Before the arrival of white men, some seventy million buffalo roamed the great plains of America. Their principal predators were people who, when I was a boy, were called Red Indians, and whom we now know as Native Americans. The buffalo made life tolerable in an inhospitable terrain. No part of the beast was ever wasted. The men were the killers while the women did the butchery, slicing the meat as thin as salami. Each tribe had its own tradition. The Arikara, for instance, who had survived on the banks of the Missouri River for centuries until they were all but wiped out in the late 18th century by a smallpox epidemic, retrieved drowned buffalo that were so putrefied they could be eaten with a spoon. Unlike beef, buffalo meat did not quickly satisfy hunger. Some diners could consume fifteen pounds of it in a sitting,
which puts into perspective the generous portions served in today’s fast-food joints.
My interest in buffalo and those dependent on them has been stirred by the republication of Butcher’s Crossing, one of a trio of novels by John Williams included in a new collection issued this month by Library of America. First published in 1960, Butcher’s Crossing has been overshadowed by