Buffalo, Extermination of

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In the early nineteenth century great herds of buffalo, more appropriately called American bison, roamed the Great Plains. Then over 50 million buffalo existed (perhaps as many of 75 million). A number of early accounts described awesome sights of the enormous herds. Lewis and Clark commented in 1806 that in what later became South Dakota "The moving multitude . . . darkened the whole plains." Others wrote that, when viewing a herd from a distance, it appeared the entire prairie was in motion. Army major Richard Dodge commented as late as 1871 that it took five days to pass one herd.

The buffalo was central to the Plains Indian economy and remained central to their spiritual world even as late as the twentieth century. Bison provided a variety of foodstuffs, hides for clothing and shelter, bladders for pouches, gall and blood for paints, bones for utensils, droppings for fuel and heat, and skulls for sacred ceremonies. The ox-like grazing mammal had woolly hair and pronounced shoulder hump and was well adapted to the short-grass prairies of the Plains. Though weighing almost 2000 pounds each, the buffalo were surprisingly agile and fast and actually make lighter use of the fragile prairie landscapes than domestic livestock. Buffalo also could withstand more extreme weather conditions than cattle. They tended not to congregate near water sources. In earlier times their native range covered much of North America, but by the mid-nineteenth century the primary range extended from West Texas northward through Alberta, Canada and west from the Mississippi River to the Rockies.

At the end of the American Civil War (18611865), the U.S. military's attention turned again to American Indian relations. Since U.S. settlements expanded further west, troops entered the Great Plains region to protect American settlers and the pending railroad development which would extend well into the central Plains.

The military was keenly aware that a substantial decline in buffalo would pose a serious setback to the Indians' ability to resist U.S. expansion. It would also spell an end to their seemingly nomadic lifestyle and force their move to reservations. Some believe the military made concerted efforts to exterminate the buffalo, both by direct actions and with logistical assistance provided to private hunting expeditions. Given the nature of the animals sometimes to not stampede when fired on, a marksman could shoot a hundred buffalo in an hour standing in one spot. Often only the buffalo tongues and other choice cuts were taken and most of the animal was left to rot. Sometimes they were killed purely for sport. Fencing by new settlers also took its toll by restricting buffalo from traditional watering holes and rich grazing areas.

By 1871 the slaughter of buffalo escalated further. A Pennsylvania tannery developed an industrial method to convert buffalo hides into inexpensive commercial leather for harnesses and machine belts. With hides worth between $1 and $3 each, hunters invaded the Plains. The Kansas Pacific and the Santa Fe railroads carried the hides to eastern markets. As the Kansas herds vanished rapidly, the decimation extended southward to the Texas panhandle. Because the buffalo herds sometimes blocked trains, railroad companies hired hunters to clear the tracks and guard watering holes. An estimated 15 million buffalo in 1865 decreased by 1872 to seven million.

Congress grew alarmed and passed legislation in 1874 regulating the killing of buffalo. Non-Indians could not kill female buffalo and were prohibited from killing no more than needed for food. However, President Ulysses S. Grant (18691877) vetoed the measure. The Texas state legislature also unsuccessfully introduced a buffalo protection bill in 1875.

In 1880 the Northern Pacific Railroad reached the Dakota-Montana border in the central area of the traditional buffalo range. Thousands of buffalo hides were shipped from the Montana Territory and Yellowstone River area. The following year the railroad reached Miles City, Montana. Two years later, in 1883, a herd of 10,000 in Montana were exterminated in a few days time.

By the 1890s less than a thousand buffalo remained in scattered areas, mostly on private ranches. Perhaps a scant twenty to fifty buffalo had sought refuge in Yellowstone National Park. In 1908 Congress created a national bison range west of Flathead Lake in Montana.

Hide hunters as well as thrill seekers in combination with the growing railroad network doomed the once massive herds. The herds on the central plains were exterminated by the early 1870s; they were eliminated from the southern plains later in the 1870s; and they vanished from the northern plains in the early 1880s. To the Plains Indians the wasteful mass killing of the buffalo herds was perhaps the most disheartening act of all by the white intruders. Their economy was shattered and the native groups were forced to live on government handouts. The demise of the great buffalo herds also marked the transition of the extensive grasslands into agricultural production. The prairie itself eventually disappeared under the plow.

See also: Lewis and Clark Expedition, Plains Indians, Westward Expansion


Callenbach, Ernest. Bring Back the Buffalo!: A Sustainable Future for America's Great Plains. Washington, DC: Island Press, 1996.

Dary, David A. The Buffalo Book: The Full Saga of the American Animal. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1989.

Josephy, Alvin M. Now That the Buffalo's Gone: A Study of Today's American Indians. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1984.

Milner, Clyde A., II, Carol A. O'Connor, and Martha A. Sandweiss, eds. The Oxford History of the American West. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Paul, Rodman W. The Far West and the Great Plains in Transition, 18591900. New York: Harper and Row, 1988.

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