Before railroads cut across America in the 19th century, massive herds of bison thundered across our grasslands. About 30 million of them roamed from the eastern seaboard to California until European settlers arrived. But more than a sizable prairie mammal, bison were in many ways what sparked a way of living that came to define the West.
To celebrate this iconic American animal, we created a 13×13 custom-illustrated letterpress print available now in our shop. In the hand-drawn image formed with a deep, crisp imprint, we focus on the marking identity of a bison (not a buffalo, see below) – its large shoulder hump and massive head. You can sense the one-ton weight of the bison and its need for space to roam freely across the great plains of America.
To the Native Americans who once inhabited the land, bison were the ultimate resource. They were the salvation of the people. For thousands of years, tribes lived migratory lives, following herds that could provide food, clothing, shelter and nearly every material need. This relationship between man and bison was once reverently described by John Fire Lame Deer, from the Lakota tribe:
“Without it we were nothing. Our tipis were made of his skin. His hide was our bed, our blanket, our winter coat. It was our drum, throbbing through the night, alive, holy. Out of his skin we made our water bags. His flesh strengthened us, became flesh of our flesh. Not the smallest part of it was wasted. His stomach, a red-hot stone dropped into it, became our soup kettle. His horns were our spoons, the bones our knives, our women’s awls and needles. Out of his sinews we made our bowstrings and thread. His ribs were fashioned into sleds for our children, his hoofs became rattles. His mighty skull, with the pipe leaning against it, was our sacred altar.”
Early settlers mistakenly called bison “bufello” due to the similarities in the two animals, and the name “buffalo” stuck for the American variety. But it’s wrong. The American Bison lives only in North America, and the two main buffalo species reside in Africa and Asia.
Unfortunately, by the end of the 19th century a fatal combination of events nearly wiped out the entire bison population. For starters, Native American tribes traded with European settlers to acquire guns and horses. This new form of hunting allowed tribes to kill bison more quickly than ever before. Farmers and ranchers began slaughtering bison to make room for their cattle. The railroad’s arrival divided grasslands and brought even more hunters into the territory. Worst of all, some soldiers killed bison just to spite their native foes.
Thanks to the American Bison Society, which was co-founded by former president Theodore Roosevelt, there was a push for conservation in the 20th century. Today, while bison don’t cross the plains like they used to, about 20,000 graze in national parks and wild reserves, including Yellowstone National Park and Wood Buffalo National Park. In these treasured spaces you can still see bison roaming the grasslands – a symbolic reminder of the value of our land, national heritage, and strength and splendor.