Bedson’s buffalo — when Jones bought the Stony Mountain herd his intention was to breed buffalo with domestic cattle to create catallo

by Bruce Cherney (part 3)

After Stony Mountain Penitentiary warden, Samuel Bedson, bought 13 buffalo from Charles Alloway in 1880, the herd had to be driven 35 kilometres across the prairie from Deer Lodge to the federal prison during the depth of a Manitoba winter. Herding the beasts to their new home turned out to be a greater challenge for the four men in charge of the drive than originally foreseen by Bedson. To complicate matters, a buffalo cow dropped a calf the same day the journey began. The newborn could not be separated from its mother so it had to be included in the northward trek. Just as the successful completion of the journey to Stony Mountain was being celebrated, the animals decided they weren’t satisfied with their new surroundings and bolted back to their familiar grazing grounds at Deer Lodge.

“The third day they were moved back again to Stony Mountain ... a total distance of 62 miles (nearly 100 kilometres) covered by a three-day old buffalo. No domestic calf could do a quarter of that at the same time,” Alloway related in a June 24, 1925, Winnipeg Tribune article.

The buffalo were allowed to roam freely about the countryside surrounding the penitentiary, which meant that at times they became a nuisance to Bedson’s neighbours.

“Bedson was convinced that animals allowed to wander away at will were more likely to wander back to the barnyard that offered hay, water, and salt,” wrote Grant MacEwan in his book, A Century of Grant MacEwan: Selected Writings.

The animals were kept on land near the prison until they were sold again in 1888 with 27 purebred buffalos returned into Donald Smith’s care in repayment for his original loan of $1,000 that allowed Bedson to purchase the Deer Lodge herd in 1880.

The remaining 83 were sold to “Buffalo” Jones, a Kansas rancher who had also saved a few buffalo from the devastation, for a reputed $50,000. Jones already had 150 buffalo — pure and cross-bred — at his Garden City, Kansas ranch.

The November 15, 1888, Manitoba Free Press, which claimed the selling price was $15,000 (another report said $25,000), listed the buffalo herd as being made up of 35 thoroughbred females, 23 thoroughbred males, three females classified as “grade” — that is, a cattle and buffalo cross — and five grade males, as well as 17 calves.

MacEwan wrote that the increase in farming families in the Stony Mountain area made it more difficult for Bedson to allow his buffalo herd to wander about and contributed to his decision to sell the animals. In addition, the warden would be shortly retiring “and keeping the herd would be difficult if not impossible.”

In fact, Bedson’s later years were plagued by ill-health. In 1890 he was named extra aide-de-camp to Canadian Governor General Lord Stanley. Late that October, the Winnipeg Daily Free Press reported Bedson was seriously ill and close to death. He eventually recovered sufficiently, from what was diagnosed as Bright’s disease, to return to his post as warden on March 4, 1891, but, weakened by his illness, he was forced to retire on April 6. While on a trip to Ottawa, he was suddenly paralyzed by a stroke and died on July 17 at the age of 49 (Dictionary of Canadian Biography). Bedson is buried in St. John’s Cathedral Cemetery in Winnipeg. Bedson Street in the city is named after him.

It was Jones’ intention to breed the buffalo with domestic cattle to create what he called “catallo,” as a food source. Bedson, Alloway and James McKay had earlier shown that such a breeding program was possible.

Jones told the Free Press on December 15, 1888, that the cross-breed cattle would be well suited for the Americans Plains.

“Buffaloes just dote on blizzards,” claimed Jones, “so to speak; in place of drifting with the storm as the silly cattle do, they defy the fury of the elements. Calves dropped in the winter with the thermometer forty below zero are all right and rustle for a living on the open prairie from the moment of their birth and thrive.”

The hardiness of buffalo calves was proven by the just-born calf that made the journey from Deer Lodge to Stony Mountain twice in three days.

In Jones’ mind, the “catallo” (also referred to as cattelo or catalo; today, a common name is beefalo) were the cattle of the future for North America.

Jones was slated to ship some of the herd in December 1888. He sent a number of his best cowboys to bring the first group of animals to Winnipeg for shipment by train to the U.S. As the cowboys soon discovered, rounding up the shaggy beasts was not going to be an easy task.

The first step was gathering the buffalo “inside the massive stone walls, five feet high and a foot and a half in thickness, that surrounded the stableyard at Stony Mountain,” wrote McEwan. “Though it was a wall to halt an army tank it didn’t impress Bedson’s buffalo.”

The buffalo freely went through the gate as was their custom when hungry for hay, but when the gate was closed, old instincts took over. They circled and milled about looking for an avenue of escape. Men who had been in the enclosure climbed to the top of the fence. “But one man, wiser in the ways of buffalo, left the fence to find a safer observation point, farther away. He did it just as the old bull who seemed to be in command led ‘the buffalo brigade’ in a charge that opened the wall and allowed every member of the herd to follow.”

The wall was repaired and the herd again rounded up, “the six riders who were to direct the drive to the Winnipeg Stockyard, about fifteen miles across country, made a quick division and cut out thirty-five head for Winnipeg delivery. With luck, they would be at the stockyard in five or six hours and the buffalo loaded and billed to ‘Buffalo’ Jones by sundown.”

Several hundred Winnipeggers had gathered at the stockyards to witness the unique round-up, and what they saw would be the stuff of tales to be told for years to come.

There was no trouble until the gate at the stockyard was encountered. The “boss bull” blared out a warning and the entire herd bolted for Stony Mountain. It took an hour before the runaways were again rounded up and returned to the stockyard. But when the gate was opened, the herd was off again.

The Free Press reported on December 15 that when the buffalo had “found themselves caged and trapped they began to fight among themselves, and some terrible combats were waged between the old bulls, while younger cattle were thrown in the air by the horns of the maddened cattle.”

A couple of the men herding the buffalo had a narrow escape, while Sam McCormack’s dog Collie, which had been with the buffalo for years, ventured into one of the pens “among his old friends, but the whole herd took after him, ran him in a corner and tried to trample and gore him to death.”

The dog successfully evaded the enraged beasts and was finally seized and hauled out of the pen by one of the men. This action prompted the gathered audience to burst into loud cheering.

The riders gave up for the moment, rested their horses and ate lunch, expecting to return to the chase at one o’clock. In the meantime, the buffalo were contentedly grazing on the prairie.

When the buffalo were once again rounded up, the fact of a gate continued to plague the herders.

“Time and time again they were driven up the gate,” wrote city editor John Wesley Dafoe in the December 14, 1888, Free Press (he had assigned himself to report on this unique event in the province’s history), “but would always turn just at the critical moment and start homeward on the dead run ... A buffalo is not much to look at, but he is a ‘whizzer’ to go, and so the men found out before they could head them off.”

After five hours and the assistance of some Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) workers, the buffalo were finally herded into the stockyards. Once inside, they casually began to eat hay.

Dafoe urged local residents to visit the stockyards to see the “almost extinct animal,” since “they will probably not have another chance.”

The next morning on December 14, the 33 animals were being forced into the loading chutes for awaiting freight cars.

“But as might have been expected by this time, the buffalo were having nothing to do with the little compartments with gates, and more hours were spent and lost coaxing, threatening, goading and trying trickery.”

(Next issue: part 4)