If I had one wish, it would probably be time travel. And one of the first places I would go would be the Great Plains of North America before European influence to see for myself those immense herds of bison on their native range. There may have been up to 30 million or more bison on the plains of North America. What a sight that must have been!
I was thinking of all that recently when I read an article about an expedition led by Isaac Stevens who, in the summer of 1853, left St. Paul for Puget Sound to explore and survey a route for a Pacific Railroad. On July 10, the expedition camped near Lake Jessie which is located near Binford in Griggs County. Stevens seemed to be rather awestruck by the immense herds of bison he observed that day in North Dakota, as he wrote in his journal, and I quote:
…“crossed the Sheyenne…ascended to the top of a high hill, and for a great distance ahead every square mile seemed to have a herd of buffalo upon it. Their number was variously estimated by members of the party…some as high as half a million. I do not think it is any exaggeration to set it down at 200,000. I had heard of the myriads of these animals inhabiting these plains, but I could not realize the truth of these accounts till today, when they surpassed anything I could have imagined from the accounts which I had received.”
By the way, Isaac’s expedition camped near Lake Jessie at the same site used by the Nicollet-Fremont Expedition in 1839. The campsite is commemorated by the Lake Jessie State Historic Site two miles west of Jessie. If you visit this historic site you may have the same view that so amazed Stevens.
And it was a pleasant coincidence that the 1990 movie Dances with Wolves starring Kevin Costner recently ran on one of our cable stations. That is a great movie, and I had forgotten how impressive some of those scenes of a bison hunt were in the movie.
Time travel is not going to happen, so historical records and seeing those scenes with large herds of bison in a movie can give us a sense of just how immense those herds may have been at times. And of course, they could have been even more than we could have imagined.