- Associated Press - Sunday, November 27, 2016

HETTINGER, N.D. (AP) - Two centuries ago, 30 million buffalo owned more than 1 million square miles of the Great Plains of America like no other beast. Vast herds left dust storms in their wake and appeared as a rumbling sea of black on a distant horizon.

Within decades of the 1800s’ westward expansion, the buffalo had been killed nearly to extinction for sport and for their hides and piles of bones and rotting carcasses were strewn across the prairie.

This spring, in recognition of its place in American history, Congress named it the National Mammal, putting it alongside the bald eagle as a symbolic icon of the country, The Bismarck Tribune (https://bit.ly/2gBWrkc ) reported.

The buffalo is America’s story. But the final chapter belongs to Hettinger, a small town in southwestern North Dakota. For several key years in the 1880s, before Hettinger existed, the area was ground zero for the very last of the wild and noble buffalo.

Come spring, that final chapter will become a self-guided history tour. For people willing to leave the asphalt and launch themselves into empty reaches of prairie that were once part of the Great Sioux Nation, the story unfolds in the scenery, in the imagination and in the history documented by local historian Francie Berg.

Berg, along with the Dakota Buttes Visitors Council, has been writing the Hettinger-buffalo story for decades, but this newest work strings all the stories and locations into one small handbook.

This tour is for those willing to take a chance at getting lost in search of the lost history of heartbreak. It could take a day or three, even longer; depending on how many of the 10 points of interest one seeks.

The handbook, with detailed driving directions, encourages history-seekers to venture out on a bumpy two-track trail in government-owned pasture - taking care not to get high-centered in the ruts, Berg cautions - then crawl under a barbed wire fence. One stands, brushing off dirty knees to look, and there below is a lazy curve of the South Grand River, bordered by old gnarly cottonwood trees.

“Can’t you just imagine Pete Dupree coming over those far hills with his buckboard wagon?” Berg asks, pointing out to the southeast. It is here, or somewhere near, where Dupree came in 1880 or 1881 to rescue five buffalo calves back to the family land at the mouth of Cherry Creek.

Berg conjures the scene from detailed knowledge of the methods for capturing calves and the likely reasons why Dupree, whose mother was a Lakota, understood there would be a day when the buffalo would be gone forever.

“They set out for the buffalo ranges and returned with five strong young buffalo calves - and helped change history,” Berg writes.

Those calves were among the last 50,000 buffalo left on the Plains that had traveled back into a region entirely empty of buffalo for nearly two decades. It was there they made their last stand and Dupree’s early rescue of a handful in the goal of saving a species is only a small part of the final chapter.

Visitors can travel to the Slim Buttes area southwest of Hettinger in South Dakota, where a party of 40 Cheyenne River Lakota and Thomas Riggs, a missionary, undertook the “Slim Buttes Winter Hunt of 1880-1881” a months’-long excursion when they killed 2,000 buffalo and returned home with 500 prime hides.

The handbook takes visitors to Hiddenwood east of Hettinger, where the “Last Great Buffalo Hunt” occurred in June 1882. About 2,000 Lakota men, women and children traveled 100 miles from Fort Yates for a hunt that allowed them to relive, one last time, the stories of courage and strength against the great bulls.

A year later, perhaps 10,000 buffalo remained in the final herds and the tour takes in “The Last Stand of the Buffalo” in a national grasslands grazing pasture southeast of Hettinger.

There, in 1883, Sitting Bull, a famous Sioux warrior from the Battle of the Little Bighorn, and 1,000 Sioux hunters, “in two days’ time, slaughtered the entire herd of 1,200. That wound up the buffalo in the far west, only a stray bull being seen here and there afterwards,” according to the handbook.

Other sites of interest are a buffalo jump at the Shadehill Reservoir and the Dakota Buttes Museum, where a buffalo mount “Prairie Thunder” puts the wonderfully shaggy animal into perspective.

Other sites are privately owned buffalo ranches and herds, including those maintained on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, and the Buffalo Museum in Jamestown.

Berg is enthused about the tour and its potential for Hettinger and so is Sara Otte Coleman, director of North Dakota Tourism. The agency staff has been assisting Berg and the Dakota Buttes Visitors Council with marketing, helping string enough sites together to create the tour with interpretive signs that will explain each one.

Otte Coleman said the tour dovetails other multistate western experiences that appeal especially to international visitors.

“Those visitors are really interested in buffalo and the story of the American West,” she said. “This fits very well.”

The tour handbook is in its final review, a website is being developed and, soon, the information will be ready for tourists.

“I would say it’s pretty close to ready to market for spring and summer travelers,” Otte Coleman said.

The buffalo trail will be a draw for tourists from afar, but it also should pull in some locals.

“Even those of us who live right here don’t pay attention to the history and the stories,” she said. “It’s just really interesting history, but it also gets people out in different areas.”

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Information from: Bismarck Tribune, https://www.bismarcktribune.com

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