A few weeks ago, I gave a presentation on America’s first transportation industry to a local historical group. A portion of the sixty-minute talk covered a wide variety of wood-wheeled vehicles produced during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As part of that segment, I discussed a few examples of tall-sided western freighters and included a rare photo showing a half dozen large wagons engaged in an extraordinary event that took place in 1909.
Truth is, there was a lot of transitioning taking place during that year. Henry Ford’s Model T was only a few months old. It was the last, full year of production for Moline wagons prior to being purchased and rebranded by John Deere. The world’s first military plane – The Wright Military Flyer – was purchased in 1909 by the U.S. Army Signal Corp and legendary Apache leader, Geronimo as well as renowned western artist, Frederic Remington, both passed away that year. In the midst of so much change, thankfully, one other fading part of America’s western landscape was being rounded up and preserved.
Michel Pablo’s buffalo roundup is documented with text and photos in this rare pamphlet published in 1909.
For centuries, bison – by the tens of millions – roamed America’s plains. They were a powerful symbol of sustenance, freedom, culture, and the majestic lure of the West. Nonetheless, by the turn of the twentieth century, there is believed to have only been around 1,000 of these creatures left in America. The biggest of the herds was in Montana on the Flathead Indian Reservation. This herd was originally started by Samuel Walking Coyote. Begun from 4 orphaned calves, the herd slowly grew to just over a dozen and was sold to Michel Pablo and Charles Allard. By 1900, Allard had passed away but the herd numbered several hundred strong. All was going well until Pablo lost his grazing rights due to the government opening up the Flathead Indian reservation to settlers.
Pablo tried, unsuccessfully, to sell the herd to the U.S. government. At the time, there wasn’t sufficient support to purchase them. Fortunately, the Canadian government did recognize the herd's value and made the deal with Pablo. There were just a few rather sizeable problems. They had to be rounded up and shipped via train cars to Canada. As the work started, it became clear that the herd was much larger than expected. It meant more challenges and more time would be needed to complete the task. Ultimately, the roundups took years to complete. Also… these weren’t domesticated cattle. They were wild beasts with minds of their own. They could be dangerous, running through heavy fences and rail cars, trampling anything in their way. As the character, Pea Eye, on the legendary western movie, “Lonesome Dove” warned, “Them bulls will hook ya!”
Some were able to be driven to the rails while others had to be caught in remote pens and hauled to rail yards for shipment to Canada. You might be wondering how the bison were hauled? Specially-built, tall-sided freight wagons were heavily reinforced for the cargo. I’ve never seen any size specifications of these vehicles but, from the photo below, it’s clear they were a sight to behold. Bulls, calves, and cows rocking the wagons and hitting the thick sideboards would have made transporting difficult and perhaps required more stops along the way.
This rare photo shows the tall-sided, heavy duty wagons used to haul a number of America’s last buffalo to the protection of Canada.
A recent story on Fox News highlighted the return of a number of direct descendants of these buffalo to the same Montana reservation this year. To read more about it, click here.
Over and over, America’s early wagon industry is proven to be tied to some of this country’s most unique and legendary events. From early freighting and mining to ranching and farming, it’s an all-out historical rush, packed with stories just waiting to be told.
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