The Extermination of the American Bison Part 18

Over many portions of the northern range the traveler may even now ride for days together without once being out of sight of buffalo carcasses, or bones. Such was the case in 1886 in the country lying between the Missouri and the Yellowstone, northwest of Miles City. Go wherever we might, on divides, into bad lands, creek bottoms, or on the highest plateaus, we always found the inevitable and omnipresent grim and ghastly skeleton, with hairy head, dried-up and shriveled nostrils, half-skinned legs stretched helplessly upon the gray turf, and the bones of the body bleached white as chalk.

The year 1881 witnessed the same kind of a stampede for the northern buffalo range that occurred just ten years previously in the south. At that time robes were worth from two to three times as much as they ever had been in the south, the market was very active, and the successful hunter was sure to reap a rich reward as long as the buffaloes lasted.

At that time the hunters and hide-buyers estimated that there were five hundred thousand buffaloes within a radius of 150 miles of Miles City, and that there were still in the entire northern herd not far from one million head. The subsequent slaughter proved that these estimates were probably not far from the truth. In that year Fort Custer was so nearly overwhelmed by a passing herd that a detachment of soldiers was ordered out to turn the herd away from the post. In 1882 an immense herd appeared on the high, level plateau on the north side of the Yellowstone which overlooks Miles City and Fort Keogh in the valley below. A squad of soldiers from the Fifth Infantry was sent up on the bluff, and in less than an hour had killed enough buffaloes to load six four-mule teams with meat. In 1886 there were still about twenty bleaching skeletons lying in a group on the edge of this plateau at the point where the road from the ferry reaches the level, but all the rest had been gathered up.

In 1882 there were, so it is estimated by men who were in the country, no fewer than five thousand white hunters and skinners on the northern range. Lieut. J. M. T. Partello declares that "a cordon of camps, from the Upper Missouri, where it bends to the west, stretched toward the setting sun as far as the dividing line of Idaho, completely blocking in the great ranges of the Milk River, the Musselshell, Yellowstone, and the Marias, and rendering it impossible for scarcely a single bison to escape through the chain of sentinel camps to the Canadian northwest.

Hunters of Nebraska, Wyoming, and Colorado drove the poor hunted animals north, directly into the muzzles of the thousands of repeaters ready to receive them. * * * Only a few short years ago, as late as 1883, a herd of about seventy-five thousand crossed the Yellowstone River a few miles south of here [Fort Keogh], scores of Indians, pot-hunters, and white butchers on their heels, bound for the Canadian dominions, where they hoped to find a haven of safety. Alas! not five thousand of that mighty mass ever lived to reach the British border line."

It is difficult to say (at least to the satisfaction of old hunters) which were the most famous hunting grounds on the northern range.

Lieutenant Partello states that when he hunted in the great triangle bounded by the three rivers, Missouri, Musselshell, and Yellowstone, it contained, to the best of his knowledge and belief, two hundred and fifty thousand buffaloes. Unquestionably that region yielded an immense number of buffalo robes, and since the slaughter _thousands of tons_ of bones have been gathered up there. Another favorite locality was the country lying between the Powder River and the Little Missouri, particularly the valleys of Beaver and O'Fallon Creeks. Thither went scores of "outfits" and hundreds of hunters and skinners from the Northern Pacific Railway towns from Miles City to Glendive. The hunters from the towns between Glendive and Bismarck mostly went south to Cedar Creek and the Grand and Moreau Rivers. But this territory was also the hunting ground of the Sioux Indians from the great reservation farther south.

Thousands upon thousands of buffaloes were killed on the Milk and Marias Rivers, in the Judith Basin, and in northern Wyoming.

The method of slaughter has already been fully described under the head of "the still-hunt," and need not be recapitulated. It is some gratification to know that the shocking and criminal wastefulness which was so marked a feature of the southern butchery was almost wholly unknown in the north. Robes were worth from $1.50 to $3.50, according to size and quality, and were removed and preserved with great care. Every one hundred robes marketed represented not more than one hundred and ten dead buffaloes, and even this small percentage of loss was due to the escape of wounded animals which afterward died and were devoured by the wolves. After the skin was taken off the hunter or skinner stretched it carefully upon the ground, inside uppermost, cut his initials in the adherent subcutaneous muscle, and left it until the season for hauling in the robes, which was always done in the early spring, immediately following the hunt.

As was the case in the south, it was the ability of a single hunter to destroy an entire bunch of buffalo in a single day that completely annihilated the remaining thousands of the northern herd before the people of the United States even learned what was going on. For example, one hunter of my acquaintance, Vic. Smith, the most famous hunter in Montana, killed one hundred and seven buffaloes in one "stand," in about one hour's time, and without shifting his point of attack. This occurred in the Red Water country, about 100 miles northeast of Miles City, in the winter of 1881-'82. During the same season another hunter, named "Doc." Aughl, killed eighty-five buffaloes at one "stand," and John Edwards killed seventy-five. The total number that Smith claims to have killed that season is "about five thousand." Where buffaloes were at all plentiful, every man who called himself a hunter was expected to kill between one and two thousand during the hunting season--from November to February--and when the buffaloes were to be found it was a comparatively easy thing to do.

During the year 1882 the thousands of bison that still remained alive on the range indicated above, and also marked out on the accompanying map, were distributed over that entire area very generally. In February of that year a Fort Benton correspondent of _Forest and Stream_ wrote as follows: "It is truly wonderful how many buffalo are still left.

Thousands of Indians and hundreds of white men depend on them for a living. At present nearly all the buffalo in Montana are between Milk River and Bear Paw Mountains. There are only a few small bands between the Missouri and the Yellowstone." There were plenty of buffalo on the Upper Marias River in October, 1882. In November and December there were thousands between the Missouri and the Yellowstone Rivers. South of the Northern Pacific Railway the range during the hunting season of 1882-'83 was thus defined by a hunter who has since written out the "Confessions of a Buffalo Butcher" for _Forest and Stream_ (vol. xxiv, p. 489): "Then [October, 1882] the western limit was defined in a general way by Powder River, and extending eastward well toward the Missouri and south to within 60 or 70 miles of the Black Hills. It embraces the valleys of all tributaries to Powder River from the east, all of the valleys of Beaver Creek, O'Fallon Creek, and the Little Missouri and Moreau Rivers, and both forks of the Cannon Ball for almost half their length. This immense territory, lying almost equally in Montana and Dakota, had been occupied during the winters by many thousands of buffaloes from time immemorial, and many of the cows remained during the summer and brought forth their young undisturbed."

The three hunters composing the party whose record is narrated in the interesting sketch referred to, went out from Miles City on October 23, 1882, due east to the bad lands between the Powder River and O'Fallon Creek, and were on the range all winter. They found comparatively few buffaloes, and secured only two hundred and eighty-six robes, which they sold at an average price of $2.20 each. They saved and marketed a large quantity of meat, for which they obtained 3 cents per pound. They found the whole region in which they hunted fairly infested with Indians and half-breeds, all hunting buffalo.

The hunting season which began in October, 1882, and ended in February, 1883, finished the annihilation of the great northern herd, and left but a few small bauds of stragglers, numbering only a very few thousand individuals all told. A noted event of the season was the retreat northward across the Yellowstone of the immense herd mentioned by Lieutenant Partello as containing seventy-five thousand head; others estimated the number at fifty thousand; and the event is often spoken of to-day by frontiersmen who were in that region at the time. Many think that the whole great body went north into British territory, and that there is still a goodly remnant of it in some remote region between the Peace River and the Saskatchewan, or somewhere there, which will yet return to the United States. Nothing could be more illusory than this belief. In the first place, the herd never reached the British line, and, if it had, it would have been promptly annihilated by the hungry Blackfeet and Cree Indians, who were declared to be in a half-starved condition, through the disappearance of the buffalo, as early as 1879.

The great herd that "went north" was utterly extinguished by the white hunters along the Missouri River and the Indians living north of it. The only vestige of it that remained was a band of about two hundred individuals that took refuge in the labyrinth of ravines and creek bottoms that lie west of the Musselshell between Flat Willow and Box Elder Creeks, and another band of about seventy-five which settled in the bad lands between the head of the Big Dry and Big Porcupine Creeks, where a few survivors were found by the writer in 1886.

South of the Northern Pacific Railway, a band of about three hundred settled permanently in and around the Yellowstone National Park, but in a very short time every animal outside of the protected limits of the park was killed, and whenever any of the park buffaloes strayed beyond the boundary they too were promptly killed for their heads and hides. At present the number remaining in the park is believed by Captain Harris, the superintendent, to be about two hundred; about one-third of which is due to breeding in the protected territory.

In the southeast the fate of that portion of the herd is well known. The herd which at the beginning of the hunting season of 1883 was known to contain about ten thousand head, and ranged in western Dakota, about half way between the Black Hills and Bismarck, between the Moreau and Grand Rivers, was speedily reduced to about one thousand head. Vic.

Smith, who was "in at the death," says there were eleven hundred, others say twelve hundred. Just at this juncture (October, 1883) Sitting Bull and his whole band of nearly one thousand braves arrived from the Standing Sock Agency, and in two days' time slaughtered the entire herd.

Vic. Smith and a host of white hunters took part in the killing of this last ten thousand, and he declares that "when we got through the hunt there was not a hoof left. That wound up the buffalo in the Far West, only a stray bull being seen here and there afterwards."

Curiously enough, not even the buffalo hunters themselves were at the time aware of the fact that the end of the hunting season of 1882-'83 was also the end of the buffalo, at least as an inhabitant of the plains and a source of revenue. In the autumn of 1883 they nearly all outfitted as usual, often at an expense of many hundreds of dollars, and blithely sought "the range" that had up to that time been so prolific in robes.

The end was in nearly every case the same--total failure and bankruptcy.

It was indeed hard to believe that not only the millions, but also the thousands, had actually gone, and forever.

I have found it impossible to ascertain definitely the number of robes and hides shipped from the northern range during the last years of the slaughter, and the only reliable estimate I have obtained was made for me, alter much consideration and reflection, by Mr. J. N. Davis, of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Mr. Davis was for many years a buyer of furs, robes, and hides on a large scale throughout our Northwestern Territories, and was actively engaged in buying up buffalo robes as long as there were any to buy. In reply to a letter asking for statistics, he wrote me as follows, on September 27, 1887:

"It is impossible to give the exact number of robes and hides shipped out of Dakota and Montana from 1876 to 1883, or the exact number of buffalo in the northern herd; but I will give you as correct an account as any one can. In 1876 it was estimated that there were half a million buffaloes within a radius of 150 miles of Miles City. In 1881 the Northern Pacific Railroad was built as far west as Glendive and Miles City. At that time the whole country was a howling wilderness, and Indians and wild buffalo were too numerous to mention. The first shipment of buffalo robes, killed by white men, was made that year, and the stations on the Northern Pacific Railroad between Miles City and Mandan sent out about fifty thousand hides and robes. In 1882 the number of hides and robes bought and shipped was about two hundred thousand, and in 1883 forty thousand. In 1884 I shipped from Dickinson, Dakota Territory, the only car load of robes that went East that year, and it was the last shipment ever made."

For a long time the majority of the ex-hunters cherished the fond delusion that the great herd had only "gone north" into the British Possessions, and would eventually return in great force. Scores of rumors of the finding of herds floated about, all of which were eagerly believed at first. But after a year or two had gone by without the appearance of a single buffalo, and likewise without any reliable information of the existence of a herd of any size, even in British territory, the butchers of the buffalo either hung up their old Sharps rifles, or sold them for nothing to the gun-dealers, and sought other means of livelihood. Some took to gathering up buffalo bones and selling them by the ton, and others became cowboys.


The slaughter of the buffalo down to the very point of extermination has been so very generally condemned, and the general Government has been so unsparingly blamed for allowing such a massacre to take place on the public domain, it is important that the public should know all the facts in the case. To the credit of Congress it must be said that several very determined efforts were made between the years 1871 and 1876 looking toward the protection of the buffalo. The failure of all those well-meant efforts was due to our republican form of Government. Had this Government been a monarchy the buffalo would have been protected; but unfortunately in this case (perhaps the only one on record wherein a king could have accomplished more than the representatives of the people) the necessary act of Congress was so hedged in and beset by obstacles that it never became an accomplished fact. Even when both houses of Congress succeeded in passing a suitable act (June 23, 1874) it went to the President in the last days of the session only to be pigeon-holed, and die a natural death.

The following is a complete history of Congressional legislation in regard to the protection of the buffalo from wanton slaughter and ultimate extinction. The first step taken in behalf of this persecuted animal was on March 13, 1871, when Mr. McCormick, of Arizona, introduced a bill (H. R. 157), which was ordered to be printed. Nothing further was done with it. It read as follows:

_Be it enacted, etc._, That, excepting for the purpose of using the meat for food or preserving the akin, it shall be unlawful for any person to kill the bison, or buffalo, found anywhere upon the public lands of the United States; and for the violation of this law the offender shall, upon conviction before any court of competent jurisdiction, be liable to a fine of $100 for each animal killed, one-half of which sum shall, upon its collection, be paid to the informer.

On February 14, 1872, Mr. Cole, of California, introduced in the Senate the following resolution, which was considered by unanimous consent and agreed to:

_Resolved_, That the Committee on Territories be directed to inquire into the expediency of enacting a law for the protection of the buffalo, elk, antelope, and other useful animals running wild in the Territories of the United States against indiscriminate slaughter and extermination, and that they report by bill or otherwise.

On February 16, 1872, Mr. Wilson, of Massachusetts, introduced a bill in the Senate (S. 655) restricting the killing of the buffalo upon the public lauds; which was read twice by its title and referred to the Committee on Territories.

On April 5, 1872, Mr. B. C. McCormick, of Arizona, made a speech in the House of Representatives, while it was in Committee of the Whole, on the restriction of the killing of buffalo.

He mentioned a then recent number of _Harper's Weekly_, in which were illustrations of the slaughter of buffalo, and also read a partly historical extract in regard to the same. He related how, when he was once snow-bound upon the Kansas Pacific Railroad, the buffalo furnished food for himself and fellow-passengers. Then he read the bill introduced by him March 13, 1871, and also copies of letters furnished him by Henry Bergh, president of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which were sent to the latter by General W. B. Hazen, Lieut.

Col. A. G. Brackett, and E. W. Wynkoop. He also read a statement by General Hazen to the effect that he knew of a man who killed ninety-nine buffaloes with his own hand in one day. He also spoke on the subject of cross-breeding the buffalo with common cattle, and read an extract in regard to it from the San Francisco _Post_.[69]

[Note 69: Congressional Globe (Appendix), second session Forty-second Congress.]

On April 6, 1872, Mr. McCormick asked leave to have printed in the Globe some remarks he had prepared regarding restricting the killing of buffalo, which was granted.[70]

[Note 70: Congressional Globe, April 6, 1872, Forty-second Congress, second session.]

On January 5, 1874, Mr. Fort, of Illinois, introduced a bill (H. R. 921) to prevent the useless slaughter of buffalo within the Territories of the United States; which was read and referred to the Committee on the Territories.[71]

[Note 71: Congressional Record, vol. 2, part 1, Forty-third Congress, p. 371.]

On March 10, 1874, this bill was reported to the House from the Committee on the Territories, with a recommendation that it be passed.[72]

[Note 72: Congressional Record, vol. 2, part 3, Forty-third Congress, first session, pp. 2105, 2109.]

The first section of the bill provided that it shall be unlawful for any person, who is not an Indian, to kill, wound, or in any way destroy any female buffalo of any age, found at large within the boundaries of any of the Territories of the United States.

The second section provided that it shall be, in like manner, unlawful for any such person to kill, wound, or destroy in said Territories any greater number of male buffaloes than are needed for food by such person, or than can be used, cured, or preserved for the food of other persons, or for the market. It shall in like manner be unlawful for any such person, or persons, to assist, or be in any manner engaged or concerned in or about such unlawful killing, wounding, or destroying of any such buffaloes; that any person who shall violate the provisions of the act shall, on conviction, forfeit and pay to the United States the sum of $100 for each offense (and each buffalo so unlawfully killed, wounded, or destroyed shall be and constitute a separate offense), and on a conviction of a second offense may be committed to prison for a period not exceeding thirty days; and that all United States judges, justices, courts, and legal tribunals in said Territories shall have jurisdiction in cases of the violation of the law.

Mr. Cox said he had been told by old hunters that it was impossible to tell the sex of a running buffalo; and he also stated that the bill gave preference to the Indians.

Mr. Fort said the object was to prevent early extermination; that thousands were annually slaughtered for skins alone, and thousands for their tongues alone; that perhaps hundreds of thousands are killed every year in utter wantonness, with no object for such destruction. He had been told that the sexes could be distinguished while they were running.[73]

[Note 73: I know of no greater affront that could be offered to the intelligence of a genuine buffalo-hunter than to accuse him of not knowing enough to tell the sex of a buffalo "on the run" by its form alone.--W. T. H.]

This bill does not prohibit any person joining in a reasonable chase and hunt of the buffalo.

Said Mr. Fort, "So far as I am advised, gentlemen upon this floor representing all the Territories are favorable to the passage of this bill."

Mr. Cox wanted the clause excepting the Indians from the operations of the bill stricken out, and stated that the Secretary of the Interior had already said to the House that the civilization of the Indian was Impossible while the buffalo remained on the plains.

The Clerk read for Mr. McCormick the following extract from the _New Mexican_, a paper published in Santa Fe:

The buffalo slaughter, which has been going on the past few years on the plains, and which increases every year, is wantonly wicked, and should be stopped by the most stringent enactments and most vigilant enforcements of the law. Killing these noble animals for their hides simply, or to gratify the pleasure of some Russian duke or English lord, is a species of vandalism which can not too quickly be checked. United States surveying parties report that there are two thousand hunters on the plains killing these animals for their hides. One party of sixteen hunters report having killed twenty-eight thousand buffaloes during the past summer. It seems to us there is quite as much reason why the Government should protect the buffaloes as the Indians.

Chapter end

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