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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
Mr. Hancock said: "I move that the bill and amendment be laid on the
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
On February 25, 1876, the bill was reported to the Senate, and
referred to the Committee on Territories, from whence it never
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
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
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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Extermination of the American Bison,
1886-’87, By William T. Hornaday, Government Printing Office,
Extermination of the American Bison