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April 18: Bison Skulls

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From time immemorial, bison herds owned the plains of North Dakota. Native Americans and Europeans alike held bison in some measure of awe for their inherent power. Tribes believed the Great Spirit had sent the buffalo to them as part of the gift of life.

Buffalo herds in Dakota Territory met their demise from 1880 to 1883, falling prey to hide-hunters lured by the scent of money. At a dollar a hide, buffalo hunters profited; and vast numbers were also slaughtered for meat, for sport, for buffalo-robes, or were wasted.

Dakota’s last wild buffalo herd got killed-off in 1883. Yet traces of bison remained, as discarded-bones and skulls lay scattered across the landscape.

Bone-pickers gathered thousands and thousands of buffalo bones, shipping them east for processing into fertilizer or carbon.

It seemed that all the buffalo bones were gone – but some were hidden under soil or water. The few left above-ground were whitened by sun, rain, snow and ice.

On this date in 1994, a newspaper article told of Randy Kraft and his business, Scuba One, located in Mandan. Kraft assisted scuba-divers searching for buffalo-skulls in the Missouri River below Garrison Dam, near Pick City.

Scuba-divers often located buffalo relics – a tooth, a rib bone, or a skeletal-fragment, and, sometimes, a highly-prized buffalo skull with horns intact.

That Missouri-River stretch of water was situated alongside a 200-foot-tall cliff that might have been a buffalo jump site. Native hunters cleverly lured and drove the animals off the cliff’s-edge to their demise, where carcasses were butchered.

Or the buffalo may have died naturally, from drowning or getting trapped in river-ice. Hungry scavengers cleaned flesh from bone, the skeletons sinking below the water.

Scuba diver Kraft found bison skulls near Mandan. Others uncovered skulls elsewhere; sometimes after swiftly-rushing spring floods washed away mud or sediment.

In 1934, bone-collectors found skulls in Upper Des Lacs Lake when drought dried the lakebed.

One fellow gathered a dozen buffalo-skulls near Hazelton in a stream bed near Long Lake in 1969.

Wetlands near Hope held six old skulls that a construction-crew dug up in 1971.

A resident of rural Kintyre, Milo Janko, collected a number of buffalo skulls embedded in alkali lakes near his home.

Springtime seems to be the best time for skull-finders. If you keep your eyes open, you might find one, too.

Dakota Datebook by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, Retired MSUM History Professor

Sources:

  • Peter Salter, “Buffalo Relics Often Elusive Treasure Hunt,” Bismarck Tribune, April 18, 1994, p. 1, 10; Scuba One Website, https://www.scubaone.com/, accessed on March 18, 2023.
  • "Fort Yates Items," Bismarck Tribune, October 19, 1883, p. 1; and "Buffalo Near Bismarck," Bismarck Tribune, October 12, 1883, p. 3.
  • LeRoy Barnett, “The Buffalo Bone Commerce on the Northern Plains,” North Dakota History 39, no. 1 (Winter 1972), p. 23-42.
  • “News of North Dakota: Kenmare,” Hope Pioneer, September 6, 1934, p. 4; Joy Hunter, “Who Wants to Quit the Prairie,” Minneapolis Journal, April 21, 1935, p. 36.
  • “Buffalo Skulls Found Near Hope,” Steele County Press [Finley, ND], September 23, 1971, p. 1.
  • “From a Buffalo Graveyard,” Bismarck Tribune, July 1, 1969, p. 1; “Local Folk Knew All Along Buffalo Skulls Were There,” Bismarck Tribune, July 9, 1969, p. 4.
  • “Milo Janko Believes in Doing Things by Hand,” Bismarck Tribune, November 28, 1979, p. 26; “Milo Janko,” Find A Grave, ancestry.com, accessed on March 18, 2023.
  • Overviews of the history of buffalo are found in Tom McHugh, The Time of the Buffalo (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1972); and Larry Barsness, Head, Hides & Horns: The Compleat Buffalo Book (Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1985).

Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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