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Congressional Legislation for the Protection of the Bison

  Native American Nations | Extermination of the American Bison                   

 

The slaughter of the buffalo down to the very point of extermination has been so very generally condemned, and the general Government has been so unsparingly blamed for allowing such a massacre to take place on the public domain, it is important that the public should know all the facts in the case. To the credit of Congress it must be said that several very determined efforts were made between the years 1871 and 1876 looking toward the protection of the buffalo. The failure of all those well-meant efforts was due to our republican form of Government. Had this Government been a monarchy the buffalo would have been protected; but unfortunately in this case (perhaps the only one on record wherein a king could have accomplished more than the representatives of the people) the necessary act of Congress was so hedged in and beset by obstacles that it never became an accomplished fact. Even when both houses of Congress succeeded in passing a suitable act (June 23, 1874) it went to the President in the last days of the session only to be pigeon-holed, and die a natural death.

The following is a complete history of Congressional legislation in regard to the protection of the buffalo from wanton slaughter and ultimate extinction. The first step taken in behalf of this persecuted animal was on March 13, 1871, when Mr. McCormick, of Arizona, introduced a bill (H. R. 157), which was ordered to be printed. Nothing further was done with it. It read as follows:

Be it enacted, etc., That, excepting for the purpose of using the meat for food or preserving the akin, it shall be unlawful for any person to kill the bison, or buffalo, found anywhere upon the public lands of the United States; and for the violation of this law the offender shall, upon conviction before any court of competent jurisdiction, be liable to a fine of $100 for each animal killed, one-half of which sum shall, upon its collection, be paid to the informer.

On February 14, 1872, Mr. Cole, of California, introduced in the Senate the following resolution, which was considered by unanimous consent and agreed to:

Resolved, That the Committee on Territories be directed to inquire into the expediency of enacting a law for the protection of the buffalo, elk, antelope, and other useful animals running wild in the Territories of the United States against indiscriminate slaughter and extermination, and that they report by bill or otherwise.

On February 16, 1872, Mr. Wilson, of Massachusetts, introduced a bill in the Senate (S. 655) restricting the killing of the buffalo upon the public lauds; which was read twice by its title and referred to the Committee on Territories.

On April 5, 1872, Mr. B. C. McCormick, of Arizona, made a speech in the House of Representatives, while it was in Committee of the Whole, on the restriction of the killing of buffalo.

He mentioned a then recent number of Harper's Weekly, in which were illustrations of the slaughter of buffalo, and also read a partly historical extract in regard to the same. He related how, when he was once snow-bound upon the Kansas Pacific Railroad, the buffalo furnished food for himself and fellow-passengers. Then he read the bill introduced by him March 13, 1871, and also copies of letters furnished him by Henry Bergh, president of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which were sent to the latter by General W. B. Hazen, Lieut. Col. A. G. Brackett, and E. W. Wynkoop. He also read a statement by General Hazen to the effect that he knew of a man who killed ninety-nine buffaloes with his own hand in one day. He also spoke on the subject of cross-breeding the buffalo with common cattle, and read an extract in regard to it from the San Francisco Post.69

On April 6, 1872, Mr. McCormick asked leave to have printed in the Globe some remarks he had prepared regarding restricting the killing of buffalo, which was granted.70

On January 5, 1874, Mr. Fort, of Illinois, introduced a bill (H. R. 921) to prevent the useless slaughter of buffalo within the Territories of the United States; which was read and referred to the Committee on the Territories.71

On March 10, 1874, this bill was reported to the House from the Committee on the Territories, with a recommendation that it be passed.72

The first section of the bill provided that it shall be unlawful for any person, who is not an Indian, to kill, wound, or in any way destroy any female buffalo of any age, found at large within the boundaries of any of the Territories of the United States.

The second section provided that it shall be, in like manner, unlawful for any such person to kill, wound, or destroy in said Territories any greater number of male buffaloes than are needed for food by such person, or than can be used, cured, or preserved for the food of other persons, or for the market. It shall in like manner be unlawful for any such person, or persons, to assist, or be in any manner engaged or concerned in or about such unlawful killing, wounding, or destroying of any such buffaloes; that any person who shall violate the provisions of the act shall, on conviction, forfeit and pay to the United States the sum of $100 for each offense (and each buffalo so unlawfully killed, wounded, or destroyed shall be and constitute a separate offense), and on a conviction of a second offense may be committed to prison for a period not exceeding thirty days; and that all United States judges, justices, courts, and legal tribunals in said Territories shall have jurisdiction in cases of the violation of the law.

Mr. Cox said he had been told by old hunters that it was impossible to tell the sex of a running buffalo; and he also stated that the bill gave preference to the Indians.

Mr. Fort said the object was to prevent early extermination; that thousands were annually slaughtered for skins alone, and thousands for their tongues alone; that perhaps hundreds of thousands are killed every year in utter wantonness, with no object for such destruction. He had been told that the sexes could be distinguished while they were running.73

This bill does not prohibit any person joining in a reasonable chase and hunt of the buffalo.

Said Mr. Fort, "So far as I am advised, gentlemen upon this floor representing all the Territories are favorable to the passage of this bill."

Mr. Cox wanted the clause excepting the Indians from the operations of the bill stricken out, and stated that the Secretary of the Interior had already said to the House that the civilization of the Indian was Impossible while the buffalo remained on the plains.

The Clerk read for Mr. McCormick the following extract from the New Mexican, a paper published in Santa Fé:

The buffalo slaughter, which has been going on the past few years on the plains, and which increases every year, is wantonly wicked, and should be stopped by the most stringent enactments and most vigilant enforcements of the law. Killing these noble animals for their hides simply, or to gratify the pleasure of some Russian duke or English lord, is a species of vandalism which can not too quickly be checked. United States surveying parties report that there are two thousand hunters on the plains killing these animals for their hides. One party of sixteen hunters report having killed twenty-eight thousand buffaloes during the past summer. It seems to us there is quite as much reason why the Government should protect the buffaloes as the Indians.

Mr. McCormick considered the subject important, and had not a doubt of the fearful slaughter. He read the following extract from a letter that he had received from General Hazen:

I know a man who killed with his own hand ninety-nine buffaloes in one day, without taking a pound of the meat. The buffalo for food has an intrinsic value about equal to an average Texas beef, or say $20. There are probably not less than a million of these animals on the western plains. If the Government owned a herd of a million oxen they would at least take steps to prevent this wanton slaughter. The railroads have made the buffalo so accessible as to present a case not dissimilar.

He agreed with Mr. Cox that some features of the bill would probably be impracticable, and moved to amend it. He did not believe any bill would entirely accomplish the purpose, but he desired that such wanton slaughter should be stopped.

Said he, "It would have been well both for the Indians and the white men if an enactment of this kind had been placed on our statute-books years ago. I know of no one act that would gratify the red men more."

Mr. Holman expressed surprise that Mr. Cox should make any objection to parts of the measure. The former regarded the bill as "an effort in a most commendable direction," and trusted that it would pass.

Mr. Cox said he would not have objected to the bill but from the fact that it was partial in its provisions. He wanted a bill that would impose a penalty on every man, red, white, or black, who may wantonly kill these buffaloes.

Mr. Potter desired to know whether more buffaloes were slaughtered by the Indians than by white men.

Mr. Fort thought the white men were doing the greatest amount of killing.

Mr. Eldridge thought there would be just as much propriety in killing the fish in our rivers as in destroying the buffalo in order to compel the Indians to become civilized.

Mr. Conger said: "As a matter of fact, every man knows the range of the buffalo has grown more and more confined year after year; that they have been driven westward before advancing civilization." But he opposed the bill!

Mr. Hawley, of Connecticut, said: "I am glad to see this bill. I am in favor of this law, and hope it will pass."

Mr. Lowe favored the bill, and thought that the buffalo ought to be protected for proper utility.
Mr. Cobb thought they ought to be protected for the settlers, who depended partly on them for food.
Mr. Parker, of Missouri, intimated that the policy of the Secretary of the Interior was a sound one, and that the buffaloes ought to be exterminated, to prevent difficulties in civilizing the Indians.

Said Mr. Conger, "I do not think the measure will tend at all to protect the buffalo."

Mr. McCormick replied: "This bill will not prevent the killing of buffaloes for any useful purpose, but only their wanton destruction."

Mr. Kasson said: "I wish to say one word in support of this bill, because I have had some experience as to the manner in which these buffaloes are treated by hunters. The buffalo is a creature of vast utility. This animal ought to be protected;"

The question being taken on the passage of the bill, there were-ayes 132, noes not counted.
So the bill was passed.

On June 23, 1874, this bill (H. R. 921) came up in the Senate.74

Mr. Harvey moved, as an amendment, to strike out the words "who is not an Indian."

Said Mr. Hitchcock, "That will defeat the bill."

Mr. Frelinghuysen said: "That would prevent the Indians from killing the buffalo on their own ground. I object to the bill."

Mr. Sargent said: "I think we can pass the bill in the right shape without objection. Let us take it up. It is a very important one."

Mr. Frelinghuysen withdrew his objection.

Mr. Harvey thought it was a very important bill, and withdrew his amendment.

The bill was reported to the Senate, ordered to a third reading, read the third time, and passed. It went to President Grant for signature, and expired in his hands at the adjournment of that session of Congress.

On February 2, 1874, Mr. Fort introduced a bill (H. R. 1689) to tax buffalo hides; which was referred to the Committee on Ways and Means.

On June 10, 1874, Mr. Dawes, from the Committee on Ways and Means, reported back the bill adversely, and moved that it be laid on the table.

Mr. Fort asked to have the bill referred to the Committee of the Whole, and it was so referred.
On February 2, 1874, Mr. R. C. McCormick, of Arizona, introduced in the House a bill (H. R. 1728) restricting the killing of the bison, or buffalo, on the public lands; which was referred to the Committee on the Public Lands, and never heard of more.

On January 31, 1876, Mr. Fort introduced a bill (H. R. 1719) to prevent the useless slaughter of buffaloes within the Territories of the United States, which was referred to the Committee on the Territories.75

The Committee on the Territories reported back the bill without amendment on February 23, 1876.76 Its provisions were in every respect identical with those of the bill introduced by Mr. Fort in 1874, and which passed both houses.

In support of it Mr. Fort said: "The intention and object of this bill is to preserve them [the buffaloes] for the use of the Indians, whose homes are upon the public domain, and to the frontiersmen, who may properly use them for food. They have been and are now being slaughtered in large numbers.

Thousands of these noble brutes are annually slaughtered out of mere wontonness. This bill, just as it is now presented, passed the last Congress. It was not vetoed, but fell, as I understand, merely for want of time to consider it after having passed both houses." He also intimated that the Government was using a great deal of money for cattle to furnish the Indians, while the buffalo was being wantonly destroyed, whereas they might be turned to their good.

Mr. Crounse wanted the words "who is not an Indian" struck out, so as to make the bill general. He thought Indians were to blame for the wanton destruction.

Mr. Fort thought the amendment unnecessary, and stated that he was informed that the Indians did not destroy the buffaloes wantonly.

Mr. Dunnell thought the bill one of great importance.

The Clerk read for him a letter from A. G. Brackett, lieutenant-colonel, Second United States Cavalry, stationed at Omaha Barracks, in which was a very urgent request to have Congress interfere to prevent the wholesale slaughter then going on.

Mr. Reagan thought the bill proper and right. He knew from personal experience how the wanton slaughtering was going on, and also that the Indians were not the ones who did it.

Mr. Townsend, of New York, saw no reason why a white man should not be allowed to kill a female buffalo as well as an Indian. He said it would be impracticable to have a separate law for each.

Mr. Maginnis did not agree with him. He thought the bill ought to pass as it stood.

Mr. Throckmorton thought that while the intention of the bill was a good one, yet it was mischievous and difficult to enforce, and would also work hardship to a large portion of our frontier people. He had several objections. He also thought a cow buffalo could not be distinguished at a distance.

Mr. Hancock, of Texas, thought the bill an impolicy, and that the sooner the buffalo was exterminated the better.

Mr. Fort replied by asking him why all the game-deer, antelope, etc.-was not slaughtered also. Then he went on to state that to exterminate the buffalo would be to starve innocent children of the red man, and to make the latter more wild and savage than he was already.

Mr. Baker, of Indiana, offered the following amendment as a substitute for the one already offered:

Provided, That any white person who shall employ, hire, or procure, directly or indirectly, any Indian to kill any buffalo forbidden to be killed by this act, shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor and punished in the manner provided in this act.

Mr. Fort stated that a certain clause in his bill covered the object of the amendment.
Mr. Jenks offered the following amendment:

Strike out in the fourth line of the second section the word "can" and insert "shall;" and in the second line of the same section insert the word "wantonly" before "kill;" so that the clause will read:
"That it shall be in like manner unlawful for any such person to wantonly kill, wound, or destroy in the said Territories any greater number of male buffaloes than are needed for food by such person, or than shall be used, cured, or preserved for the food of other persons, or for the market."

Mr. Conger said: "I think the whole bill is unwise. I think it is a useless measure."

Mr. Hancock said: "I move that the bill and amendment be laid on the table."

The motion to lay the bill upon the table was defeated, and the amendment was rejected.

Mr. Conger called for a division on the passage of the bill. The House divided, and there were-ayes 93, noes 48. He then demanded tellers, and they reported-ayes 104, noes 36. So the bill was passed.

On February 25, 1876, the bill was reported to the Senate, and referred to the Committee on Territories, from whence it never returned.

On March 20, 1876, Mr. Fort introduced a bill (H. R. 2767) to tax buffalo hides; which was referred to the Committee on Ways and Means, and never heard of afterward.

This was the last move made in Congress in behalf of the buffalo. The philanthropic friends of the frontiersman, the Indian, and of the buffalo himself, despaired of accomplishing the worthy object for which they had so earnestly and persistently labored, and finally gave up the fight. At the very time the effort in behalf of buffalo protection was abandoned the northern herd still flourished, and might have been preserved from extirpation.

At various times the legislatures of a few of the Western States and Territories enacted laws vaguely and feebly intended to provide some sort of protection to the fast disappearing animals. One of the first was the game law of Colorado, passed in 1872, which declared that the killers of game should not leave any flesh to spoil. The western game laws of those days amounted to about as much as they do now; practically nothing at all. I have never been able to learn of a single instance, save in the Yellowstone Park, wherein a western hunter was prevented by so simple and innocuous a thing as a game law from killing game. Laws were enacted, but they were always left to enforce themselves. The idea of the frontiersman (the average, at least) has always been to kill as much game as possible before some other fellow gets a chance at it, and before it is all killed off! So he goes at the game, and as a general thing kills all he can while it lasts, and with it feeds himself and family, his dogs, and even his hogs, to repletion. I knew one Montana man north of Miles City who killed for his own use twenty-six black-tail deer in one season, and had so much more venison than he could consume or give away that a great pile of carcasses lay in his yard until spring and spoiled.

During the existence of the buffalo it was declared by many an impossibility to stop or prevent the slaughter. Such an accusation of weakness and imbecility on the part of the General Government is an insult to our strength and resources. The protection of game is now and always has been simply a question of money. A proper code of game laws and a reasonable number of salaried game-wardens, sworn to enforce them and punish all offenses against them, would have afforded the buffalo as much protection as would have been necessary to his continual existence. To be sure, many buffaloes would have been killed on the sly in spite of laws to the contrary, but it was wholesale slaughter that wrought the extermination, and that could easily have been prevented. A tax of 50 cents each on buffalo robes would have maintained a sufficient number of game-wardens to have reasonably regulated the killing, and maintained for an indefinite period a bountiful source of supply of food, and also raiment for both the white man of the plains and the Indian. By judicious management the buffalo could have been made to yield an annual revenue equal to that we now receive from the fur-seals-$100,000 per year.

During the two great periods of slaughter-1870-'75 and 1880-'84-the principal killing grounds were as well known as the stock-yards of Chicago. Had proper laws been enacted, and had either the general or territorial governments entered with determination upon the task of restricting the killing of buffaloes to proper limits, their enforcement would have been, in the main, as simple and easy as the collection of taxes. Of course the solitary hunter in a remote locality would have bowled over his half dozen buffaloes in secure defiance of the law; but such desultory killing could not have made much impression on the great mass for many years. The business-like, wholesale slaughter, wherein one hunter would openly kill five thousand buffaloes and market perhaps two thousand hides, could easily have been stopped forever. Buffalo hides could not have been dealt in clandestinely, for many reasons, and had there been no sale for ill-gotten spoils the still-hunter would have gathered no spoils to sell. It was an undertaking of considerable magnitude, and involving a cash outlay of several hundred dollars to make up an "outfit" of wagons, horses, arms and ammunition, food, etc., for a trip to "the range" after buffaloes. It was these wholesale hunters, both in the North and the South, who exterminated the species, and to say that all such undertakings could not have been effectually prevented by law is to accuse our law-makers and law-officers of imbecility to a degree hitherto unknown. There is nowhere in this country, nor in any of the waters adjacent to it, a living species of any kind which the United States Government can not fully and perpetually protect from destruction by human agencies if it chooses to do so. The destruction of the buffalo was a loss of wealth perhaps twenty times greater than the sum it would have cost to conserve it, and this stupendous waste of valuable food and other products was committed by one class of the American people and permitted by another with a prodigality and wastefulness which even in the lowest savages would be inexcusable.


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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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