Native American Nations
                   Your Source for Indian Research
                   Rolls ~ History ~ Treaties ~ Census ~ Books

Cause of the Extermination

 Native American Nations | Extermination of the American Bison                    

 

The causes which led to the practical extinction (in a wild state, at least) of the most economically valuable wild animal that ever inhabited the American continent, are by no means obscure. It is well that we should know precisely what they were, and by the sad fate of the buffalo be warned in time against allowing similar causes to produce the same results with our elk, antelope, deer, moose, caribou, mountain sheep, mountain goat, walrus, and other animals. It will be doubly deplorable if the remorseless slaughter we have witnessed during the last twenty years carries with it no lessons for the future. A continuation of the record we have lately made as wholesale game butchers will justify posterity in dating us back with the mound-builders and cave-dwellers, when man's only known function was to slay and eat.

The primary cause of the buffalo's extermination, and the one which embraced all others, was the descent of civilization, with all its elements of destructiveness, upon the whole of the country inhabited by that animal. From the Great Slave Lake to the Rio Grande the home of the buffalo was everywhere overrun by the man with a gun; and, as has ever been the case, the wild creatures were gradually swept away, the largest and most conspicuous forms being the first to go.

The secondary causes of the extermination of the buffalo may be catalogued as follows:
(1) Man's reckless greed, his wanton destructiveness, and improvidence in not husbanding such resources as come to him from the hand of nature ready made.
(2) The total and utterly inexcusable absence of protective measures and agencies on the part of the National Government and of the West States and Territories.
(3) The fatal preference on the part of hunters generally, both white and red, for the robe and flesh of the cow over that furnished by the bull.
(4) The phenomenal stupidity of the animals themselves, and their indifference to man.
(5) The perfection of modern breech-loading rifles and other sporting fire-arms in general.

Each of these causes acted against the buffalo with its fall force, to offset which there was not even one restraining or preserving influence, and it is not to be wondered at that the species went down before them. Had any one of these conditions been eliminated the result would have been reached far less quickly. Had the buffalo, for example, possessed one-half the fighting qualities of the grizzly bear he would have fared very differently, but his inoffensiveness and lack of courage almost leads one to doubt the wisdom of the economy of nature so far as it relates to him.

Methods Of Slaughter

The still-hunt. - Of all the deadly methods of buffalo slaughter, the still-hunt was the deadliest. Of all the methods that were unsportsmanlike, unfair, ignoble, and utterly reprehensible, this was in every respect the lowest and the worst. Destitute of nearly every element of the buoyant excitement and spice of danger that accompanied genuine buffalo hunting on horseback, the still-hunt was mere butchery of the tamest and yet most cruel kind. About it there was none of the true excitement of the chase; but there was plenty of greedy eagerness to "down" as many "head" as possible every day, just as there is in every slaughter-house where the killers are paid so much per head. Judging from all accounts, it was about as exciting and dangerous work as it would be to go out now and shoot cattle on the Texas or Montana ranges. The probabilities are, however, that shooting Texas cattle would be the most dangerous; for, instead of running from a man on foot, as the buffalo used to do, range cattle usually charge down upon him, from motives of curiosity, perhaps, and not infrequently place his life in considerable jeopardy.

The buffalo owes his extermination very largely to his own unparalleled stupidity; for nothing else could by any possibility have enabled the still-hunters to accomplish what they did in such an incredibly short time. So long as the chase on horseback was the order of the day, it ordinarily required the united efforts of from fifteen to twenty-five hunters to kill a thousand buffalo in a single season; but a single still-hunter, with a long-range breech-loader, who knew how to make a "sneak" and get "a stand on a bunch," often succeeded in killing from one to three thousand in one season by his own unaided efforts. Capt. Jack Brydges, of Kansas, who was one of the first to begin the final slaughter of the southern herd, killed, by contract, one thousand one hundred and forty-two buffaloes in six weeks.

So long as the buffalo remained in large herds their numbers gave each individual a feeling of dependence upon his fellows and of general security from harm, even in the presence of strange phenomena which he could not understand. When he heard a loud report and saw a little cloud of white smoke rising from a gully, a clump of sage-brash, or the top of a ridge, 200 yards away, he wondered what it meant, and held himself in readiness to follow his leader in case she should run away. But when the leader of the herd, usually the oldest cow, fell bleeding upon the ground, and no other buffalo promptly assumed the leadership of the herd, instead of acting independently and fleeing from the alarm, he merely did as he saw the others do, and waited his turn to be shot. Latterly, however, when the herds were totally broken up, when the few survivors were scattered in every direction, and it became a case of every buffalo for himself, they became wild and wary, ever ready to start off at the slightest alarm, and run indefinitely. Had they shown the same wariness seventeen years ago that the survivors have manifested during the last three or four years, there would now be a hundred thousand head alive instead of only about three hundred in a wild and unprotected state.

Notwithstanding the merciless war that had been waged against the buffalo for over a century by both whites and Indians, and the steady decrease of its numbers, as well as its range, there were several million head on foot, not only up to the completion of the Union Pacific Railway, but as late as the year 1870. Up to that time the killing done by white men had been chiefly for the sake of meat, the demand for robes was moderate, and the Indians took annually less than one hundred thousand for trading. Although half a million buffaloes were killed by Indians, half-breeds, and whites, the natural increase was so very considerable as to make it seem that the evil day of extermination was yet far distant.

But by a coincidence which was fatal to the buffalo, with the building of three lines of railway through the most populous buffalo country there came a demand for robes and hides, backed up by an unlimited supply of new and marvellously accurate breech-loading rifles and fixed ammunition. And then followed a wild rush of hunters to the buffalo country, eager to destroy as many head as possible in the shortest time. For those greedy ones the chase on horseback was "too slow" and too unfruitful. That was a retail method of killing, whereas they wanted to kill by wholesale. From their point of view, the still-hunt or "sneak" hunt was the method par excellence. If they could have obtained Gatling guns with which to mow down a whole herd at a time, beyond a doubt they would have gladly used them.

The still-hunt was seen at its very worst in the years 1871, 1872, and 1873, on the southern buffalo range, and ten years later at its best in Montana, on the northern. Let us first consider it at its best, which in principle was bad enough.

The great rise in the price of robes which followed the blotting out of the great southern herd at once put buffalo-hunting on a much more comfortable and respectable business basis in the North than it had ever occupied in the South, where prices had all along been phenomenally low.

In Montana it was no uncommon thing for a hunter to invest from $1,000 to $2,000 in his "outfit" of horses, wagons, weapons, ammunition, provisions, and sundries.

One of the men who accompanied the Smithsonian Expedition for Buffalo, Mr. James McNaney, of Miles City, Montana, was an ex-buffalo banter, who had spent three seasons on the northern range, killing buffalo for their robes, and his standing as a hunter was of the best. A brief description of his outfit and its work during its last season on the range (1882-'83) may fairly be taken as a typical illustration of the life and work of the still-hunter at its best. The only thing against it was the extermination of the buffalo.

During the winters of 1880 and 1881 Mr. McNaney had served in Maxwell's outfit as a hunter, working by the month, but his success in killing was such that he decided to work the third year on his own account. Although at that time only seventeen years of age, he took an elder brother as a partner, and purchased an outfit in Miles City, of which the following were the principal items: Two wagons, 2 four-horse teams, 2 saddle-horses, 2 wall-tents, 1 cook-stove with pipe, 1 40-90 Sharp's rifle (breech-loading), 1 45-70 Sharps rifle (breech-loading), 1 45-120 Sharps rifle (breech-loading), 50 pounds gunpowder, 550 pounds lead, 4,500 primers, 600 brass shells, 4 sheets patch-paper, 60 Wilson skinning knives, 3 butcher's steels, 1 portable grindstone, flour, bacon, baking-powder, coffee, sugar, molasses, dried apples, canned vegetables, beans, etc., in quantity.

The entire cost of the outfit was about $1,400. Two men were hired for the season at $50 per month, and the party started from Miles City on November 10, which was considered a very late start. The usual time of setting out for the range was about October 1.

The outfit went by rail northeastward to Terry, and from thence across country south and east about 100 miles, around the head of O'Fallon Creek to the head of Beaver Creek, a tributary of the Little Missouri. A good range was selected, without encroachment upon the domains of the hunters already in the field, and the camp was made near the bank of the creek, close to a supply of wood and water, and screened from distant observation by a circle of hills and ridges. The two rectangular wall-tents were set up end to end, with the cook-stove in the middle, where the ends came together. In one tent the cooking and eating was done, and the other contained the beds.

It was planned that the various members of the party should cook turn about, a week at a time, but one of them soon developed such a rare and conspicuous talent for bread-making and general cookery that he was elected by acclamation to cook during the entire season. To the other three members fell the hunting. Each man hunted separately from the others, and skinned all the animals that his rifle brought down.

There were buffalo on the range when the hunters arrived, and the killing began at once. At daylight the still-hunter sallied forth on foot, carrying in his hand his huge Sharps rifle, weighing from 16 to 19 pounds, with from seventy-five to one hundred loaded cartridges in his two belts or his pockets. At his side, depending from his belt, hung his "hunter's companion," a flat leather scabbard, containing a ripping knife, a skinning knife, and a butcher's steel upon which to sharpen them. The total weight carried was very considerable, seldom less than 36 pounds, and often more.

Inasmuch as it was highly important to move camp as seldom as possible in the course of a season's work, the hunter exercised the greatest precaution in killing his game, and had ever before his mind the necessity of doing his killing without frightening away the survivors.

With ten thousand buffaloes on their range, it was considered the height of good luck to find a "bunch" of fifty head in a secluded "draw" or hollow, where it was possible to "make a kill" without disturbing the big herd.

The still-hunter usually went on foot, for when buffaloes became so scarce as to make it necessary for him to ride his occupation was practically gone. At the time I speak of, the hunter seldom had to walk more than 3 miles from camp to find buffalo, in case there were any at all on his range, and it was usually an advantage to be without a horse. From the top of a ridge or high butte the country was carefully scanned, and if several small herds were in sight the one easiest to approach was selected as the one to attack. It was far better to find a herd lying down or quietly grazing, or sheltering from a cold wind, than to find it traveling, for while a hard run of a mile or two often enabled the hunter to "head off" a moving herd and kill a certain number of animals out of it, the net results were never half so satisfactory as with herds absolutely at rest.

Having decided upon an attack, the hunter gets to leeward of his game, and approaches it according to the nature of the ground. If it is in a hollow, he secures a position at the top of the nearest ridge, as close as he can get. If it is in a level "flat," he looks for a gully up which he can skulk until within good rifle-shot. If there is no gully, he may be obliged to crawl half a mile on his hands and knees, often through snow or amongst beds of prickly pear, taking advantage of even such scanty cover as sage-brush affords. Some Montana still-hunters adopted the method of drawing a gunny-sack over the entire upper half of the body, with holes cut for the eyes and arms, which simple but unpicturesque arrangement often enabled the hunter to approach his game much more easily and more closely than would otherwise have been possible.


Still-Hunting Buffaloes On The Northern Range.
From a painting by J. H. Moser, in the National Museum.

Having secured a position within from 100 to 250 yards of his game (often the distance was much greater), the hunter secures a comfortable rest for his huge rifle, all the time keeping his own person thoroughly hidden from view, estimates the distance, carefully adjusts his sights, and begins business. If the herd is moving, the animal in the lead is the first one shot, close behind the fore leg and about a foot above the brisket, which sends the ball through the lungs. If the herd is at rest, the oldest cow is always supposed to be the leader, and she is the one to kill first. The noise startles the buffaloes, they stare at the little cloud of white smoke and feel inclined to run, but seeing their leader hesitate they wait for her. She, when struck, gives a violent start forward, but soon stops, and the blood begins to run from her nostrils in two bright crimson streams. In a couple of minutes her body sways unsteadily, she staggers, tries hard to keep her feet, but soon gives a lurch sidewise and falls. Some of the other members of the herd come around her and stare and sniff in wide-eyed wonder, and one of the more wary starts to lead the herd away. But before she takes half a dozen steps "bang!" goes the hidden rifle again, and her leadership is ended forever. Her fall only increases the bewilderment of the survivors over a proceeding which to them is strange and unaccountable, because the danger is not visible. They cluster around the fallen ones, sniff at the warm blood, bawl aloud in wonderment, and do everything but run away.

The policy of the hunter is to not fire too rapidly, but to attend closely to business, and every time a buffalo attempts to make off, shoot it down. One shot per minute was a moderate rate of firing, but under pressure of circumstances two per minute could be discharged with deliberate precision. With the most accurate hunting rifle ever made, a "dead rest," and a large mark practically motionless, it was no wonder that nearly every shot meant a dead buffalo. The vital spot on a buffalo which stands with its side to the hunter is about a foot in diameter, and on a full-grown bull is considerably more. Under such conditions as the above, which was called getting "a stand," the hunter nurses his victims just as an angler plays a big fish with light tackle, and in the most methodical manner murders them one by one, either until the last one falls, his cartridges are all expended, or the stupid brutes come to their senses and run away. Occasionally the poor fellow was troubled by having his rifle get too hot to use, but if a snow-bank was at hand he would thrust the weapon into it without ceremony to cool it off.

A success in getting a stand meant the slaughter of a good-sized herd. A hunter whom I met in Montana, Mr. Harry Andrews, told me that he once fired one hundred and fifteen shots from one spot and killed sixty-three buffalo in less than an hour. The highest number Mr. McNaney ever knew of being killed in one stand was ninety-one head, but Colonel Dodge once counted one hundred and twelve carcasses of buffalo "inside of a semicircle of 200 yards radius, all of which were killed by one man from the same spot, and in less than three-quarters of an hour."

The "kill" being completed, the hunter then addressed himself to the task of skinning his victims. The northern hunters were seldom guilty of the reckless carelessness and lack of enterprise in the treatment of robes which at one time was so prominent a feature of work on the southern range. By the time white men began to hunt for robes on the northern range, buffalo were becoming comparatively scarce, and robes were worth from $2 to $4 each. The fur-buyers had taught the hunters, with the potent argument of hard cash, that a robe carefully and neatly taken off, stretched, and kept reasonably free from blood and dirt, was worth more money in the market than one taken off in a slovenly manner, and contrary to the nicer demands of the trade. After 1880, buffalo on the northern range were skinned with considerable care, and amongst the robe-hunters not one was allowed to become a loss when it was possible to prevent it. Every full-sized cow robe was considered equal to $3.50 in hard cash, and treated accordingly. The hunter, or skinner, always stretched every robe out on the ground to its fullest extent while it was yet warm, and cut the initials of his employer in the thin subcutaneous muscle which always adhered to the inside of the skin. A warm skin is very elastic, and when stretched upon the ground the hair holds it in shape until it either dries or freezes, and so retains its full size. On the northern range skins were so valuable that many a dispute arose between rival outfits over the ownership of a dead buffalo, some of which produced serious results.

The chase on horseback or "running buffalo." - Next to the still-hunt the method called "running buffalo" was the most fatal to the race, and the one most universally practiced. To all hunters, save greedy white men, the chase on horseback yielded spoil sufficient for every need, and it also furnished sport of a superior kind-manly, exhilarating, and well spiced with danger. Even the horses shared the excitement and eagerness of their riders.

So long as the weapons of the Indian consisted only of the bow and arrow and the spear, he was obliged to kill at close quarters or not at all. And even when fire-arms were first placed in his hands their caliber was so small, the charge so light, and the Indian himself so poor a marksman at long range, that his best course was still to gallop alongside the herd on his favorite "buffalo horse" and kill at the shortest possible range. From all accounts, the Red River half-breeds, who hunted almost exclusively with fire-arms, never dreamed of the deadly still hunt, but always killed their game by "running" it.

In former times even the white men of the plains did the most of their buffalo hunting on horseback, using the largest-sized Colt's revolver, sometimes one in each hand, until the repeating-rifle made its appearance, which in a great measure displaced the revolver in running buffalo. But about that time began the mad warfare for "robes" and "hides," and the only fair and sportsmanlike method of hunting was declared too slow for the greedy buffalo-skinners.

Then came the cold-blooded butchery of the still-hunt. From that time on the buffalo as a game animal steadily lost caste. It soon came to be universally considered that there was no sport in hunting buffalo. True enough of still-hunting, where the hunter sneaks up and shoots them down one by one at such long range the report of his big rifle does not even frighten them away. So far as sportsmanlike fairness is concerned, that method was not one whit more elevated than killing game by poison.

Bat the chase on horseback was a different thing. Its successful prosecution demanded a good horse, a bold rider, a firm seat, and perfect familiarity with weapons. The excitement of it was intense, the dangers not to be despised, and, above all, the buffalo had a fair show for his life, or partially so, at least. The mode of attack is easily described.

Whenever the hunters discovered a herd of buffalo, they usually got to leeward of it and quietly rode forward in a body, or stretched out in a regular skirmish line, behind the shelter of a knoll, perhaps, until they had approached the herd as closely as could be done without alarming it. Usually the unsuspecting animals, with a confidence due more to their great numbers than anything else, would allow a party of horsemen to approach within from 200 to 400 yards of their flankers, and then they would start off on a slow trot. The hunters then put spurs to their horses and dashed forward to overtake the herd as quickly as possible. Once up with it, each hunter chooses the best animal within his reach, chases him until his flying steed carries him close alongside, and then the arrow or the bullet is sent into his vitals. The fatal spot is from 12 to 18 inches in circumference, and lies immediately back of the fore leg, with its lowest point on a line with the elbow.

This, the true chase of the buffalo, was not only exciting, but dangerous. It often happened that the hunter found himself surrounded by the flying herd, and in a cloud of dust, so that neither man nor horse could see the ground before them. Under such circumstances fatal accidents to both men and horses were numerous. It was not an uncommon thing for half-breeds to shoot each other in the excitement of the chase; and, while now and then a wounded bull suddenly turned upon his pursuer and overthrew him, the greatest number of casualties were from falls.

Of the dangers involved in running buffalo Colonel Dodge writes as follows:52

"The danger is not so much from the buffalo, which rarely makes an effort to injure his pursuer, as from the fact that neither man nor horse can see the ground, which may be rough and broken, or perforated with prairie-dog or gopher holes. This danger is so imminent, that a man who runs into a herd of buffalo may be said to take his life in his hand. I have never known a man hurt by a buffalo in such a chase. I have known of at least six killed, and a very great many more or less injured, some very severely, by their horses falling with them."

On this point Catlin declares that to engage in running buffalo is "at the hazard of every bone in one's body, to feel the fine and thrilling exhilaration of the chase for a moment, and then as often to upbraid and blame himself for his folly and imprudence."

Previous to my first experience in "running buffalo" I had entertained a mortal dread of ever being called upon to ride a chase across a prairie-dog town. The mouth of a prairie-dog's burrow is amply large to receive the hoof of a horse, and the angle at which the hole descends into the earth makes it just right for the leg of a running horse to plunge into up to the knee and bring down both horse and rider instantly; the former with a broken leg, to say the least of it. If the rider sits loosely, and promptly resigns his seat, he will go flying forward, as if thrown from a catapult, for 20 feet or so, perhaps to escape with a few broken bones, and perhaps to have his neck broken, or his skull fractured on the hard earth. If he sticks tightly to his saddle, his horse is almost certain to fall upon him, and perhaps kill him. Judge, then, my feelings when the first bunch of buffalo we started headed straight across the largest prairie-dog town I had ever seen up to that time. And not only was the ground honey-combed with gaping round holes, but it was also crossed here and there by treacherous ditch-like gullies, cut straight down into the earth to an uncertain depth, and so narrow as to be invisible until it was almost time to leap across them.

But at such a time, with the game thundering along a few rods in advance, the hunter thinks of little else except getting up to it. He looks as far ahead as possible, and helps his horse to avoid dangers, but to a great extent the horse must guide himself. The rider plies his spurs and looks eagerly forward, almost feverish with excitement and eagerness, but at the same time if he is wise he expects a fall, and holds himself in readiness to take the ground with as little damage as he can.

Mr. Catlin gives a most graphic description of a hunting accident, which may fairly be quoted in full as a type of many such. I must say that I fully sympathize with M. Chardon in his estimate of the hardness of the ground he fell upon, for I have a painful recollection of a fall I had from which I arose with the settled conviction that the ground in Montana is the hardest in the world! It seemed more like falling upon cast-iron than prairie turf.

"I dashed along through the thundering mass as they swept away over the plain, scarcely able to tell whether I was on a buffalo's back or my horse, hit and hooked and jostled about, till at length I found myself alongside my game, when I gave him a shot as I passed him.


The Chase On Horseback
From a painting in the National Museum by George Catlin.

I saw guns flash about me in several directions, but I heard them not. Amidst the trampling throng Mons. Chardon had wounded a stately bull, and at this moment was passing him with his piece leveled for another shot. They were both at full speed and I also, within the reach of the muzzle of my gun, when the bull instantly turned, receiving the horse upon his horns, and the ground received poor Chardon, who made a frog's leap of some 20 feet or more over the bull's back and almost under my horse's heels. I wheeled my horse as soon as possible and rode back where lay poor Chardon, gasping to start his breath again, and within a few paces of him his huge victim, with his heels high in the air, and the horse lying across him. I dismounted instantly, but Chardon was raising himself on his hands, with his eyes and mouth full of dirt, and feeling for his gun, which lay about 30 feet in advance of him. 'Heaven spare you! are you hurt, Chardon?' 'Hi-hic-hic-hic-hic-no;-hic-no-no, I believe not. Oh, this is not much, Mons. Cataline-this is nothing new-but this is a d-d hard piece of ground here-hic-oh! hic!' At this the poor fellow fainted, but in a few moments arose, picked up his gun, took his horse by the bit, which then opened its eyes, and with a hic and a ugh-ughk!-sprang upon its feet, shook off the dirt, and here we were, all upon our legs again, save the bull, whose fate had been more sad than that of either."53

The following passage from Mr. Alexander Ross's graphic description of a great hunt,54 in which about four hundred hunters made an onslaught upon a herd, affords a good illustration of the dangers in running buffalo:

"On this occasion the surface was rocky and full of badger-holes. Twenty-three horses and riders were at one moment all sprawling on the ground; one horse, gored by a bull, was killed on the spot; two more were disabled by the fall; one rider broke his shoulder-blade; another burst his gun and lost three of his fingers by the accident; and a third was struck on the knee by an exhausted ball. These accidents will not be thought overnumerous, considering the result, for in the evening no less than thirteen hundred and seventy-five tongues were brought into camp."

It really seems as if the horses of the plains entered willfully and knowingly into the war on the doomed herds. But for the willingness and even genuine eagerness with which the "buffalo horses" of both white men and Indians entered into the chase, hunting on horseback would have been attended with almost insurmountable difficulties, and the results would have been much less fatal to the species. According to all accounts the horses of the Indians and half-breeds were far better trained than those of their white rivals, no doubt owing to the fact that the use of the bow, which required the free use of both hands, was only possible when the horse took the right coarse of his own free will or else could be guided by the pressure of the knees. If we may believe the historians of that period, and there is not the slightest reason to doubt them, the "buffalo horses" of the Indians displayed almost as much intelligence and eagerness in the chase as did their human riders. Indeed, in "running buffalo" with only the bow and arrow, nothing but the willing co-operation of the horse could have possibly made this mode of hunting either satisfactory or successful.

In Lewis and Clarke's Travels, volume II, page 387, appears the following record:

"He [Sergeant Pryor] had found it almost impossible with two men to drive on the remaining horses, for as soon as they discovered a herd of buffaloes the loose horses immediately set off in pursuit of them, and surrounded the buffalo herd with almost as much skill as their riders could have done. At last he was obliged to send one horseman forward and drive all the buffaloes from the route."

The Hon. H. H. Sibley, who once accompanied the Red River half-breeds on their annual hunt, relates the following55:

"One of the hunters fell from his saddle, and was unable to overtake his horse, which continued the chase as if he of himself could accomplish great things, so much do these animals become imbued with a passion for this sport! On another occasion a half-breed left his favorite steed at the camp, to enable him to recruit his strength, enjoining upon his wife the necessity of properly securing the animal, which was not done. Not relishing the idea of being left behind, he started after us and soon was alongside, and thus he continued to keep pace with the hunters in their pursuit of the buffalo, seeming to await with impatience the fall of some of them to the earth. The chase ended, he came neighing to his master, whom he soon singled out, although the men were dispersed here and there for a distance of miles."

Col. R. I. Dodge, in his Plains of the Great West, page 129, describes a meeting with two Mexican buffalo-hunters whose horses were so fleet and so well trained that whenever a herd of buffalo came in sight, instead of shooting their game wherever they came up with it, the one having the best horse would dash into the herd, cut out a fat two-year old, and, with the help of his partner, then actually drive it to their camp before shooting it down. "They had a fine lot of meat and a goodly pile of skins, and they said that every buffalo had been driven into camp and killed as the one I saw. 'It saves a heap of trouble packing the meat to camp,' said one of them, naively."

Probably never before in the history of the world, until civilized man came in contact with the buffalo, did whole armies of men march out in true military style, with officers, flags, chaplains, and rules of war, and make war on wild animals. No wonder the buffalo has been exterminated. So long as they existed north of the Missouri in any considerable number, the half-breeds and Indians of the Manitoba Red River settlement used to gather each year in a great army, and go with carts to the buffalo range. On these great hunts, which took place every year from about the 15th of June to the 1st of September, vast numbers of buffalo were killed, and the supply was finally exhausted. As if Heaven had decreed the extirpation of the species, the half-breed hunters, like their white robe-hunting rivals farther south, always killed cows in preference to bulls so long as a choice was possible, the very course best calculated to exterminate any species in the shortest possible time.

The army of half-breeds and Indians which annually went forth from the Red River settlement to make war on the buffalo was often far larger than the army with which Cortez subdued a great empire. As early as 1846 it had become so great, that it was necessary to divide it into two divisions, one of which, the White Horse Plain division, was accustomed to go west by the Assinniboine River to the "rapids crossing-place," and from there in a southwesterly direction. The Red River division went south to Pembina, and did the most of their hunting in Dakota. The two divisions sometimes met (says Professor Hind), but not intentionally. In 1849 a Mr. Flett took a census of the White Horse Plain division, in Dakota Territory, and found that it contained 603 carts, 700 half-breeds, 200 Indians, 600 horses, 200 oxen, 400 dogs, and 1 cat.

In his "Red River Settlement" Mr. Alexander Ross gives the following census of the number of carts assembled in camp for the buffalo hunt at five different-periods:

Number of carts assembled for the first trip.
In 1820 540
In 1825 680
In 1830 820
In 1835 970
In 1840 1,210

The expedition which was accompanied by Rev. Mr. Belcourt, a Catholic priest, whose account is set forth in the Hon. Mr. Sibley's paper on the buffalo56 was a comparatively small one, which started from Pembina, and very generously took pains not to spoil the prospects of the great Red River division, which was expected to take the field at the same time. This, therefore, was a small party, like others which had already reached the range; but it contained 213 carts, 55 hunters and their families, making 60 lodges in all. This party killed 1,776 cows (bulls not counted, many of which were killed, though "not even a tongue was taken"), which yielded 228 bags of pemmican, 1,213 bales of dried meat, 166 sacks of tallow, and 556 bladders full of marrow. But this was very moderate slaughter, being about 33 buffalo to each family. Even as late as 1872, when buffalo were getting scarce, Mr. Grant57 met a half-breed family on the Qu'Appelle, consisting of man, wife, and seven children, whose six carts were laden with the meat and robes yielded by sixty buffaloes; that number representing this one hunter's share of the spoils of the hunt.

To afford an idea of the truly military character of those Red River expeditions, I have only to quote a page from Prof. Henry Youle Hind:58

"After the start from the settlement has been well made, and all stragglers or tardy hunters have arrived, a great council is held and a president elected. A number of captains are nominated by the president and people jointly. The captains then proceed to appoint their own policemen, the number assigned to each not exceeding ten. Their duties are to see that the laws of the hunt are strictly carried out. In 1840, if a man ran a buffalo without permission before the general hunt began, his saddle and bridle were cut to pieces for the first offense; for the second offense his clothes were cut off his back. At the present day these punishments are changed to a fine of 20 shillings for the first offense. No gun is permitted to be fired when in the buffalo country before the 'race' begins. A priest sometimes goes with the hunt, and mass is then celebrated in the open prairies.

"At night the carts are placed in the form of a circle, with the horses and cattle inside the ring, and it is the duty of the captains and their policemen to see that this is rightly done. All laws are proclaimed in camp, and relate to the hunt alone. All camping orders are given by signal, a flag being carried by the guides, who are appointed by election. Each guide has his tarn of one day, and no man can pass a guide on duty without subjecting himself to a fine of 5 shillings. No hunter can leave the camp to return home without permission, and no one is permitted to stir until any animal or property of value supposed to be lost is recovered. The policemen, at the order of their captains, can seize any cart at night-fall and place it where they choose for the public safety, but on the following morning they are compelled to bring it back to the spot from which they moved it the previous evening. This power is very necessary, in order that the horses may not be stampeded by night attacks of the Sioux or other Indian tribes at war with the half-breeds. A heavy fine is imposed in case of neglect in extinguishing fires when the camp is broken up in the morning.

"In sight of buffalo all the hunters are drawn up in line, the president, captains, and police being a few yards in advance, restraining the impatient hunters. 'Not yet! Not yet!' is the subdued whisper of the president. The approach to the herd is cautiously made. 'Now!' the president exclaims; and as the word leaves his lips the charge is made, and in a few minutes the excited half-breeds are amongst the bewildered buffalo."

"After witnessing one buffalo hunt," says Prof. John Macoun, "I can not blame the half-breed and the Indian for leaving the farm and wildly making for the plains when it is reported that buffalo have crossed the border."

The "great fall hunt" was a regular event with about all the Indian tribes living within striking distance of the buffalo, in the course of which great numbers of buffalo were killed, great quantities of meat dried and made into pemmican, and all the skins taken were tanned in various ways to suit the many purposes they were called upon to serve.

Mr. Francis La Flesche informs me that during the presence of the buffalo in western Nebraska and until they were driven south by the Sioux, the fall hunt of the Omaha was sometimes participated in by three hundred lodges, or about 3,000 people all told, six hundred of whom were warriors, and each of whom generally killed about ten buffaloes. The laws of the hunt were very strict and inexorable. In order that all participants should have an equal chance, it was decreed that any hunter caught "still-hunting" should be soundly flogged. On one occasion an Indian was discovered in the act, but not caught. During the chase which was made to capture him many arrows were fired at him by the police, but being better mounted than his pursuers he escaped, and kept clear of the camp during the remainder of the hunt. On another occasion an Omaha, guilty of the same offense, was chased, and in his effort to escape his horse fell with him in a coulée and broke one of his legs. In spite of the sad plight of the Omaha, his pursuers came up and flogged him, just as if nothing had happened.

After the invention of the Colt's revolver, and breech-loading rifles generally, the chase on horseback speedily became more fatal to the bison than it ever had been before. With such weapons, it was possible to gallop into the midst of a flying herd and, during the course of a run of 2 or 3 miles, discharge from twelve to forty shots at a range of only a few yards, or even a few feet. In this kind of hunting the heavy Navy revolver was the favorite weapon, because it could be held in one hand and fired with far greater precision than could a rifle held in both hands. Except in the hands of an expert, the use of the rifle was limited, and often attended with risk to the hunter; but the revolver was good for all directions; it could very often be used with deadly effect where a rifle could not have been used at all, and, moreover, it left the bridle-hand free. Many cavalrymen and hunters were able to use a revolver with either hand, or one in each hand. Gen. Lew. Wallace preferred the Smith and Wesson in 1867, which he declared to be "the best of revolvers" then.

It was his marvelous skill in shooting buffaloes with a rifle, from the back of a galloping horse, that earned for the Hon. W. F. Cody the sobriquet by which he is now familiarly known to the world-"Buffalo Bill." To the average hunter on horseback the galloping of the horse makes it easy for him to aim at the heart of a buffalo and shoot clear over its back. No other shooting is so difficult, or requires such consummate dexterity as shooting with any kind of a gun, especially a rifle, from the back of a running horse. Let him who doubts this statement try it for himself and he will doubt no more. It was in the chase of the buffalo on horseback, armed with a rifle, that "Buffalo Bill" acquired the marvelous dexterity with the rifle which he has since exhibited in the presence of the people of two continents. I regret that circumstances have prevented my obtaining the exact figures of the great kill of buffaloes that Mr. Cody once made in a single run, in which he broke all previous records in that line, and fairly earned his title. In 1867 he entered into a contract with the Kansas Pacific Railway, then in course of construction through western Kansas, at a monthly salary of $500, to deliver all the buffalo meat that would be required by the army of laborers engaged in building the road. In eighteen mouths he killed 4,280 buffaloes.

Impounding or Killing in Pens. - At first thought it seems hard to believe that it was ever possible for Indians to build pens and drive wild buffaloes into them, as cowboys now corral their cattle, yet such wholesale catches were of common occurrence among the Plains Crees of the south Saskatchewan country, and the same general plan was pursued, with slight modifications, by the Indians of the Assinniboine, Blackfeet, and Gros Ventres, and other tribes of the Northwest. Like the keddah elephant-catching operations in India, this plan was feasible only in a partially wooded country, and where buffalo were so numerous that their presence could be counted upon to a certainty. The "pound" was simply a circular pen, having a single entrance; but being unable to construct a gate of heavy timbers, such as is made to drop and close the entrance to an elephant pen, the Indians very shrewdly got over the difficulty by making the opening at the edge of a perpendicular bank 10 or 12 feet high, easy enough for a buffalo to jump down, but impossible for him to scale afterward. It is hardly probable that Indians who were expert enough to attack and kill buffalo on foot would have been tempted to undertake the labor that building a pound always involved, had it not been for the wild excitement attending captures made in this way, and which were shared to the fullest possible extent by warriors, women, and children alike.

The best description of this method which has come under our notice is that of Professor Hind, who witnessed its practice by the Plains Crees, on the headwaters of the Qu'Appelle River, in 1858. He describes the pound he saw as a fence, constructed of the trunks of trees laced together with green withes, and braced on the outside by props, inclosing a circular space about 120 feet in diameter. It was placed in a pretty dell between sand-hills, and leading from it in two diverging rows (like the guiding wings of an elephant pen) were the two rows of bushes which the Indians designate "dead men," which serve to guide the buffalo into the pound. The "dead men" extended a distance of 4 miles into the prairie. They were placed about 50 feet apart, and the two rows gradually diverged until at their extremities they were from 1½ to 2 miles apart.


Cree Indians Impounding Buffaloes.
Reproduced from Prof. H. Y. Hind's-"Red River, Assinniboine and Saskatchewan Expedition."

"When the skilled hunters are about to bring in a herd of buffalo from the prairie," says Professor Hind, "they direct the course of the gallop of the alarmed animals by confederates stationed in hollows or small depressions, who, when the buffalo appear inclined to take a direction leading from the space marked out by the 'dead men,' show themselves for a moment and wave their robes, immediately hiding again. This serves to turn the buffalo slightly in another direction, and when the animals, having arrived between the rows of 'dead men,' endeavor to pass through them, Indians stationed here and there behind a 'dead man' go through the same operation, and thus keep the animals within the narrowing limits of the converging lines. At the entrance to the pound there is a strong trunk of a tree placed about a foot from the ground, and on the inner side an excavation is made sufficiently deep to prevent the buffalo from leaping back when once in the pound. As soon as the animals have taken the fatal spring, they begin to gallop round and round the ring fence, looking for a chance to escape, but with the utmost silence women and children on the outside hold their robes before every orifice until the whole herd is brought in; then they climb to the top of the fence, and, with the hunters who have followed closely in the rear of the buffalo, spear or shoot with bows and arrows or fire-arms at the bewildered animals, rapidly becoming frantic with rage and terror, within the narrow limits of the pound.

"A dreadful scene of confusion and slaughter then begins; the oldest and strongest animals crush and toss the weaker; the shouts and screams of the excited Indians rise above the roaring of the bulls, the bellowing of the cows, and the piteous moaning of the calves. The dying struggles of so many huge and powerful animals crowded together create a revolting and terrible scene, dreadful from the excess of its cruelty and waste of life, but with occasional displays of wonderful brute strength and rage; while man in his savage, untutored, and heathen state shows both in deed and expression how little he is superior to the noble beasts he so wantonly and cruelly destroys."59

The last scene of the bloody tragedy is thus set forth a week later:

"Within the circular fence ... lay, tossed in every conceivable position, over two hundred dead buffalo. [The exact number was 240.] From old bulls to calves of three months' old, animals of every age were huddled together in all the forced attitudes of violent death. Some lay on their backs, with eyes starting from their heads and tongue thrust out through clotted gore. Others were impaled on the horns of the old and strong bulls. Others again, which had been tossed, were lying with broken backs, two and three deep. One little calf hung suspended on the horns of a bull which had impaled it in the wild race round and round the pound. The Indians looked upon the dreadful and sickening sight with evident delight, and told how such and such a bull or cow had exhibited feats of wonderful strength in the death-struggle. The flesh of many of the cows had been taken from them, and was drying in the sun on stages near the tents. It is needless to say that the odor was overpowering, and millions of large blue flesh-flies, humming and buzzing over the putrefying bodies, was not the least disgusting part of the spectacle."

It is some satisfaction to know that when the first "run" was made, ten days previous, the herd of two hundred buffaloes was no sooner driven into the pound than a wary old bull espied a weak spot in the fence, charged it at full speed, and burst through to freedom and the prairie, followed by the entire herd.

Strange as it may seem to-day, this wholesale method of destroying buffalo was once practiced in Montana. In his memoir on "The American Bison," Mr. J. A. Allen states that as late as 1873, while journeying through that Territory in charge of the Yellowstone Expedition, he "several times met with the remains of these pounds and their converging fences in the region above the mouth of the Big Horn River." Mr. Thomas Simpson states that in 1840 there were three camps of Assinniboine Indians in the vicinity of Carlton House, each of which had its buffalo pound into which they drove forty or fifty animals daily.

The "Surround." - During the last forty years the final extermination of the buffalo has been confidently predicted by not only the observing white man of the West, but also nearly all the Indians and half-breeds who formerly depended upon this animal for the most of the necessities, as well as luxuries, of life. They have seen the great herds driven westward farther and farther, until the plains were left tenantless, and hunger took the place of feasting on the choice tid-bits of the chase. And is it not singular that during this period the Indian tribes were not moved by a common impulse to kill sparingly, and by the exercise of a reasonable economy in the chase to make the buffalo last as long as possible.

But apparently no such thoughts ever entered their minds, so far as they themselves were concerned. They looked with jealous eyes upon the white hunter, and considered him as much of a robber as if they had a brand on every buffalo. It has been claimed by some authors that the Indians killed with more judgment and more care for the future than did the white man, but I fail to find any evidence that such was ever the fact. They all killed wastefully, wantonly, and always about five times as many head as were really necessary for food. It was always the same old story, whenever a gang of Indians needed meat a whole herd was slaughtered, the choicest portions of the finest animals were taken, and about 75 per cent of the whole left to putrefy and fatten the wolves. And now, as we read of the appalling slaughter, one can scarcely repress the feeling of grim satisfaction that arises when we also read that many of the ex-slaughterers are almost starving for the millions of pounds of fat and juicy buffalo meat they wasted a few years ago. Verily, the buffalo is in a great measure avenged already.

The following extract from Mr. Catlin's "North American Indians,"60 I, page 199-200, serves well to illustrate not only a very common and very deadly Indian method of wholesale slaughter-the "surround"-but also to show the senseless destructiveness of Indians even when in a state of semi-starvation, which was brought upon them by similar acts of improvidence and wastefulness.

"The Minatarees, as well as the Mandans, had suffered for some months past for want of meat, and had indulged in the most alarming fears that the herds of buffalo were emigrating so far off from them that there was great danger of their actual starvation, when it was suddenly announced through the village one morning at an early hour that a herd of buffaloes was in sight. A hundred or more young men mounted their horses, with weapons in hand, and steered their course to the prairies.

"The plan of attack, which in this country is familiarly called a surround, was explicitly agreed upon, and the hunters, who were all mounted on their 'buffalo horses' and armed with bows and arrows or long lances, divided into two columns, taking opposite directions, and drew themselves gradually around the herd at a mile or more distance from them, thus forming a circle of horsemen at equal distances apart, who gradually closed in upon them with a moderate pace at a signal given. The unsuspecting herd at length 'got the wind' of the approaching enemy and fled in a mass in the greatest confusion. To the point where they were aiming to cross the line the horsemen were seen, at full speed, gathering and forming in a column, brandishing their weapons, and yelling in the most frightful manner, by which they turned the black and rushing mass, which moved off in an opposite direction, where they were again met and foiled in a similar manner, and wheeled back in utter confusion; by which time the horsemen had closed in from all directions, forming a continuous line around them, whilst the poor affrighted animals were eddying about in a crowded and confused mass, hooking and climbing upon each other, when the work of death commenced. I had rode up in the rear and occupied an elevated position at a few rods' distance, from which I could (like the general of a battlefield) survey from my horse's back the nature and the progress of the grand mêlée, but (unlike him) without the power of issuing a command or in any way directing its issue.

"In this grand turmoil [see illustration] a cloud of dust was soon raised, which in parts obscured the throng where the hunters were galloping their horses around and driving the whizzing arrows or their long lances to the hearts of these noble animals; which in many instances, becoming infuriated with deadly wounds in their sides, erected their shaggy manes over their bloodshot eyes and furiously plunged forward at the sides of their assailants' horses, sometimes goring them to death at a lunge and putting their dismounted riders to flight for their lives. Sometimes their dense crowd was opened, and the blinded horsemen, too intent on their prey amidst the cloud of dust, were hemmed and wedged in amidst the crowding beasts, over whose backs they were obliged to leap for security, leaving their horses to the fate that might await them in the results of this wild and desperate war. Many were the bulls that turned upon their assailants and met them with desperate resistance, and many were the warriors who were dismounted and saved themselves by the superior muscles of their legs; some who were closely pursued by the bulls wheeled suddenly around, and snatching the part of a buffalo robe from around their waists, threw it over the horns and eyes of the infuriated beast, and darting by its side drove the arrow or the lance to its heart; others suddenly dashed off upon the prairie by the side of the affrighted animals which had escaped from the throng, and closely escorting them for a few rods, brought down their heart's blood in streams and their huge carcasses upon the green and enameled turf.

"In this way this grand hunt soon resolved itself into a desperate battle, and in the space of fifteen minutes resulted in the total destruction of the whole herd, which in all their strength and fury were doomed, like every beast and living thing else, to fall before the destroying hands of mighty man.

"I had sat in trembling silence upon my horse and witnessed this extraordinary scene, which allowed not one of these animals to escape out of my sight. Many plunged off upon the prairie for a distance, but were overtaken and killed, and although I could not distinctly estimate the number that were slain, yet I am sure that some hundreds of these noble animals fell in this grand mêlée. Amongst the poor affrighted creatures that had occasionally dashed through the ranks of their enemy and sought safety in flight upon the prairie (and in some instances had undoubtedly gained it), I saw them stand awhile, looking back, when they turned, and, as if bent on their own destruction, retraced their steps, and mingled themselves and their deaths with those of the dying throng. Others had fled to a distance on the prairies, and for want of company, of friends or of foes, had stood and gazed on till the battle-scene was over, seemingly taking pains to stay and hold their lives in readiness for their destroyers until the general destruction was over, when they fell easy victims to their weapons, making the slaughter complete."

It is to be noticed that every animal of this entire herd of several hundred was slain on the spot, and there is no room to doubt that at least half (possibly much more) of the meat thus taken was allowed to become a loss. People who are so utterly senseless as to wantonly destroy their own source of food, as the Indians have done, certainly deserve to starve.

This "surround" method of wholesale slaughter was also practiced by the Cheyenne, Arapahoe, Sioux, Pawnees, Omaha, and probably many other tribes.


The Surround
From a painting in the National Museum by George Catlin.

Decoying and Driving. - Another method of slaughtering by wholesale is thus described by Lewis and Clarke, I, 235. The locality indicated was the Missouri River, in Montana, just above the mouth of Judith River:

"On the north we passed a precipice about 120 feet high, under which lay scattered the fragments of at least one hundred carcasses of buffaloes, although the water which had washed away the lower part of the hill, must have carried off many of the dead. These buffaloes had been chased down a precipice in a way very common on the Missouri, and by which vast herds are destroyed in a moment. The mode of hunting is to select one of the most active and fleet young men, who is disguised by a buffalo skin round his body; the skin of the head with the ears and horns fastened on his own head in such a way as to deceive the buffaloes. Thus dressed, he fixes himself at a convenient distance between a herd of buffaloes and any of the river precipices, which sometimes extend for some miles.

"His companions in the mean time get in the rear and side of the herd, and at a given signal show themselves, and advance towards the buffaloes. They instantly take alarm, and, finding the hunters beside them, they run toward the disguised Indian or decoy, who leads them on at full speed toward the river, when, suddenly securing himself in some crevice of the cliff which he had previously fixed on, the herd is left on the brink of the precipice; it is then in vain for the foremost to retreat or even to stop; they are pressed on by the hindmost rank, who, seeing no danger but from the hunters, goad on those before them till the whole are precipitated and the shore is strewed with their dead bodies. Sometimes in this perilous seduction the Indian is himself either trodden under foot by the rapid movements of the buffaloes, or, missing his footing in the cliff, is urged down the precipice by the falling herd. The Indians then select as much meat as they wish, and the rest is abandoned to the wolves, and creates a most dreadful stench."

Harper's Magazine, volume 38, page 147, contains the following from the pen of Theo. E. Davis, in an article entitled "The Buffalo Range:"

"As I have previously stated, the best hunting on the range is to be found between the Platte and Arkansas Rivers. Here I have seen the Indians have recourse to another method of slaughtering buffalo in a very easy, but to me a cruel way, for where one buffalo is killed several are sure to be painfully injured; but these, too, are soon killed by the Indians, who make haste to lance or shoot the cripples.

"The mode of hunting is somewhat as follows: A herd is discovered grazing on the table-lands. Being thoroughly acquainted with the country, the Indians are aware of the location of the nearest point where the table land is broken abruptly by a precipice which descends a hundred or more feet. Toward this 'devil-jump' the Indians head the herd, which is at once driven pell mell to and over the precipice. Meanwhile a number of Indians have taken their way by means of routes known to them, and succeed in reaching the cañon through which the crippled buffalo are running in all directions. These are quickly killed, so that out of a very considerable band of buffalo but few escape, many having been killed by the fall and others dispatched while limping off. This mode of hunting is sometimes indulged in by harum-scarum white men, but it is done more for deviltry than anything else. I have never known of its practice by army officers or persons who professed to hunt buffalo as a sport."

Hunting on Snow-shoes. - "In the dead of the winters," says Mr. Catlin,61 "which are very long and severely cold in this country, where horses can not be brought into the chase with any avail, the Indian runs upon the surface of the snow by aid of his snow-shoes, which buoy him up, while the great weight of the buffaloes sinks them down to the middle of their sides, and, completely stopping their progress, insures them certain and easy victims to the bow or lance of their pursuers. The snow in these regions often lies during the winter to the depth of 3 and 4 feet, being blown away from the tops and sides of the hills in many places, which are left bare for the buffaloes to graze upon, whilst it is drifted in the hollows and ravines to a very great depth, and rendered almost entirely impassable to these huge animals, which, when closely pursued by their enemies, endeavor to plunge through it, but are soon wedged in and almost unable to move, where they fall an easy prey to the Indian, who runs up lightly upon his snow-shoes and drives his lance to their hearts. The skins are then stripped off, to be sold to the fur traders, and the carcasses left to be devoured by the wolves. [Owing to the fact that the winter's supply of meat was procured and dried in the summer and fall months, the flesh of all buffalo killed in winter was allowed to become a total loss.] This is the season in which the greatest number of these animals are destroyed for their robes; they are most easily killed at this time, and their hair or fur, being longer and more abundant, gives greater value to the robe."


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.

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

Extermination of the American Bison

 

Copyright 2000- by NaNations.com and/or their author(s). The webpages may be linked to but shall not be reproduced on another site without written permission from NaNations or their author. Images may not be linked to in any manner or method. Anyone may use the information provided here freely for personal use only. If you plan on publishing your personal information to the web please give proper credit to our site for providing this information. Thanks!!!