Bison in and Around southern Illinois

The core area of the bison’s habitat consisted of the Prairie Peninsula in northern Illinois and Indiana. The peripheral bison range included large portions of the interior woodlands of the eastern US. In addition to the extensive native grasslands, culturally induced grasslands have been described for the eastern US. Bison were available in the core area as early as 1000 AD, but did not range into the peripheral area until after 1400 AD reaching its greatest number around 1700 AD.

Soldiers of Hernando De Soto reported the earliest sighting of buffalo near this region between 1539-1541. They saw bison skins in the possession of Native Americans at Pacaha in northeastern Arkansas and in central Tennessee. Seventeenth and eighteenth century sources refer to bison as “Illinois cattle”because of their importance to the Illini confederation, especially the Kaskaskia. Bison have also been reported along the Kaskaskia River, the Rock River, and the Wabash River. George Rogers Clark encountered “numbers of buffalo”near the two Wabashes on his famous march between Kaskaskia and Vincennes. Bison were plentiful along the Ohio River Valley.

Hunters from Ft. Massac in Southern Illinois were “sent to procure Buffalo.”As early as 1696, French merchants were attempting to take advantage of the large number of bison in the area and export the tanned buffalo hides. In 1702, Charles Juchereau established a tannery near the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. Although, the enterprise was short lived, eight to nine thousand buffalo skins were reported to have been shipped to New Orleans and another 15,000 abandoned at the post. In 1766, British merchants sent five convoys of flatboats from Fort Pitt to Kaskaskia to capitalize on the bison herds. George Morgan, a junior member of the firm, lived in Kaskaskia and supplied the garrison at Fort de Chartres with meat. The last historical account of killing a buffalo east of the Mississippi occurred in 1830 at French Lick, Indiana.

Bison were also hunted for tallow. Tallow, unlike meat, would keep in hot weather without salt. Rendered in large kettles, it was then poured into white oak barrels to be shipped to New Orleans or Fort de Chartres.

Archaeologically, bison have been recovered from many sites in Illinois including the Wedge site in the American Bottom of St. Clair County and the Laurens site in Randolph County. The Laurens site is thought to have been the first French fort located at Fort de Chartres occupied 1719 to 1726. Evidence for bison and bison procurement also occurred at late Mississippian Caborn-Wellborn sites (1450-1600) in the lower Wabash Valley in southwestern Indiana, western Kentucky, and southeastern Illinois. These groups used remains of bison for tools and personal adornment items, including bison scapula hoes and bison tooth pendants. Large flake scrapers were used in hide processing and appear to be associated with presence or availability of bison.

Native American pictographs of bison have been discovered at Buffalo Rock in Johnson County, Illinois. Other sites have pictographs of large square animal hides staked to the ground with staubs, illustrating how important bison hides had become in the economy of the protohistoric and historic Native Americans.