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.
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.
‘Trail of the hide hunters’: dead bison lying in the snow.
How the modern bison came to dominate the North American landscape is still being debated. There is some evidence that prior to European colonization, herds were small and regulated by Native American hunters. It was humans, not bison, who dominated the plains landscape, some sources say. Then the Europeans arrived, bringing with them the disease epidemics that wiped out so many Native Americans and left so much of their vast grasslands empty and ready for bison to take over – which they did in massive numbers.
A pile of bison and antlered deer skulls sit bleaching in the sun in Albany County, Wyoming, 1870. Skulls were often kept as trophies or for decoration.
In 1842, an observer of the bison migration, Philip St. George Cooke, wrote: “Suddenly a cloud of dust rose over its crest, and I heard a rushing noise as of a mighty whirlwind, or the charging tramp of ten thousand horses. I had not time to divine its cause, when a herd of buffalo arose over the summit, and a dense mass, thousand upon thousand, galloped, with headlong speed, directly upon the spot where I stood…. Still onward they came — Heaven protect me! It was a fearful sight.” A fearful sight that was soon never to be seen again.
Two hunters inspect their kill, around 1903: Men on horseback like these had an easy time shooting bison, which could be slow to react to their approach.
For the Plains Indians such as the Blackfeet, Cheyenne, Sioux, Comanche and others, the American buffalo played an important role not only in their culture and religion but also in their very survival. To them, the bison provided an endless supply of necessities, and every part of the animal served a purpose. The blood, milk, meat, marrow, organs, testicles, nipples and everything down to the nose gristle were eaten, and buffalo tongues and fetuses were considered particular delicacies.
A remnant buffalo herd that survived the hunts in Yellowstone Park, around 1903.
What they didn’t eat, the Plains Indians used in other ways. Buffalo horns were made into arrows, utensils and ground up to make medicines. Bones became splints, shovels, knives, pipes and war clubs. Candles and soap were made from the fat, while the muscles of the animals became glue and thread. The tails, meanwhile, were used for decoration, or as whips and fly brushes, and the hair became moccasin lining and was employed to make ropes. The bladder could be turned into a handy medicine bag, while the hooves were boiled down into glue. And the hides were used to make everything from drums and buckets to saddles and snowshoes. Nothing needed go to waste.
Plains Indians with bison hides. Native Americans unknowingly helped in the decimation of buffalo herds.
Native American hunting techniques varied considerably – from those designed to kill a single animal to other methods where slaughtering entire herds was the aim. By most accounts, American bison seem to have been feasible animals to target for those who knew their behavior well – even before horses were introduced. One hunting technique involved a solitary hunter dressed in either wolf or bison skins. Clad this way, the stalker was able to get near to the buffalo, which would often tolerate his presence – likely mistaking him for a scavenging wolf – rather than running away. It was then a relatively simple matter to put an arrow into the animal from close range and bring it down.
Eight men skin the buffalo they have slain, around 1904: Commercial hunters often travelled in teams with different people responsible for the removal of hides, shooting, and even the cleaning and reloading of guns.
Other Native American hunting methods involved whole communities. Working together, they could drive the bison onto soft ice or into deep snow, trapping them where they could easily be picked off. Another popular high-yield technique was to drive herds of buffalo over a cliff, where they would be maimed or killed by the fall. To do this required a very precise and coordinated effort, with tribesmen playing different roles in the hunt. A runner would first entice the herd towards the cliff, where a specially placed group of hunters would scare the animals on with loud noises and the waving of blankets. Below the drop another group waited to kill and butcher the crippled and stricken bison where they fell.
‘The lucky buffalo hunter,’ 1890-1900. Shooting buffalo was considered a healthy sport – and wealthy hunters would travel to the plains for this purpose – though the systematic slaughter by professional huntsmen took by far the biggest toll on the bison population.
The dramatic decline in bison numbers during the 19th century has been put down to several factors. Some scholars believe that drought, while it had undoubtedly struck before, was particularly severe between the years of 1840 and 1880 on the plains. Disease, fires that tore across the grasslands and competition from the millions of horses reared by the Native Americans are also believed to have been partially responsible. However, there is no mistaking the fact that the single greatest reason for the near extinction of the American bison was overhunting by humans. Greed – whether for wealth or for land – was the chief motivation behind the widescale slaughter.
Bison bones in Minot, ND, between 1900 and 1920: The stacks of bison bones represent millions of animals and entire herds extinguished by hunters.
While the bison hunting by European Americans is said to have begun in earnest in the 1830s, the final and most furious stage of the slaughter has been dated as taking place between 1867 to 1884, and some say it was in the decade starting in 1874 that the butchery was at its most intense. What is certain is that horses and firearms made hunting easy, and there was no lack of eager participants. The market for bison hides, in particular, was a booming industry, with massive shipments exported to Europe, and most buffalo were killed for this reason alone.
Hunters stripped the carcasses of their skin, and generally simply left the remaining meat to rot on the plains. These hides were prized for many purposes – from use as rugs to robes – but among the biggest buyers of buffalo leather were the steam-powered industrial factories of the time. These factories valued the leather for its durable qualities, which made it perfect for their machine belts.
Buffalo bones, captured in Colorado in 1870.
After the hides, the next most valuable commodity to be gained from the bison was their bones, which were used in the manufacture of bone china and fertilizer among other things. A bone seller could earn anywhere between $2.50 and $15.00 a ton. Between 1868 and 1881, the state of Kansas alone is estimated to have made 2.5 million dollars from the sale of bison bones. Based on the thinking that it takes around a hundred bison skeletons to make a ton of buffalo bones, this works out at as 31 million bison carcasses. In a single state. Many of these bones were collected by settlers and Native Americans from the remains the hunters left behind.
In Moose Jaw, Sask, a pile of bison bones waiting to be loaded onto a train, which could distribute many thousands of tons of buffalo products countrywide.
Another major contributor to the bison’s decimation was the expanding railroad system. Not only did the industry heads actively encourage the slaughter of bison, which were a nuisance on their tracks, but thanks to them, buffalo products could now be collected and distributed in numbers bigger than ever before. What’s more, as the railroads were laid down, they effectively split the herds. This new transportation network also made it easy for commercial hunters to reach herds further and further out in the plains, and indeed people hunted the buffalo from moving trains as well as on horseback. Market hunters like these could kill hundreds of bison in a single encounter. In fact some, such as Buffalo Bill Cody, became famous for slaying thousands during their lifetime.
Skins hung up to dry, 1926: The hides were the most prized body parts of the hunted bison and quite often the only parts commercial hunters took.
Perhaps the most shocking fact about the near extinction of the American bison is that it appears to have been wholly intentional – part of a high-level strategy. Many scholars believe the government and military actively promoted the slaughter of bison herds to remove the primary food source of the Native Americans. There is heated debate about the existence of an actual government policy that enforced this aim. However, whether it was official or not, it cannot be doubted that this was a prime motivation behind the annihilation of the bison herds. Without the buffalo, the American Indians could not survive, and without the Indians, European settlers were free to claim their lands for themselves.
Plains Indians at camp after a successful buffalo hunt, 1870. The meat hangs on sticks to dry.
As for the Plains Indians, they trusted that the bison were effectively limitless, and the belief that the animals came from the earth may, according to some scholars, have meant they didn’t properly understand the ecological facts of the situation. Either way, the Native Americans are themselves held responsible by some to have overhunted the bison to some degree, and were enlisted by European Americans in the slaughter that would eventually wipe out the animal that was so important to them – and with it their way of life. According to the book General Pope and U.S. Indian Policy, it is estimated that over 7.5 million buffalo were killed from 1872 to 1874 alone.
A herd of buffalo graze peacefully on the prairies of California, in 1916, where they were once too numerous to count. When attacked, the male bison move to protect the females and calves.
In the past few decades, American bison have regained some of their numbers. However, it is extremely unlikely that they will ever again approach their staggering population of the past.
Buffalo remains, 1870: Bison bones were often found strewn across prairies where homesteaders would collect and sell them.
Most bison herds these days are limited to roaming in national parks and on private ranches where they are farmed for their meat. They are no longer free to roam the plains, migrating with the seasons. Yet more tragically, the loss of the buffalo is bound up with the end of a way of life for Native Americans, who had depended so much on this once plentiful animal.