The Extermination of the American Bison Part 8

The hunter who would ride in that manner into a herd of the Cape buffaloes of Africa (_Bubalus caffer_) would be unhorsed and killed before he had gone half a furlong.

(2) _Curiosity._--The buffalo of the past possessed but little curiosity; he was too dull to entertain many unnecessary thoughts. Had he possessed more of this peculiar trait, which is the mark of an inquiring mind, he would much sooner have accomplished a comprehension of the dangers that proved his destruction. His stolid indifference to everything he did not understand cost him his existence, although in later years he displayed more interest in his environment. On one occasion in hunting I staked my success with an old bull I was pursuing on the chance that when he reached the crest of a ridge his curiosity would prompt him to pause an instant to look at me. Up to that moment he had had only one quick glance at me before he started to run. As he climbed the slope ahead of me, in full view, I dismounted and made ready to fire the instant he should pause to look at me. As I expected, he did come to a fall stop on the crest of the ridge, and turned half around to look at me. But for his curiosity I should have been obliged to fire at him under very serious disadvantages.

(3) _Fear._--With the buffalo, fear of man is now the ruling passion.

Says Colonel Dodge: "He is as timid about his flank and rear as a raw recruit. When traveling nothing in front stops him, but an unusual object in the rear will send him to the right-about [toward the main body of the herd] at the top of his speed."

(4) _Courage._--It was very seldom that the buffalo evinced any courage save that of despair, which even cowards possess. Unconscious of his strength, his only thought was flight, and it was only when brought to bay that he was ready to fight. Now and then, however, in the chase, the buffalo turned upon his pursuer and overthrew horse and rider. Sometimes the tables were completely turned, and the hunter found his only safety in flight. During the buffalo slaughter the butchers sometimes had narrow escapes from buffaloes supposed to be dead or mortally wounded, and a story comes from the great northern range south of Glendive of a hunter who was killed by an old bull whose tongue he had actually cut out in the belief that he was dead.

Sometimes buffalo cows display genuine courage in remaining with their calves in the presence of danger, although in most cases they left their offspring to their fate. During a hunt for live buffalo calves, undertaken by Mr. C. J. Jones of Garden City, Kans., in 1886, and very graphically described by a staff correspondent of the American Field in a series of articles in that journal under the title of "The Last of the Buffalo," the following remarkable incident occurred:[41]

[Note 41: American Field, July 24, 1886, p. 78.]

"The last calf was caught by Carter, who roped it neatly as Mr. Jones cut it out of the herd and turned it toward him. This was a fine heifer calf, and was apparently the idol of her mother's heart, for the latter came very near making a casualty the price of the capture. As soon as the calf was roped, the old cow left the herd and charged on Carter viciously, as he bent over his victim. Seeing the danger, Mr. Jones rode in at just the nick of time, and drove the cow off for a moment; but she returned again and again, and finally began charging him whenever he came near; so that, much as he regretted it, he had to shoot her with his revolver, which he did, killing her almost immediately."

The mothers of the thirteen other calves that were caught by Mr. Jones's party allowed their offspring to be "cut out," lassoed, and tied, while they themselves devoted all their energies to leaving them as far behind as possible.

(5) _Affection._--While the buffalo cows manifested a fair degree of affection for their young, the adult bulls of the herd often displayed a sense of responsibility for the safety of the calves that was admirable, to say the least. Those who have had opportunities for watching large herds tell us that whenever wolves approached and endeavored to reach a calf the old bulls would immediately interpose and drive the enemy away.

It was a well-defined habit for the bulls to form the outer circle of every small group or section of a great herd, with the calves in the center, well guarded from the wolves, which regarded them as their most choice prey.

Colonel Dodge records a remarkable incident in illustration of the manner in which the bull buffaloes protected the calves of the herd.[42]

[Note 42: Plains of the Great West, p. 125.]

"The duty of protecting the calves devolved almost entirely on the bulls. I have seen evidences of this many times, but the most remarkable instance I have ever heard of was related to me by an army surgeon, who was an eye-witness.

"He was one evening returning to camp after a day's hunt, when his attention was attracted by the curious action of a little knot of six or eight buffalo. Approaching sufficiently near to see clearly, he discovered that this little knot were all bulls, standing in a close circle, with their heads outwards, while in a concentric circle at some 12 or 15 paces distant sat, licking their chaps in impatient expectancy, at least a dozen large gray wolves (excepting man, the most dangerous enemy of the buffalo).

"The doctor determined to watch the performance. After a few moments the knot broke up, and, still keeping in a compact mass, started on a trot for the main herd, some half a mile oft". To his very great astonishment, the doctor now saw that the central and controlling figure of this mass was a poor little calf so newly born as scarcely to be able to walk. After going 50 or 100 paces the calf laid down, the bulls disposed themselves in a circle as before, and the wolves, who had trotted along on each side of their retreating supper, sat down and licked their chaps again; and though the doctor did not see the finale, it being late and the camp distant, he had no doubt that the noble fathers did their whole duty by their offspring, and carried it safely to the herd."

(6) _Temper._--I have asked many old buffalo hunters for facts in regard to the temper and disposition of herd buffaloes, and all agree that they are exceedingly quiet, peace loving, and even indolent animals at all times save during the rutting season. Says Colonel Dodge: "The habits of the buffalo are almost identical with those of the domestic cattle.

Owing either to a more pacific disposition, or to the greater number of bulls, there, is very little fighting, even at the season when it might be expected. I have been among them for days, have watched their conduct for hours at a time, and with the very best opportunities for observation, but have never seen a regular combat between bulls. They frequently strike each other with their horns, but this seems to be a mere expression of impatience at being crowded."

In referring to the "running season" of the buffalo, Mr. Catlin says: "It is no uncommon thing at this season, at these gatherings, to see several thousands in a mass eddying and wheeling about under a cloud of dust, which is raised by the bulls as they are pawing in the dirt, or engaged in desperate combats, as they constantly are, plunging and butting at each other in a most furious manner."

On the whole, the disposition of the buffalo is anything but vicious.

Both sexes yield with surprising readiness to the restraints of captivity, and in a remarkably short time become, if taken young, as fully domesticated as ordinary cattle. Buffalo calves are as easily tamed as domestic ones, and make very interesting pets. A prominent trait of character in the captive buffalo is a mulish obstinacy or headstrong perseverance under certain circumstances that is often very annoying. When a buffalo makes up his mind to go through a fence, he is very apt to go through, either peaceably or by force, as occasion requires. Fortunately, however, the captive animals usually accept a fence in the proper spirit, and treat it with a fair degree of respect.


It may fairly be supposed that if the people of this country could have been made to realize the immense money value of the great buffalo herds as they existed in 1870, a vigorous and successful effort would have been made to regulate and restrict the slaughter. The fur seal of Alaska, of which about 100,000 are killed annually for their skins, yield an annual revenue to the Government of $100,000 and add $900,000 more to the actual wealth of the United States. It pays to protect those seals, and we mean to protect them against all comers who seek their unrestricted slaughter, no matter whether the poachers be American, English, Russian, or Canadian. It would be folly to do otherwise, and if those who would exterminate the fur seal by shooting them in the water will not desist for the telling, then they must by the compelling.

The fur seal is a good investment for the United States, and their number is not diminishing. As the buffalo herds existed in 1870, 500,000 head of bulls, young and old, could have been killed every year for a score of years without sensibly diminishing the size of the herds. At a low estimate these could easily have been made to yield various products worth $5 each, as follows: Kobe, $2.50; tongue, 20 cents; meat of hindquarters, $2; bones, horns, and hoofs, 25 cents; total, $5. And the amount annually added to the wealth of the United States would have been $2,500,000.

On all the robes taken for the market, say, 200,000, the Government could have collected a tax of 50 cents each, which would have yielded a sum doubly sufficient to have maintained a force of mounted police fully competent to enforce the laws regulating the slaughter. Had a contract for the protection of the buffalo been offered at $50,000 per annum, ay, or even half that sum, an army of competent men would have competed for it every year, and it could have been carried out to the letter. But, as yet, the American people have not learned to spend money for the protection of valuable game; and by the time they do learn it, there will be no game to protect.

Even despite the enormous waste of raw material that ensued in the utilization of the buffalo product, the total cash value of all the material derived from this source, if it could only be reckoned up, would certainly amount to many millions of dollars--perhaps twenty millions, all told. This estimate may, to some, seem high, but when we stop to consider that in eight years, from 1876 to 1884, a single firm, that of Messrs. J. & A. Boskowitz, 105 Greene street, New York, paid out the enormous sum of $923,070 (nearly one million) for robes and hides, and that in a single year (1882) another firm, that of Joseph Ullman, 165 Mercer street, New York, paid out $216,250 for robes and hides, it may not seem so incredible.

Had there been a deliberate plan for the suppression of all statistics relating to the slaughter of buffalo in the United States, and what it yielded, the result could not have been more complete barrenness than exists to-day in regard to this subject. There is only one railway company which kept its books in such a manner as to show the kind and quantity of its business at that time. Excepting this, nothing is known definitely.

Fortunately, enough facts and figures were recorded during the hunting operations of the Red River half-breeds to enable us, by bringing them all together, to calculate with sufficient exactitude the value of the buffalo to them from 1820 to 1840. The result ought to be of interest to all who think it is not worth while to spend money in preserving our characteristic game animals.

In Ross's "Red River Settlement," pp. 242-273, and Schoolcraft's "North American Indians," Part iv, pp. 101-110, are given detailed accounts of the conduct and results of two hunting expeditions by the half-breeds, with many valuable statistics. On this data we base our calculation.

Taking the result of one particular day's slaughter as an index to the methods of the hunters in utilizing the products of the chase, we find that while "not less than 2,500 animals were killed," out of that number only 375 bags of pemmican and 240 bales of dried meat were made. "Now,"

says Mr. Ross," making all due allowance for waste, 750 animals would have been ample for such a result. What, then, we might ask, became of the remaining 1,750! * * * Scarcely one-third in number of the animals killed is turned to account."

A bundle of dried meat weighs 60 to 70 pounds, and a bag of pemmican 100 to 110 pounds. If economically worked up, a whole buffalo cow yields half a bag of pemmican (about 55 pounds) and three-fourths of a bundle of dried meat (say 45 pounds). The most economical calculate that from eight to ten cows are required to load a single Red River cart. The proceeds of 1,776 cows once formed 228 bags of pemmican, 1,213 bales of dried meat, 166 sacks of tallow, each weighing 200 pounds, 556 bladders of marrow weighing 12 pounds each, and the value of the whole was $8,160. The total of the above statement is 132,057 pounds of buffalo product for 1,776 cows, or within a fraction of 75 pounds to each cow.

The bulls and young animals killed were not accounted for.

The expedition described by Mr. Ross contained 1,210 carts and 620 hunters, and returned with 1,089,000 pounds of meat, making 900 pounds for each cart, and 200 pounds for each individual in the expedition, of all ages and both sexes. Allowing, as already ascertained, that of the above quantity of product every 75 pounds represents one cow saved and two and one third buffaloes wasted, it means that 14,520 buffaloes were killed and utilized and 33,250 buffaloes were killed and eaten fresh or wasted, and 47,770 buffaloes were killed by 620 hunters, or an average of 77 buffaloes to each hunter. The total number of buffaloes killed for each cart was 39.

Allowing, what was actually the case, that every buffalo killed would, if properly cared for, have yielded meat, fat, and robe worth at least $5, the total value of the buffaloes slaughtered by that expedition amounted to $258,850, and of which the various products actually utilized represented a cash value of $72,001 added to the wealth of the Red River half-breeds.

In 1820 there went 540 carts to the buffalo plains; in 1825, 680; in 1830, 820; in 1835, 970; in 1840, 1,210.

From 1820 to 1825 the average for each year was 610; from 1825 to 1830, 750; from 1830 to 1835, 895; from 1835 to 1840, 1,000.

Accepting the statements of eye-witnesses that for every buffalo killed two and one-third buffaloes are wasted or eaten on the spot, and that every loaded cart represented thirty-nine dead buffaloes which were worth when utilized $5 each, we have the following series of totals:

From 1820 to 1825 five expeditions, of 610 carts each, killed 118,950 buffaloes, worth $594,750.

From 1825 to 1830 five expeditions, of 750 carts each, killed 146,250 buffaloes, worth $731,250.

From 1830 to 1835 five expeditions, of 895 carts each, killed 174,525 buffaloes, worth $872,625.

From 1835 to 1840 five expeditions, of 1,090 carts each, killed 212,550 buffaloes, worth $1,062,750.

Total number of buffaloes killed in twenty years,[43] $652,275; total value of buffaloes killed in twenty years,[43] $3,261,375; total value of the product utilized[43] and added to the wealth of the settlements, $978,412.

[Note 43: By the Red River half-breeds only.]

The Eskimo has his seal, which yields nearly everything that he requires; the Korak of Siberia depends for his very existence upon his reindeer; the Ceylon native has the cocoa-nut palm, which leaves him little else to desire, and the North American Indian had the American, bison. If any animal was ever designed by the hand of nature for the express purpose of supplying, at one stroke, nearly all the wants of an entire race, surely the buffalo was intended for the Indian.

And right well was this gift of the gods utilized by the children of nature to whom it came. Up to the time when the United States Government began to support our Western Indians by the payment of annuities and furnishing quarterly supplies of food, clothing, blankets, cloth, tents, etc., the buffalo had been the main dependence of more than 50,000 Indians who inhabited the buffalo range and its environs. Of the many different uses to which the buffalo and his various parts were, put by the red man, the following were the principal ones:

The body of the buffalo yielded fresh meat, of which thousands of tons were consumed; dried meat, prepared in summer for winter use; pemmican (also prepared in summer), of meat, fat, and berries; tallow, made up into large balls or sacks, and kept in store; marrow, preserved in bladders; and tongues, dried and smoked, and eaten as a delicacy.

The skin of the buffalo yielded a robe, dressed with the hair on, for clothing and bedding; a hide, dressed without the hair, which made a teepee cover, when a number were sewn together; boats, when sewn together in a green state, over a wooden framework. Shields, made from the thickest portions, as rawhide; ropes, made up as rawhide; clothing of many kinds; bags for use in traveling; coffins, or winding sheets for the dead, etc.

Other portions utilized were sinews, which furnished fiber for ropes, thread, bow-strings, snow-shoe webs, etc.; hair, which was sometimes made into belts and ornaments; "buffalo chips," which formed a valuable and highly-prized fuel; bones, from which many articles of use and ornament were made; horns, which were made into spoons, drinking vessels, etc.

After the United States Government began to support the buffalo-hunting Indians with annuities and supplies, the woolen blanket and canvas tent took the place of the buffalo robe and the skin-covered teepee, and "Government beef" took the place of buffalo meat. But the slaughter of buffaloes went on just the same, and the robes and hides taken were traded for useless and often harmful luxuries, such as canned provisions, fancy knickknacks, whisky, fire-arms of the most approved pattern, and quantities of fixed ammunition. During the last ten years of the existence of the herds it is an open question whether the buffalo did not do our Indians more harm than good. Amongst the Crows, who were liberally provided for by the Government, horse racing was a common pastime, and the stakes were usually dressed buffalo robes.[44]

[Note 44: On one occasion, which is doubtless still remembered with bitterness by many a Crow of the Custer Agency, my old friend Jim McNaney backed his horse Ogalalla against the horses of the whole Crow tribe. The Crows forthwith formed a pool, which consisted of a huge pile of buffalo robes, worth about $1,200, and with it backed their best race-horse. He was forthwith "beaten out of sight" by Ogalalla, and another grievance was registered against the whites.]

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