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Utilization of the Buffalo by White Men

 Native American Nations | Extermination of the American Bison                    



Ordinarily the skin of a large ruminant is of little value in comparison with the bulk of toothsome flesh it covers. In fattening domestic cattle for the market, the value of the hide is so insignificant that it amounts to no more than a butcher's perquisite in reckoning up the value of the animal. With the buffalo, however, so enormous was the waste of the really available product that probably nine-tenths of the total value derived from the slaughter of the animal came from his skin alone. Of this, about four-fifths came from the utilization of the furry robe and one-fifth from skins classed as "hides," which were either taken in the summer season, when the hair was very short or almost absent, and used for the manufacture of leather and leather goods, or else were the poorly-furred skins of old bulls.

The season for robe-taking was from October 15 to February 15, and a little later in the more northern latitudes. In the United States the hair of the buffalo was still rather short up to the first of November; but by the middle of November it was about at its finest as to length, density, color, and freshness. The Montana hunters considered that the finest robes were those taken from November 15 to December 15. Before the former date the hair had not quite attained perfection in length, and after the latter it began to show wear and lose color. The winter storms of December and January began to leave their mark upon the robes by the 1st of February, chiefly by giving the hair a bleached and weathered appearance. By the middle of February the pelage was decidedly on the wane, and the robe-hunter was also losing his energy. Often, however, the hunt was kept up until the middle of March, until either the deterioration of the quality of the robe, the migration of the herds northward, or the hunter's longing to return "to town" and "clean up," brought the hunt to an end.

On the northern buffalo range, the hunter, or "buffalo skinner," removed the robe in the following manner:

When the operator had to do his work alone, which was almost always the case, he made haste to skin his victims while they were yet warm, if possible, and before rigor mortis had set in; but, at all hazards, before they should become hard frozen. With a warm buffalo he could easily do his work single-handed, but with one rigid or frozen stiff it was a very different matter.

His first act was to heave the carcass over until it lay fairly upon its back, with its feet up in the air. To keep it in that position he wrenched the head violently around to one side, close against the shoulder, at the point where the hump was highest and the tendency to roll the greatest, and used it very effectually as a chock to keep the body from rolling back upon its side. Having fixed the carcass in position he drew forth his steel, sharpened his sharp-pointed "ripping-knife," and at once proceeded to make all the opening cuts in the skin. Each leg was girdled to the bone, about 8 inches above the hoof, and the skin of the leg ripped open from that point along the inside to the median line of the body. A long, straight cut was then made along the middle of the breast and abdomen, from the root of the tail to the chin. In skinning cows and young animals, nothing but the skin of the forehead and nose was left on the skull, the skin of the throat and cheeks being left on the hide; but in skinning old bulls, on whose heads the skin was very thick and tough, the whole head was left unskinned, to save labor and time. The skin of the neck was severed in a circle around the neck, just behind the ears. It is these huge heads of bushy brown hair, looking, at a little distance, quite black, in sharp contrast with the ghastly whiteness of the perfect skeletons behind them, which gives such a weird and ghostly appearance to the lifeless prairies of Montana where the bone-gatherer has not yet done his perfect work. The skulls of the cows and young buffaloes are as clean and bare as if they had been carefully macerated, and bleached by a skilled osteologist.

A Dead Bull.
From a photograph by L. A. Huffman.

Buffalo Skinners at Work.
From a photograph by L. A. Huffman.

The opening cuts having been made, the broad-pointed "skinning-knife" was duly sharpened, and with it the operator fell to work to detach the skin from the body in the shortest possible time. The tail was always skinned and left on the hide. As soon as the skin was taken off it was spread out on a clean, smooth, and level spot of ground, and stretched to its fullest extent, inside uppermost. On the northern range, very few skins were "pegged out," i. e., stretched thoroughly and held by means of wooden pegs driven through the edges of the skin into the earth. It was practiced to a limited extent on the southern range during the latter part of the great slaughter, when buffaloes were scarce and time abundant. Ordinarily, however, there was no time for pegging, nor were pegs available on the range to do the work with. A warm skin stretched on the curly buffalo-grass, hair side down, sticks to the ground of itself until it has ample time to harden. On the northern range the skinner always cut the initials of his outfit in the thin subcutaneous muscle which was always found adhering to the skin on each side, and which made a permanent and very plain mark of ownership.

In the south, the traders who bought buffalo robes on the range sometimes rigged up a rude press, with four upright posts and a huge lever, in which robes that had been folded into a convenient size were pressed into bales, like bales of cotton. These could be transported by wagon much more economically than could loose robes. An illustration of this process is given in an article by Theodore R. Davis, entitled "The Buffalo Range," in Harper's Magazine for January, 1869, Vol. xxxviii, p. 163. The author describes the process as follows:

"As the robes are secured, the trader has them arranged in lots of ten each, with but little regard for quality other than some care that particularly fine robes do not go too many in one lot. These piles are then pressed into a compact bale by means of a rudely constructed affair composed of saplings and a chain."

On the northern range, skins were not folded until the time came to haul them in. Then the hunter repaired to the scene of his winter's work, with a wagon surmounted by a hay-rack (or something like it), usually drawn by four horses. As the skins were gathered up they were folded once, lengthwise down the middle, with the hair inside. Sometimes as many as 100 skins were hauled at one load by four horses.

On one portion of the northern range the classification of buffalo peltries was substantially as follows: Under the head of robes was included all cow skins taken during the proper season, from one year old upward, [Pg 444]and all bull skins from one to three years old. Bull skins over three years of age were classed as hides, and while the best of them were finally tanned and used as robes, the really poor ones were converted into leather. The large robes, when tanned, were used very generally throughout the colder portions of North America as sleigh robes and wraps, and for bedding in the regions of extreme cold. The small robes, from the young animals, and likewise many large robes, were made into overcoats, at once the warmest and the most cumbersome that ever enveloped a human being. Thousands of old bull robes were tanned with the hair on, and the body portions were made into overshoes, with the woolly hair inside-absurdly large and uncouth, but very warm.

I never wore a pair of buffalo overshoes without being torn by conflicting emotions-mortification at the ridiculous size of my combined foot-gear, big boots inside of huge overshoes, and supreme comfort derived from feet that were always warm.

Besides the ordinary robe, the hunters and fur buyers of Montana recognized four special qualities, as follows:

The "beaver robe," with exceedingly fine, wavy fur, the color of a beaver, and having long, coarse, straight hairs coming through it. The latter were of course plucked out in the process of manufacture. These were very rare. In 1882 Mr. James McNaney took one, a cow robe, the only one out of 1,200 robes taken that season, and sold it for $75, when ordinary robes fetched only $3.50.

The "black-and-tan robe" is described as having the nose, flanks, and inside of fore legs black-and-tan (whatever that may mean), while the remainder of the robe is jet black.

A "buckskin robe" is from what is always called a "white buffalo," and is in reality a dirty cream color instead of white. A robe of this character sold in Miles City in 1882 for $200, and was the only one of that character taken on the northern range during that entire winter. A very few pure white robes have been taken, so I have been told, chiefly by Indians, but I have never seen one.

A "blue robe" or "mouse-colored (?) robe" is one on which the body color shows a decidedly bluish cast, and at the same time has long, fine fur. Out of his 1,200 robes taken in 1882, Mr. McNaney picked out 12 which passed muster as the much sought for blue robes, and they sold at $16 each.

As already intimated, the price paid on the range for ordinary buffalo skins varied according to circumstances, and at different periods, and in different localities, ranged all the way from 65 cents to $10. The latter figure was paid in Texas in 1887 for the last lot of "robes" ever taken. The lowest prices ever paid were during the tremendous slaughter which annihilated the southern herd. Even as late as 1876, in the southern country, cow robes brought on the range only from 65 to 90 cents, and bull robes $1.15. On the northern range, from 1881 to 1883, the prices paid were much higher, ranging from $2.50 to $4.

Five Minutes' Work.
Photographed by L. A. Huffman.

Scene on the Northern Buffalo Range.
Photographed by L. A. Huffman.

A few hundred dressed robes still remain in the hands of some of the largest fur dealers in New York, Chicago, and Montreal, which can be purchased at prices much lower than one would expect, considering the circumstances. In 1888, good robes, Indian tanned, were offered in New York at prices ranging from $15 to $30, according to size and quality, but in Montreal no first-class robes were obtainable at less than $40.


Next in importance to robes was the class of skins known commercially as hides. Under this head were classed all skins which for any reason did not possess the pelage necessary to a robe, and were therefore fit only for conversion into leather. Of these, the greater portion consisted of the skins of old bulls on which the hair was of poor quality and the skin itself too thick and heavy to ever allow of its being made into a soft, pliable, and light-weight robe. The remaining portion of the hides marketed were from buffaloes killed in spring and summer, when the body and hindquarters ware almost naked.

Apparently the quantity of summer-killed hides marketed was not very great, for it was only the meanest and most unprincipled ones of the grand army of buffalo-killers who were mean enough to kill buffaloes in summer simply for their hides. It is said that at one time summer-killing was practiced on the southern range to an extent that became a cause for alarm to the great body of more respectable hunters, and the practice was frowned upon so severely that the wretches who engaged in it found it wise to abandon it.


Next in importance to robes and hides was the bone product, the utilization of which was rendered possible by the rigorous climate of the buffalo plains. Under the influence of the wind and sun and the extremes of heat and cold, the flesh remaining upon a carcass dried up, disintegrated, and fell to dust, leaving the bones of almost the entire skeleton as clean and bare as if they had been stripped of flesh by some powerful chemical process. Very naturally, no sooner did the live buffaloes begin to grow scarce than the miles of bleaching' bones suggested the idea of finding a use for them. A market was readily found for them in the East, and the prices paid per ton were sufficient to make the business of bone-gathering quite remunerative. The bulk of the bone product was converted into phosphate for fertilizing purposes, but much of it was turned into carbon for use in the refining of sugar.

The gathering of bones became a common industry as early as 1872, during which year 1,135,300 pounds were shipped over the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fé Railroad. In the year following the same road shipped 2,743,100 pounds, and in 1874 it handled 6,914,950 pounds more. This trade continued from that time on until the plains have been gleaned so far back from the railway lines that it is no longer profitable to seek them. For that matter, however, it is said that south of the Union Pacific nothing worth the seeking now remains.

The building of the Northern Pacific Railway made possible the shipment of immense quantities of dry bones. Even as late as 1886 overland travelers saw at many of the stations between Jamestown, Dakota, and Billings, Montana, immense heaps of bones lying alongside the track awaiting shipment. In 1885 a single firm shipped over 200 tons of bones from Miles City.

The valley of the Missouri River was gleaned by teamsters who gathered bones from as far back as 100 miles and hauled them to the river for shipment on the steamers. An operator who had eight wagons in the business informed me that in order to ship bones on the river steamers it was necessary to crush them, and that for crushed bones, shipped in bags, a Michigan fertilizer company paid $18 per ton. Uncrushed bones, shipped by the railway, sold for $12 per ton.

It is impossible to ascertain the total amount or value of the bone product, but it is certain that it amounted to many thousand tons, and in value must have amounted to some hundreds of thousands of dollars. But for the great number of railroads, river steamers, and sea-going vessels (from Texas ports) engaged in carrying this product, it would have cut an important figure in the commerce of the country, but owing to the many interests between which it was divided it attracted little attention.


The amount of fresh buffalo meat cured and marketed was really very insignificant. So long as it was to be had at all it was so very abundant that it was worth only from 2 to 3 cents per pound in the market, and many reasons combined to render the trade in fresh buffalo meat anything but profitable. Probably not more than one one-thousandth of the buffalo meat that might have been saved and utilized was saved. The buffalo carcasses that were wasted on the great plains every year during the two great periods of slaughter (of the northern and southern herds) would probably have fed to satiety during the entire time more than a million persons.

As to the quality of buffalo meat, it may be stated in general terms that it differs in no way whatever from domestic beef of the same age produced by the same kind of grass. Perhaps there is no finer grazing ground in the world than Montana, and the beef it produces is certainly entitled to rank with the best. There are many persons who claim to recognize a difference between the taste of buffalo meat and domestic beef; but for my part I do not believe any difference really exists, unless it is that the flesh of the buffalo is a little sweeter and more juicy. As for myself, I feel certain I could not tell the difference between the flesh of a three-year old buffalo and that of a domestic beef of the same age, nor do I believe any one else could, even on a wager. Having once seen a butcher eat an elephant steak in the belief that it was beef from his own shop, and another butcher eat loggerhead turtle steak for beef, I have become somewhat skeptical in regard to the intelligence of the human palate.

As a matter of experiment, during our hunt for buffalo we had buffalo meat of all ages, from one year up to eleven, cooked in as many different ways as our culinary department could turn out. We had it broiled, fried with batter, roasted, boiled, and stewed. The last method, when employed upon slices of meat that had been hacked from a frozen hind-quarter, produced results that were undeniably tough and not particularly good. But it was an unfair way to cook any kind of meat, and may be guarantied to spoil the finest beef in the world.

Hump meat from a cow buffalo not too old, cut in slices and fried in batter, a la cowboy, is delicious-a dish fit for the gods. We had tongues in plenty, but the ordinary meat was so good they were not half appreciated. Of course the tenderloin was above criticism, and even the round steaks, so lightly esteemed by the epicure, were tender and juicy to a most satisfactory degree.

It has been said that the meat of the buffalo has a coarser texture or "grain" than domestic beef. Although I expected to find such to be the case, I found no perceptible difference whatever, nor do I believe that any exists. As to the distribution of fat I am unable to say, for the reason that our buffaloes were not fat.

It is highly probable that the distribution of fat through the meat, so characteristic of the shorthorn breeds, and which has been brought about only by careful breeding, is not found in either the beef of the buffalo or common range cattle. In this respect, shorthorn beef no doubt surpasses both the others mentioned, but in all other points, texture, flavor, and general tenderness, I am very sure it does not.

It is a great mistake for a traveler to kill a patriarchal old bull buffalo, and after attempting to masticate a small portion of him to rise up and declare that buffalo meat is coarse, tough, and dry. A domestic bull of the same age would taste as tough. It is probably only those who have had the bad taste to eat bull-beef who have ever found occasion to asperse the reputation of Bison americanus as a beef animal.

Until people got tired of them, buffalo tongues were in considerable demand, and hundreds, if not even thousands, of barrels of them were shipped east from the buffalo country.


Out of the enormous waste of good buffalo flesh one product stands forth as a redeeming feature-pemmican. Although made almost exclusively by the half-breeds and Indians of the Northwest it constituted a regular article of commerce of great value to overland travelers, and was much sought for as long as it was produced. Its peculiar "staying powers," due to the process of its manufacture, which yielded a most nourishing food in a highly condensed form, made it of inestimable value to the overland traveler who must travel light or not at all. A handful of pemmican was sufficient food to constitute a meal when provisions were at all scarce. The price of pemmican in Winnipeg was once as low as 2d. per pound, but in 1883 a very small quantity which was brought in sold at 10 cents per pound. This was probably the last buffalo pemmican made. H. M. Robinson states that in 1878 pemmican was worth 1s. 3d. per pound.

The manufacture of pemmican, as performed by the Red River half-breeds, was thus described by the Rev. Mr. Belcourt, a Catholic priest, who once accompanied one of the great buffalo-hunting expeditions:45

"Other portions which are destined to be made into pimikehigan, or pemmican, are exposed to an ardent heat, and thus become brittle and easily reducible to small particles by the use of a flail, the buffalo-hide answering the purpose of a threshing-floor. The fat or tallow, being cut up and melted in large kettles of sheet iron, is poured upon this pounded meat, and the whole mass is worked together with shovels until it is well amalgamated, when it is pressed, while still warm, into bags made of buffalo skin, which are strongly sewed up, and the mixture gradually cools and becomes almost as hard as a rock. If the fat used in this process is that taken from the parts containing the udder, the meat is called fine pemmican. In some cases, dried fruits, such as the prairie pear and cherry, are intermixed, which forms what is called seed pemmican. The lovers of good eating judge the first described to be very palatable; the second, better; the third, excellent. A taurean of pemmican weighs from 100 to 110 pounds. Some idea may be formed of the immense destruction of buffalo by these people when it is stated that a whole cow yields one-half a bag of pemmican and three fourths of a bundle of dried meat; so that the most economical calculate that from eight to ten cows are required for the load of a single vehicle."

It is quite evident from the testimony of disinterested travelers that ordinary pemmican was not very palatable to one unaccustomed to it as a regular article of food. To the natives, however, especially the Canadian voyageur, it formed one of the most valuable food products of the country, and it is said that the demand for it was generally greater than the supply.

Dried, or "jerked" meat.

The most popular and universal method of curing buffalo meat was to cut it into thin flakes, an inch or less in thickness and of indefinite length, and without salting it in the least to hang it over poles, ropes, wicker-frames, or even clumps of standing sage brush, and let it dry in the sun. This process yielded the famous "jerked" meat so common throughout the West in the early days, from the Rio Grande to the Saskatchewan. Father Belcourt thus described the curing process as it was practiced by the half-breeds and Indians of the Northwest:

"The meat, when taken to camp, is cut by the women into long strips about a quarter of an inch thick, which are hung upon the lattice-work prepared for that purpose to dry. This lattice-work is formed of small pieces of wood, placed horizontally, transversely, and equidistant from each other, not unlike an immense gridiron, and is supported by wooden uprights (trepieds). In a few days the meat is thoroughly desiccated, when it is bent into proper lengths and tied into bundles of 60 or 70 pounds weight. This is called dried meat (viande seche). To make the hide into parchment (so called) it is stretched on a frame, and then scraped on the inside with a piece of sharpened bone and on the outside with a small but sharp-curved iron, proper to remove the hair. This is considered, likewise, the appropriate labor of women. The men break the bones, which are boiled in water to extract the marrow to be used for frying and other culinary purposes. The oil is then poured into the bladder of the animal, which contains, when filled, about 12 pounds, being the yield of the marrow-bones of two buffaloes."

In the Northwest Territories dried meat, which formerly sold at 2d. per pound, was worth in 1878 10d. per pound.

Although I have myself prepared quite a quantity of jerked buffalo meat, I never learned to like it. Owing to the absence of salt in its curing, the dried meat when pounded and made into a stew has a "far away" taste which continually reminds one of hoofs and horns. For all that, and despite its resemblance in flavor to Liebig's Extract of Beef, it is quite good, and better to the taste than ordinary pemmican.

The Indians formerly cured great quantities of buffalo meat in this way-in summer, of course, for use in winter-but the advent of that popular institution called "Government beef" long ago rendered it unnecessary for the noble red man to exert his squaw in that once honorable field of labor.

During the existence of the buffalo herds a few thrifty and enterprising white men made a business of killing buffaloes in summer and drying the meat in bulk, in the same manner which to-day produces our popular "dried beef." Mr. Allen states that "a single hunter at Hays City shipped annually for some years several hundred barrels thus prepared, which the consumers probably bought for ordinary beef."

Uses of bison's hair.

Numerous attempts have been made to utilize the woolly hair of the bison in the manufacture of textile fabrics. As early as 1729 Col. William Byrd records the fact that garments were made of this material, as follows:

"The Hair growing upon his Head and Neck is long and Shagged, and so Soft that it will spin into Thread not unlike Mohair, and might be wove into a sort of Camlet. Some People have Stockings knit of it, that would have served an Israelite during his forty Years march thro' the Wilderness."46

In 1637 Thomas Morton published, in his "New English Canaan," p. 98,47 the following reference to the Indians who live on the southern shore of Lake Erocoise, supposed to be Lake Ontario:

"These Beasts [buffaloes, undoubtedly] are of the bignesse of a Cowe, their flesh being very good foode, their hides good lether, their fleeces very usefull, being a kind of wolle, as fine as the wolle of the Beaver, and the Salvages doe make garments thereof."

Professor Allen quotes a number of authorities who have recorded statements in regard to the manufacture of belts, garters, scarfs, sacks, etc., from buffalo wool by various tribes of Indians.48 He also calls attention to the only determined efforts ever made by white men on a liberal scale for the utilization of buffalo "wool" and its manufacture into cloth, an account of which appears in Ross's "Red River Settlement," pp. 69-72. In 1821 some of the more enterprising of the Red River (British) colonists conceived the idea of making fortunes out of the manufacture of woolen goods from the fleece of the buffalo, and for that purpose organized the Buffalo Wool Company, the principal object of which was declared to be "to provide a substitute for wool, which substitute was to be the wool of the wild buffalo, which was to be collected in the plains and manufactured both for the use of the colonists and for export." A large number of skilled workmen of various kinds were procured from England, and also a plant of machinery and materials. When too late, it was found that the supply of buffalo wool obtainable was utterly insufficient, the raw wool costing the company 1s. 6d. per pound, and cloth which it cost the company £2 10s. per yard to produce was worth only 4s. 6d. per yard in England. The historian states that universal drunkenness on the part of all concerned aided very materially in bringing about the total failure of the enterprise in a very short time.

While it is possible to manufacture the fine, woolly fur of the bison into cloth or knitted garments, provided a sufficient supply of the raw material could be obtained (which is and always has been impossible), nothing could be more visionary than an attempt to thus produce salable garments at a profit.

Articles of wearing apparel made of buffalo's hair are interesting as curiosities, for their rarity makes them so, but that is the only end they can ever serve so long as there is a sheep living.

In the National Museum, in the section of animal products, there is displayed a pair of stockings made in Canada from the finest buffalo wool, from the body of the animal. They are thick, heavy, and full of the coarse, straight hairs, which it seems can never be entirely separated from the fine wool. In general texture they are as coarse as the coarsest sheep's wool would produce.

With the above are also displayed a rope-like lariat, made by the Comanche Indians, and a smaller braided lasso, seemingly a sample more than a full-grown lariat, made by the Otoe Indians of Nebraska. Both of the above are made of the long, dark-brown hair of the head and shoulders, and in spite of the fact that they have been twisted as hard as possible, the ends of the hairs protrude so persistently that the surface of each rope is extremely hairy.

Buffalo chips.

Last, but by no means least in value to the traveler on the treeless plains, are the droppings of the buffalo, universally known as "buffalo chips." When over one year old and thoroughly dry, this material makes excellent fuel. Usually it occurs only where fire-wood is unobtainable, and thousands of frontiersmen have a million times found it of priceless value. When dry, it catches easily, burns readily, and makes a hot fire with but very little smoke, although it is rapidly consumed. Although not as good for a fire as even the poorest timber it is infinitely better than sage-brush, which, in the absence of chips, is often the traveler's last resort.

It usually happens that chips are most-abundant in the sheltered creek-bottoms and near the water-holes, the very situations which travelers naturally select for their camps. In these spots the herds have gathered either for shelter in winter or for water in summer, and remained in a body for some hours. And now, when the cowboy on the round-up, the surveyor, or hunter, who must camp out, pitches his tent in the grassy coulée or narrow creek-bottom, his first care is to start out with his largest gunning bag to "rustle some buffalo chips" for a campfire. He, at least, when he returns well laden with the spoil of his humble chase, still has good reason to remember the departed herd with feelings of gratitude. Thus even the last remains of this most useful animal are utilized by man in providing for his own imperative wants.

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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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