THE SKULL OF A BUFFALO
About five years after this century began, a small, skinny boy, 7 years old, was visiting his
grandfather's farm in Western Kansas. The boy's uncle, some 20 years old, was accompanying, or
guiding him, on a leisurely walk around the practically treeless prairie acres. They came to an
unusual thing on a Kansas farm, a small hill. As they were climbing, the boy noticed a white object
protruding from the soil. As boys this age are prone to do, he kicked it, probingly, thinking that it
was probably a stone. But it was lighter than stone and yielded to the kick. He picked it up and
found it to be a strange object, like nothing he had seen before.
Manly S. Mumford
Delivered to The Chicago Literary Club
December 14, 1959
"What is this?" he asked.
"Why that," his uncle replied, "is the skull of a buffalo."
This was a thrilling experience for the boy. It came to him that buffalo had roamed this
particular piece of land. Buffalo had died on this place. The boy had heard about buffalo, of
course, because he had been born in a little Kansas town less than a hundred miles away. He had
heard men talk of seeing the great herds of buffalo. He had heard, and was later to hear more,
marvelous tales of hunting and killing buffalo in the very region where he lived. But now he had
discovered, himself, the skull of one of those great creatures. It was an experience he never forgot
and it left him with an abiding interest in, and an urge to know about, the buffalo.
The reason I know about this incident is that I was the boy.
Although more than fifty years have passed since then, stories and facts about the buffalo
are still of more than casual interest, and I have collected, sporadically, information on the
It seems to me that among writers the buffalo is a much neglected animal.
I have been able to find only two comprehensive, or as they now term it, definitive, books
about the buffalo and the most complete one was written in 1875, by a government scientist. To
be sure, there are numerous books about hunting the buffalo. Innumerable articles about buffalo
have been printed in all kinds of publications ever since the 1860's. But they almost all dealt with
the same subject the slaughter and the dwindling of the tremendous herds. Most of them left
unanswered many questions which an inquirer after facts would like to know. For example: What
were they? Where they did live and roam? Actually, how many of them were there? What uses
were made of them? What were their habits? And finally, what became of them? The latter
question bothered me even when I was a small boy, because at the time I found the skull there
were probably less than one thousand buffalo in the entire United States. In 1896, some 9 years
before, a census was taken and all that could be found made a total of ten hundred and ninety,
practically all of whom were in captivity. The wild buffalo had disappeared by 1900, although a
scant thirty years before there had been untold MILLIONS of them. And I mean
Of course, the official name of the buffalo is the American Bison, but no one except
scientists, a few school teachers and now and then a meticulous speaker ever called them anything
but buffalo. After all, buffalo is an euphonious and rhythmic word and bison is not. The word
buffalo can be either singular or plural, referring to one animal or several. Some writers form the
plural by adding an e and an s, making the plural buffaloes, but the most common usage is to use
the same word for both, as is done in this paper.
To the question, "What were the buffalo?" the answer is simple. They were cows. Just
another member of the same family as our milk cows or beef cattle. They are ruminants and eat
grass, hay and other forage the same as cattle. They are so close to domestic cattle that they
inter-breed with them. Domestic cattle sometimes escaped and joined a herd of buffalo and hybrid
offspring were produced. The offspring were usually perfect animals, not malformed or freakish.
The buffalo was not noticeably heavier than our present-day cows, at least our bigger breeds, such
as Holsteins. But they were taller, longer, had longer legs and rougher coats. A buffalo bull was a
noble animal indeed.
A full grown one would be about six feet tall at the hump and about ten feet long from
head to the base of the tail. He would weigh just about a ton 2,000 pounds sometimes more.
Although that is no heavier than a good sized Holstein bull, the buffalo looked and was larger and
stronger. Of course, he got more exercise than domestic bulls and had more muscle and less fat,
and was of a different build. He was probably no more vicious or combative than a domestic bull,
as shown by the fact that in captivity he is a relatively docile beast. The cows and calves were
likewise normally docile, patient and presumably contented.
Like our own cattle the buffalo were gregarious. They liked to gather with their own kind
and almost always grazed in herds, usually small ones of ten, twenty or a few more. On a vast
plan there might be hundreds of these small groups, grazing at some little distance from each
other. But when frightened, or in migrating, the groups would join until the herd was so vast that
it seemed to be without limit.
Discoveries of fossils indicate that buffalo were on this continent more than 4,000 years
ago. At various times they inhabited a large part of Canada, some of Mexico and practically all of
the United States, except New England and the Pacific Coast. Cortez in 1521 wrote home to
Spain of an animal "with a hump like a camel and hair like a lion." Montezuma, the emperor of
Mexico, kept a few of them in his great private zoo, which would indicate they were not as
plentiful as they were further north.
The early English settlers did not find them along the Atlantic Coast in any large numbers
but they had been there and were just a little west. Early Virginia writers mention herds along the
Potomac. Pennsylvania had large herds which lasted until nearly 1800. So did Ohio and Kentucky.
The buffalo liked the salt licks in Kentucky and lingered there until the middle seventeen
hundreds. Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin all had their share.
There are tales of good buffalo hunting along the DesPlaines and Kankakee rivers. Men
who accompanied Father Marquette in 1674 killed buffalo, probably within a mile of this
But it was west of the Mississippi, specifically the Great Plains region, where the buffalo
were most numerous. This included what is now the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and
Texas. Here was the best buffalo ground. The limitless prairies with their lush stands of grass, lack
of forests, scarcity of mountains and other obstacles to grazing was made to order for the buffalo.
The greatest concentrations were in Kansas. There the land was flatter and the grass more
plentiful and nutritious. There are accounts of great expanses of grass as high as a man on
In this region the ceaseless winter winds blew the snow into drifts, but left untold miles of
grass reasonably free of deep snow cover, so that the buffalo had winter forage. The grass was
much more nutritious than most of our modern grasses, because the soil was rich. It should be
remembered that the buffalo, like the domestic cow, was a fairly efficient, self-propelled fertilizer
The buffalo did migrate to some extent. But what they really did was to wander. There
was no tremendous migration in which all the animals moved thousands of miles, as birds do. Of
course, as the East became settled the buffalo moved ever westward. They were disturbed and
moved, as any wild animal is likely to do.
On the great plains they had few natural enemies. There were wolves, but they subsisted
largely on the old and weak animals who were likely to die soon anyhow. Mountain lions came
down on to the plains and killed a few buffalo but their depredations were slight. There was no
disease which became epidemic or severe enough to carry them off in great numbers. Weather did
kill some. But the buffalo were well able, because of their heavy coats, to withstand cold. They
were hardy animals and could undergo long sieges of bad weather, with very little food, because
they were normally fat and well fed before the winter set in. They had one peculiar habit. When
feeding they faced the wind, the opposite of the way domestic animals do. Deep snow was a
hazard, especially crusted snow. The sharp hooves would break the crust and the animals would
become hopelessly caught and starve to death.
A considerable number of buffalo perished in icy streams, especially the rivers. A herd
would attempt to cross on the ice, and it would break, throwing hundreds into the icy water
where they drowned. There was one river called by the Indians "Stinking Water" because of the
stench from thousands of buffalo who had drowned in the river the winter before.
Prairie fires caused the death of some. Stampedes also killed a good many. Even before
the Indians deliberately caused buffalo to stampede it was not uncommon for a herd to become
frightened and run with all its speed, those behind trampling the ones in front who might stumble
or fall. Occasionally a whole herd of several hundred would stampede over a bluff or cliff and
meet their death. Sometimes a stampeding herd would run into a muddy stream bed. Many would
become mired and the others would trample them. One writer said he counted the carcasses of
7,360 buffalo who had been killed in this manner. Snow-covered ravines were also dangerous and
cost the lives of a good many.
But on the great plains there were not many deep rivers in which to drown; prairie fires
were rare; and there were few bluffs. So the buffalo grazed in comparative peace, waxed fat and
multiplied. One reason for their abundance is that the buffalo was a long-lived animal, the normal
span of life being 25 or 30 years. Some were killed that were probably 50 years of
It is generally believed that the Indians and the early white settlers, although they killed
many buffalo, did not even keep up with the natural increase. In the East the buffalo disappeared,
but most of them were not slain, merely driven westward.
Although the Indians were not responsible for the practical extermination of the buffalo
they were not conservationists or sportsmen by any manner of means. They, like the whites after
them, killed many more than they could use. The Indians often killed all they could with the
weapons they had.
They were not averse to driving a herd over a cliff, slaughtering hundreds; they built huge
compounds or traps into which they enticed or drove large numbers; they stampeded herds; they
started prairie fires which wiped out thousands and they engaged in many other unsportsmanlike
practices, but on the whole they killed primarily because they needed the carcasses.
The Indians didn't kill hundreds of thousands of the animals just for their hides, because
they couldn't use that many hides. Besides, they didn't have the incentive the white hide hunter
The thousands of buffalo killed by the Indians made practically no impression on the great
numbers. There just weren't enough Indians to do so.
How many buffalo were there in this country? Nobody knows. I have seen many estimates
of their numbers. The lowest estimate was twenty million, the highest one hundred and
twenty-five million. The early writers who saw the tremendous herds on the great plains put the
somewhere between thirty and seventy million. It would seem that there probably were at least
fifty million of them roaming the West a hundred years ago. The wholesale killing didn't begin
until after the end of the Civil War.
Fifty million, give or take a few million, seemed an inexhaustible number. To get an idea of
how many that is we might compare it with the total number of all cattle in the United States
today including both beef animals and milk cows. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates
that there are now a little over 90,000,000. By that reckoning there were more than half as many
buffalo in the West as there are all cattle, in all the states, today. More than half of all cattle in the
country now live between the Mississippi River and the high Rockies, so the buffalo population in
the West was probably about equal to the number of present cattle there. Buffalo were more
It was customary to speak of two herds, the Northern herd and the Southern herd, but the
more scientific divided them into four. There was the Northern herd proper, those north of the
Platte River. Their range included northern Nebraska, the Dakotas, Montana, Wyoming and part
of Colorado. Immediately south was the Republican herd. This did not refer to the politics of the
buffalo. It designated the herd which inhabited the land north and south of the Republican River,
which runs through southern Nebraska and northern Kansas.
Then came the Arkansas herd, so called because it ranged on both sides of the Arkansas
River. In my youth there was a difference in the pronounciation of the river and the state. The
state was called Arkansas, but the river the Arkansas, so the herd was usually
called the Arkansas herd. Their domain was most of Kansas and part of
Then there was the Texas herd; but despite what you might think, this herd was not the
largest. The Arkansas herd was.
There are many eyewitness accounts which deal with the incredible vastness of buffalo
herds. The best of them dealt with the Arkansas herd. Buffalo hunters, travelers, sportsmen,
railway builders and others all had tales to tell, but the most reasonable and scientific were written
by army officers who had spent many years on the plains.
Col. R.I. Dodge wrote that he was driving a light wagon from one settlement to another, a
distance of about 30 miles. He related that for 25 miles he drove through one continuous herd
which was on the move. They were not bunched, but scattered in small groups averaging 15 or 20
to the acre. He knew that the herd was 25 miles wide, because he was in it for the entire distance.
At this time the buffalo were going north. After arriving at his destination he made inquiries.
Hunters told him that it had taken five days for this herd to pass a given point. At the rate they
were traveling he estimated that the herd was thus about 50 miles long. Later, in writing to W.T.
Hornaday, an authority on the buffalo, the two of them, by a mathematical process, arrived at
what they considered a most conservative estimate of the number in this one herd. The figure they
arrived at was FOUR MILLION. And this was in 1871, when wholesale killing had been going on
for several years.
Col. Henry Inman, a regular Army quartermaster who spent much time in the West, wrote
as follows: "In the autumn of 1868 I rode with Generals Sheridan, Custer, Sully and others for
three consecutive days through one continuous herd which must have contained millions." Again
he wrote: "In the spring of 1869 the train was delayed at a point between Fort Harker and Hays
from 9 in the morning until five in the afternoon in consequence of the passage of an immense
herd of buffalo across the track. On each side of us and to the west as far as we could see, our
vision was limited only by the extended horizon of the flat prairie, and the whole vast area was
black with the surging mass of affrighted buffaloes as they rushed onward to the
One William Blackmore wrote to friends in the East that in 1868 he rode on a train
between Sheridan, Kansas, and Ellsworth, Kansas, for 120 miles and that for all this distance they
passed through an almost unbroken herd as far as the eye could see.
There are other equally competent witnesses with equally startling tales of the endless
numbers of buffalo. One of them said that it would be as easy to try to count the leaves in the
forest as to try to count the numbers of buffalo. From these indications it is likely that the
estimates of fifty million living at one time is probably low, rather than high. Later I shall bring in
The uses of the buffalo were almost endless. What the seal is to the Eskimo; the yak to the
Tibetan; the reindeer to the Laplander the buffalo was to the Plains Indian and
First of all, of course, the buffalo was food. Food in various forms. After a successful hunt
the first thing the Indians did was to eat the meat raw. There was practically no part of the
animal they didn't eat. When we lived at Oberlin, Kansas, a neighbor of ours was Bill
Street called Colonel Street. He had been a government scout, Indian fighter and non-professional
buffalo hunter. I can remember well his accounts of being present at an Indian buffalo
hunt. He described in great detail how the Indians ate raw buffalo meat.
These descriptions of how and what they ate were so disgusting that I could never forget
them, and I shall not repeat them. But all the Indians, from the braves to the little children, gorged
on the raw meat.
Later they also cooked it in various ways, primarily boiling, broiling and roasting. Buffalo
meat, however, was also preserved in many ways. The squaws cut it into strips and thin slices and
roasted it on spits over a slow fire. Or often in the dry, pure prairie air the strips were merely laid
on a grating of some kind and dried in the sun. Meat prepared in this way would keep for weeks
and months. It was sometimes known as jerked meat. The Indians usually made great quantities of
this dried meat, encased it in thin hides, dried intestines, or other protective covering and cached it
in holes in the ground against the time when they would have no fresh meat.
Another form of preservation was the making of pemmican, which was later to become so
popular with Arctic explorers. The dried meat was pounded until it was flaky, sometimes almost
powdery. Over a layer of it was poured an equal quantity of freshly melted fat. This was repeated
over and over again until a thick loaf was built up. Buffalo fat was much more edible than the fat
of domestic cattle and the pemmican was nourishing and palatable, to an Indian, that
If a tribe was reasonably fortunate in the hunt, and if their squaws worked hard enough,
the group could have a year round supply of meat. Often, especially in the bitter winters, the
preserved meat was all the food they had.
The buffalo was also shelter for most of the Plains Indians, who were nomadic and lived in
tepees. These, of course, were made of dressed buffalo hides which had been sewn together.
Naturally, sinews of the buffalo or cords of buffalo hide were used for the sewing. A big tepee
might be divided and curtained off, the curtains being buffalo hide. Hides also served as
As protection against the cold the buffalo robe was without an equal. The squaws became
most skillful in dressing and tanning these, with the hair on. They were soft and pliable and
warmer than anything they, or even the white man, knew. One robe might serve as a bed and
others for blankets. A robe could also serve as a cloak.
I can bear witness to the warmth of a buffalo robe. My father was a minister in several
Kansas towns. At one period, after his regular Sunday service was over, he would go some ten or
twelve miles to a little country church to hold another service. It was my duty to have Queenie
hitched up to the buggy, ready and waiting, and to drive Father to the little settlement. In the
winter the cold in the open buggy was biting, sometimes almost unendurable. But we did have a
buffalo robe to keep us warm. And it did. It covered us from our feet to our necks. Only our faces
and the driver's hands were exposed. Even our hands were protected because we had mittens of
The robe was old, worn and ragged on the edges, because it had been in use for probably
thirty years, but it was warm. Despite its age, it was better than a cowhide robe, a bear robe, a
blanket or a quilt. Whether or not it was an Indian-tanned robe, carefully worked by some patient
squaw I do not know, but it might have been, because the white people never learned to do as
good a job as the squaws in making a robe soft and pliable. I believe that some parishioner in
whose family it had been gave the robe to my father.
In tanning the robes the squaws used other parts of the buffalo. The scraper, with which
they tediously removed the particles of flesh, was made from the shoulder blade of a buffalo. As a
softener for the skin, the squaws rubbed buffalo brains on the underside of the hide.
Besides robes, many other articles of clothing were made from buffalo hides. These
included tunics or rude cloaks, leggings, moccasins and mittens. The hair, which was somewhat
like wool, was also used for clothing. Garters, belts, girdles, gloves and even cloth were woven
from the hair. It made warm and strong cloth. In later years both the French and English
attempted to start an industry using woven buffalo hair, but it was so much harder to weave than
wool that it was not commercially profitable. Hair was used commercially, however, by the whites
for stuffing mattresses and pillows.
The Indian also used parts of the buffalo in his weapons. Most bows were made of wood
but the best ones were made of bone and horn, skillfully inlaid, notched, wound with sinew and
glued together. Where did they get the glue? From the hooves of the buffalo. The bowstring was
of buffalo rawhide or sinew. The quiver to carry the arrows was of buffalo hide. Knives were
fashioned from the dorsal ribs.
Many tribes were accustomed to carrying shields when they engaged in war with other
tribes or with the whites. The best shields were made of the hide, perhaps an inch thick, of the
neck of an old buffalo bull. Glue was worked into it and the shield was dried and then smoked
over a smoldering fire. The resultant shield was not only light but tough. It would turn an arrow
and even a rifle bullet unless hit head on.
Practically all household utensils were made of buffalo parts. A green hide was made into
a pot in which meat and other food could be boiled. Water buckets, containers for food, bags of
all kinds, crude boxes, were made from hide, although the innards, especially the stomachs,
intestines and bladder made acceptable containers for liquids. The needles used for both heavy and
fine sewing were of bone. Ropes, cords and string were made from hide or from hair. Some
Indians made fish hooks of bone. Spoons of horn were used and crude buttons were made of horn
or bone. One writer mentions that toys were made of bone, horn or hide. But he stops there. He
didn't tell what kind of toys the little Indians had or what they did with them. It would be
interesting to know.
The buffalo boat, made from the hide of a big animal, was awkward and not readily
maneuverable, but was serviceable, especially for transporting heavy articles across a river or
other stream. The fur traders quickly adopted them, one account stating that a good buffalo boat
could transport 800 pounds of material. Sometimes two or more were lashed together and made
into a barge.
Ornaments of many kinds were made from horn, bone, hair and hide. The use of horns as a
head dress was usually reserved for the chief of the tribe.
It has been said that Chicago meat packers use everything from an animal but the squeal.
The Indians went them one better. A buffalo didn't squeal, but a big bull did roar. The Indians
imitated this roar and used it as a hunting or war cry. And last, but still important, the buffalo was
fuel. Buffalo chips, dried in the blazing sun and dry air, burned with a clear hot flame and were
odorless and practically smokeless. They were widely used not only by the Indians, but by the
white settlers who came after them. They kept for a long time on the prairies.
Indians did not domesticate the buffalo, nor did they build pens or corrals to keep them for
long periods of time. They would have been a good source of milk, but either Indians didn't think
of it or it was too much trouble. The buffalo could have been used as a beast of burden, but the
Indians didn't use them for that either. They seldom even used horses for anything but riding.
Their beast of burden was the dog, which also served as food.
Before the Indians had horses they hunted the buffalo on foot, which was a hazardous
enterprise indeed. They would try to surround a herd of 20 to 100 and shoot the animals with
arrows, although many were armed with spears or lances. Both arrows and lances were of wood,
tipped with flint or obsidian, until the advent of the iron tip. The bows used by the Indians were
powerful weapons. There are many verified accounts of an arrow, even a stone-tipped one, being
shot completely through a buffalo. When the fur traders first made contact with the Plains Indians
they quickly saw that iron tips would improve the arrows. So the traders procured them in large
numbers. A packet of six iron tips cost a trader about six cents. The standard exchange for the
packet was a buffalo robe. This was worth anywhere from four to twelve dollars to the trader, so
he made a reasonable profit. He was satisfied with his bargain but so was the Indian.
As horses became abundant the Indians abandoned the hunting on foot. Every Indian buck
worth anything at all had at least one horse. A good horse could outrun a buffalo and they became
so well trained that the Indians rode without bridle or saddle.
The braves would ride their horses alongside buffalo and discharge their arrows while
riding at full speed. Or they would plunge a lance into one. A buffalo did not often turn to fight.
All he was trying to do was to get away. Even after the Indians had guns many of them preferred
the bow or lance. Sometimes all three weapons would be used by different braves in the same
hunt. It depended on what the individual Indian liked best. One reason was that each Indian could
identify his own arrow, so each could determine whether he or another had killed a particular
buffalo. The Indian's prestige in his tribe was often determined by how many buffalo he had killed
in a hunt.
Until about 1800 the Indians in the West had things their own way with the buffalo.
Practically no white men came to their region and the only buffalo killed were those slain by the
Indians. But about this time fur traders began to drift in, mostly from Canada. However, it wasn't
buffalo skins the traders wanted. It was beaver, muskrat and marten. Occasionally a trader would
take a few robes, but they were not highly prized nor very valuable. In 1805, for example, the
Northwest Fur Company received from its posts more than 77,000 beaver skins, 50,000 muskrat
and 40,000 marten, but only about 1,000 buffalo robes.
But in about 30 years the beaver began to be scarce and the demand for buffalo robes
picked up. More and more traders cane in, now from the south and east. They began to buy robes
in large quantities and the Indian had more incentive to kill. By 1835 Pierre Choteau of St. Louis,
a big fur trader, was getting 36,000 robes in a year. In 1839 he sold 60,000. These were robes,
not hides. There was no demand whatever for the undressed and untanned hides. The white
people had not learned how to tan them so that they were of value. In addition, the leather was of
a different grain and quality. It was not suitable for many of the uses to which ordinary leather
While the demand for robes was growing there sprang up a trade in buffalo meat. It was
good. Many a hotel or other eating place served it, and called it beef and the customers didn't
know the difference. I have eaten buffalo meat and I believe it is as good as the average range-fed
beef of today. In the 1800's it was probably better than the meat from the tough and scrawny
longhorns which served the West as beef cattle. But transportation of meat was a difficult
problem. Kansas was a long way from St. Louis. But a few hunters began to drift out and kill for
meat. For a time they used only the tongues, which were considered the greatest delicacies of
their time. Hunters would shoot a number of buffalo, take out the tongues and leave the rest of
the carcass. They would pack the tongues in barrels and have them freighted to St. Louis or some
other point. In 1848 it is recorded that 25,000 buffalo tongues were received in St.
A few years later Kansas City, which was nearer the great concentrations of buffalo, grew
up as a rival to St. Louis in the buffalo trade. In 1857 there were 70,000 robes and 55,000 pounds
of meat shipped to Kansas City. But still most of the meat was wasted. Hunters might now take
the humps as well as the tongues, because the hump was also a delicious piece of meat. But for
every buffalo killed only a few pounds of meat was taken. The hides were left to rot along with
the rest of the carcass.
At about this time, the Santa Fe, Oregon and Overland trails began to be widely used.
Hunters, travelers and others slaughtered thousands of buffalo along these highways.
Even with all this slaughter it is probable that there was no great decrease in the number of
buffalo. There were nearly as many, but they were in different places than they had been.
Travelers who got a hundred miles or so away from the trails found the tremendous herds which
have been described earlier.
The death knell of the buffalo was sounded in 1862, although it did not become apparent
for several years. That was the year when the building of a railroad from the western border of
Iowa to San Francisco was authorized. Construction of the Union Pacific began in 1865 and by
1867 track was laid as far as Cheyenne. The slaughter, during and after the construction, was
tremendous. The workers had to have meat and professional hunters like Buffalo Bill were
employed to supply meat to the camps. Army men, casual hunters, even employees of the
railroads, shot the buffalo just for fun.
By the time the Union Pacific was completed the herds had withdrawn from the vicinity of
the railroad. Some went north and more south and there were few buffalo indeed within 50 miles
of the tracks. Then the Kansas Pacific was built. It ran through Kansas across the grounds of the
great Arkansas herd and ended at Denver. The Santa Fe, a little further south, started about the
At one time we lived in Hays, also known as Fort Hays and Hays City. For a while it was
the end of the Kansas Pacific and was the outfitting point for sportsmen hunters. I can remember
hearing some of the old men at Hays tell of acting as guides for the large parties of hunters who
came out to kill buffalo for sport. Their opinion of the so called sportsmen was low. Many of
them, like the professionals, took only the tongues and occasionally the humps and sometimes,
when surfeited with meat, didn't take anything at all. They just shot the animals and let them
The railroads advertised hunting excursions. Placards in railway stations in Chicago, St.
Louis, Cincinnati and other points displayed placards which read like this:
Railway excursion and Buffalo hunt. An excursion train will
leave Leavenworth at 8 AM. and Lawrence at 10 AM. for Sheridan
on Tuesday, Oct. 27, 1868 and return on Friday. (All these towns
were in Kansas). This train will stop at the Principal stations going
and coming. Ample time will be had for a grand Buffalo hunt on the
Plains. Buffaloes are so numerous along the road that they are shot
from the cars nearly every day. On our last excursion our party
killed twenty buffaloes in a hunt of six hours. All passengers can
have refreshments on the cars at reasonable prices. Tickets of round
trip from Leavenworth $10.00.
Ah. That was the way to hunt. You didn't even have to leave your seat in the car. Just put
your gun out the window and blaze away. No wonder that in years to come the bleaching bones
of buffalo whitened the landscape.
Those excursions did bring many hunters and they all did their bit to hasten the destruction
of the herds. Not only did hunters and sportsmen come from all parts of the United States but
many came from abroad. Englishmen, Frenchmen, Germans and other Europeans rushed over the
ocean to take part in the great sport.
Even royalty came. The Grand Duke of Russia, Alexis, was visiting this country and he
was taken on a hunt with General Sheridan as his host and Buffalo Bill as his guide. This was in
But as wicked, wanton and wasteful as these sportsmen hunters were the buffalo were not
completely doomed until buffalo hunting became a business enterprise. By 1870 tanners had
learned how to prepare buffalo hides and great tanneries were built to handle them. Early in this
year two young men in Hays found a tanner in Pennsylvania who had learned to prepare buffalo
hides so they were useful. The Hays men got a contract for 2,000 hides at $3.50 a hide. Then
other tanners, both American and English, entered the business. One English tannery ordered
10,000 hides as its first order. In this connection it is of interest that British soldiers in the
Crimean War were equipped with many articles made from buffalo leather. Tanners' agents came
to Hays, which then became the center of the hide business. The prices for hides were good,
ranging from a dollar and seventy-five cents up to three dollars. A man could make more money
killing buffalo for their hides than in any other way, unless he was a landowner or a business man.
Many small ranchers turned to buffalo hunting as a sideline. Also when construction of the Santa
Fe railroad stopped in 1872 many men were without work, and numbers of them turned to buffalo
hunting. Other men from various parts of the country heard about the bonanza and came to join
the slaughterers. Some came for fun, but most came for money.
A typical hunting outfit was four men. One of them usually had enough money, or could
get it, to buy a light wagon and a team of horses or mules. He was the leader and entrepreneur.
He was also the killer, generally, because he had a good gun. He hired two others as skinners and
one to cook and keep camp and do other chores in connection with the expedition, such as
stretching the hides. The party took only a few supplies, as they depended largely for food on the
buffalo they killed.
Sometimes a large entrepreneur made arrangements with a tanner, a meat packer, or other
purchasers of buffalo products and staked several parties to their wagons and supplies. They
turned all their hides over to him and he did the marketing. In addition he might buy from other
hunters who were on their own. The big outfits started in western Kansas and later shifted to the
Panhandle and other parts of Texas. Some were in Colorado and other states.
But it was the small parties of four to eight who did most of the killing. The leader paid so
much a hide to the skinners. John R. Cook, who started as a skinner and became a noted buffalo
hunter, later wrote a book about his experiences. When he started he was paid 25 cents a hide for
skinning. Some days he and his fellow workers would skin thirty or forty. A good day was 85 and
one exceptional day Cook and his companions skinned 203. They worked for a noted hunter
named Hart. Cook remarks in his book that one day Hart killed 197 buffalo. He also tells of one
reasonably successful hunt of 41 days. At the end of the period they had 2,003 hides, which meant
that the average daily kill was 50. Cook, in this expedition, earned $225.50 as a skinner in
addition to his most simple living expenses. That was a lot of money in those days when a dollar a
day was a good wage. And this was not in Kansas, but in Texas, where the buffalo were not so
plentiful. And it was in 1875, when the wholesale slaughter had been going on for three
It has been estimated that any hunter who was any good at all would kill between one
thousand and two thousand buffalo a year, in the years from 1871 to 1875. And there were
actually thousands of hunters. More than one is known to have killed 5,000 in a single year.
Buffalo Bill did when he was supplying meat to the Kansas Pacific.
Everything was favorable to the hunters. The weapons were better. The Winchester and
Sharps rifles had been improved, especially the Sharps. A good hunter would obtain a Sharps
"buffalo gun" which was 50 or 55 caliber, meaning that it shot a bullet half an inch in diameter. It
was heavy, so heavy that a hunter usually shot from a prone position, using a gun rest. But the
gun would kill at 1,500 yards, which is more than four-fifths of a mile. With these weapons the
slaughter was unbelievable. Not only were millions of buffalo killed but large numbers were
wounded and wandered off to die alone. Also thousands and thousands of calves starved to death.
When their mothers were killed they had no chance at all.
There are many estimates of how many buffalo were slain but none of them are completely
accurate because the hunters were scattered all over the West and no reliable statistics could be
gathered. But it is estimated that in 1870, before the really big slaughter started, that 2,000,000
were killed for hides alone in Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and Nebraska. The number increased each
year after that.
There were a few voices raised in protest at the wholesale destruction of the buffalo. But
they were ineffective. A bill introduced in Congress to mitigate the wholesale killing was passed in
the early seventies, but President Grant pigeonholed it. As a matter of fact some government
officials and many Army men thought the slaughter was a good thing and encouraged it. The
reason was an unexpected one. As we have seen, the Indian was almost entirely dependent on the
buffalo for his existence. If the buffalo were exterminated he would have to move to a
government reservation and live on what the whites doled out to him. It would make the Indians
peaceable by a process of starvation.
Douglas Branch, in his book on the buffalo hunters, says that in the annual report for 1873
the Secretary of the Interior mentioned that some complaints had been received about white men
on Indian reservations who were there only the kill buffalo and that while something should
perhaps be done about it, the report contained this statement: "I would not seriously regret the
total disappearance of the buffalo from our western prairies, in its effect upon the Indians,
regarding it rather as a means of hastening their sense of dependence upon the products of the soil
and their own labors."
In John Cook's story of his exploits as a buffalo hunter is this passage:
The Texas legislature, while we were here among the herds
to destroy them, was in session at Austin, with a bill drawn up for
their protection. General Phil Sheridan was then in command of the
military department of the Southwest, with headquarters in San
Antonio. When he heard of the nature of the Texas bill for the
protection of the buffaloes, he went to Austin, and appearing before
the joint assembly of the house and senate, so the story goes, told
them that they were making a sentimental mistake by legislating in
the interest of the buffalo. He told them that instead of stopping the
hunters they ought to give them a hearty vote of thanks, and
appropriate a sufficient sum of money to stroke and present to each
one a medal of bronze, with a dead buffalo on one side and a
discouraged Indian on the other. He said: "These men have done in
the last two years, and will do more in the next year, to settle the
vexed Indian question, than the entire regular army has done in the
last thirty years. They are destroying the Indians' commissary; and it
is a well known fact that an army losing its base of supplies is
placed at a great disadvantage. Send them powder and lead, if you
will but, for the sake of a lasting peace let them kill, skin and sell
until the last buffalo is exterminated. Then your prairies can be
covered with speckled cattle, and the festive cowboy, who follows
the hunters as a second forerunner of an advance civilization."
That ends the quotation from General Sheridan and from Cook.
From a military standpoint, General Sheridan was correct. If the Indian was deprived of
the means of obtaining his food, shelter, clothing, fuel, household utensils and principal
occupation he was in no position to fight an army or an ever increasing multitude of settlers who
were taking away even the land he lived on.
With this kind of official encouragement from men in high places in government the
market hunter now pretended he was a patriot performing a civic duty. He actually didn't need
much encouragement the money was enough. So the slaughter went on and on and
It would take too long to outline the successive steps in the extermination of the buffalo,
but by 1875 there were no great herds in Kansas, where only four years before Col. Dodge had
ridden through a herd of at least 4,000,000. The hunters shifted to Indian Territory, now
Oklahoma, and then to Texas. In less than ten years the herds there were practically all
When the Republican, Arkansas and Texas herds were wiped out there remained only the
Northern herd, so the hunters moved north. By 1882 there were 5,000 hunters and skinners in the
northern range the Dakotas and further west. Also by this time most of the Indians had been
pushed into this territory. Being concentrated as they were the Indians now killed a tremendous
number of animals, both for their own use and for sale. But the hunters killed the most. In about
two years the Northern herd was practically obliterated. In 1884 a prominent robe buyer collected
only enough skins to make a carload. It was the last carload shipment from the North, and
probably from anywhere.
A few figures might give an idea of the progressive butchery. Col. Dodge attempted to
obtain from the railroads figures on the shipments of hides. He found them reluctant to give out
such information, probably because it might stir up agitation to stop professional hunting and thus
deprive the roads of profitable freight. A notable exception was the Santa Fe, which willingly gave
him the figures. I, also, am indebted to the Santa Fe for supplying me with information on
shipments subsequent to the time that Col. Dodge made his compilation.
In 1872, 1873 and 1874, the Santa Fe alone shipped out almost half a million hides. All
other railroads, Col. Dodge estimated, shipped about twice as many, so that in these three years
alone there were shipped out one million, 387,000 hides. These were primarily from Kansas alone.
This did not account for others taken out by hunters in their own wagons; of the immense number
killed in Colorado, Texas, New Mexico and Indian Territory; or the ones shipped to St. Louis and
southern cities; the ones shipped West of the Rockies; nor of the ones killed by Indians for their
own use or sale; nor the ones taken out by the Hudson Bay Company from the Northwest. Col.
Dodge estimated that in these three years alone there were killed not less than five and a half
million buffalo. Later figures obtained from the Santa Fe show that from 1871 to 1887 that road
alone shipped from one station, Dodge City, Kansas, five million eight hundred thousand hides.
Cook estimated that for every two hides shipped, five buffalo had been killed.
The buffalo were gone. In 1886 the Smithsonian Institution in Washington decided to
exhibit a mounted group of buffalo, but had no good specimens. Wm. T. Hornaday, the chief
taxidermist, headed an expedition to the West to collect a few for the exhibit. He and his
companions finally found one group in the wild rugged country in Montana north of the
Yellowstone. After several weeks and great difficulty they managed to get twenty specimens,
some of which are still in the Institution to show what the buffalo looked like.
But even after the buffalo were gone, there were remembrances of them. Their skeletons.
All over the Western prairies; along the rivers; in scattered valleys; in the mountains; everywhere
were the grisly reminders of the herds that had been. In many places the ground was white with
leg bones, shoulder bones, ribs, backbones and skulls. Of course, prairie fires had destroyed many,
but any early settler in the West could collect a little money by gathering and selling buffalo
bones. They were shipped East to be ground up for fertilizer and to be used in sugar-refining
The bone business became a big industry. Along the railroads were piles and piles of
bones, brought in by settlers, professional bone gatherers and even the now docile Indians. Some
of these piles were 12 feet high, twelve feet wide and half a mile long, hundreds and hundreds of
tons of them. Again the railroads prospered hauling the bones. The Santa Fe along hauled
10,000,000 pounds in the three years, 1872, 1873 and 1874. The numbers and tonnage were
almost as incredible as the herds of buffalo had been. But these were tangible evidence of the once
limitless numbers of buffalo. From the trainloads of bones it was possible to estimate a portion of
the number of slain animals.
Col. Inman, being a quartermaster, had an interest in figures and experience in putting
them together. In his book he says that he wrote to the railroads and the carbon works asking for
information about the amount of buffalo bones they had carried and used and the amounts paid
out for them. He says: "From 1868 to 1881, 13 years, there was paid out in Kansas alone the sum
of $2,500,000. It required about 100 carcasses to make a ton of bones. Price averaged eight
dollars a ton. So the above sum represents the skeletons of over THIRTY ONE MILLION
Of course, the buffalo was doomed from the first time that the country began to be settled
by white men. Agriculture and the buffalo could not live in peaceful co-existence. Land was too
valuable to leave it to a useless ruminant. Were the buffalo useless? Except for nomadic hunters
such as the Indians, the answer was yes, from an economic standpoint. There were many attempts
to domesticate them. It was almost impossible to capture a full-grown buffalo and keep him alive.
But it was easy to catch a calf. Many a hunter, after killing a buffalo cow and frightening the herd
away, would find the calf tagging along after his horse, looking for some kind of companionship.
Quite a number of ranchers took such calves and raised them with their herds of domestic cattle.
In the book on the buffalo by J.A. Allen in 1876 are accounts of farmers who had made oxen from
buffalo bulls and used them for plowing or hauling. But the buffalo was unreliable. He couldn't be
counted on not to run away, pulling and wrecking the wagon or plow, if he came near water and
was thirsty or became excited. He was also stubborn and stupid. All in all he was useless, because
a domestic animal did the job better. Allen also recounts experiences of breeding buffalo cows to
dairy bulls and domestic cows to buffalo bulls. The results were reasonably satisfactory and one
account tells of a cross breed herd in which the cows gave 14 to 16 quarts of good milk a day,
which would be a good yield for a normal dairy cow today. But this experiment was not
Other stockmen tried to breed a new beef animal by mating buffalo and cattle. It was called a
"cattalo". It was thought that the cross breed might be more rugged than the domestic type, but
they were not noticeably so. Besides they were not as good converters, that is, it took more feed
to make as many pounds of meat. It is possible that there may still be a few of the cattalo in
existence as curiosities, but the experiment didn't work satisfactorily.
The only buffalo now are in captivity. In the early nineties this government and the
government of Canada began to assemble the few remaining herds to keep as mementoes.
Strangely enough they had to buy them, for a few men had assembled small herds. One was a
half-breed Indian. Another was a former, and we hope reformed, buffalo hunter.
Little by little a few groups were gathered together. In Yellowstone Park, in Oklahoma, in
some parts of Canada, there are herds of buffalo living in conditions somewhat like their natural
range. There are about 10,000 in the United States and 13,000 in Canada. There they roam and
breed, but they are no longer monarchs of the plains. If they wander too far, they will run into the
barbed wire which protects them. And like other wild animals who are protected and confined
they tend to multiply beyond the capacity of their range to feed them. Every now and then the
government allows hunters to shoot a few hundred of them, so that the rest may have enough to
eat. The same situation exists in Canada. Within the past few weeks there was an article in the
public press stating that the Dominion of Canada had issued permits to 30 sportsmen to shoot
Yes, the buffalo were doomed to go. By many standards they WERE useless. But it wasn't
necessary to exterminate them the way it was done. The job could have been done better, more
humanely, less wastefully, less greedily, and our country would not have the black memory of the
heedless and cruel butchery of a noble animal.
The buffalo are gone. The countless robes which warmed a generation are also gone. Even
their bones are gone.
It is most unlikely, therefore, that even one of my five grandsons, wandering on his
grandfather's farm, can experience the thrill which could come from finding and kicking the skull
of a buffalo.