Native bison

A while back ago I wrote about some changes, big and small, between today and 150 years ago in the Missouri Ozarks as related to wildlife, domestic animals, landscape, crops, etc. 

In the same column I briefly mentioned that just a few decades before the timeframe being talked  about, elk and buffalo roamed our hills and prairies. I got to thinking about that afterward, and wondered if anyone doubted the assertion that bison were here in Southwest Missouri. 

If so, let me tell you a story. I actually don’t know how true it is, to be honest. It’s just one of those stories passed down into local lore. It was recorded in J.A. Sturges’ 1897 “Illustrated History of McDonald County, Missouri” and he said he received it from “reliable” sources.

Wes Franklin

Before what is today Newton and McDonald counties were settled in the late 1820s and 1830s, there was an unnamed Catholic missionary who ventured into this wild country to evangelize the local Indian tribes. 

On the campaign, flash floods caused the party to come to a halt somewhere between a creek and a river. They were forced to camp out until the waters receded, and thus went hunting. And what did they find? A buffalo cow. 

Yes, it became supper, and probably many suppers, sustaining the missionary and his group until they could safely ford the waters and continue on their evangelical mission. The hide was tanned and preserved and the missionary named the creek “Buffalo Creek” to mark the occasion. 

The river he named “Cowskin,” which used to be another name for Elk River, and is still the name of the Elk River arm of Grand Lake. From that we also get Cowskin Prairie, of course. 

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Bison remains have been found throughout Missouri, including Southwest Missouri, and verified as such. An interesting booklet titled “Bison in Missouri Archaeology” by R. Bruce McMillan can be downloaded from online for free for those really wanting to dive into an in-depth study. Or you can let me read it for you, which I did. 

The fact that bison were here up until at least the first part of the 1800s is simply treated as a given in the publication. I imagine very small herds of buffalo held out another decade or two after most of their kind moved west due to settlement and everything that meant. 

Buffalo have not been reintroduced to Missouri as elk have. What I mean by that is they are not truly wild. The herds are fenced in. I don’t really see a practical way to make it otherwise. 

That said, in 2012 it was announced that pureblood bison calves were born on a Missouri prairie for the first time since the 1840s. This happened at an enclosed tall grass prairie site managed by a non-profit organization in northwest Missouri. 

The buffalo are 100 percent bison, and not crossbred with domestic cattle in their lineage, part of one of only eight herds in the entire country that can claim such. 

So they aren’t technically “wild.” But they are native. Just like their ancestors. 

(Wes Franklin can be reached by email at, or by USPS mail at 12161 Norway Road, Neosho, MO 64850.)

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