October 24, 2011

The Tragedy of the American Buffalo

Very large pile of American buffalo skulls, photo taken 1870.  Source: Wikipedia.

The word "pile" seems a hopelessly inadequate description for this image.

The American Buffalo almost went extinct in the nineteenth century due to people over-hunting them for food, clothing, and sport.  Only a few small herds managed to escape the extermination, creating a severe genetic bottleneck.  Worse, scientists have recently discovered that the genetic makeup of the majority of these herds are contaminated with cattle DNA.  (Unlike the progeny of donkeys and horses, the offspring of cattle and buffalo are generally fertile.)

The following is from the second chapter of The Overland Stage to California by Frank A. Root, published in 1901.   This chapter is actually about the Prairie ("the Great American Desert", as he refers to it), but talks in great detail about buffalo, which I have excerpted and arranged here.  Root was in Kansas Territory in the 1850s and '60s and drove overland stagecoaches during that time, and his book recounts many of his firsthand experiences.  You can view the book on google books for free if you wish to read this chapter, or the book, in its entirety.

The first buffaloes I ever saw were in the streets of Atchison.  It was in the early '60s, during the war; but after that I saw them on several occasions.  These were domesticated and yoked together, having been driven in by a ranchman from the Republican valley, hauling produce to the Atchison market.  They attracted considerable attention from the business men.  They seemed to travel all right, were extremely gentle, and, under the yoke, appeared to work quite as nicely as the patient ox.  Nothing particularly strange was thought about the matter at the time, when there were immense herds of buffalo roaming wild on the plains of western Kansas; but I never, after that year, saw any of the shaggy animals yoked and doing the work of oxen. 
The number of buffalo in the great West less than half a century ago was roughly estimated at from ten to twenty millions. Careful authorities put the number at fifteen millions.  They once existed in New York, a number of buffaloes having been killed in the western part of that state, near where the bustling commercial city of Buffalo is built, which will perpetuate the name of the now practically extinct American animal.  In western Pennsylvania, near the salt-licks, a number of buffaloes were found; and according to an early explorer, a few head were found in ... large numbers in Virginia.  According to early writers, they were found in the Carolinas and along the northeast coast of Georgia, the only record known of their existence on the Atlantic seaboard.  East of the Mississippi, they ranged south as far as northern Alabama and were found in places throughout Mississippi and Louisiana.  Large numbers abounded in Texas.  They were also found in the northern provinces of Mexico, New Mexico, a portion of Utah, and also in Idaho, Washington, and in the arctic circle as far north as Great Slave Lake.  ...   
Pg 26 of The Overland Stage to California by Frank A. Root (pub 1901)
History informs us they were found by Coronado on his march northward from Mexico as early as 1585, between the Missouri river and the Rocky Mountains; later they were found by Lewis and Clarke, Zebulon M. Pike, and Long, in the early part of the present century; still later by Fremont and others, who made tours of exploration through the great West.  Often they were seen by tourists and hunters in immense herds, numbering hundreds of thousands. ... 
... Daniel Boone, the famous Kentucky hunter, once found a herd of buffaloes in his state which numbered 1000 head.  That was then believed to be a big herd but it was not then known that there were herds numbering millions of buffalo grazing on the plains embraced in the region known as the "Great American Desert," lying between the Missouri and the Rockies. 
The pioneers of Kansas, particularly a number who settled on the frontier--along the upper valley of the Smoky Hill, Republican, Solomon and Saline rivers--practically owed their lives to the existence of the buffalo.  For years in the '60s a goodly portion of the meat consumed by those early settlers was cut from the carcass of the noble, shaggy animal which so long existed as monarch of the plains.  Thousands of people who at an early day went overland to Utah, Oregon and California drew their supply of meat from the buffalo.  Where this life-preserver was found, it was known that, by following their paths, nearby water would be found.  The principal article of fuel found on the frontier for cooking the meat of the buffalo was the dried excrement of the animal, known in early Kansas and Nebraska parlance as "buffalo-chips."  The buffalo was one of the noblest of all animals.  It seemed indispensable.  It furnished man with an abundance of the most wholesome meat; the hide was made into shoes and garments worn during the day, and it made a comfortable bed and supplied warm covering in or out of doors at night. 
The building of the Pacific railroad was made possible at so early a day simply because the buffalo existed.  From the mighty herds the vast army of railroad builders drew their daily supply of fresh meat, and thousands of the animals were annually slaughtered for food while pushing to completion, in the '60s, the great transcontinental line.  For a few years in the '70s the railways did an enormous business carrying East train loads of hides and buffalo bones, these for a number of years being the principal articles of commerce gathered from the plains.  For years the great West resembled a charnel-house. Losing their crops, the pioneer settlers gathered up the bleached bones that covered the land, and they were shipped to the carbon works in the East, for the sale of which enough was realized to enable them to pull through another season. ... 
... The last herd of buffalo I ever saw in the wild, native state was in the fall of 1870.  It was along the Kansas Pacific railroad, near the head waters of the Smoky Hill river.  The railroad had just been built, and the animals seemed terribly frightened at the cars.  In their mad race westward along the railroad, they actually kept up with the passenger-train, which was moving along from fifteen to eighteen miles an hour.  The race became exciting, and all the passengers--many of whom had never before seen a buffalo--held their breath in suspense.  It was noticed that the animals never changed their course, but kept steadily coming nearer the train, apparently determined to cross the track at the curve a short distance beyond.  Not caring for a collision which might possibly derail the train, the engineer gave up the race and whistled "down brakes," stopping within a few rods of the animals to let them cross.  A parting salute was given by some of the passengers, who emptied the chambers of their six-shooters among the beasts, but which they did not appear to mind any more than a blast from a toy pop-gun.  While these animals used to cover the prairies and plains of western Kansas and Nebraska in countless millions, hardly one of them is now left to remind us of the once noble and powerful herds originally known in the great West as "crooked-back oxen." 
The best meat we used to get on the frontier in the early days was buffalo.  The markets at Atchison, Leavenworth, Topeka and a number of other Kansas towns, as early as 1857 and for some years following, were often supplied with buffalo meat, brought in from central Kansas.  No beef, it was said, could excel, even if it could equal, that of the buffalo; especially the hump upon the shoulders, which was invariably spoken of as a choice morsel."  Rich, juicy buffalo steaks and superb roasts were as common in the '60s on the plains as were other fresh meats in the best of well-regulated city markets. ... 
... What a shame, what an outrage on civilization! that the buffalo ... was so ruthlessly slaughtered.  Millions of the shaggy beasts were indiscriminately shot down by the white man in the '60s and '70s apparently just for the "fun of the thing." 
I remember well in the early '60s, while residing at Atchison, when long ox trains, loaded exclusively with buffalo hides, frequently were brought in from the plains by freighters.  The wagons were unloaded on the levee and the skins shipped on board steamboats down the Missouri river for St. Louis and Cincinnati.  Later, I saw hundreds of wagon-loads of these skins on the plains, in 1863-'65, when riding on the overland stage along the Platte and Little Blue rivers.  Several years afterward such trains were frequent sights at various towns on the Missouri.  Most of the wagon trains bearing the cargoes of untanned robes from the "Great American Desert" were from the Platte valley; some bound for Omaha, some for Nebraska City, some for St. Joseph, and most of the balance for Atchison and Leavenworth.  Hundreds of wagon-loads of the skins from the plains went into Kansas City from the "Old Santa Fe Trail." ... 
... According to a writer in Harper's Magazine a few years ago, Fort Benton--a military post about 2500 miles up the Missouri from St. Louis--in 1876 along sent 80,000 buffalo hides to market.  Toward the close of their career on the plains the animals had divided into two great herds--the southern and northern.  The great southern herd, however, was the first to go, being practically extinct at the close of 1872.  A few straggling herds only, after that date, were to be found.  The early '80s was about the last seen of the wild buffalo of the plains, which a quarter of a century or more before was so numerous between the Missouri river and the Rocky Mountains.  The greatest slaughter of the beasts was in 1872-'74, when, it was estimated, the number slain ran up into the millions. 
Hundreds of the best shots from all over this country and Europe, in the early '70s, were on hand to take a farewell hung before the shaggy bison became extinct.  Scores of noted Nimrods came from England, Scotland, Russia, and Germany--in fact, from almost every part of Europe.  The Grand Duke Alexis, youngest son of Emperor Alexander, of Russia, with quite a numerous retinue, came with a party from St. Petersburg, and went on a tour through "Buffalo Land" in the winter of 1871-'72. ...  
... During the immense overland traffic in the early '60s, portions of the plains were fairly white with bones of the buffalo.  The animals had first been killed by the Indians for their food and robes, and later, millions of the shaggy beasts had been indiscriminately slaughtered by the white man just for sport, their carcasses left a prey for the wolves, and their bones to bleach by the wayside.  In the '50s and '60's their bones were scattered promiscuously in center localities for hundreds of miles in central and western Kansas, and between Fort Kearney and Julesburg along the Platte, as far back from the river as the eye could reach.  
No one seeing the apparently endless mass of bones even dreamed that any use would ever be made of them; but after the completion of the Union Pacific railway and its branches across the "Great American Desert," and, later, the building of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe line into the Southwest, an immense new industry was early inaugurated in Kansas.  Kansas was the natural home of the buffalo, and, during the '70s, hundreds of merchants in the western part of the state had a regular trade established and did a lively business buying and shipping buffalo bones to Eastern markets.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I don't even know what to say about this. The word Karma comes to mind -- these kinds of things may create a kind of debt on the balance sheets of the universe --I fear the kind of payment that will need to be extracted to bring justice for these poor animals and for the indigenous people whose lives depended on them.

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