Colonel Dodge, who was the chief engineer of the Union Pacific Railway, gathered valuable statistics regarding the wholesale slaughter of the buffalo which followed the extension of the railroad across the great plains west of the Missouri and in Texas. He indicated that the building of the Union Pacific Railway in 1886 – 87, from Omaha to Cheyenne (which at the time was in the Territory of Dakota) cut through the center of the great buffalo range.
From the railroad the hunters swarmed north and south, slaying buffalo inhumanly and unsparingly as they went. Here the main herd was cut in two, never to be reunited.
The plains of Texas became the geographical center of the southern herd, and Glendive, Montana, that of the northern. In a short time the building of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway, and the Kansas Pacific to Pueblo, Colorado opened up all parts of the southern buffalo country. In 1879 there came a demand for buffalo robes that proved fatal to the bison.
The war of extermination began. The years 1882, 1883, and 1884 saw the slaughter of nearly four and a half million in the southern range. This great herd was slaughtered out of existence in about three years’ time. The market became overstocked with hides and buffalo bull robes sold for as low as $1.35 each, and the cows were slaughtered for skins that were worth only the paltry sum of 65 cents.
And there were hundreds of thousands of animals that were heartlessly slain for their tongues or their humps, or for no purpose except to furnish sport for the hunter. The colonel stated that “never in the history of the animal kingdom had there been such another bloody and cruel carnage, or one that yielded so little in proportion to the total value involved.”
In 1876 the northern herd was much larger than the southern, and covered twenty times as much territory. It was estimated by the buffalo hunters that the herd numbered over a million within the Miles City buffalo district. The Northern Pacific was opened for traffic from Glendive eastward in 1881. Buffalo hides were thereafter shipped eastward by the railway and by the steamboats by tens of thousands until 1885, when the work of extermination was practically finished.
The following year not a fresh hide was in the market. It was then thought that the buffalo was gone forever, not only in the United States, but from Canada was well. In 1886 the largest fur house in Montreal asked from $30 to $40 each for robes, and some of the leading furriers of New York had none at all.
It was the presence of the buffalo which accounted for the character of the Indian civilizations that the early frontiersmen encountered as they entered the Great Plains on their journey westward. With plenty of food assured them, the tribes on the plains lived nomadic lives which were enhanced when the Spanish supplied them with horses.
By 1800 horses were in general use among the Natives who developed a remarkable skill on horseback that allowed them to roam widely in pursuit of game. The Indians absolute dependence on the buffalo for food, shelter, clothing, and their use of horses, identified them as a distinctive culture group.
Unlike the white hunters who were to come later, the Indians used every part of the buffalo. The hide was used for clothing and shelter. The fresh meat was eaten raw, roasted, or boiled. That not consumed on the spot was preserved, to be eaten later and the bones were used as tools.
As long as they roamed the west in giant herds, the Indian could continue his nomadic ways, drifting across the grasslands from one location to another.
Ray Allen Billington wrote in WESTWARD EXPANSION — A History of the American Frontier the following: “Once the buffalo vanished the Indian’s livelihood was gone and he had no choice but to accept federal bounty. The slaughter of the two giant herds that grazed the plains . . . began when the Union Pacific was built in 1867 and lasted until 1883 when the bison were virtually exterminated.”
The American buffalo was an animal that had contributed so much of a priceless value to promote and assist in the early development of this country. The buffalo provided so much to the natives and settlers who came later, only to be rewarded by their merciless extermination.
It was estimated that there were 13,000,000 buffalo in the West when the first hunters arrived on the prairie with their powerful, long-range rifles. Thousands of “sportsmen” took advantage of the opportunity to indiscriminately kill bison with no other reward than the sight of dying animals.
Billington wrote: “A museum expedition seeking specimens that year (1883) found less than two hundred in the entire West, while by 1903 the number had dwindled to thirty-four. Little wonder that the Indians, their staff of life gone, were forced to accept servile fate as wards of the government.”
It is hard to understand how an “educated” society could smite the hand that had been her mainstay throughout all her pioneer pilgrimage.
Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory Times-Advocate on November 8, 2023