The American Buffalo

This is the biography of the continent’s most magnificent species, an improbable, shaggy beast that nonetheless has found itself at the center of many of our nation’s most thrilling, mythic, and sometimes heartbreaking tales. Most of all, within its story the buffalo provides not one but two important and historically significant lessons. In the startling swiftness of its near-disappearance at the end of the 19th century—when the last of the great herds were wantonly slaughtered and an animal which for centuries had awed people by the almost incomprehensible magnitude of its numbers was suddenly reduced to a few hundred remnants—Americans were forced to confront the uncomfortable fact that they were capable of exterminating another species.

But if the story of the buffalo represents one of the most dramatic demonstrations of our ability to destroy the natural world, it also provides compelling proof that we are capable of pulling a species back from the precipice of extinction. The least-known portion of the American buffalo’s history is what happened after Americans realized that they had almost terminated the animal’s existence. Today there are more than 500,000 buffalo in the United States, most of them descendants of 77 animals from five founding herds at the start of the 20th century, and their numbers are rapidly increasing. This story—never before told on television—is as dramatic and riveting as the tale of the buffalo’s demise, and equally full of unforgettable characters.

Directed and executive produced by Ken Burns, written by Dayton Duncan, and produced by Julie Dunfey and Burns, The American Buffalo aired on PBS on October 16 & 17, 2023. You can learn more and stream it now on PBS.

We are grateful to the following donors for their generous support of this film:

The Margaret A. Cargill Foundation Fund

at the Saint Paul & Minnesota Foundation

Diane and Hal Brierley

The Keith Campbell Foundation for the Environment

John and Catherine Debs

Kissick Family Foundation

Fred and Donna Seigel

Jacqueline Mars

John and Leslie McQuown

Mr. and Mrs. Paul Tudor Jones

Browse Our Other Films