Writer Zane Grey sang his praises.
He didn’t set out to save the buffalo. Like any hide hunter on the Plains, he wanted to kill as many as he could, as quickly as he could. But Charles Jesse Jones wasn’t the typical hide man. He was an innovator, an adventurer, a romantic, a visionary. And once his vision shifted from the momentary gain of slaughtering buffalo to the lasting work of preserving them, he found his true calling—and his legacy.
Jones was born January 31, 1844, in rustic McLean County, Ill. Farm life ill-suited him; childhood neighbor Elbert Hubbard described Jones as, “the pure type of Middle West man who goes West and grows up with the country.” After a typhoid fever bout in 1865 ended his studies at Wesleyan University (where Western adventurer John Wesley Powell taught), C.J. Jones packed his bags and followed Horace Greeley’s wise counsel.
But first he took a wife in Indiana. The newlyweds soon headed west to Troy, Kan., arriving with little more than the clothing they wore and a sack of Osage orange seeds brought from Illinois. Luck was with them. Osage orange wood was in high demand among Kansas settlers; its tough wood made sturdy fence posts, its thorny branches a natural barbed wire for penning livestock. Jones found a partner, George Baker, and began a nursery.
This venture soon proved too tame for Jones. On the Plains, buffalo hunting was the startup business of the 1870s (see “Western Enterprise,” P. 24). Herds were plentiful, and a minimal investment in gear and supplies would set anyone up in the trade. Jones joined the buckskin-clad cavalcade, and the once-sickly college boy quickly became a seasoned frontiersman and efficient hide harvester. He became known as “Buffalo Jones” because, he later boasted, “I have killed more buffaloes than any other man ever did.” However doubtful this claim, the sobriquet followed him for life. Ultimately, though, it would convey another meaning.
In The Last of the Plainsmen, Zane Grey wrote of Jones that “killing was repulsive to him,” and that he’d hunted from necessity. “Seeing that the extinction of the noble beasts was inevitable,” Grey continued, “he [Jones] smashed his rifle over a wagon wheel and vowed to save the species.” Here Grey’s trademark purple prose was more than a little suspect. Killing clearly didn’t repulse Jones; he did plenty of it, in his buffalo days and afterward. Any smashing of firearms was probably metaphorical. Still, Grey correctly suggested that, for whatever reasons, Jones experienced an epiphany late in the decade. He renounced buffalo hunting, bought ranch land and—for a while, anyway—settled down.
The Joneses homesteaded 160 acres in Sequoyah (later Finney) County, Kansas, where Jones helped found Garden City. He lobbied successfully both to bring the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad through town and to have Garden named the county seat. He donated land for a courthouse and commercial block and served as Garden City’s first mayor.
But such civilized pursuits could never satisfy Jones. He soon embarked on a new adventure. By the mid-1880s, the buffalo trade was as dead as the hides. “The American bison,” one newspaper reported, “the original wearer of bangs and a second cousin of the first wearer of the bustle, the Assyrian cow, as a roamer of the plains is no more.” Jones recognized the grim toll his trade had taken, as well as the imminent danger that buffalo might vanish entirely. Determined to prevent the majestic animal’s extinction, Jones began collecting buffalo. First he gathered what straggling remnants he could find on the Great Plains, particularly calves. Through letters, telegrams and travel he sought any specimens alive on the continent. An alliance with pioneer Texas rancher Charles Goodnight, who’d been following a similar notion, brought him a goodly number of beasts. So did purchases from Montana rancher Charles Allard. A trip to Manitoba netted 83 head, tweaking the Canadian government in the process.
Wherever he could find bunches large or small, Jones bought and bartered. By late 1888 he had 150 buffalo—by one account, “half the number known to be still in existence,” though more likely around 15 percent. Jones bragged to the Chicago Tribune: “I have what Barnum never had and Armour cannot corner. I guess they can’t run a corner of buffaloes now. I’ve done that.”
His herd secured, Jones’ next logical step was breeding. Inbreeding in such a small community would, over time, produce inferior animals, so Jones experimented with crossbreeding. He developed bison hybrids like the “catalo” (crossed with range cattle) and the “seal cow” (crossed with short-horned Scottish Galloway cattle); the latter’s fine, lustrous hair resembled the seal fur fashionable in the era. These hybrids mainly were treated like any other livestock. Catalo robes were thicker and more uniform than the purebred bison’s, and their meat was delicious. Seal cows’ pelts substituted for those of Arctic fur seals, themselves close to extinction.
As Jones’ buffalo flourished, he made time to participate in the Oklahoma Land Run of 1893 and to search the Arctic Circle for musk oxen. Then, toward decade’s end, Mr. Jones went to Washington. One of the last wild buffalo herds—30 or so—lived in Yellowstone National Park, and poachers were quickly thinning its meager ranks. Jones petitioned the secretary of the Interior, proposing to “corral the once mighty herds of American bison” and relocate them at Yellowstone.
His first efforts met with indifference. In 1900 the government leased Jones 20,000 acres in New Mexico Territory to maintain a buffalo herd. In 1901 Congress finally acted on the Yellowstone situation, allocating $15,000 for an enclosure and stock to replenish the park’s diminished herd. In 1902 conservationist U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt appointed Jones Yellowstone’s first game warden. As one of his first official acts, Jones obtained three breeding bulls from Goodnight’s buffalo herd. The following year, Yellowstone’s superintendent proudly reported to Washington that the herd, “under the immediate charge of Mr. C.J. Jones, is doing exceedingly well.”
Jones held the post for five years, but collected and bred buffalo for years afterward. This, along with his exploits in Africa (where among other feats he lassoed lions), made him a celebrity. Besides Hubbard, Grey and Roosevelt, his circle of friends included hide hunter William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody. Jones spent his last years in great demand on the lecture circuit, where he demonstrated his roping prowess and told thrilling—if embellished—tales. If he’d had what Barnum didn’t, the reverse was no longer the case.
An adventurer to the end, Jones died October 1, 1919, from malaria contracted on his last African sojourn. Cody once dubbed him “King of the Cowboys.” Hubbard had crowned him “a king of nature, if anything is or can be.” Yellowstone turned his former quarters into a Buffalo Jones museum. By the time he died, Jones was probably sure the buffalo no longer faced extinction. He’d have been proud that less than a century later the Yellowstone herd would number nearly 4,000. His finest tribute may be a modern one; in 2000 Robert Pickering, a deputy director of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, would write, “Bison may be the first American environmental success story.”
Originally published in the February 2009 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.