A Short History of a Big Animal

Written by Sam’l Arnold and excerpted from Shinin’ Times at The Fort

The last bison east of the Appalachians was killed in about 1830, although by that time, the great herds of the plains had hardly been touched by the relatively few American Indians living there. Colorado, for example, was believed to be home to fewer than eight thousand American Indians, and these were small bands of the Cheyenne, Sioux, Arapaho, Lakota and Ute tribes. Here, bison were far from endangered, and the Native Americans took only what they needed.

American Indians used every part of the buffalo carcass. They removed the tongues, hearts, livers, kidneys and testicles for choice eating, and the rest of the meat was sliced along the grain into thin sheets for drying into jerky. Drying racks in Indian camps were always filled with meat, a necessary ingredient for their winter stew, which also featured dried squash, cattails, prairie potatoes, wild onions and garlic and dried maize. The Sioux called this stew washtunkala, and it is still eaten today.

When the mountain men went west, they learned the American Indians’ ways of cooking. They broiled pieces of buffalo meat skewered on wood sticks over open fires, which were called buffalo “en appolas.” Jerked buffalo meat was also common. They pounded it with chokecherries and mixed it with melted kidney fat to form a pasty mixture called pemmican, which was a sustainable ration to carry on long journeys.

The ultimate delicacy was buffalo tongue, which has a fine, smooth grain and a delicate flavor. It was served in huge quantities at the finest restaurants in the nation.

As trains crisscrossed the nation, train companies ran advertisements promising to “clean and dress the buffalo” if one of their passengers “bagged one.” The train engineer would drive the locomotives into the middle of buffalo herds crossing the tracks and passengers could shoot them from the train windows. Low-paid buffalo skinners dressed the kills on the spot, salting the hides to preserve them until the train hunter returned to St. Louis, where it was transformed into a buffalo robe for winter sleigh-riding comfort.

It is little wonder that by 1910, reports indicated that only 254 buffalo existed worldwide—and this count included a bison in a zoo in Calcutta, India. By the time James Fraser designed the Buffalo Nickel (also known as the Indian Head Nickel), minted from 1913 until 1938, the white man had effectively wiped out the animal. In doing so, they stripped American Indians of food, clothing and shelter, efficiently destroying their way of life and forcing them to join the white man’s world.

By the first half of the 20th century, bison had become largely mythical creatures – not only of the American West but also of the past. Lucky visitors might spot a small herd traveling to national parks such as Yellowstone in Wyoming.

I knew little about these animals when I opened the Fort in 1963, but when I set out to learn all I could about the original Bent’s Fort, I found that Kit Carson held a contract with the Bent St. Vrain Company to bring in one thousand pounds of meat a day – and most of it was buffalo. I looked into serving buffalo and found several ranches in the western states. Instead of being extinct, I discovered that the herds were steadily increasing.

When we began offering buffalo at The Fort, we had a hard time getting people to try it. “I’m not a tourist, I’m from around here and I’ve tasted buffalo,” they’d say. “I’ll stick to beef!” Their attitude was understandable because, at the time, the quality of meat was still inconsistent. I quickly got to know my purveyors, and since then, The Fort has been insistent on sourcing nothing but the best meat around.

Today, The Fort serves buffalo tenderloin steaks, New York-style strip steaks and roast prime rib. Appetizer plates include broiled split buffalo marrow bones, tongue, homemade sausage called “boudies” and testicles, also known as Rocky Mountain oysters.

By the dawn of the 21st century, buffalo numbered well over 350,000 in the United States. Buffalo ranches exist in all fifty states, including Rhode Island. Countries such as Germany and Switzerland boast a few herds, too. The renaissance of the American bison is an important trend in food history and an essential part of our New World American heritage. It truly is a food of the Old West!

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