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Notes from the Paynesville Historical Society. . .

American bison once roamed the area
By Connie Williams

Buffalo skeleton The American bison or buffalo is almost always associated with the Plains Indians. Earlier they were found almost everywhere in the United States. The bison was a mainstay for the Indians. More than that, the bison was a way of life for the Indian. Ancient Indians stampeded bison off of cliffs. Around 1500 they hunted them with spears and arrows and later still, rifles.

The bison pictured at left and on display at the museum was found by William Scheierl in 1975 while doing a ditching operation.

The bison went on long east, west treks, sometimes covering 400 miles at a trek. As the bison migrated, he pounded out trails, over mountain ranges, and along ridges. He avoided swampy areas and where snow was very deep. These trails became the Indianšs new hunting ground.

The Indians moved wherever the bison moved. They were very nomadic people. They lived simply. If it was time to move, they packed up their tepees, put a few things in their parfleches (large leather envelopes used as suitcases).

The Indians were ingenious in their imagination for uses of the bison. They used every part of the animal. The meat of the bison was a protein staple. The squaw prepared the bison meat for boiling, roasting, or drying. Great sheets of meat were stripped off of the bones. The meat was cut into strips and dried on frames in the sun. This bison jerky was stored as it was. But much of it was pounded and mixed with hot fat to make a paste, then stuffed into lengths of the intestines from the bison. This made pemmican. The Indian also considered roasted buffalo tongue, a bison fetus still in the sac, and marrow from the bisonšs leg bones to be special delicacies.

The hide provided clothing from head to toe. Tepee frames were covered with bison hides to become walls. They made buffalo robes and blankets. They used the skin for their canoes. Bones became utensils, tools, and needles. Sinew made bow strings and thread. Boiled hooves made glue. The tasseled tail was a decoration or fly swatter. Gallstones were ground into medicine. They lashed a stone hammer onto a forked stick with wet rawhide strips. When the wet rawhide dried it shrank and held the stone onto the fork in the stick fast together. The Indians of the plains used bison chips or droppings for firewood, because the plains are treeless.

Bison numbered between 60 and 70 million between 1800 and 1880 on the western plains. In 1889, there were only 541 animals left.

White hunters senselessly and systematically slaughtered the animals to try to starve the Indians off the land. Some hunters shot up to 200 bison at one stand as the herd passed. They were then left to rot.

In Paynesville we think of the moose as being a Minnesota animal. But from post glacial times on until the last bison disappeared out of the Red River Valley in the 1900s, the bison roamed our prairies and wintered under the fringe of our forests.

In October of 1975, William Scheierl was doing a ditching operation. There was a spring that flowed heavily from the North Fork of the Crow River about 60 years earlier. In recent years the spring only bubbled. This year it didnšt even bubble. When Scheierl started digging he found the remains of at least six animals. First he saw the dorsal spines of the vertebrae. He eventually uncovered six baskets of bones. In his spare time, he and his daughter, Debi, assembled the bones. There were bones from several different bison. It was by trial and error but Scheierl was familiar with the structure of cows so this helped. When he discovered what he had found, he contacted the University of Minnesota. They confirmed this was bison. They were able to assemble an entire animal from the bones. It is about 66 inches high at the top of the dorsal spine and over nine feet long. It is believed this was a mature bull that weighed about 2,800 pounds. It is about 200 years old.

It is thought that this spring was a winter watering hole for the bison. There were about seven springs within a 200-yard radius. The bison probably broke through frozen earth or ice at the perimeter and became mired or trampled by other bison and pushed into the earth and died.

This bison skeleton is housed at the Paynesville Area Historical Museum.

For further comments, questions, or to make a donation, contact curator Bertha Zniewski at 320-243-4433.