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Slaughtered For the Hide, Harper's Weekly, 1874.
This image available for
"Let them kill, skin, and sell until the buffalo is
exterminated, as it is the only way to bring lasting peace and allow
civilization to advance."
- General Philip Sheridan
Before white settlers
began to push into the vast west in any great numbers, an estimated 50-60
freely roamed upon the Great
hunted them for food and other necessities, and a harmonious ebb and flow
between man and beast prevailed.
However, after the
that would change as more and more people moved westward. As a result, new army
posts were established and to supply those many
soldiers, the army contracted
with local men to supply
meat to feed the troops. At about the same time, the iron horse also began to
blaze a trail into the west, and these construction men also had to be fed.
Adding to the need for food, people back east were demanding
robes that they used as coats and lap robes when riding in sleighs and
carriages. These events put many a man to work as
became a trading center for the
hides and tanneries found even more uses for the material, such as making drive
belts for industrial machines and grinding
bones into fertilizer. In some places,
tongues became a delicacy in fine restaurants. Soon, the demand for
had increased to such a degree that year-round work was available for
This, all occurring in a time that the economy was depressed after the
led many a tough man to earn his living as a
hunter. Armed with powerful, long-range rifles, individual hunters could kill as
many as 250
a day. Tanneries paid as much as $3.00 per hide and 25˘ for each tongue, which
made a nice living for hundreds of men, including the likes of
Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson,
Wild Bill Hickok,
and William F. Cody, just to name a few.
Unfortunately, once these hides and tongues were taken from the carcasses, the
meat was often left to rot on the Plains. By the 1880s, over 5,000 hunters and
skinners were involved in the trade.
watched in dismay as
hunting took on an almost a carnival atmosphere when railroads began to
advertise "hunting by rail.” This occurred when trains sometimes encountered
large herds of
crossing the tracks. Seeing a way to capitalize on the problem, the advertising
flooded the newspapers and in no time, sporting men with rifles were shooting
by the hundreds just for fun. Those animals shot from the train were simply left
where they died.
As the slaughter
became increasingly angry and resentful as they watched their main source of
sustenance dwindle at the hands of the white man. This led to more and more
attacks which resulted in U.S. Army retaliation at the height of the
It was also at this time that the U.S. Government desired to separate the
from the rest of "civilization” by placing them on reservations. In order to do
this, the U.S. Army aggressively pursued a policy to eradicate the
intentionally extinguishing the
sustenance, which would force then onto reservations.
In fact, when the
Legislature was discussing a bill to protect the
General Philip Sheridan defended the
hunters and opposed the bill by saying:
When the railroad pushed westward through the plains, buffalo were often shot for sport as the trains passed by, the carcasses left to rot upon the prairie. Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, June, 1871. This image available for
photographic prints and downloads
”These men have done more in the last
two years, and will do more in the next year, to settle the vexed
question, than the entire regular army has done in the last forty years. They
are destroying the
commissary. And it is a well known fact that an army losing its base of supplies
is placed at a great disadvantage. Send them powder and lead, if you will; but
for a lasting peace, let them kill, skin, and sell until the
are exterminated. Then your prairies can be covered with speckled cattle.”
By 1884 the great era of the
ended and nothing remained of the massive
herds but piles of bones. At that time there were only some 1,200-2,000
left in the United States.
Fortunately, early conservation efforts led to the establishment the world’s
first national park - Yellowstone in 1872. There, a small
herd was preserved, but still what few that were left outside of the park were
being killed on Federal land, so, in 1894, the Lacey Act was signed into law,
prohibiting the killing of any wildlife in federal preserves. The
were saved from extinction and today it is estimated that there are over 150,000
bison on public preserves and in private hands.
of America, updated August,
years ago, I came upon this road following the buffalo, that my wives and
children might have
cheeks plump and their bodies warm. But the soldiers fired on us, and since that
time there has
a noise like that of a thunderstorm, and we have not known which way to go.”
-- Comanche Chief
Buffalo Hunting With Teddy Roosevelt
Old West Legends
The Plight of the Buffalo
at water, 1905, Detroit Publishing Co.
This image available for
photographic prints & editorial downloads
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There is no Sunday west of St. Louis – and no God west of Fort Smith.
-- Old adage used to describe the Western frontier