The Park City Museum celebrates an American icon — the Bison
November 14, 2014
At one time, the American bison herds stretched from the Rocky Mountains to Pennsylvania and from northern Canada to Mexico.
At its peak, the bison population numbered 30 million. the late 1800s, the number of surviving bison was 500.
Today, there are 500,000 healthy bison in the United States, but it took painstaking efforts and nearly two centuries to get to this point.
This is the theme of "The Bison: American Icon," an exhibit that is on display at the Park City Museum’s Tozer Gallery through Jan. 7, said Courtney Titus, the museum’s curator of collections and exhibits.
"It’s hard to imagine 30 million bison but there are documents from travelers across the Great Plains that said the land was blackened by this great sea of bison to the horizon," Titus told The Park Record. "Other documentation states when a bison herd came to a stream to drink, it would drink it dry and it would take hours to recover."
That’s what makes the idea that the bison came within a few hundred animals to becoming extinct almost unbelievable.
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"The exhibit asks ‘how and why did this happen?’" Titus said.
To address those questions, the exhibit documents the history of the animal.
"Before the Europeans came to the new world and moved westward, the bison was a way of life for the Native Americans living on the plains," Titus explained. "It was their spiritual base and everything in their culture revolved around the bison."
Tribes used every part of the bison, whether it was for food, clothing, shelter or tools, she said.
"Before a hunt, they would have ceremonies to give thanks to the bison for providing them with the materials to live," Titus said.
One section of the exhibit illustrates that with artifacts from those cultures. The objects include spoons from the horns, water bags from the bladder, jewelry from the teeth and a dress from the hide.
"We have a hands-on display where visitors can touch and feel some of these objects," Titus said. "There are cards that will tell people what these objects are and what part of the bison it was made from."
The exhibit also shows what happened after European settlers began emigrating to the West.
"As people came, the population of the bison shrunk," Titus said. "There were several factors that contributed to this."
The biggest was over-hunting.
"Hunting bison started with the fur trade," Titus said. "After interest in beaver pelts waned, people turned to bison. And in the 1860s, a chemical tanning process was discovered that allowed more hides to be tanned quickly.
"Most people wanted the hides to make what was known as bison robes," she said. "They would kill the animal, skin it and leave the carcass to rot and the plains became littered with bones, which was used later in the development of bone china."
Another factor was competition for grazing lands.
"With the introduction of the horse to the Native Americans in the 1700s and settlers started raising other livestock, it became harder for the bison to find food," Titus said.
In addition there were environmental factors including droughts and heavy winters added onto the decline.
"Also, the railroad was build and split the plains in half, which brought in more settlers who set up shooting parties for sport," Titus said. "Then, the government would deliberately kill the bison because the Native Americans relied on the bison to live. The thinking was if there was no bison, then the Native Americans population would be powerless."
By the mid 1880s, there were only 500 bison left alive.
"People started to realize that the animal wasn’t a renewable resource," Titus said. "In fact, a few people, who were conservationists, got together to help the herd."
These conservationists, comprised of former hide hunters and tribal members, worked together and established breeding programs.
"In 1872, Yellowstone National Park was established to protect the bison, and in 1894, Congress passed a law that protected bison from poachers in areas like Yellowstone National Park," Titus explained.
In 1904, conservationist William Hornaday and President Theodore Roosevelt founded the American Bison Society.
These developments along with other efforts helped the bison regain a foothold and by the 1920s, it was no longer in danger of becoming extinct, according to Titus.
"The bison today is seen as a symbol of strength and survival," she said. "Its image is used as a mascot for sports teams. It is seen on coins, on posters and even cleansers."
"The Bison: American Icon" exhibit was developed at the C.M. Russell Museum in Great Falls, Montana, and was adapted by the Mid-America Arts Alliance and funded by NEH on the Road, a special initiative of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
"We wanted to bring this exhibit in because we feel it tells an important part of the history of the American West, and we’re all about history," Titus said.
"The Bison: An American Icon" is on display at the Park City Museum’s Tozer Gallery, 528 Main St. The museum is open Mondays through Saturdays from 11 a.m. until 6 p.m. and on Sundays from noon until 6 p.m. The museum is closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas. Admission is $10 for adults, $8 for senior citizens and military personnel and $5 for children ages 7 to 17. Children ages 6 and younger will be admitted for free. For more information, visit http://www.parkcityhistory.org.