Buffalo Jump

buffalo jump on casey property
Buffalo jump on the Sanson Ranch.

NPS Photo / Tom Farrell

Long before the arrival of horses to North America, native people hunted bison on foot, stampeding these massive animals over steep cliffs so they would fall to their deaths. This method of hunting was dangerous but the rewards could be enormous. A single jump could feed, clothe, and shelter the people for a whole year. Much planning went into this perilous endeavor.

A cliff or steep slope was needed. Once a cliff was located the people had to prepare the area to make sure the buffalo would arrive. Many methods were used to attract these unpredictable creatures. One method was to use fire. A prairie fire would burn the grasses. Soon after the fire, if there was enough moisture and sunshine, the prairie plants would begin to grow again creating lush green carpets of vegetation. This new growth would attract various species of grazers - one of them being bison. Once the bison arrived the plan to chase them over the cliff could begin.

 
a gray rocky cliff overlooking a wide grassy valley with hills dotted with shrubs on the other side
View from the top of the buffalo jump.

NPS Photo / Tom Farrell

Sanson Buffalo Jump


At Wind Cave National Park there is evidence of such a buffalo jump on the Sanson Ranch. Researchers studying the jump area found tools such as a flake knife and scrapers used to prepare bison meat. Evidence suggests this jump was used at as early as 4,000 years ago. There is still more to be learned about the Sanson Buffalo Jump, but one thing is certain: extreme courage, preparation, and cooperation were required to stampede the bison over the cliff's edge.

 
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The buffalo jump at the Sanson Ranch was used as early as 4,000 years ago. Learn about how archeologists with the National Park Service study this site.

 

Setting the Stage


Once a site for the jump was located the native people began preparing the scene by piling rock cairns in a "V" shape with the point ending at the precipice. When the herd of bison was near the jump, the people, showing great bravery and organization, would take their assigned positions.

One individual covered in the hide of a bison calf would move into position between the herd and the jump. Others stationed themselves behind the rock cairns, while some moved in behind to push the herd to their death. The disguised individual in front of the bison would bleat to attract the attention of the lead cow and then begin to move toward the cliff. At a signal those behind the herd would startle the bison. Those hidden behind the rocks would jump up and wave hides to keep the bison within the "V" of rock cairns. The sheer momentum of the herd would push the front animals over the edge even if the lead bison saw the drop. Others would then rain down onto the land beneath the jump.

Buffalo jumps were utilized by many different tribes across the continent, but all used similar techniques to herd the animals off cliffs.

 

Preparing for the Winter


Archeological evidence at several buffalo jumps suggests that most jumps were conducted in the fall. Bones of mature cows and yearling calves are the most often uncovered at these dig sites. The fall, after the "rut" or mating season, is the time this herd structure is common.

Although hundreds of bison may have been killed in a single jump event, the people would use as much of the carcasses as possible. Hides would be used for clothing, shelter, and bedding. The hair and tail could be used to make rope and fly swatters. Sinew from the muscles made thread and bow strings. Bones and horns were used to make a variety of tools for everyday use. All of the meat was consumed; some during the celebration and ceremonies of a successful kill, but most was dried for use during the winter. Almost every part of the animal was used.

 
black and white photo of a group of native people in traditional clothing on horses riding into the prairie, labeled "on the trail - buffalo hunt"
Horses allowed indigenous people to follow bison herds and hunt bison more easily than by using buffalo jumps.

Library of Congress

Riding the Plains


As in all situations, change is inevitable and change in the method of hunting came with the horse. Horses were obtained by the native people early in the 1700s. Their use for hunting and as beasts of burden spread quickly among tribes across the continent, including the tribes of the Great Plains.

Once horses were abundant, native people switched to a nomadic way of life rapidly. The use of horses allowed following the bison herds, hunting for fresh meat year round, as opposed to large communal hunts in the fall. The bison jump quickly became an obsolete method for hunting bison. A skilled rider could target a single animal; the meat, hide, and all useful parts could be transported longer distances.

Within a few decades, the plains people had become horse people. By the time settlers began to move west, the horse people of the plains were in their full glory and buffalo jumps were only stories of the courage and cooperation of their ancestors.

Last updated: October 23, 2020

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