Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Bison in Pennsylvania – Yes...No...Probably Not.

The American Bison on exhibit at The State Museum of Pennsylvania

This week’s blog deals with the presence of bison in Pennsylvania during prehistoric and early historic times. The debate has been going on for over a century. Research on bison or buffalo in Pennsylvania can be organized into two groups; a few scientific studies note that there are no known skeletal remains from Pennsylvania. This is in contrast to numerous reports of bison, sometimes numbering in the thousands, by early explorers and hunters and at least ten referenced place names, suggesting the animal as the origin for these names.

As background, The American Bison Association reports that the so-called American buffalo is not a true buffalo, i.e. the Cape buffalo or water buffalo of Africa and Asia, but rather, it is related to the European bison. Scientifically, they are classified as Bison bison bison, part of the Bovidae family along with the cow. However, the literature seems to use bison and buffalo interchangeably. They once roamed the Great Plains of the American West numbering as many as 60 million. However, by 1889, hide hunters had catastrophically reduced the herds, down to 635 wild bison according to Hornaday (1889:525). Although, their range extends east of the Mississippi, the numbers are far smaller. They are very large animals with females averaging about 1000 pounds and males about 1500-2000 pounds (American Bison Association brochure n.d.). They are very fast on their feet and can withstand severe cold and snow.

The most popular references to hunting bison in Pennsylvania are by Thomas Ashe, Travels in America in 1806 and a 60-page book by Colonel Henry W. Shoemaker (1919), A Pennsylvania Bison Hunt. Ashe describes detailed migration routes involving thousands of animals in central and western Pennsylvania. Guilday (1963:136) quotes a long passage from Ashe who relates a story of a man whose cabin was knocked down by a large herd and in retaliation, the man killed 600-700 animals. Guilday (1963:176) goes on to state “In view of the vagueness of the locality and the known propensity of Thomas Ashe for colorful embellishment without regard for the fact, this oft-quoted account cannot be considered seriously.”

Shoemaker (1915) wrote in detail of a bison hunt near Weikert, Union County during the winter of 1799-1800. According to Shoemaker (1915:31-35) a herd of 300 animals stampeded through a cabin, killing a mother and three children. The father and a group of approximately 50 others, tracked them down and killed them all. Guilday (1963) and Williams et al (1985) label these as an outrageous exaggeration. Shoemaker actually defined a new species separated from the western bison, Bison, americanus pennsylvanicus. However, since his definition was not based on physical remains but only hearsay and folklore, it was “considered invalid by the International Commission of Zoological Nomenclature” (Williamson et al 1985:173). Considering the number of large animals involved in these stories, there should be physical skeletal remains, but none can be documented.

Turnbaugh (1977:70-71) also reviews the reports of bison in the West Branch of the Susquehanna drainage. Specifically citing the fanciful descriptions of Colonel Henry W. Shoemaker (1919) and Thomas Ashe (1808). he agrees with Guilday (1963) and Frank G. Roe (1971) that there is no collaborating evidence to support these stories.

Traditionally, the last bison shot in Pennsylvania was killed by Colonel John Kelly in the 1790s on the McClister farm 5 miles from Lewisburg (thus the mascot for nearby Bucknell University is the “bison”). There are two others who claim to have killed the last bison. Williamson et al. (1985:173) reviews the conflicting information concerning the last bison killed in Pennsylvania, concluding that the information cannot be trusted. The dates fall between 1790 and 1810. These would have been spectacular trophies, yet no physical remains are known.

Another argument for the presence of bison are the numerous place names in Pennsylvania such as Buffalo Creek in Washington County; Buffalo Creek in Butler and Armstrong counties; Buffalow Creek in Union County along with Buffalo Township; Big Buffalow Creek in Perry County along with Buffaloe Hill and Little Buffalow Creek; Buffaloe Run near Bedford;  Buffaloe Lick Creek in Somerset County and finally Buffaloe Run in Centre County.

Gail Gibson (1969) examined 18th century maps and traced the origin of these place names. For the most part, she found that what are now labeled as Buffalo Creek, Run or Lick, originally had other names un-related to the animal. So, for example, Buffalo Creek in Union Count was originally named Buffellow Creek possibly refereeing to an individual rather than the animal. This is almost certainly the case for Buffalo Creek in Butler and Armstrong counties where it was originally the name of a village, Buffelors, and, again, not representing the animal. In addition, she relates the account of Thomas Penn purchasing a bull buffalo in 1733, but there is no mention of where this animal was acquired.

However, her last example consists of two independent references to hunting buffalo in the Monongahela Valley south of Brownsville, Pennsylvania. She feels these are reliable reports. However, she concludes that they may be false, and she returns to the conclusions reached by Guilday that there is no physical evidence in the form of bones from archaeological contexts and no reports of Native Americans using products rendered from these animals. Therefore, they may have been present but in very low numbers or absent altogether.

As for skeletal remains of bison in Pennsylvania, there are only a handful of reports. In their listing of vertebrate fauna from the Pleistocene (i.e. before 10,000 years ago) to the present, Toomey and Fay (1994:Appendix 1) cite only two examples: one is Pleistocene in age from the Frankstown cave in Blair County and considering Pleistocene bison remains in the neighboring states, this is not surprising. The second collection, consisting of four bone fragments, are from the Late Woodland period Martin site in Fayette County (Gilmore 1946). Guilday (1963:135) rejects these as bison. The bone was not saved and Guilday thinks it is an intrusive cow bone because other cow bones were found on the site and no other bison bones have been found in the region.

This is a problem with some early archaeological collections in that bone was recorded but not always saved for future identification. Augustine (1938:10) reports fragmentary bones of “woods bison” from a Late Woodland pit at the Emerick site. However, it is unclear whether this collection was ever curated and therefore not available to confirm this identification. James P. Bressler reports bison bone from a midden at the Bull Run site in Lycoming County. The collection included a bison skull along with one of the bones imbedded by an arrow. Unfortunately, the bone was broken when a crew member tried to remove the arrow point and, again, the material is not available to confirm the field identification.

Guilday has reviewed all of the reports in the Carnegie collection, and most of the reported bison skeletal remains from Pennsylvania and the surrounding region. He reports that bison remains were “conspicuously absent” from the Buffalo and the Mt. Carbon sites in West Virginia where approximately 100,000 bones were analyzed. He also rejects the bison metacarpal from the Beech Bottom Mound, West Virginia. The bone was not saved and was probably cow. However, he recognized a bison bone beamer “made of thoracic vertebral spines” recovered from the Madisonville site in western Ohio. Guilday (1963) supports finds in Ohio, New York, Maryland and the Carolinas, indicating bison may have been on the fringes of Pennsylvania.

To summarize, Gibson (1969), Guilday (1963) and Williams et al. (1985) have examined the reports by early hunters and place names and generally conclude that there is little collaborating evidence to support bison in post Pleistocene Pennsylvania. They all make the argument that bison are grazers and not suited to the eastern forests that did not support the buffalo’s ecological requirements. Witthoft (1967:17) reminds us that there is no ethnographic or historical evidence that Native Americans traded buffalo products to the Europeans or that they had historical or religious traditions that reference that animal. However, based on a recent discussion with Joe Stahlman (2020) THPO for the Seneca, the Seneca have a tradition of hunting buffalo along the Erie Lake plain and even burning the forest to keep it in a grassland for the buffalo.

Williams et al. (1985:176) concludes that there is no physical “evidence to support the occurrence of bison in Pennsylvania”. However, the number of reports and place names suggest they probably occurred, but in low numbers. Toomey and Fay (1994:44) reach a similar conclusion that bison may have been present in parts of Pennsylvania up to 1800, but based on “the lack of remains, were very rare or absent from Pennsylvania during most of the Holocene.” In the last sentence of Guilday (1963:138), he states “But, judging from the scanty historical record, the lack of archaeological finds and what we know of the buffalo’s ecological requirements, it must have been scarce in the area.“

This author takes a “cup half full” perspective, agreeing with the above conclusions but doubtful that bison were here at all. However, it is difficult to prove the negative – bison are not here because we haven’t found any skeletal remains – maybe they will be uncovered in the next excavation. 

Ashe, Thomas
1808            Travels in America Performed in 1806 for the Purpose of Exploring the Rivers Allegheny, Monongahela, Ohio and Mississippi and Ascertaining the Produce and Condition of their Banks and Vicinity. London

Augustine, Edgar E.
1938            Recent Discoveries in Somerset County. Pennsylvania Archaeologist, 8(1):6-12.

Bressler, James P.
1980            Excavation of the Bull Run site 36LY119. Pennsylvania Archaeologist, 50(4):31-63

Gibson, Gail
1969            Historical Evidence of the Buffalo in Pennsylvania, The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, April, pp.151-160.

Gilmore, Raymond M.
1946            Mammals in Archaeological sites from Southwestern Pennsylvania. Journal of Mammalogy 27:227-234.

Guilday, John E.
1963            Evidence for Buffalo in Prehistoric Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania Archaeologist 33:135-139.
1971            Biological and Archaeological Analysis of Bones from a 17th Century Indian Village (46 PU 31), Putnam County, West Virginia. Report of Archaeological Investigation, Number 4, Editor Bettye J. Broyles, West Virginia Geological and Economic Survey. Morgantown, West Virginia.

Hornaday, W. T.
1889            The extermination of the American bison. Report to the United States Natural History Museum 1886-87:iv + 369-548

Mattern, Billy N.
1993            Local Buffalo – Fact or Fiction. Presented before the Snyder County historical Society, March 23, 1993.

Roe, Frank G.
1971            The North American Buffalo: Acritical Study of the Species in it Wild State. University of Toronto Press. Toronto. Second Revised Edition.

Shoemaker, Henry W.
1915            A Pennsylvania Bison Hunt. Middleburg Post Press.

Toomey, Richard S. and Leslie P. Fay
1994            The Changing Vertebrate Fauna of Pennsylvania over the Pat 15,000 years in Volume II, Paleoenvironmental and Paleoclimatic Reconstruction of Pennsylvania over the Last 15,000 years. Edited by Frank J. Vento, submitted to the Bureau for Historic Preservation, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.

Turnbaugh, William A.
1977            Man Land and Time. Unigraphic, Inc. Evansville, Indiana

Williams, Stephen L., Suzanne B. McLearen, Marion A. Burgwin,
1985            Paleo-archaeological and Historical Records of Selected Pennsylvania Mammals, Annuals of Carnegie Museum 54(4):77-188.

Witthoft, John

1967            The American Indian as Hunter. Harrisburg.

For more information, visit PAarchaeology.state.pa.us or the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania .

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