Sunday, March 25, 2012

Killing Bison to Kill Off the Native Population

When the story is told of the death of the North American buffalo, the subtext is often eliminated, with the story often reduced to a tale of unbridled "market hunting" as if poor regulation alone was at work (Full disclosure:  I have been guilty of "shorting the true tale" myself).

In fact, what was going on in the American West (both in the U.S. and Canada) was something far more sinister and planned: the systematic annihilation and extermination of the indigenous population of Native Americans.

As Timothy Egan notes in his excellent book, The Worst Hard Time The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl:

"For the sake of a lasting peace," General Sheridan told the Texas Legislature in 1875, the Anglos should "kill, skin and sell until the buffaloes are exterminated. Then your prairie can be covered with speckled cattle and the festive cowboy ... forerunner of an advanced civilization."

... Within a few years of the signing [of the Medicine Lodge Treaty of 1867], Anglo hunters invaded the treaty land. They killed bison by the millions, stockpiling hides and horns for a lucrative trade back east. Seven million pounds of bison tongues were shipped out of Dodge City, Kansas, in a single two-year period, 1872–1873, a time when one government agent estimated the killing at twenty-five million. Bones, bleaching in the sun in great piles at railroad terminals, were used for fertilizer, selling for up to ten dollars a ton. Among the gluttons for killing was a professional buffalo hunter named Tom Nixon, who said he had once killed 120 animals in forty minutes.

The last bison were killed within five years after the Comanche Nation was routed and moved off the Llano Estacado.

Just a few years earlier, there had been bison herds that covered fifty square miles. Bison were the Indians' commissary, and the remnants of the great southern herd had been run off the ground, every one of them, as a way to ensure that no Indian would ever wander the Texas Panhandle

Wyoming, Bison and Elk

Saskatchewan, Canada

Saskatcheewan, Canada

And what was America going to do with the plains? Why, plough it up and turn it into farms and catttle ranches of course!

What could go wrong?



Donald McCaig said...

Dear Patrick,
Accurate history but incomplete. By the end of the plains indian wars roughly 1860-1877 there weren't nearly as many buffalo left and they were concentrated in the Powder River country which was the no mans land between warring Crow and Lakota. (No man's lands, like the 38th parallel are great game preserves). This was the "little ice age" and climate was harsh. Harsher still were the plains indians themselves who were shipping 100,000 robes a year to St Louis. Cow robes brought a higher price (or were easier to skin - I disremember).

Yes, the white men finished off the buffalo but with indians mounted on horseback, armed with repeating rifles and with an unfortunate religious belief about buffalo replenishment, they wouldn't have lasted long in any event.

Humans cannot stand too much technology.

Donald McCaig

PBurns said...

Yes, the Indians were also market hunters, but killing 100,000 or even 200,000 bison a year by the Indians would not lead to the eradication of the bison. That was done largely by white men and white men's guns (now far more accurate than ever before), combined with a persistent drought that lasted from about 1845 to 1860 or so. By then the railroads were paying shooters to wipe out the buffalo, both to avoid rail wrecks and track damage, and also to wipe out the Indians which were seen as a threat to the idea of western settlement (and railroad tickets). It is not an accident that Buffalo Bill Cody was both an Indian fighter and a paid buffalo killer for the railroads -- it was all part of one job.

You are right that by 1880, the bison were largely gone -- and being replaced by cattle which froze dead in winter and burned to death in summer.