The Extermination of the American Bison Part 9

The total disappearance of the buffalo has made no perceptible difference in the annual cost of the Indians to the Government. During the years when buffaloes were numerous and robes for the purchase of fire-arms and cartridges were plentiful, Indian wars were frequent, and always costly to the Government. The Indians were then quite independent, because they could take the war path at any time and live on buffalo indefinitely. Now, the case is very different. The last time Sitting Bull went on the war-path and was driven up into Manitoba, he had the doubtful pleasure of living on his ponies and dogs until he became utterly starved out. Since his last escapade, the Sioux have been compelled to admit that the game is up and the war-path is open to them no longer. Should they wish to do otherwise they know that they could survive only by killing cattle, and cattle that are guarded by cowboys and ranchmen are no man's game. Therefore, while we no longer have to pay for an annual campaign in force against hostile Indians, the total absence of the buffalo brings upon the nation the entire support of the Indian, and the cash outlay each year is as great as ever.

The value of the American bison to civilized man can never be calculated, nor even fairly estimated. It may with safety be said, however, that it has been probably tenfold greater than most persons have ever supposed. It would be a work of years to gather statistics of the immense bulk of robes and hides, undoubtedly amounting to millions in the aggregate; the thousands of tons of meat, and the train-loads of bones which have been actually utilized by man. Nor can the effect of the bison's presence upon the general development of the great West ever be calculated. It has sunk into the great sum total of our progress, and well nigh lost to sight forever.

As a mere suggestion of the immense value of "the buffalo product" at the time when it had an existence, I have obtained from two of our leading fur houses in New York City, with branches elsewhere, a detailed statement of their business in buffalo robes and hides during the last few years of the trade. They not only serve to show the great value of the share of the annual crop that passed through their hands, but that of Messrs. J. & A. Boskowitz is of especial value, because, being carefully itemized throughout, it shows the decline and final failure of the trade in exact figures. I am under many obligations to both these firms for their kindness in furnishing the facts I desired, and especially to the Messrs. Boskowitz, who devoted considerable time and labor to the careful compilation of the annexed statement of their business in buffalo skins.

_Memorandum of buffalo robes and hides bought by Messrs J. & A.

Boskowitz, 101-105 Greene Street, New York, and 202 Lake street, Chicago, from 1876 to 1884._

+----------------------------------------+ Year Buffalo robes. Buffalo hides. Number. Cost. Number. Cost. +-----+-------+---------+--------+-------+ 1876 31,838 $39,620 None. ... 1877 9,353 35,560 None. ... 1878 41,268 150,600 None. ... 1879 28,613 110,420 None. ... 1880 34,901 176,200 4,570 $13,140 1881 23,355 151,800 26,601 89,030 1882 2,124 15,600 15,464 44,140 1883 6,690 29,770 21,869 67,190 1884 None. ... 529 1,720 +-----+-------+---------+--------+-------+ Total 177,142 $709,570 69,033 215,220 +----------------------------------------+

Total number of buffalo skins handled in nine years, 246,175; total cost, $924,790.

I have also been favored with some very interesting facts and figures regarding the business done in buffalo skins by the firm of Mr. Joseph Ullman, exporter and importer of furs and robes, of 165-107 Mercer street, New York, and also 353 Jackson street, St. Paul, Minnesota. The following letter was written me by Mr. Joseph Ullman on November 12, 1887, for which I am greatly indebted:

"Inasmuch as you particularly desire the figures for the years 1880-'86, I have gone through my buffalo robe and hide accounts of those years, and herewith give you approximate figures, as there are a good many things to be considered which make it difficult to give exact figures.

"In 1881 we handled about 14,000 hides, average cost about $3.50, and 12,000 robes, average cost about $7.50.

"In 1882 we purchased between 35,000 and 40,000 hides, at an average cost of about $3.50, and about 10,000 robes, at an average cost of about $8.50.

"In 1883 we purchased from 6,000 to 7,000 hides and about 1,500 to 2,000 robes at a slight advance in price against the year previous.

"In 1884 we purchased less than 2,500 hides, and in my opinion these were such as were carried over from the previous season in the Northwest, and were not fresh-slaughtered skins. The collection of robes this season was also comparatively small, and nominally robes carried over from 1883.

"In 1885 the collection of hides amounted to little or nothing.

"The aforesaid goods were all purchased direct in the Northwest, that is to say, principally in Montana, and shipped in care of our branch house at St. Paul, Minnesota, to Joseph Ullman, Chicago. The robes mentioned above were Indian-tanned robes and were mainly disposed of to the jobbing trade both East and West.

"In 1881 and the years prior, the hides were divided into two kinds, viz, robe hides, which were such as had a good crop of fur and were serviceable for robe purposes, and the heavy and short-furred bull hides. The former were principally sold to the John S. Way Manufacturing Company, Bridgeport, Connecticut, and to numerous small robe tanners, while the latter were sold for leather purposes to various hide-tanners throughout the United States and Canada, and brought 51/2 to 81/2 cents per pound. A very large proportion of these latter were tanned by the Wilcox Tanning Company, Wilcox, Pennsylvania.

"About the fall of 1882 we established a tannery for buffalo robes in Chicago, and from that time forth we tanned all the good hides which we received into robes and disposed of them in the same manner as the Indian-tanned robes.

"I don't know that I am called upon to express an opinion as to the benefit or disadvantage of the extermination of the buffalo, but nevertheless take the liberty to say that I think that some proper law restricting the unpardonable slaughter of the buffalo should have been enacted at the time. It is a well-known fact that soon after the Northern Pacific Railroad opened up that portion of the country, thereby making the transportation of the buffalo hides feasible, that is to say, reducing the cost of freight, thousands upon thousands of buffaloes were killed for the sake of the hide alone, while the carcasses were left to rot on the open plains.

"The average prices paid the buffalo hunters [from 1880 to 1884] was about as follows: For cow hides [robes!], $3; bull hides, $2.50; yearlings, $1.50; calves, 75 cents; and the cost of getting the hides to market brought the cost up to about $3.50 per hide."

The amount actually paid out by Joseph Ullman, in four years, for buffalo robes and hides was about $310,000, and this, too, long after the great southern herd had ceased to exist, and when the northern herd furnished the sole supply. It thus appears that during the course of eight years business (leaving out the small sum paid out in 1884), on the part of the Messrs. Boskowitz, and four years on that of Mr. Joseph Ullman, these two firms alone paid out the enormous sum of $1,233,070 for buffalo robes and hides which they purchased to sell again at a good profit. By the time their share of the buffalo product reached the consumers it must have represented an actual money value of about $2,000,000.

Besides these two firms there were at that time many others who also handled great quantities of buffalo skins and hides for which they paid out immense sums of money. In this country the other leading firms engaged in this business were I. G. Baker & Co., of Fort Benton; P. B.

Weare & Co., Chicago; Obern, Hoosick & Co., Chicago and Saint Paul; Martin Bates & Co., and Messrs. Shearer, Nichols & Co. (now Hurlburt, Shearer & Sanford), of New York. There were also many others whose names I am now unable to recall.

In the British Possessions and Canada the frontier business was largely monopolized by the Hudson's Bay Fur Company, although the annual "output" of robes and hides was but small in comparison with that gathered in the United States, where the herds were far more numerous.

Even in their most fruitful locality for robes--the country south of the Saskatchewan--this company had a very powerful competitor in the firm of I. G. Baker & Co., of Fort Benton, which secured the lion's share of the spoil and sent it down the Missouri River.

It is quite certain that the utilization of the buffalo product, even so far as it was accomplished, resulted in the addition of several millions of dollars to the wealth of the people of the United States. That the total sum, could it be reckoned up, would amount to at least fifteen millions, seems reasonably certain; and my own impression is that twenty millions would be nearer the mark. It is much to be regretted that the exact truth can never be known, for in this age of universal slaughter a knowledge of the cash value of the wild game of the United States that has been killed up to date might go far toward bringing about the actual as well as the theoretical protection of what remains.


_Robes._--Ordinarily the skin of a large ruminant is of little value in comparison with the bulk of toothsome flesh it covers. In fattening domestic cattle for the market, the value of the hide is so insignificant that it amounts to no more than a butcher's perquisite in reckoning up the value of the animal. With the buffalo, however, so enormous was the waste of the really available product that probably nine-tenths of the total value derived from the slaughter of the animal came from his skin alone. Of this, about four-fifths came from the utilization of the furry robe and one-fifth from skins classed as "hides," which were either taken in the summer season, when the hair was very short or almost absent, and used for the manufacture of leather and leather goods, or else were the poorly-furred skins of old bulls.

The season for robe-taking was from October 15 to February 15, and a little later in the more northern latitudes. In the United States the hair of the buffalo was still rather short up to the first of November; but by the middle of November it was about at its finest as to length, density, color, and freshness. The Montana hunters considered that the finest robes were those taken from November 15 to December 15. Before the former date the hair had not quite attained perfection in length, and after the latter it began to show wear and lose color. The winter storms of December and January began to leave their mark upon the robes by the 1st of February, chiefly by giving the hair a bleached and weathered appearance. By the middle of February the pelage was decidedly on the wane, and the robe-hunter was also losing his energy. Often, however, the hunt was kept up until the middle of March, until either the deterioration of the quality of the robe, the migration of the herds northward, or the hunter's longing to return "to town" and "clean up,"

brought the hunt to an end.

On the northern buffalo range, the hunter, or "buffalo skinner," removed the robe in the following manner:

When the operator had to do his work alone, which was almost always the case, he made haste to skin his victims while they were yet warm, if possible, and before _rigor mortis_ had set in; but, at all hazards, before they should become hard frozen. With a warm buffalo he could easily do his work single-handed, but with one rigid or frozen stiff it was a very different matter.

His first act was to heave the carcass over until it lay fairly upon its back, with its feet up in the air. To keep it in that position he wrenched the head violently around to one side, close against the shoulder, at the point where the hump was highest and the tendency to roll the greatest, and used it very effectually as a chock to keep the body from rolling back upon its side. Having fixed the carcass in position he drew forth his steel, sharpened his sharp-pointed "ripping-knife," and at once proceeded to make all the opening cuts in the skin. Each leg was girdled to the bone, about 8 inches above the hoof, and the skin of the leg ripped open from that point along the inside to the median line of the body. A long, straight cut was then made along the middle of the breast and abdomen, from the root of the tail to the chin. In skinning cows and young animals, nothing but the skin of the forehead and nose was left on the skull, the skin of the throat and cheeks being left on the hide; but in skinning old bulls, on whose heads the skin was very thick and tough, the whole head was left unskinned, to save labor and time. The skin of the neck was severed in a circle around the neck, just behind the ears. It is these huge heads of bushy brown hair, looking, at a little distance, quite black, in sharp contrast with the ghastly whiteness of the perfect skeletons behind them, which gives such a weird and ghostly appearance to the lifeless prairies of Montana where the bone-gatherer has not yet done his perfect work. The skulls of the cows and young buffaloes are as clean and bare as if they had been carefully macerated, and bleached by a skilled osteologist.

[Illustration: FIG. 1. A DEAD BULL. From a photograph by L. A. Huffman.]

[Illustration: FIG. 2. BUFFALO SKINNERS AT WORK. From a photograph by L. A. Huffman.]

The opening cuts having been made, the broad-pointed "skinning-knife"

was duly sharpened, and with it the operator fell to work to detach the skin from the body in the shortest possible time. The tail was always skinned and left on the hide. As soon as the skin was taken off it was spread out on a clean, smooth, and level spot of ground, and stretched to its fullest extent, inside uppermost. On the northern range, very few skins were "pegged out," _i. e._, stretched thoroughly and held by means of wooden pegs driven through the edges of the skin into the earth. It was practiced to a limited extent on the southern range during the latter part of the great slaughter, when buffaloes were scarce and time abundant. Ordinarily, however, there was no time for pegging, nor were pegs available on the range to do the work with. A warm skin stretched on the curly buffalo-grass, hair side down, sticks to the ground of itself until it has ample time to harden. On the northern range the skinner always cut the initials of his outfit in the thin subcutaneous muscle which was always found adhering to the skin on each side, and which made a permanent and very plain mark of ownership.

In the south, the traders who bought buffalo robes on the range sometimes rigged up a rude press, with four upright posts and a huge lever, in which robes that had been folded into a convenient size were pressed into bales, like bales of cotton. These could be transported by wagon much more economically than could loose robes. An illustration of this process is given in an article by Theodore R. Davis, entitled "The Buffalo Range," in _Harper's Magazine_ for January, 1869, Vol. xxxviii, p. 163. The author describes the process as follows:

"As the robes are secured, the trader has them arranged in lots of ten each, with but little regard for quality other than some care that particularly fine robes do not go too many in one lot. These piles are then pressed into a compact bale by means of a rudely constructed affair composed of saplings and a chain."

On the northern range, skins were not folded until the time came to haul them in. Then the hunter repaired to the scene of his winter's work, with a wagon surmounted by a hay-rack (or something like it), usually drawn by four horses. As the skins were gathered up they were folded once, lengthwise down the middle, with the hair inside. Sometimes as many as 100 skins were hauled at one load by four horses.

On one portion of the northern range the classification of buffalo peltries was substantially as follows: Under the head _of robes_ was included all cow skins taken during the proper season, from one year old upward, and all bull skins from one to three years old. Bull skins over three years of age were classed as _hides_, and while the best of them were finally tanned and used as robes, the really poor ones were converted into leather. The large robes, when tanned, were used very generally throughout the colder portions of North America as sleigh robes and wraps, and for bedding in the regions of extreme cold. The small robes, from the young animals, and likewise many large robes, were made into overcoats, at once the warmest and the most cumbersome that ever enveloped a human being. Thousands of old bull robes were tanned with the hair on, and the body portions were made into overshoes, with the woolly hair inside--absurdly large and uncouth, but very warm.

I never wore a pair of buffalo overshoes without being torn by conflicting emotions--mortification at the ridiculous size of my combined foot-gear, big boots inside of huge overshoes, and supreme comfort derived from feet that were always warm.

Besides the ordinary robe, the hunters and fur buyers of Montana recognized four special qualities, as follows:

The "beaver robe," with exceedingly fine, wavy fur, the color of a beaver, and having long, coarse, straight hairs coming through it. The latter were of course plucked out in the process of manufacture. These were very rare. In 1882 Mr. James McNaney took one, a cow robe, the only one out of 1,200 robes taken that season, and sold it for $75, when ordinary robes fetched only $3.50.

The "black-and-tan robe" is described as having the nose, flanks, and inside of fore legs black-and-tan (whatever that may mean), while the remainder of the robe is jet black.

A "buckskin robe" is from what is always called a "white buffalo," and is in reality a dirty cream color instead of white. A robe of this character sold in Miles City in 1882 for $200, and was the only one of that character taken on the northern range during that entire winter. A very few pure white robes have been taken, so I have been told, chiefly by Indians, but I have never seen one.

A "blue robe" or "mouse-colored (?) robe" is one on which the body color shows a decidedly bluish cast, and at the same time has long, fine fur.

Out of his 1,200 robes taken in 1882, Mr. McNaney picked out 12 which passed muster as the much sought for blue robes, and they sold at $16 each.

As already intimated, the price paid on the range for ordinary buffalo skins varied according to circumstances, and at different periods, and in different localities, ranged all the way from 65 cents to $10. The latter figure was paid in Texas in 1887 for the last lot of "robes" ever taken. The lowest prices ever paid were during the tremendous slaughter which annihilated the southern herd. Even as late as 1876, in the southern country, cow robes brought on the range only from 65 to 90 cents, and bull robes $1.15. On the northern range, from 1881 to 1883, the prices paid were much higher, ranging from $2.50 to $4.

[Illustration: FIG. 1. FIVE MINUTES' WORK. Photographed by L. A. Huffman.]

[Illustration: FIG. 2. SCENE ON THE NORTHERN BUFFALO RANGE. Photographed by L. A. Huffman.]

A few hundred dressed robes still remain in the hands of some of the largest fur dealers in New York, Chicago, and Montreal, which can be purchased at prices much lower than one would expect, considering the circumstances. In 1888, good robes, Indian tanned, were offered in New York at prices ranging from $15 to $30, according to size and quality, but in Montreal no first-class robes were obtainable at less than $40.

_Hides._--Next in importance to robes was the class of skins known commercially as hides. Under this head were classed all skins which for any reason did not possess the pelage necessary to a robe, and were therefore fit only for conversion into leather. Of these, the greater portion consisted of the skins of old bulls on which the hair was of poor quality and the skin itself too thick and heavy to ever allow of its being made into a soft, pliable, and light-weight robe. The remaining portion of the hides marketed were from buffaloes killed in spring and summer, when the body and hindquarters ware almost naked.

Apparently the quantity of summer-killed hides marketed was not very great, for it was only the meanest and most unprincipled ones of the grand army of buffalo-killers who were mean enough to kill buffaloes in summer simply for their hides. It is said that at one time summer-killing was practiced on the southern range to an extent that became a cause for alarm to the great body of more respectable hunters, and the practice was frowned upon so severely that the wretches who engaged in it found it wise to abandon it.

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