As a bison, I have lived on the extensive prairie of the American west my entire life. My ancestors that came before me lived a life of peace and prosperity, roaming in herds of hundreds and sometimes even thousands of fellow bison, roaming the wide expanses, grazing on beautiful, full prairie grass and drinking from streams and rivers full of crystal clear water. We were relatively safe in our environment, except for the occasional hunting expedition of the local Indian tribes, but when the warriors came to hunt us for food for their people every piece of the dead bison was used, nothing left behind to spoil.
It was a circle of life that we understood and appreciated. Yet, in the mid-1800’s things changed with the westward expansion of the United States. Suddenly, land we used to graze on peacefully was filled with wagon trains traveling west in search of free land and a better life, but in the end their dreams would change our land forever.
The first encounter my bison herd had with the emigrants was on a hot summer’s day. It was then that we first saw in the distance, across the flat expanses of prairie, the line of white covered wagons, pulled by teams of animals that reminded me of us in a way.
They had four legs and large heads, but soon we found out these animals were oxen and they were the cheapest, and strongest, animals for a journey such as this. They were very slow coming and as I watched, I realized that their pace was very slow along the rugged, virgin terrain.
When they finally reached us the shock of the encounter was truly felt. These men, women, and children were dirty and dusty, looking worn out and tired. Every once in a while a wagon would stop to unload something–a piece of furniture or a wooden crate mostly.
They saw the hills in the distance and had realized that their load was too heavy to make the mountains that lay past the prairie, so they had to make decisions on what to keep and what had to go. They left these pieces of their past scattered across our prairie, littering it with many different items, from books to chairs, from cooking utensils to wooden chests. Suddenly the prairie fields we used to graze were filled with the trash of the people who were passing through.
Watching them it became apparent that many of them were not experienced with the animals they relied on to bring them west. Wagons tipped over, animals were going in different directions from the way the emigrants wanted them to go, which simply angered the men who were driving the wagons. These emigrants were mostly white, but there were a few black settlers who were trying their fortune out west as well. Some men were alone, but many had wives with them. Many of the settlers were younger, between their twenties and their forties, but there were many children.
When the settlers stopped on our prairie to spend the night we realized that one of the children had died. The mother was crying and the men simply took the body out a ways from camp and buried it, marking it with a stick cross. It seemed that accidents along the trail and disease was running rampant and many people died from this along the Trail. Watching their hardships made me wonder why these people were leaving behind the civilization they knew in the east to go west to an unknown land.
What I found out was that these emigrants were leaving in search of free land in the west. Many of them could not own land in their own homes because it was too expensive, or they were farmers who were searching for better soil and a better opportunity to farm their land. Some were talking about mining for gold and dreams of becoming rich, while most simply wanted a place where they could afford to build a life on their own land, and had heard that the forests were plentiful with wild game for hunting.
Hunting became the most frightening part of my experience with the settlers. Unlike the Indians who would come and kill just enough of us for their own use, these settlers began to see us in a different way. They saw our hides and realized there was a market for what they called “buffalo skins”, and would come through with guns, shooting as many of us as they could get and skinning us, leaving the carcasses to rot in the summer sun.
Not only had they left trash and debris all over our environment, they were murdering us without using us for their own survival. Soon, much of my herd was depleted and our life was spent trying to find a place where we could live safely, but it seemed wherever we went there was either fighting between the Indians and the settlers, wagon trains going through, settlers settling on the land that was once ours to roam, or hunters coming to kill us to sell our hides for a profit in the trading posts or with the Indians.
In the end, our life was transformed by the Oregon Trail. The people that came through would affect our lives for years to come, bringing us eventually to extinction in the wild. Those days when the Oregon Trail first began to see settlers is when our world was destroyed, and the modern American nation was truly created.
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