A Note from Cottonwood Corners

The Omaha Daily Bee reported on May 21, 1885 that:  “The American buffalo is virtually an extinct animal.  There are few to be found now where millions roamed and grazed ten years ago.  In 1815 the buffalo ranges extended as far east as Illinois, Minnesota, and Iowa; in short, the Mississippi river marked the eastern boundary of their grazing grounds.”

“On the west the main Rocky Mountain ridge was the limit of their pastures, and between these two natural boundaries the buffalo roamed, over the vast plains of the West, migrating with the seasons north and south from the shores of the Arctic to the Gulf of Mexico. They were at the mercy of the various Indian tribes, but the Indians were merciful.”

From this one animal the Natives drew the main necessities of life. The hides furnished clothing, beds, and lodge coverings. The horns were used as ornaments, and also furnished various kitchen utensils.  The flesh was their staple food, and their sinews became arrow cords.

The Indians used the animal, but did not abuse it. The herds in those days south of the International boundary line, strictly in the United States must have contained not less than 5,000,000,000 animals.  North of the boundary, there must have been another 5,000,000,000 more

“Less than nine years ago,” writes a correspondent of the New York Sun at Miles City,

“this spot was covered with the tepees and lodges of Sitting Bull’s warriors, then at war with the United States. This region was the very heart of the buffalo country.”

“One herd we passed through, traveling for three days without being out of the sight of bison . . . . When they had passed through this herd at the end of the third day, early the next day a scout reported that ‘another tremendous herd was in the distance coming directly toward them at full speed.’”

They quickly sought the protection of the neighboring buttes, while a few climbed a rocky mound and waited as they passed.They flew by them for five hours on a dead run. Their horizon in every direction was bounded by nothing but the black hides of the noble bison. Far as the eye could see, all they saw was buffalos running at full-speed in a large cloud of dust. It was late in the afternoon when the sun sank behind the mountains that their numbers began to lessen. They were finally able to escape from their temporary prison.

It was when Natives were forced to live on the reservation that the buffalo was suddenly at the mercy of the white hunters and their lethal repeating rifles. The two of them together were deadly.

It took the hide hunters about seven years, beginning with 1870, to exterminate the buffalo along the line of the Union Pacific railroad, which in the good old times could have been seen blackening the Platte River bottom for miles. These poor critters were so easily killed, and, from their abundance, offered so rich a reward to the hide hunter.

One particular individual involved in the extermination of the buffalo who used a Gatling gun employed 30 skinners to remove the hides where the animals fell. Each skinner received a dollar for every hide he brought in that evening. The skinned carcasses, as well as the numberless unskinned, were left to rot where they fell.  In short, the manipulator of the artillery kept ahead of his employees and provided them with more than they could attend to.

In those days the hide hunters began to pay attention to other animals and their hide.  Antelope and deer skins were secured in the same way.  In 1880, nearly 100,000 buffalo robes were sent to market, all harvested on the Missouri River.  At the same time, 70,000 antelope, deer, and elk skins were taken from the Missouri.

In 1882, in Idaho and Montana there were more than 5,000 hunters scattered along the line of the Northern Pacific Railroad.  By 1884 there was no buffalo at all to speak of, and in 1885 there was none.  In that area, the buffalo was extinct.

When the buffalo was near extinction in the west, The Sully County Watchman of July 28, 1883 reported:  “But of late there has spring up quite a demand throughout the east for the head of the buffalo bull.  The well-preserved head of an aged bull, decked out with glass eyes and horns intact, will readily sell for $25 ($762 today) in the eastern markets.  Consequently the buffalo hunter of the future will wage a destructive war upon the bull tribe, and those . . . will pass swiftly away.”  They did!

The Sioux City Journal in November of 1883 reported on a fellow from the city that had gone to Montana to hunt buffalo.  His story concluded:  “In brief, the noblest of American game animals is all but extinct.”Instead, the group killed antelope until they were weary of slaughter. How smart is that?

While an elementary principal in Idaho, I had a primary grade teacher send one of her students to my office so that he could read to me. He was having some problems with reading; however, he loved to “read aloud.” When he finished the story we discussed it in detail and I was proud of his retention. His analysis was 100% correct. He said:  “That is so dumb, it is stupid!”  It could also be said that:

“Extermination of the buffalo was so dumb, it was stupid!”


Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory Times-Advocate on November 1, 2023