ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel
  • »
  • Education and Science»
  • History & Archaeology»
  • History of the Americas

The Mighty Buffalo: Slaughtered to the Brink of Extinction

Updated on March 8, 2018
Scott Gese profile image

Born East of the Dakota's, raised in the American West. I'm a writer of books, blog posts, magazine articles and short stories.

“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.

American bison
American bison | Source

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 30 million American bison roaming free on the North American continent. Some estimates go as high as 60 million. 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 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 skulls to be ground up for fertilizer
Bison skulls to be ground up for fertilizer | Source

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.

Sharps 1863 .50 caliber rifle used to hunt buffalo
Sharps 1863 .50 caliber rifle used to hunt buffalo | Source

Now for the why reasons.

I'll go over these reasons in more detail below.

  • 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.

Bison lying dead in the snow
Bison lying dead in the snow | Source
"Rath & Wright's buffalo hide yard in 1878, showing 40,000 buffalo hides, Dodge City, Kansas."
"Rath & Wright's buffalo hide yard in 1878, showing 40,000 buffalo hides, Dodge City, Kansas." | Source

(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.

Bison on prime grazing land
Bison on prime grazing land | Source

(3) Man's Inhumanity to his Fellow Man

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 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.

Extermination 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
Extermination 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 | Source

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.

Yellowstone National Park became a refuge for 23 of the last remaining American bison
Yellowstone National Park became a refuge for 23 of the last remaining American bison | Source

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.

Bison in Yellowstone National Park

© 2018 Scott Gese

Comments

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    • Scott Gese profile image
      Author

      Scott Gese 2 months ago from Brownsville, Oregon

      Mike and Dorothy McKenney

      Thanks for the comment. Greed is not victimless. Someone or something always gets hurt. This piece of our countries history was about as bad as it gets. Even now Greed still rears its ugly head.

      We have to do better.

    • Casey White profile image

      Mike and Dorothy McKenney 2 months ago from United States

      Reading this article brought me almost to tears. You summed it up in words that I have thought many times: "Man's inhumanity to his fellow man". I am always amazed at what people will resort to because of greed. I hope that the love of money never leads me to resort to any of the things I find to be vile and inhumane. Thank you for writing such a great article. I am anxious to read more.

    • Scott Gese profile image
      Author

      Scott Gese 2 months ago from Brownsville, Oregon

      Thank you for the comment Michael McLean.

      Ya, white man's greed. Not the first and not the last I'm afraid to say.

      Will we ever learn?

    • profile image

      Michael McLean 2 months ago

      I was fortunate to live at the north entrance to Yellowstone for several yeard and learned a lot about the buffalo, including being caught up in a few jams. This article is well done and a worthy tribute to them while delivering a suitable expose of the white man's greed.

    • Scott Gese profile image
      Author

      Scott Gese 2 months ago from Brownsville, Oregon

      Patty

      Thank you for your comment.

      To be honest, I didn't realize the extent of the whole situation until I began to research it. I love old west history and plan to write more about this.

      I can see why your friends didn't believe you. It is unbelievable...but true.

      The bison is an awesome animal. I'm glad they're still around.

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile image

      Patty Inglish 2 months ago from USA. Member of Asgardia, the first space nation, since October 2016

      Thanks for writing about this important history that I think most people do not know. I first heard about it from very distant Native American relatives at Pow Wows in the 1970s, but my friends of the time did not believe me when I spoke of it.

      Regardless, today in Columbus OH we have a sizeable herd of bison in a large city park on the West Side, with educational workshops free to the public who want to learn about them. The Busch Brewery on the North Side used to have a fairly large herd on its extensive, grassy property, but sent them elsewhere in the late 1970s. The Domino's property in middle Michigan has a large herd - people back up the traffic on the highway to slow down to see them. I am thankful to be able to see those that live nearby me.

    working

    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, hubpages.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: "https://hubpages.com/privacy-policy#gdpr"

    Show Details
    Necessary
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is used to quickly and efficiently deliver files such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Features
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Marketing
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisements has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Statistics
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)