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The Destruction of the Southern Herd

  Native American Nations | Extermination of the American Bison                   


The destruction of the southern herd.

The geographical center of the great southern herd during the few years of its separate existence previous to its destruction was very near the present site of Garden City, Kansas. On the east, even as late as 1872, thousands of buffaloes ranged within 10 miles of Wichita, which was then the headquarters of a great number of buffalo-hunters, who plied their occupation vigorously during the winter. On the north the herd ranged within 25 miles of the Union Pacific, until the swarm of hunters coming down from the north drove them farther and farther south. On the west, a few small bands ranged as far as Pike's Peak and the South Park, but the main body ranged east of the town of Pueblo, Colorado. In the southwest, buffaloes were abundant as far as the Pecos and the Staked Plains, while the southern limit of the herd was about on a line with the southern boundary of New Mexico. Regarding this herd, Colonel Dodge writes as follows: "Their most prized feeding ground was the section of country between the South Platte and Arkansas rivers, watered by the Republican, Smoky, Walnut, Pawnee, and other parallel or tributary streams, and generally known as the Republican country. Hundreds of thousands went south from here each winter, but hundreds of thousands remained. It was the chosen home of the buffalo."

Although the range of the northern herd covered about twice as much territory as did the southern, the latter contained probably twice as many buffaloes. The number of individuals in the southern herd in the year 1871 must have been at least three millions, and most estimates place the total much higher than that.

During the years from 1866 to 1871, inclusive, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fé Railway and what is now known as the Kansas Pacific, or Kansas division of the Union Pacific Railway, were constructed from the Missouri River westward across Kansas, and through the heart of the southern buffalo range. The southern herd was literally cut to pieces by railways, and every portion of its range rendered easily accessible. There had always been a market for buffalo robes at a fair price, and as soon as the railways crossed the buffalo country the slaughter began. The rush to the range was only surpassed by the rush to the gold mines of California in earlier years. The railroad builders, teamsters, fortune-seekers, "professional" hunters, trappers, guides, and every one out of a job turned out to hunt buffalo for hides and meat. The merchants who had already settled in all the little towns along the three great railways saw an opportunity to make money out of the buffalo product, and forthwith began to organize and supply hunting parties with arms, ammunition, and provisions, and send them to the range. An immense business of this kind was done by the merchants of Dodge City (Fort Dodge), Wichita, and Leavenworth, and scores of smaller towns did a corresponding amount of business in the same line. During the years 1871 to 1874 but little else was done in that country except buffalo killing. Central depots were established in the best buffalo country, from whence hunting parties operated in all directions. Buildings were erected for the curing of meat, and corrals were built in which to heap up the immense piles of buffalo skins that accumulated. At Dodge City, as late as 1878, Professor Thompson saw a lot of baled buffalo skins in a corral, the solid cubical contents of which he calculated to equal 120 cords.

At first the utmost wastefulness prevailed. Every one wanted to kill buffalo, and no one was willing to do the skinning and curing. Thousands upon thousands of buffaloes were killed for their tongues alone, and never skinned. Thousands more were wounded by unskillful marksmen and wandered off to die and become a total loss. But the climax of wastefulness and sloth was not reached until the enterprising buffalo-butcher began to skin his dead buffaloes by horse-power. The process is of interest, as showing the depth of degradation to which a man can fall and still call himself a hunter. The skin of the buffalo was ripped open along the belly and throat, the legs cut around at the knees, and ripped up the rest of the way. The skin of the neck was divided all the way around at the back of the head, and skinned back a few inches to afford a start. A stout iron bar, like a hitching post, was then driven through the skull and about 18 inches into the earth, after which a rope was tied very firmly to the thick skin of the neck, made ready for that purpose. The other end of this rope was then hitched to the whiffletree of a pair of horses, or to the rear axle of a wagon, the horses were whipped up, and the skin was forthwith either torn in two or torn off the buffalo with about 50 pounds of flesh adhering to it. It soon became apparent to even the most enterprising buffalo skinner that this method was not an unqualified success, and it was presently abandoned.

The slaughter which began in 1871 was prosecuted with great vigor and enterprise in 1872, and reached its heighten 1873. By that time, the buffalo country fairly swarmed with hunters, each, party putting forth its utmost efforts to destroy more buffaloes than its rivals. By that time experience had taught the value of thorough organization, and the butchering was done in a more business-like way. By a coincidence that proved fatal to the bison, it was just at the beginning of the slaughter that breech-loading, long-range rifles attained what was practically perfection. The Sharps 40-90 or 45-120, and the Remington were the favorite weapons of the buffalo-hunter, the former being the one in most general use. Before the leaden hail of thousands of these deadly breech-loaders the buffaloes went down at the rate of several thousand daily during the hunting season.

During the years 1871 and 1872 the most wanton wastefulness prevailed. Colonel Dodge declares that, though hundreds of thousands of skins were sent to market, they scarcely indicated the extent of the slaughter. Through want of skill in shooting and want of knowledge in preserving the hides of those slain by green hunters, one hide sent to market represented three, four, or even five dead buffalo. The skinners and curers knew so little of the proper mode of curing hides, that at least half of those actually taken were lost. In the summer and fall of 1872 one hide sent to market represented at least three dead buffalo. This condition of affairs rapidly improved; but such was the furor for slaughter, and the ignorance of all concerned, that every hide sent to market in 1871 represented no less than five dead buffalo.

By 1873 the condition of affairs had somewhat improved, through better organization of the hunting parties and knowledge gained by experience in curing. For all that, however, buffaloes were still so exceedingly plentiful, and shooting was so much easier than skinning, the latter was looked upon as a necessary evil and still slighted to such an extent that every hide actually sold and delivered represented two dead buffaloes.

In 1874 the slaughterers began to take alarm at the increasing scarcity of buffalo, and the skinners, having a much smaller number of dead animals to take care of than ever before, were able to devote more time to each subject and do their work properly. As a result, Colonel Dodge estimated that during 1874, and from that time on, one hundred skins delivered represented not more than one hundred and twenty-five dead buffaloes; but that "no parties have ever got the proportion lower than this."

The great southern herd was slaughtered by still-hunting, a method which has already been fully described. A typical hunting party is thus described by Colonel Dodge:64

"The most approved party consisted of four men-one shooter, two skinners, and one man to cook, stretch hides, and take care of camp. Where buffalo were very plentiful the number of skinners was increased. A light wagon, drawn by two horses or mules, takes the outfit into the wilderness, and brings into camp the skins taken each day. The outfit is most meager: a sack of flour, a side of bacon, 5 pounds of coffee, tea, and sugar, a little salt, and possibly a few beans, is a month's supply. A common or "A" tent furnishes shelter; a couple of blankets for each man is a bed. One or more of Sharps or Remington's heaviest sporting rifles, and an unlimited supply of ammunition, is the armament; while a coffee-pot, Dutch-oven, frying-pan, four tin plates, and four tin cups constitute the kitchen and table furniture.

"The skinning knives do duty at the platter, and 'fingers were made before forks.' Nor must be forgotten one or more 10-gallon kegs for water, as the camp may of necessity be far away from a stream. The supplies are generally furnished by the merchant for whom the party is working, who, in addition, pays each of the party a specified percentage of the value of the skins delivered. The shooter is carefully selected for his skill and knowledge of the habits of the buffalo. He is captain and leader of the party. When all is ready, he plunges into the wilderness, going to the center of the best buffalo region known to him, not already occupied (for there are unwritten regulations recognized as laws, giving to each hunter certain rights of discovery and occupancy). Arrived at the position, he makes his camp in some hidden ravine or thicket, and makes all ready for work."

Of course the slaughter was greatest along the lines of the three great railways-the Kansas Pacific, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fé, and the Union Pacific, about in the order named. It reached its height in the season of 1873. During that year the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fé Railroad carried out of the buffalo country 251,443 robes, 1,017,600 pounds of meat, and 2,743,100 pounds of bones. The end of the southern herd was then near at hand. Could the southern buffalo range have been roofed over at that time it would have made one vast charnel-house. Putrefying carcasses, many of them with the hide still on, lay thickly scattered over thousands of square miles of the level prairie, poisoning the air and water and offending the sight. The remaining herds had become mere scattered bands, harried and driven hither and thither by the hunters, who now swarmed almost as thickly as the buffaloes. A cordon of camps was established along the Arkansas River, the South Platte, the Republican, and the few other streams that contained water, and when the thirsty animals came to drink they were attacked and driven away, and with the most fiendish persistency kept from slaking their thirst, so that they would again be compelled to seek the river and come within range of the deadly breech-loaders. Colonel Dodge declares that in places favorable to such warfare, as the south bank of the Platte, a herd of buffalo has, by shooting at it by day and by lighting fires and firing guns at night, been kept from water until it has been entirely destroyed. In the autumn of 1873, when Mr. William Blackmore traveled for some 30 or 40 miles along the north bank of the Arkansas River to the east of Port Dodge, "there was a continuous line of putrescent carcasses, so that the air was rendered pestilential and offensive to the last degree. The hunters had formed a line of camps along the banks of the river, and had shot down the buffalo, night and morning, as they came to drink. In order to give an idea of the number of these carcasses, it is only necessary to mention that I counted sixty-seven on one spot not covering 4 acres."

White hunters were not allowed to hunt in the Indian Territory, but the southern boundary of the State of Kansas was picketed by them, and a herd no sooner crossed the line going north than it was destroyed. Every water-hole was guarded by a camp of hunters, and whenever a thirsty herd approached, it was promptly met by rifle-bullets.

During this entire period the slaughter of buffaloes was universal. The man who desired buffalo meat for food almost invariably killed five times as many animals as he could utilize, and after cutting from each victim its very choicest parts-the tongue alone, possibly, or perhaps the hump and hind quarters, one or the other, or both-fully four-fifths of the really edible portion of the carcass would be left to the wolves. It was no uncommon thing for a man to bring in two barrels of salted buffalo tongues, without another pound of meat or a solitary robe. The tongues were purchased at 25 cents each and sold in the markets farther east at 50 cents. In those days of criminal wastefulness it was a very common thing for buffaloes to be slaughtered for their tongues alone. Mr. George Catlin65 relates that a few days previous to his arrival at the mouth of the Tetón River (Dakota), in 1832, "an immense herd of buffaloes had showed themselves on the opposite side of the river," whereupon a party of five or six hundred Sioux Indians on horseback forded the river, attacked the herd, re-crossed the river about sunset, and came into the fort with fourteen hundred fresh buffalo tongues, which were thrown down in a mass, and for which they required only a few gallons of whisky, which was soon consumed in "a little harmless carouse." Mr. Catlin states that from all that he could learn not a skin or a pound of meat, other than the tongues, was saved after this awful slaughter.

Judging from all accounts, it is making a safe estimate to say that probably no fewer than fifty thousand buffaloes have been killed for their tongues alone, and the most of these are undoubtedly chargeable against white men, who ought to have known better.

A great deal has been said about the slaughter of buffaloes by foreign sportsmen, particularly Englishmen; but I must say that, from all that can be ascertained on this point, this element of destruction has been greatly exaggerated and overestimated. It is true that every English sportsman who visited this country in the days of the buffalo always resolved to have, and did have, "a buffalo hunt," and usually under the auspices of United States Army officers. Undoubtedly these parties did kill hundreds of buffaloes, but it is very doubtful whether the aggregate of the number slain by foreign sportsmen would run up higher than ten thousand. Indeed, for myself, I am well convinced that there are many old ex-still-hunters yet living, each of whom is accountable for a greater number of victims than all buffaloes killed by foreign sportsmen would make added together. The professional butchers were very much given to crying out against "them English lords," and holding up their hands in holy horror at buffaloes killed by them for their heads, instead of for hides to sell at a dollar apiece; but it is due the American public to say that all this outcry was received at its true value and deceived very few. By those in possession of the facts it was recognized as "a blind," to divert public opinion from the real culprits.

Nevertheless it is very true that many men who were properly classed as sportsmen, in contradistinction from the pot-hunters, did engage in useless and inexcusable slaughter to an extent that was highly reprehensible, to say the least. A sportsman is not supposed to kill game wantonly, when it can be of no possible use to himself or any one else, but a great many do it for all that. Indeed, the sportsman who kills sparingly and conscientiously is rather the exception than the rule. Colonel Dodge thus refers to the work of some foreign sportsmen:

"In the fall of that year [1872] three English gentlemen went out with me for a short hunt, and in their excitement bagged more buffalo than would have supplied a brigade." As a general thing, however, the professional sportsmen who went out to have a buffalo hunt for the excitement of the chase and the trophies it yielded, nearly always found the bison so easy a victim, and one whose capture brought so little glory to the hunter, that the chase was voted very disappointing, and soon abandoned in favor of nobler game. In those days there was no more to boast of in killing a buffalo than in the assassination of a Texas steer.

It was, then, the hide-hunters, white and red, but especially white, who wiped out the great southern herd in four short years. The prices received for hides varied considerably, according to circumstances, but for the green or undressed article it usually ranged from 50 cents for the skins of calves to $1.25 for those of adult animals in good condition. Such prices seem ridiculously small, but when it is remembered that, when buffaloes were plentiful it was no uncommon thing for a hunter to kill from forty to sixty head in a day, it will readily be seen that the chances of making very handsome profits were sufficient to tempt hunters to make extraordinary exertions. Moreover, even when the buffaloes were nearly gone, the country was overrun with men who had absolutely nothing else to look to as a means of livelihood, and so, no matter whether the profits were great or small, so long as enough buffaloes remained to make it possible to get a living by their pursuit, they were hunted down with the most determined persistency and pertinacity.

Statistics of the slaughter.

The most careful and reliable estimate ever made of results of the slaughter of the southern buffalo herd is that of Col. Richard Irving Dodge, and it is the only one I know of which furnishes a good index of the former size of that herd. Inasmuch as this calculation was based on actual statistics, supplemented by personal observations and inquiries made in that region during the great slaughter, I can do no better than to quote Colonel Dodge almost in full.66

The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fé Railroad furnished the following statistics of the buffalo product carried by it during the years 1872, 1873, and 1874:

Buffalo product.

Year No. of skins carried Meat carried Bone carried
    Pounds  Pounds
1872 165,721   1,135,300
1873 251,443 1,617,600 2,743,100
1874 42,289 632,800 6,914,950
Total 459,453 2,250,400 10,793,350

The officials of the Kansas Pacific and Union Pacific railroads either could not or would not furnish any statistics of the amount of the buffalo product carried by their lines during this period, and it became necessary to proceed without the actual figures in both cases. Inasmuch as the Kansas Pacific road cuts through a portion of the buffalo country which was in every respect as thickly inhabited by those animals as the region traversed by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fé, it seemed absolutely certain that the former road hauled out fully as many hides as the latter, if not more, and its quota is so set down. The Union Pacific line handled a much smaller number of buffalo hides than either of its southern rivals, but Colonel Dodge believes that this, "with the smaller roads which touch the buffalo region, taken together, carried about as much as either of the two principal buffalo roads."

Colonel Dodge considers it reasonably certain that the statistics furnished by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fé road represent only one-third of the entire buffalo product, and there certainly appears to be good ground for this belief. It is therefore in order to base further calculations upon these figures.
According to evidence gathered on the spot by Colonel Dodge during the period of the great slaughter, one hide sent to market in 1872 represented three dead buffaloes, in 1873 two, and in 1874 one hundred skins delivered represented one hundred and twenty-five dead animals. The total slaughter by white men was therefore about as below:

Year Hides shipped by A., T. and S F. railway Hides shipped by other roads, same period (estimated) Total number of buffaloes utilized Total number killed and wasted Total of buffaloes slaughtered by whites
1872 165,721 331,442 497,163 994,326 1,491,489
1873 251,443 502,886 754,329 754,329 1,508,658
1874 42,289 84,578 126,867 31,716 158,583
Total 459,453 918,906 1,378,359 1,780,481 3,158,730

During all this time the Indians of all tribes within striking distance of the herds killed an immense number of buffaloes every year. In the summer they killed for the hairless hides to use for lodges and for leather, and in the autumn they slaughtered for robes and meat, but particularly robes, which were all they could offer the white trader in exchange for his goods. They were too lazy and shiftless to cure much buffalo meat, and besides it was not necessary, for the Government fed them. In regard to the number of buffaloes of the southern herd killed by the Indians, Colonel Dodge arrives at an estimate, as follows:

"It is much more difficult to estimate the number of dead buffalo represented by the Indian-tanned skins or robes sent to market. This number varies with the different tribes, and their greater or less contact with the whites. Thus, the Cheyenne, Arapahoe, and Kiowa of the southern plains, having less contact with whites, use skins for their lodges, clothing, bedding, par-fléches, saddles, lariats, for almost everything. The number of robes sent to market represent only what we may call the foreign exchange of these tribes, and is really not more than one-tenth of the skins taken. To be well within bounds I will assume that one robe sent to market by these Indians represents six dead buffaloes.
"Those bands of Sioux who live at the agencies, and whose peltries are taken to market by the Union Pacific Railroad, live in lodges of cotton cloth furnished by the Indian Bureau. They use much civilized clothing, bedding, boxes, ropes, etc. For these luxuries they must pay in robes, and as the buffalo range is far from wide, and their yearly 'crop' small, more than half of it goes to market."

Leaving out of the account at this point all consideration of the killing done north of the Union Pacific Railroad, Colonel Dodge's figures are as follows:

Southern buffaloes slaughtered by southern Indians.

Indians Sent to market No. of dead buffaloes represented
Kiowa, Comanche, Cheyenne, Arapahoe, and other Indians whose robes go over the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fé Railroad 19,000 114,000
Sioux at agencies, Union Pacific Railroad 10,000 16,000
Total slaughtered per annum  29,000 130,000
Total for the three years 1872-1874   390,000

Reference has already been made to the fact that during those years an immense number of buffaloes were killed by the farmers of eastern Kansas and Nebraska for their meat. Mr. William Mitchell, of Wabaunsee, Kansas, stated to the writer that "in those days, when buffaloes were plentiful in western Kansas, pretty much everybody made a trip West in the fall and brought back a load of buffalo meat. Everybody had it in abundance as long as buffaloes remained in any considerable number. Very few skins were saved; in fact, hardly any, for the reason that nobody knew how to tan them, and they always spoiled. At first a great many farmers tried to dress the green hides that they brought back, but they could not succeed, and finally gave up trying. Of course, a great deal of the meat killed was wasted, for only the best parts were brought back."

The Wichita (Kansas) World of February 9, 1889, contains the following reference:

"In 1871 and 1872 the buffalo ranged within 10 miles of Wichita, and could be counted by the thousands. The town, then in its infancy, was the headquarters for a vast number of buffalo-hunters, who plied their occupation vigorously during the winter. The buffalo were killed [Pg 501] principally for their hides, and daily wagon trains arrived in town loaded with them. Meat was very cheap in those days; fine, tender buffalo steak selling from 1 to 2 cents per pound.  The business was quite profitable for a time, but a sudden drop in the price of hides brought them down as low as 25 and 50 cents each.  It was a very common thing in those days for people living in Wichita to start out in the morning and return by evening with a wagon load of buffalo meat."

Unquestionably a great many thousand buffaloes were killed annually by the settlers of Kansas, Nebraska, Texas, New Mexico, and Colorado, and the mountain Indians living west of the great range. The number so slain can only be guessed at, for there is absolutely no data on which to found an estimate. Judging merely from the number of people within reach of the range, it may safely be estimated that the total number of buffaloes slaughtered annually to satisfy the wants of this heterogeneous element could not have been less than fifty thousand, and probably was a much higher number. This, for the three years, would make one hundred and fifty thousand, and the grand total would therefore be about as follows:

The slaughter of the southern herd.

Killed by "professional" white hunters in 1872, 1873, and 1874 3,158,730
Killed by Indians, same period 390,000
Killed by settlers and mountain Indians 150,000
Total slaughter in three years 3,098,730  

These figures seem incredible, but unfortunately there is not the slightest reason for believing they are too high. There are many men now living who declare that during the great slaughter they each killed from twenty-five hundred to three thousand buffaloes every year. With thousands of hunters on the range, and such possibilities of slaughter before each, it is, after all, no wonder that an average of nearly a million and a quarter of buffaloes fell each year during that bloody period.

By the close of the hunting season of 1875 the great southern herd had ceased to exist. As a body, it had been utterly annihilated. The main body of the survivors, numbering about ten thousand head, fled southwest, and dispersed through that great tract of wild, desolate, and inhospitable country stretching southward from the Cimarron country across the "Public Land Strip," the Pan-handle of Texas, and the Llano Estacado, or Staked Plain, to the Pecos River. A few small bands of stragglers maintained a precarious existence for a few years longer on the headwaters of the Republican River and in southwestern Nebraska, near Ogalalla, where calves were caught alive as late as 1885. Wild buffaloes were seen in southwestern Kansas for the last time in 1886, and the two or three score of individuals still living in the Canadian River country of the Texas Panhandle are the last wild survivors of the great Southern herd.

The main body of the fugitives which survived the great slaughter of 1871-'74 continued to attract hunters who were very "hard up," who pursued them, often at the risk of their own lives, even into the terrible Llano Estacado. In Montana in 1886 I met on a cattle ranch an ex-buffalo-hunter from Texas, named Harry Andrews, who from 1874 to 1876 continued in pursuit of the scattered remnants of the great southern herd through the Pan-handle of Texas and on into the Staked Plain itself. By that time the market had become completely overstocked with robes, and the prices received by Andrews and other hunters was only 65 cents each for cow robes and $1.15 each for bull robes, delivered on the range, the purchaser providing for their transportation to the railway. But even at those prices, which were so low as to make buffalo killing seem like downright murder, Mr. Andrews assured me that he "made big money." On one occasion, when he "got a stand" on a large bunch of buffalo, he fired one hundred and fifteen shots from one spot, and killed sixty-three buffaloes in about an hour.

In 1880 buffalo hunting as a business ceased forever in the Southwest, and so far as can be ascertained, but one successful hunt for robes has been made in that region since that time. That occurred in the fall and winter of 1887, about 100 miles north of Tascosa, Texas, when two parties, one of which was under the leadership of Lee Howard, attacked the only band of buffaloes left alive in the Southwest, and which at that time numbered about two hundred head. The two parties killed fifty-two buffaloes, of which ten skins were preserved entire for mounting. Of the remaining forty-two, the heads were cut off and preserved for mounting and the skins were prepared as robes. The mountable skins were finally sold at the following prices: Young cows, $50 to $60; adult cows, $75 to $100; adult bull, $150. The unmounted heads sold as follows: Young bulls, $25 to $30; adult bulls, $50; young cows, $10 to $12; adult cows, $15 to $25. A few of the choicest robes sold at $20 each, and the remainder, a lot of twenty eight, of prime quality and in excellent condition, were purchased by the Hudson's Bay Fur Company for $350.

Such was the end of the great southern herd. In 1871 it contained certainly no fewer than three million buffaloes, and by the beginning of 1875 its existence as a herd had utterly ceased, and nothing but scattered, fugitive bands remained.

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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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