Charles Jesse Jones was a repentant cowboy of the Old West who once slaughtered as many as 60 American bison a day. Then when the great animals of the American West became nearly extinct, he smashed his hunting rifle and devoted the rest of his life protecting them.
For his efforts, history remembers him as “Buffalo Jones — the man who saved the buffalo.”
He was more than just a cowboy…
He helped Zane Grey launch his literary career and hobnobbed with Wyatt Earp, the onetime deputy sheriff of Kootenai County, Pat Garrett, who shot Billy the Kid, hunter and showman Buffalo Bill Cody and other personalities of 1800s America.
Britain’s King Edward VII thanked him with a medal for his conservation efforts, and President Teddy Roosevelt gave him a job as game warden.
His life of adventure even took him to Africa to lasso wild animals, which he filmed to show on lecture tours.
Born in Illinois in 1844, Jones cut a swathe across the American scene at a time when persecuting Native Americans by the U.S. government and whites was rampant, the West was opening up, and both Indians and buffalo were being swept aside — all in the name of Manifest Destiny.
The Civil War was over in 1865, but it didn’t bring peace to America. Conflict between the Indians and whites that started as soon as Europeans first arrived in the 1500s — and accelerated after President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act of 1830 — was still a dark cloud hanging over America.
Tragedy from taking over someone else’s land by force has always been part of human history, but President Thomas Jefferson could hardly have envisioned what was to follow when his Louisiana Purchase in 1803 opened up the West.
Manifest Destiny brought deadly wars between the Indians and the white settlers and government invading their ancestral lands.
From 1830 to 1838 in the southeast, the infamous Trail of Tears was a campaign of forced eviction of the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee and Seminole Indians for relocation to Indian reserves west of the Mississippi. The Cherokee alone lost 2,000 to 6,000 of their 16,543 people on the trek, dying from exposure, disease and starvation.
In eastern Washington just west of the Idaho border near Post Falls in 1858, Col. (later general) George Wright in his zeal to force Indians onto reservations ordered the slaughter of 800 Palouse Indian horses, thus ending the ability of the Indians to fight back.
But that was nothing compared to the slaughter ahead for the American buffalo on the Great Plains.
Fresh from the Civil War, more Army soldiers joined the fight against the Indians who for thousands of years had hunted buffalo for food, clothing, shelter and other things — including spiritual needs.
“Kill, skin, and sell until the buffaloes are exterminated,” General Philip H. Sheridan thundered, vowing to starve the Indians into submission and force them onto reservations and dependency on the government.
“General Sherman, more than any other officer, was responsible for devising a strategy to conquer the Plains Indians,” according to historian David D. Smits.
Lt. Col. Richard Irving Dodge told fellow officer and frontiersman Frank H. Mayer, “There’s no two ways about it, either the buffalo or the Indian must go. Only when the Indian becomes absolutely dependent on us for his every need, will we be able to handle him. He’s too independent with the buffalo. But if we kill the buffalo we conquer the Indian.
“It seems a more humane thing to kill the buffalo than the Indian, so the buffalo must go.”
Even deadlier to the buffalo were civilian hunters who came from across the nation and even Europe to enjoy the carnage of shooting buffalo.
Newly constructed railroads across buffalo lands encouraged the killings by allowing passengers to shoot the vast herds from the trains as they rolled by; occasionally stopping to allow passengers to harvest the pelts and tongues — a culinary delicacy — leaving the carcasses to rot.
Sometimes, Indians were at fault too, by stampeding bison herds over a cliff to their death — killing far more than they could use.
Before the opening of the West in the early 1800s, there were an estimated 60 million buffalo roaming the Great Plains.
By 1893, there were only about 400 left.
Charles Jesse Jones was born near Pekin in Tazewell County, Illinois. His father was a farmer and judge who once hired Lincoln as an attorney.
As a boy, he began capturing wild animals — keeping some as pets. He moved to Troy, Kan., at age 22 and later married Martha J. Walton, descendant of famed naturalist Izaak Walton.
In Kansas, he earned a living capturing wild horses and hunting buffalo — sometimes killing up to 60 a day.
Buffalo Bill Cody was far deadlier, once killing 4,862 over 18 months as meat for the Kansas Pacific Railroad construction crews.
(Cody used bison extensively in his Wild West shows but never had an epiphany about their preservation. Nevertheless, tens of millions saw his show and learned to appreciate the American buffalo.)
Buffalo Jones however did see the tragedy — and vowed to champion their preservation.
In 1879, Jones and several others founded Garden City in southeastern Kansas and he became the town’s first mayor. He later started another ranch on the north rim of the Grand Canyon in Arizona, where he invited a young Zane Grey to visit.
They would make each other famous.
Zane launched his literary career as a writer of the Old West, telling about Jones in his non-fiction “The Last of the Plainsmen” and “Roping Lions in the Grand Canyon.”
To preserve the decimated buffalo, Jones captured wild calves to start new herds at his ranch four miles from Garden City — bringing in animals from as far away as Manitoba, Canada. Some he sold to private zoos for $1,000 each — including another 10 to a buyer in England.
At his Grand Canyon ranch, he tried crossing buffalo with cattle to produce “catalo” a breed that had tastier meat and was gentle enough to handle yet also tough enough to survive the harsh Great Plains weather.
The experiment failed after six years of effort however, because the catalo “were highly infertile, had problems calving, and generally performed poorly.”
During that time, Jones became an accomplished roper and expert on bison — earning him the nickname Buffalo Jones.
Even President Teddy Roosevelt was impressed, and in 1902 appointed him game warden at Yellowstone — America’s first national park.
With money from Congress, he bought more than two dozen buffalo, including some from his own ranch, which he herded across the plains and through the Rocky Mountains to Yellowstone.
His tenure as game warden only lasted four years — losing his job following complaints from his staff over strict rules against alcohol, smoking and gambling.
But the energetic Buffalo Jones was soon off to new adventures.
In his 60s, he went to Africa to hunt wild animals for zoos. Using his lasso instead of a gun, he chased lions, rhinos, antelope, warthogs, elands, zebras and gorillas — all filmed with both still and moving picture cameras for future lecture tours.
One lioness reportedly ended up in the Bronx Zoo — but he failed to catch his gorilla.
On his second expedition he came down with malaria, and never regaining his strength.
Charles Jesse “Buffalo” Jones died at his daughter Olive’s house in Topeka, Kan., on Oct. 1, 1919, at age 75.
Today, there are only about 350,000 American buffalo left — grazing on private and public lands. “Further increases in the bison population of North America will need to come through an increase in the number of privately owned herds,” according to the Kansas State Historical Society.
Most of America’s bison today are descended from Buffalo Jones’ herds in Yellowstone, and preservationists in the U.S. and Canada hope to return as many as possible to their ancestral ranges.
Sadly, the great buffalo herds will never be seen again on the Great Plains; nor will Native Americans be returned to their ancestral lands — both remaining perpetual victims of a dark chapter in our nation’s history.
Thomas Jefferson said, “The care of human life and happiness, and not their destruction, is the first and only object of good government.”
Buffalo Jones understood that.
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Contact Syd Albright at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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De Tocqueville saw it
French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville witnessed the Trail of Tears removal of Choctaw Indians in 1831:
“In the whole scene there was an air of ruin and destruction, something which betrayed a final and irrevocable adieu; one couldn’t watch without feeling one’s heart wrung. The Indians were tranquil, but sombre and taciturn. There was one who could speak English and of whom I asked why the Chactas were leaving their country. ‘To be free,’ he answered, could never get any other reason out of him. We … watch the expulsion … of one of the most celebrated and ancient American peoples.”
— ?Alexis de Tocqueville, “Democracy in America”
Numbers tell slaughter story…
“Colonel Richard I. Dodge, a contemporary observer of the slaughter observer of the slaughter, obtained figures from the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway for three years of hide shipments from Dodge City.
“In 1872, hides shipped numbered 165,721; in 1873 there were 251,443; and in 1874 there was a reduction to 42,289 — a total of 459,453 bison hides.
“This figure does not include animals killed but not skinned or buffalo hides that spoiled in the field due to the inexperience of the hunters.”
— Kansas State Historical Society
“Montana livestock officials and federal animal health agents oppose transferring bison to the quarantine site (built by the Assiniboine and Sioux tribes) because the animals have not been certified to be free of brucellosis, a disease that can cause animals to abort their young. “Ranchers in the state fear bison could transmit the disease to cattle and would pose competition for grazing space on public lands.
“No transmissions of the disease from wild bison to cattle have been documented.”
— Seattle Times (Feb. 8, 2017)
A Smithsonian report said, “Hunters began killing buffalo by the hundreds of thousands in the winter months. One hunter, Orlando Brown brought down nearly 6,000 buffalo by himself and lost hearing in one ear from the constant firing of his .50 caliber rifle.”
Failed Arctic adventure…
In 1907, Buffalo Jones went to the Arctic region in northern Canada to hunt wild animals. He caught five muskoxen calves to bring back to the U.S. But the Indians or Eskimos cut the calves’ throats while he was asleep. They believed that all game would leave the country if the muskoxen were taken out alive.