Buffalo Jones: From Hunter to Preservationist

Many people have been involved in the restoration and preservation of the bison over the last two hundred years. Some are well known, such as George Catlin (painter of Native Americans), John Audubon (ornithologist and naturalist), William Hornaday (Dir. of the New York Zoological Park) and Charles Goodnight (of Lonesome Dove fame). But there are many lesser known and obscure persons who were instrumental in saving the bison from extinction such as the Duprees, a Lakota family, Ernest Baynes (American Bison Society), Rosalie Little Thunder (co-founder of the Buffalo Field Campaign) and Charles Jesse “Buffalo” Jones.  Of course many are involved through organizations such as the American Prairie Reserve, the Buffalo Field Campaign, the National Wildlife Federation, and the Inter-Tribal Bison Council (representing 62 tribes). The intent is to bring many of these to light in the blog, not necessarily in any particular order or as a series.  These people and organizations deserve to be honored for their wisdom and contributions in preserving what has become a symbol of our nation—the  American Bison.

Charles Jesse “Buffalo” Jones (Kansas Historical Society)

The life of Charles Jesse Jones, more popularly known in his time as “Buffalo” Jones, is memorialized in Zane Grey’s work, The Last of the Plainsmen.  Grey, early on in his writing career (1907), befriended Jones. Grey, an avid outdoors man, had occasionally attended meetings of the Campfire Club in New York.  One of the club members, with whom Grey became friends, was Alvah James, a well-known South American explorer.  James invited Grey to attend a talk being given by Charles Jesse Jones.  Jones was experimenting with cross-breeding buffalo with cattle, but needed capital for his venture.  The lecture tour was an effort to raise the much needed funds.  The particular session attended by Grey, however, was a disaster for “Buffalo” Jones.  The audience thought his stories too fantastic and accused him of lying.  Grey, however, was a believer, and James introduced them. Later, Grey met with Jones and out of that conversation grew an idea.  Grey proposed to visit Jones in Arizona, stay awhile and gather information to write a book on Jones’ life in which Grey portrays the conversion of Jones from hunter to preservationist [1].

Jones was one of the infamous buffalo hunters of the 1870s and 80s.  Necessity to earn a living compelled Jones into buffalo hunting, providing a livelihood for him and meat to the wagon caravans crossing the plains.  Even at that time Jones saw the extinction of the bison coming, and vowed to do what he could to save the species.  For 10 years he labored, pursuing and taming buffalo, earning him the epithet “Preserver of the American Bison” [2].  Grey would go on to mention “Buffalo” Jones in a later work, The Thundering Herd.

Zane Grey (from the Zane Grey Collection of the Brigham Young University Library)

Born on the prairies of Illinois, Tazewell County, January 31, 1844, Charles was one of 12 children.  His life was a rather prodigious one, including owning a nursery, farming, hunting, and even co-founding a town (Garden City, Kansas).  Early on he developed not only an interest in wild animals, but an ability to capture and tame them.   He possessed a love for animated nature and the power for subduing animals [3]. 

He attended Wesleyan University for two years, but contracted typhoid fever which affected his eyesight, which adversely affected his studies.  He decided to go to the “Far West” to seek his fortune.  First settling in Troy, Kansas he started a nursery for hedge plants and fruit trees.  But in 1867 his nursery was wiped out by locusts.  However, being one not to give up, he tried again the following year, only to be once more destroyed by locusts.  So, he turned his attention to farming, purchasing a small farm.  But his one true passion was hunting and capturing wild animals.

In 1869 he married Martha Walton who would always object to his leaving home for his expeditions.  In the fall of 1871 he left home on horseback to seek more than just game.  He sought cheaper land, acquiring 160 acres in 1872 in Osborne County, Kansas, south of the Solomon River [Jones, Chapter II].

During his time as a buffalo-hunter, he killed both for the meat to supply the flow of settlers crossing the prairies, and at times, simply for the hides.  But in 1872, realizing the eventual demise of the animal, he pledged to himself he would implement a buffalo rescuing project.  Jones had done his share toward exterminating the buffalo, and though it was partly out of his own necessity, he still convicted himself of contributing to the bison’s demise.  Even as he destroyed them, however, he grew to know them and regret their fate.  As the bison faded from the range, it became clear to Jones they would soon be gone forever.  Being filled with remorse, and seeing Congress would not act to implement any game law preserving the wild bison, he vowed to rescue them [4].

Not until the 1880’s did “Buffalo” Jones put his vow into effect.  In the March of 1886 the Kansas plains experienced an unprecedented blizzard.  Jones saw thousands of carcasses of domestic cattle.  Yet, found no carcasses of buffalo except for those that had been hunted.  Witnessing this, he observed,

As I drove over the prairies from Kansas into Texas, I saw thousands upon thousands of the carcasses of domestic cattle which had ‘drifted’ before the chilling, freezing ‘norther.’  Every one of them had died with its tail to blizzard, never having stopped except at its last breath, then fell dead in its tracks.  When I reached the habitat of the buffalo, not one of their carcasses was visible, except those which had been slain by hunters.  Every animal I came across was as nimble…as a fox. [5]

Causing him to ponder over the contrast between cattle and buffalo, the experience led him to formulate the shape his rescue project would take.  Why not domesticate the buffalo which can endure a blizzard, defying storms which would destroy cattle?  Further, he thought to “…infuse this hardy blood into our native cattle, and have a perfect animal, one that will defy all these elements?” [6].

Using his ability to capture wild animals, he planned several expeditions in the 1880s to capture buffalo calves for breeding. The term he coined for the resultant cross breed was Cattalo.   He also managed to capture adult bison as well.  But difficulties were encountered.  Once captured and hobbled, many of the adults would die within 24 hours, as if they would rather be dead than captured.   Jones, though, did manage to create a small herd of 57 bison, rescuing at least a few from the impending doom.  In addition to his herd, Jones’ enabled others to start their own herds by either allowing adventurers to join him on his expeditions or leading expeditions for them, extending his preservation efforts beyond himself. 

Jones did not possess the knowledge we have today of domestication, genetics, and ecology.  He only knew of the doom coming upon the bison, and out of the obligation of remorse, sought to preserve them.   He correctly pointed out the bison were suited to the land while cattle were not.  But instead of replacing cattle he originally thought to blend the two new species into a new animal with the best qualities of both.  In the beginning of his buffalo-rescuing project, then, he attempted to preserve bison for the purpose of interbreeding which proved to be a dead-end since cattalo could not breed.  Additionally, unbeknown to him, his domestication efforts doom the wild bison genome.  But to his credit he saved at least some bison from the slaughter of hunters who gave no mind to hunting down every last buffalo.  This was no small feat.

William T. Hornaday, Superintendent of the Taxidermical Department of the Smithsonian Institution, in 1887, was commissioned by the US Government to capture alive buffalo calves for the purpose of perpetuating the species in the National Park at Washington D.C.  After making a trip to Montana and failing to capture any buffalo, Hornaday had this to say in a report to Congress regarding “Buffalo” Jones:

Mr. Jones’s original herd of fifty-seven buffaloes constitutes a living testimonial of his enterprise, courage, endurance and skill in the chase.  The majority of the individuals comprising the herds he himself ran down, lassoed and tied with his own hands.  It was the greatest feat ever accomplished [7].

For that majestic animal which had thundered across the plains, and Jones’ efforts to preserve that wonderful beast, Zane Grey rightly memorialized “Buffalo” Jones, “Preserver of the American Bison,” in The Last of the Plainsmen and the bison in The Thundering Herd.

End Notes:

[1] Gruber, Frank. 1969. Zane Grey: A Biography. Walter J. Black. Roslyn, New York.

[2] Grey, Zane. Prefatory Note. 1936. The Last of the Plainsmen. Walter J. Black. Roslyn, New York.

[3] Jones, Charles Jesse.  1899. Buffalo Jones’ Forty Years of Adventure; a volume of facts gathered from experience. Compiled by Col. Henry Inman. Crane & Co., Publishers, Topeka, Kansas.  Also  CJ (Buffalo) Jones. Kansas State History.  https://www.kspatriot.org/index.php/articles/13-kansas-people/555-c-j-buffalo-jones.html.  Retrieved 06 Jan. 2020.

[4] Hough, E. “A Buffalo Hunt Indeed”.  Jones. Chapter VIII.

[5] Jones, Chapter V

[6] Jones, Chapter V.

[7] Jones, Chapter XIII.