The Near-Extinction of the Buffalo During Westward Expansion

The “Slaughter on the Plains”

Simone Lilavois
The Still Point
6 min readDec 6, 2022


Pile of buffalo skulls to be ground for fertilizer in Detroit, 1892. Source: National Park Service

The American Plains Bison, colloquially known as the buffalo, is a native animal in North America that moved freely throughout the Great Plains in population sizes of tens of millions. Since the end of the Last Glacial Period, around 10,000 years ago, buffalo lived without consequence across the Plains and beyond. From the sixteenth century to the late nineteenth century, it's estimated that buffalo numbers in North America dropped from ~30 million to fewer than 100. The buffalo population declined steadily for decades until it began to drop rapidly following the Civil War, with 10–15 million buffalo being killed in only a decade.

To commemorate the near-extinction of the buffalo during the 19th century, I created a virtual museum exhibit, employing theories of historical revisionism to challenge conventional narratives of westward expansion. The “Slaughter on the Plains” was a deliberate military strategy to subjugate indigenous people whose lives and cultures were deeply intertwined with the buffalo.

Screenshots of my virtual exhibit, Slaughter on the Plains, made on artsteps. See the exhibit here:

The extermination of the buffalo was systemic. By killing millions every year, groups of hunters supported and often funded by the U.S. government drastically reduced the buffalo population size in under ten years. This allowed the government to quickly force Native Americans onto reservations and suppress resistance. Without the buffalo, many Natives did not have access to adequate food or tools, and their migratory routes, which were based on the movement of buffalo, were disrupted.

Beyond being slaughtered as a means to repress indigenous people, buffalo were killed for their hides. International demand kept prices consistently high even as supply increased exponentially. Fueled by nationalism, the slaughter was seen only as a way to generate capital and accelerate the “civilization” of the West. Though capitalizing off the buffalo was enough of an incentive for their slaughter, the U.S. government used the buffalo as a weapon to destroy a sacred part of Native American culture. The extermination of the buffalo was deliberately used as a tool against Native Americans.

Men posing with eight buffalo heads c. 1894 | Source: National Park Service

The time scale during which the buffalo were massacred compared to how long they lived undisturbed reveals how quickly the activity of white settlers disrupted their environment. The Gold Rush and the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad accelerated the near-extinction of the buffalo by promoting the colonization of the West and the ideology of Manifest Destiny. Under Manifest Destiny, many Americans believed that westward expansion was their divine purpose and that the land was theirs to tame. With this ideology, the conquest of Native Americans was justifiable, and conquering the West in the name of “progress” (capitalism and imperialism) was sanctified. As the U.S. colonized the West, treaties with Native Americans were abrogated and countless massacres of both people and buffalo were committed.

The buffalo were seen as a barrier to modernization and as a symbol of the Native American: primitive, underdeveloped, and savage. White hunters frequently killed for sport, leaving trails of buffalo carcasses; this is in stark contrast to the sacred symbiosis that Native Americans held with the buffalo and with the land. I aimed to demonstrate this stark contrast in my virtual exhibit. The first room in the exhibit focuses on the significance of the buffalo to Native Americans while the second room covers the decline of the buffalo following the conquest of the West.

The exhibit is meant to provide its viewers with a deeper understanding of the significance of the buffalo. The slaughter is more than a species hunted to near extinction; it is representative of settlers’ white supremacy. The United States was founded on doctrines of false entitlement and superiority, ideologies that continue to exacerbate societal hierarchies. The tragic slaughter of the buffalo is exemplary of the principles at America’s core.

Native American man on horseback killing buffalo | Print by Augustus Kollner c. 1850 | Source: Library of Congress

The buffalo were a cultural symbol for Plains Indians around which their livelihood was centered. There is a powerful symbolism in the extermination of the buffalo. For thousands of years, Native Americans coexisted with buffalo, leading resourceful lives and hunting based on need. Natives would use every part of the buffalo, relying on the animal for its meat, skin, hide, and bones, as well as for cultural practices. This sustainable lifestyle is a jarring contrast to the hunters who would kill for sport and profit.

How the Plains Indians used every part of the buffalo, 2019 | Source: Google Images

“The buffalo gave us everything we needed. Without it we were nothing. Our tipis were made of his skin. His hide was our bed, our blanket, our winter coat. It was our drum, throbbing through the night, alive, holy. Out of his skin we made our water bags. His flesh strengthened us, became flesh of our flesh. Not the smallest part of it was wasted. His stomach, a red-hot stone dropped in to it, became our soup kettle. His horns were our spoons, the bones our knives, our women’s awls and needles. Out of his sinews we made our bowstrings and thread. His ribs were fashioned into sleds for our children, his hoofs became rattles. His mighty skull, with the pipe leaning against it, was our sacred altar. The name of the greatest of all Sioux was Tatanka Iyotake — Sitting Bull. When you killed off the buffalo you also killed the Indian — the real, natural, “wild” Indian.”

— Lame Deer (Seeker of Visions, 131).

Exposing the Fallacies of Monuments

In general, public monuments reveal what society deems worthy of remembering. Whether politically or socially driven, there is an objective when designing a monument — an ulterior motive that guides the creator in their work. Monuments seek to provoke a reaction from their audience. What is memorialized is often exaggerated and given precedence in our collective narrative of the past; public history molds societal values and standards.

Most monuments utilize Great Man Theory and idolize a given individual. This can promote dangerous nationalism and encourage complacency and ignorant acceptance. Monuments often subliminally ingrain preconceptions or even microaggressions in the masses. Because history is told by those in power, who and what we commemorate are often decided upon by the oppressor. Discouraging questioning and curiosity, the installation of a monument solidifies a certain side of the story and amplifies a false narrative. And when newly revealed evidence arises, monuments are not revised, leaving them as outdated, partial recounts of history, frozen in time.

This one-sided narration of the past makes it easier to cover up atrocities and choose which parts of history the public remembers. The fragments that are remembered are those that are favorable to the narrator. By this, monuments create a historical narrative that is reductive and restricting. They are subjective and inherently encompass the biases of their designers, making them historical snapshots rather than representations of historical truth. All that being said, because the museum exhibit is virtual, it may be updated at any time in accordance with recently revealed evidence. The multitude of sources I relied on counterbalanced biases that some presented due to being opinion-based. And by avoiding Great Man Theory, I transcend the limitations of traditional monuments and present the history of the West through a unique lens.

The Hide Hunters, 1872 | Created 1914 | Source: DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University
Screenshots of my virtual exhibit, Slaughter on the Plains, made on artsteps. See the exhibit here:



Simone Lilavois
The Still Point

Simone Lilavois is a NYC high school student passionate about understanding the nature of life in relation to the Cosmos.