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
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
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
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
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
|"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
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
Uses of bison's hair.
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
"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.
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.
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
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Extermination of the American Bison,
1886-’87, By William T. Hornaday, Government Printing Office,
Extermination of the American Bison