It may fairly be supposed that if the people of this country
could have been made to realize the immense money value of the great
buffalo herds as they existed in 1870, a vigorous and successful
effort would have been made to regulate and restrict the slaughter.
The fur seal of Alaska, of which about 100,000 are killed annually
for their skins, yield an annual revenue to the Government of
$100,000 and add $900,000 more to the actual wealth of the United
States. It pays to protect those seals, and we mean to protect them
against all comers who seek their unrestricted slaughter, no matter
whether the poachers be American, English, Russian, or Canadian. It
would be folly to do otherwise, and if those who would exterminate
the fur seal by shooting them in the water will not desist for the
telling, then they must by the compelling.
The fur seal is a good investment for the United States, and their
number is not diminishing. As the buffalo herds existed in 1870,
500,000 head of bulls, young and old, could have been killed every
year for a score of years without sensibly diminishing the size of
the herds. At a low estimate these could easily have been made to
yield various products worth $5 each, as follows: Kobe, $2.50;
tongue, 20 cents; meat of hindquarters, $2; bones, horns, and hoofs,
25 cents; total, $5. And the amount annually added to the wealth of
the United States would have been $2,500,000.
On all the robes taken for the market, say, 200,000, the Government
could have collected a tax of 50 cents each, which would have
yielded a sum doubly sufficient to have maintained a force of
mounted police fully competent to enforce the laws regulating the
slaughter. Had a contract for the protection of the buffalo been
offered at $50,000 per annum, ay, or even half that sum, an army of
competent men would have competed for it every year, and it could
have been carried out to the letter. But, as yet, the American
people have not learned to spend money for the protection of
valuable game; and by the time they do learn it, there will be no
game to protect.
Even despite the enormous waste of raw material that ensued in the
utilization of the buffalo product, the total cash value of all the
material derived from this source, if it could only be reckoned up,
would certainly amount to many millions of dollars-perhaps twenty
millions, all told. This estimate may, to some, seem high, but when
we stop to consider that in eight years, from 1876 to 1884, a single
firm, that of Messrs. J. & A. Boskowitz, 105 Greene street, New
York, paid out the enormous sum of $923,070 (nearly one million) for
robes and hides, and that in a single year (1882) another firm, that
of Joseph Ullman, 165 Mercer street, New York, paid out $216,250 for
robes and hides, it may not seem so incredible.
Had there been a deliberate plan for the suppression of all
statistics relating to the slaughter of buffalo in the United
States, and what it yielded, the result could not have been more
complete barrenness than exists to-day in regard to this subject.
There is only one railway company which kept its books in such a
manner as to show the kind and quantity of its business at that
time. Excepting this, nothing is known definitely.
Fortunately, enough facts and figures were recorded during the
hunting operations of the Red River half-breeds to enable us, by
bringing them all together, to calculate with sufficient exactitude
the value of the buffalo to them from 1820 to 1840. The result ought
to be of interest to all who think it is not worth while to spend
money in preserving our characteristic game animals.
In Ross's "Red River Settlement," pp. 242-273, and Schoolcraft's
"North American Indians," Part iv, pp. 101-110, are given detailed
accounts of the conduct and results of two hunting expeditions by
the half-breeds, with many valuable statistics. On this data we base
Taking the result of one particular day's slaughter as an index to
the methods of the hunters in utilizing the products of the chase,
we find that while "not less than 2,500 animals were killed," out of
that number only 375 bags of pemmican and 240 bales of dried meat
were made. "Now," says Mr. Ross," making all due allowance for
waste, 750 animals would have been ample for such a result. What,
then, we might ask, became of the remaining 1,750! Scarcely
one-third in number of the animals killed is turned to account."
A bundle of dried meat weighs 60 to 70 pounds, and a bag of pemmican
100 to 110 pounds. If economically worked up, a whole buffalo cow
yields half a bag of pemmican (about 55 pounds) and three-fourths of
a bundle of dried meat (say 45 pounds). The most economical
calculate that from eight to ten cows are required to load a single
Red River cart. The proceeds of 1,776 cows once formed 228 bags of
pemmican, 1,213 bales of dried meat, 166 sacks of tallow, each
weighing 200 pounds, 556 bladders of marrow weighing 12 pounds each,
and the value of the whole was $8,160. The total of the above
statement is 132,057 pounds of buffalo product for 1,776 cows, or
within a fraction of 75 pounds to each cow. The bulls and young
animals killed were not accounted for.
The expedition described by Mr. Ross contained 1,210 carts and 620
hunters, and returned with 1,089,000 pounds of meat, making 900
pounds for each cart, and 200 pounds for each individual in the
expedition, of all ages and both sexes. Allowing, as already
ascertained, that of the above quantity of product every 75 pounds
represents one cow saved and two and one third buffaloes wasted, it
means that 14,520 buffaloes were killed and utilized and 33,250
buffaloes were killed and eaten fresh or wasted, and 47,770
buffaloes were killed by 620 hunters, or an average of 77 buffaloes
to each hunter. The total number of buffaloes killed for each cart
Allowing, what was actually the case, that every buffalo killed
would, if properly cared for, have yielded meat, fat, and robe worth
at least $5, the total value of the buffaloes slaughtered by that
expedition amounted to $258,850, and of which the various products
actually utilized represented a cash value of $72,001 added to the
wealth of the Red River half-breeds.
In 1820 there went 540 carts to the buffalo plains; in 1825, 680; in
1830, 820; in 1835, 970; in 1840, 1,210.
From 1820 to 1825 the average for each year was 610; from 1825 to
1830, 750; from 1830 to 1835, 895; from 1835 to 1840, 1,000.
Accepting the statements of eye-witnesses that for every buffalo
killed two and one-third buffaloes are wasted or eaten on the spot,
and that every loaded cart represented thirty-nine dead buffaloes
which were worth when utilized $5 each, we have the following series
From 1820 to 1825 five expeditions, of 610 carts each, killed
118,950 buffaloes, worth $594,750.
From 1825 to 1830 five expeditions, of 750 carts each, killed
146,250 buffaloes, worth $731,250.
From 1830 to 1835 five expeditions, of 895 carts each, killed
174,525 buffaloes, worth $872,625.
From 1835 to 1840 five expeditions, of 1,090 carts each, killed
212,550 buffaloes, worth $1,062,750.
Total number of buffaloes killed in twenty years,43
$652,275; total value of buffaloes killed in twenty years,
$3,261,375; total value of the product utilized43
and added to the wealth of the settlements, $978,412.
The Eskimo has his seal, which yields nearly everything that he
requires; the Korak of Siberia depends for his very existence upon
his reindeer; the Ceylon native has the cocoa-nut palm, which leaves
him little else to desire, and the North American Indian had the
American, bison. If any animal was ever designed by the hand of
nature for the express purpose of supplying, at one stroke, nearly
all the wants of an entire race, surely the buffalo was intended for
And right well was this gift of the gods utilized by the children of
nature to whom it came. Up to the time when the United States
Government began to support our Western Indians by the payment of
annuities and furnishing quarterly supplies of food, clothing,
blankets, cloth, tents, etc., the buffalo had been the main
dependence of more than 50,000 Indians who inhabited the buffalo
range and its environs. Of the many different uses to which the
buffalo and his various parts were, put by the red man, the
following were the principal ones:
|The body of the buffalo yielded fresh meat, of which
thousands of tons were consumed; dried meat, prepared in
summer for winter use; pemmican (also prepared in
summer), of meat, fat, and berries; tallow, made up into
large balls or sacks, and kept in store; marrow,
preserved in bladders; and tongues, dried and smoked,
and eaten as a delicacy.
The skin of the buffalo yielded a robe, dressed with the
hair on, for clothing and bedding; a hide, dressed
without the hair, which made a teepee cover, when a
number were sewn together; boats, when sewn together in
a green state, over a wooden framework. Shields, made
[Pg 438]from the thickest portions, as rawhide; ropes,
made up as rawhide; clothing of many kinds; bags for use
in traveling; coffins, or winding sheets for the dead,
Other portions utilized were sinews, which furnished
fiber for ropes, thread, bow-strings, snow-shoe webs,
etc.; hair, which was sometimes made into belts and
ornaments; "buffalo chips," which formed a valuable and
highly-prized fuel; bones, from which many articles of
use and ornament were made; horns, which were made into
spoons, drinking vessels, etc.
After the United States Government began to support the
buffalo-hunting Indians with annuities and supplies, the woolen
blanket and canvas tent took the place of the buffalo robe and the
skin-covered teepee, and "Government beef" took the place of buffalo
meat. But the slaughter of buffaloes went on just the same, and the
robes and hides taken were traded for useless and often harmful
luxuries, such as canned provisions, fancy knickknacks, whisky,
fire-arms of the most approved pattern, and quantities of fixed
ammunition. During the last ten years of the existence of the herds
it is an open question whether the buffalo did not do our Indians
more harm than good. Amongst the Crows, who were liberally provided
for by the Government, horse racing was a common pastime, and the
stakes were usually dressed buffalo robes.44
The total disappearance of the buffalo has made no perceptible
difference in the annual cost of the Indians to the Government.
During the years when buffaloes were numerous and robes for the
purchase of fire-arms and cartridges were plentiful, Indian wars
were frequent, and always costly to the Government. The Indians were
then quite independent, because they could take the war path at any
time and live on buffalo indefinitely. Now, the case is very
different. The last time Sitting Bull went on the war-path and was
driven up into Manitoba, he had the doubtful pleasure of living on
his ponies and dogs until he became utterly starved out. Since his
last escapade, the Sioux have been compelled to admit that the game
is up and the war-path is open to them no longer. Should they wish
to do otherwise they know that they could survive only by killing
cattle, and cattle that are guarded by cowboys and ranchmen are no
man's game. Therefore, while we no longer have to pay for an annual
campaign in force against hostile Indians, the total absence of the
buffalo brings upon the nation the entire support of the Indian, and
the cash outlay each year is as great as ever.
The value of the American bison to civilized man can never be
calculated, nor even fairly estimated. It may with safety be said,
however, that it has been probably tenfold greater than most persons
have ever supposed. It would be a work of years to gather statistics
of the immense bulk of robes and hides, undoubtedly amounting to
millions in the aggregate; the thousands of tons of meat, and the
train-loads of bones which have been actually utilized by man. Nor
can the effect of the bison's presence upon the general development
of the great West ever be calculated. It has sunk into the great sum
total of our progress, and well nigh lost to sight forever.
As a mere suggestion of the immense value of "the buffalo product"
at the time when it had an existence, I have obtained from two of
our leading fur houses in New York City, with branches elsewhere, a
detailed statement of their business in buffalo robes and hides
during the last few years of the trade. They not only serve to show
the great value of the share of the annual crop that passed through
their hands, but that of Messrs. J. & A. Boskowitz is of especial
value, because, being carefully itemized throughout, it shows the
decline and final failure of the trade in exact figures. I am under
many obligations to both these firms for their kindness in
furnishing the facts I desired, and especially to the Messrs.
Boskowitz, who devoted considerable time and labor to the careful
compilation of the annexed statement of their business in buffalo
Memorandum of buffalo robes and hides bought by Messrs J. & A.
101-105 Greene Street, New York, and 202 Lake street, Chicago, from
1876 to 1884.
Total 177,142 $709,570 69,033 215,220
Total number of buffalo skins handled in nine years, 246,175; total
I have also been favored with some very interesting facts and
figures regarding the business done in buffalo skins by the firm of
Mr. Joseph Ullman, exporter and importer of furs and robes, of
165-107 Mercer street, New York, and also 353 Jackson street, St.
Paul, Minnesota. The following letter was written me by Mr. Joseph
Ullman on November 12, 1887, for which I am greatly indebted:
"Inasmuch as you particularly desire the figures for the years
1880-'86, I have gone through my buffalo robe and hide accounts of
those years, and herewith give you approximate figures, as there are
a good many things to be considered which make it difficult to give
"In 1881 we handled about 14,000 hides, average cost about $3.50,
and 12,000 robes, average cost about $7.50.
"In 1882 we purchased between 35,000 and 40,000 hides, at an average
cost of about $3.50, and about 10,000 robes, at an average cost of
"In 1883 we purchased from 6,000 to 7,000 hides and about 1,500 to
2,000 robes at a slight advance in price against the year previous.
"In 1884 we purchased less than 2,500 hides, and in my opinion these
were such as were carried over from the previous season in the
Northwest, and were not fresh-slaughtered skins. The collection of
robes this season was also comparatively small, and nominally robes
carried over from 1883.
"In 1885 the collection of hides amounted to little or nothing.
"The aforesaid goods were all purchased direct in the Northwest,
that is to say, principally in Montana, and shipped in care of our
branch house at St. Paul, Minnesota, to Joseph Ullman, Chicago. The
robes mentioned above were Indian-tanned robes and were mainly
disposed of to the jobbing trade both East and West.
"In 1881 and the years prior, the hides were divided into two kinds,
viz, robe hides, which were such as had a good crop of fur and were
serviceable for robe purposes, and the heavy and short-furred bull
hides. The former were principally sold to the John S. Way
Manufacturing Company, Bridgeport, Connecticut, and to numerous
small robe tanners, while the latter were sold for leather purposes
to various hide-tanners throughout the United States and Canada, and
brought 5½ to 8½ cents per pound. A very large proportion of these
latter were tanned by the Wilcox Tanning Company, Wilcox,
"About the fall of 1882 we established a tannery for buffalo robes
in Chicago, and from that time forth we tanned all the good hides
which we received into robes and disposed of them in the same manner
as the Indian-tanned robes.
"I don't know that I am called upon to express an opinion as to the
benefit or disadvantage of the extermination of the buffalo, but
nevertheless take the liberty to say that I think that some proper
law restricting the unpardonable slaughter of the buffalo should
have been enacted at the time. It is a well-known fact that soon
after the Northern Pacific Railroad opened up that portion of the
country, thereby making the transportation of the buffalo hides
feasible, that is to say, reducing the cost of freight, thousands
upon thousands of buffaloes were killed for the sake of the hide
alone, while the carcasses were left to rot on the open plains.
"The average prices paid the buffalo hunters [from 1880 to 1884] was
about as follows: For cow hides [robes!], $3; bull hides, $2.50;
yearlings, $1.50; calves, 75 cents; and the cost of getting the
hides to market brought the cost up to about $3.50 per hide."
The amount actually paid out by Joseph Ullman, in four years, for
buffalo robes and hides was about $310,000, and this, too, long
after the great southern herd had ceased to exist, and when the
northern herd furnished the sole supply. It thus appears that during
the course of eight years business (leaving out the small sum paid
out in 1884), on the part of the Messrs. Boskowitz, and four years
on that of Mr. Joseph Ullman, these two firms alone paid out the
enormous sum of $1,233,070 for buffalo robes and hides which they
purchased to sell again at a good profit. By the time their share of
the buffalo product reached the consumers it must have represented
an actual money value of about $2,000,000.
Besides these two firms there were at that time many others who
also handled great quantities of buffalo skins and hides for which
they paid out immense sums of money. In this country the other
leading firms engaged in this business were I. G. Baker & Co., of
Fort Benton; P. B. Weare & Co., Chicago; Obern, Hoosick & Co.,
Chicago and Saint Paul; Martin Bates & Co., and Messrs. Shearer,
Nichols & Co. (now Hurlburt, Shearer & Sanford), of New York. There
were also many others whose names I am now unable to recall.
In the British Possessions and Canada the frontier business was
largely monopolized by the Hudson's Bay Fur Company, although the
annual "output" of robes and hides was but small in comparison with
that gathered in the United States, where the herds were far more
numerous. Even in their most fruitful locality for robes-the country
south of the Saskatchewan-this company had a very powerful
competitor in the firm of I. G. Baker & Co., of Fort Benton, which
secured the lion's share of the spoil and sent it down the Missouri
It is quite certain that the utilization of the buffalo product,
even so far as it was accomplished, resulted in the addition of
several millions of dollars to the wealth of the people of the
United States. That the total sum, could it be reckoned up, would
amount to at least fifteen millions, seems reasonably certain; and
my own impression is that twenty millions would be nearer the mark.
It is much to be regretted that the exact truth can never be known,
for in this age of universal slaughter a knowledge of the cash value
of the wild game of the United States that has been killed up to
date might go far toward bringing about the actual as well as the
theoretical protection of what remains.
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Extermination of the American Bison,
1886-’87, By William T. Hornaday, Government Printing Office,
Extermination of the American Bison