The Extermination of the American Bison Part 15

This "surround" method of wholesale slaughter was also practiced by the Cheyennes, Arapahoes, Sioux, Pawnees, Ornabas, and probably many other tribes.

[Illustration: THE SURROUND. From a painting in the National Museum by George Catlin.]

5. _Decoying and Driving._--Another method of slaughtering by wholesale is thus described by Lewis and Clarke, I, 235. The locality indicated was the Missouri River, in Montana, just above the mouth of Judith River:

"On the north we passed a precipice about 120 feet high, under which lay scattered the fragments of at least one hundred carcasses of buffaloes, although the water which had washed away the lower part of the hill, must have carried off many of the dead. These buffaloes had been chased down a precipice in a way very common on the Missouri, and by which vast herds are destroyed in a moment. The mode of hunting is to select one of the most active and fleet young men, who is disguised by a buffalo skin round his body; the skin of the head with the ears and horns fastened on his own head in such a way as to deceive the buffaloes. Thus dressed, he fixes himself at a convenient distance between a herd of buffaloes and any of the river precipices, which sometimes extend for some miles.

"His companions in the mean time get in the rear and side of the herd, and at a given signal show themselves, and advance towards the buffaloes. They instantly take alarm, and, finding the hunters beside them, they run toward the disguised Indian or decoy, who leads them on at full speed toward the river, when, suddenly securing himself in some crevice of the cliff which he had previously fixed on, the herd is left on the brink of the precipice; it is then in vain for the foremost to retreat or even to stop; they are pressed on by the hindmost rank, who, seeing no danger but from the hunters, goad on those before them till the whole are precipitated and the shore is strewed with their dead bodies. Sometimes in this perilous seduction the Indian is himself either trodden under foot by the rapid movements of the buffaloes, or, missing his footing in the cliff, is urged down the precipice by the falling herd. The Indians then select as much meat as they wish, and the rest is abandoned to the wolves, and creates a most dreadful stench."

Harper's Magazine, volume 38, page 147, contains the following from the pen of Theo. E. Davis, in an article entitled "The Buffalo Range:"

"As I have previously stated, the best hunting on the range is to be found between the Platte and Arkansas Rivers. Here I have seen the Indians have recourse to another method of slaughtering buffalo in a very easy, but to me a cruel way, for where one buffalo is killed several are sure to be painfully injured; but these, too, are soon killed by the Indians, who make haste to lance or shoot the cripples.

"The mode of hunting is somewhat as follows: A herd is discovered grazing on the table-lands. Being thoroughly acquainted with the country, the Indians are aware of the location of the nearest point where the table land is broken abruptly by a precipice which descends a hundred or more feet. Toward this 'devil-jump' the Indians head the herd, which is at once driven pell mell to and over the precipice.

Meanwhile a number of Indians have taken their way by means of routes known to them, and succeed in reaching the canon through which the crippled buffalo are running in all directions. These are quickly killed, so that out of a very considerable band of buffalo but few escape, many having been killed by the fall and others dispatched while limping off. This mode of hunting is sometimes indulged in by harum-scarum white men, but it is done more for deviltry than anything else. I have never known of its practice by army officers or persons who professed to hunt buffalo as a sport."

6. _Hunting on Snow-shoes._--"In the dead of the winters," says Mr.

Catlin,[61] "which are very long and severely cold in this country, where horses can not be brought into the chase with any avail, the Indian runs upon the surface of the snow by aid of his snow-shoes, which buoy him up, while the great weight of the buffaloes sinks them down to the middle of their sides, and, completely stopping their progress, insures them certain and easy victims to the bow or lance of their pursuers. The snow in these regions often lies during the winter to the depth of 3 and 4 feet, being blown away from the tops and sides of the hills in many places, which are left bare for the buffaloes to graze upon, whilst it is drifted in the hollows and ravines to a very great depth, and rendered almost entirely impassable to these huge animals, which, when closely pursued by their enemies, endeavor to plunge through it, but are soon wedged in and almost unable to move, where they fall an easy prey to the Indian, who runs up lightly upon his snow-shoes and drives his lance to their hearts. The skins are then stripped off, to be sold to the fur traders, and the carcasses left to be devoured by the wolves. [Owing to the fact that the winter's supply of meat was procured and dried in the summer and fall months, the flesh of all buffalo killed in winter was allowed to become a total loss.] This is the season in which the greatest number of these animals are destroyed for their robes; they are most easily killed at this time, and their hair or fur, being longer and more abundant, gives greater value to the robe."

[Note 61: North American Indians, I, 253.]




From a painting in the National Museum by George Catlin.]

The disappearance of the buffalo from all the country east of the Mississippi was one of the inevitable results of the advance of civilization. To the early pioneers who went forth into the wilderness to wrestle with nature for the necessities of life, this valuable animal might well have seemed a gift direct from the hand of Providence. During the first few years of the early settler's life in a new country, the few domestic animals he had brought with him were far too valuable to be killed for food, and for a long period he looked to the wild animals of the forest and the prairie for his daily supply of meat. The time was when no one stopped to think of the important part our game animals played in the settlement of this country, and even now no one has attempted to calculate the lessened degree of rapidity with which the star of empire would have taken its westward way without the bison, deer, elk, and antelope. The Western States and Territories pay little heed to the wanton slaughter of deer and elk now going on in their forests, but the time will soon come when the "grangers" will enter those regions and find the absence of game a very serious matter.

Although the bison was the first wild species to disappear before the advance of civilization, he served a good purpose at a highly critical period. His huge bulk of toothsome flesh fed many a hungry family, and his ample robe did good service in the settler's cabin and sleigh in winter weather. By the time game animals had become scarce, domestic herds and flocks had taken their place, and hunting became a pastime instead of a necessity.

As might be expected, from the time the bison was first seen by white men he has always been a conspicuous prize, and being the largest of the land quadrupeds, was naturally the first to disappear. Every man's hand has been against him. While his disappearance from the eastern United States was, in the main, due to the settler who killed game as a means of subsistence, there were a few who made the killing of those animals a regular business. This occurred almost exclusively in the immediate vicinity of salt springs, around which the bison congregated in great numbers, and made their wholesale slaughter of easy accomplishment. Mr.

Thomas Ashe[62] has recorded some very interesting facts and observations on this point. In speaking of an old man who in the latter part of the last century built a log house for himself "on the immediate borders of a salt spring," in western Pennsylvania, for the purpose of killing buffaloes out of the immense droves which frequented that spot, Mr. Ashe says:

[Note 62: Travels in America in 1806. London, 1808.]

"In the first and second years this old man, with some companions, killed from six to seven hundred of these noble creatures merely for the sake of their skins, which to them were worth only 2 shillings each; and after this 'work of death' they were obliged to leave the place till the following season, or till the wolves, bears, panthers, eagles, rooks, ravens, etc., had devoured the carcasses and abandoned the place for other prey. In the two following years the same persons killed great numbers out of the first droves that arrived, skinned them, and left their bodies exposed to the sun and air; but they soon had reason to repent of this, for the remaining droves, as they came up in succession, stopped, gazed on the mangled and putrid bodies, sorrowfully moaned or furiously lowed aloud, and returned instantly to the wilderness in an unusual run, without tasting their favorite spring or licking the impregnated earth, which was also once their most agreeable occupation; nor did they nor any of their race ever revisit the neighborhood.

"The simple history of this spring is that of every other in the settled parts of this Western World; the carnage of beasts was everywhere the same. I met with a man who had killed two thousand buffaloes with his own hand, and others no doubt have done the same thing. In consequence of such proceedings not one buffalo is at this time to be found east of the Mississippi, except a few domesticated by the curious, or carried through the country on a public show."

But, fortunately, there is no evidence that such slaughter as that described by Mr. Ashe was at all common, and there is reason for the belief that until within the last forty years the buffalo was sacrificed in ways conducive to the greatest good of the greatest number.

From Coronado to General Fremont there has hardly been an explorer of United States territory who has not had occasion to bless the bison, and its great value to mankind can hardly be overestimated, although by many it can readily be forgotten.

The disappearance of the bison from the eastern United States was due to its consumption as food. It was very gradual, like the march of civilization, and, under the circumstances, absolutely inevitable. In a country so thickly peopled as this region speedily became, the mastodon could have survived extinction about as easily as the bison. Except when the latter became the victim of wholesale slaughter, there was little reason to bemoan his fate, save upon grounds that may be regarded purely sentimental. He served a most excellent purpose in the development of the country. Even as late as 1875 the farmers of eastern Kansas were in the habit of making trips every fall into the western part of that State for wagon loads of buffalo meat as a supply for the succeeding winter.

The farmers of Texas, Nebraska, Dakota, and Minnesota also drew largely upon the buffalo as long as the supply lasted.

The extirpation of the bison west of the Rocky Mountains was due to legitimate hunting for food and clothing rather than for marketable peltries. In no part of that whole region was the species ever numerous, although in the mountains themselves, notably in Colorado, within easy reach of the great prairies on the east, vast numbers were seen by the early explorers and pioneers. But to the westward, away from the mountains, they were very rarely met with, and their total destruction in that region was a matter of easy accomplishment. According to Prof.

J. A. Allen the complete disappearance of the bison west of the Rocky Mountains took place between 1838 and 1840.


We come now to a history which I would gladly leave unwritten. Its record is a disgrace to the American people in general, and the Territorial, State, and General Government in particular. It will cause succeeding generations to regard us as being possessed of the leading characteristics of the savage and the beast of prey--cruelty and greed.

We will be likened to the blood-thirsty tiger of the Indian jungle, who slaughters a dozen bullocks at once when he knows he can eat only one.

In one respect, at least, the white men who engaged in the systematic slaughter of the bison were savages just as much as the Piegan Indians, who would drive a whole herd over a precipice to secure a week's rations of meat for a single village. The men who killed buffaloes for their tongues and those who shot them from the railway trains for sport were murderers. In no way does civilized man so quickly revert to his former state as when he is alone with the beasts of the field. Give him a gun and something which he may kill without getting himself in trouble, and, presto! he is instantly a savage again, finding exquisite delight in bloodshed, slaughter, and death, if not for gain, then solely for the joy and happiness of it. There is no kind of warfare against game animals too unfair, too disreputable, or too mean for white men to engage in if they can only do so with safety to their own precious carcasses. They will shoot buffalo and antelope from running railway trains, drive deer into water with hounds and cut their throats in cold blood, kill does with fawns a week old, kill fawns by the score for their spotted skins, slaughter deer, moose, and caribou in the snow at a pitiful disadvantage, just as the wolves do; exterminate the wild ducks on the whole Atlantic seaboard with punt guns for the metropolitan markets; kill off the Rocky Mountain goats for hides worth only 50 cents apiece, destroy wagon loads of trout with dynamite, and so on to the end of the chapter.

Perhaps the most gigantic task ever undertaken on this continent in the line of game-slaughter was the extermination of the bison in the great pasture region by the hide-hunters. Probably the brilliant rapidity and success with which that lofty undertaking was accomplished was a matter of surprise even to those who participated in it. The story of the slaughter is by no means a long one.

The period of systematic slaughter of the bison naturally begins with the first organized efforts in that direction, in a business-like, wholesale way. Although the species had been steadily driven westward for a hundred years by the advancing settlements, and had during all that time been hunted for the meat and robes it yielded, its extermination did not begin in earnest until 1820, or thereabouts. As before stated, various persons had previous to that time made buffalo killing a business in order to sell their skins, but such instances were very exceptional. By that time the bison was totally extinct in all the region lying east of the Mississippi River except a portion of Wisconsin, where it survived until about 1830. In 1820 the first organized buffalo hunting expedition on a grand scale was made from the Red River settlement, Manitoba, in which five hundred and forty carts proceeded to the range. Previous to that time the buffaloes were found near enough to the settlements around Fort Garry that every settler could hunt independently; but as the herds were driven farther and farther away, it required an organized effort and a long journey to reach them.

The American Fur Company established trading posts along the Missouri River, one at the mouth of the Teton River and another at the mouth of the Yellowstone. In 1826 a post was established at the eastern base of the Rocky Mountains, at the head of the Arkansas River, and in 1832 another was located in a corresponding situation at the head of the South Fork of the Platte, close to where Denver now stands. Both the latter were on what was then the western border of the buffalo range.

Elsewhere throughout the buffalo country there were numerous other posts, always situated as near as possible to the best hunting ground, and at the same time where they would be most accessible to the hunters, both white and red.

As might be supposed, the Indians were encouraged to kill buffaloes for their robes, and this is what Mr. George Catlin wrote at the mouth of the Teton River (Pyatt County, Dakota) in 1832 concerning this trade:[63]

"It seems hard and cruel (does it not?) that we civilized people, with all the luxuries and comforts of the world about us, should be drawing from the backs of these useful animals the skins for our luxury, leaving their carcasses to be devoured by the wolves; that we should draw from that country some one hundred and fifty or two hundred thousand of their robes annually, the greater part of which are taken from animals that are killed expressly for the robe, at a season when the meat is not cured and preserved, and for each of which skins the Indian has received but a pint of whisky! Such is the fact, and that number, or near it, are annually destroyed, in addition to the number that is necessarily killed for the subsistence of three hundred thousand Indians, who live chiefly upon them."

The author further declared that the fur trade in those "great western realms" was then limited chiefly to the purchase of buffalo robes.

1. _The Red River half-breeds._--In June, 1840, when the Red River half-breeds assembled at Pembina for their annual expedition against the buffalo, they mustered as follows:

+-------------------------------------+ Carts 1,210 +-------------------------+-----+-----+ Hunters 620 +-------------------------+-----+ Women 650 1,630 +-------------------------+-----+ Boys and girls 360 +-------------------------+-----+-----+ Horses (buffalo runners) 403 +-------------------------------+-----+ Dogs 542 +-------------------------------+-----+ Cart horses 655 +-------------------------------+-----+ Draught oxen 586 +-------------------------------+-----+ Skinning knives 1,240 +-------------------------------------+

The total value of the property employed in this expedition and the working time occupied by it (two months) amounted to the enormous sum of 24,000.

[Note 63: North American Indians, I, p. 263.]

Although the bison formerly ranged to Fort Garry (near Winnipeg), they had been steadily killed off and driven back, and in 1840 none were found by the expedition until it was 250 miles from Pembina, which is situated on the Red River, at the international boundary. At that time the extinction of the species from the Red River to the Cheyenne was practically complete. The Red River settlers, aided, of course, by the Indians of that region, are responsible for the extermination of the bison throughout northeastern Dakota as far as the Cheyenne River, northern Minnesota, and the whole of what is now the province of Manitoba. More than that; as the game grew scarce and retired farther and farther, the half-breeds, who despised agriculture as long as there was a buffalo to kill, extended their hunting operations westward along the Qu'Appelle until they encroached upon the hunting-grounds of the Plain Crees, who lived in the Saskatchewan country.

Thus was an immense inroad made in the northern half of the herd which had previously covered the entire pasture region from the Great Slave Lake to central Texas. This was the first visible impression of the systematic killing which began in 1820. Up to 1840 it is reasonably certain, as will be seen by figures given elsewhere, that by this business-like method of the half-breeds, at least 652,000 buffaloes were destroyed by them alone.

Even as early as 1840 the Red River hunt was prosecuted through Dakota southwestwardly to the Missouri River and a short distance beyond it.

Here it touched the wide strip of territory, bordering that stream, which was even then being regularly drained of its animal resources by the Indian hunters, who made the river their base of operations, and whose robes were shipped on its steam-boats.

It is certain that these annual Red River expeditions into Dakota were kept up as late as 1847, and as long thereafter as buffaloes were to be found in any number between the Cheyenne and the Missouri. At the same time, the White Horse Plains division, which hunted westward from Fort Garry, did its work of destruction quite as rapidly and as thoroughly as the rival expedition to the United States.

In 1857 the Plains Crees, inhabiting the country around the headwaters of the Qu'Appelle River (250 miles due west from Winnipeg), assembled in council, and "determined that in consequence of promises often made and broken by the white men and half-breeds, and the rapid destruction by them of the buffalo they fed on, they would not permit either white men or half-breeds to hunt in their country, or travel through it, except for the purpose of trading for their dried meat, pemmican, skins and robes."

In 1858 the Crees reported that between the two branches of the Saskatchewan buffalo were "very scarce." Professor Hind's expedition saw only one buffalo in the whole course of their journey from Winnipeg until they reached Sand Hill Lake, at the head of the Qu'Appelle, near the south branch of the Saskatchewan, where the first herd was encountered. Although the species was not totally extinct on the Qu'Appelle at that time, it was practically so.

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