83" by 84"
American Bison; 19th Century Travel; Historic Ecology
Mrs. F.N. Phillips, 1941
Our Artifact Ambassador story today is brought to us by a buffalo (bison) robe which was acquired by J. W. Ormsby who ventured across the American West in 1860. This particular animal was shot as a calf or sub-adult, which was a common occurrence in the heyday of western bison hunts characterized by indiscriminate hunting practices. By the turn of the century, these large herds would all but vanish from the landscape.
Buffalo robes were essential to cold-climate travel. Their skins had been a fundamental component of John Kinzie’s fur trading business at Mackinac Island, arriving in bulk by this time from the Missouri and trans-Mississippi River regions. Thus, when John and Juliette proposed to make an overland trip to visit family in Chicago in the winter of 1830-31, the original plan for their journey was premised upon using horse drawn sleds lined with buffalo skins like this one to keep the couple warm as they traversed the snowy world of the old Northwest. A wintertime lull in agency business, wrought by the seasonal scattering of the Ho-Chunk tribe, made this a seemingly convenient time to travel to John’s hometown. Their plans were waylaid, however, by the arrival of January’s copious snowstorms and the repeated denial of the Kinzies’ request by Fort Winnebago’s commanding officer.
The result was the postponement of their journey until early spring when a fleeting period of snow melt convinced the inexperienced New Englander and her indulgent husband of the feasibility of making the trip by horseback without the use of their warm buffalo sleds. Over the protests of Major Twiggs, they set off, only to be caught in a dangerous spring snowstorm which nearly resulted in tragedy for the traveling party. Another result of the delay was the breaking up of the Rock River’s ice, necessitating a major detour to the only operating ferry over the Rock River—Dixon’s ferry—via Kelloggs Grove, William Hamilton’s diggings, and Buffalo Grove.
Buffalo Grove, itself, was likely named after the modest herds of buffalo which had, within the previous fifty years, been hunted to extirpation in this region due to the value of their skins. These animals were known to have resided as far north as Portage and Lake Winnebago in times gone by, even featuring prominently in Winnebago culture. The settlement of Buffalo Grove at which John and Juliette stopped just before crossing over the Rock River on the final leg of their journey now had more pressing issues to consider than buffalo, however. This sparse settlement’s residents were much more concerned about whether the planning of a stage route through the region would assist—or doom—the settlement as Juliette relates within the context of the story about her first, notably cold, journey to Chicago.