superintendent. Through donation, the Zoo soon acquired six buffalo, the first living buffalo specimens to be the property of the U.S. government. Their preservation as a living display exemplified the zoological park ideal that would guide American zoological gardens for the next half-century.

Since Hornaday's era, the number of buffalo on American soil has skyrocketed, thanks to his efforts and others. In 1902, twenty-one captive bison and 23 wild animals in Yellowstone National Park formed the nucleus of the herd of about 2,500 that survives there today. Meanwhile, other herds throughout North America, including protected herds and livestock animals on ranches, bring the total number of bison to about 250,000 animals. To some extent, all, in the United States at least, owe their survival to Hornaday.

Hornaday's Buffalo Group remained on display at the Smithsonian for almost 70 years after its first unveiling in 1888. From 1911 until 1957, the Buffalo Group stood on the first floor of what is today the National Museum of Natural History, across the Mall from its original location. In 1955, the Natural History museum's mammals division began its mid-century modernization project. By the 1940s, dioramas — displays that included painted composite backgrounds behind mounted animals and accessories — proliferated in North American natural history museums. For the modernization project, the mammal curators hoped to update the displays of the larger North American quadrupeds. The Buffalo Group would have to go, even though it contained the last wild buffalo. Not only did the Buffalo Group seem old-fashioned by the mid-20th century but the skins had not been mounted to the standards of 1950s taxidermists, who used hollow plaster-and-burlap molds rather than Hornaday's wood-and-clay forms.

When, in 1957, twenty years after Hornaday's death, the Buffalo Group was dismantled and curators found the note from Hornaday, they treasured it, but they chose not to heed its advice. They moved the six Hornaday buffalo downstairs to the basement and replaced them with a new display, employing fresh and handsome pelts of animals recently killed in the National Bison Range in Montana, which Hornaday had helped establish in 1908. The new buffalo skins, unlike their predecessors, did not belong to animals that had ever been free.

But the Hornaday buffalo did not stay long in the dusty Washington, D.C. basement. Instead of rotting away to "dust and ashes," in 1958 the specimens — bull, spike bull, yearling, two cows and Sandy — were shipped to Missoula, Montana, where the University of Montana wanted to incorporate them into a small museum.

Instead, the school eventually distributed the specimens to various other sites in Montana. The large bull — the "splendid animal" — was given to the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, where it remained until it was acquired in 1970 by Jack Lepley, director of the Montana Agricultural Center and Museum in Fort Benton.

But in 1988, Doug Coffman, a writer and naturalist in Eugene, Oregon, read about Hornaday's Buffalo Group and decided to track down its components. Coffman had become interested in the group as a symbol not only of the buffalo and their near extermination but also of the birth and many successes of the American conservation movement.

Between 1988 and 1990, Coffman located and documented all six specimens, and he and Lepley found funding to reunite the "family." Taxidermists were commissioned to restore the six old buffalo, even cleaning their still-original glass eyes. Reunited and refurbished, today the group stands in the new wing of the Montana Agricultural Center and Museum as a shrine to history and memory — to the buffalo's loss and rebirth, and the group's dispersion and reunion. The resurrected version is not encased but stands on a pedestal surrounded by guardrails. Instead of the old glass case, only an invisible fence of history — the passing of years, miles and lives — remains to separate visitors and buffalo.

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