Last Stand: George Bird Grinnell, the Battle to Save the Buffalo, and the Birth of the New West

Michael Punke


George Bird Grinnell, the Battle to Save the Buffalo, and the Birth of the New West

For Sophie and Bo:

May your children’s children see wild buffalo on the plains.

Motionless, with head thrown back, and in an attitude of attention, he calmly inspected the vessel floating along below him; so beautiful an object amid his wild surroundings, and with his background of brilliant sky, that no hand was stretched out for the rifle...

There is one spot left, a single rock about which this tide will break, and past which it will sweep, leaving it undefiled by the unsightly traces of civilization.

George Bird Grinnell


After placing about fifteen shots where they were most needed, I had the herd stopped, and the buffalo paid no attention to the subsequent shooting.

—Victor Grant Smith

Vic Smith, a hunter, lifted his head above a rise on the plains floor, peering down at several hundred buffalo in the valley of the Redwater River. The Montana winter of 1881 was frigid, all the more so because Smith lay prone in the snow, two Sharps buffalo rifles and several bandoleers of cartridges spread out on a tarp beside him. Smith was careful to stay downwind and wore a white sheet to conceal him from the nearest animals, three hundred yards away. For a while he just watched, his experienced eyes studying the herd—picking out the leaders, anticipating movements, carefully planning his first shot. It all looked perfect, the ideal stand.

Finally Smith reached for one of the Sharps, working the lever to chamber a four-inch brass shell. Supporting the stout barrel across his arm, Smith sighted carefully on the old cow that he knew led the herd. He aimed at a spot just in front of her hip, then fired.

The report of the big gun thundered across the wide plain, and a cloud of acrid smoke temporarily obscured the herd. Smith did not look to see if he had hit his target—he knew he had. Instead he set the smoking rifle on the tarp and loaded the second gun, then pulled it snug to his shoulder. He alternated rifles each shot; otherwise the barrels became so hot that they fouled. In Texas, he’d heard, buffalo hunters sometimes urinated on their guns to cool them, but in Montana, winter did the work.

The second Sharps ready, Smith looked up to find exactly what he expected. His first shot had found its precise target in front of the cow’s hip.When hit in that spot, Smith knew, the animal could not run off but instead would just stand there, “all humped up with pain.” As Smith intended, other members of the herd—the old cow’s “children, grandchildren, cousins, and aunts”—were already starting to mill about, confused, some sniffing at the blood that seeped from the cow.

Smith now sighted on another old cow on the opposite side of the herd, marking the same target in front of the hip. He fired again.

Smith worked deliberately, never rushing, a shot about once every thirty seconds. Every bullet was strategic. Most of the early targets were cows, though occasionally he picked off a skittish bull that looked ready to bolt.“After placing about fifteen shots where they were most needed,” he would later recall, “I had the herd stopped, and the buffalo paid no attention to the subsequent shooting.” Experienced hunters like Smith called it “tranquilizing” or “mesmerizing” the herd.

An hour later he was done. Below Vic Smith in the valley of the Redwater lay 107 dead buffalo. In the 1881 season he would kill 4,500.1.

The story of how the buffalo was saved from extinction is one of the great dramas of the Old West. More profoundly, it is a story of the transition from the Old West to the New—a transition whose battles are still fought bitterly to this day. The story is personified in a man, little known today, by the name of George Bird Grinnell. Grinnell was a scientist and a journalist, a hunter and a conservationist. In his remarkable life, Grinnell would live the adventures of the Old West even as he helped to shape the New.

CHAPTER ONE. “Wild and Wooly”

The party started from New Haven late in June, bound for a West that was then really wild and wooly.

— George Bird Grinnell, Memories

The adventure that changed the course of George Bird Grinnell’s life began with a train, and the path of the train, as it crossed the plains in the summer of 1870, was blocked by buffalo.

The new transcontinental railroad, like the wagon trails that preceded it, hewed to the valleys. Far from “featureless,” as the Great Plains is frequently described, it is a region whose signature characteristic is so pervasive as to overwhelm—an openness so vast that the newcomer has no antecedent to place it in context. Coming, as Grinnell did, from the East, with its hemmed-in horizons and creeping green, arrival on the stark prairie was a shock to the system, an obvious demarcation of a place that was new. It was also, in the summer of 1870, a place that was wild.

As the train glided along the tracks, Grinnell heard the sudden screech of metal brakes and excited shouts. Looking out the window, he saw a herd of buffalo. After a brief delay, the herd wandered off and the voyage continued. Later, though, the train was halted a second time by another herd.“We supposed they would soon pass by”remembered Grinnell,“but they kept coming... in numbers so great that they could not be computed.” It took three hours for the herd to cross the tracks.1. In the early days of the railroad, the problem of buffalo blocking tracks was so common that engines were sometimes equipped with a device that shot out steam to scatter the herd.

For the nineteenth-century traveler, no sight better symbolized arrival in the West than the buffalo. Grinnell, who would turn twenty-one in two months, had arrived in the midst of his boyhood dreams. He certainly spoke volumes about his own motivations when he later wrote that “none of [us] except the leader had any motive for going other than the hope of adventure with wild game or wild Indians.”2.

Grinnell and his young companions certainly looked prepared for adventure. Each of the young men carried a shiny new Henry repeating rifle, a pistol, bandoleers of cartridges, and a Bowie knife. Never mind that few had any experience with weapons (Grinnell was one who did). In Omaha, they had walked out onto the prairie “to try our fire arms.” Grinnell, at least, was under no illusion: “The members of the party were innocent of any knowledge of the western country, but its members pinned their faith to Professor Marsh.”3.

America of the nineteenth century lacked royalty, but it was not without aristocracy, and the family of George Bird Grinnell had bequeathed to him a station near the uppermost strata.Young George could trace his pedigree to the Mayflower. Indeed his ancestors included Betty Alden, immortalized by Jane G. Austin in her book Betty Alden: The First-Born Daughter of the Pilgrims. Grinnell’s forefathers had been leading Americans since long before the United States came into being. Five had served as colonial governors. His grandfather, George Grinnell, served ten terms as a U.S. congressman.4.

George Bird Grinnell was born on September 20, 1849, in Brooklyn, the first of five children to Helen A. Lansing and George Blake Grinnell. Grinnell’s father began his career as a successful dry-goods merchant and ended it as a prominent merchant banker—the “principal agent in Wall Street of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt.”5.

As a young George Bird Grinnell contemplated his future, the path of least resistance seemed to flow naturally toward a position as a captain of finance in a world ruled by the class to which he was born. Certainly this was the direction that his father and mother would push. Instead Grinnell would one day rise to challenge the foundational tenets on which his world had been built.

The events that put Grinnell on a different course began on New Year’s Day, 1857. He was 7 that year, and his father moved the family to the country. They rented at first, eventually building a house on a large tract of land in a part of Manhattan known as Audubon Park.The entire area once had been owned by John James Audubon, the famous painter-naturalist. Today, the quarter has been swallowed whole by New York City, bounded by West 158th and West 155th streets to the north and south, the Hudson River and Amsterdam Avenue to the east and west. In 1857, though, New York City was far away. Access to the city was by the Hudson River Railroad or by wagon, a trip of one and a half hours over hilly terrain.

Though John James Audubon had been dead for six years when the Grinnells moved to Audubon Park, much of the artist’s family was still in residence. Audubon’s two adult sons, Gifford and Woodhouse, continued the painting and publishing enterprise of their father. Each had a family and a house of his own on the property. Lucy Audubon, the elderly widow of the artist, lived with Gifford.

For a young boy, Audubon Park was an idyllic playground, like living in an engraving from Currier & Ives. “In the early ...