The Rise and Fall (and Rise) of the American Bison

Pile of Bison Skulls

Pile of bison skulls, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Recently, while watching a show about the West on PBS, I was stunned by a photograph from the 1870s of a man standing atop a 20-foot-high pile of bison skulls. There were so many bison carcasses blanketing the plains–left by hunters who were mostly interested in the skins–that industrious settlers began collecting and delivering them to railroad lines to be shipped east for processing. The ground bone was used for such purposes as the production of bone china and to clarify wine, but the biggest demand was from the fertilizer industry–the product was tilled into soil to add calcium and phosphorus. So, in a weird circle-of-life arrangement, settlers cleared land of the bison remnants so that they could farm and then bought back the ground up bones to return them to the land.

The photograph is a graphic reminder of the one of America’s darkest wildlife episodes. It is estimated that the bison population before 1800 was from 10 million to 70 million (estimates vary wildly), and the animals were seen by those who exploited them to be an unending resource. That idea was proven incorrect, as the number of bison fell to fewer than a thousand by the end of the 1800s.

Hunters poured into the plains to cash in on the growing demand for bison hides. They would kill the animals, skin them and leave the rest to rot. Hunters were also contracted to kill the animals for meat for railroad workers–“Buffalo Bill” Cody got his nickname by being a prolific hunter for a railroad, supposedly killing more than 4,000 bison in a year and a half. Another method of hunting was for a train to slow to the speed of a herd, allowing men to fire rifles from the windows and the top of the cars for an easy slaughter. The role of Native Americans in the collapse of the bison population is still being debated. While the popular narrative is that Native Americans only killed numbers necessary for sustenance and used all parts of the animal, some argue that their involvement in the fur trade and their adoption of the white man’s hunting techniques made them significant in the decline of the bison.

In addition to excessive hunting, it is believed that grazing competition and diseases from European cattle also played a part in the downfall of the American bison.

Biston RT

From the Bison Research Topic page, via ProQuest eLibrary

By the mid-1880s, there were a few hundred wild bison left on the continent, marking the near complete destruction of a species. Along the way, there had been some laws to protect bison from wanton killing, but they were largely ignored or not enforced. In 1884, Congress called upon the Army to protect the 25 or so animals living in Yellowstone National Park, and later the American Bison Society was formed to increase the bison population. In addition, there had been ranchers who had been attempting to build private herds and zoos had kept some animals. These efforts and the establishment of the National Bison Range gradually allowed bison numbers to increase. Today, more than half a million American bison exist–about 30,000 in conservation herds and the rest kept as livestock, and most of the bison living today are hybrids resulting from managed interbreeding with domesticated cattle.

The decimation of the bison is considered to the be inspiration for the modern conservation movement, and the species’ restoration has been hailed as a great conservation success. Currently, there are calls to expand the range of bison in the grasslands and allow them to come closer to their original role as a keystone species in the ecological scheme of the Great Plains, much to the concern of cattle ranchers who worry about the spread of disease to their stocks. The story of the bison’s comeback may not be over yet, so stay tuned.

This Day in History–May 24, 1607: Welcome to Jamestown!

On May 24, 1607, about 100 men and boys disembarked their ships and established Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in the New World.

By Source of picture not given, publisher is J. B. Lippincot Company, Philadelphia and London [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Founders of the Jamestown, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Okay, right off the bat we need a couple of explanations. First off, the date of the establishment of Jamestown is a bit confusing because of the differences between the Julian and Gregorian calendars. Many sources cite the date as May 14, and this is what the colonists recorded because they were using the Julian calendar. However, today we use the Gregorian calendar, which offsets the date by ten days, making the the date May 24 in today’s terms. (After much searching around online for a definitive answer to this question, it is still murky, with some actually going the other direction, placing the date at May 4. In his writings, George Percy wrote, “The fourteenth day [of May], we landed all our men …”. Since England did not adopt the new calendar until 1752, it makes sense to me that the corrected date is May 24. And, it looks like the Library of Congress agrees. (See note number 1.) Let this be a lesson that history is sometimes messy, and you should get your information from multiple and reliable sources.)

Secondly, you’ll note that I said “permanent” settlement. There were a couple of settlements that predate Jamestown–the most famous being Roanoke–but they failed fairly quickly. So, Jamestown wasn’t the first, but it was the first to endure.

And now, back to our story.

Arriving under the charter of the Virginia Company of London, the colonists’ three ships had spent some time sailing up the James River (which they named after King James I) looking for a suitable location, and they chose a spot on a peninsula that they determined would be defendable against attack. Fortunately, it was not inhabited by natives; unfortunately, the swampy area was a terrible place to grow crops.

Jamestown Fort

Jamestown Fort, from the Jamestown Research Topic page, via ProQuest eLibrary

After building a fort, the colonists began suffering great losses due to disease and food shortages. The Powhatan Indians helped with gifts of food until a supply ship arrived in 1608. The settlement was nearly wiped out again in the 1609-1610 winter’s “starving time,” during which two-thirds of the colonists died from starvation and attacks by the Powhatan, whose relationship with the settlers had turned sour. It was during this period that, archaeologists say, some inhabitants of the fort resorted to cannibalism. Relief finally arrived in May of 1610, when a much-delayed ship brought more provisions. Later that year, the decision was made to give up on Jamestown, but the abandonment was short-lived, as a fleet of ships arrived, bringing more supplies and settlers.

A number of industries were attempted at Jamestown, including glassmaking and wood production, but fortunes improved only after John Rolfe began growing tobacco, which became America’s first cash crop.

Rolfe married the Chief Powhatan’s daughter, Pocahontas, bringing about a period of peace with the Indians. The relationship became strained once again after the deaths of both Pocahontas and her father and the continued encroachment of farms onto native land. Intending to undo the colonists once and for all, the natives attacked and killed more than 300 in what became known as the Indian Massacre of 1622.

In 1624, King James revoked the Virginia Company’s charter and made Virginia a royal colony. After Jamestown was burned down during Bacon’s Rebellion, the capital of the colony was moved from Jamestown to Williamsburg.

Efforts to preserve find and preserve aspects of Jamestown’s history began in the late 1800s, and in 1994 archaeologists began rediscovering the original settlement, which had been thought to have been claimed by the James River.

Follow the links in the text above, do your own searches in eLibrary and browse our massive list of Research Topics to discover more about Jamestown and other pieces of American history.

This Day in History–March 15: More Than Just Caesar

March 15 is most famous as the day Julius Caesar got whacked in the Senate by Brutus and conspirators in 44 BC. (You can read about the “Ides of March” in an item posted on this blog a couple of years ago: click, please) But what else happened on this day? Well, keep reading and follow the links embedded in the text to see Research Topics and other resources in eLibrary.

Revolutions of 1848 Research Topic via ProQuest eLibrary

Revolutions of 1848 Research Topic via ProQuest eLibrary

-1848: The Hungarian Revolution broke out. Led by fiery journalist Louis Kossuth and spurred on by a Kossuth-inspired uprising in Vienna, protesters took to the streets, demanding freedom of the press, an independent government and more. The revolt was at the beginning of more than a year of unrest in the Habsburg Empire that saw Austrians, Hungarians, Slovenes, Poles and others attempting to gain independence. The Hungarian Revolution was part of a wave of revolts, known collectively as the Revolutions of 1848, which swept across Europe. The contagious nature of these events would be seen again a century and a half later in the Revolutions of 1989 and the Arab Spring in 2011. (While we’re at it, bonus uprising: Hungarian Revolution of 1956.)

-1913: Woodrow Wilson held the first U.S. presidential press conference … by accident. The new president was scheduled to meet members of the press one by one to develop a rapport like that he had with journalists when he was governor of New Jersey. Because of the large number of reporters who showed up, he decided to address them collectively, initiating what has become the regular way presidents communicate with the press and the American people.

1917: Nicholas II, the last emperor of Russia, abdicated. Years of hardship in Russia due to involvement in World War I brought about the February Revolution, part of the Russian Revolution, in which waves of strike and protests against the government broke out. Nicholas came to the decision that his rule was untenable, and he gave up power. Later that year, as the Bolsheviks seized power in the October Revolution, Nicholas and his family were imprisoned and later executed. Only in 2008 were the bones of all of the victims positively identified, putting an end to rumors that a couple of them escaped.

1944: The Third Battle of Monte Cassino began. In January of 1944, during the Italian Campaign of World War II, the Allies began a bloody operation to break through the Germans’ Gustave Line and get to Rome. The third of these assaults involved a huge amount of bombing that destroyed the town of Cassino. After a fourth assault, the Germans were finally driven out, but at the cost of 55,000 Allied casualties.

And how about this for up-to-the-minute?: Pope Francis is scheduled to have meeting with Catholic cardinals TODAY at which he is expected to sign the papers to officially declare Mother Teresa a saint.

This Day in History: Stephen Decatur Burns the USS Philadelphia, 1804

The flames … ascending her rigging and masts, formed columns of fire, whilst the discharge of her guns gave an idea of some directing spirit within her.”

Burning of the Frigate 'Philadelphia'

Burning of the Frigate ‘Philadelphia’ via ProQuest eLibrary

This was the scene in Tripoli Harbor on February 16, 1804 as the USS Philadelphia burned during the first Barbary War. But it wasn’t the enemy who set her afire; it was an American party led by Lieutenant Stephen Decatur, Jr., the 24-year-old son of the very naval officer who commissioned the Philadelphia four years before.

The war against the Barbary states arose from President Thomas Jefferson‘s refusal to continue to pay tribute (payments) to those states for protection of American merchant ships from pirates. A number of prior attacks had meant ever-increasing ransoms demanded by the pirates. Years earlier, in a letter to John Adams, Jefferson had called for the use of naval forces to deal with the situation. In 1801 Jefferson sent ships to the area, and in 1802 Congress granted authorization to seize ships and protect American vessels, and the war was officially on.

The Philadelphia, commanded by William Bainbridge, ran aground on a reef in Tripoli Harbor and was eventually surrendered after Bainbridge attempted to make the ship unusable by the enemy. The Tripolians managed to get the ship afloat again, and Commodore Edward Preble ordered Decatur to try and repossess the ship or destroy it.

Sir, you are hereby ordered to take command of the prize ketch Intrepid. It is my order that you proceed to Tripoli, enter the harbor in the night, board the Philadelphia, burn her and make good your retreat … The destruction of the Philadelphia is an object of great importance. I rely with confidence on your intrepidity and enterprise to effect it.

The Intrepid, previously named Mastico, had been captured from the Tripolians, and Decatur disguised the ship as a merchant vessel run by a small Arab-speaking crew. Decatur and most of the men hid below deck. Under the ruse that the ship had lost its anchor, permission was sought to tie up to the Philadelphia. When the two ships were aside one another, Decatur and the other men burst out and onto the Philadelphia, easily overcoming the crew aboard. In a matter of minutes, 20 of the enemy were dead and others had jumped ship. The Americans then proceeded to send the ship up in flames and quickly retreat to the Intrepid.

The gun deck was all of a sudden beautifully illuminated by the numerous candles of the crew. The squads … repaired to their stations. After the lapse of a few minutes Captain D demanded at every hatchway, from forward to aft, whether they were ready, and-on being answered in the affirmative from below-returned to the hatchways as before, giving the word succinctly at each, “Fire!”-in order of insuring the simultaneousness of setting fire to every part of the ship alike.

Decatur was deemed a hero, with legendary Admiral Horatio Nelson reportedly declaring “his actions “the most bold and daring act of its age.” The young naval officer became a celebrity. Towns and ships were named after him, he was the subject of paintings and busts, and his image even appeared on household items like cups and pitchers. His career took off, and he took part in many other military engagements, including the Second Barbary War and the War of 1812.

Unfortunately, his distinguished career was cut short in 1820 when he died in a duel with Commodore James Barron, whom Decatur criticized over his conduct in an engagement with the British known as the ChesapeakeLeopard Affair.

The links in the text above provide a mere sample of all of the great information to be discovered in eLibrary. So, get searching in eLibrary and browsing in our ever-expanding list of Research Topics.

Welcome to Congress, Bella Abzug!

Bella Abzug Research Topic

Bella Abzug Research Topic via ProQuest eLibrary

On this date in 1970, Bella Abzug was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. And that was just one of many accomplishments of this icon of the Women’s Movement. Here are some of the highlights of her career.

First things first: The hats. Bella was nearly always seen wearing a hat: pic, pic, pic. This began when she was a young lawyer, as she wanted to ensure that she wouldn’t be mistaken for a secretary. It became her trademark.

Career as a lawyer: She was a successful lawyer at a time when there weren’t many women in the profession, and during her time in practice she defended people targeted during the McCarthyism era and also took on civil rights cases, most notably that of Willie McGee, a black man facing execution for the alleged rape of a white woman.

Activism: Bella was a vigorous activist for many causes, including women’s rights (she pushed for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment),  and peace (she was a co-founder of Women Strike for Peace and protested against the Vietnam War).

House of Representatives: Running on the campaign slogan “This woman’s place is in the house–the House of Representatives,” in 1970 Abzug won a seat in Congress (the first Jewish woman to do so), where she quickly became known for her outspokenness in support of her beliefs. On her first day she put forth a resolution to withdraw American soldiers from the Vietnam War and later was the first politician to call for President Richard Nixon’s impeachment. Among other activities, she broke new ground by introducing gay-rights legislation and called for an investigation of feared F.B.I. Director J. Edgar Hoover.

After Congress: After choosing not to run for a fourth term in 1976, Abzug made an unsuccessful run for Senate, then later also lost in bids for New York City mayor and in two efforts to get back to Congress. Despite her electoral failures, she remained very active politically, and continued her longtime crusade to bring awareness to women’s issues.

Bella Abzug fought breast cancer and heart disease and died in 1998, but “Battling Bella” will always be remembered for her trailblazing career and her unwavering fight to raise the status of American women.

Related Research Topics:

Women’s Rights

ProQuest Research Topic Guide: Women’s History

House of Representatives

Yom Kippur and Eid al-Adha Confluence. Bonus: The Start of Autumn

For the second year in a row tomorrow, two of the holiest days on the Jewish and Islamic calendars, Yom Kippur and Eid al-Adha fall on the same day. Prior to 2014, this had not happened for 30 years. Last year, because of mounting tensions between Jews and Muslims, there was concern about the threat of violence, especially considering the contrasting nature of the two holidays.

Yom Kippur Research Topic

Yom Kippur Research Topic via ProQuest eLibrary

Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, is considered to be the holiest day of the year in Judaism and ends the 10-day time of repentance know as the High Holy Days. It is a solemn, reflective occasion during which Jews stay indoors and fast. In Israel, activity largely comes to a halt, as most people abstain from driving, and airports, businesses and trains shut down. This has led to a phenomenon known as “bicycle day,” during which secular Israelis take advantage of the lack of traffic to spend the day biking, skating and getting out into the empty streets.

Eid al-Adha Research Topic

Eid al-Adha Research Topic via ProQuest eLibrary

Eid al-Adha comes at the end of the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca made by millions of Muslims each year. It celebrates the story of Abraham (or Ibrahim), whose faith was tested when he was told by God to sacrifice his son. Abraham was ready to follow through but was stopped by an angel at the last moment and ended up sacrificing a ram instead. Eid al-Adha is holiday of celebration, feasting and getting out to be with family.

One thing that the two holidays have something in common: goats. According to this article, Jewish communities of old chose a goat to carry all of their sins and then cast it into the wilderness, a tradition that gave us the word “scapegoat.” In Islam, goats are ritually slaughtered to represent Abraham’s sacrifice of the ram.

Surprisingly, these two holidays have nothing to do with the Autumnal Equinox, which also occurs this September 23. It is just a fluke of the Jewish, Islamic and Gregorian calendars in 2015. We think of fall as a time when the temperature begins to drop, the leaves begin changing color and football season gets into full gear. But, what is an equinox? It is a change in the seasons in which the sun is at a 90-degree angle to the earth’s equator at noon and the length of the day is equal to the length of the night. Basically, before the fall equinox, the sun is up for more than half the day and after the equinox it is up for less than half. This lessening of the amount of sunlight is why we begin to get relief from the summer temperatures and the trees start their annual show of color. Oh, and if you have heard that the only time you can stand an egg on its end is on an equinox, click here.

For information on these topics and many others, follow the links above, search in eLibrary or browse our thousands of Research Topic pages.

Happy autumn, and happy birthday to Autumn (my wife, that is).

September 16: Mexican Independence Day

“My children, this day comes to us as a new dispensation. Are you ready to receive it? Will you be free? Will you make the effort to recover from the hated Spaniards the lands stolen from your forefathers 300 years ago? Action must be taken at once! There is no time to lose! Mexicanos, viva México! Viva la Virgen de Guadalupe! Viva Fernando VIl and death to bad government!”

Father Miguel Hidalgo

Miguel Hidalgo, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

This is from of a version of the spirited speech Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla gave to the residents of Dolores, Mexico, on September 16, 1810, in what is considered the start of Mexico’s War of Independence from Spain. The exact wording of this Grito de Dolores (“Cry from Dolores”) is not known, as Hidalgo, clutching a banner of Our Lady of Guadalupe, was speaking extemporaneously upon having learned that he was to be arrested for promoting rebellion. Unfortunately, the revolt was quashed and Hidalgo and his main military leader, Ignacio Allende, were executed.

Following the death of the rebellion’s leaders, Jose Maria Morelos took up the fight and scored some successes, managing to take control of Oaxaca and Acapulco. In 1813, the Congress of Chilpancingo resulted in the Solemn Act of Northern America’s Declaration of Independence, Mexico’s first document stating its intention to split from Spain. In 1815, Morelos, too, was executed, and for years after, the rebellion consisted of mostly low-level guerrilla operations. In 1821, as the independence movement gasped for life, political events and an alliance with former loyalist Colonel Agustin de Iturbide resulted in victory for the rebels and the Treaty of Cordoba, which cemented Mexico’s independence. Iturbide was installed as the first Emperor of Mexico.

Today, states are named for Hidalgo and Morelo, and the day celebrating the start of the Mexican War of Independence is the biggest national holiday in Mexico, contrary to Americans’ mistaken belief that Cinco de Mayo takes the honor. (The latter, which commemorates the Mexican Army’s victory in the Battle of Puebla during French emperor Napoleon III‘s intervention in the country, is largely a celebration of Mexican heritage outside Mexico and isn’t even an official holiday.)

Each year on on September 15, the festivities begin in towns across Mexico–and even in the U.S.–with a local dignitary (or the president) reciting a version of the Grito as the crowd responds with shouts of “Viva, Mexico!” This leads into the national holiday on the 16th.

Check out eLibrary to find more great stuff on the history of Mexico and just about any subject, and be sure to explore the thousands of Research Topics pages we have created.

Research Topics link on the Basic Search page

Basic Search screen via ProQuest eLibrary

No doubt, you will be shouting, “Viva, eLibrary!”

More Research Topic Guides in eLibrary

Research Topic Guide: Native Americans

Research Topic Guide: Native Americans screen capture via ProQuest eLibrary

Earlier this year in this space, I wrote about ProQuest Research Topic Guides, handy listings of Research Topic pages on various broad themes. To recap, these guides are like Research Topics composed of links to Research Topics. At the time of that post, we had 10 guides. Recently, some of our editors created another 10 of them.

Remember that while these guides are not necessarily comprehensive (we have more than 10,000 Research Topics, after all), they are good place to start in discovering the range of our RTs and for getting to pages quickly.

Research Topic Guide: Mythology screen capture

Research Topic Guide: Mythology screen capture via ProQuest eLibrary

You can access the guides just like you do any other Research Topic. In the basic or advanced search box, begin typing “ProQuest Research Topic Guide” and a drop-down list will appear. Either continue typing if you know the full name of the guide or type until you get enough text to pick one out of the list. Alternatively, you can go to the “P” page of the Research Topics browse, links for which are on the basic search page and on the publications page.

Research Topics link on the Basic Search page


pubtabsmallcircled2   >>>   pubrtsmallarrow2

Here are lists of new RT Guides and the previously existing ones:

“P” page in the Research Topics browse



Memorial Day Resources in eLibrary

ProQuest Memorial Research Topic Page

ProQuest Memorial Day Research Topic Page via eLibrary

How much do you know about Memorial Day?  Take this quick quiz to find out.

If you didn’t do very well, you’re not alone, and that is why in 2000, the National Moment of Remembrance was introduced following polls that showed that many people were misinformed about the history and reason for the holiday. At 3 p.m. local time every Memorial Day, people around the U.S. stop everything for one minute of silence and reflection about the people who have died in military service to their country.

While there is debate about what place has claim to the first Memorial Day observance, it is known that the first nationwide occurrence was in 1868, when the Grand Army of the Republic’s General John A. Logan designated May 30 as a day “for strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet churchyard in the land.” Logan was likely inspired by the tradition southern ladies had adopted during and after the Civil War of honoring fallen Confederates, a tradition which itself had grown partially out of the grim task of re-interring soldiers who had been hastily buried in farmers’ fields during the war. The name “Memorial Day” was officially established by Congress in 1967, and in 1971, as a result of the Federal Uniform Holidays Act, it was moved from May 30 to the last Monday in May.

The three-day weekend of Memorial Day is known for cookouts, parades, sales and the Indianapolis 500, but many would prefer that people focus on the true meaning of the day, and many do so.

If you are doing an assignment on Memorial Day or are looking for materials for your classroom, see the links in the text above and also check out the following eLibrary resources. Of course, you can always using Basic and Advanced searches to find out more on this and other topics.

Research Topics:

Arlington National Cemetery

Gettysburg Address

Marine Corps Memorial

Memorial Day

National World War II Memorial

Tomb of the Unknowns

Veterans Day

Vietnam Veterans Memorial

World War II


Books (linked tables of contents):

The American Revolution: A History in Documents

The Civil War: A History in Documents

The Vietnam War: A History in Documents

World War I: A History in Documents


Website (via eLibrary)

Library of Congress: Memorial Day



So, What Is Victoria Day, Anyway?

ProQuest Research Topic page, via eLibrary

ProQuest Research Topic page, via eLibrary

On May 18, 2015, Canadians will celebrate Victoria Day, which commemorates the birthday of the popular British queen who gave permission for the creation of the Dominion of Canada, the result of  Canadian Confederation. Prior to this, it was just a collection of colonies of the British Empire.

Everyone would gather
On the twenty-fourth of May
Sitting in the sand
To watch the fireworks display

As referred to in this nostalgic lyric from the Canadian band Rush’s Lakeside Park, Victoria’s actual birthday is May 24. (Yes, that was an obviously desperate effort to get Rush into a blog entry.) Even back in the early days of Victoria’s reign, her birthday had been celebrated, and in 1845, the United Province of Canada (one of the colonies) passed the first legislation declaring May 24 to be a holiday. It wasn’t until 1952 that Canada made it so that it would always occur on the Monday before May 25. That was the year that Elizabeth II ascended to the British throne and the holiday was also declared to be the official celebration of the current queen’s birthday. In recent years, some have pushed for another change in the holiday to also honor the country’s First Nations.

So, why does Canada still celebrate the birthdays of British queens? Because it is a constitutional monarchy that, as part of the Commonwealth of Nations, recognizes the British monarch as its own, a system that has its supporters and detractors. But, that is a blog for a different day.

What about Victoria herself? She became queen in 1837 at the age of 18, and a couple of years later married her cousin, Prince Albert. They had nine children, who eventually married into royal families all around continent, providing Victoria with the nickname “Grandmother of Europe.” When Albert died of typhoid in 1861, she remained in mourning for the rest of her life. As queen, she reigned over and became a symbol of an expanding empire, and despite her gloominess, earned the devotion of her country. Among the landmarks that bear her name are Lake VictoriaVictoria Falls and Victoria, British Columbia.

There is much, much more in eLibrary on Victoria, her influence on culture and the events that occurred during her time as Britain’s longest-reigning member of the British Monarchy. For a start, see our Queen Victoria Research Topic page and the resources about her at the Victorian Web site, which is accessible through eLibrary.