American West Bison Extermination

Nation: United States

Mass Killing

United States American West Bison Extermination Mass Killing Cover
I. Population Before Settlement
II. Mass Slaughter
I. Population Before Settlement
Twenty years ago [1870], the bison abounded in many parts of the Northwestern plains and prairies. Today [1890] there are in all probability not five hundred animals alive on the continent. In the beginning of this century it roamed the country from Texas and New Mexico northward, and from the Alleghanies westward into and beyond the Rocky Mountains and north-westward to the affluents of the Mackenzie. In past times, if writers and their references to the animal are trustworthy, its range seems to have been almost continental.

Indeed, if Richard Hakluyt is to be believed, he saw the bison three hundred years ago in Newfoundland. But as he saw it "far off," he probably confounded it with the caribou. Samuel Purchas got much curious information from the Indians who accompanied Pocahontas to England, and from others with regard to Virginia, and mentions in his Pilgrims that large animals resembling domestic cattle were seen by the early adventurers into that region. Virginia was a wide term in those days, and in the district beyond the Alleghanies, now known as West Virginia, there can be no doubt that in 1616 the bison was a common animal. But there is no proof that at that time it frequented the region east of the mountains.

Mair, C. (1891). The American bison. Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada, 8, 93.
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II. Mass Slaughter
With the adventure of Marquette and Joliet, the animal fairly entered into northwest history, and became thenceforward an increasingly important element in exploration, pioneer settlement, and trade. The success of every expedition into the western wilderness more or less depended upon it, and from the time that the brave and unforunate La Salle met his death through a wretched squabble over some buffalo meat, unnumbered tragedies, with whites and savages for actors, have attended its chase down to recent days.

Since Pere [Jacques] Marquette's narrative was written, the animal was drawn and described so often that everyone became familiar with its form. By a common misnomer its relationship was assigned to the buffalo of the old world.

According to the Hon. H.H. Sibley of Minnesota, the last animals ever seen east of the Mississippi were killed by the Sioux at Trempe a l'Eau, in upper Wisconsion, in 1832. For many years afterwards they were still very numerous on the great western and northwestern plains. In 1868, the late James McKay, the well-known Red River half-breed trader and hunter, told me that some ten years before he had traveled with ponies for twenty days through a continuous herd, and on all sides, as far as he could see, the prairies were black with animals. It was not in fact until the construction of the first Pacific railway that a serious inroad was made upon their numbers. Indeed, as Dr. Carver very truly says, "As the Indians hunted them the race would have probably lasted forever." But the building of that railway, and the subsequent extension of the Northern Pacific line, rang the knell of the buffalo.

Immense numbers, it is true, had been annually slaughtered in the great plain hunt of the Red River half-breeds; a system which was organized in the early 1800s, and continued in full force down to about 1869, after which it began to languish. Many of the hunters formed small settlements in the interior, and instead of returning to Red River, sold their robes, etc., to traders on the spot. In its palmy days, the plain hunt annually attracted nearly half the population of Red River. Full four thousand people, including men, women, and children, and a thousand carts, went off in early summer to the plains, and when the great herds were reached, and the "runs" took place, as many as two thousand animals were often killed in a single day. No doubt this involved great waste; but food and leather were the objects of the plain hunters, as well as robes, and, hence, their destruction bore but a small proportion to the immense slaughter, in later years, by the American pot-and-hide hunters.

These pot-and-hide hunters, in order to gratify the cravings of wealthy citizens for tongues and humps, were formed into large parties, with lavish outfits supplied by eastern firms, and being within easy reach of the great herds by rail the work of extermination speedily began. In due time, the pot-hunting gave way to hide-hunting, which was found to be more profitable, and then the havoc became truly stupendous.

The hunters' weapons were of the best, and their method so systematic, that the very skinning was done by horse-power. The dead bison was fastened to a stake and the necessary incisions were made, after which a span of horses was hitched to the hide, and off it came. The hides were shipped to the nearest railway points in wagons, and the carcasses were left to rot upon the ground. In this way it is estimated that in three years nearly six million animals were destroyed. "But no one," says Dr. Carver (who is responsible for the foregoing statements), "will ever know what immense numbers were killed by these hide-hunters." "At the close," he says, "of one winter a man could go along the banks of the Frenchman River for fifty miles by simply jumping from one carcass to another. Considering facts of this kind, it is not surprising that some small tame herds and a few old circus animals represent the great herds which less than a quarter of a century ago [~1870] blackened miles of prairie as a thundercloud darkens the sky."

Mair, C. (1891). The American bison. Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada, 8, 94-101.
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