Where the buffalo roam(ed)

Several Silbernagel siblings (say that fast five times) are reading this book right now because of a shared interest in what has been North America’s largest mammal for the past 10,000 years or so.

I’m particularly interested in the American buffalo, or bison, because I’ve read several historic journals and reports that indicate they were once prominent in the mountains of Colorado, although never in the numbers that crowded the Great Plains.

The author, Steven Rinella, is an outdoorsman and writer who obtained a permit to hunt a buffalo in southeastern Alaska in 2005. He intersperses his stories of his successful hunt with a history of bison in North America, from pre-human times until they were nearly obliterated by white hunters, to more recent conservation efforts.


Rinella is an engaging writer, self-effacing and often funny.  I was pleasantly surprised that this isn’t a polemic about hunting, conservation, federal wildlife policies or anything else. It simply tells a good story, while adding some of the author’s views, not too stridently stated.

One minor critique: Some of the theories — which Rinella states as fact — about early human migration to this Continent and their immediate impact on megafauna of the day, are now being challenged by other scientists, according to articles I’ve read. But the book was published in 2008, and it may just be the fact that after nine years, research is challenging what was viewed as settled science a decade ago.

Fort Robinson

Last week, Judy and I visited Fort Robinson, in northwestern Nebraska.

The fort played a crucial role in some of the most important battles and confrontations of the Plains Indian Wars. Additionally, it was one of the longest-serving posts in the region, operating from 1874 until the end of World War II. But Fort Robinson also had some important connections with western Colorado and eastern Utah.

rob5First, the Ninth Cavalry — an African American unit also known as Buffalo  Soldiers — which played a role in the Milk Creek Battle and Meeker tragedy of 1879, and helped keep the peace at Fort Duschesne, Utah after most of Colorado’s Ute Indians were moved to Utah, was stationed at Fort Robinson for much of the 1880s and 1890s.

And in 1906, the 10th Cavalry — also Buffalo Soldiers — was instrumental in rounding up Utes who left the reservation in Utah in hopes of joining with Sioux Indians in South Dakota.

Also, Fort Robinson became a major station for the U.S. Army’s Cavalry Remount Service after 1919, and many horses raised in Colorado were sold to the Army there.

The Nebraska State Historical Society does a great job of maintaining the old Fort as a museum, and a place where you can camp or stay in old Army quarters. Naturally, while we were there, I picked up a book — or two. They were written by Thomas R. Buecker, the former curator of the museum at Fort Robinson. One gives the history of the Fort in the 20th century. I’ll discuss it in another post.

This first book looks at Fort Robinson’s history from its establishment until the end of the 19th century.  I’m reading it because I hope to write more in one of my Daily Sentinel history columns about the Buffalo Soldiers and their time in Colorado.

Buecker has done an excellent job of collecting data and placing it in the appropriate timeframe. Unfortunately, from my point of view, he hasn’t provided much detail about the Ninth Cavalry, and what it did before arriving at Fort Robinson. (I know, other books give greater detail about the African American units during the Indian Wars. Guess I’ll have to pick up one of them, as well.) And he doesn’t even mention one of the Ninth’s long-time members, Caleb Benson, who has his own place on a wall in the Fort Robinson museum.

Buecker writes well when he is simply telling the story of the fort and incidents in which its soldiers were involved, such as the killing of Crazy Horse at the Fort in 1877. But he gets lost in thickets of minutiae at times with too much detail of how the fort was funded, timber details and costs for the buildings.

Still, there is abundant information here, for anyone interested in one of the pre-eminent forts of the American West.