The Last Cincinnati Buffalo Hunt

In 1851, some 6,000 people—who were all hepped up on the mythical “Wild West”—turned out to see a lone buffalo from Columbus. It did not end well.
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In 1750, a man named Christopher Gist, a pioneering companion of Daniel Boone and George Washington, traveled through what later became Hamilton County. Gist found this region crowded with wildlife. He is quoted in Charles Greve’s Centennial History of Cincinnati:

“All the Way from Shannoah Town to this Place [on the Great Miami River] is fine, rich level Land, well timbered with large Walnut, Ash, Sugar Trees, Cherry Trees, &c., it is well watered with a great Number of little Streams or Rivulets and full of beautiful natural Meadows, covered with wild Rye, blue grass and Clover, and abounds with Turkeys, Deer, Elks and most sorts of Game particularly Buffaloes, thirty or forty of which are frequently seen feeding in one Meadow.”

Old Lithograph of Native American spearing bison. This is how promoters promised the Great Buffalo Hunt would look in 1851.
Old Lithograph of Native American spearing bison. This is how promoters promised the Great Buffalo Hunt would look in 1851.

A. Kollner designed ; Lithy of A. Kollner, Phila. Kollner, Augustus, 1813-1906, lithographer Library of Congress http://www.loc.gov/item/2011645295/ "No known restrictions on publication."

One hundred years later, the buffalo were gone from Cincinnati. Native Americans showed up only in circuses and vaudeville shows. With 115,000 residents and adding 5,000 each year, Cincinnati was no longer the frontier town some of its older residents remembered. So, the advertisements, splashed over the columns of the Cincinnati Commercial on June 22, 1851, were irresistible:

“Wild Sports of the West! The most Novel and Extraordinary Exhibition Ever offered to the public on a scale of Expense, Grandeur and Magnificence never before attempted in the western country. The attractions, and variety, will be too numerous to particularize, and only a few of the sports can be mentioned – the most Grand And Startling of which will be a REAL BUFFALO FIGHT by the Ottoe Tribe of Indians! All the Chiefs mounted on their Wild Horses!”

Even by the over-the-top standards of the day, this promotional powder keg had its effect. Within hours, the Cincinnati Enquirer rushed to report the talk of the town:

“This event has not only been announced, but has spread like wildfire through this and the surrounding towns. The buffalo fight is talked of everywhere, and a greater degree of curiosity exists than can be imagined. We fear to form any estimate as to the number that may attend the exhibition, report is so deceiving; but we predict a greater assemblage than has ever congregated in this section of the country.”

In addition to the buffalo hunt, with Indian warriors armed only with archery and tomahawk, Philosophical Director W.H. Crisp of Wood’s Cincinnati Museum guaranteed exhibitions of skill with the bow and arrow and demonstrations of scalping. All of this excitement was promised for Monday afternoon, June 23, 1851, at the Queen City Race Course in Ludlow, Kentucky.

The “Ottoe” tribe had endured a lackluster week at Wood’s Museum. This was a time when, defeated in war and starving on barren reservations, Native Americans hired themselves to proto-vaudeville exhibitions. Director Crisp concocted the idea of an outdoor extravaganza to boost sales.

While the native “savages” at least hailed from Nebraska, the buffalo (a single buffalo) was secured from a farm outside Columbus, Ohio. The designated buffalo was paraded through the city as an inducement toward ticket sales and, according to the Enquirer, demonstrated its ferociousness by “butting a professor and hooking a little school girl” while on parade.

It worked. There were something like 6,000 people in the stands at the Queen City Race Course at 3 p.m. that day. The buffalo was hauled into the center of the ring and unleashed. While the crowds retreated in horror, the great plains beast promptly lay down in the dirt for a nap. The Ottoe, riding broken-down horses that the newspaper described as “drays of Pearl Street,” improvised, according to the Enquirer [24 June 1851]:

“The Indians rushed upon him with spears and arrows, the horses approaching within absolutely thirty or forty yards of him, and cantering round and round. Directly the infuriated animal rose, shook his shaggy mane, looked about him fiercely, and off he started for a mud puddle, the excited crowd rushing pell-mell for the high fence. The puddle reached, the buffalo coolly laid down, in water up to his eyes.”

Photo of Bison at the Cincinnati Zoo Studies In Zoology: A Book Devoted To Animals And Animal Life At The Cincinnati Zoological Garden, Published 1900 by the Cincinnati Zoological Company. These bison from a 1900 Cincinnati Zoo guide are more animated than the "Great Buffalo Hunt" bison from 1851.
Photo of Bison at the Cincinnati Zoo, Studies In Zoology: A Book Devoted To Animals And Animal Life At The Cincinnati Zoological Garden, Published 1900 by the Cincinnati Zoological Company. These bison from a 1900 Cincinnati Zoo guide are more animated than the “Great Buffalo Hunt” bison from 1851.

Photo by Enno Meyer

Someone got a rope and a delegation from the crowd pulled the woebegone beast from his slough. The poor beast met its demise offstage.

That night, a gang of boys hauled the buffalo carcass on a wagon up Walnut Street to Wood’s Museum. Banging on the doors and shouting their critiques of the day’s non-event, the mob eventually attracted the attention of the town marshals and police. Five ruffians were arrested. There is no report on the disposition of the corpse of Cincinnati’s lone buffalo. A couple of days later, the Enquirer reported a highly unusual circumstance:

“It is a most singular fact, which we obtained from the judges of the occasion, that of all the full 6,000 persons who were at the ‘great Buffalo Hunt,’ not one was from this city, – they were all strangers! We know this to be so, for we asked every fun-loving man we met yesterday on the street, and every mother’s son of them said he wasn’t thar!”

Perhaps some folks who “wasn’t thar” were embarrassed about squandering their cash on such a dreadful show. Perhaps some were really upset. It is worth noting that the Broadwell Building which housed Wood’s Museum and other commercial offices, burned to the ground on July 14, 1851. This, according to the Enquirer, was at least a decent spectacle:

“The conflagration, though very destructive, was beautifully grand in the extreme, illuminating the heavens for miles around, surpassing every sight of the kind that we have ever witnessed, save the fire of Shire’s Garden, during the snowstorm on the 8th of January a few years ago.”

This article was reposted with permission from Greg Hand, editor of Cincinnati Curiosities

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