Bringing History to Life: The Untold Story of the Pablo-Allard Buffalo Herd

Through an interactive web experience, the Beaver Hills Biosphere’s historian laureate is discovering new ways to tell the story of the Pablo-Allard herd. Keara Lightning is the Biosphere’s first historian laureate and, through her work, she’s finding new ways to share the Biosphere’s history with a broader audience.

At the Biosphere’s upcoming open house on March 1 - 2, 2023, she will premiere an interactive historical learning experience to explore the journey the herd took, and help participants understand the forgotten history of the Pablo-Allard herd.

“I started looking into it as a piece of the story of Elk Island,” Keara says. “I was in the archives in the Whyte Museum in Banff and I spent the whole time reading about the Pablo-Allard buffalo herd. There was so much more to the story than I knew.”

With the support of the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies Archives in Banff, Keara has learned a lot about the Pablo-Allard herd.

The Pablo-Allard herd was sold to Canada by Michel Pablo, a rancher in Montana. Keara took particular interest in the story’s often-unacknowledged Indigenous history. While Michel Pablo and Charles Allard’s names are throughout the history, their Indigenous ancestry is often left out of the narrative. These early Indigenous ranchers’ conservation is vital to the preservation of bison as a species, which were nearly extinct in the late 1800s.

While most of the Pablo-Allard herd was shipped to Buffalo National Park, a small number were left behind at Elk Island. It’s these kind of small chances in history that make the story exciting for Keara.

“They accidentally left a herd at Elk Island, there was just a small group of buffalo that were too difficult to round up, according to some narratives. But then there's other evidence that says it was probably on purpose because it was a really good tourist attraction, so they wanted to keep a few in Elk Island,” Keara explains.

Keara’s goal with the interactive history experience is to bring to life the stories and characters she encountered in her archival research.

“It's so interesting to be in an archive and looking at the actual letters that were written about the sale of the buffalo, and you get all these colorful details about the people involved,” Keara adds. “Instead of being a couple sentences, the story comes to life.”

The interactive history is a way for everyone to experience the level of detail and colour that Keara found in her research.

“It’s a way for people to see themselves in the story without having to travel and read through archives. It’s a way for me to bring that experience, in some small way, to them. I want people to experience the human part of the story, to feel like they experienced it themselves, and see themselves in the story.”

As for what’s next, Keara wants to keep exploring the Pablo-Allard story in new ways.

“I’ve considered doing more with the story, because it’s just so interesting to me,” Keara says. "But first is the interactive history."