Head Smashed in Buffalo Jump

Head Smashed in Buffalo Jump

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Head Smashed in Buffalo Jump

July 13, 2007.

We are staying in the campground at The Great Canadian Barn Dance in Hillspring, Alberta. The campground is a PPA park $12.50 weekdays with no discount on weekends thus $25 for 30-amps and water. We located this place 6-years ago and had a good time at the Barn Dance, this time we decided to stay at their campground. These are great people. If you are looking for the Great Canadian Barn Dance and Campground it is located at: N49° 20.635' W113° 36.972' for those of you not into GPS drive 14-miles south of Pincher Creek on PH 6, then turn east on PR 505 and go another 14-mles where you will see the signs for the Great Canadian Barn Dance. Turn north on that road the Great Canadian Barn Dance will be less than 3-miles up that road on the west side

For those of you that are not familiar with PPA (Pass Port America) it is an organization you can join for less than $50 per-year. Campgrounds that belong to PPA offer 1/2 price discounts. That kind of savings can quickly add up. While participating PPA parks generally have some restrictions on dates the PPA offer is valid, or possibly days of the week the discount is valid, or perhaps the number of days that the PPA discount will be honored the discount is genuine. Many times PPA campgrounds are new campgrounds that need help in getting established. Other times PPA campgrounds may be on the outskirts of town instead of in the "prime" location thus they need to provide an incentive for campers to stay with them. Whatever the reason PPA campgrounds generally provide a much cheaper option. PPA is the only campground organization that I think is worth the cost. PPA does not have a gimic. What you see is what you get. Once you join they send you a directory listing all participating campgrounds. The PPA directory is the FIRST directory we check when trying to locate a place to spend the night. You can join PPA by calling 228-452-9972.

Head Smashed in Buffalo Jump Interpretive Center & glacial erratic

We are visiting Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump Interpretive Center located about 20-miles west of Ft. Macloed. A buffalo jump is one of the methods early Native Americans used to hunt and kill buffalo. It was a primary method of hunting especially before horses and guns were introduced by Europeans.

On our way to the Head-Smashed-In Interpretive Center we stopped to view this large boulder out in the middle of the prairie. Clearly, a boulder like this is "out of place". How did it get here is the obvious question. Let me give you a clue, it is a glacial erratic.

This large bolder is a glacial erratic

glacial erratic



Geologists know this rock is different from the soft local sandstone. It is hard quartzite from the Rocky Mountains. If you look closely at the rock, as I did, you can see layers of sand with small amounts of silt and pebbles. These layers of sediment were deposited between 570 and 540 million years ago in a shallow sea, long before the uplift of the Rocky Mountains. Gradually, the sand layers were buried under hundreds of feet of sediment which generated considerable heat and pressure. Under these conditions the sand grains were compressed and cemented into an extremely tough, durable rock known as quartzite.

During the formation of the Rocky Mountains between 150 and 50 million years ago, these quartzite beds were thrust upwards several thousand feet. Subsequent erosion has exposed these beds in the Main Ranges of the Rocky Mountains around Lake Louise.

Rockslides from the quartzite mountain peaks cascaded onto the surface of a passing valley glacier in the Jasper area. Geologists generally believe that this took place about 18 thousand years ago. The glacier then transported the quartzite blocks out onto the plains to their present resting places. Cobbles from the quartzite beds of the Rocky Mountains are commonly found in gravel throughout Alberta. The hard quartzite cobbles were often flaked into stone tools by Indigenous peoples of the plains. The durability of the quartzite provided tough, long-lasting cutting edges for their knives and scrapers.

Large boulders, like this one, left by glaciers are known as glacial erratics. Over the past two million years during a time geologist call the Pleistocene Epoch, a series of glaciers moved across the Head-Smashed-In area. Often these massive sheets of ice picked up and carried with them huge amounts of rock. The erratics near "Head-Smashed-In" are part of a "train" of these boulders scattered along the foothills extending from Jasper National Park to southern Montana. This train of boulders was deposited by glaciers probably sometime it the last 50,000 years.

Glacial erratic

Glacial erratic




Many of the rocks that form the "Foothills Erratics Train" lie fractured in the prairie sun. What caused the quartzite to split? Geologist attribute this to natural processes.


Peter Fidler, a European trader, spent the winter of 1792 with a group of Blackfoot Indians near what is now known as "Head Smashed in Buffalo Jump". When Filder spent the winter he became one of the few Europeans to witness and record the Indians traditional way of life before contact with white men changed it forever.

Filder wrote in his diary about witnessing a buffalo hunt using a buffalo jump either at or near Head Smashed In: "...running very hard and 2 men on horseback galloping after them... We proceeded forward and found that the Indians had drove them before a perpendicular rock, 29 of which was killed on the spot and only 3 escaped, but with legs broke, that the Indians soon overtook and killed with arrows.

Some things about this hunt remained unchanged from the days before horses. Filder saw buffalo jumps still being used effectively, by only a few men on horseback running a small herd.

By the time Filder came to the area around Head-Smashed-In, the Indians were already having success with small groups of hunters on horseback thus making the large communal hunts rare. Buffalo hunting by the natives had already changed.

Prior to the Indians acquiring horses they followed the herds closely. In the days before horses Indians used "big-dogs" as beast of burden to help them move from place to place.

When Europeans like Fidler, saw Plains warriors and hunters astride their ponies as classic representatives of a people and a way of life, they did not realize that horses themselves were introduced to the Americas by Spanish Conquistadors less than 100 years earlier. They also did not realize the the horse was just the first of a series of European influences that were changing a centuries-old way of life for the Plains Indians.

Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump

Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump






This is the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump looking at it from the bottom.







Head Smashed in Buffalo Jump Interpretive Center


Buffalo jumps were scattered across the plains, and if that was where the buffalo were, that was where the hunt would be.

The Head-Smashed-In site might have sat unused for generations, until the buffalo returned and conditions were right.

When the buffalo returned --- and if the weather was right, then a successful hunt may be accomplished.

A buffalo jump worked best with a cliff that was hidden by a slight rise which then dropped off. Ideally, drive lanes led back from the cliff to a basin where large herds of buffalo gathered to feed. When the winds blew toward the cliff, there was little chance the buffalo would smell the danger.

The hunt could fail if any of the necessary conditions were not met. Making mistakes or ignoring rituals brought bad luck. If a man hunted early, he could scare away the herd. The buffalo might escape if drive lanes were badly prepared, or if there were too few people to man them. Too few buffalo meant the kill would be small, and the camp would go hungry.

When natural conditions were right, careful preparation by the entire camp would ensure a big kill: sometimes enough meat, fat, hides, bone, horn and sinew to last months.

Head Smashed in Buffalo Jump Interpretive Center

Head Smashed in Buffalo Jump Interpretive Center













This is the view of the open plain below the jump. That is the cliff Indians used to drive stampeeding buffalo over.

This is a view from the top of the Buffalo Jump

Head Smashed in Buffalo Jump Interpretive Center






This is a view from the top of the plateau where the buffalo jump was constructed. In order for the buffalo jump to work buffalo had to wander into this area so they could be stampeded over the cliff. If the buffalo were not present there was no hunt.





Top of the buffalo jump at the Head Smashed in Buffalo Jump

Head Smashed in Buffalo Jump Interpretive Center














This is near but not directly on top of the buffalo jump. Where the jump is located there is a shear cliff with no slope at all.

Photographs of how the great herds of buffalo were destroyed

Head Smashed in Buffalo Jump Interpretive Center















The Great Herds of buffalo were destroyed

Head Smashed in Buffalo Jump Interpretive Center




Pictures like this remind me of the similar tragedy that has occurred in the commercial fishing industry during my lifetime. A resource that was once so abundant is almost hunted to extinction. It is difficult to believe that this actually happened but elk as well as buffalo were hunted almost to extinction.

Hide-hunters flooded into the Plains when European North Americans living in the east created a market for buffalo hides as did the Canadian and American armies and the North West Mounted Police who supplied their men with buffalo coats.

Small hunting crews would each kill as many as a hundred buffalo per-day. They took only the hides, leaving thousands of skinned carcasses rotting unused.

Sport hunters did their damage as well. For a few dollars, buffalo could be shot from comfortable seats on the Union Pacific as if they were shooting targets in a gallery.

Also, in the western United States, hunters shot buffalo to supply meat to trading posts, military posts and the crews building the railroads. But even meat hunters recklessly wasted the buffalo. They took only the tenderest parts of the carcasses, such as the tongue and the hump along the back, leaving the rest to rot.

Buffalo jumps can be visited in many locations throughout Canada and the United States. Now that you know what a "buffalo jump" is just look for roadside signs that direct you to one. There is another buffalo jump site in a state park less than 20-miles west of Great Falls, Montana if you happen to be in that area. However, I suspect few other sites will have a better interpretive center to explain how the buffalo jump worked.

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