The history of how we brought the pastoral cow to live on the arid lands of the West is a violent one. Jim Elliot grew up in the shadow of that history and his stories are quintessential cowboy, full of guns, death and hard winters. But even Jim recognized the tragedy of the attempted annihilation of Indigenous culture and bison to make way for cows. But now, there’s growing hope among tribes as bison make a comeback.
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[ ↓ Transcript ↓ ]
I recently got my hands on an amazing recording of our old family friend Jim Elliot giving a tour to some of his ranching friends around the places where he grew up cowboying on the Colorado/Wyoming border. Jim, you’ll remember, is the cowboy that Judy fell in love with in episode one and who died a few years back of lung cancer. What blew my mind about this recording is that Jim’s family lived the life of pioneers well into the twentieth century. While other folks were installing running water and television, Jim was going to school in a cabin with dirt floors and spending his summers moving cattle high in the mountains where there were no roads or trails except the ones his ancestors cut through.
As soon as I turn that recording on, I feel wistful hearing Jim’s voice and I remember what a great storyteller he always was. Like this funny one he tells about one of his neighbors growing up:
“His name was Guy, I can’t remember his last name, but his ears were tremendous. And when you got in the wind and was talking to him, you couldn’t help but giggle because he’d be carrying on a conversation, serious as hell, and his old ears would be going like this.”
His friends all laugh hard at this story. So do I. Listening to Jim’s stories, an incredible tale of adventure and resilience unfolds. But Jim’s stories are also heavy, full of violence and regret. The real story of pioneers in the West is not all glory in sepia tones. The deeper I dig, the more I find hard truths and harm, but also a whole lot of hope.
Rabbit Creek Country
That word pioneer – it means brave, it means avant garde. But I’m not sure that’s the right word to describe the Europeans who fled the dangers and traumas of Europe and brought them raining down on a new land instead. Through that lens, it’s really interesting to look at the Elliot family’s story. Their story is so incredible, there’s even a really good book about it called Rabbit Creek Country.
They don’t even remember for sure when they came over from Europe but family lore says it was on the Mayflower from England. Jim’s great grandfather Daniel had a restless spirit and ended up in Colorado after chasing a feral mare that escaped from his farm in Kansas. She’d been lured away by a herd of wild horses. That wanderlust, the constant searching, was a common trait in early Americans, many of them fleeing war, hunger, disease. Plus, Kansas was going through a bad drought. Daniel loaded up the family and bought land outside Fort Collins near the tiny town of Livermore. And that ranch, that’s where Jim’s grandfather John grew up. They started a freighting business, delivering groceries and mail and other supplies by horse and wagon up into the mountain towns. Later, they became outfitters too, leading packing trips of hunters into the mountains. When John grew up, he married a neighbor, Ida, and they had one child, Buck, Jim’s dad. But there wasn’t a reliable school nearby, so they hired a teacher, Josephine Lamb, to live with them and to teach Buck reading, writing and arithmetic. Jim didn’t have fond memories of his grandfather John, he tells his friends on the tour.
ALYSON: Did you know your grandfather well?
JIM: I knew him as well as I wanted to know him.
ALYSON: How old were you when he died?
JIM: Oh, ten or twelve. Old enough to remember some of the things that went on.
And those things that went on that he remembers were how his grandfather lived with the teacher, Josephine, as his lover and how his grandmother moved into a room of her own and how they lived in that house as a triangle for years. Josephine bought land next door and Jim’s grandpa started teaching her to cowboy. They spent all day every day together, moving cattle to and from the best mountain pastures.
JIM: That was his mistress. And he treated my grandma like help. I remember going to the place there and if she was there, he’d eat, the dogs would eat and then Grandma could eat.
Josephine was a liberated woman who found a way to escape a traditional life of motherhood and servitude. Yet her independence was directly at the expense of John’s wife, Ida. It sounds so weird to us now; we think of those early pioneers as pious and conservative but these were people living tough, lonely, dangerous lives. And often it led to cruelty and pain at home. Jim’s stories are an unvarnished look at life on the edge of the wilderness. Like when Jim’s mom, Helen, was seven months pregnant with Jim’s brother, an enormous forest fire raged past. It was all hands on deck and Jim’s dad Buck went out to fight it.
JIM: And that’s why my mom had my little brother John early because she was seven months along with John. And then the fire broke out. She was cooking for 300 men. My dad’s name was Buck and there was another Buck in there. And a guy come riding out saying, ‘Bucks dead, Bucks dead.’ It did kill that guy but it wasn’t my dad. But at the time, Mom didn’t know it and went into labor at seven months.
But it’s Jim’s stories of going to school that paint a picture of just how much the Elliot’s were still living the frontier lifestyle even in the early 1940s. His first school was an old cabin and Jim remembers the floor piled with magazines to cover up the dirt. He points out the ruins of it on their tour.
JIM: And it was 12 miles exact from the house to the school, down here and back. In winter, Mom would take us down there with suitcases and leave us. ‘Maybe I’ll come back next week and get you.’ And then the old teacher down there had a single shot and I loved her. We’d go do schoolwork and then she let us go out and shoot jackrabbits for supper.
ALYSON: Where did you stay for that week?
JIM: At the school with the school teacher. Mrs. Burgess. I remember her name because she was big, ugly and mean. She had a good side to her though. One time, Mom said she’s gonna leave us here and, of course, little brat, you know he didn’t want to stay with a teacher. And she was standing in the doorway and the door was wide open. And of course she had a dress on and she’s standing there all spraddle-legged and I can see that light under her legs and, man, I dove for that hole and I took off.
Then when he got older, Jim didn’t go to school at all. Instead, he spent most of his time living in cow camps high up in the mountains. His grandfather and dad had built the trails in themselves, cutting a line of what they considered civilization into the wilderness. But it was a perilous life. Jim tells this one story about his dad trying to break a colt while gathering cows in the autumn.
JIM: That old horse bucked him off. But them old Hamley saddles that had them swells on them, like that thing I got sitting in the house? He got his foot hung in the rope and then it tied him in. His foot was up against that swell and he couldn’t get it loose. Dad always carried a revolver. And he was dragging with that old horse, he was dragging. Johnny and I went to catch him and the more we went to catch him, the faster that horse started going. Well, we had sense enough to pull up and it wasn’t just a few minutes later, we heard a boom and Dad had gone and killed that horse. When the horse come over, he just assholed and Dad was laying underneath the horse. Well, when we finally got that horse pulled off of Dad, he didn’t have a stitch of clothing on and he didn’t have much hide left.
Buck was in such terrible condition, they couldn’t even put him on a horse and ride out. So they made a sled by criss-crossing their ropes, put him on that and drug him out. They were 12 miles into the backcountry.
JIM: And he was a good year and a half growing his hide back and they didn’t have no plastic stuff anymore and so he had to grow throughout that time. He was bleeding so bad and we couldn’t stop it because it was superficial bleeding. And the flies had blowed so bad and he was just full of eggs and maggots and it was hotter than hell. And that old doctor told Mom, that was the best thing that ever happened, was the maggots getting in there and starting to work on that because they were stopping the bleeding.
Jim’s stories are just full of this stuff. While city folks in Denver got the best medicine only 150 miles away, the Elliots took pride in living in a bygone era, their days full of guns, death and hard winters. On more than one occasion Jim finds someone dead from exposure or suicide. One time, he accidentally shoots his brother in the leg. These stories truly satisfy all our visions of the cowboy myth. While movie goers watched John Wayne on the big screen, Jim was living it.
But when you listen really closely, you start to hear a kind of pride behind the horror: survivor’s pride. The more of these stories you have on your belt, the better. He relishes in the telling. It’s something you notice reading lots of pioneer memoirs. The attitude behind them seems to be, “It was our job to bring civilization to the wild west but the wild was a bloodthirsty foe and only the toughest lived to tell the tale.”
But there’s one thing Jim doesn’t relish. How the government ultimately tamed the wild for them. On the tour, they stop and get out to take in the view. Mountains that his grandpa and Josephine once roamed without fences or signs or leases, now as far as the eye can see it’s federal public lands.
ALYSON: So you can still ride back up in this country?
JIM: Well, yeah, if they don’t let us, we’ll eliminate them. We’ll just go anyway. Far as I’m concerned, this is our country, Blaine’s and mine and all us old cowboys. This is our country.
In Jim’s narrative, the descendents of pioneers are victims, their freedoms suppressed. But a while later, there’s an odd contradiction to this. Jim and the group are talking about the history of Native Americans in the area and there it is again, that fear of being driven away. Jim’s friend tells a story about the Utes coming to North Park, slaughtering game to leave it lying, and setting fire to the forest as a way to drive the white man out.
But Jim disagrees.
JIM: You talk about the Native Americans, I think our country would have been in a lot better shape if the Native Americans would have went ahead and run it.
SCHAFER: Yeah, they take better care of the land.
ALYSON: I was gonna say. Talk about environmentalists. They used everything.
JIM: And everything had a meaning.
As a group, they agree Native Americans might have done a better job taking care of the land than pioneers. Underneath the cowboy bravado, there’s regret. But there’s also resentment. As they drive along, Jim and the other cowboys in the truck lament how few cows they see.
JIM: There’s no more cattle in here now. I think it’s a shame.
BLAINE: A lot of forage gone to waste.
That idea of wasted forage might be hard for a lot of non-ranchers to wrap their head around. But it’s like having an apple tree in your backyard: you pick all the apples you can reach but there’s a lot way up high you can’t get to, a waste of apples and you have to just watch them rot on the branch. It breaks your heart, especially if you’ve ever lived with hunger or poverty like most pioneers had. That’s the mentality of ranchers toward the rich, thick grasses of the high alpine going ungrazed because of government rules. That’s a lot of beef they could have raised and butchered and stocked away for the hard times.
Listening to Jim’s pioneer family story, it might reinforce all your high falutin’ ideas of the cowboy as the underdog, as the first settler to this land and therefore its rightful caretaker. But even Jim and his friends express regret about that history. So is it all that accurate? This history seems dotted with blindspots I need to shed light on. Sometimes the best place to start is with the obvious. Like with cows. I mean, that’s why Jim’s great grandfather came to Colorado in the first place, to raise cattle, right? And that’s what breaks Jim’s heart the most is seeing the mountains devoid of cattle.
So I reach out to Kathryn Dolan, a historian who wrote a book called Cattle Country: Livestock in the Cultural Imagination about how people thought and wrote about cows in American literature. She traces back our totally wacky relationship to this animal. Because cows and humans, we’ve been walking the evolutionary path in lockstep for quite a while. Since the neolithic period, in fact, going back over 10,000 years, back to India and Iraq.
“Definitely, there’s something about it,” Kathryn says. “It’s got to be size. We’ve made them very peaceable and willing to work with us, and they have tied their carts to us as well. So we’ve made them one of the most successful species in the world in terms of sheer numbers.”
Kathryn has a great sense of humor about our obsession with cows. In our Zoom call, she has a boisterous laugh and waist length blond hair that she yanks at in exasperation sometimes. Because let’s face it, there’s a lot of weirdness in the human-cow dynamic. For instance, in the journals of Lewis and Clark, she notices how they associate the presence of cows with civilization. It was one of the first things William Clark noticed on his return after years in the so-called wilderness.
“William Clark writes on September 20 1806, they’re returning, they’ve gotten back almost all the way to St. Louis, and they said, ‘We saw some cows on the bank, which was a joyful sight for the party and caused a shout to be raised for joy.’ The return to cows meant the return to civilization,” Kathryn says. “They did see bison. And then once they cross the Rockies, they didn’t even see bison after that. You know, by the time they’re getting into the Northwest, there isn’t even bison. Again, the way that the iconography happens with cattle, in our minds is not purely natural because as Lewis and Clark are traveling, they see bison, but they don’t make the connection to cattle. They don’t say, ‘Clearly, this is like cattle. Clearly, this could be cattle ranches.’”
Kathryn says even though Lewis and Clark witnessed Native Americans relying on bison in a similar way to Europeans with cows, they didn’t recognize the parallel. Only the domesticated cow could equal civilization. Kathryn noticed a visual depiction of this belief in the famous painting called American Progress. You probably know the one: covered wagons and trains and farmers all escorted westward by this giant blond lady wearing wispy white robes.
“Down in the bottom right, which is kind of visually closest to the viewer, you get this scene of oxen plowing a new farm, and so you get cattle front and center,” says Kathryn. “And it’s interesting, so pride of place almost in a way, right? That’s the future. That’s the part that’s connected to civilization. And then there’s a movement happening across the canvas, where the bison and even the Native peoples that are trying to hunt the bison are being run off the canvas by these encroaching pieces of Western civilization, one very prominent piece of which being these oxen.”
Also getting run off the canvas by oxen? Wolves and elk.
But this wasn’t just a metaphor. In the autobiography of Paiute author Sarah Wimmenucca in the 1870s, she doesn’t mince words.
“The game has all been killed, except a few rabbits,” Wimmenucca wrote. “The pine trees have all been destroyed, so that we can get no more nuts. The cattle have trampled out the grass in our little valleys, and we can dig no more roots. If the white people leave us, to go over the mountains to California, as some people tell us, we must go over the mountains with them too, or else starve. If we cannot get wild game, we must take tame game, like cows or steers; the same as the white people would do if they had nothing to eat, and nothing to feed their wives and little ones with.”
“[Wimmenucca] absolutely makes the connection that the reason that they’re getting shoved onto reservations is because the Americans coming across want that land for cattle,” Kathryn says. “And so the cattle is the problem. And then the cattle cause a problem because then they can’t harvest because the cattle will eat all the foods, like if they wanted to get roots and stuff, they couldn’t get them because the cattle had gone through and eaten everything. And then Wimmenucca even goes so far as to compare the treatment of the Paiutes to treatment of cattle, although maybe even worse, but because they’re being herded onto a reservation, and she’ll use words like, we’re being treated like cattle, we’re being treated like livestock.”
Kathryn says, doing her research, she just couldn’t understand why Europeans insisted on cows when they were so ill-suited to the landscapes of the American West.
“Beef requires so much land, they need so much grass. And as we’ve learned, you really shouldn’t feed beef other beef, like, that’s not what their stomachs are designed for! They need grass,” Kathryn says. “And so then we have to create so much grass. And if only we could be a culture that really loved pork or something, which we do. But, you know, pigs are much easier to grow in different conditions and you could have done it differently and it wouldn’t have necessarily been so dominating of land.”
But by then, there was no turning back. Colonizers felt it was their manifest destiny to bring civilization to the west in the form of cattle. And American ambitions were boundless.
“The railroad refrigerator cars come into being,” Kathryn says. “All these technologies happen over the course of the mid-19th century, making it possible for stuff to happen quicker and still stay fresh and still stay in an edible condition to different places. So it becomes kind of a feedback loop. So the farms get bigger and are able to be handled with fewer people and more productive if you will.”
The most expensive and elite food on any high-end restaurant menu is always a prime cut of beef. So making it available to everyone was just the democratic thing to do, early Americans felt.
“Cows have always been around the world, but now everyone wants their beef as much as we have it – people around the world – and that’s just not gonna work. So it just became so streamlined and kind of assembly lined, mechanized. Here’s how we cut up the beef and here’s how we remove it. And the way that the train monopolies owned the land that grew the wheat and so they could decide how much the farmers are paid for the wheat that would be used to feed the cows that would be used, you know, etc., etc.”
And nothing could get in the way of these grand ambitions. Not even one of the largest herds of migrating animals the Earth had ever seen: the American bison.
There were over 60 million bison roaming the continent before European settlers arrived. If those were people, that’d be as many as the country of Italy has now. There’s stories of a herd of over four million bison traveling hundreds of miles from winter to summer ranges. It took weeks for them to pass by.
Jim Elliot’s great-grandpa might have seen such a sight chasing that feral mare into Colorado. That’s part of the pioneer story too but it’s another blind spot. So is the extinction of the mountain bison – a subspecies that archaeologists have documented living in the highest country of my home valley of North Park. I often feel their ghosts, hiking in my mountains. Who knows, maybe Jim’s dad Buck came across the bones of the very last one. Somehow the extermination of bison has been severed from the pioneer story in the history books.
But I happen to know someone who has some thoughts about why.
Turning Back Manifest Destiny
Jason Baldes is a member of the Eastern Shoshone tribe, the buffalo representative for his tribe and the bison coordinator for the National Wildlife Federation. He’s at the forefront of a movement in Indian Country to bring back the wild bison. I visit him at his home on the Wind River Reservation in central Wyoming. From here, he has a view of the tribe’s herd of genetically-pure wild bison that he started a few years back. I happened to be the reporter who covered the release of the first ten animals of this herd, one of those experiences I count among my most precious.
We climb into Jason’s ATV. Luckily, it’s enclosed because it’s one hell of a windy day. He drives us out into the prairie and off a steep ridge, down right into the middle of the herd. While we talk – right outside our window – the bison wallow and romp and lock horns, fascinated by us for a while before wandering off to graze.
Jason starts telling us a story that preceded Jim’s pioneer history by thousands of years.
“You know, our Shoshone people, we have been here for time immemorial. I hear a conversation about 30,000 years. Our language comes from the south referred to as the Uto-Aztecan dialect. We distinguished ourselves by the foods we ate. And the Eastern band of Shoshones was known as the buffalo eaters.”
But Jason explains that, for his tribe, bison weren’t just food.
“What would happen now if we removed the dollar from everybody’s pocket?” he asks. “What would they do? Because buffalo was everything. It was life’s commissary to our grandmas and grandpas. It was food, it was clothing, it was shelter. It was our economy. And that’s the reason why it was exterminated so that our lands could be acquired.”
And that extermination process was very intentionally used as a tool of warfare. One army colonel was quoted telling a regretful hunter who killed 30 bulls, “Kill every buffalo you can. Every buffalo dead is an Indian gone.”
This was during the Plains Indian Wars and the U.S. Army wasn’t faring so well against the well-organized and passionate fighting of the tribes. The U.S. army saw that bison was the basis of the tribal economy and intentionally targeted the enormous herds. Between 1872 and 1874, the army launched a campaign and killed 5.4 million bison in just that three-year span alone.
“There’s stories about how only hides and tongues were taken,” says Jason. “Hides obviously were important in making belts for the Industrial Revolution that was ramping up in the early 1900s. The tongues were a delicacy. And the rest was left to rot on the plains. The plains look like winter because of the number of bones that littered the prairie. So they collected those bones and put them on trains and they were shipped back east and made into fertilizer and fine china.”
By 1884, there were only 325 bison left. From 60,000,000 to 325 in only a few years. And once the bison and the Native Americans were removed, lots of land was left wide open for cattle. Jason says this land must have seemed so healthy when settlers arrived. But that was until cattle came. He says there’s a big difference between the way cattle and bison live on the arid western landscape.
“With cattle, you have a decrease in plant and animal biodiversity,” says Jason. “They haven’t adapted on these lands or this landscape or this continent really for the 1000s of years that bison have. Bison have some unique characteristics that mesh really well, and things like their hooves are structured such that they naturally aerate the soil when they walk. A cow’s hoof is flat. Buffalo is primarily a gramanoid feeder, so they eat the grasses and leave the forbs, which is where you get cultural plants and you get your biodiversity. Buffalo has seven times the hair per square inch of cow and so that allows them to be much more comfortable in cold climates. They don’t freeze to death.”
Jason says bison don’t congregate next to water, they get a drink and move on, unlike cattle. And when they roll in the dirt, they create depressions where water pools and seeds can sprout. He says even their fur is valuable on this landscape.
“In the wintertime, like this, does their fur get thicker?” I ask him.
“Yeah, you can watch it get thicker as the cold comes on,” he tells me. “And then in the springtime, they lose it all. And so that’s, you can see how important it is for critters. Underground, above ground. We’ve seen ospreys flying with pieces of buffalo hair. Some birds need buffalo hair for their nestlings to hatch. And you can’t get that out of cows. Actually I’ve got a very nice piece right here that I collected the other day.” Jason digs it out of the ATV’s glove compartment.
“Oh, my gosh, wow,” I say, feeling how thick and dense it is. “It feels like wool or something but even fluffier.”
“It’s the best insulation material,” he says. “They have three layers of hair. So the under layer is really, really soft, and they have a middle layer and then the outer guard hair.”
Jason says bison offered so many gifts to this landscape. But now he says the land is in bad shape from generations of cattle ranching. His dream is to bring back wild bison to the Wind River Reservation and across the West. And not the bison that’s been crossbred with cattle but the pure wild bison that still exists in tiny numbers from before colonization.
“I see no better mechanism than buffalo for improving the health of our landscapes. We’ve forgotten the ecological influence of buffalo on this landscape. It could be in 20, or 30 or 50 years, this will look much different, that there is a wider range of plant species, that there’s more birds, more insects, more mammals, just from the presence of these animals over time.”
And yet Jason recognizes that the myth of the cowboy – this deep attachment to all things cow – it’s in the way of making his dream a reality. Jason even refused to attend the University of Wyoming who’s current motto is “The World Needs More Cowboys” and whose logo includes a bucking horse and rider. He intentionally went to colleges outside Wyoming instead.
“I actually went to Black Hill State University, Colorado State University, Montana State University, avoiding University of Wyoming so I wouldn’t have to wear that cowboy logo. Everything about the cowboy represents what we’re trying to fight here. Use of the water and how it prioritizes change in agriculture from using our water to irrigate high water-use crops like sugar beet and alfalfa in a high elevation desert. That the idea of private land ownership separated us from our connection to this river system. The state managing and prioritizing agriculture over wildlife is the epitome of what we’re trying to challenge.”
All of his career, Jason has been working to bring this animal back to these lands. And before him, Jason’s father Dick Baldes, worked as the tribal wildlife biologist doing the same. It’s a multi-generational effort that’s growing across Indian Country. Jason sits on the Intertribal Buffalo Council, 69 tribes working to return bison to their original territory. Not as cattle but as wildlife.
Now, we are sitting among this herd that’s grown to 65 animals – with another 12 calves due to be born in the spring. Jason talks about this work as rematriation, a global feminist Indigenous movement to return balance to the world. It’s a twist on the word repatriation, when someone comes back to their country of origin. So by using a feminine version of the word, the meaning is altered to a return to Mother Earth.
“We want to see them eventually restored to the landscape to exist for their intrinsic value so that the areas like the Red Desert or the American Prairie Reserve, or others, where we still have some places left that haven’t been plowed up, paved over, fenced in, fenced out or all the predators removed, that there’s still some places that contain that silly notion of wild,” Jason says. “Because none of it was wild to us. It was the way it was supposed to be.”
Strangely enough, this idea of rematriation reminds me of Jim Elliot and his cowboy friends standing on that ridge looking out at North Park and wishing Native Americans could still be taking care of this land they love; because for the tribes, Jim said, everything had a use and a meaning. I could hear in Jim’s voice, a yearning to return this land to its natural state. To rematriate. We hear so much about all the discord in our country, but down deep, I wonder if there aren’t shared values. Maybe they’re just buried under all our blind loyalties to old myths.
Jason says the Eastern Shoshone have now harvested four bison. He pulled the trigger on the first animal and says he doesn’t care if he ever does that again.
“That was the hardest thing to do because I work so hard to get these animals here,” Jason says. “Of course, after the animal’s down, it’s great to be able to process the animal and do it in a meaningful way and use all the animal. But to kill it – that’s a very hard thing to do. I don’t really want to do that again. You want it to be a one-shot-one-kill. I try to do it when other animals aren’t nearby because they have a mourning process. When one of them goes down, they all are very upset about that, they try to get the animal up. And then they realize it’s gone, they mourn that loss. And so to do a field harvest is the most respectful way but then there’s some protocol to be aware of as you do that to ensure that respect for that animal is always there. We always use prayer, there’s always ceremony.”
Violence and cruelty is deeply interwoven into the history of the American West. But I wonder if we can learn a thing or two from the ways of bison. Just as they mourn each other, could we heal from all we’ve lost by looking long and hard at our history without flinching? Let go of some of those old ambitions to industrialize cows? Like Jason says, maybe it’s time to scale down and recognize the intrinsic value of this place we all call home.
“I think buffalo give us a lot of hope for our future,” Jason says. “The way that cows represent the oppression, buffalo represent the opposite. It’s like we’re undoing a little bit of Manifest Destiny.”
The Great Individualist photography by Ana Paola Castro-Coupal
This season of The Modern West is sponsored by the LOR Foundation
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