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  • May 16th, 2013

Digging History



By Joel M. Vance


I was crouched in the lea of a western Kansas cut bank, a bitter November wind slicing overhead, gratefully dipping my spoon in a bowl of Hearty Hodgepodge with steam rising from the dish, spreading the succulent aroma of the food, along with miniscule but welcome warmth.

It was the noon break from an unsuccessful morning pheasant hunt.  Probably the long-tailed birds were holed up so deep in the frozen cattail marshes that you couldn’t have dug them out with a forklift.  I was giving much thought to calling it a day, but not until I stoked the inner man with the meaty stew burbling on my camp stove.

This was seemingly limitless native shortgrass prairie, rolling country laced by cut banks.  No trees interrupted the sere landscape.  Early that morning I had stuck my head out of the tent and blearily glimpsed a coyote heading home after a long night.  A mule deer ambled across the far hill, so there was life in this bleak country.

It was 640 acres that nominally belonged to me.  Back in the 1940s my father’s partner, a loose cannon who once had bought a 17-room abandoned railroad hotel with no running water and with only a single outhouse for its distressed customers, had also bought a section of prairie land in Kansas.  At that it was better than the sawmill he also bought, despite the fact that all three partners lived in Chicago where there was little demand for raw lumber.

The partner hadn’t seen the land himself—bought it on a whim and because it was a bargain.  My father and his brother, the other partner, also had never visited that far away bargain they were helping to pay off.  Now my parents were gone and so were the other partners.  I inherited their Kansas prairie empire with the elderly widows of the partners, neither of whom had cowboy genes.  So, it was a voyage of exploration for the partnership and for me.

The nearest pheasants were 20 miles south, bunched around a reservoir. I would hunt there, camp out on the prairie.  The only
structure on the bleak landscape was a decrepit corral, long unused.  My tent billowed in the ceaseless prairie wind and I shivered while I fueled myself with Hodgepodge.

Something caught my eye, a fragment of white sticking out of the dirt, a couple of feet below the top of the bank.  I spooned the last of the stew, set down the bowl and gave the thing a closer look.  It appeared to be the tip of a horn.  Probably a long-dead cow, I thought.

I used the spoon to dig around the horn like a paleontologist after a saurian relic or maybe a dog after a steak bone.  Gradually the horn took shape and it obviously was not from a cow.  It was, I realized, from a bison.bison skull

And, buried that far down in a cut bank, it had to have originated with one of the historic bison that once roamed the Kansas plains in virtually countless numbers.  I forgot the numbing cold and the reason for me being there in the first place—a pheasant hunt—and continued to scrape and dig until the object came completely away into my hands.

A complete buffalo skull.  It was like digging up a gold nugget the size of a grapefruit.  I held history in my hands as never before.  Somewhere back in time, at least a century before, this bison had fallen.  Maybe to a buffalo hunter’s Sharps bullet or possibly even earlier to a Plains Indian hunter’s arrow.

I could dream up a half dozen scenarios, all romantic, about how this animal reached its gravesite two feet beneath the thin shortgrass of Western Kansas. The poet in me flowered; the pheasant hunter receded.  It wasn’t so much that I’d found an historic bison skull, although that was exciting enough, but that it was on MY land—or at least one-third my land.

And if those old ladies would think I would in any way share ownership of this skull with them, they would be dreaming.  They could have my share of the annual 30-acre wheat crop (which usually got hammered by hail or wind anyway).  Give me the skull.

Kansas historically was bison country (it is the official state animal and when it came time to enshrine a symbol on the state quarter, Kansas chose the bison).  The Great Plains once hosted an incredible number of bison—some estimate as many as 70 million animals.  One Kansas herd near Dodge City was estimated at four million animals in 1871.

But everyone knows about the bloody slaughter of the historic herd by hunters and target shooters, partly to acquire hides, but also to clear a path for the railroads (hitting a 2,000-pound bull bison with a primitive locomotive was discouraged by the railroad barons).  Bison also competed for the shortgrass with increasing herds of cows, and they did not take kindly to fences.

By 1879 the last Kansas bison was killed near Elkhart in the far southwest corner of the state—far from the Ellis area where I found my treasure.  I’d prefer to think my buffalo succumbed to a Native American hunter, armed with a bow rather than from disease, old age or accident.  It would have given its life to sustain a fellow nomadic prairie citizen, rather than to further the interests of some European interloper who left it to rot.

But maybe it just got old and sick and died.  No wild animal dies in bed.  They just succumb to something—cold, disease, accident, murder–in the wild where they were born.  Whatever caused this bison’s death, its lonely and unmarked grave now was open and I could speculate to the end of my days what brought the animal to this spot.

A bison skull is not a knick-knack.  It has weight and size and dominates whatever it rests on.  As a conversation piece on the mantel there are few things that would attract attention like a complete buffalo skull, but I had a better idea.  I gave the skull to Charlie Schwartz, the genius biologist/artist/moviemaker and friend with whom I worked at the Missouri Conservation Department.

No one could have appreciated it more or done more with it than Charlie, who was the illustrator for “A Sand County Almanac,” the landmark conservation bible written by Aldo Leopold, and who himself was legendary in prairie chicken research.  Here was an historic prairie animal, united with an historic prairie biologist.

He held the skull as if it were the Holy Grail.  “I had a bison skull once,” he said.  “But it was from a domestic bison, not the real thing.”  Beyond his appreciation of the historic value of the skull, the artist in Charlie appreciated it as a prop.  He once staked a road-killed deer outside his sliding glass door so he could photograph vultures coming to snack on it.  It was a great prop except when the wind was in the wrong direction.

So the skull went to Charlie and I went back to daily life.  I forgot about the skull, consumed by work and far from the gully where I’d dug it out.  One snowy winter morning Charlie came into the Department office and said, “This is the way your skull looked this morning,” and handed me the watercolor that is shown in the illustration with this story.

Bison skull painting

The framed painting hangs in our living room, above a bronze sculpture that Charlie did later of a coyote, another prairie citizen, disdainfully peeing on a sprung coyote trap.  I admit to a great admiration for coyotes which in their independence, wariness and sometimes eerie intelligence, irritate the hell out of many hunters.

The late and wonderful outdoor writer John Madson once wrote, “Coyotes are simply more efficient at tuning in on environmental changes than we are, learning fast, applying it sensibly, and succeeding without waste.”

Unfortunately the bison couldn’t develop that adaptability and nearly vanished.  Even the Indians helped by killing an estimated 240,000 a year, which was considered to verge on unsustainability.

For their part pheasants were as foreign to the historic prairie as were the thrill shooters of the bison. When the bison ruled the prairie there were no pheasants or, for that matter, no Anglo-Saxons looking for new territory.   Prairie chickens—pinnated grouse—were the plump game birds that the pioneers and market hunters slaughtered in numbers to rival their tally of bison.  And, like the bison, prairie chickens nearly vanished.

Given the fragility of bird bones you’d be unlikely to find the 19th Century skeleton of an historic pinnated grouse, even though they died in numbers to rival the bison.  But that bison skull persevered as a tangible memory of a time, a time when passenger pigeons darkened the skies and dead prairie chickens filled springtime leks with their eerie booming and ducks blackened the sky like storm clouds

Now we have pheasants in place of prairie chickens, cows in place of bison and roosting starlings blackening the sunset sky.  Of the three pheasants are the most agreeable, but not always the most cooperative.  I had slogged all morning around the frozen cattail sloughs of the reservoir, put up a couple of spooky roosters out of gun range, cursed their uncanny survival instincts—gaudy winged coyotes.

Pheasants entered Europe a thousand years ago from the Far East, and the United States as early as colonial times.  But it wasn’t until 1881 when an introduction into Oregon proved that pheasants could sustain themselves in North America.  Once Kansas joined the stampede to introduce this gaudy interloper, it quickly became a pheasant hotspot.  It often ranks below only South Dakota in annual kill, and always is among the top three or four pheasant hunting states.

I’ve hunted pheasants for at least 40 years, in all the best spots—the Dakotas, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, even Missouri.  I’ve shot many of the long-tailed birds, enjoyed every moment of every hunt.  Only once that I can remember in all those years was I shut out from killing at least one rooster.

And that was on the Kansas hunt where I discovered the bison skull

It was the best pheasant hunt I’ve ever had.




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  1. Mary Nida Smith

    May 16th, 2013 at 3:07 pm


    I sure enjoyed your post. L love everything of nature. Saving all my old nature and outdoor books for my grandson who loves the outdoors and nature..

  2. Marilyn Stanley

    May 16th, 2013 at 5:40 pm


    Just wanted to tell you that I really appreciated that story

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