The North American Prairie.After the great Laurentide Ice Sheet receded around 12,000 years ago, the climate began to moderate; this time without the large predators that died out during the long ice age. Central North America became a paradise for grazing animals.
In 1800 CE, the North American Prairie extended over 1.4 million square miles of almost unbroken grassland. Occasional dry season wildfires burned the dormant winter grass, killed tree saplings, and fertilized the earth. The ground was rich topsoil for several feet in depth and the nutritious grass was produced by the tens of millions of tons each year. The grass was tough, hardy, and highly nutritious for any animal who could chew it.
There was one species provided by evolution that was ideal for browsing on the prairie grass: the American Plains bison (herein called the “buffalo” since that was the erroneous popular name assigned to it by American settlers).
There were a lot of buffalo on the prairie! No one knows how many were there before the Westward expansion began, but there were at least a hundred million.
The earliest observations o the number on the grasslands was from Thomas Farnham from his experience in 1839 while traveling along the Santa Fe Trail. It took him three days to pass through an oncoming herd. He said he could see fifteen miles to each side for the forty five miles he rode the trail and the herd was everywhere he could see! That one herd, within his sight, covered 1,350 square miles; only a tenth of the grasslands!
In the summer of 1859, Luke Vorrhees rode two hundred miles along the South Platte River, passing through one herd the entire time.
In the late 1860’s, General Phil Sheridan and Major Henry Inman made an effort to estimate the size of a herd they passed between Fort Supply, Oklahoma and Fort Dodge, Kansas. General Sheridan graduated from West Point, in 1859 as an engineer, and was capable of making estimates, one would assume. His findings were that the herd was a hundred miles wide and of unknown length (since he did not traverse the entire length). Their first calculation of the herd size was ten billion buffalo! He reworked his numbers and chose a more believable one billion. He reduced it again to one hundred million buffalo before submitting the report to Washington, knowing that no one would believe a billion animals could exist.
In 1871, George Anderson wrote in a letter to a friend about a herd he has seen: “I am safe in calling this a single herd, but it is impossible to approximate the millions that composed it. It took me six days on horseback to ride through it.”
That same year, Colonel R. I. Dodge encountered a massive herd along the Arkansas river and estimated it to be twenty five miles wide and fifty miles long
So, there are no accurate numbers; nor will there ever be.
Killing buffaloProfessional buffalo hunters were beginning to gain fame in the Eastern press by killing large numbers of the animals while they grazed. At first, the hides were taken and the animals left to rot where they fell. An article about “Buffalo” Bill was popularized when he killed 4,200 buffalo over eighteen months; a princely sum to earn during the Civil war when the hides brought four dollars each!
Reading that news, hundreds of men went West to kill the American buffalo. They were followed by thousands more and the number of hunters increased daily as the hunters brought the hides to railroad towns to be bought by shipping agents who shipped them back to New York. Word spread in the East about the easy money to be made by killing buffalo, and that attracted more hunters. Month after month, the attrition rate increased and the now-proficient hunters were killing sixty thousand buffalo a day. Every day.
It was an easy thing to do, requiring minimal skill. A “hunter” would find a small rise higher than a buffalo, set up his forty or fifty caliber rifle, adjust his sights, and begin firing into the grazing buffalo within three hundred yards of his position. It did not require moving; just firing, reloading, and firing until the gun was too hot to reload, or until the hunter simply got tired of shooting. Through it all, the buffalo continued grazing, seemingly ignoring those fallen around them .
At the end of a day, a hunter could have fifty or a hundred dead animals to be skinned and, for the inexperienced or lazy, an equal number of wounded animals that may or may not be killed for the hides later, but bullets were twenty five cents each and not worth wasting on a non-threatening animal.
The Skinners would slit the animal from its tail up to its neck, and then around the neck. They drove an iron stake through its nose into the ground, tied horses to hooks inserted through the tough hide on the back of the neck, start the horses, and strip it off like a banana being peeled. Every fifty animals killed would yield maybe forty good hides staked inside-up with the hunter’s name carved into the underside. They gave the hides a few weeks to dry, and then would transport them by wagon the the nearest railhead. The hunting teams were limited in the numbers they could kill, skin, and transport, and fifty or sixty made a day’s work for a three-man team.
The skins began piling up near the railroad junctions, and the volume shipped east steadily increased. There were over forty railroad companies laying track throughout the Kansas Territory, increasing access to the interior of the grasslands and accommodating more hunters.
For the past twenty years, buffalo bones had been accumulating after the elements rotted the flesh and scavengers cleansed the bones. The stench of rotting flesh meant that almost everyone wore bandannas to reduce the odor, although a great part of that was from the hunters not bathing through months of constant killing and skinning of buffalo.
When the Civil War ended in 1865, thousands of ex-soldiers, unemployed workers, and those seeking adventure and fortune flooded West. The new government encouraged men to seek their fortunes and paid for soldiers’ passage on the railroad that was forging its way towards Kansas’ western border. The U.S. Army even gave men used rifles and a supply of ammunition as an increased incentive to hunt buffalo.
The main business of Dodge City was outfitting hunting teams with wagons, horses, skinning knives, ammunition, tents, food, and bottles of strychnine. A complete outfit could be purchased for $1,200. The hunting teams were growing larger and the more serious ones would have several wagons, a cook, a few Hispanic laborers, two hunters, and three skinners.
The hunting teams – or more appropriately, "harvesting teams" - were like small businesses designed to make the most money possible. They set up camp, pitched tents, and began killing buffalo. At the end of the first day’s killing, the skinners began and the laborers began cutting “bait meat,” pouring highly toxic strychnine onto it, and scattering it around the camp two hundred yards out. Baiting the wolves would kill forty or more the first night, reducing the threat to the camp and damage to the hides. The wolf hides would be collected for the small collectible market and for taxidermists. That was common practice and massive damage was done to the wolf population, almost driving them to extinction across the plains.
By that time, the thousands of hunters were taking hides, slicing off the animals hump, taking the tongue out and leaving the rest. The tongue was delicacy back East, but the shipping cost for the humps made it unprofitable for the hunters’ trouble, and that part was once again ignored.
At least a hundred million buffalo roamed the plains in 1865 at the end of the Civil War. By then, the wholesale killing in the center of the massive herd had separated the world’s largest herd of animals into a northern and a southern herd of about equal size. For those who noticed, the herds were getting thinner along the railroad route, but the white settlers considered the buffalo a smelly pest that impeded rail traffic, pushed over telegraph poles, and made homesteading dangerous for the increasing number of farmers.
"The Indian Problem"At the same time, the Indians were becoming a real problem for the Army garrisons because they were killing settlers and some of the buffalo hunters. It was the U.S. Army’s job to take care of those things, but the war with the Confederacy had priority until the end of 1865. When it was over, Major General Phillip Sheridan was put in charge of resolving “The Indian Problem,” as President Grant branded it. General Sheridan was instructed to, "make them poor by the destruction of their stock, and then settle them on the lands allotted to them."
Sheridan took his orders to heart and set out to kill all the buffalo to starve the Indians. “Buffalo” Bill Cody attempted to get the Texas Legislature to forbid poaching buffalo on Indian lands, but Sheridan won out by telling the lawmakers:
The Killing IncreasesThe railroads began penetrating farther West, making everything easier for the migration of settlers and new hunters. Killing buffalo became easier and more profitable for everyone. By 1867, a hunter with an army surplus Springfield rifle could kill up to two hundred fifty in one day. The price of hides was falling, so they killed more and more.
Thousands of tons of bleached bones littered the central grasslands.
Hunting and processing dead buffalo hides had become a growing business with completion of railroads into the central part of the country. Getting there was now easy compared to just a few years prior. Arriving passenger trains brought new settlers and new hunters.
The railroad companies began running special excursion trains for hunters where the train would run along a track and allow two hundred armchair hunters to shoot buffalo from the moving train! More were probably wounded and died later than were killed for immediate enjoyment, but unknown thousands were killed by those recreational “hunters”. The excursions were quite popular and even women could "experience a Western adventure".
That was such sport, even buffalo-killing contests were staged. Men who had never fired at a live target got to practice on the animals. The winner in one contest killed a hundred and sixty animals in forty minutes. All the animals were left in place to rot, including the wounded. No one cared.
No one except the American Indians. They believed the buffalo were gifts from the Great Spirit and the respect they had for the buffalo bordered on worship; just as their respect for the world in which they lived guided their "footprint only" existence. They used every part of the buffalo and honored its spirit for sustaining their lives.
No one can be dispassionate after reading over five hundred pages of details. Little things, such as Lakota native American, Vernell White Thunder’s comment about the buffalo:
"Buffalo were the basis of our life. We ate all the meat, the humps, tongue, heart, marrow. Some even ate the testicles and fetuses. We used the hides for making moccasins, tepee covers, robes, and leggings. We used the buffalo hair for ropes, sinew, and bowstrings, horns for spoons and cups, hoofs for rattles, teeth for ornaments, the bladder for a container. We even used the dung for fuel; with buffalo dung you could keep a fire going for days.
The U.S. Army defeated us by killing off the buffalo."
A gift from the Great Spirit. Image by @willymac
In 1874, one bone collector said that western Kansas to Colorado and Wyoming was so littered with bones that he could not walk more than twenty feet in any direction without finding the skeleton of a buffalo. From a hilltop, the grasslands looked like the ground was white.
BonelandBetween 1872 and 1874, the entire Southern herd of buffalo was killed by hunters.
Fifty million animals had been slaughtered in nine years in the most egregious, deliberate act of cruelty ever wrought by humans.
Attention then turned to the Northern herd as railroad access increased and jobs moved North.
The bone business was now as large as the hide business had been. The bodies of fifty million animals were littering the grasslands for hundreds of miles an every direction and people began collecting the bones by the wagon load and taking them to the railroads to be shipped back East. Nine or ten dollars for a ton of bleached bones! Back east, they would be ground into powder and used for fertilizer.
From 1872 through 1874, The Santa Fe Railroad shipped 459,453 buffalo hides and 10,793,350 pounds of buffalo bones. At the same time, in the same area, the Union Pacific shipped 918,906 hides and 21, 586,700 pounds of buffalo bones. That was just two of over a hundred railroads shipping hides and bones.
The Northern HerdOver the following years, the killing activity increased rapidly and reached its peak around 1877. The shipping of bones began as soon as an area was cleared of buffalo since the large Empire Carbon Works, in St. Louis, and factories in Philadelphia, Baltimore and Detroit were in full production. At forty million dollars a year, the bone trade was very big business.
The scarcity of buffalo was already noticeable in some areas and the Indians were beginning to starve without their food supply. To buy food, many were reduced to scavenging the bones of their wasted buffalo to sell for six dollars a ton; always less than the ten or twelve dollars paid to non-native gatherers.
The railroads and the influx of immigrants and homesteaders created a massive increase in the demand for lumber as a building material, and there were a hundred large sawmills with shipping depots at railroad towns throughout the wooded, northern terrotories. Settlers could collect bones and trade them for building lumber at the depots, and the bones were shipped east. One lumber firm recorded shipping a thousand carloads of bones each year from 1884 – 1890: seven thousand railroad car loads, each containing the bones of eight hundred fifty buffalo! 5,950,000 buffalo from that one shipper! And there were hundreds of shipping points!
The Northern herd collapsed suddenly during 1881 and 1882. The killing, the loss of free range and then their food supply was the major contributor. An outbreak of a cattle-borne tick fever probably helped their demise, but it was a sudden disappearance of millions of buffalo. The bone collectors continued until 1900.
Starvation among the Indians was widespread and hundreds sought refuge near army posts, awaiting handouts of food and clothing. Even with Indians dying from starvation, it took the Department of the Interior almost two years to begin supplying food to some of the posts.
No one cared, except the Indians. And the Great Spirit.
The fifty million animals of the Northern herd were gone..
In 1891, a small herd of twenty three buffalo was found in an isolated part of the new Yellowstone National Park. Wyoming cattle ranchers wanted them killed, but President Teddy Roosevelt ordered them to be protected by the Army as a National Resource. Of the hundred million in the 1850’s, only twenty three individuals remained thirty years later! Today, the Yellowstone herd is around 3,500 animals, and is still protected. Ranchers still kill them if they wander outside the Park’s borders.
In researching for this, I ran across a statement in a current,“scholarly” work by an author attempting to rewrite history relating to the buffalo’s demise:
Google it, if you wish. It does not merit even a source reference.
Resources:The Extermination of the American Bison, Hornaday, 1887 (excellent!)
Buffalo Land, W. E. Webb, 1872
Buffalo Bone Days, M. I. McCreight
North Dakota History- Journal of the Northern Plains v50, Winter, 1983 #1
Rangelands 17(5), October 1995
A month ago, an excellent post by @janton about the Founding of Dodge City included photos of piles of buffalo skulls and hides. The intentional killing of the buffalo is something not taught in school and that prompted this factual overview.
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