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Jersey Buffalo

The now-extinct buffalo were wandering much further east of the western range than we might think.

by Vince Farinaccio

Except for serving as the title of the 1980 film in which Bill Murray plays Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, “where the buffalo roam” is forever etched in people’s minds as part of the opening lines of “Home on the Range,” a song that, in its inimitably far-fetched way, depicts deer and antelope playing in a land that shuns discouragement as much as it does clouds. But the song’s title also seems to reinforce the notion that buffalo only roamed the West, a myth made fact by movies and propagated by media.

The truth is that buffalo were wandering much further east of the range than we might think. According to online sources, it’s possible up to 60 million buffalo could be found throughout the expanse of what is now the United States at the start of the 17th century when Europeans first arrived in the New World.

According to Jan Ellen Spiegel’s 2007 article “How Far East? Not Too Far” in the New York Times, “by the early 1800s, the buffalo of the East, meaning the herds of the Ohio Valley and western Pennsylvania, were wiped out—a prelude to the near extinction of the Western herds, which by the early 1890s numbered 500 to 1,000. It is safe to say that they did not roam on Long Island and most likely not in Connecticut, but New Jersey is a little iffy.”

Spiegel reported that “George R. Hamell, ethnology collections manager at the New York State Museum in Albany and an expert on American Indian artifacts of the last 300 to 400 years… doesn’t believe buffalo ever really made it east of the Appalachian uplands and into the coastal states, which is somewhat at odds with other written accounts, which say buffalo made it at least to the Hudson River and into northern New England.”

But historical sources as far back as the 1700s contain references to the existence of buffalo in the South Jersey region, despite the insistence of those who continue to deny their presence here.

In a 1986 South Jersey Magazine article, Dr. Harry Gershenowitz reviewed those references, most of which are contained in rather obscure sources. His observations of the Indian Dictionary, collated by the 18th century writer David Zeisberger, identify that “the Algonquin-Delaware name for buffalo was ‘sisilija.’ ” He assesses that “the common use of this nomenclature in Indian folklore indicated that buffalo roamed throughout the Delaware River Drainage.”

Gershenowitz also cites a reference about buffalo in what is now Atlantic City in a 1648 pamphlet quoted in Arthur P. Kelley’s essay “The Physical Basis of Civilization in New Jersey” and explains that, in 1893, “a scholarly and richly documented study of buffalo distribution in Pennsylvania and New Jersey was privately published by Samuel N. Rhodes” and includes a description of “a scapula and pelvis of recent bison…discovered in Indian refuse heaps near Trenton by Dr. C.C. Abbott.” The bones were identified by a leading expert from the University of Pennsylvania.

The buffalo of New Jersey, according to Gershenowitz, were smaller than those on the Great Plains” and would have found themselves at a disadvantage here since “the small meadows of South Jersey did not offer enough nutrition for a developing 2,000-pound bull.”

Food wasn’t the only difficulty. In addition to human hunters, wolves were “one of the most dangerous enemies of the eastern buffalo,” Gershenowitz explains. “The grey wolf packs brought down the stragglers, the wounded and aged buffaloes. The adult bulls protected the herd from the wolves by forming a circle around the cows and calves.”

According to Gershenowitz, “clusters of buffalo pushed into the eastern states of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland” from the pastures of Virginia, far, far from the range.

Jersey Reflections