The West: Buffalo Hunting on the Great Plains: Promoting One Society While Supplanting Another

Culture Watch

Mr. Miller has been a speaker with the Organization of American Historians (OAH) Distinguished Lectureship Series since 1999.

The Buffalo Bill Historical Center at Cody, Wyoming, displays an-oil-on canvas painting (ca. 1888) by the great Albert Bierstadt, which he titled almost prophetically"The Last of the Buffalo." The painting depicts a solitary Indian spearing a buffalo with a lance from the back of a rearing white horse."Almost prophetically" is the right choice of words too, because by the date of that painting, the slaughter of the bison (perhaps the better word for the buffalo) by both Native Americans and white hunters had reduced the numbers of that shaggy beast almost to the point of extinction. For, the killing of the buffalo, which had become systematic by the 1870s, had left alive by the late 1880s not more than a few thousand specimens, the remnants of herds that had once totaled in all roughly 30 million on the Great Plains--the principal habitat for the buffalo in North America from primitive times to the late nineteenth century.

So far as buffalo hunting by white men was concerned, three developments made it possible, all three factors being dependent upon the existence of America's industrial society. First of all, an effective chemical process for tanning the hides (the use of a strong lime solution for soaking the skins) had not been perfected until the early 1870s. Secondly, the rifles for shooting buffalo were ineffective before the latter years of the Civil War (1861-1865), at which time accurate, large-bore rifles came on the market. The weapon of choice in the late 1860s became the Springfield Army rifle, a 50-caliber gun, loaded with seventy grains of powder. But, a better firearm soon appeared. It was what the white hunters dubbed the"Big Fifty," that is, the Sharps rifle, first produced by the Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company of Hartford, Connecticut. That weapon was loaded with a heavy ball, primed with ninety grains of black powder. As a consequence, the Sharps became the new firearm of choice, for it was both accurate and lethal up to six hundred yards. No wonder the Indians on the plains referred to it as a gun, which"shoots today and kills tomorrow."

And, especially in the hands of a proficient marksman, kill it did! Let me provide an example or two, both of which together certainly suggest why the bison herds of the plains soon went the way of history. Perhaps the deadliest of the white hunters, Josiah Wright Mooar (not then William F. Cody, as legend would have it) made an estimate (apparently to be accepted as reliable) that in his career as a buffalo hunter, he had amassed a total kill of 20,000 bison between 1870 and 1879. That would amount to an average death toll of twenty per day, if he had hunted three months of each year, which was the normal length of season.

By way of a second example of what was going on to one degree or another across the American West, let it suffice to relate the shooting skills of Orlando A. Brown. In a two-month span during 1876 he took the lives of 5,855 buffalo (an average kill per day of 97). In that killing spree, Brown's almost constant firing (with the loud report each time) of his"Big Fifty" deafened him in one ear. When other (albeit lesser) rates of killing are added to this deadly equation, does it not become clear why the bison herds of the West were doomed?

The third development concerned the railroads. Though a considerable number of hides reached far-flung markets by wagon-hauling, the bulk of the shipments depended upon the building of rail systems across the West. For instance, the Union Pacific joined the Central Pacific at Promontory Point, Utah, in 1869, the rails having first been laid across the plains of Nebraska. Besides, in the next year the Kansas Pacific reached Denver. By 1872 the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe connected up with Dodge City in western Kansas. While far to the north, the Northern Pacific arrived in Bismarck in the Dakota Territory in 1873.

In that year, however, a financial panic in the United States curtailed railroad building along the southern and northern routes across the plains. But, as of 1879 the Northern Pacific's laying of track resumed with Glendive (Montana Territory) being reached in 1880. Such lines of track provided the necessary means of transport for the phenomenal volume of buffalo hides, skinned no later than the mid-1870s. In the period 1872-1874 the bison hunts in the southern plains peaked, for example, with a buffalo death toll of 4,374,000. To that level of killing by white hunters must be added the 1,215,000 bison taken by Indians on the southern plains.

Such an horrendous slaughter had prompted the action of Congress. First, in 1872, that legislative body voted for a measure to limit buffalo hunting, and then, in 1874, passed a much more restrictive bill. But, to no avail, because President Ulysses S. Grant declined to sign either proposed law. So, the killing continued unabated. With this result--by 1875 the southern buffalo herds ceased to exist.

That being true, the white hunters with an assist from Native Americans, proceeded to decimate the northern herds of the Dakotas and beyond. By 1882, in fact, some 5,000 whites roamed the northern plains. Again, with the following result--the buffalo there virtually disappeared.

Apparently, given the rapacity of white hunters and skinners, not to mention what became to a considerable extent the wanton waste by the Plains Indians too, there had been no way to forestall the killing until almost too late. For, even state action failed to impede the carnage. The Kansas legislature passed a bill to slow the rate of death among its buffalo herds, but the governor there vetoed the measure. Assemblies in Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana also tried to limit the killing, but without avail. Utterly useless were the enactments of New Mexico, Colorado, and South Dakota, all of which came after their bison populations were practically gone. For, Colorado waited until 1897 to legislate against the toll of death.

If it had not been for a growing concern for the survival of the remaining bison, in evidence by the late nineteenth century, the buffalo (almost certainly) would have become extinct. William T. Hornaday, director of the New York Zoological Park, created the American Bison Society in 1905, and became its president. Theodore Roosevelt lent his aid toward protecting the buffalo still left alive by accepting the position as that society's honorary president. George Bird Grinnell, as editor of Forest and Stream, attempted to save the herd of buffalo in Yellowstone National Park, established in 1872. Other than city zoos, along with a few private herds of ranchers, that park became the only refuge for the last remaining specimens in the United States. By the 1880s, in fact, Yellowstone had become home to the largest group of bison left in the nation (and only a few hundred at that).

From such beginnings, a growing nostalgia for the Old west, as encouraged by Wild West shows, like the one of"Buffalo Bill" Cody, along with the western ranchers' belief in profits to be gained from raising buffalo, enough was accomplished to avert the extinction of the bison. The governments of the United States and Canada played indispensable roles here. The former country stocked Yellowstone with buffalo in 1902, following that with the creation of bison preserves in the Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge (Oklahoma), the National Bison Range (Montana), the Wind Cave National Park (South Dakota), and the Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge (Nebraska)--all achieved between 1905 and 1914. The Canadian government helped as well through the establishment of Buffalo National Park (Alberta Province) in 1907, and Wood Buffalo National Park (along boundary of Alberta Province with Northwest Territories) in 1922.

But, tragically (and as the great artist of the Indian, George Catlin, had observed as early as the 1830s), saving the remnants of the once plentiful bison herds could no nothing to preserve the way of life of the Indians on the Great Plains. And, except for a few friends of Native Americans among the whites, such as Catlin, who had called (as early as 1832) for an immense national park throughout much of the Great Plains to protect Indian culture, dependent, as it was, upon the horse and bison, the overwhelming desire of most Euroamericans had been (throughout the nineteenth century) to eliminate the buffalo herds, that being the most viable means of subjugating the Plains Indians. And, with the bison virtually exterminated from their extensive ranges in the American West by the 1880s, the Indians there could do nothing else really for their survival, but submit to reservation life, where they subsisted in large part on government beef.

At this point, let me offer a poignant story, which tells"volumes" regarding the fate of the Plains Indians and their losing battle to retain even the memory of better days. At the Red Cloud Agency of western Nebraska, the Oglala Sioux, each time they heard of a coming delivery of a shipment of cattle from the U. S. government, began to make preparations for a simulation of a buffalo hunt. When the cattle arrived and were herded into the corral, those Indians, mounted on what horses they had left, killed the bovines in the enclosure in much the same manner that bison had once been slain in the great hunts of former days. But, even such a ritualistic mode of behavior, which offered though some solace to the Oglala, came to an abrupt end in 1897, when the U. S. government forbade the practice. A slaughterhouse was built on the agency grounds, whereupon the Indians there received their rations of meat already butchered. So much did the Oglala Sioux resent this new development, they protested one night by burning down the slaughterhouse!

Much as one ought to commiserate with the Oglala in that instance, not to mention deploring the conditions of life on other reservations across the West, something else should be broached here, though it most assuredly will not mollify some people, particularly many, if not most, Native Americans. If the millions of bison had continued to roam the plains until the present day, what would have been the fate of other millions (in this case, people), who have depended increasingly over the years for food (both from cattle, which replaced the bison herds, and from wheat, let us say, along with corn), not only in the United States, but also in such famine-stricken countries sometimes as India or in some other poor nations in other regions of the world, such as Africa, during the twentieth century? For, has not an enormous quantity of food (both from plants and animals) come from the farms and ranches on that vast domain (the Great Plains), where the bison and Native Americans had once held sway?

Coming up with answers to such perplexing questions will never be easy, and, can never, of course, make up for the dispossession of the lands once in the control of the Plains Indians or obviate the severe dislocations in their societies from that day to this, much less justify what happened to them on the Great Plains. But, both queries do suggest the imperative need to view the nineteenth-century history of the American West within an extended time frame in a global context up to this the new millennium.


Gard, Wayne. The Great Buffalo Hunt (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1959).
Haines, Francis. The Buffalo (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1970).
Isenberg, Andrew C. The Destruction of the Bison: An Environmental History, 1750-1920 (Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

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Raul A Garcia - 5/8/2010

I just finished viewing Isenberg's work (2000) on the near-extinction of the bison. What was not mentioned by the author was the confluence of hunting and natural degradation of the plains region, along with the introduction of livestock and the competition for resources, and predation.