Pride of the Prairie
History comes alive in Jamestown, North Dakota
By Danny Lee
We were looking at a buffalo so huge it literally blocked out the sun.
But it was a hot day, so my wife, Melissa, and I enjoyed the shade as we gaped at Dakota Thunder, the 26-foot-tall, 60-ton concrete buffalo that has amazed and amused visitors to Jamestown, North Dakota since 1959.
In classic American roadside attraction style, the World’s Largest Buffalo Monument is part of Jamestown’s buffalo-centered attractions, which include the National Buffalo Museum, Frontier Village and a roaming herd of actual bison whose star is a rare White Buffalo—considered sacred by Native Americans.
Somewhat like the buffalo that once wandered these northern plains, Melissa and I are doing some wandering of our own. The kids are settled in their own households, the daily need to earn a living is behind us and we’ve taken up the near-rootless path we always dreamed of when home, jobs and family were at the center of our lives.
History around every corner
This week finds us in Jamestown, about an hour west of Fargo along Interstate 94. We hope to add to our expanding store of knowledge about the history of the American West—and Jamestown is jam packed with the past.
The Frontier Village, for example. It’s easy to imagine yourself standing in a dusty Western town as you look around at the real frontier buildings moved here from all around North Dakota. Some are built of rough, hand-hewn logs likely felled when the Sioux still ruled these parts. Now, the buildings are doing service as an old-time dentist’s office, a jail, a trading post/souvenir shop and other rustic facilities, all fronted by hitching rails and a classic Western plank walkway.
The Old West effect deepens when a matched pair of Percheron draft horses rumble a stagecoach down the street. Later, a couple of trail-grizzled rowdies tangle with the local marshal and come up short in a shoot-out. (Don’t worry; they got up smiling.)
The Buffalo City
Nearby, at the National Buffalo Museum, we immersed ourselves in bison lore—learning that there are actually two subspecies in America, the plains bison and forest bison. We stood in awe before a stuffed bison bull that was close to six feet at the shoulder and would have weighed about 2,000 pounds in life.
“How’d you like to be standing in front of a real one?” Melissa asked me, reading an informational sheet nearby. “Not exactly calm pasture cattle. They don’t like you to get too close.”
I nodded. “I would definitely run away.”
“Well, you’d better be able to run 36 miles an hour,” she said, “because it says here they can run 35.”
She’s very helpful that way.
A large painting on the wall illustrates the speed these huge animals are capable of. It shows a Native American hunter aboard a fleet pony chasing buffalo pell-mell across the prairie. We keep to a more sedate pace, meandering through the museum exhibits: buffalo hide coats, mittens and a face protector resembling a ski mask; framed collections of the powerful rifles used in the Old West; a full-size teepee; frontier tools; even a stuffed brown bear.
New at the museum is Sam, the full skeleton of a female bison that died eight- to ten-thousand years ago—apparently struggling to escape from quicksand, to judge by the position in which she was found and unearthed.
A miracle in North Dakota
After being immersed in all that buffalo lore, the natural next step was to see some real buffalo. Fortunately, there’s a herd just a short walk away. No need for us to run; the herd was lazily grazing its way across a broad, open expanse in clear view.
It was easy to picture the bison as part of the herd tens of millions strong that once roamed these same prairies. The animals appeared content; their grazing area was a generous chunk of the hilly landscape, including lush prairie grass, a creek lined with trees for shade in the summer and low hills rolling away to a distant horizon that lent the whole scene an uncrowded Old West atmosphere.
“Oh, there he is,” Melissa said
“The white buffalo, Dakota Miracle.”
Just emerging from the scrub along the creek was a monumental white bull, one of the offspring of White Cloud, a female albino bison that recently passed away of old age. More than three million people are estimated to have seen her in the 19 years she roamed with the Jamestown herd.
Around us, visitors gasped and pointed, lifting their little ones up high enough to spot the white buffalo, explaining that the indigenous peoples who depended on the buffalo for food—as well as materials for tools, clothes and shelter—thought the birth of a white buffalo was a divine event.
Melissa and I stayed for a while and enjoyed the families ooh-ing and ahh-ing in amazement. It was nice to see the kids awed by the sight, but we agreed we were glad to be just watching, after many years of being the parents.
By the time we strolled the short distance to the Dakota Thunder giant buffalo, the sun was dropping and it was pleasant to get into the shade for a while.
We sat there for a long time, watching the visitors come and go. Some stood gaping at the size of the huge buffalo, some posed for selfies in front of it, others lined up their kids between its monumental front hooves for a photo. We chuckled as they scrunched down low or backed up halfway to Jamestown, trying to get the kids and the two-story-tall, concrete buffalo in the same shot.
Eventually the dropping sun turned Dakota Thunder into a looming black silhouette against an orange, red and purple sky. Melissa and I got to our feet, stretched and headed back to the car, turning for a last look at the giant figure in the sunset—even at his size only a shadow of the limitless buffalo herds that once covered this landscape.
Only in Jamestown does that history live again.