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"Every Dead Buffalo is an Indian Gone"
Once upon a time, before European whites ever set foot on the North American continent, 75-100 million buffalo roamed the land from sea to sea. (To give you an idea of their abundance, that was about 1.5-2 million buffalo per state.) They were thriving. Nearly all Native American tribes on the continent relied on buffalo for meat and for much of their day-to-day living. Buffalo were abundant and one buffalo could provide up to 400 pounds of meat. Archeologists now believe that somewhere between 18-100 million Native Americans populated the North American continent before the white juggernaut invaded and European disease and genocide winnowed their numbers. By 1800, the Native American population had plummeted to about 600,000. By 1890, to 250,000. (SEE POST LINK BELOW FOR "VANISHING AMERICANS")
The story of the buffalo is the same. By 1885, the 75-100 million that once roamed the continent had plummeted to near extinction, only slightly more than 300 were left in the wild!
Buffalo was most prevalent on the Great Plains. In the summer of 1804, the explorers Lewis and Clark reported seeing many herds, including a herd of tens of thousands at the mouth of the White River, just south of what is Pierre, South Dakota, today. In 1820, explorer and mapmaker Stephen Long saw bison herds so dense, he wrote, that the plains appeared black instead of green.
But, by the 1830s, the mass decimation of buffalo began, as settlers moved in large numbers as far west as the Mississippi, then later further West still to Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas, then Oregon, California, and New Mexico. The buffalo were killed not only to clear the land for ranches and farms but also for the growing market for buffalo hides and bones. By the 1830s, the beaver populations had been nearly decimated and fur and hides were needed to supplant that market. A prime buffalo hide brought about $4.00 (about $75 in today’s currency), so buffalo hunters would make a very lucrative living.
Most Native tribes had an ethic of regarding buffalo as sacred and killed them only to survive. But, increasingly, some tribes did participate in the buffalo hide trade market with whites. Some bands of Assiniboines, Lakotas, Hidastas, Arikaras, Mandans, Dakotas, Chippewas, and Comanche began hunting buffalo to trade hides. By the 1830s, for example, according to award-winning historian Pekka Hamaiaienen, who wrote Comanche Empire in 2012, the Comanche and their allies on the southern plains were killing about 280,000 bison a year for the hide and bison meat white trade market.
Carbonworks were also sprouting up on the East Coast and in St. Louis and Detroit. Buffalo bones were crushed into powder and used in the sugar refining process, as well as manufactured into fertilizer and fine bone in China. Carbon factories would pay up to $15 per ton for buffalo bones (the equivalent of $300 in today’s currency.) Many settlers on the prairie made a living gathering buffalo bones for money. The entire family would wander the prairie picking up bones that carbon works would buy.
Ranchers killed buffalo to clear their land for their own cattle. And farmers killed buffalo to keep them from trampling crops. The railroad industry paid bounties for buffalo because herds could damage and derail locomotives and also cause long delays. Herds often found shelter in the winter in the cuts created to run track through hills and mountains. Buffalo herds could wreck engines or cause costly delays. As a result, railroad companies began offering “buffalo hunting” excursions from moving trains. When scouts reported herds near the tracks, the railroad company would hand out rifles and all the men would go to one side of a car, their guns poised out the open windows, the train car bristling with rifle muzzles. They would let loose a fusillade of gunfire and buffalo would collapse en masse out on the prairie as the train chugged by. The majestic animals would be left to rot for the five-second thrill, but the train travelers could all claim they “got their buffalo.” Bone pickers would follow the tracks later in hopes of finding the remnants of the carnage.
Gun manufacturing began producing guns, especially for buffalo hunting which made hunting easier and safer. Commercial buffalo hunters often used a Sharps .50-caliber rifle, billed as the “shoot today, kill tomorrow” gun because it had such a long and powerful range.
The US Army also sanctioned and offered bounties for buffalo to encourage their wholesale slaughter. The federal government promoted bison hunting not only to help ranchers clear the land for their cattle and for farming but also to undercut Native Americans’ ability to survive.
General William Tecumseh Sherman, among other military leaders, believed that bison hunters “did more to defeat the Indian nations in a few years than soldiers did in 50 years.” When Sherman signed the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, he wrote a friend that Indian hunting rights would be guaranteed by the treaty, but that the buffalo would be gone soon anyway and then the Indians would have no choice but to move to reservations.
Colonel Richard Dodge, who was stationed in the Black Hills and wrote copious and highly lauded journals, wrote in 1867: “Every buffalo dead is an Indian gone.” The Secretary of the Interior in the 1870s, Columbus Delano, saw the decimation of the buffalo as serving a good cause. Delano wrote in his 1872 annual report, “The rapid disappearance of the game from the former hunting grounds must operate largely in favor of our efforts to confine the Indians to smaller areas and compel them to abandon their nomadic customs.”
During the decade of the 1870s, all the institutional and market forces conspired against the species and buffalo slaughter was at its apex. In the year 1870, two million buffalo were killed on the southern plains in one year. From 1872-1874, an average of 5,000 bison were killed every day: 5.4 million buffalo in three years. By 1884, buffalo were nearly extinct. Only 325 wild bison were left in the United States, including only 24 in Yellowstone.
It was only through the efforts started by a Montana rancher named William Hornaday, that the buffalo species was saved from extinction. In 1889 he set out to count the remaining wild buffalo and found only 285 animals, mostly in east Montana. Later other ranchers, like Scotty Philip of South Dakota, joined the effort, and then the U.S. government legislated and funded species protection. Today about 500,000 bison exist on non-public lands and about 30,000 on public lands. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimates that about 15,000 bison are considered wild, free-range buffalo not confined by fencing in North America. Today, Yellowstone is the only place in the continental United States where wild, free-ranging bison have lived continuously since prehistoric times. It also has the largest bison population in the country. And it’s one of the very few purebred herds left, meaning it has no cattle genes. The other two herds of purebred buffalo are located in Utah and South Dakota.
By the mid-1800s, buffalo herds were becoming harder to find and hunt for Native Americans and the scarcity of buffalo was causing intertribal war among tribes trying to survive. Many, too, were forced into treaties as their livelihood was gone. As tribes felt the noose of white dominion tighten and their ancestral lands and the buffalo they depended upon for survival began to disappear, an Indian fable spread among the native nations. It came to be chanted in mournful song by medicine men and whispered to children as bedtime stories. It told of the disappearing sacred buffalo in words their hearts could abide, for the truth was too hard. The story went:
The buffalo saw that their day was over and they could no longer protect the people of the Plains. The last of the great herd gathered to make a council. One red dawn, when the morning mist was still floating upon the land, the leader walked to the side of a great mountain and the mountain opened up. Inside the world was green and good, the rivers deep and clear, no longer red. The wild plums were blossoming, the pink buds were many and fragrant and pleasing to the eye. Into this world of beauty, the last buffalo walked and was never seen again.
PHOTOS: (1) Before whites set foot on North American land, between 75-100 million buffalo roamed the continent from sea to sea. Most indigenous tribes relied on buffalo for food, clothing, housing, and day-to-day living. (2) Before Native Americans acquired horses, a common method of killing buffalo was driving a herd toward a cliff called a “buffalo jump.” Indians would frighten the buffalo into stampeding. The buffalo were butchered at the bottom of the cliff. This diorama, Crow Indian Buffalo Hunt, is from the Milwaukee Public Museum. It was created in 1966 and was the largest open diorama in the world at the time. The Milwaukee Public Museum was the first in the nation to present natural history in diorama form and became well-known for its excellent models. (3) The famous “Buffalo Hunt” life-sized diorama at the Milwaukee Public Museum. When Indians acquired horses, their hunting techniques became sacred practices that not only celebrated the tribe’s survival but also the hunters’ bravery and prowess. Hunting buffalo on horseback was, indeed, very dangerous and it took a brave and well-trained buffalo horse to run next to a bull or in the middle of a herd at top speed. (4) One of the most famous archival photographs in history illustrating the massive, industrialized slaughter of buffalo. This photo was taken in 1870. (5) A postcard image (the late 1800s taken by C.W. Mathers) entitled “The Beginning of Better Things.” Two poor prairie settlers in a sod house sit before a massive pile of buffalo bones and skulls. Many settlers on the prairie made a living gathering buffalo bones for money. The entire family would wander the prairie picking up bones which Carbon Works would buy and crush into powder used in the sugar refining process, as well as manufactured into fertilizer and fine bone China. Bison bones could fetch up to $15.00 per ton, which in today’s worth would be about $300. (6) A massive stack of 40,000 buffalo hides at the Rath & Wright buffalo hide yard in 1878, Dodge City, Kansas. U.S. National Park Service. (7) Buffalo bones being loaded into railroad cars, 1884, North Dakota. They were shipped to St. Louis and Detroit where huge carbonworks processed the bones.
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