In 1871, an American soldier named George Anderson send a letter to his sweetheart describing a herd he saw in Kansas.
“I am safe in calling this a single herd,” he wrote, “but it is impossible to approximate the millions that composed it. It took me six days on horseback to ride through it.”
Hard for us to imagine now, buffalo were once in such abundance they could literally drink a river dry.
Plains Indians considered the buffalo a gift from the Great Spirit — they dreamed of buffalo, prayed to them, created myths about them, saw much of their world in buffalo terms. Using the buffalo hide as a measurement, they described trees as one-robe, two-robe, or three-robe — however many would stretch about a trunk; likewise they measured tipis in terms of how many robes sewed together created each one. Whites saw buffalo as pests who fouled the water, knocked down telegraph poles, blocked wagon trails and held up the trains.
The word buffalo was derogatory. If you were tricked or cheated, you were buffaloed, and fat women were buffaloes.
When I asked my Lakota friend Vernell White Thunder about buffalo, he said,
“Buffalo were the basis of our life. We ate all the meat, the humps, tongue, heart, marrow. Some even ate the testicles and fetuses. We used the hides for making moccasins, tepee covers, robes, and leggings. We used buffalo hair for ropes, sinew for bowstrings, horns for spoons and cups, hoofs for rattles, teeth for ornaments, the bladder for a container. We even used the dung for fuel; with buffalo dung you could keep a fire going for days.”
“The U.S. Army defeated us by killing off the buffalo.”
“How sadly true,” I thought.
The Army promoted buffalo hunting for stated good reasons: provide jobs for out-of-work Civil War veterans, supply meat to feed railroad workers, make it easier for ranchers to raise cattle, etc. But the one true real reason was to eliminate buffalo as a food source for the so-called hostile tribes who refused to give up their nomadic freedom for the idle life on a reservation. Without buffalo, they could surrender or starve.
“Buffalo hunters are doing their patriotic duty,” General of the Western Army Philip Sheridan said, “by depleting the Indians’ shaggy commissary.”
Armed with surplus Springfield rifles, thousands of buffalo hunters roamed the plains in search of the dwindling herds. From a distance of a few hundred yards, they could kill up to 250 in a single day. Millions of buffalo robes were shipped back East to companies like John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company to be used for coats and lap robes when riding in sleighs and carriages. A new trading center for hides sprang up in Leavenworth, Kansas where tanneries found more uses for the material including drive belts for industrial machines.
Buffalo tongues became a delicacy in fine restaurants throughout the country, but the rest of the carcasses were left to rot until a new market developed for buffalo bones. The extreme heat and cold, wind and sun of the Plains caused the remaining buffalo flesh to dry up quickly. It disintegrated into dust, leaving the bones of entire skeletons as clean and bare as if some powerful chemical agents had processed them. Once it was discovered that these bones could be converted into carbon for use in refining cane sugar, the gathering and shipping of buffalo bones became a new industry.
In 1873, the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fé Railroad shipped 2,743,000 pounds of buffalo bones, and in 1874 it handled 6,914,950 pounds. The Northern Pacific Railways shipped even larger quantities. As late as 1886 overland travelers saw immense heaps of bones lying alongside the tracks waiting for shipment at stations throughout South and North Dakota, Nebraska, and Kansas. This trade continued until the bones were gleaned so far back from the tracks that it was longer profitable to seek them.
Obsessed with reaching a final solution for the buffalo, the Army routinely outfitted civilian hunting expeditions to destroy as many as possible. In 1872, General Sheridan organized a grand buffalo hunt for the Russian Czar’s son, Grand Duke Alexis, who was visiting America to celebrate his 22th birthday. Sheridan met Alexis in Omaha with two companies of infantry, two more companies of cavalry, a regimental band, three wagons of food including caviar, champagne and royal spirits, and a complement of teamsters, night herders, couriers, cooks, and civilian merchants called sutlers. There was even a trailing group of friendly Indians led by Chief Spotted Tail to provide entertainment in the form of a mock Indian battle and an evening “war dance.” Buffalo Bill Cody was hired to be the guide, and among the other soldiers was Colonel George Armstrong Custer.
Loaded onto a special train provided by the Union Pacific Railroad, the merry hunting party chugged off for North Platte, Nebraska, where in five days of glorious indulgence they managed to slaughter hundreds of buffalo. Most were shot with large caliber rifles though Alexis is said to have killed one old cow at close range with his revolver.
Train companies offered passengers the opportunity to shoot buffaloes from the windows of the coaches. The Northern Pacific advertised that Montana passengers could “either from the window or platforms of the moving train test the accuracy of their six-shooters by firing at the retreating herd.”
Much like today’s Napa Valley Wine Train, buffalo shooting excursions were promoted as “gala outings” with complimentary gourmet lunch and champagne. E.N. Andrews, a correspondent for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, described the moment when his touring train pulled to a stop alongside a small buffalo herd near Ellsworth, Nebraska.
“In an instant a hundred car windows were thrown up, and the left of our train bristled with two hundred guns.”
Unfortunately, from his perspective, most of the buffaloes got away except for two immense bulls that “were seen to stagger and fall.” Their tour guide, “the irrepressible Mr. Catts,” jumped down from the train, ran over to the largest bull and “disemboweled him in but a few moments.” A rope was attached to the bull’s horns and while the train’s band played Yankee Doodle he was “dragged bodily into the front car and hoisted aboard,” to be embalmed and mounted once they returned to their starting point in Lawrence, Kansas. The celebratory passengers “christened” the bull “Maximilian.”
At the conclusion of his article, Andrews wrote that for him this outing was more educational than a trip to Europe,
“to enlarge the conceptions of creation, and to give the peculiar tone of novelty, especially when for the first and perhaps last time one finds himself among the princely buffalo.”
Inspired by articles such as these, hundreds of rich Americans and European noblemen traveled by rail from New York City to Omaha, Nebraska or St. Louis, Missouri, a new rifle in one hand and a bottle of champagne in the other, not just to shoot buffalo from train windows but to make brave safari amongst the herds and to bivouac amongst the cottonwood trees.
And, of course, it had to happen, there were buffalo killing contests — the record, set by a Kansas homesteader was 120 killed in just 40 minutes!
The most famous match was between William Frederick Cody and Billy Comstock, who shot it out for $500 and the rights to the title “Buffalo Bill.” Early one frosty morning in 1868 with snow and ice on the ground, a gathering of trappers, hunters, wolf-poisoners, soldiers and some of their ladies from nearby Fort Wallace, Kansas, excitedly waited for the showdown to begin. At precisely 8 a.m., mutual friend and stakeholder Carson Rivers raised his pistol and fired a shot to signify the start. Comstock jumped on his horse, galloped straight into the nearby, peacefully grazing buffalo and began chasing them down and killing them with his fast-shooting Henry repeating rifle.
Cody took a different approach. Riding at a leisurely trot, he went clear around to the front of the herd, dismounted, squatted down on one knee and began knocking them off from a distance with his larger-caliber Springfield Model 1863 rifle. He later named this rifle Lucrezia Borgia after the legendary beautiful but ruthless Italian aristocrat who was the subject of a then popular play by Victor Hugo. At 4 p.m., Rivers again fired his pistol to signal the end of the contest. Cody had won hands down, 69 to 46.
The buffalo heads were delivered to the Kansas Pacific Railroad to be mounted and displayed around the country as part of a promotional campaign. They left the remains of 115 carcasses on the frozen ground. Albeit headless, they would stay intact until the Spring sun warmed them and the smell of chokecherry and wild rose blossom mingled with their stench to make a summer odor that was all too common on the plains — the odor from thousands of rotting buffalo carcasses.
Realizing total extinction was close at hand; Cody and others began to favor new laws to protect the few buffaloes left standing. However, when Cody lobbied the Texas Legislature to outlaw buffalo poaching on Indian lands, General Sheridan, who requested the opportunity to address the lawmakers, thwarted his change of heart.
“For the sake of lasting peace,” Sheridan pleaded, “let the buffalo hunters kill, skin and sell until the buffalo are exterminated. The Indians will forever cease to be a threat, and your prairies will be covered with speckled cattle.”
The bill was defeated.
By 1890, the Buffalo Holocaust was over. Just one wild herd of 23 survived in a remote valley in Yellowstone Park, and, no surprise, Wyoming ranchers wanted to finish them off so they would not escape park grounds and somehow threaten their cattle. A coalition of naturalists and conservationists including Rubin Lloyd, the Superintendent of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, backed by Teddy Roosevelt, lobbied Congress and blocked their efforts.
Today the Yellowstone herd, numbering 3,500, is the world’s only continuous bison herd. Two of the Yellowstone bison were shipped to San Francisco as an acknowledgment of Superintendent Lloyd’s support. They were named Sarah Bernhardt, after the famous stage actress who had appeared in San Francisco at the Baldwin Theater a few years before, and Ben Harrison, then President of the United States. Fortunately, they procreated, and the Golden Gate herd grew to 100.
Two little herds of bison in public parks, that was all the remained out the millions that roamed the Plains only a few years earlier.