Non-Fiction Article
The Mighty Buffalo: Slaughtered to the Brink of Extinction
Scott A. Gese

In 1870 there were over 60 million wild buffalo. By 1889 there were a grand total of 1,091. How the hell did that happen and what do Native Americans have to do with it?

lone bison in fieldAmerican Bison: Image source: Jonathan Mast/Unsplash

“Oh give me a home where the buffalo roam…”

It’s the opening line to a poem written in 1872 by an ear, nose and throat doctor named Brewster Higley. The poem later became the lyrics to a song titled “Home on the range.” It’s the official state song of Kansas and the unofficial anthem of the American West.

Here’s the Irony.

In 1872, when the above words were first penned, this country was in the middle of a very brutal mass slaughter aimed at the very buffalo Higley wrote of.

The American Bison (Buffalo) Almost Became Extinct.

Why and how did a large, healthy and harmonious American bison population dwindle so quickly?

Answer. It had help.

Historians have estimated that in the mid 1800’s, there were about 60 million American bison roaming free on the North American continent. Most could be found on this countries great plains.

Higley’s ill timed view of a ‘home on the range’ was in the midst of a drastic and disheartening change. Did he not realize that the American bison, or buffalo as they are also called, was no longer ‘roaming’ free without a care in the world as the song suggests? That they were in fact the target of an ongoing campaign of mass slaughter? An intentional slaughter of historic proportions.

At the time of his writing, a huge contingency of buffalo hunters, or ‘runners’ as they were known, were killing the American bison by the tens and even hundreds of thousands.

They took little more than their hides for the leather and their tongues to eat. The tongues were considered a delicacy. The rest of this massive beast was left to rot in the sun.

To add to this carnage, the recently established Transcontinental Railroad was running advertisements organizing ‘buffalo hunting’ excursions to the bison’s grassland feeding grounds.

Rail Hunters shot them from the windows and roofs of these excursion trains as they crossed the plains. They did it purely for sport. Not even bothering to stop and take the hides.

Now add this to the mix.

As part of the ‘Extermination Campaign’, the military encouraged the mass shootings of the American bison in any way possible.

Military leaders ordered their troops to kill any buffalo they saw.

The army even provided armed escorts to large hunting parties of wealthy eastern businessmen (to protect them from ‘Wild Indians’) for the sole purpose of killing buffalo.

The situation was so out of control that by 1889, there was reported to be a mere 1,091 American bison left alive…out of the estimated 30 to 60 million.

By 1889, The American bison was virtually extinct

bison skull pileA pile of Bison skulls. One of many/Image source: Public Domain

So what was the reason behind this wholesale slaughter of the American bison?

There are a couple of reasons as to how this happened and a couple of reasons why.

First the HOW reasons. They have to do with technology.

The first one being the advancement of new hide tanning methods developed in Europe.

This new method made the soft hide of the buffalo much tougher and thus highly marketable as industrial leather. Europe’s demand for American bison hides was extreme. And this country was more than willing to supply them with as many as they wanted.

The second reason was the recent development of the .50 caliber breech loading carbine rifle.

This new rifle gave hunters the ability to kill American bison in large numbers. Buffalo hunters could kill in just a few minutes, all the buffalo they could skin in one day.

Now for the reasons WHY.

  • Money
  • Greed
  • Man’s inhumanity to his fellow man

#1 — Money

Buffalo hide buyers were paying $3 for a buffalo hide and .25 cents for a tongue. This was big money back in the day. It was enough to enticed upwards of 5000 hunters to try their luck at making some good money in a short period of time.

buffalo hides40.000 buffalo hides: Image source: Wikimedia Commons

#2 — Money + Greed

This countries growing cattle industry had a very high interest in the grasslands now occupied by both the American bison and the Native American Indian. They were a hindrance to the growth of the industry as they were both located on prime grazing land.

The buffalo needed to be removed to make room for cattle. The Indians needed to be removed because they were rebelling against what was happening to their land and livelihood.

The removal methods for both were less than humane. But that was of little concern to those who stood to make a fortune from the burgeoning industry.

grazing buffaloGrazing Buffalo Image source: Stephen Petersen/Unsplash

#3 — Man’s Inhumanity to his Fellow Man

This is the most ominous reason of them all

Along with the interests of a growing cattle industry, a large number of settlers were migrating to the Oregon territory. Miners were migrating to the California and Montana gold fields. Large numbers of people and wagons were moving along several different wagon trails. The Sioux regularly attacked travelers along what was known as the Bozeman Trail.

They were not making it easy for the rich and powerful of this country to gain access to the vast tracts of virgin land and all the natural resources that they held. They needed to use miners and lumberjacks to extract as much of the readily available gold and timber wealth they could get from the area.

This countries government, ran by the rich elite, wanted them to have clear passage to the West but the ‘Indian Problem’ was making that difficult.

So they devised a military campaign to remove and relocate the Native American population from both the Western plains and the Powder River Basin.

An Army Colonel was reported to have said, “Kill every buffalo you can! Every buffalo dead is an Indian gone.”

The thought was that by eliminating the American bison, the Native American population would be starved into submission.

The Plains Indians were dependent on the buffalo. It was their main source of food, clothing, shelter, utensils and tools. So by eliminating their lifeline, they would end this countries ‘Indian Problem’.

It worked in part.

At the same time the American bison herds were being wiped out, the Native American population dropped by as much as fifty percent.

After the Carnage.

What was left of the great American bison herds, (all 1,092 head) were moved to protected Federal land.

What was left of the Native American population was moved to designated reservations.

The white man had successfully and simultaneously cleared the land of the American bison and the Native American Indian.

The way was now clear for both commerce and cattle.

bison mapExtermination of bison 1889 ** Light Brown, Original Range **Mid-Brown, Range as of 1870 **Dark Brown Range as of 1889 ** Light numbers give date of local extermination.**dark numbers indicate number of remaining bison as of January 1st 1889

A Final Refuge

In 1902, Yellowstone National Park became a refuge for the last remaining wild American bison. A grand total of 23. Three years later the American Bison Society was formed. Their goal was to increase the dismal number. Through hard work and good management practices there are now over 3500 wild bison in Yellowstone. To date there is no more than 500,000 total American bison left in existence.

Bison Facts:

  • There were an estimated 30 to 60 million American bison in the mid-1800's.
  • A buffalo hide was worth three dollars.
  • A buffalo tongue was worth .25 cents.
  • A full grown bison weighs about 1400 pounds.
  • There were only 1,091 remaining wild American bison by 1889.
  • A bison can reach speeds of 40 miles per hour.
  • A bison will live for about 20 years.
  • Sharp’s Big .50 Buffalo Rifle

Learn about the Sharp’s Big .50 Buffalo Rifle. (Just click on the link below)<<NRA Museum>>

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