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Big Game Conservation & Politics

Was the Buffalo Hunted to Near Extinction?

by Dr. Sam Fadala   |  September 4th, 2012 19

Photo by Vic Schendel.

Friend James called. “I just read something that should ruffle your feathers,” he said. “In one short afternoon six hunters at a New York gun club killed 30,000 passenger pigeons.” What a lousy thing to do, I said. Then a light bulb went on. Wait a minute. Thirty thousand in a “short afternoon”? Four hours? That would be 7,500 birds per hour divided by six for 1,250 birds per hour per hunter. The initial shock at the figure momentarily replaced my friend’s usual razor-edge acumen. Market hunting sliced great inroads into passenger pigeon populations. But years later forensics would prove those beautiful birds fell victim to avian disease as well as rampant overshooting.

How about 60 million breeding bison “shot off” in the late 1800s? That makes 30,000 passenger pigeons felled to pellets in a single afternoon plausible by comparison. And yet even we hunters have bought into the lie. We even apologize to anti-hunters for our ancestors. It never happened. Buffalo ranged over a vast domain with not a single legitimate road and few trails. The herds covered Nebraska, Wyoming, North and South Dakota, Oregon, Washington—don’t forget Texas-—and the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan. How about Montana? Montana alone comprises 147,138 square miles. Wyoming, Idaho, and Oregon combine for 425,590 square miles.

Picture the professional hunter, or “buffalo runner,” as he preferred, on foot or horseback, wagon in tow with two to three skinners. The pros preferred Sharps and Remington Rolling Blocks, some scoped, more iron sighted. Singleshots, not machine guns. And no helicopter gunships. Blackpowder caked the bore, sometimes cleared by a urine flood. How many bison could a skinner skin in one day? A modest-sized cow ran 1,500 pounds on the hoof, her sire going a ton and more. Does the folly begin to take form? Tell a lie often enough, especially in print, and fabrication outruns truth and logic.

This is no whitewash job. The American buffalo (bison) was not shot off, because it could not be rendered extinct by bullets due to incredible numbers, vast and often unreachable habitat, primitive travel methods, and inferior firepower. Capt. William Twining, the surveyor who established the border between Canada and Montana, stood on a hill and watched a migrating herd so large that he could not determine beginning or end. Total bison numbers were beyond comprehension. Respected naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton did his best to calculate the possible number of roaming bison at 60 million, which is agreed upon today by most experts as a reliable figure.

The buffalo was shot for profit and “sport,” but also for calculated governmental design. Cy Martin wrote in The Saga of the Buffalo that Congress in 1870 debated abandoning direct conflict with the intrepid red warriors of the plains. Tetonka, the buffalo, provided meat eaten raw, cooked, and dried; great warm robes against cold; hides for tipis and clothing; bones for tools; sinew for sewing and bowstrings; fletching glue from hooves; brains for tanning; bladders to hold water; bone marrow for vitamins; tallow for medicine; skulls for worship; and scrotums for lead shot bags.

The U.S. Army gave free ammunition for the slaughter. A 19th century American dollar was paid for a single salted bison tongue at a time when a carpenter made two or three dollars for a 12-hour workday. A U.S. Army officer told buffalo runner Frank Mayer, “Mayer, either the buffalo or the Indian must go. There isn’t any other way. Only when the Indian becomes absolutely dependent upon us for his every need will we be able to handle him. Every buffalo you kill now will save a white man’s life. Go to it.”

The dollar for a tongue was bested by $3 to $3.50 for a single hide, leaving as much as a ton of meat left to rot. Meanwhile, railroads encouraged passengers to blast away from moving trains. Buffalo herds were nothing but a curse to the rails. Before the trains could run, however, miles of track had to be laid, and the workers required protein. This is where Buffalo Bill, Billy Dixon, Buffalo Jones, and other straight shooters came in. Cody was one of the best. In 1867 he was hired by the Kansas Pacific Railroad to feed construction camps. Bill got $500 a month, a princely sum for the era. His obligation was to supply headquarters with 10 to 12 carcasses a day. In 18 months he knocked over 4,280 animals, a staggering number, but a mere grain of sand on a beach.

The darker side of human nature cast a black shadow over the herds, the slaughter forming the head of a spear thrust into the heart of the Great West. If gold lay in heaps, its value would plunge like divers from Baja cliffs. There were more bison than humans in North America in the 1800s, diminishing their worth. Irishman Sir St. George Gore, last name apropos, proved a symbol of wanton destruction in the name of sport. Oxford granted Gore a diploma but failed to teach him ethics.

In 1854 he laid out an estimated half-million U.S. dollars for an expedition into the Far West. Over three years the straw-whiskered baronet shot animals for the sheer hell of it, knocking down 2,000 bison. When Gore tired of riding his Kentucky thoroughbred named Steel Trap, he reposed comfortably in a large carriage. One of his six-mule wagons was filled with guns, including 75 muzzleloaders and one Sharps breechloader. Before retiring to his brass bed, our “sportsman” sipped imported wine and read from Shakespeare and Scott.

A reported 8.5 million were shot inside a two-year span. These inflated figures do not match hide shipping records, but even if true, this number would not come close to matching breeding potential. Regardless, indiscriminate shooting was rightfully decried. In March 1873 the Wichita Eagle reported, “The destruction of these animals for the last winter has been fearful. A congressional law should be enacted against the wanton destruction of these monarchs of the plains.” Congress did pass a bill in 1874 that would bring the debacle to an end, but President Grant vetoed it. By the turn of the century, a wanderer upon the plains saw no great herds of the mighty bison—only bones-—and even these whitened vestiges of past life rendered value in the form of fertilizer, buttons, dice, toothbrushes, and curios.

The railroads couldn’t wait to see the last “monarch of the plains” blasted into eternity. In May 1872, Denver’s Rocky Mountain News reported: “The carcasses of animals, in every stage of decomposition, which have been wantonly shot from passing trains, are seen on either side of the track, all along the buffalo ranges.

It would be a good idea for the general division superintendent to enforce a rule prohibiting the firing of guns from the train.” Prohibit? The railroad applauded the shooting, just as the Army handed out free ammunition to burn up against the buffalo. Between 1860 and 1880 the steel ribbons of the Union Pacific Railroad parted the herds like the Red Sea, as did the migration of settlers following Horace Greeley’s advice to “Go Gest, young man. Go West.”

In spite of the horrific trespass upon the bison, the on-foot, sometimes on horseback, runner could not annihilate what scientists continue to call the single largest group of sizeable mammals to roam the world—ever. So what happened to the buffalo in reality instead of fabrication? Invading Martians are destroyed in H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds “by the humblest things that God had put upon this earth after all of man’s devices failed.” Microbes. Little Boy and Fat Man, dropped from the Enola Gay and Boxcar, atomized Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the waning days of World War II. But loss of life was microscopic against the onslaught of the Black Plague in Europe.

That pandemic reduced over 30 million people to corpses in the 1340s. Following World War I, Spanish Influenza took a greater toll in a couple months than all the bombs, bullets, and mustard gas railed against soldiers from 1914 to 1918. That the buffalo was wantonly slaughtered is fact. That the breed was destroyed by guns is ludicrous.

Dr. Rudolph W. Koucky, a pathologist, concluded that something far deadlier than a bullet caused the demise of the shaggy. His research indicated that the buffalo disappeared so rapidly in 1883 that hunters assumed the herds had moved but would return next season. In the fall of 1883 men who purchased hunting outfits returned from the fields with bones to sell, not hides. In 1884 sportsmen who hired guides for buffalo were rewarded with cancellations instead of hunts. No animals could be found. One day Koucky discovered something interesting—a huge pile of bison bones on the Montana plains. The skeletons showed no signs of bullets. They had, the pathologist concluded, “simply laid down and died.” Obviously, the animals were sick.

Following the Civil War, vast ranches were created in Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado, and Wyoming, mostly with Texas cattle where “tick fever” was common. The first fences built in these areas were erected to isolate infected cattle. In 1825 an epidemic destroyed all of the buffalo in eastern Nebraska. The animals perished so rapidly that there was no provision for the Indian population in the area. Some of these people died of starvation, others from eating meat from infected animals. In 1858 another epidemic destroyed the buffalo in the Platte River Valley. The trail from Fort Laramie in eastern Wyoming to Fort Bridger in western Wyoming was noted as “one long offense to the nostrils.” These epidemics occurred in areas where immigrants brought cattle through.

Beaver trapper Yellowstone Kelly wrote an interesting account circa 1867. “Our course led over rolling prairie when we crossed a high and level plain which extended for many miles. The plain was covered with a thin coating of ice, and on all sides as far as the eye could reach was dotted with bodies of dead buffaloes. These animals were in good condition and bore no mark of bullet or arrow wounds. The cause of their death was a mystery to us. As we marched over the plain toward the valley of the Cheyenne, the appearance of so many carcasses scattered around made a strong impression on my mind, perhaps because they were the first buffaloes I had ever seen.” This reputable report from a person without bias bears strong witness to Dr. Koucky’s pathological findings.

The great buffalo lie was further enhanced by “experts” who had never ventured to America, let alone buffalo country. Alexander Lake wrote in Killers in Africa, “Americans take quite a beating in Africa from sportsmen of other nationalities because of America’s insane slaughter of bison.” (Never happened, Alex.) Occasionally, a shard of truth emerges from the broken vessel of “the great buffalo slaughter.” In a scientific report entitled “Extinction and Depletion from Over-Exploitation,” Peter J. Bryant writes that the “buffalo slaughter” was a “calculated military strategy designed to force the Native Americans on to reservations,” adding “about 2.5 million buffalo were killed annually between 1870 and 1875.” A single sentence reads, “Domestic cattle diseases may have also had a major impact on the herds.”

Lt. G.C. Donne, noted for his invention of a litter to carry wounded from the Custer Battlefield, estimated a herd of four million animals in central Montana alone. If that figure was even close to accurate, offspring would annually number well over a half-million calves. Also giving the lie to hunters wiping out the bison is factual data on hide shipment. J.N. Davis, buyer for the Northern Pacific line, shipped 50,000 hides in 1882 and another 200,000 hides over the next peak years. I.G. Baker and Co. at Fort Benton shipped 20,000 hides in 1880 and 5,000 more by 1883. William T. Hornaday, a major proponent of bison being “shot off,” wrote that 1,337,359 hides were shipped for three peak years based upon an actual figure of 459,455. Willy added the “extra” hides for those “possibly omitted from record.” Hornaday got caught up in his own contradictions. He agrees to 60 million breeding animals in the field, so even if his made-up number of 1,337,359 hides were true, it wouldn’t have made a dent in the total population.

The northern herd disappeared ­between 1881 and 1882, along with its anticipated 500,000 annual offspring. The Blackfeet Indians in the region suffered enormously. Six-hundred and five aged and ill remained at the Indian Agency in 1881. Three thousand more appeared in 1883. They had no food, and the emergency rations did not arrive until 1885. A herd estimated at four million—with an increase potential of about a half-million each year—dwindled to only a few stragglers between 1881 and 1883. A buffalo cow might live 25 years (some make 40). After age two, the dame bears young the rest of her life. Potential breeding alone makes up for all of the shipped hides. The Blackfeet’s bison herd perished not from bullets.

Contradictions are exceeded by wild fabrications like “2,000 buffalo run over a cliff by Indians.” Buffalo Jones inspected the scene. He counted exactly 41 carcasses. A buffalo hunt at Standing Rock Reservation in June 1882 saw 5,000 buffalo slain. Hornaday, in his usual fashion, upped the figure to 10,000 and also said Sitting Bull was the leading chief of this hunt in 1882. The trouble with Hornady’s tale is that Sitting Bull wasn’t there. According to Indian Agent James McLaughlin, Running Antelope was the leading chief of the hunt. Then there is the rubbish about hordes of white hunters invading the Far West in pursuit of bison. There is no record to support any such report.

One story has 5,000 invading Miles City, Montana, to go hunting for buffalo in 1881. That must have been pretty tough on the store owners, hotel, and barbers since the total population of the city in 1881 was only 600 souls. We have no actual figure on buffalo hunter numbers. But hide shipment alone gives the lie to thousands of shooters and skinners. Can we believe that a newspaper would print a lie? Apparently we must, since one article reported 250,000 hides shipped when the on-paper figure was under 40,000. But 250,000 sells more copies than 40,000. A 2001 “scientific paper” supports 60 million bison on the range, hunters killing most of them. The author states that “perhaps 2.5 million bison were killed annually between 1870 and 1872” without a single note of documentation for the remaining breed stock.

Hornaday, assisted by a Mr. James McNaney, former buffalo hunter, collected 25 buffalo for the National Museum in Washington, D.C. Following this fete, Willy wrote a heady scientific paper on the biology of the buffalo, based upon pabulum, such as the nonsensical Standing Rock Reservation hunt. Hornaday wrote of hunters, “Give him a gun and something to shoot which he may kill without getting himself in trouble and presto! he is instantly a savage again.”
Hornaday ignores his own reported facts—stating that 500,000 male bison could be harvested in a given year from only one of the major herds with no depletion of numbers. He became an instant expert on bison in a single tour of the West that lasted only a couple weeks.

In the end, the United States government was absolutely correct. The buffalo had to go. Imagine the chaos of a herd of shaggies promenading down the streets of Wichita, Kansas, today. Had disease not wiped out the major numbers of bison, human expansion would have, with fields of wheat to feed the masses and asphalt parking lots to accommodate the surge of shoppers strolling the hallowed floors of WalMart. Gone, and yet not gone, the American bison resides in strong numbers in Custer National Park, Yellowstone Park, and private herds, such as the ever-expanding numbers around Gillette, Wyoming. There are ranches dedicated to meat production as well as the mixed breed “beefalo.” Remaining buffalo are controversial. Ranchers are leery of infected bison coming out of parks to mingle with their cattle. And you can count on someone being trampled while getting a snapshot of an animal big enough to knock a person from Tuesday into Sunday with a mere fly-chasing flick of its mighty head. It happens every year.

The Great Buffalo Lie continues, with children taught in school that the animals were exterminated by hunters over all of North America. Buffalo, by Emilie U. Lepthien from Children’s Press carries a chapter entitled “The Great Buffalo Slaughter.” Hunters, of course, are “credited” with bringing the bison to near
extinction. Never mind teaching the truth, that the plan to defeat the Indians of the plains included annihilating the buffalo, that non-sportsmen took part in shooting the animals “strictly for fun,” that the railroads wanted the animal removed forever, and that, in spite of these trespasses, 60 million free-roaming animals could never be wiped out by shooters on foot, horseback, or mule drawn wagon over roadless expanses of hundreds of thousands of square miles.

  • https://www.facebook.com/paul.wood.180 Paul Wood

    THANK YOU DR. FADALA. I WONDER HOW MANY OTHER HISTORICAL INCIDENTS WERE FABRICATED BY CASUAL OBSERVERS WITH LITTLE CARE FOR FACTS IN ORDER TO FURTHER THEIR AGENDA OF THE TIME OR MERELY TO MAKE A "GOOD" STORY. HISTORY, WRITTEN MOSTLY BY THE VICTORS OF CONFLICTS, TENDS TO BE SLANTED TOWARD THE VIEW OF THE VICTOR, ERASING MUCH NEGATIVE FACT WHILE FABRICATING OTHER INFORMATION FAVORING THEIR OWN VIEW. IN THE CASE OF THE AMERICAN BISON OR BUFFALO, THE ANTI HUNTER GROUPS HAVE MADE THE MOST OF THE FALSEHOODS YOU HAVE EXPOSED IN THIS WELL RESEARCHED ARTICLE. IT NEEDS TO BE WIDELY DISTRIBUTED TO HUNTING GROUPS AND THE ANTI GROUPS AS WELL.

    • Peter Caterham

      This author doesn't even come close! He missed the facts from the Lewis and Clark journals. Anyone that kills animals with a knife, arrow,spear or gun is a hunter. Who then do you think killed that many buffalo? He also has insufficient knowledge of firearms too. Sharps rifles were accurate at extended ranges of one mile. Ie: Shutzenfest by Coors every year Colorado. People should get the research straight before attempting to write falsified or fiction to truth!

      • http://www.facebook.com/tim.wieneke Tim Wieneke

        Sharps rifle – accurate at one mile range? LOL. The longest ever recorded sharps rifle shot in history was 200 yards less than a mile at the Battle of Adobe Walls. “People should get the research straight before attempting to write falsified or fiction to truth!”.

        • http://www.facebook.com/peter.caterham Peter Caterham

          After just fifty seconds on google the other day, I found a group of shooters and scientists that actually wanted to find out how far a sharps rifle with ladder sights could shoot accurately. Documented proof, that using black powder loads, the good old sharps can consistently shoot heavy loads one thousand yards at barrel elevation at thirty five degrees. Obviously, your knowledge of ballistics and hand loading is very off the mark.

          • rickconner

            A mile is 1760 yards. Well past 1000. Get a calculator dude. They are still single shot rifles and as such are slow to fire. They are black powder and require cleaning after 3 or 4 shots to maintain any degree of accuracy.

          • CSLifer70

            Yep, don’t doubt what RC is telling you, he definitely knows his weaponry and ballistics, having fired long range competition with him, his knowledge is indisputitable.
            The other RC

  • Dorman Nelson

    Tall tales make the man, and here unmake the animal…..even now the bison have trouble with disease.
    Great reporting!
    Dorman Nelson
    Biographer http://www.johnlivereatingjohnston.com

  • John Anderson

    The Bison to date has gave more to this country than any other animal or bird.And even at a dollar per tounge. Holds more truth than any politican past or present!

  • Edd

    Of course recreational hunters alone did not kill off the buffalo. As usual, it was the combination of all these factors, and likely the disease aspect from the damned cattle brought in by the white man.
    The whole tone of this interesting writing is sooo defensive. Sounds like something the NRA would write.

    • sick of it

      And why wouldn’t it be Edd? I for one am tired of the lies that are constantly fed to the ever-willing public, without ever a question, or critical thought of any kind. The author raises very interesting and valid points that should be part of any discussion, but never are. It is all too easy to always blame “whitey” for all problems – ever, when that isn’t the truth at all.

  • http://www.facebook.com/historical.baggage Historical Baggage

    While written to help deflect the near extinction of the bison, often attributed to hunters, the truth of the matter is that diseases brought to the wild bison, by the domestic cattle, are a fact. On the Origin of Brucellosis in Bison of Yellowstone National Park: A Review, by Mary Meagher and Margaret Meyer, they state, "The question of origin cannot be answered directly, but the general consensus of experts on brucellosis is the B. abortus was introduced by cattle." They also quote an earlier paper by Mohler (1917), that brucellosis was not identified in the Yellowstone bison until 1917. The irony is that the Department of Livestock wants the bison killed to protect their cattle from brucellosis, when it is their domesticated cattle that brought brucellosis to the wildlife. http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/2386505?uid

  • Peter Caterham

    This doctor that wrote this article for this magazine, didn't do a very good job with his research. He mentioned items taken from the journals of Lewis and Clark, and didn't even read the journals, or he would not have wrote this lie in there. There are many errors to his information. The correct documentation is there, you just need to take the time to find it. I wrote my book about the great slaughter. He should be embarrassed for writing this. For god sake do some research before you look so stupid.

    • sick of it

      Then point them out Peter Canterham, or are you just jaded that your “book” didn’t receive any attention? Common sense dictates that the numbers cannot possibly be accurate. How could they? There was no possible way to reasonably and fairly calculate actual numbers back then- just a lot of stories, which are most often embellished and fabricated.

  • Cat

    Like most politically motivated pieces – the author overlooks key facts and figures to prove his point.

    • CSLifer70

      How so?

    • sick of it

      political? In what way? why don’t you supply us with those overlooked key facts and figures then CAT.

  • http://www.facebook.com/leigh.cole.104 Leigh Cole

    Cat,I know this is two months later, but if you are going to make that critique, you have to follow it up with some examples and facts to proveyour point. All I see is a complaint with no documentation.

  • CSLifer70

    The disease, while not specifically stated, was most likely tick fever. With the onset of the cattle drives from Texas the cattle in the more northern area at the end of the trail were affected by tick fever. The indigenous cattle, at the end of the trail, died in great numbers most likely as did the Bison, while the Texas cattle lived having an immunity from years of having the parasite, tick, on them. Brucellosis, metioned by Historical Baggage, does cause aborted fetus, not necesarily death of the mature animal.
    BTW-I am a hunter and I apologize to no one.

  • Chris

    Hi What is your specific source of evidence for the US Army providing free ammunition. I know they turned a blind eye to the incursion of Buffalo Runners on the southern plains in the early 1870s before the Red River War. Did they provide bullets at this time or was it in the final destruction in the north following the Battle of the Little Bighorn? Thanks Chris http://www.nativeamerican.co.uk

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