“They caught the scent of water on the air and began a great motion, until the broad shadow lake became a wallow of virtually all the southern herd… The hide men followed a few days later.”
In 1877 the Texas bison had retreated to the Staked Plains, the Llano Estacado of Texas and Oklahoma. Among the southern plains tribes, it is widely believed that the bison first sprang from the earth in the canyons here. Archaeological evidence indicates that both bison and bison hunting are ancient in Texas.
In 1877, the place was deep in one of the West’s periodic droughts. Then there came a meteorological oddity, a waterspout that poured in across the land and built a great shallow lake. The thousands of bison of the Texas herd had been well away from the lake when it formed, but evolved as they had been in a place of drought and wind, they caught the scent of water on the air and began a great motion, until the broad shadow lake became a wallow of virtually all the southern herd.
The hide men followed a few days later, at first thirsty themselves, hectoring off bison and wolves so that they and their horses could drink. Then they killed. A pair of hunters took 6,200 hides in the next few months. A lone man working to the south of them took 4,900. All around the Llano it was the same; wherever a seep or draw popped up, the bison congregated in their evolved defense against drought, a defense that rendered them helpless against a new enemy. The new enemy was not man, taking drought-bunched animals here just as he had in Clovis times when the mammoth bunched around that water hole in Arizona’s San Pedro Valley. The enemy was this new man, whose railroads, like a lens, could focus the hungers of men of an entire world to burn on a single spot in Texas.
By 1878, the southern herd was gone, save a relict band that was to roam the plains until a cowboy spotted and fired on them in 1886. A hunting party took all of them, fifty-two animals, that winter.