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The Story of Our Buffalo

by William Douglas

Manitoba Pageant, September 1962, Volume 8, Number 3

This article was published originally in Manitoba Pageant by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

This is the story of the preservation of the buffalo. As every school child knows, the official emblem of the Province of Manitoba is the buffalo. Perhaps a few intimate details will enlarge the knowledge not only of the younger generation but the grown-ups as well.

We have all heard about the so-called massacre of this noble animal at the time of the annual buffalo hunt. Well, from the authentic records of a man who left an eye witness account of a scene in the Spring of 1795, let us read what John McDonnell had to say about the rapid disappearance of the buffalo. Here are his own words: "Observing a good many carcasses of buffalo in the river and along its banks, (The Qu'Appelle River) I was taken up the whole day with the counting them, and to my surprise, found I had numbered when we put up for the night, 7,360, drowned and mired along the river and in it. It is true, in one or two places, I went on shore and walked from one carcass to the other, where they lay from three to five files deep."

This throws light upon the loss as we can appreciate the fact that the number killed by man in those early days was insignificant in comparison to the destruction by the warring elements of nature.

The passage of time brought an influx of settlers and others into the country and gradually, more and more buffalo meat was required for human consumption. Undoubtedly there was a real danger that the species would inevitably disappear altogether. However, in times of emergency some dedicated soul comes along and that seems to have happened in the case of the buffalo.

The Honourable James MacKay, who founded Deer Lodge, brought a few buffalo calves from the Saskatchewan River country and allowed them to run on the prairie with the domestic cattle herd. They increased rapidly. In course of time, Mr. Mackay decided to dispose of his herd and found a ready buyer in the person of Samuel L. Bedson, Warden of Stony Mountain Penitentiary. The herd was rounded up and among them were several cross-bred animals. They were moved to Stony Mountain where they remained until 1889 when Colonel Bedson decided to sell the entire lot to Buffalo Jones of Kansas. There were more than 100 in the herd but before parting with them the Colonel gave a few to Lord Strathcona who had them removed back to Deer Lodge. In 1898, Lord Strathcona, then plain Donald Smith, gave his herd to the Dominion Government. The lessee at Deer Lodge, H. A. Chadwick, spoke to the Mayor of Winnipeg, Alfred J. Andrews, and suggested that he should ask that a few animals be left in the possession of the City of Winnipeg. The authorities at Ottawa, after some bickering, agreed to meet the request and four animals were given to the City. This was the foundation of the herd now housed at the Assiniboine Park. The remainder were shipped to Banff National Park.

It is interesting to know that Buffalo Jones added the animals purchased from Colonel Bedson to his own stock which was considerable. Then in 1893, Jones sold his holdings to Messrs. Allard & Pablo, who had another herd known throughout the west as the "Flathead Herd" which was located in Montana.

In 1907, the Flathead Herd was purchased by the Dominion Government and brought to Wainwright, Alberta, where a large area of land has been set apart as a special park for the preservation of the buffalo.

From this brief synopsis it can be seen that our local buffalo in Assiniboine Park, and those located at Banff National Park, as well as those roaming the wilds around Wainwright, Alberta, have emerged from the stock of James Mackay of Deer Lodge. All honour to the memory of this great old fur hunter.

Page revised: 4 December 2011

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