In 1540, Spanish soldier and explorer Francisco Vázquez de Coronado led an army out of Mexico in search of gold. They traveled north and east, across mountains and deserts. The men eventually came to a flat region covered in grasses and wildflowers but hardly any trees.

They found few landmarks to guide them across this wide-open landscape. But the vast grasslands were not empty. Huge, shaggy-furred animals roamed in herds too large to count. Coronado thought they looked like cattle, which were kept as farm animals in many parts of the world. But these were not cattle. They were wild bison, also known as buffalo—the largest land animals in North America.

"The country was covered with them," one observer recalled. Native American people also lived on the grasslands, following and hunting bison as their ancestors had for thousands of years.

Bison thrived in North America until the 1800s, when they nearly went extinct. Today, these amazing giants of the plains still roam some Minnesota prairie lands.

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