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The Period of Desultory Destruction

  Native American Nations | Extermination of the American Bison                   


The disappearance of the buffalo from all the country east of the Mississippi was one of the inevitable results of the advance of civilization. To the early pioneers who went forth into the wilderness to wrestle with nature for the necessities of life, this valuable animal might well have seemed a gift direct from the hand of Providence. During the first few years of the early settler's life in a new country, the few domestic animals he had brought with him were far too valuable to be killed for food, and for a long period he looked to the wild animals of the forest and the prairie for his daily supply of meat. The time was when no one stopped to think of the important part our game animals played in the settlement of this country, and even now no one has attempted to calculate the lessened degree of rapidity with which the star of empire would have taken its westward way without the bison, deer, elk, and antelope. The Western States and Territories pay little heed to the wanton slaughter of deer and elk now going on in their forests, but the time will soon come when the "grangers" will enter those regions and find the absence of game a very serious matter.

Although the bison was the first wild species to disappear before the advance of civilization, he served a good purpose at a highly critical period. His huge bulk of toothsome flesh fed many a hungry family, and his ample robe did good service in the settler's cabin and sleigh in winter weather. By the time game animals had become scarce, domestic herds and flocks had taken their place, and hunting became a pastime instead of a necessity.

As might be expected, from the time the bison was first seen by white men he has always been a conspicuous prize, and being the largest of the land quadrupeds, was naturally the first to disappear. Every man's hand has been against him. While his disappearance from the eastern United States was, in the main, due to the settler who killed game as a means of subsistence, there were a few who made the killing of those animals a regular business. This occurred almost exclusively in the immediate vicinity of salt springs, around which the bison congregated in great numbers, and made their wholesale slaughter of easy accomplishment. Mr. Thomas Ashe62 has recorded some very interesting facts and observations on this point. In speaking of an old man who in the latter part of the last century built a log house for himself "on the immediate borders of a salt spring," in western Pennsylvania, for the purpose of killing buffaloes out of the immense droves which frequented that spot, Mr. Ashe says:

"In the first and second years this old man, with some companions, killed from six to seven hundred of these noble creatures merely for the sake of their skins, which to them were worth only 2 shillings each; and after this 'work of death' they were obliged to leave the place till the following season, or till the wolves, bears, panthers, eagles, rooks, ravens, etc., had devoured the carcasses and abandoned the place for other prey. In the two following years the same persons killed great numbers out of the first droves that arrived, skinned them, and left their bodies exposed to the sun and air; but they soon had reason to repent of this, for the remaining droves, as they came up in succession, stopped, gazed on the mangled and putrid bodies, sorrowfully moaned or furiously lowed aloud, and returned instantly to the wilderness in an unusual run, without tasting their favorite spring or licking the impregnated earth, which was also once their most agreeable occupation; nor did they nor any of their race ever revisit the neighborhood.

"The simple history of this spring is that of every other in the settled parts of this Western World; the carnage of beasts was everywhere the same. I met with a man who had killed two thousand buffaloes with his own hand, and others no doubt have done the same thing. In consequence of such proceedings not one buffalo is at this time to be found east of the Mississippi, except a few domesticated by the curious, or carried through the country on a public show."

But, fortunately, there is no evidence that such slaughter as that described by Mr. Ashe was at all common, and there is reason for the belief that until within the last forty years the buffalo was sacrificed in ways conducive to the greatest good of the greatest number.

From Coronado to General Frémont there has hardly been an explorer of United States territory who has not had occasion to bless the bison, and its great value to mankind can hardly be overestimated, although by many it can readily be forgotten.

The disappearance of the bison from the eastern United States was due to its consumption as food. It was very gradual, like the march of civilization, and, under the circumstances, absolutely inevitable. In a country so thickly peopled as this region speedily became, the mastodon could have survived extinction about as easily as the bison. Except when the latter became the victim of wholesale slaughter, there was little reason to bemoan his fate, save upon grounds that may be regarded purely sentimental. He served a most excellent purpose in the development of the country. Even as late as 1875 the farmers of eastern Kansas were in the habit of making trips every fall into the western part of that State for wagon loads of buffalo meat as a supply for the succeeding winter. The farmers of Texas, Nebraska, Dakota, and Minnesota also drew largely upon the buffalo as long as the supply lasted.

The extirpation of the bison west of the Rocky Mountains was due to legitimate hunting for food and clothing rather than for marketable peltries. In no part of that whole region was the species ever numerous, although in the mountains themselves, notably in Colorado, within easy reach of the great prairies on the east, vast numbers were seen by the early explorers and pioneers. But to the westward, away from the mountains, they were very rarely met with, and their total destruction in that region was a matter of easy accomplishment. According to Prof. J. A. Allen the complete disappearance of the bison west of the Rocky Mountains took place between 1838 and 1840.

The Period Of Systematic Slaughter, From 1830 To 1838.

We come now to a history which I would gladly leave unwritten. Its record is a disgrace to the American people in general, and the Territorial, State, and General Government in particular. It will cause succeeding generations to regard us as being possessed of the leading characteristics of the savage and the beast of prey-cruelty and greed. We will be likened to the blood-thirsty tiger of the Indian jungle, who slaughters a dozen bullocks at once when he knows he can eat only one.

In one respect, at least, the white men who engaged in the systematic slaughter of the bison were savages just as much as the Piegan Indians, who would drive a whole herd over a precipice to secure a week's rations of meat for a single village. The men who killed buffaloes for their tongues and those who shot them from the railway trains for sport were murderers. In no way does civilized man so quickly revert to his former state as when he is alone with the beasts of the field. Give him a gun and something which he may kill without getting himself in trouble, and, presto! he is instantly a savage again, finding exquisite delight in bloodshed, slaughter, and death, if not for gain, then solely for the joy and happiness of it. There is no kind of warfare against game animals too unfair, too disreputable, or too mean for white men to engage in if they can only do so with safety to their own precious carcasses. They will shoot buffalo and antelope from running railway trains, drive deer into water with hounds and cut their throats in cold blood, kill does with fawns a week old, kill fawns by the score for their spotted skins, slaughter deer, moose, and caribou in the snow at a pitiful disadvantage, just as the wolves do; exterminate the wild ducks on the whole Atlantic seaboard with punt guns for the metropolitan markets; kill off the Rocky Mountain goats for hides worth only 50 cents apiece, destroy wagon loads of trout with dynamite, and so on to the end of the chapter.

Perhaps the most gigantic task ever undertaken on this continent in the line of game-slaughter was the extermination of the bison in the great pasture region by the hide-hunters. Probably the brilliant rapidity and success with which that lofty undertaking was accomplished was a matter of surprise even to those who participated in it. The story of the slaughter is by no means a long one.

The period of systematic slaughter of the bison naturally begins with the first organized efforts in that direction, in a business-like, wholesale way. Although the species had been steadily driven westward for a hundred years by the advancing settlements, and had during all that time been hunted for the meat and robes it yielded, its extermination did not begin in earnest until 1820, or thereabouts. As before stated, various persons had previous to that time made buffalo killing a business in order to sell their skins, but such instances were very exceptional. By that time the bison was totally extinct in all the region lying east of the Mississippi River except a portion of Wisconsin, where it survived until about 1830. In 1820 the first organized buffalo hunting expedition on a grand scale was made from the Red River settlement, Manitoba, in which five hundred and forty carts proceeded to the range. Previous to that time the buffaloes were found near enough to the settlements around Fort Garry that every settler could hunt independently; but as the herds were driven farther and farther away, it required an organized effort and a long journey to reach them.

The American Fur Company established trading posts along the Missouri River, one at the mouth of the Tetón River and another at the mouth of the Yellowstone. In 1826 a post was established at the eastern base of the Rocky Mountains, at the head of the Arkansas River, and in 1832 another was located in a corresponding situation at the head of the South Fork of the Platte, close to where Denver now stands. Both the latter were on what was then the western border of the buffalo range. Elsewhere throughout the buffalo country there were numerous other posts, always situated as near as possible to the best hunting ground, and at the same time where they would be most accessible to the hunters, both white and red.

As might be supposed, the Indians were encouraged to kill buffaloes for their robes, and this is what Mr. George Catlin wrote at the mouth of the Tetón River (Pyatt County, Dakota) in 1832 concerning this trade:63

"It seems hard and cruel (does it not?) that we civilized people, with all the luxuries and comforts of the world about us, should be drawing from the backs of these useful animals the skins for our luxury, leaving their carcasses to be devoured by the wolves; that we should draw from that country some one hundred and fifty or two hundred thousand of their robes annually, the greater part of which are taken from animals that are killed expressly for the robe, at a season when the meat is not cured and preserved, and for each of which skins the Indian has received but a pint of whisky! Such is the fact, and that number, or near it, are annually destroyed, in addition to the number that is necessarily killed for the subsistence of three hundred thousand Indians, who live chiefly upon them."

The author further declared that the fur trade in those "great western realms" was then limited chiefly to the purchase of buffalo robes.

The Red River half-breeds.-In June, 1840, when the Red River half-breeds assembled at Pembina for their annual expedition against the buffalo, they mustered as follows:

Carts 1,210
Hunters 620 1,630
Women 650
Boys and girls 360
Horses (buffalo runners)   403
Dogs   542
Cart horses   655
Draught oxen   586
Skinning knives   1,240

The total value of the property employed in this expedition and the working time occupied by it (two months) amounted to the enormous sum of £24,000.

Although the bison formerly ranged to Fort Garry (near Winnipeg), they had been steadily killed off and driven back, and in 1840 none were found by the expedition until it was 250 miles from Pembina, which is situated on the Red River, at the international boundary. At that time the extinction of the species from the Red River to the Cheyenne was practically complete. The Red River settlers, aided, of course, by the Indians of that region, are responsible for the extermination of the bison throughout northeastern Dakota as far as the Cheyenne River, northern Minnesota, and the whole of what is now the province of Manitoba. More than that; as the game grew scarce and retired farther and farther, the half-breeds, who despised agriculture as long as there was a buffalo to kill, extended their hunting operations westward along the Qu'Appelle until they encroached upon the hunting-grounds of the Plain Crees, who lived in the Saskatchewan country.

Thus was an immense inroad made in the northern half of the herd which had previously covered the entire pasture region from the Great Slave Lake to central Texas. This was the first visible impression of the systematic killing which began in 1820. Up to 1840 it is reasonably certain, as will be seen by figures given elsewhere, that by this business-like method of the half-breeds, at least 652,000 buffaloes were destroyed by them alone.

Even as early as 1840 the Red River hunt was prosecuted through Dakota southwestwardly to the Missouri River and a short distance beyond it. Here it touched the wide strip of territory, bordering that stream, which was even then being regularly drained of its animal resources by the Indian hunters, who made the river their base of operations, and whose robes were shipped on its steam-boats.

It is certain that these annual Red River expeditions into Dakota were kept up as late as 1847, and as long thereafter as buffaloes were to be found in any number between the Cheyenne and the Missouri. At the same time, the White Horse Plains division, which hunted westward from Fort Garry, did its work of destruction quite as rapidly and as thoroughly as the rival expedition to the United States.

In 1857 the Plains Cree, inhabiting the country around the headwaters of the Qu'Appelle River (250 miles due west from Winnipeg), assembled in council, and "determined that in consequence of promises often made and broken by the white men and half-breeds, and the rapid destruction by them of the buffalo they fed on, they would not permit either white men or half-breeds to hunt in their country, or travel through it, except for the purpose of trading for their dried meat, pemmican, skins and robes."

In 1858 the Cree reported that between the two branches of the Saskatchewan buffalo were "very scarce." Professor Hind's expedition saw only one buffalo in the whole course of their journey from Winnipeg until they reached Sand Hill Lake, at the head of the Qu'Appelle, near the south branch of the Saskatchewan, where the first herd was encountered. Although the species was not totally extinct on the Qu'Appelle at that time, it was practically so.

The country of the Sioux. - The next territory completely depopulated of buffaloes by systematic hunting was very nearly the entire southern half of Dakota, southwestern Minnesota, and northern Nebraska as far as the North Platte. This vast region, once the favorite range for hundreds of thousands of buffaloes, had for many years been the favorite hunting ground of the Sioux Indians of the Missouri, the Pawnees, Omaha, and all other tribes of that region. The settlement of Iowa and Minnesota presently forced into this region the entire body of Mississippi Sioux from the country west of Prairie du Chien and around Fort Snelling, and materially hastened the extermination of all the game animals which were once so abundant there. It is absolutely certain that if the Indians had been uninfluenced by the white traders, or, in other words, had not been induced to take and prepare a large number of robes every year for the market, the species would have survived very much longer than it did. But the demand quickly proved to be far greater than the supply. The Indians, of course, found it necessary to slaughter annually a great number of buffaloes for their own wants-for meat, robes, leather, teepees, etc. When it came to supplementing this necessary slaughter by an additional fifty thousand or more every year for marketable robes, it is no wonder that the improvident savages soon found, when too late, that the supply of buffaloes was not inexhaustible. Naturally enough, they attributed their disappearance to the white man, who was therefore a robber, and a proper subject for the scalping-knife. Apparently it never occurred to the minds of the Sioux that they themselves were equally to blame; it was always the paleface who killed the buffaloes; and it was always Sioux buffaloes that they killed. The Sioux seemed to feel that they held a chattel mortgage on all the buffaloes north of the Platte, and it required more than one pitched battle to convince them otherwise.

Up to the time when the great Sioux Reservation was established in Dakota (1875-'77), when 33,739 square miles of country, or nearly the whole southwest quarter of the Territory, was set aside for the exclusive occupancy of the Sioux, buffaloes were very numerous throughout that entire region. East of the Missouri River, which is the eastern boundary of the Sioux Reservation, from Bismarck all the way down, the species was practically extinct as early as 1870. But at the time when it became unlawful for white hunters to enter the territory of the Sioux nation there were tens of thousands of buffaloes upon it, and their subsequent slaughter is chargeable to the Indians alone, save as to those which migrated into the hunting grounds of the whites.

Western railways, and their part in the extermination of the buffalo. - The building of a railroad means the speedy extermination of all the big game along its line. In its eagerness to attract the public and build up "a big business," every new line which traverses a country containing game does its utmost, by means of advertisements and posters, to attract the man with a gun. Its game resorts are all laid bare, and the market hunters and sportsmen swarm in immediately, slaying and to slay.

Within the last year the last real retreat for our finest game, the only remaining stronghold for the mountain sheep, goat, caribou, elk, and deer-northwestern Montana, northern Idaho, and thence westward-has been laid open to the very heart by the building of the St. Paul, Minneapolis and Manitoba Railway, which runs up the valley of the Milk River to Fort Assinniboine, and crosses the Rocky Mountains through Two Medicine Pass. Heretofore that region has been so difficult to reach that the game it contains has been measurably secure from general slaughter; but now it also must "go."

The marking out of the great overland trail by the Argonauts of '49 in their rush for the gold fields of California was the foreshadowing of the great east-and-west breach in the universal herd, which was made twenty years later by the first transcontinental railway.

The pioneers who "crossed the plains" in those days killed buffaloes for food whenever they could, and the constant harrying of those animals experienced along the line of travel, soon led them to retire from the proximity of such continual danger. It was undoubtedly due to this cause that the number seen by parties who crossed the plains in 1849 and subsequently, was surprisingly small. But, fortunately for the buffaloes, the pioneers who would gladly have halted and turned aside now and then for the excitement of the chase, were compelled to hurry on, and accomplish the long journey while good weather lasted. It was owing to this fact, and the scarcity of good horses, that the buffaloes found it necessary to retire only a few miles from the wagon route to get beyond the reach of those who would have gladly hunted them.

Mr. Allen Varner, of Indianola, Illinois, has kindly furnished me with the following facts in regard to the presence of the buffalo, as observed by him during his journey westward, over what was then known as the Oregon Trail.

"The old Oregon trail ran from Independence, Missouri, to old Fort Laramie, through the South Pass of the Rocky Mountains, and thence up to Salt Lake City. We left Independence on May C, 1849, and struck the Platte River at Grand Island. The trail had been traveled but very little previous to that year. We saw no buffaloes whatever until we reached the forks of the Platte, on May 20, or thereabouts. There we saw seventeen head. From that time on we saw small bunches now and then; never more than forty or fifty together. We saw no great herds anywhere, and I should say we did not see over five hundred head all told. The most western point at which we saw buffaloes was about due north of Laramie Peak, and it must have been about the 20th of June. We killed several head for meat during our trip, and found them all rather thin in flesh. Plainsmen who claimed to know, said that all the buffaloes we saw had wintered in that locality, and had not had time to get fat. The annual migration from the south had not yet begun, or rather had not yet brought any of the southern buffaloes that far north."

In a few years the tide of overland travel became so great, that the buffaloes learned to keep away from the dangers of the trail, and many a pioneer has crossed the plains without ever seeing a live buffalo.

The division of the universal herd. - Until the building of the first transcontinental railway made it possible to market the "buffalo product," buffalo hunting as a business was almost wholly in the hands of the Indians. Even then, the slaughter so far exceeded the natural increase that the narrowing limits of the buffalo range was watched with anxiety, and the ultimate extinction of the species confidently predicted. Even without railroads the extermination of the race would have taken place eventually, but it would have been delayed perhaps twenty years. With a recklessness of the future that was not to be expected of savages, though perhaps perfectly natural to civilized white men, who place the possession of a dollar above everything else, the Indians with one accord singled out the cows for slaughter, because their robes and their flesh better suited the fastidious taste of the noble redskin. The building of the Union Pacific Railway began at Omaha in 1865, and during that year 40 miles were constructed. The year following saw the completion of 265 miles more, and in 1867 245 miles were added, which brought it to Cheyenne. In 1868, 350 miles were built, and in 1869 the entire line was open to traffic.

In 1867, when Maj. J. W. Powell and Prof. A. H. Thompson crossed the plains by means of the Union Pacific Railway as far as it was constructed and thence onward by wagon, they saw during the entire trip only one live buffalo, a solitary old bull, wandering aimlessly along the south bank of the Platte River.

The completion of the Union Pacific Railway divided forever the buffaloes of the United States into two great herds, which thereafter became known respectively as the northern and southern herds. Both retired rapidly and permanently from the railway, and left a strip of country over 50 miles wide almost uninhabited by them. Although many thousand buffaloes were killed by hunters who made the Union Pacific Railway their base of operations, the two great bodies retired north and south so far that the greater number were beyond striking distance from that line.

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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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