Men in the mid-1870s pose with a mountain of buffalo skulls soon to be ground into fertilizer, the sad remains of an animal that once ruled the American plains.
Not so very long ago they ruled the North American plains from Canada down to Mexico, and as far east as the western boundary of the Appalachian Mountains. Awestruck witnesses reported seeing a sea of black during their annual migrations and feeling the ground trembling with the beat of millions of hooves. They were the American bison, and they reigned supreme over their territory. In their time, the bison are believed to have been the biggest population of large wild mammals anywhere on Earth, numbering an estimated 50 million before the European settlers arrived. Yet within the space of a few decades, their number would be reduced to a mere 2,000, bringing to an end an era in American history.
Sign of the times: Wright’s buffalo hide yard in Dodge City, KS, 1878, with some 40,000 buffalo hides apparently in shot.
Taken towards the end of the 19th century and the start of the 20th, these photographs tell a tragic story. Millions of American bison, also known as American buffalo, were reduced to little more than mountainous piles of bleached white bones, many of the animals slain by bullets from the guns of men. At the time, of course, the perpetrators of the hunts that led to the buffalo’s near extinction held a very different point of view to that of most people today. Far from inciting feelings of disgust or horror, the slaughter of bison was seen by European settlers as a means to wealth, a healthy pastime, and most chilling of all, as a way to end the primary source of sustenance for the Plains Indians and so drive them from their land.
Image: H. D. Lumsden
A long pile of buffalo bones stretches into the distance like some kind of levee, while a boy poses in front; Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, 1890. Hundreds of thousands of tons of bison bones were used in various industries, including the refining of sugar and for making bone china and fertilizer.
Perhaps surprisingly, the American buffalo (Bison bison) is not the first bovine population to have been wiped out in North America. Ten thousand years ago,they supplanted the earlier steppe bison (Bison priscus), a giant breed thought to have died out because of ecological changes and advances in human hunting technology. Although smaller than their extinct cousins, American bison were – and are – the largest land animals in North America. They are divided into two subspecies, the plains bison (Bison bison bison) and the larger wood bison (Bison bison athabascae ). While they are commonly referred to as buffalo, American bison are only distantly related to the ‘true buffalo’ of Asia and Africa.