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Value of the Buffalo to Man

 Native American Nations | Extermination of the American Bison                    


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 our calculation.

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 was 39.

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 of totals:

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,[43] $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 the Indian.

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, etc.

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 skins.

Memorandum of buffalo robes and hides bought by Messrs J. & A. Boskowitz,
101-105 Greene Street, New York, and 202 Lake street, Chicago, from 1876 to 1884.


Buffalo Robes

Buffalo Hides





1876 31,838 $39,620 None  
1877 9,353 35,560 None  
1878 41,268 150,600 None  
1879 28,613 110,420  None  
1880 34,901 176,200 4,570 $13,140
1881 23,355 151,800 26,601 89,030
1882 2,124 15,600 15,464 44,140
1883 6,690 29,770 21,869 67,190
1884 None   529 1,720

Total 177,142 $709,570 69,033 215,220
Total number of buffalo skins handled in nine years, 246,175; total cost, $924,790.

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 exact figures.

"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 about $8.50.

"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 5 to 8 cents per pound. A very large proportion of these latter were tanned by the Wilcox Tanning Company, Wilcox, Pennsylvania.

"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 River.

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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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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