The first buffalo trails of North America, except for the time-obliterated paths of mastodon or muskox and the routes of the mound builders, were the traces made by bison and deer in seasonal migration and between feeding grounds and salt licks. Many of these routes, hammered by countless hoofs instinctively following watersheds and the crests of ridges in avoidance of lower places’ summer muck and winter snowdrifts, were followed by the Indians as courses to hunting grounds and as warriors’ paths. They were invaluable to explorers and were adopted by pioneers.
Bison traces were characteristically north and south, but several key east-west trails were used later as railways. Some of these include the Cumberland Gap through the Blue Ridge Mountains to upper Kentucky. A heavily used trace crossed the Ohio River at the Falls of the Ohio and ran west, crossing the Wabash River near Vincennes, Indiana. In Senator Thomas Hart Benton’s phrase saluting these sagacious path-makers, the bison paved the way for the railroads to the Pacific.[
The term “buffalo” is sometimes considered to be a misnomer for this animal, and could be confused with two “true buffalo”, the Asian water buffalo and the African buffalo. However, “bison” is a Greek word meaning ox-like animal, while “buffalo” originated with the French fur trappers who called these massive beasts bœufs, meaning ox or bullock—so both names, “bison” and “buffalo”, have a similar meaning. The name “buffalo” is listed in many dictionaries as an acceptable name for American buffalo or bison. In reference to this animal, the term “buffalo” dates to 1625 in North American usage when the term was first recorded for the American mammal. It thus has a much longer history than the term “bison”, which was first recorded in 1774. The American bison is very closely related to the wisent or European bison.
Despite being the closest relatives of domestic cattle native to North America, bison were never domesticated by Native Americans. Later attempts of domestication by Europeans prior to the 20th century met with limited success. Bison were described as having a “wild and ungovernable temper”; they can jump close to 6 ft (1.8 m) vertically, and run 35-40 mph (56–64 km/h) when agitated. This agility and speed, combined with their great size and weight, makes bison herds difficult to confine, as they can easily escape or destroy most fencing systems, including most razor wire.
Bison are among the most dangerous animals encountered by visitors to the various U.S. and Canadian national parks and will attack humans if provoked. They appear slow because of their lethargic movements, but can easily outrun humans; bison have been observed running as fast as 40 mph (64 km/h).
Between 1980 and 1999, more than three times as many people in Yellowstone National Park were injured by bison than by bears. During this period, bison charged and injured 79 people, with injuries ranging from goring puncture wounds and broken bones to bruises and abrasions. Bears injured 24 people during the same time. Three people died from the injuries inflicted—one person by bison in 1983, and two people by bears in 1984 and 1986