The Extermination of the American Bison Part 17

"It is much more difficult to estimate the number of dead buffalo represented by the Indian-tanned skins or robes sent to market. This number varies with the different tribes, and their greater or less contact with the whites. Thus, the Cheyennes, Arapahoes, and Kiowas of the southern plains, having less contact with whites, use skins for their lodges, clothing, bedding, par-fleches, saddles, lariats, for almost everything. The number of robes sent to market represent only what we may call the foreign exchange of these tribes, and is really not more than one-tenth of the skins taken. To be well within bounds I will assume that one robe sent to market by these Indians represents six dead buffaloes.

"Those bands of Sioux who live at the agencies, and whose peltries are taken to market by the Union Pacific Railroad, live in lodges of cotton cloth furnished by the Indian Bureau. They use much civilized clothing, bedding, boxes, ropes, etc. For these luxuries they must pay in robes, and as the buffalo range is far from wide, and their yearly 'crop'

small, more than half of it goes to market."

Leaving out of the account at this point all consideration of the killing done north of the Union Pacific Railroad, Colonel Dodge's figures are as follows:

_Southern buffaloes slaughtered by southern Indians._

+-----------------------------------------------------------------+ Sent to No. of dead Indians. market. buffaloes represented. +-----------------------------------------+----------+------------+ Kiowas, Comanches, Cheyennes, Arapahoes, and other Indians whose robes go over the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad 19,000 114,000 Sioux at agencies, Union Pacific Railroad 10,000 16,000 +----------+------------+ Total slaughtered per annum 29,000 130,000 Total for the three years 1872-1874 ... 390,000 +-----------------------------------------------------------------+

Reference has already been made to the fact that during those years an immense number of buffaloes were killed by the farmers of eastern Kansas and Nebraska for their meat. Mr. William Mitchell, of Wabaunsee, Kansas, stated to the writer that "in those days, when buffaloes were plentiful in western Kansas, pretty much everybody made a trip West in the fall and brought back a load of buffalo meat. Everybody had it in abundance as long as buffaloes remained in any considerable number. Very few skins were saved; in fact, hardly any, for the reason that nobody knew how to tan them, and they always spoiled. At first a great many farmers tried to dress the green hides that they brought back, but they could not succeed, and finally gave up trying. Of course, a great deal of the meat killed was wasted, for only the best parts were brought back."

The Wichita (Kansas) _World_ of February 9, 1889, contains the following reference:

"In 1871 and 1872 the buffalo ranged within 10 miles of Wichita, and could be counted by the thousands. The town, then in its infancy, was the headquarters for a vast number of buffalo-hunters, who plied their occupation vigorously during the winter. The buffalo were killed principally for their hides, and daily wagon trains arrived in town loaded with them. Meat was very cheap in those days; fine, tender buffalo steak selling from 1 to 2 cents per pound. * * * The business was quite profitable for a time, but a sudden drop in the price of hides brought them down as low as 25 and 50 cents each. * * * It was a very common thing in those days for people living in Wichita to start out in the morning and return by evening with a wagon load of buffalo meat."

Unquestionably a great many thousand buffaloes were killed annually by the settlers of Kansas, Nebraska, Texas, New Mexico, and Colorado, and the mountain Indians living west of the great range. The number so slain can only be guessed at, for there is absolutely no data on which to found an estimate. Judging merely from the number of people within reach of the range, it may safely be estimated that the total number of buffaloes slaughtered annually to satisfy the wants of this heterogeneous element could not have been less than fifty thousand, and probably was a much higher number. This, for the three years, would make one hundred and fifty thousand, and the grand total would therefore be about as follows:

+------------------------------------------------------+ _The slaughter of the southern herd._ +------------------------------------------------------+ Killed by "professional" white hunters in 1872, 1873, and 1874 3,158,730 Killed by Indians, same period 390,000 Killed by settlers and mountain Indians 150,000 --------- Total slaughter in three years 3,098,730 +------------------------------------------------------+

These figures seem incredible, but unfortunately there is not the slightest reason for believing they are too high. There are many men now living who declare that during the great slaughter they each killed from twenty-five hundred to three thousand buffaloes every year. With thousands of hunters on the range, and such possibilities of slaughter before each, it is, after all, no wonder that an average of nearly a million and a quarter of buffaloes fell each year during that bloody period.

By the close of the hunting season of 1875 the great southern herd had ceased to exist. As a body, it had been utterly annihilated. The main body of the survivors, numbering about ten thousand head, fled southwest, and dispersed through that great tract of wild, desolate, and inhospitable country stretching southward from the Cimarron country across the "Public Land Strip," the Pan-handle of Texas, and the Llano Estacado, or Staked Plain, to the Pecos River. A few small bands of stragglers maintained a precarious existence for a few years longer on the headwaters of the Republican River and in southwestern Nebraska, near Ogalalla, where calves were caught alive as late as 1885. Wild buffaloes were seen in southwestern Kansas for the last time in 1886, and the two or three score of individuals still living in the Canadian River country of the Texas Pan-handle are the last wild survivors of the great Southern herd.

The main body of the fugitives which survived the great slaughter of 1871-'74 continued to attract hunters who were very "hard up," who pursued them, often at the risk of their own lives, even into the terrible Llano Estacado. In Montana in 1886 I met on a cattle ranch an ex-buffalo-hunter from Texas, named Harry Andrews, who from 1874 to 1876 continued in pursuit of the scattered remnants of the great southern herd through the Pan-handle of Texas and on into the Staked Plain itself. By that time the market had become completely overstocked with robes, and the prices received by Andrews and other hunters was only 65 cents each for cow robes and $1.15 each for bull robes, delivered on the range, the purchaser providing for their transportation to the railway.

But even at those prices, which were so low as to make buffalo killing seem like downright murder, Mr. Andrews assured me that he "made big money." On one occasion, when he "got a stand" on a large bunch of buffalo, he fired one hundred and fifteen shots from one spot, and killed sixty-three buffaloes in about an hour.

In 1880 buffalo hunting as a business ceased forever in the Southwest, and so far as can be ascertained, but one successful hunt for robes has been made in that region since that time. That occurred in the fall and winter of 1887, about 100 miles north of Tascosa, Texas, when two parties, one of which was under the leadership of Lee Howard, attacked the only band of buffaloes left alive in the Southwest, and which at that time numbered about two hundred head. The two parties killed fifty-two buffaloes, of which ten skins were preserved entire for mounting. Of the remaining forty-two, the heads were cut off and preserved for mounting and the skins were prepared as robes. The mountable skins were finally sold at the following prices: Young cows, $50 to $60; adult cows, $75 to $100; adult bull, $150. The unmounted heads sold as follows: Young bulls, $25 to $30; adult bulls, $50; young cows, $10 to $12; adult cows, $15 to $25. A few of the choicest robes sold at $20 each, and the remainder, a lot of twenty eight, of prime quality and in excellent condition, were purchased by the Hudson's Bay Fur Company for $350.

Such was the end of the great southern herd. In 1871 it contained certainly no fewer than three million buffaloes, and by the beginning of 1875 its existence as a herd had utterly ceased, and nothing but scattered, fugitive bands remained.

7. _The Destruction of the Northern Herd._--Until the building of the Northern Pacific Railway there were but two noteworthy outlets for the buffalo robes that were taken annually in the Northwestern Territories of the United States. The principal one was the Missouri River, and the Yellowstone River was the other. Down these streams the hides were transported by steam-boats to the nearest railway shipping point. For fifty years prior to the building of the Northern Pacific Railway in 1880-'82, the number of robes marketed every year by way of these streams was estimated variously at from fifty to one hundred thousand.

A great number of hides taken in the British Possessions fell into the hands of the Hudson's Bay Company, and found a market in Canada.

In May, 1881, the Sioux City (Iowa) _Journal_ contained the following information in regard to the buffalo robe "crop" of the previous hunting season--the winter of 1880-'81:

"It is estimated by competent authorities that one hundred thousand buffalo hides will be shipped out of the Yellowstone country this season. Two firms alone are negotiating for the transportation of twenty-five thousand hides each. * * * Most of our citizens saw the big load of buffalo hides that the _C. K. Peck_ brought down last season, a load that hid everything about the boat below the roof of the hurricane deck. There were ten thousand hides in that load, and they were all brought out of the Yellowstone on one trip and transferred to the _C. K.

Peck_. How such a load could have been piled on the little _Terry_ not even the men on the boat appear to know. It hid every part of the boat, barring only the pilot-house and smoke-stacks. But such a load will not be attempted again. For such boats as ply the Yellowstone there are at least fifteen full loads of buffalo hides and other pelts. Reckoning one thousand hides to three car loads, and adding to this fifty cars for the other pelts, it will take at least three hundred and fifty box-cars to carry this stupendous bulk of peltry East to market. These figures are not guesses, but estimates made by men whose business it is to know about the amount of hides and furs awaiting shipment.

"Nothing like it has ever been known in the history of the fur trade.

Last season the output of buffalo hides was above the average, and last year only about thirty thousand hides came out of the Yellowstone country, or less than a third of what is there now awaiting shipment The past severe winter caused the buffalo to bunch themselves in a few valleys where there was pasturage, and there the slaughter went on all winter. There was no sport about it, simply shooting down the famine-tamed animals as cattle might be shot down in a barn-yard. To the credit of the Indians it can be said that they killed no more than they could save the meat from. The greater part of the slaughter was done by white hunters, or butchers rather, who followed the business of killing and skinning buffalo by the mouth, leaving the carcasses to rot."

At the time of the great division made by the Union Pacific Railway the northern body of buffalo extended from the valley of the Platte River northward to the southern shore of Great Slave Lake, eastward almost to Minnesota, and westward to an elevation of 8,000 feet in the Rocky Mountains. The herds were most numerous along the central portion of this region (see map), and from the Platte Valley to Great Slave Lake the range was continuous. The buffalo population of the southern half of this great range was, according to all accounts, nearly three times as great as that of the northern half. At that time, or, let us say, 1870, there were about four million buffaloes south of the Platte River, and probably about one million and a half north of it. I am aware that the estimate of the number of buffaloes in the great northern herd is usually much higher than this, but I can see no good grounds for making it so. To my mind, the evidence is conclusive that, although the northern herd ranged over such an immense area, it was numerically less than half the size of the overwhelming multitude which actually crowded the southern range, and at times so completely consumed the herbage of the plains that detachments of the United States Army found it difficult to find sufficient grass for their mules and horses.[67]

[Note 67: As an instance of this, see _Forest and Stream_, vol. II, p. 184: "Horace Jones, the interpreter here [Fort Sill], says that on his first trip along the line of the one hundredth meridian, in 1859, accompanying Major Thomas--since our noble old general--they passed continuous herds for over 60 miles, which left so little grass behind them that Major Thomas was seriously troubled about his horses."]

The various influences which ultimately led to the complete blotting out of the great northern herd were exerted about as follows:

In the British Possessions, where the country was immense and game of all kinds except buffalo very scarce indeed; where, in the language of Professor Kenaston, the explorer, "there was a great deal of country around every wild animal," the buffalo constituted the main dependence of the Indians, who would not cultivate the soil at all, and of the half-breeds, who would not so long as they could find buffalo. Under such circumstances the buffaloes of the British Possessions were hunted much more vigorously and persistently than those of the United States, where there was such an abundant supply of deer, elk, antelope, and other game for the Indians to feed upon, and a paternal government to support them with annuities besides. Quite contrary to the prevailing idea of the people of the United States, viz., that there were great herds of buffaloes in existence in the Saskatchewan country long after ours had all been destroyed, the herds of British America had been almost totally exterminated by the time the final slaughter of our northern herd was inaugurated by the opening of the Northern Pacific Railway in 1880. The Canadian Pacific Railway played no part whatever in the extermination of the bison in the British Possessions, for it had already taken place. The half-breeds of Manitoba, the Plains Crees of Qu'Appelle, and the Blackfeet of the South Saskatchewan country swept bare a great belt of country stretching east and west between the Rocky Mountains and Manitoba. The Canadian Pacific Railway found only bleaching bones in the country through which it passed. The buffalo had disappeared from that entire region before 1879 and left the Blackfeet Indians on the verge of starvation. A few thousand buffaloes still remained in the country around the headwaters of the Battle River, between the North and South Saskatchewan, but they were surrounded and attacked from all sides, and their numbers diminished very rapidly until all were killed.

The latest information I have been able to obtain in regard to the disappearance of this northern band has been kindly furnished by Prof.

C. A. Kenaston, who in 1881, and also in 1883, made a thorough exploration of the country between Winnipeg and Fort Edmonton for the Canadian Pacific Railway Company. His four routes between the two points named covered a vast scope of country, several hundred miles in width.

In 1881, at Moose Jaw, 75 miles southeast of The Elbow of the South Saskatchewan, he saw a party of Cree Indians, who had just arrived from the northwest with several carts laden with fresh buffalo meat. At Fort Saskatchewan, on the North Saskatchewan River, just above Edmonton, he saw a party of English sportsmen who had recently been hunting on the Battle and Red Deer Rivers, between Edmonton and Fort Kalgary, where they had found buffaloes, and killed as many as they cared to slaughter.

In one afternoon they killed fourteen, and could have killed more had they been more blood-thirsty. In 1883 Professor Kenaston found the fresh trail of a band of twenty-five or thirty buffaloes at The Elbow of the South Saskatchewan. Excepting in the above instances he saw no further traces of buffalo, nor did he hear of the existence of any in all the country he explored. In 1881 he saw many Cree Indians at Fort Qu'Appelle in a starving condition, and there was no pemmican or buffalo meat at the fort. In 1883, however, a little pemmican found its way to Winnipeg, where it sold at 15 cents per pound; an exceedingly high price. It had been made that year, evidently in the mouth of April, as he purchased it in May for his journey.

The first really alarming impression made on our northern herd was by the Sioux Indians, who very speedily exterminated that portion of it which had previously covered the country lying between the North Platte and a line drawn from the center of Wyoming to the center of Dakota. All along the Missouri River from Bismarck to Fort Benton, and along the Yellowstone to the head of navigation, the slaughter went bravely on.

All the Indian tribes of that vast region--Sioux, Cheyennes, Crows, Blackfeet, Bloods, Piegans, Assinniboines, Gros Ventres, and Shoshones--found their most profitable business and greatest pleasure (next to scalping white settlers) in hunting the buffalo. It took from eight to twelve buffalo hides to make a covering for one ordinary teepee, and sometimes a single teepee of extra size required from twenty to twenty-five hides.

The Indians of our northwestern Territories marketed about seventy-five thousand buffalo robes every year so long as the northern herd was large enough to afford the supply. If we allow that for every skin sold to white traders four others were used in supplying their own wants, which must be considered a very moderate estimate, the total number of buffaloes slaughtered annually by those tribes must have been about three hundred and seventy-five thousand.

The end which so many observers had for years been predicting really began (with the northern herd) in 1876, two years after the great annihilation which had taken place in the South, although it was not until four years later that the slaughter became universal over the entire range. It is very clearly indicated in the figures given in a letter from Messrs. I. G. Baker & Co., of Fort Benton, Montana, to the writer, dated October 6, 1887, which reads as follows:

"There were sent East from the year 1876 from this point about seventy-five thousand buffalo robes. In 1880 it had fallen to about twenty thousand, in 1883 not more than five thousand, and in 1884 none whatever. We are sorry we can not give you a better record, but the collection of hides which exterminated the buffalo was from the Yellowstone country on the Northern Pacific, instead of northern Montana."

The beginning of the final slaughter of our northern herd may be dated about 1880, by which time the annual robe crop of the Indians had diminished three-fourths, and when summer killing for hairless hides began on a large scale. The range of this herd was surrounded on three sides by tribes of Indians, armed with breech-loading rifles and abundantly supplied with fixed ammunition. Up to the year 1880 the Indians of the tribes previously mentioned killed probably three times as many buffaloes as did the white hunters, and had there not been a white hunter in the whole Northwest the buffalo would have been exterminated there just as surely, though not so quickly by perhaps ten years, as actually occurred. Along the north, from the Missouri River to the British line, and from the reservation in northwestern Dakota to the main divide of the Rocky Mountains, a distance of 550 miles as the crow flies, the country was one continuous Indian reservation, inhabited by eight tribes, who slaughtered buffalo in season and out of season, in winter for robes and in summer for hides and meat to dry. In the Southeast was the great body of Sioux, and on the Southwest the Crows and Northern Cheyennes, all engaged in the same relentless warfare. It would have required a body of armed men larger than the whole United States Army to have withstood this continuous hostile pressure without ultimate annihilation.

Let it be remembered, therefore, that the American Indian is as much responsible for the extermination of our northern herd of bison as the American citizen. I have yet to learn of an instance wherein an Indian refrained from excessive slaughter of game through motives of economy, or care for the future, or prejudice against wastefulness. From all accounts the quantity of game killed by an Indian has always been limited by two conditions only--lack of energy to kill more, or lack of more game to be killed. White men delight in the chase, and kill for the "sport" it yields, regardless of the effort involved. Indeed, to a genuine sportsman, nothing in hunting is "sport" which is not obtained at the cost of great labor. An Indian does not view the matter in that light, and when he has killed enough to supply his wants, he stops, because he sees no reason why he should exert himself any further. This has given rise to the statement, so often repeated, that the Indian killed only enough buffaloes to supply his wants. If an Indian ever attempted, or even showed any inclination, to husband the resources of nature in any way, and restrain wastefulness on _the part of Indians_, it would be gratifying to know of it.

The building of the Northern Pacific Railway across Dakota and Montana hastened the end that was fast approaching; but it was only an incident in the annihilation of the northern herd. Without it the final result would have been just the same, but the end would probably not have been reached until about 1888.

The Northern Pacific Railway reached Bismarck, Dakota, on the Missouri River, in the year 1876, and from that date onward received for transportation eastward all the buffalo robes and hides that came down the two rivers, Missouri and Yellowstone.

Unfortunately the Northern Pacific Railway Company kept no separate account of its buffalo product business, and is unable to furnish a statement of the number of hides and robes it handled. It is therefore impossible to even make an estimate of the total number of buffaloes killed on the northern range during the six years which ended with the annihilation of that herd.

In regard to the business done by the Northern Pacific Railway, and the precise points from whence the bulk of the robes were shipped, the following letter from Mr. J. M. Hannaford, traffic manager of the Northern Pacific Railroad, under date of September 3, 1887, is of interest.

"Your communication, addressed to President Harris, has been referred to me for the information desired.

"I regret that our accounts are not so kept as to enable me to furnish you accurate data; but I have been able to obtain the following general information, which may prove of some value to you:

"From the years 1876 and 1880 our line did not extend beyond Bismarck, which was the extreme easterly shipping point for buffalo robes and hides, they being brought down the Missouri River from the north for shipment from that point. In the years 1876, 1877, 1878, and 1879 there were handled at that point yearly from three to four thousand bales of robes, about one-half the bales containing ten robes and the other half twelve robes each. During these years practically no hides were shipped.

In 1880 the shipment of hides, dry and untanned, commenced,[68] and in 1881 and 1882 our line was extended west, and the shipping points increased, reaching as far west as Terry and Sully Springs, in Montana.

During these years, 1880, 1881, and 1882, which practically finished the shipments of hides and robes, it is impossible for me to give you any just idea of the number shipped. The only figures obtainable are those of 1881, when over seventy-five thousand dry and untanned buffalo hides came down the river for shipment from Bismarck. Some robes were also shipped from this point that year, and a considerable number of robes and hides were shipped from several other shipping points.

[Note 68: It is to be noted that hairless hides, _taken from buffaloes killed in summer_, are what the writer refers to. It was not until 1881, when the end was very near, that hunting buffalo in summer as well as winter became a wholesale business. What hunting can be more disgraceful than the slaughter of females and young _in summer_, when skins are almost worthless.]

"The number of pounds of buffalo meat shipped over our line has never cut any figure, the bulk of the meat having been left on the prairie, as not being of sufficient value to pay the cost of transportation.

"The names of the extreme eastern and western stations from which shipments were made are as follows: In 1880, Bismarck was the only shipping point. In 1881, Glendive, Bismarck, and Beaver Creek. In 1882, Terry and Sully Springs, Montana, were the chief shipping points, and in the order named, so far as numbers and amount of shipments are concerned. Bismarck on the east and Forsyth on the west were the two extremities.

"Up to the year 1880, so long as buffalo were killed only for robes, the bands did not decrease very materially; but beginning with that year, when they were killed for their hides as well, a most indiscriminate slaughter commenced, and from that time on they disappeared very rapidly. Up to the year 1881 there were two large bands, one south of the Yellowstone and the other north of that river. In the year mentioned those south of the river were driven north and never returned, having joined the northern band, and become practically extinguished.

"Since 1882 there have, of course, been occasional shipments both of hides and robes, but in such small quantities and so seldom that they cut practically no figure, the bulk of them coming probably from north Missouri points down the river to Bismarck."

In 1880 the northern buffalo range embraced the following streams; The Missouri and all its tributaries, from Port Shaw, Montana, to Fort Bennett, Dakota, and the Yellowstone and all its tributaries. Of this region, Miles City, Montana, was the geographical center. The grass was good over the whole of it, and the various divisions of the great herd were continually shifting from one locality to another, often making journeys several hundred miles at a time. Over the whole of this vast area their bleaching bones lie scattered (where they have not as yet been gathered up for sale) from the Upper Marias and Milk Rivers, near the British boundary, to the Platte, and from the James River, in central Dakota, to an elevation of 8,000 feet in the Rocky Mountains.

Indeed, as late as October, 1887, I gathered up on the open common, within half a mile of the Northern Pacific Railway depot at the city of Helena, the skull, horns, and numerous odd bones of a large bull buffalo which had been killed there.

[Illustration: WHERE THE MILLIONS HAVE GONE. From a painting by J. H.

Moser in the National Museum.]

Chapter end

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