Charles Jesse Jones (1844–1919), a.k.a., “Buffalo Jones,” was born in Illinois. He moved to Kansas at age 21, working first in a fruit nursery and later selling real estate. In the late 1800s he was a bison hunter. Like Fred Dupree he hunted for hides and was reputed to be among the best of the professional hunters. With the coming of the railroad, the continent’s single massive bison herd was split in two, a northern herd and a smaller southern herd. For the most part Jones concentrated his activity on the southern herd, which was wiped out a few years earlier than the vast northern herd. He captured 14 calves in 1886 before the herd was completely gone.
With bison nearly gone from the plains entirely, Jones began to see the hunts as wicked, senseless slaughter, which he had participated in. The realization compelled him to take measures to preserve the species.
Notorious as a conman and profiteer, Jones’ motives were not entirely noble. His original purpose in rescuing the calves was to cross-breed them with cattle to create a hardier hybrid he called cattalo. He also had visions of domesticating the bison as a new beast of burden. Neither venture succeeded, but the herd continued to grow. By 1889, at just 150 head, Jones had the largest private bison herd in the country.
Jones lost his stock to creditors due to a severe national recession in the 1890s, selling his bison at public auction to pay his debts. Bison from the herd, however, went on to start new herds in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Montana, Yellowstone and elsewhere. Descendants of the original Jones herd helped to restock the nearly extinct species, establishing many additional private and public herds around the turn of the century.
Jones was not completely out of the bison business, however, as he had managed to get the attention of President Teddy Roosevelt. Roosevelt had established a reputation as outdoorsman and conservationist. At Jones’ urging, several refuges were established by the federal government to preserve the American bison. Jones himself served as first game warden of the new Yellowstone Game Preserve. Jones used the opportunity to continue his self-serving cattalo experiments and to rebuild his reputation and personal fortune.
His motives may have been questionable, but his efforts saved and nurtured bison at a time they could have been destroyed altogether. And as a direct result of his ambitions, the federal government was now invested in and committed to bison preservation.