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  • The Perceptions of the Bison in the Chronicles of the Spanish Northern Frontier
  • Sara Vicuña Guengerich (bio)

Historical Context

The American bison is a distant relative of ox-like animals known as the Indian water buffalo and the European bison, Bison bonasus (or wisent), for which some name it bison and others buffalo. Nevertheless, according to the taxonomic classification of this animal made by Carl Linnaeus, its official name is Bison bison, which has remained in modern English use (Weniger 1990, 2:9). The precise appearance of early bison in present North American territories is unknown, but the animals recorded in cave paintings from the Upper Paleolithic Era had bigger bodies, longer horns, and a more hairy coat than modern bison (Geist 1996, 19). Although these animals lived in various regions of present-day North America and northern Mexico, they were most abundant in the prairies and grasslands of the Great Plains.

Historian and environmentalist Dan Flores theorizes that the extinction of different animal species during the Pleistocene epoch left dozens of grazing niches vacant on various parts of the American Great Plains where dwarf species of bison with a higher reproductive capability than any of its ancestors evolved to fill them (1991, 465). These were the mammals that the early Native Americans hunted for centuries and the ones that the Spanish explorers continually describe in their narratives. Yet, most of the literature that focuses on the bison underlines the Anglo-American culture and those that hunted the animals to the point of extinction in the nineteenth century.

Today, the hunting and near disappearance of the bison is the aspect that most interests the historical community. For many, the bison remain as a symbol, a representation of what popular culture refers to as the [End Page 251] Wild West, a place that those who lived on the frontier had to dominate and use for their own purposes, a place where man was the conqueror of the land and all its inhabitants. But the primary problem with the standard history of the bison is that it is incomplete. Our attention to the near extermination of the bison in the nineteenth century has veiled the analysis of the earlier Spanish sources that could shed light on the historical background of the American bison, particularly considering that the Spaniards claimed ownership of these territories for more than two centuries.

Researching back in time to recover the Spanish impressions of the bison as early as the sixteenth century shows the evolving interests of the explorers, the Spanish authorities, and the frontier settlers in these “hunched-back cows.”1 The chronicles of this period narrate how bison products were a mainstay of the Native American economies and propose ways to include them into the Spanish and Spanish-American economies. According to the Spanish explorers, bison products such as its fine wool would diversify the already established merino wool industry in Spain2 and New Spain. Its hide could be commercialized and its meat and tallow could be consumed. Yet, in order to develop an industry out of bison products, the Spaniards not only needed to hunt the bison, they needed to tame it.

For over sixty years, Spanish chroniclers and explorers compiled and disseminated information about the bison, its features, its benefits, and its availability, but it was not until 1598 that a group of Spaniards sought their domestication. However, like the Indians themselves, the Spaniards were not able to tame the bison. As Jared Diamond notes, the domestication of such wild mammal species demanded more than just capturing the animals; it implied breeding them in captivity and modifying them through selective breeding (2006, 238). In spite of the unsuccessful domestication of the bison, research on the colonial trade economy of the upper Rio Grande region shows that the Spanish settlers in this northern frontier relied on this animal’s products for clothing, footwear, and meat for over two centuries. The massive introduction of European cattle in the plains of northwestern Texas and northeastern New Mexico only began in the early nineteenth century.3

Numerous accounts provide the different perceptions and visual representations of the bison in Spain and Spanish America, some of which...


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