DURHAM, NH, (October 1, 2023) - Did you know that the buffalo once existed from west of the Rocky Mountains all the way to the Atlantic coast?
That’s just one tidbit of information that stayed with award-winning writer and documentary filmmaker Dayton Duncan when he was writing for the upcoming Ken Burns film, THE AMERICAN BUFFALO, which is set to premiere October 16th and 17th at 8 PM on New Hampshire PBS.
THE AMERICAN BUFFALO is the biography of an improbable, shaggy beast that has found itself at the center of many of the country’s most mythic and heartbreaking tales.
“The first episode will take you from a time when there were millions of buffalo right down to when there were just a couple hundred — in the space of less than a century,” says Duncan.
In the early 1800s, trade, the steady westward settlement of an expanding United States, a new demand for buffalo hides to be used in the belts driving the industrial machines back East, and the arrival of the railroads brought thousands of hide hunters to the Great Plains.
“It was the near destruction of the buffalo in North America,” remarks Duncan. “And simultaneously with that, is the tragedy of what that meant to Native People who had been co-evolving with this animal for more than 10,000 years.” The Indigenous People revered each animal that sacrificed its life to provide them with food and shelter as described in the film.
In telling this story, “it was particularly important to give voice to Native People, either through quotes from the 19th century or through interviews, to try to help you feel what they would describe as a kinship to the buffalo,” says Duncan.
The film is directed by Ken Burns, written by Dayton Duncan and produced by New Hampshire native Julie Dunfey. Julianna Brannum, a member of the Quahada band of the Comanche Nation of Oklahoma, served as consulting producer.
Writing from his quiet home in Rindge, NH, Duncan marveled at the expansive journey of the buffalo. The film brings viewers from the Great Plains to the Bronx Zoo and all the way to Meriden, New Hampshire.
“When I was a young reporter in the Keene area, I stumbled across the story of a New Hampshire connection to the saving of the buffalo species,” says Duncan. “In the late 1800s, millionaire Austin Corbin had 22,000 acres of land that he was turning into an exotic game preserve.” The Corbin Park preserve had moose, elk, wild boar and buffalo.
“Then an eccentric nature writer moved in and started writing and taking pictures of the buffalo,” says Duncan. Ernest Harold Baynes quickly realized that the buffalo was on the brink of extinction. Baynes trained a pair of young bison bulls — War Whoop and Tomahawk — to pull a wagon and took them to the Sullivan County Fair. “He did this to raise the alarm that this species might disappear forever,” says Duncan.
“Baynes helped galvanize a national movement, and he started this national campaign in Walpole, New Hampshire, which is the home of Florentine Films.” Duncan was struck by the coincidence.
Today, there are approximately 350,000 buffalo in the U.S., most of them descendants of 77 animals from five founding heirs at the start of the 20th century.
“Our second episode is a more hopeful one and, I think, equally instructive to what we can learn from following the buffalo trail, which is that while we, as a nation, allowed this destruction to take place, we also, as a nation, could ultimately decide to change course,” says Duncan.
Pictured: Julianna Brannum, Dayton Duncan, Julie Dunfey and Ken Burns
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