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Manitoba History: Bison Conservation: The Canadian Story

by Peter Lorenz Neufeld
Winnipeg, Manitoba

Number 24, Autumn 1992

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct all inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

From time to time writers extoll North American’s unusually successful conservation project of saving the prairie bison from annihilation. Invariably the impression is left that virtually alone a tiny handful of Americans conducted this worthy undertaking, with Canadians playing a negligible secondary role—a 90% versus 10% at best. In fact, the percentages are in reverse. At least ten Canadians, mostly Manitobans, played pivotal parts in saving the plains bison from extinction. Even of the half dozen Americans usually so credited, writers of this era referred to one as “French Canadian,” and a second was an American Indian living in Canada.

In 1870-71 two young brothers, Bill Alloway and Charlie Alloway, came to Winnipeg as privates in the Wolseley expedition from Hamilton, Ontario where their father was a Queen’s Own Rifles captain. Charlie became a keen hunter and horseman. Often he roamed the Prairies trading and hunting with Métis and Indians. A description of one of his adventures appears in Wild West magazine of January 1972. On a trip to the Qu’Appelle Valley in Saskatchewan, his party was warned by Indians to move camp, which moments later was plowed to pulp by a “brown river of buffalo” while “for 24 hours men watched the steadily loping herd go by at the rate of about 10 a second.” Alloway estimated that over a million bison passed by. Charlie, who took over the amateur veterinary practice Bill began and added a trading post, saw the handwriting in 1873 after buying 21,000 buffalo hides at $3-$4 each from a single brigade. He turned his attention, instead, to trying to stop the senseless slaughter of these fine animals.

Caricature of Charles Alloway, 1909.
Source: Manitobans As We See 'Em, 1908 and 1909

Nan Shipley calls James McKay “Manitoba’s most outstanding citizen.” Val Werier depicts him as “a man of great girth and reputation, a buffalo hunter who weighed 350 pounds and was first speaker of the House.” Edith Paterson refers to “a noted trader and hunter.”

James McKay, circa 1870s.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

In spring 1873 Alloway and McKay travelled west to capture buffalo calves. Taking along a domestic cow as foster mother they joined a Métis brigade and spent the whole summer capturing three young calves near Prince Albert, Saskatchewan and bringing them safely to Winnipeg. Next spring they captured three more, but one died enroute home. Four years before his death in 1929, Charlie described these expeditions to a Winnipeg Tribune reporter.

The bison calves were placed in an enclosure near McKay’s home, just north of today’s Assiniboine Park. By 1878 the herd had grown to 13. James died next year and Charlie sold the animals to Col. S. L. Bedson (see below) for $1,000 because he was joining his brother Bill in banking with the private bank of Alloway and Champion. (W. F. Alloway founded The Winnipeg Foundation.)

Long after Charlie’s death, his widow, Maude, told the Manitoba Historical Society of her husband leading a third bison-capturing excursion. In late winter of 1883 the party set out. Aside from the “capture of a number of fine specimen made with the assistance of several Indian buffalo hunters” in the Battle River region about 100 miles from Edmonton, Alberta, their greatest problem occurred crossing the spring-flooding Little Saskatchewan River between Minnedosa and Rapid City, Manitoba.

Samuel Lawrence Bedson, circa 1890.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

These calves too were corralled in the recently-vacated 30-acre pasture and “as with the other herds, these few multiplied to quite large proportions. A number of the buffalo in Assiniboine Park today are the progeny of this herd.” At least three calves from that trip were acquired by Howard Eaton. Mrs. Alloway concluded: “It has been said that to Charlie Alloway should go the credit for the preservation of the buffalo in Manitoba for if it had not been for his foresight years ago, the American bison would be but a mist vision.”

Samuel Lawrence Bedson also came West with Wolseley. A Montreal army officer’s son, he was placed in charge of Lower Fort Garry just down river from Winnipeg. When Ottawa established a penitentiary-mental hospital there in 1871 he became its first warden. Later he selected the Stony Mountain site a few miles westward for a new prison and upon its completion in 1877 continued in charge there. A popular sportsman always surrounded by friends, Sam proved a kindly but just warden. A wildlife lover, he kept a menagerie of bears, badgers, wolves, deer, moose, geese and other game birds on his nearby farm.

The same morning the Alloway-McKay bison were moved to Stony Mountain, one cow had a calf. That night the herd escaped and tramped back to Winnipeg through deep snow. In the morning they were herded back to the prison, a total of 62 miles for the newborn calf. Under Bedson’s tender care the bison multiplied rapidly to over 100 by 1888. In 1928 the colonel’s son, K. C. Bedson, told a reported of how, as a youngster 40 years earlier, he had herded bison on the prairie near the prison. His popular mother, Jemima, was of great help to her husband in his various unusual endeavors.

By 1888 the settler influx and failing health forced Bedson to conclude it was no longer practical to keep his beloved bison. About six were donated to New York and London Zoos. At least 27 were given to Donald Smith (Lord Strathcona) to repay a loan. Most of the remaining herd, listed as high as 98 by some researchers and low as 56 by others, eventually went to C. J. “Buffalo” Jones, manager of Garden City (Kansas) Buffalo Company. No conservationist, he had hunted with Teddy Roosevelt in Africa and dreamed of creating a huge game preserve for hunters to hunt bison for a fat fee.

In November 1889, when Jones was negotiating in Winnipeg, he had a standing offer of $60 per hide he could produce, $0.50 per pound for meat to US restaurants, and $100-$500 a trophy head. Also he was besieged with telegrams from persons in Minnesota and the Dakotas anxious to buy bison at $500-$1,000 each. The sale was delayed briefly when some Winnipeggers tried to form a company to buy the bison to raise commercially. Bedson died in Ottawa at 49 in 1891.

Smith donated all but five of his bison to the Canadian government which installed them in Banff National Park where they flourished under Superintendent Douglas’ able care. Winnipeg’s Street Railway Company bought the other five plus three from Eaton to donate to Assiniboine Park Zoo, where descendants are still popular with countless visitors each year.

During the mid-1870s one of the original nine Mountie commanding officers, Quebec-native Ephrem Brisebois, had fought a valiant but losing battle in what became southern Alberta to slow down the bison slaughter by developing strict hunting regulations. Unfortunately, this colourful, somewhat controversial sub-inspector who founded Fort Calgary (originally Fort Brisebois) was ignored by his own superiors, consequently made impotent to enforce the judicious restrictions, and resigned.

Much has been written of the role played in saving the plains bison by the Montana Pend d’Oreille, Sam Walking Coyote. Some hail him as a devoted conservationist, others laud his actions as a “ray of light in all the ruthless killing” of these noble beasts. Most have him capturing bison calves in Montana. However, we can thank the Montana Historical Society for separating fact from fiction. George Coder of Ohio State University has conducted detailed buffalo history research. As to who caught Sam’s bison, where and why, Coder points to the story in the November 1923 Rocky Mountain Husbandman as most accurate.

It began in 1873 at a Piegan camp on Montana’s Milk River where lived Sam “who had a sharp tongue, a swift temper and (a) son-in-law” who “cheated his wife’s irascible father in a horse swap,” arousing his ire. Life quickly became too hot around camp that winter for the young horse-trader because “every time the old man thought about him, he reached for something to throw; and his aim was good” Dixon Craig of the Edmonton Journal, who also did good bison research, called Sam a renegade. The young man left his parents-in-law and bride, and headed north into Saskatchewan where he became an honest hunter of what remained of the southern half of the once-great bison herd. One day he was lucky enough to capture some calves. A Canadian Press story datelined Wainwright, Alberta gave the number as two bulls and two heifers. Because he missed his young wife considerably, he decided perhaps her cantankerous dad might forgive him if he brought the calves as gift. He herded his peace offering into the U.S. where his father-in-law eagerly accepted it. Sam trailed his calves to this little farm on the Flathead Reserve where by 1884 the four had increased to 13. Old age and difficulty financing his wards caused him to sell.

Charles Allard, his father Caucasian and his mother Oregon Indian, is often called a “French Canadian.” Allard and his Mexican-Blackfoot ranching partner Michel Pablo, decided to buy most of Sam’s herd. Gene Telpner described the transaction. Sam refused “a white man’s cheque” so the ranchers had to dig up $2,500 cash. As the trio counted out the money, into 25 piles, a mink ran by. “With the instinct of the hunter strong in their spirits, they immediately gave chase, forgetting temporarily all about the buffalo herd and the large sum of money left lying on the ground” A 1948 Canadian Cattleman issue indicates that after the sale Sam “immediately hit for town and after a few weeks of city life was found dead under Missoula Bridge.”

By 1893 the Allard-Pablo herd on Pend d’Oreille reserve near St. Ignatius Mission had grown to 100. Meanwhile, Jones’ grandiose scheme faded when intense Texas heat and ticks killed most of his bison. He sold the remnant of 35 (one source says 26) to Allard and Pablo. After the former died in 1896, his half of the 300-head herd was divided among his heirs and many sold by them to US zoos and game farms. Despite this, the herd, now owned by Charles Allard Jr. and brother Joseph, Pablo, and Andrew Stringer, totalled 250 in 1899. By 1906 it numbered almost 800 and was the main plains bison herd in North America, the only other of note being the herd in Banff National Park.

Four Canadians, two being Manitobans, played key roles in returning the Montana bison to Canada. Norman Luxton, son of noted journalist W. F. Luxton (Toronto Globe, Winnipeg Free Press, Nor’Wester), was the progressive publisher of Banff’s Crag and Canyon Weekly. Alex Ayotte, a huge man weighing 240 pounds, had served with Canada’s immigration department in Montana for years and later moved to St. Jean, Manitoba. Hon. Frank Oliver, ex-journalist of Toronto Globe and Mail, Winnipeg Free Press and founder of Alberta’s first newspaper, Edmonton Bulletin, was federal interior minister. Howard Douglas was still Superintendent of Banff National Park.

To Luxton, a close friend of Oliver’s, goes credit for convincing his politician friend the Allard-Pablo herd should be bought by Canada and re-established here. To Oliver goes credit for quick action in 1906 persuading Ottawa the idea had merit and then setting necessary wheels turning to advance what’s often been heralded as “the greatest animal comeback in the history of the world.”

Ayotte, with a bit of help from Eaton, negotiated the purchase of about 716 animals at $245 each, and then led three hazardous roundups and drives to Canada which took several years. He continued to supervise five annual roundups in Alberta.

To Douglas fell the massive task of making the whole project work. Also, he helped disperse bison to Canadian zoos and other parks, like Manitoba’s Riding Mountain National Park where one of the largest plains bison herds in existence still attracts thousands of visitors annually.

An interesting sequel to the bison conservation project was research conducted from 1894 to 1914 by Mossom Boyd of Bobcaygeon, Ontario in crossing plains bison with domestic cattle. In 1915 his bison and cattalo were bought by Ottawa and taken to Wainwright, Alberta. The cattalo project was later transferred south to Manyberries where it continued until 1964.

Today, buffalo ranching is becoming increasingly common across North America, a popular Manitoba one being Marvin McGregor’s just across the Little Saskatchewan River from the Ski Valley resort north of Minnedosa. Cattle-bison crossing programs are carried on by individual ranchers, the Beefalo breed being one result. In recent years buffalo have multiplied to the extent that even limited hunting seasons have become necessary to contain the rapidly-expanding herds. In fact, a most serious current problem facing Canadian officials is how to combat rampant disease and forage shortage plaguing the herd in Wood Buffalo National Park consisting of 3,500 plains and wood bison, without having to destroy the animals.

Charlie Alloway, James McKay, Sam Bedson, Ephrem Brisebois, Howard Eaton, Donald Smith, Norman Luxton, Frank Oliver, Howard Douglas and Alex Ayotte left Canadians a most enviable conservation legacy. Let’s treasure it deeply and enhance it.

A buffalo from the early herd at Assiniboine Zoo, circa 1915.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

Page revised: 4 August 2014

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