Plants and Animals:
Mammals - Bison

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Bison presented an imposing spectacle to the early explorers, missionaries, travelers, and settlers who had not previously encountered them.The early Frenchmen referred to the bison as wild cattle. The term boef sauvage (wild steer) and various related terms of buffle, buffe, buffelo, and buffalo appear frequently in the explorers' journals. Vache sauvage (wild cow) and bison d’Amerique also appear (Belue, 1996; Dary, 1989; Thwaites, 1959). The term buffalo is technically incorrect because bison are not true buffalo in the genus Bubalus, such as the Asian water buffalo (Bubalus bubalus), but are more closely related to the European wisent (Bison bonasus) (Belue, 1996). The scientific name for the North American bison is Bison bison. The early ancestors of the bison migrated to North America from Asia during the Pleistocene by way of Beringia, the land bridge between Siberia and Alaska. Earlier, extinct forms of bison are Bison priscus, B. latifrons, and B. bison antiquus, and B. bison occidentalis .

Bison Skull
Bison Skull

Historical accounts verify the presence of bison in Illinois during the late 17th through early 19th centuries; however, bison remains are rare to absent in early Native American sites. Paleontological and archaeological evidence for bison in Illinois prior to the historic period is scant. Bison remains from sites in central Illinois indicate that bison were present in the area in the 16th century, just prior to European contact.

Archaeological evidence suggests bison were more common in the upper Illinois River valley from the mouth of the Des Plaines River to the Starved Rock area. The Zimmerman site (Brown, 1961; Brown, 1975) near Starved Rock, was the location of a number of Native American villages during the late 1600s and early 1700s. Archaeologists recovered numerous bison bones from the site. Analysis of the faunal remains indicated that bison meat was a significant component of the diet (Parmalee, 1961; Cardinal, 1975; Rogers, 1975).

The causes for the late arrival of bison in Illinois are unclear. Some sources suggest that a population explosion of bison on the western plains forced them into less-desirable tallgrass prairie habitat. In any case, "large" herds of bison in Illinois reported in historic records typically consisted of a few hundred animals (Burt, 1957, Roe, 1951, Belue, 1996). This is small by comparison to the western plains where accounts of thousands and even a million individuals were common during the 18th century. The historic accounts of bison herds in Illinois typically range from approximately twenty to three or four hundred animals. Explorers and settlers who had not yet seen the vast bison herds west of the Mississippi were likely to describe the smaller herds east of the Mississippi as ‘vast’ because they had not yet encountered the much larger herds of the west. Bison Bones
Bison Bone fragments

By most accounts the bison had disappeared from Illinois by the 1820s due to hunting pressure. Belue (1996) wrote that the last reported bison kill in Illinois took place in 1808. Numerous accounts of intensive bison hunting exist, especially during the mid-1700s when markets for bison products (both Native American and European) grew. The wholesale destruction of bison on the plains was just beginning when the last of the bison disappeared from Illinois in the 1800s.


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