Hornaday’s Extermination of the American Bison

William T. Hornaday / Government Printing Office, THE EXTERMINATION OF THE AMERICAN BISON. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1889.
8vo (9”h x 6”w). [1],iv,369-548pp. Illustrated by 20 (of 21) plates and large folding lithographic map printed in color, 22 1/8”h x 17 3/8”w at neat line plus margins. Rebound in recent printed wraps. Plate I (“Group of Buffaloes in the National Museum”) not present. Text ever so slightly toned, round stain to upper-right corner of Plate XXI. Map with a couple of minor mends where tipped to text.

A seminal work on the extermination of the American bison, compiled in the 1880s by Smithsonian taxidermist and pioneering conservationist William Temple Hornaday (1854-1937). With the important thematic map illustrating the shrinking range of the bison.

It is well known that millions of bison once roamed North America, though less well known that their range extended from east of the Appalachians to northwestern Canada, central Nevada and even northeastern Mexico. After the arrival of Europeans, “desultory” (Hornaday’s term) hunting for food and hides gradually restricted their range to the Great Plains, though their huge herds remained more or less intact. Beginning in the 1870s, however, “wholesale slaughter by systematic methods” (Hornaday) ensued. This was catalyzed by rapid settlement of the West, the needs of the American people for food and American industry for raw materials, and a more-or-less explicit attempt to destroy the way of life of the Plains Indians. It was abetted by the advance of the railroad, modern weaponry, and, per Hornaday, “the phenomenal stupidity of the animals themselves, and their indifference to man”.

A native of Indiana, in 1882 Hornaday took a position as Chief Taxidermist at the United States National Museum, part of the Smithsonian. By then the bison were on the edge of extinction, but a new conservationist mindset was beginning to emerge in the country, as evidenced for example by the creation in 1875 of Yellowstone, the first National Park; the founding in 1876 of the Appalachian Mountain Club; and the activities and writing of figures as different as John Muir and, before him, Henry David Thoreau.

“After reviewing the Museum’s collection and conducting a written survey, [Hornaday] recognized the rapid decline in the population of American Bison. He went west to collect specimens for the Museum in anticipation of the Bison’s extinction, and was shocked at what he saw and learned: “Just as a carefree and joyous swimmer for pleasure suddenly is drawn into a whirlpool—in which he can swim but from which he cannot escape – so in 1886 was I drawn into the maelstrom.”[1] Hornaday prepared a massive report for the Smithsonian on the extermination of the bison, filled with important observations and data.” (Mode)

Hornaday’s intent in producing the report was not merely descriptive but persuasive:

“It is hoped that the following historical account of the discovery, partial utilization, and almost complete extermination of the great American bison may serve to cause the public to fully realize the folly of allowing all our most valuable and interesting American mammals to be wantonly destroyed in the same manner. The wild buffalo is practically gone forever, and in a few more years, when the whitened bones of the last bleaching skeleton shall have been picked up and shipped East for commercial uses, nothing will remain of him save his old, well-worn trails along the water-courses, a few museum specimens, and regret for his fate. If his untimely end fails even to point a moral that shall benefit the surviving species of mammals which are now being slaughtered in like manner, it will be sad indeed.” (Report, p. 371)

The report is accompanied by a brilliant thematic map, which efficiently uses color coding and concentric lines to convey a compelling narrative nearing a tragic conclusion.

“But this map tells the story on a single page. The dark red circle on the map shows “the area once inhabited by the American Bison,” and the dates in red tells the date of extinction in each locale. We learn there were bison in Indiana and Kentucky until 1810, and in Iowa and Missouri until 1825. The blue circles show the range of the herds in 1870, and the much smaller concentric green circles show the same just 10 years later. Hornaday returned to Washington a changed man. He spent the rest of his life as perhaps the first effective voice for the preservation of species. He played a major role in the survival not only of the American Bison, but the Alaskan fur seal, the snowy egret and others (Ibid). (Mode)

In all, an important early conservationist work, illustrated by a compelling persuasive map.

OCLC 4177745 et al, listing numerous institutional holdings. The map is described in Persuasive Maps: PJ Mode Collection, #1102.

[1] Cited from Hornaday’s unpublished autobiography in Stefan Bechtel, Mr. Hornaday’s War: How a Peculiar Victorian Zookeeper Waged a Lonely Crusade for Wildlife that Changed the World. Boston: Beach Press, 2012.