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Completeness of the Extermination

  Native American Nations | Extermination of the American Bison                   


(May 1, 1889.)

Although the existence of a few widely-scattered individuals enables us to say that the bison is not yet absolutely extinct in a wild state, there is no reason to hope that a single wild and unprotected individual will remain alive ten years hence. The nearer the species approaches to complete extermination, the more eagerly are the wretched fugitives pursued to the death whenever found. Western hunters are striving for the honor (?) of killing the last buffalo, which, it is to be noted, has already been slain about a score of times by that number of hunters.

The buffaloes still alive in a wild state are so very few, and have been so carefully "marked down" by hunters, it is possible to make a very close estimate of the total number remaining. In this enumeration the small herd in the Yellowstone National Park is classed with other herds in captivity and under protection, for the reason that, had it not been for the protection afforded by the law and the officers of the Park, not one of these buffaloes would be living to-day. Were the restrictions of the law removed now, every one of those animals would be killed within three months. Their heads alone are worth from $25 to $50 each to taxidermists, and for this reason every buffalo is a prize worth the hunter's winning. Had it not been for stringent laws, and a rigid enforcement of them by Captain Harris, the last of the Park buffaloes would have been shot years ago by Vic. Smith, the Rea Brothers, and other hunters, of whom there is always an able contingent around the Park.

In the United States the death of a buffalo is now such an event that it is immediately chronicled by the Associated Press and telegraphed all over the country. By reason of this, and from information already in hand, we are able to arrive at a very fair understanding of the present condition of the species in a wild state.

In December, 1886, the Smithsonian expedition left about fifteen buffaloes alive in the bad lands of the Missouri-Yellowstone divide, at the head of Big Porcupine Creek. In 1887 three of these were killed by cowboys, and in 1888 two more, the last death recorded being that of an old bull killed near Billings. There are probably eight or ten stragglers still remaining in that region, hiding in the wildest and most broken tracts of the bad lands, as far as possible from the cattle ranches, and where even cowboys seldom go save on a round-up. From the fact that no other buffaloes, at least so far as can be learned, have been killed in Montana during the last two years, I am convinced that the bunch referred to are the last representatives of the species remaining in Montana.

In the spring of 1886 Mr. B. C. Winston, while on a hunting trip about 75 miles west of Grand Rapids, Dakota, saw seven buffaloes-five adult animals and two calves; of which he killed one, a large bull, and caught a calf alive. On September 11, 1888, a solitary bull was killed 3 miles from the town of Oakes, in Dickey County. There are still three individuals in the unsettled country lying between that point and the Missouri, which are undoubtedly the only wild representatives of the race east of the Missouri River.

On April 28, 1887, Dr. William Stephenson, of the United States Army, wrote me as follows from Pilot Butte, about 30 miles north of Rock Springs, Wyoming:

"There are undoubtedly buffalo within 50 or 60 miles of here, two having been killed out of a band of eighteen some ten days since by cowboys, and another band of four seen near there. I hear from cattlemen of their being seen every year north and northeast of here."

This band was seen once in 1888. In February, 1889, Hon. Joseph M. Carey, member of Congress from Wyoming, received a letter informing him that this band of buffaloes, consisting of twenty-six head, had been seen grazing in the Red Desert of Wyoming, and that the Indians were preparing to attack it. At Judge Carey's request the Indian Bureau issued orders which it was hoped would prevent the slaughter. So, until further developments, we have the pleasure of recording the presence of twenty-six wild buffaloes in southern Wyoming.

There are no buffaloes whatever in the vicinity of the Yellowstone Park, either in Wyoming, Montana, or Idaho, save what wander out of that reservation, and when any do, they are speedily killed.

There is a rumor that there are ten or twelve mountain buffaloes still on foot in Colorado, in a region called Lost Park, and, while it lacks confirmation, we gladly accept it as a fact. In 1888 Mr. C. B. Cory, of Boston, saw in Denver, Colorado, eight fresh buffalo skins, which it was said had come from the region named above. In 1885 there was a herd of about forty "mountain buffalo" near South Park, and although some of the number may still survive, the indications are that the total number of wild buffaloes in Colorado does not exceed twenty individuals.

In Texas a miserable remnant of the great southern herd still remains in the "Pan-handle country," between the two forks of the Canadian River. In 1886 about two hundred head survived, which number by the summer of 1887 had been reduced to one hundred, or less. In the hunting season of 1887-'88 a ranchman named Lee Howard fitted out and led a strong party into the haunts of the survivors, and killed fifty-two of them. In May, 1888, Mr. C. J. Jones again visited this region for the purpose of capturing buffaloes alive. His party found, from first to last, thirty-seven buffaloes, of which they captured eighteen head, eleven adult cows and seven calves; the greatest feat ever accomplished in buffalo-hunting. It is highly probable that Mr. Jones and his men saw about all the buffaloes now living in the Pan-handle country, and it therefore seems quite certain that not over twenty-five individuals remain. These are so few, so remote, and so difficult to reach, it is to be hoped no one will consider them worth going after, and that they will be left to take care of themselves. It is greatly to be regretted that the State of Texas does not feel disposed to make a special effort for their protection and preservation.

In regard to the existence of wild buffaloes in the British Possessions, the statements of different authorities are at variance, by far the larger number holding the opinion that there are in all the Northwest Territory only a few almost solitary stragglers. But there is still good reason for the hope, and also the belief, that there still remain in Athabasca, between the Athabasca and Peace Rivers, at least a few hundred "wood buffalo." In a very interesting and well-considered article in the London Field of November 10, 1888, Mr. Miller Christy quotes all the available positive evidence bearing on this point, and I gladly avail myself of the opportunity to reproduce it here:

"The Hon. Dr. Schulz, in the recent debate on the Mackenzie River basin, in the Canadian senate, quoted Senator Hardisty, of Edmonton, of the Hudson's Bay Company, to the effect that the wood buffalo still existed in the region in question. 'It was,' he said, 'difficult to estimate how many; but probably five or six hundred still remain in scattered bands.' There had been no appreciable difference in their numbers, he thought, during the last fifteen years, as they could not be hunted on horseback, on account of the wooded character of the country, and were, therefore, very little molested. They are larger than the buffalo of the great plains, weighing at least 150 pounds more. They are also coarser haired and straighter horned.

"The doctor also quoted Mr. Frank Oliver, of Edmonton, to the effect that the wood buffalo still exists in small numbers between the Lower Peace and Great Slave Rivers, extending westward from the latter to the Salt River in latitude 60 degrees, and also between the Peace and Athabasca Rivers. He states that 'they are larger than the prairie buffalo, and the fur is darker, but practically they are the same animal.' ...Some buffalo meat is brought in every winter to the Hudson's Bay Company's posts nearest the buffalo ranges.

"Dr. Schulz further stated that he had received the following testimony from Mr. Donald Ross, of Edmonton: The wood buffalo still exists in the localities named. About 1870 one was killed as far west on Peace River as Port Dunvegan. They are quite different from the prairie buffalo, being nearly double the size, as they will dress fully 700 pounds."

It will be apparent to most observers, I think, that Mr. Ross's statement in regard to the size of the wood buffalo is a random shot.

In a private letter to the writer, under date of October 22, 1887, Mr. Harrison S. Young, of the Hudson's Bay Company's post at Edmonton, writes as follows:

"The buffalo are not yet extinct in the Northwest. There are still some stray ones on the prairies away to the south of this, but they must be very few. I am unable to find any one who has personal knowledge of the killing of one during the last two years, though I have since the receipt of your letter questioned a good many half-breeds on the subject. In our district of Athabasca, along the Salt River, there are still a few wood buffalo killed every year, but they are fast diminishing in numbers and are also becoming very shy."

In his "Manitoba and the Great Northwest" Prof. John Macoun has this to say regarding the presence of the wood buffalo in the region referred to:

"The wood buffalo, when I was on the Peace River in 1875, were confined to the country lying between the Athabasca and Peace Rivers north of latitude 57° 30', or chiefly in the Birch Hills. They were also said to be in some abundance on the Salt and Hay Rivers, running into the Save River north of Peace River. The herds thirteen years ago [now nineteen] were supposed to number about one thousand, all told. I believe many still exist, as the Indians of that region eat fish, which are much easier procured than either buffalo or moose, and the country is much too difficult for white men."

All this evidence, when carefully considered, resolves itself into simply this and no more: The only evidence in favor of the existence of any live buffaloes between the Athabasca and Peace Rivers is in the form of very old rumors, most of them nearly fifteen years old; time enough for the Indians to have procured fire-arms in abundance and killed all those buffaloes two or three times over.

Mr. Miller Christy takes "the mean of the estimates," and assumes that there are now about five hundred and fifty buffaloes in the region named. If we are to believe in the existence there of any stragglers his estimate is a fair one, and we will gladly accept it. The total is therefore as follows:

Number of American bison running wild and unprotected on January 1, 1889.

In the Pan-handle of Texas 25
In Colorado 20
In southern Wyoming 26
In the Musselshell country, Montana 10
In western Dakota 4
Total number in the United States 85
In Athabasca, Northwest Territory (estimated) 550
Total in all North America 635

Add to the above the total number already recorded in captivity (256) and those under Government protection in the Yellowstone Park (200), and the whole number of individuals of Bison americanus now living is 1,091.

From this time it is probable that many rumors of the sudden appearance of herds of buffaloes will become current. Already there have been three or four that almost deserve special mention. The first appeared in March, 1887, when various Western newspapers published a circumstantial account of how a herd of about three hundred buffaloes swam the Missouri River about 10 miles above Bismarck, near the town of Painted Woods, and ran on in a southwesterly direction. A letter of inquiry, addressed to Mr. S. A. Peterson, postmaster at Painted Woods, elicited the following reply:

"The whole rumor is false, and without any foundation. I saw it first in the -- newspaper, where I believe it originated."

In these days of railroads and numberless hunting parties, there is not the remotest possibility of there being anywhere in the United States a herd of a hundred, or even fifty, buffaloes which has escaped observation. Of the eighty-five head still existing in a wild state it may safely be predicted that not even one will remain alive five years hence. A buffalo is now so great a prize, and by the ignorant it is considered so great an honor(!) to kill one, that extraordinary exertions will be made to find and shoot down without mercy the "last buffalo."

There is no possible chance for the race to be perpetuated in a wild state, and in a few years more hardly a bone will remain above ground to mark the existence of the must prolific mammalian species that ever existed, so far as we know.

Effects of the Extermination

The buffalo supplied the Indian with food, clothing, shelter, bedding, saddles, ropes, shields, and innumerable smaller articles of use and ornament In the United States a paternal government takes the place of the buffalo in supplying all these wants of the red man, and it costs several millions of dollars annually to accomplish the task.

The following are the tribes which depended very largely-some almost wholly-upon the buffalo for the necessities, and many of the luxuries, of their savage life until the Government began to support them:

Sioux 30,561
Crow 3,226
Piegan, Blood, and Blackfeet 2,026
Cheyenne 3,477
Gros Ventre 856
Arickaree 517
Mandan 283
Bannack and Shoshone 2,001
Nez Percé 1,460
Assinniboine 1,688
Kiowa and Comanche 2,756
Arapahoe 1,217
Apache 332
Ute 978
Omaha 1,160
Pawnee 998
Winnebago 1,222
Total 54,758

This enumeration (from the census of 1886) leaves entirely out of consideration many thousands of Indians living in the Indian Territory and other portions of the Southwest, who drew an annual supply of meat and robes from the chase of the buffalo, notwithstanding the fact that their chief dependence was upon agriculture.

The Indians of what was once the buffalo country are not starving and freezing, for the reason that the United States Government supplies them regularly with beef and blankets in lieu of buffalo. Does any one imagine that the Government could not have regulated the killing of buffaloes, and thus maintained the supply, for far less money than it now costs to feed and clothe those 54,758 Indians!

How is it with the Indians of the British Possessions to-day?

Prof. John Maconn writes as follows in his "Manitoba and the Great Northwest," page 342:

"During the last three years [prior to 1883] the great herds have been kept south of our boundary, and, as the result of this, our Indians have been on the verge of starvation. When the hills were covered with countless thousands [of buffaloes] in 1877, the Blackfeet were dying of starvation in 1879."

During the winter of 1886-'87, destitution and actual starvation prevailed to an alarming extent among certain tribes of Indians in the Northwest Territory who once lived bountifully on the buffalo. A terrible tale of suffering in the Athabasca and Peace River country has recently (1888) come to the minister of the interior of the Canadian government, in the form of a petition signed by the bishop of that diocese, six clergymen and missionaries, and several justices of the peace. It sets forth that "owing to the destruction of game, the Indians, both last winter and last summer, have been in a state of starvation. They are now in a complete state of destitution, and are utterly unable to provide themselves with clothing, shelter, ammunition, or food for the coming winter." The petition declares that on account of starvation, and consequent cannibalism, a party of twenty-nine Cree Indians was reduced to three in the winter of 1886.[77] Of the Fort Chippewyan Indians, between twenty and thirty starved to death last winter, and the death of many more was hastened by want of food and by famine diseases. Many other Indians-Cree, Beavers, and Chippewyans-at almost all points where there are missions or trading posts, would certainly have starved to death but for the help given them by the traders and missionaries at those places. It is now declared by the signers of the memorial that scores of families, having lost their heads by starvation, are now perfectly helpless, and during the coming winter must either starve to death or eat one another unless help comes. Heart-rending stories of suffering and cannibalism continue to come in from what was once the buffalo plains.

If ever thoughtless people were punished for their reckless improvidence, the Indians and half-breeds of the Northwest Territory are now paying the penalty for the wasteful slaughter of the buffalo a few short years ago. The buffalo is his own avenger, to an extent his remorseless slayers little dreamed he ever could be.

Preservation of the Species From Absolute Extinction

There is reason to fear that unless the United States Government takes the matter in hand and makes a special effort to prevent it, the pure-blood bison will be lost irretrievably through mixture with domestic breeds and through in-and-in breeding.

The fate of the Yellowstone Park herd is, to say the least, highly uncertain. A distinguished Senator, who is deeply interested in legislation for the protection of the National Park reservation, has declared that the pressure from railway corporations, which are seeking a foot-hold in the park, has become so great and so aggressive that he fears the park will "eventually be broken up." In any such event, the destruction of the herd of park buffaloes would be one of the very first results. If the park is properly maintained, however, it is to be hoped that the buffaloes now in it will remain there and increase indefinitely.

As yet there are only two captive buffaloes in the possession of the Government, viz, those in the Department of Living Animals of the National Museum, presented by Hon. E. G. Blackford, of New York. The buffaloes now in the Zoological Gardens of the country are but few in number, and unless special pains be taken to prevent it, by means of judicious exchanges, from time to time, these will rapidly deteriorate in size, and within a comparatively short time run out entirely, through continued in-and-in breeding. It is said that even the wild aurochs in the forests of Lithuania are decreasing in size and, in number from this cause.

With private owners of captive buffaloes, the temptations to produce cross-breeds will be so great that it is more than likely the breeding of pure-blood buffaloes will be neglected. Indeed, unless some stockman like Mr. C. J. Jones takes particular pains to protect his full blood buffaloes, and keep the breed absolutely pure, in twenty years there will not be a pure-blood animal of that species on any stock farm in this country. Under existing conditions, the constant tendency of the numerous domestic forms is to absorb and utterly obliterate the few wild ones.

If we may judge from the examples set as by European governments, it is clearly the duty of our Government to act in this matter, and act promptly, with a degree of liberality and promptness which can not be otherwise than highly gratifying to every American citizen and every friend of science throughout the world. The Fiftieth Congress, at its last session, responded to the call made upon it, and voted $200,000 for the establishment of a National Zoological Park in the District of Columbia on a grand scale. One of the leading purposes it is destined to serve is the preservation and breeding in comfortable, and so far as space is concerned, luxurious captivity of a number of fine specimens of every species of American quadruped now threatened with extermination.78

At least eight or ten buffaloes of pure breed should be secured very soon by the Zoological Park Commission, by gift if possible, and cared for with special reference to keeping the breed absolutely pure, and keeping the herd from deteriorating and dying out through in-and-in breeding.

The total expense would be trifling in comparison with the importance of the end to be gained, and in that way we might, in a small measure, atone for our neglect of the means which would have protected the great herds from extinction. In this way, by proper management, it will be not only possible but easy to preserve fine living representatives of this important species for centuries to come.

The result of continuing in-breeding is certain extinction. Its progress may be so slow as to make no impression upon the mind of a herd-owner, but the end is only a question of time. The fate of a majority of the herds of British wild cattle (Bos urus) warn us what to expect with the American bison under similar circumstances. Of the fourteen herds of wild cattle which were in existence in England and Scotland during the early part of the present century, direct descendants of the wild herds found in Great Britain, nine have become totally extinct through in breeding.

The five herds remaining are those at Somerford Park, Blickling Hall, Woodbastwick, Chartley, and Chillingham.

This site includes some historical materials that may imply negative stereotypes reflecting the culture or language of a particular period or place. These items are presented as part of the historical record and should not be interpreted to mean that the WebMasters in any way endorse the stereotypes implied.

Source: The Extermination of the American Bison, 1886-’87, By William T. Hornaday, Government Printing Office, Washington, 1889

Extermination of the American Bison


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