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A rumble awakened the camp at the bottom of the hill. Fires smoldered from the night before, and pale smoke trails wafted away in the faint morning light. The last sliver of moonlight barely peaked over the horizon as the grasshoppers, cold with morning dew, began jumping frantically. The rumble shook the ground and grew louder as the horses started screeching.
Yells erupted from tents, and warriors armed with little but bows, spears, and knives of flint ran to the bottom of the cliff. Not more than a quarter mile away from the camp. The smell of sage and dust grew thick as a slight breeze swept their faces. The warriors stood, weapons ready, looking up at the outline of the cliffs in the morning light, now yellowing against a hazy blue.
Movement at the top of the cliff in the form of a few rocks was the first sign. Gradually gaining speed and racing down the hill, the warriors stepped gently aside without taking their eyes from the towering rocky face. Any moment now, it would begin.
Suddenly bellows grew louder and erupted as the first heavy form attempted a head-first scrambler down the steep slope, only to catch a leg on a limb and begin a rapid tumble. The warriors rushed to the kill, swiftly putting an end to the bison’s plea within moments. This was their job, what they were meant to do. It would be hours before the final yell ceased.
The History of the Montana Buffalo Jump
It’s only been a couple of hundred years since the last rock fell from that cliff due to a frantic bison hoof. There are still old cowboys to be found that remember the incredible rumble, that watched the natives trick the bison into running to their death, that saw the dust settle, and maybe even took pictures. There are not a lot of documented buffalo jump hunts, but the few photos and historical writings remaining are worth a look.
Imagine an entire tent city at the bottom of a cliff, but instead of tents, there are tipis, and instead of music stages, there are butchering camps. The natives were careful with their kills, they wasted nothing, took great pride in their work, and planned these hunts for days.
The buffalo jumps weren’t simply “discovered” either. Often, when a suitable location was found, there were rocks, walls, and other types of obstacles and materials strategically placed for directing the herd, and for runners and warriors to use. The “Runners” held a high place in their field. Often selected for their endurance and running abilities, their job was to act like a bison. Not only did they wear capes and dress in wooly camouflage, but they also had to trick the herd into believing that they were one of their own.
You see, bison herds follow the leader and, though they seem big and menacing, often spook at the slightest thing. One jumpy member simply running doesn’t constitute a stampede though, strategery, and planning do, and that is just what these warriors did. Acting like bison, they’d trick the massive animals into believing they were in danger, and then make them run to the cliff where the onslaught of hundreds of other giant bodies pushed them to their fate.
Though some may find this cruel, it was usually a quick end, if they even got to the bottom of the hill. Finishing warriors sat at the bottom waiting to end their suffering in case they did. These hunts weren’t unfounded either. The tribes survived off of the pelts, horns, hooves, and extras they salvaged, and the meat they cured and saved for months later. Without these hunts, many tribes would never have survived the harsh winters. The entire scene was a beautiful way of life.
The Remains of Today’s State Park Near Three Forks, MT
Today, the park still hosts old tipi rings, rock boundaries, pathways, and archaeological evidence of hundreds of thousands of years of hunting grounds. Though visitors are welcome, they are asked not to leave the paths or disturb the ground as it is yet used to dig up remnants of the past. Layers of bones are found at the cliff's base, giving hint as to the incredible scale of such events.
The Madison Buffalo Jump State Park near Three Forks, MT is one of many locations used for years as a survival ground. Here specifically has been preserved in its magnificent form with trails and interpretive signs for visitors to get a better insight into the world that was once Montana. Now filled with houses and tourists, the prickly hills and vast stretches of sage once were home to a much more majestic sight. The waves of wooly beasts that gracefully made their way through the rough plains called this land home. Just a short drive off the main highway between Three Forks and Bozeman, it may be worth it to wait for a storm on the horizon because the only way to ever feel such a rush again would be whilst listening to the rolls of thunder echo across the fields.
The Madison Buffalo Jump is only one of many unique Montana sites, not far from the usual routes, yet left off the beaten map.