The Extermination of the American Bison Part 21

The buffalo supplied the Indian with food, clothing, shelter, bedding, saddles, ropes, shields, and innumerable smaller articles of use and ornament In the United States a paternal government takes the place of the buffalo in supplying all these wants of the red man, and it costs several millions of dollars annually to accomplish the task.

The following are the tribes which depended very largely--some almost wholly--upon the buffalo for the necessities, and many of the luxuries, of their savage life until the Government began to support them:

+------------------------------------+ Sioux 30,561 Crow 3,226 Piegan, Blood, and Blackfeet 2,026 Cheyenne 3,477 Gros Ventres 856 Arickaree 517 Mandan 283 Bannack and Shoshone 2,001 Nez Perce 1,460 Assinniboine 1,688 Kiowas and Comanches 2,756 Arapahoes 1,217 Apache 332 Ute 978 Omaha 1,160 Pawnee 998 Winnebago 1,222 ------ Total 54,758 +------------------------------------+

This enumeration (from the census of 1886) leaves entirely out of consideration many thousands of Indians living in the Indian Territory and other portions of the Southwest, who drew an annual supply of meat and robes from the chase of the buffalo, notwithstanding the fact that their chief dependence was upon agriculture.

The Indians of what was once the buffalo country are not starving and freezing, for the reason that the United States Government supplies them regularly with beef and blankets in lieu of buffalo. Does any one imagine that the Government could not have regulated the killing of buffaloes, and thus maintained the supply, for far less money than it now costs to feed and clothe those 54,758 Indians!

How is it with the Indians of the British Possessions to-day?

Prof. John Maconn writes as follows in his "Manitoba and the Great Northwest," page 342:

"During the last three years [prior to 1883] the great herds have been kept south of our boundary, and, as the result of this, our Indians have been on the verge of starvation. When the hills were covered with countless thousands [of buffaloes] in 1877, the Blackfeet were dying of starvation in 1879."

During the winter of 1886-'87, destitution and actual starvation prevailed to an alarming extent among certain tribes of Indians in the Northwest Territory who once lived bountifully on the buffalo. A terrible tale of suffering in the Athabasca and Peace River country has recently (1888) come to the minister of the interior of the Canadian government, in the form of a petition signed by the bishop of that diocese, six clergymen and missionaries, and several justices of the peace. It sets forth that "owing to the destruction of game, the Indians, both last winter and last summer, have been in a state of starvation. They are now in a complete state of destitution, and are utterly unable to provide themselves with clothing, shelter, ammunition, or food for the coming winter." The petition declares that on account of starvation, and consequent cannibalism, a party of twenty-nine Cree Indians was reduced to three in the winter of 1886.[77] Of the Fort Chippewyan Indians, between twenty and thirty starved to death last winter, and the death of many more was hastened by want of food and by famine diseases. Many other Indians--Crees, Beavers, and Chippewyans--at almost all points where there are missions or trading posts, would certainly have starved to death but for the help given them by the traders and missionaries at those places. It is now declared by the signers of the memorial that scores of families, having lost their heads by starvation, are now perfectly helpless, and during the coming winter must either starve to death or eat one another unless help comes.

Heart-rending stories of suffering and cannibalism continue to come in from what was once the buffalo plains.

[Note 77: It was the Cree Indians who used to practice impounding buffaloes, slaughtering a penful of two hundred head at a time with most fiendish glee, and leaving all but the very choicest of the meat to putrefy.]

If ever thoughtless people were punished for their reckless improvidence, the Indians and half-breeds of the Northwest Territory are now paying the penalty for the wasteful slaughter of the buffalo a few short years ago. The buffalo is his own avenger, to an extent his remorseless slayers little dreamed he ever could be.


There is reason to fear that unless the United States Government takes the matter in hand and makes a special effort to prevent it, the pure-blood bison will be lost irretrievably through mixture with domestic breeds and through in-and-in breeding.

The fate of the Yellowstone Park herd is, to say the least, highly uncertain. A distinguished Senator, who is deeply interested in legislation for the protection of the National Park reservation, has declared that the pressure from railway corporations, which are seeking a foot-hold in the park, has become so great and so aggressive that he fears the park will "eventually be broken up." In any such event, the destruction of the herd of park buffaloes would be one of the very first results. If the park is properly maintained, however, it is to be hoped that the buffaloes now in it will remain there and increase indefinitely.

As yet there are only two captive buffaloes in the possession of the Government, viz, those in the Department of Living Animals of the National Museum, presented by Hon. E. G. Blackford, of New York. The buffaloes now in the Zoological Gardens of the country are but few in number, and unless special pains be taken to prevent it, by means of judicious exchanges, from time to time, these will rapidly deteriorate in size, and within a comparatively short time run out entirely, through continued in-and-in breeding. It is said that even the wild aurochs in the forests of Lithuania are decreasing in size and, in number from this cause.

With private owners of captive buffaloes, the temptations to produce cross-breeds will be so great that it is more than likely the breeding of pure-blood buffaloes will be neglected. Indeed, unless some stockman like Mr. C. J. Jones takes particular pains to protect his full blood buffaloes, and keep the breed absolutely pure, in twenty years there will not be a pure-blood animal of that species on any stock farm in this country. Under existing conditions, the constant tendency of the numerous domestic forms is to absorb and utterly obliterate the few wild ones.

If we may judge from the examples set as by European governments, it is clearly the duty of our Government to act in this matter, and act promptly, with a degree of liberality and promptness which can not be otherwise than highly gratifying to every American citizen and every friend of science throughout the world. The Fiftieth Congress, at its last session, responded to the call made upon it, and voted $200,000 for the establishment of a National Zoological Park in the District of Columbia on a grand scale. One of the leading purposes it is destined to serve is the preservation and breeding in comfortable, and so far as space is concerned, luxurious captivity of a number of fine specimens of every species of American quadruped now threatened with extermination.[78]

[Note 78: It is indeed an unbounded satisfaction to be able to now record the fact that this important task, in which every American citizen has a personal interest, is actually to be undertaken. Last year we could only way it ought to be undertaken. In its accomplishment, the Government expects the co-operation of private individuals all over the country in the form of gifts of desirable living animals, for no government could afford to purchase all the animals necessary for a great Zoological Garden, provide for their wants in a liberal way, and yet give the public free access to the collection, as is to be given to the National Zoological Park.]

At least eight or ten buffaloes of pure breed should be secured very soon by the Zoological Park Commission, by gift if possible, and cared for with special reference to keeping the breed absolutely pure, and _keeping the herd from deteriorating and dying out through in-and-in breeding_.

The total expense would be trifling in comparison with the importance of the end to be gained, and in that way we might, in a small measure, atone for our neglect of the means which would have protected the great herds from extinction. In this way, by proper management, it will be not only possible but easy to preserve fine living representatives of this important species for centuries to come.

The result of continuing in-breeding is certain extinction. Its progress may be so slow as to make no impression upon the mind of a herd-owner, but the end is only a question of time. The fate of a majority of the herds of British wild cattle (_Bos urus_) warn us what to expect with the American bison under similar circumstances. Of the fourteen herds of wild cattle which were in existence in England and Scotland during the early part of the present century, direct descendants of the wild herds found in Great Britain, nine have become totally extinct through in breeding.

The five herds remaining are those at Somerford Park, Blickling Hall, Woodbastwick, Chartley, and Chillingham.



During the first three months of the year 1886 it was ascertained by the writer, then chief taxidermist of the National Museum, that the extermination of the American bison had made most alarming progress. By extensive correspondence it was learned that the destruction of all the large herds, both North and South, was already an accomplished fact.

While it was generally supposed that at least a few thousand individuals still inhabited the more remote and inaccessible regions of what once constituted the great northern buffalo range, it was found that the actual number remaining in the whole United States was probably less than three hundred.

By some authorities who were consulted it was considered an impossibility to procure a large series of specimens anywhere in this country, while others asserted positively that there were no wild buffaloes south of the British possessions save those in the Yellowstone National Park. Canadian authorities asserted with equal positiveness that none remained in their territory.

A careful inventory of the specimens in the collection of the National Museum revealed the fact that, with the exception of one mounted female skin, another unmounted, and one mounted skeleton of a male buffalo, the Museum was actually without presentable specimens of this most important and interesting mammal.

Besides those mentioned above, the collection contained only two old, badly mounted, and dilapidated skins, (one of which had been taken in summer, and therefore was not representative), an incomplete skeleton, some fragmentary skulls of no value, and two mounted heads. Thus it appeared that the Museum was unable to show a series of specimens, good or bad, or even one presentable male of good size.

In view of this alarming state of affairs, coupled with the already declared extinction of _Bison americanus_, the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, Prof. Spencer F. Baird, determined to send a party into the field at once to find wild buffalo, if any were still living, and in case any were found to collect a number of specimens.

Since it seemed highly uncertain whether any other institution, or any private individual, would have the opportunity to collect a large supply of specimens before it became too late, it was decided by the Secretary that the Smithsonian Institution should undertake the task of providing for the future as liberally as possible. For the benefit of the smaller scientific museums of the country, and for others which will come into existence during the next half century, it was resolved to collect at all hazards, in case buffalo could be found, between eighty and one hundred specimens of various kinds, of which from twenty to thirty should be skins, an equal number should be complete skeletons, and of skulls at least fifty.

In view of the great scarcity of buffalo and the general belief that it might be a work of some months to find any specimens, even if it were possible to find any at all, it was determined not to risk the success of the undertaking by delaying it until the regular autumn hunting season, but to send a party into the field at once to prosecute a search. It was resolved to discover at all hazards the whereabouts of any buffalo that might still remain in this country in a wild state, and, if possible, to reach them before the shedding of their winter pelage. It very soon became apparent, however, that the latter would prove an utter impossibility.

Late in the month of April a letter was received from Dr. J. C. Merrill, United States Army, dated at Huntley, Montana, giving information of reports that buffalo were still to be found in three localities in the Northwest, viz: on the headwaters of the Powder River, Wyoming; in Judith Basin, Montana; and on Big Dry Creek, also in Montana. The reports in regard to the first two localities proved to be erroneous. It was ascertained to a reasonable certainty that there still existed in southwestern Dakota a small band of six or eight wild buffaloes, while from the Pan-handle of Texas there came reports of the existence there, in small scattered hands, of about two hundred head. The buffalo known to be in Dakota were far too few in number to justify a long and expensive search, while those in Texas, on the Canadian River, were too difficult to reach to make it advisable to hunt them save as a last resort. It was therefore decided to investigate the localities named in the Northwest.

Through the courtesy of the Secretary of War, an order was sent to the officer commanding the Department of Dakota, requesting him to furnish the party, through the officers in command at Forts Keogh, Maginnis, and McKinney, such field transportation, escort, and camp equipage as might be necessary, and also to sell to the party such commissary stores as might be required, at cost price, plus 10 per cent. The Secretary of the Interior also favored the party with an order, directing all Indian agents, scouts, and others in the service of the Department to render assistance as far as possible when called upon.

In view of the public interest attaching to the results of the expedition, the railway transportation of the party to and from Montana was furnished entirely without cost to the Smithsonian Institution. For these valuable courtesies we gratefully acknowledge our obligations to Mr. Frank Thomson, of the Pennsylvania Railroad; Mr. Roswell Miller, of the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul; and Mr. Robert Harris, of the Northern Pacific.

Under orders from the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, the writer left Washington on May 6, accompanied by A. H. Forney, assistant in the department of taxidermy, and George H. Hedley, of Medina, New York. It had been decided that Miles City, Montana, might properly be taken as the first objective point, and that town was reached on May 9.

Diligent inquiry in Miles City and at Fort Keogh, 2 miles distant, revealed the fact that no one knew of the presence of any wild buffalo anywhere in the Northwest, save within the protected limits of the Yellowstone Park. All inquiries elicited the same reply: "There are no buffalo any more, and you can't get any anywhere." Many persons who were considered good authority declared most positively that there was not a live buffalo in the vicinity of Big Dry Creek, nor anywhere between the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers. An army officer from Fort Maginnis testified to the total absence of buffalo in the Judith Basin, and ranchmen from Wyoming asserted that none remained in the Powder River country.

Just at this time it was again reported to us, and most opportunely confirmed by Mr. Henry E. Phillips, owner of the =LU=-bar ranch on Little Dry Creek, that there still remained a chance to find a few buffalo in the country lying south of the Big Dry. On the other hand, other persons who seemed to be fully informed regarding that very region and the animal life it contained, assured us that not a single buffalo remained there, and that a search in that direction would prove fruitless. But the balance of evidence, however, seemed to lie in favor of the Big Dry country, and we resolved to hunt through it with all possible dispatch.

On the afternoon of May 13 we crossed the Yellowstone and started northwest up the trail which leads along Sunday Creek. Our entire party consisted of the two assistants already mentioned, a non-commissioned officer, Sergeant Garone, and four men from the Fifth Infantry acting as escort; Private Jones, also from the Fifth Infantry, detailed to act as our cook, and a teamster. Our conveyance consisted of a six-mule team, which, like the escort, was ordered out for twenty days only, and provided accordingly. Before leaving Miles City we purchased two saddle-horses for use in hunting, the equipments for which were furnished by the ordnance department at Fort Keogh.

During the first two days' travel through the bad lands north of the Yellowstone no mammals were seen save prairie-dogs and rabbits. On the third day a few antelope were seen, but none killed. It is to be borne in mind that this entire region is absolutely treeless everywhere save along the margins of the largest streams. Bushes are also entirely absent, with the exception of sage-brush, and even that does not occur to any extent on the divides.

On the third day two young buck antelopes were shot at the Red Buttes.

One had already commenced to shed his hair, but the other had not quite reached that point. We prepared the skin of the first specimen and the skeleton of the other. This was the only good antelope skin we obtained in the spring, those of all the other specimens taken being quite worthless on account of the looseness of the hair. During the latter part of May, and from that time on until the long winter hair is completely shed, it falls off in handfuls at the slightest pressure, leaving the skin clad only with a thin growth of new, mouse-colored hair an eighth of an inch long.

After reaching Little Dry Creek and hunting through the country on the west side of it nearly to its confluence with the Big Dry we turned southwest, and finally went into permanent camp on Phillips Creek, 8 miles above the =LU=-bar ranch and 4 miles from the Little Dry. At that point we were about 80 miles from Miles City.

From information furnished us by Mr. Phillips and the cowboys in his employ, we were assured that about thirty-five head of buffalo ranged in the bad lands between Phillips Creek and the Musselshell River and south of the Big Dry. This tract of country was about 40 miles long from east to west by 25 miles wide, and therefore of about 1,000 square miles in area. Excepting two temporary cowboy camps it was totally uninhabited by man, treeless, without any running streams, save in winter and spring, and was mostly very hilly and broken.

In this desolate and inhospitable country the thirty-five buffaloes alluded to had been seen, first on Sand Creek, then at the head of the Big Porcupine, again near the Musselshell, and latest near the head of the Little Dry. As these points were all from 15 to 30 miles distant from each other, the difficulty of finding such a small herd becomes apparent.

Chapter end

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