The Extermination of the American Bison Part 16

2. _The country of the Sioux._--The next territory completely depopulated of buffaloes by systematic hunting was very nearly the entire southern half of Dakota, southwestern Minnesota, and northern Nebraska as far as the North Platte. This vast region, once the favorite range for hundreds of thousands of buffaloes, had for many years been the favorite hunting ground of the Sioux Indians of the Missouri, the Pawnees, Omahas, and all other tribes of that region. The settlement of Iowa and Minnesota presently forced into this region the entire body of Mississippi Sioux from the country west of Prairie du Chien and around Fort Snelling, and materially hastened the extermination of all the game animals which were once so abundant there. It is absolutely certain that if the Indians had been uninfluenced by the white traders, or, in other words, had not been induced to take and prepare a large number of robes every year for the market, the species would have survived very much longer than it did. But the demand quickly proved to be far greater than the supply. The Indians, of course, found it necessary to slaughter annually a great number of buffaloes for their own wants--for meat, robes, leather, teepees, etc. When it came to supplementing this necessary slaughter by an additional fifty thousand or more every year for marketable robes, it is no wonder that the improvident savages soon found, when too late, that the supply of buffaloes was not inexhaustible. Naturally enough, they attributed their disappearance to the white man, who was therefore a robber, and a proper subject for the scalping-knife. Apparently it never occurred to the minds of the Sioux that they themselves were equally to blame; it was always _the paleface_ who killed the buffaloes; and it was always _Sioux_ buffaloes that they killed. The Sioux seemed to feel that they held a chattel mortgage on all the buffaloes north of the Platte, and it required more than one pitched battle to convince them otherwise.

Up to the time when the great Sioux Reservation was established in Dakota (1875-'77), when 33,739 square miles of country, or nearly the whole southwest quarter of the Territory, was set aside for the exclusive occupancy of the Sioux, buffaloes were very numerous throughout that entire region. East of the Missouri River, which is the eastern boundary of the Sioux Reservation, from Bismarck all the way down, the species was practically extinct as early as 1870. But at the time when it became unlawful for white hunters to enter the territory of the Sioux nation there were tens of thousands of buffaloes upon it, and their subsequent slaughter is chargeable to the Indians alone, save as to those which migrated into the hunting grounds of the whites.

3. _Western railways, and their part in the extermination of the buffalo._--The building of a railroad means the speedy extermination of all the big game along its line. In its eagerness to attract the public and build up "a big business," every new line which traverses a country containing game does its utmost, by means of advertisements and posters, to attract the man with a gun. Its game resorts are all laid bare, and the market hunters and sportsmen swarm in immediately, slaying and to slay.

Within the last year the last real retreat for our finest game, the only remaining stronghold for the mountain sheep, goat, caribou, elk, and deer--northwestern Montana, northern Idaho, and thence westward--has been laid open to the very heart by the building of the St. Paul, Minneapolis and Manitoba Railway, which runs up the valley of the Milk River to Fort Assinniboine, and crosses the Rocky Mountains through Two Medicine Pass. Heretofore that region has been so difficult to reach that the game it contains has been measurably secure from general slaughter; but now it also must "go."

The marking out of the great overland trail by the Argonauts of '49 in their rush for the gold fields of California was the foreshadowing of the great east-and-west breach in the universal herd, which was made twenty years later by the first transcontinental railway.

The pioneers who "crossed the plains" in those days killed buffaloes for food whenever they could, and the constant harrying of those animals experienced along the line of travel, soon led them to retire from the proximity of such continual danger. It was undoubtedly due to this cause that the number seen by parties who crossed the plains in 1849 and subsequently, was surprisingly small. But, fortunately for the buffaloes, the pioneers who would gladly have halted and turned aside now and then for the excitement of the chase, were compelled to hurry on, and accomplish the long journey while good weather lasted. It was owing to this fact, and the scarcity of good horses, that the buffaloes found it necessary to retire only a few miles from the wagon route to get beyond the reach of those who would have gladly hunted them.

Mr. Allen Varner, of Indianola, Illinois, has kindly furnished me with the following facts in regard to the presence of the buffalo, as observed by him during his journey westward, over what was then known as the Oregon Trail.

"The old Oregon trail ran from Independence, Missouri, to old Fort Laramie, through the South Pass of the Rocky Mountains, and thence up to Salt Lake City. We left Independence on May C, 1849, and struck the Platte River at Grand Island. The trail had been traveled but very little previous to that year. We saw no buffaloes whatever until we reached the forks of the Platte, on May 20, or thereabouts. There we saw seventeen head. From that time on we saw small bunches now and then; never more than forty or fifty together. We saw no great herds anywhere, and I should say we did not see over five hundred head all told. The most western point at which we saw buffaloes was about due north of Laramie Peak, and it must have been about the 20th of June. We killed several head for meat during our trip, and found them all rather thin in flesh. Plainsmen who claimed to know, said that all the buffaloes we saw had wintered in that locality, and had not had time to get fat. The annual migration from the south had not yet begun, or rather had not yet brought any of the southern buffaloes that far north."

In a few years the tide of overland travel became so great, that the buffaloes learned to keep away from the dangers of the trail, and many a pioneer has crossed the plains without ever seeing a live buffalo.

4. _The division of the universal herd._--Until the building of the first transcontinental railway made it possible to market the "buffalo product," buffalo hunting as a business was almost wholly in the hands of the Indians. Even then, the slaughter so far exceeded the natural increase that the narrowing limits of the buffalo range was watched with anxiety, and the ultimate extinction of the species confidently predicted. Even without railroads the extermination of the race would have taken place eventually, but it would have been delayed perhaps twenty years. With a recklessness of the future that was not to be expected of savages, though perhaps perfectly natural to civilized white men, who place the possession of a dollar above everything else, the Indians with one accord singled out the _cows_ for slaughter, because their robes and their flesh better suited the fastidious taste of the noble redskin. The building of the Union Pacific Railway began at Omaha in 1865, and during that year 40 miles were constructed. The year following saw the completion of 265 miles more, and in 1867 245 miles were added, which brought it to Cheyenne. In 1868, 350 miles were built, and in 1869 the entire line was open to traffic.

In 1867, when Maj. J. W. Powell and Prof. A. H. Thompson crossed the plains by means of the Union Pacific Railway as far as it was constructed and thence onward by wagon, they saw during the entire trip only one live buffalo, a solitary old bull, wandering aimlessly along the south bank of the Platte River.

The completion of the Union Pacific Railway divided forever the buffaloes of the United States into two great herds, which thereafter became known respectively as the northern and southern herds. Both retired rapidly and permanently from the railway, and left a strip of country over 50 miles wide almost uninhabited by them. Although many thousand buffaloes were killed by hunters who made the Union Pacific Railway their base of operations, the two great bodies retired north and south so far that the greater number were beyond striking distance from that line.

5. _The destruction of the southern herd._--The geographical center of the great southern herd during the few years of its separate existence previous to its destruction was very near the present site of Garden City, Kansas. On the east, even as late as 1872, thousands of buffaloes ranged within 10 miles of Wichita, which was then the headquarters of a great number of buffalo-hunters, who plied their occupation vigorously during the winter. On the north the herd ranged within 25 miles of the Union Pacific, until the swarm of hunters coming down from the north drove them farther and farther south. On the west, a few small bands ranged as far as Pike's Peak and the South Park, but the main body ranged east of the town of Pueblo, Colorado. In the southwest, buffaloes were abundant as far as the Pecos and the Staked Plains, while the southern limit of the herd was about on a line with the southern boundary of New Mexico. Regarding this herd, Colonel Dodge writes as follows: "Their most prized feeding ground was the section of country between the South Platte and Arkansas rivers, watered by the Republican, Smoky, Walnut, Pawnee, and other parallel or tributary streams, and generally known as the Republican country. Hundreds of thousands went south from here each winter, but hundreds of thousands remained. It was the chosen home of the buffalo."

Although the range of the northern herd covered about twice as much territory as did the southern, the latter contained probably twice as many buffaloes. The number of individuals in the southern herd in the year 1871 must have been at least three millions, and most estimates place the total much higher than that.

During the years from 1866 to 1871, inclusive, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway and what is now known as the Kansas Pacific, or Kansas division of the Union Pacific Railway, were constructed from the Missouri River westward across Kansas, and through the heart of the southern buffalo range. The southern herd was literally cut to pieces by railways, and every portion of its range rendered easily accessible.

There had always been a market for buffalo robes at a fair price, and as soon as the railways crossed the buffalo country the slaughter began.

The rush to the range was only surpassed by the rush to the gold mines of California in earlier years. The railroad builders, teamsters, fortune-seekers, "professional" hunters, trappers, guides, and every one out of a job turned out to hunt buffalo for hides and meat. The merchants who had already settled in all the little towns along the three great railways saw an opportunity to make money out of the buffalo product, and forthwith began to organize and supply hunting parties with arms, ammunition, and provisions, and send them to the range. An immense business of this kind was done by the merchants of Dodge City (Fort Dodge), Wichita, and Leavenworth, and scores of smaller towns did a corresponding amount of business in the same line. During the years 1871 to 1874 but little else was done in that country except buffalo killing.

Central depots were established in the best buffalo country, from whence hunting parties operated in all directions. Buildings were erected for the curing of meat, and corrals were built in which to heap up the immense piles of buffalo skins that accumulated. At Dodge City, as late as 1878, Professor Thompson saw a lot of baled buffalo skins in a corral, the solid cubical contents of which he calculated to equal 120 cords.

At first the utmost wastefulness prevailed. Every one wanted to kill buffalo, and no one was willing to do the skinning and curing. Thousands upon thousands of buffaloes were killed for their tongues alone, and never skinned. Thousands more were wounded by unskillful marksmen and wandered off to die and become a total loss. But the climax of wastefulness and sloth was not reached until the enterprising buffalo-butcher began to skin his dead buffaloes by horse-power. The process is of interest, as showing the depth of degradation to which a man can fall and still call himself a hunter. The skin of the buffalo was ripped open along the belly and throat, the legs cut around at the knees, and ripped up the rest of the way. The skin of the neck was divided all the way around at the back of the head, and skinned back a few inches to afford a start. A stout iron bar, like a hitching post, was then driven through the skull and about 18 inches into the earth, after which a rope was tied very firmly to the thick skin of the neck, made ready for that purpose. The other end of this rope was then hitched to the whiffletree of a pair of horses, or to the rear axle of a wagon, the horses were whipped up, and the skin was forthwith either torn in two or torn off the buffalo with about 50 pounds of flesh adhering to it. It soon became apparent to even the most enterprising buffalo skinner that this method was not an unqualified success, and it was presently abandoned.

The slaughter which began in 1871 was prosecuted with great vigor and enterprise in 1872, and reached its heighten 1873. By that time, the buffalo country fairly swarmed with hunters, each, party putting forth its utmost efforts to destroy more buffaloes than its rivals. By that time experience had taught the value of thorough organization, and the butchering was done in a more business-like way. By a coincidence that proved fatal to the bison, it was just at the beginning of the slaughter that breech-loading, long-range rifles attained what was practically perfection. The Sharps 40-90 or 45-120, and the Remington were the favorite weapons of the buffalo-hunter, the former being the one in most general use. Before the leaden hail of thousands of these deadly breech-loaders the buffaloes went down at the rate of several thousand daily during the hunting season.

During the years 1871 and 1872 the most wanton wastefulness prevailed.

Colonel Dodge declares that, though hundreds of thousands of skins were sent to market, they scarcely indicated the extent of the slaughter.

Through want of skill in shooting and want of knowledge in preserving the hides of those slain by green hunters, _one hide sent to market represented three, four, or even five dead buffalo_. The skinners and curers knew so little of the proper mode of curing hides, that at least half of those actually taken were lost. In the summer and fall of 1872 one hide sent to market represented at least _three_ dead buffalo. This condition of affairs rapidly improved; but such was the furor for slaughter, and the ignorance of all concerned, that every hide sent to market in 1871 represented no less than _five_ dead buffalo.

By 1873 the condition of affairs had somewhat improved, through better organization of the hunting parties and knowledge gained by experience in curing. For all that, however, buffaloes were still so exceedingly plentiful, and shooting was so much easier than skinning, the latter was looked upon as a necessary evil and still slighted to such an extent that every hide actually sold and delivered represented two dead buffaloes.

In 1874 the slaughterers began to take alarm at the increasing scarcity of buffalo, and the skinners, having a much smaller number of dead animals to take care of than ever before, were able to devote more time to each subject and do their work properly. As a result, Colonel Dodge estimated that during 1874, and from that time on, one hundred skins delivered represented not more than one hundred and twenty-five dead buffaloes; but that "no parties have ever got the proportion lower than this."

The great southern herd was slaughtered by still-hunting, a method which has already been fully described. A typical hunting party is thus described by Colonel Dodge:[64]

"The most approved party consisted of four men--one shooter, two skinners, and one man to cook, stretch hides, and take care of camp.

Where buffalo were very plentiful the number of skinners was increased.

A light wagon, drawn by two horses or mules, takes the outfit into the wilderness, and brings into camp the skins taken each day. The outfit is most meager: a sack of flour, a side of bacon, 5 pounds of coffee, tea, and sugar, a little salt, and possibly a few beans, is a month's supply.

A common or "A" tent furnishes shelter; a couple of blankets for each man is a bed. One or more of Sharps or Remington's heaviest sporting rifles, and an unlimited supply of ammunition, is the armament; while a coffee-pot, Dutch-oven, frying-pan, four tin plates, and four tin cups constitute the kitchen and table furniture.

"The skinning knives do duty at the platter, and 'fingers were made before forks.' Nor must be forgotten one or more 10-gallon kegs for water, as the camp may of necessity be far away from a stream. The supplies are generally furnished by the merchant for whom the party is working, who, in addition, pays each of the party a specified percentage of the value of the skins delivered. The shooter is carefully selected for his skill and knowledge of the habits of the buffalo. He is captain and leader of the party. When all is ready, he plunges into the wilderness, going to the center of the best buffalo region known to him, not already occupied (for there are unwritten regulations recognized as laws, giving to each hunter certain rights of discovery and occupancy).

Arrived at the position, he makes his camp in some hidden ravine or thicket, and makes all ready for work."

[Note 64: Plains of the Great West, p. 134.]

Of course the slaughter was greatest along the lines of the three great railways--the Kansas Pacific, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe, and the Union Pacific, about in the order named. It reached its height in the season of 1873. During that year the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad carried out of the buffalo country 251,443 robes, 1,017,600 pounds of meat, and 2,743,100 pounds of bones. The end of the southern herd was then near at hand. Could the southern buffalo range have been roofed over at that time it would have made one vast charnel-house.

Putrifying carcasses, many of them with the hide still on, lay thickly scattered over thousands of square miles of the level prairie, poisoning the air and water and offending the sight. The remaining herds had become mere scattered bands, harried and driven hither and thither by the hunters, who now swarmed almost as thickly as the buffaloes. A cordon of camps was established along the Arkansas River, the South Platte, the Republican, and the few other streams that contained water, and when the thirsty animals came to drink they were attacked and driven away, and with the most fiendish persistency kept from slaking their thirst, so that they would again be compelled to seek the river and come within range of the deadly breech-loaders. Colonel Dodge declares that in places favorable to such warfare, as the south bank of the Platte, a herd of buffalo has, by shooting at it by day and by lighting fires and firing guns at night, been kept from water until it has been entirely destroyed. In the autumn of 1873, when Mr. William Blackmore traveled for some 30 or 40 miles along the north bank of the Arkansas River to the east of Port Dodge, "there was a continuous line of putrescent carcasses, so that the air was rendered pestilential and offensive to the last degree. The hunters had formed a line of camps along the banks of the river, and had shot down the buffalo, night and morning, as they came to drink. In order to give an idea of the number of these carcasses, it is only necessary to mention that I counted sixty-seven on one spot not covering 4 acres."

White hunters were not allowed to hunt in the Indian Territory, but the southern boundary of the State of Kansas was picketed by them, and a herd no sooner crossed the line going north than it was destroyed. Every water-hole was guarded by a camp of hunters, and whenever a thirsty herd approached, it was promptly met by rifle-bullets.

During this entire period the slaughter of buffaloes was universal. The man who desired buffalo meat for food almost invariably killed five times as many animals as he could utilize, and after cutting from each victim its very choicest parts--the _tongue alone_, possibly, or perhaps the hump and hind quarters, one or the other, or both--fully four-fifths of the really edible portion of the carcass would be left to the wolves.

It was no uncommon thing for a man to bring in two barrels of salted buffalo tongues, without another pound of meat or a solitary robe. The tongues were purchased at 25 cents each and sold in the markets farther east at 50 cents. In those days of criminal wastefulness it was a very common thing for buffaloes to be slaughtered for their tongues alone.

Mr. George Catlin[65] relates that a few days previous to his arrival at the mouth of the Teton River (Dakota), in 1832, "an immense herd of buffaloes had showed themselves on the opposite side of the river,"

whereupon a party of five or six hundred Sioux Indians on horseback forded the river, attacked the herd, recrossed the river about sunset, and came into the fort with fourteen hundred fresh buffalo tongues, which were thrown down in a mass, and for which they required only a few gallons of whisky, which was soon consumed in "a little harmless carouse." Mr. Catlin states that from all that he could learn not a skin or a pound of meat, other than the tongues, was saved after this awful slaughter.

[Note 65: North American Indians, I, 256.]

Judging from all accounts, it is making a safe estimate to say that probably no fewer than fifty thousand buffaloes have been killed for their tongues alone, and the most of these are undoubtedly chargeable against white men, who ought to have known better.

A great deal has been said about the slaughter of buffaloes by foreign sportsmen, particularly Englishmen; but I must say that, from all that can be ascertained on this point, this element of destruction has been greatly exaggerated and overestimated. It is true that every English sportsman who visited this country in the days of the buffalo always resolved to have, and did have, "a buffalo hunt," and usually under the auspices of United States Army officers. Undoubtedly these parties did kill hundreds of buffaloes, but it is very doubtful whether the aggregate of the number slain by foreign sportsmen would run up higher than ten thousand. Indeed, for myself, I am well convinced that there are many old ex-still-hunters yet living, each of whom is accountable for a greater number of victims than all buffaloes killed by foreign sportsmen would make added together. The professional butchers were very much given to crying out against "them English lords," and holding up their hands in holy horror at buffaloes killed by them for their heads, instead of for hides to sell at a dollar apiece; but it is due the American public to say that all this outcry was received at its true value and deceived very few. By those in possession of the facts it was recognized as "a blind," to divert public opinion from the real culprits.

Nevertheless it is very true that many men who were properly classed as sportsmen, in contradistinction from the pot-hunters, did engage in useless and inexcusable slaughter to an extent that was highly reprehensible, to say the least. A sportsman is not supposed to kill game wantonly, when it can be of no possible use to himself or any one else, but a great many do it for all that. Indeed, the sportsman who kills sparingly and conscientiously is rather the exception than the rule. Colonel Dodge thus refers to the work of some foreign sportsmen:

"In the fall of that year [1872] three English gentlemen went out with me for a short hunt, and in their excitement bagged more buffalo than would have supplied a brigade." As a general thing, however, the professional sportsmen who went out to have a buffalo hunt for the excitement of the chase and the trophies it yielded, nearly always found the bison so easy a victim, and one whose capture brought so little glory to the hunter, that the chase was voted very disappointing, and soon abandoned in favor of nobler game. In those days there was no more to boast of in killing a buffalo than in the assassination of a Texas steer.

It was, then, the hide-hunters, white and red, but especially white, who wiped out the great southern herd in four short years. The prices received for hides varied considerably, according to circumstances, but for the green or undressed article it usually ranged from 50 cents for the skins of calves to $1.25 for those of adult animals in good condition. Such prices seem ridiculously small, but when it is remembered that, when buffaloes were plentiful it was no uncommon thing for a hunter to kill from forty to sixty head in a day, it will readily be seen that the _chances_ of making very handsome profits were sufficient to tempt hunters to make extraordinary exertions. Moreover, even when the buffaloes were nearly gone, the country was overrun with men who had absolutely nothing else to look to as a means of livelihood, and so, no matter whether the profits were great or small, so long as enough buffaloes remained to make it possible to get a living by their pursuit, they were hunted down with the most determined persistency and pertinacity.

6. _Statistics of the slaughter._--The most careful and reliable estimate ever made of results of the slaughter of the southern buffalo herd is that of Col. Richard Irving Dodge, and it is the only one I know of which furnishes a good index of the former size of that herd.

Inasmuch as this calculation was based on actual statistics, supplemented by personal observations and inquiries made in that region during the great slaughter, I can do no better than to quote Colonel Dodge almost in full.[66]

[Note 66: Plains of the Great West, pp. 139-144.]

The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad furnished the following statistics of the buffalo product carried by it during the years 1872, 1873, and 1874:

+----------------------------------------------------+ _Buffalo product._ +----------------------------------------------------+ No. of skins Year. carried. Meat carried. Bone carried. +----------------------------------------------------+ Pounds. Pounds. 1872 165,721 ... 1,135,300 1873 251,443 1,617,600 2,743,100 1874 42,289 632,800 6,914,950 +------ -------------- --------------- --------------+ Total 459,453 2,250,400 10,793,350 +----------------------------------------------------+

The officials of the Kansas Pacific and Union Pacific railroads either could not or would not furnish any statistics of the amount of the buffalo product carried by their lines during this period, and it became necessary to proceed without the actual figures in both cases. Inasmuch as the Kansas Pacific road cuts through a portion of the buffalo country which was in every respect as thickly inhabited by those animals as the region traversed by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe, it seemed absolutely certain that the former road hauled out fully as many hides as the latter, if not more, and its quota is so set down. The Union Pacific line handled a much smaller number of buffalo hides than either of its southern rivals, but Colonel Dodge believes that this, "with the smaller roads which touch the buffalo region, taken together, carried about as much as either of the two principal buffalo roads."

Colonel Dodge considers it reasonably certain that the statistics furnished by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe road represent only one-third of the entire buffalo product, and there certainly appears to be good ground for this belief. It is therefore in order to base further calculations upon these figures.

According to evidence gathered on the spot by Colonel Dodge during the period of the great slaughter, one hide sent to market in 1872 represented three dead buffaloes, in 1873 two, and in 1874 one hundred skins delivered represented one hundred and twenty-five dead animals.

The total slaughter by white men was therefore about as below:

+---------------------------------------------------------------+ Year. Hides Hides Total Total Total shipped shipped number of number of buffaloes by A., T. by other buffaloes killed and slaughtered and S. F. roads, utilized. wasted. by whites. railway. same period. (estimated) +-----+---------+-----------+-----------+----------+------------+ 1872 165,721 331,442 497,163 994,326 1,491,489 1873 251,443 502,886 754,329 754,329 1,508,658 1874 42,289 84,578 126,867 31,716 158,583 Total 459,453 918,906 1,378,359 1,780,481 3,158,730 +---------------------------------------------------------------+

During all this time the Indians of all tribes within striking distance of the herds killed an immense number of buffaloes every year. In the summer they killed for the hairless hides to use for lodges and for leather, and in the autumn they slaughtered for robes and meat, but particularly robes, which were all they could offer the white trader in exchange for his goods. They were too lazy and shiftless to cure much buffalo meat, and besides it was not necessary, for the Government fed them. In regard to the number of buffaloes of the southern herd killed by the Indians, Colonel Dodge arrives at an estimate, as follows:

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