by Bruce Cherney (part 4 pf 4)
Anyone travelling across the plains during the years of mass destruction would come across a landscape littered with rotting buffalo flesh, as most commercial hunters only took the hides and tongues from the animals.
In a paper read to the Royal Society of Canada in May 1890, Charles Mair, a poet who first came to Manitoba in 1869 and was a shopkeeper in Portage la Prairie until 1883 before returning to Eastern Canada, quoted Dr. William Frank Carver to emphasize the sad fate of the plains buffalo.
Born in Canada and trained as a dentist, Carver became a buffalo hunter in the U.S. and then a sharpshooter in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. According to Carver: “As the Indians hunted them (using traditional methods) the race would probably last forever. But the building of the railway rang the knell of the buffalo. Great slaughter by American hide hunters, whose havoc was truly stupendous — using (the) best weapons and (an) organized system. Even the skinning was done by horsepower.”
Carver explained that slits were made near the feet of the buffalo and “lines were attached to the holes in the hide and then to a team (of horses). In three years three million buffalo were wasted in this manner.”
This explains the statement by Col. Richard Irving Dodge (The Plains of the Great West, 1876) that in 1871 it took at least five buffalo to be killed in order to obtain one marketable hide. Using the force described by Carver would have resulted in many hides being torn apart as they were wrenched from the animals.
“A man could jump from carcass to carcass for 50 miles without once touching the ground along the Frenchman River (which runs in Saskatchewan and Montana),” according to Carver.
The waste of hides did decrease over time, according to Dodge, who said it took three dead buffalo to produce one viable hide in 1872 and then two dead buffalo per hide in 1873. A year later the waste had been further decreased, as 1.25 buffalo were killed to produce a single hide.
But while many have described the plains littered by carcasses, the meat did not always go to waste as there was a market — at least in the early years of the buffalo hunt — although the price for buffalo meat was just one-cent to three-cents a pound. Sixty per cent of a buffalo, which could weigh up to a 1,000 kilograms, was considered usable as meat. The first buffalo hunters were commissioned by the American railway companies, constructing tracks from the east to the Pacific, in the 1860s to supply their workers with meat, a close-at-hand and seemingly inexhaustible commodity.
Meat sent to eastern markets was packed in salt, which acted as a preservative until it reached its final destination.
While buffalo meat was cured with salt when destined for U.S. markets by American hunters, meat was commonly sold in Winnipeg in its dried form (14-cents a pound in 1876) or as pemmican (15-cents a pound in the same year) until the animal was wiped off the plains.
But as demand for hides increased, the buffalo hunters became more wasteful and most began to remove only the hides and cut out the tongues, which sold for 25-cents apiece as a delicacy in eastern restaurants.
In his January 28, 2008 paper, Buffalo Hunt: International Trade and the Virtual Extinction of the North American Bison, M. Scott Taylor, of the department of economics at the University of Calgary, makes a case, by using statistics from the period and mathematical formulae, for the strong influence of Europeans on the near-extinction of the buffalo.
Taylor wrote that between 1871 and 1883 six million hides, representing the slaughter of nine-million buffalo, were sent to Europe where the hides were tanned into leather for machinery belts and made into heavy-duty soles for army boots, as buffalo leather was tougher and thicker than cow hide.
For thousands of years, plains aboriginals tanned buffalo hide, but it was an extremely laborious process and required products from the buffalo themselves, such as brains and livers.But it was tanners in England and Germany who in 1871 discovered a commercial process to turn buffalo hide into high-quality leather, a process that was later exported to the U.S.
Prior to the European innovation, buffalo were primarily shot in the winter for their thickly-haired hides which were used as robes or cut into pieces to make coats. But the creation of commercially-viable buffalo leather meant that more easily tanned “flint” (hairless) summer hides were in high demand. The slaughter then became an intensive year-round affair.
“The historical account is also fairly clear that before the tanning innovation,” wrote Taylor, “buffalo numbers were falling although rather slowly.”
“In the 1870s,” added Taylor, “America was a large resource exporter with little or no environmental regulations (to protect buffalo) while Europe was a high income consumer of U.S. resources apparently indifferent to the impact their consumption had on America’s natural resources.”
In the beginning, hide hunters were successful entrepreneurs, but as more people began to ply the trade, the market became saturated with product and it became more difficult to earn a living. One successful hunter was Frank H. Mayer, who in 1872 and 1873, sold his hides for $6,000. It was Mayer, as the epitome of the ultimate reckless predator, claimed that: “The buffalo didn’t belong to anybody. If you could kill them, what they brought was yours.”
Many of the hide hunters were Americans living from hand to mouth during the depths of a deep-seated recession, as such their desperation led to the belief that buffalo hunting was their pathway to a bonanza. This was correct to a point as some did get rich, such as the traders as well as a smattering of those hunting the beasts on the plains. It cost a lot of money to outfit an expedition, which involved cooks, hunters, skinners and teamsters who drove large trains of carts from railroad track sidings for the hunting grounds and then returned with carts laden with hides to the sidings.
The actual hunting only involved one or two sharpshooters to the chagrin of the thousands who flooded the prairie in pursuit of the humped mammals. More plentiful were the skinners who followed the hunters to remove the pelts, which was a not too glamorous occupation that was only grudgingly undertaken by desperate men needing to find at least some form of employment in the hide trade.
Still, 2,000 men turned to the buffalo hunting in western Kansas in the winter of 1872-73, an indication of the vast numbers of men, who for adventure or to escape poverty, flooded the prairies to slaughter the great beasts.
In a December 22, 1925, Manitoba Free Press article, Hamilton M. Laing wrote that the system of obtaining hides was “shockingly wasteful. Mounted hunters with rifles ran the buffaloes and shot them down; the skinners followed the trail of carcasses, the meat was left to the wolves. No aboriginal was guilty of such wanton improvidence. The inevitable result was the passing of the buffalo herds, and with them the Indian. The range was left for the rancher and the homesteader.”
On July 31, 1876, the Free Press reported that between 40,000 to 50,000 buffalo hides were shipped from Alberta to Montana and another 6,000 were sent to Winnipeg.
“These numbers represent a slaughter of about 120,000 buffalo during the past winter, from which we can form some idea of the countless herds that cover the North-West prairies. But numerous as the buffalo now are, they cannot long stand this wholesale destruction ... a few years more will doubtless see its utter destruction.”
By the time the article was written, the southern herd in the U.S. had been virtually wiped out, while the northern herd was headed in the same direction. A pocket of buffalo hung on in the U.S. due to the presence of the Sioux, who fought the intrusion of white hunters into their territory, but the 1876 Battle of the Little Big Horn in Montana marked the pinnacle of their power on the plains. After the battle, know to American history as (Col. George Armstrong) Custer’s Last Stand, Sitting Bull fled to Canada, where he and his followers became unwanted refugees, while the Sioux, remaining in the U.S., were forced onto reservations. Without food aid from the Canadian government, Sitting Bull and his starving band had no choice but to return in 1881 to the U.S. where they were imprisoned. Following the battle and the dispersal of the Sioux to reservations, the white commercial hunters had unburdened access to the remaining buffalo on the northern plains of the U.S.
“A cold wind blew across the prairie when the last buffalo fell,” Sitting Bull later said, “a death wind for my people.”
The Free Press article blamed the Métis for the destruction of the northern herd, by killing “thousands for the robes alone, and (then) leave the carcasses to rot on the prairies, instead of saving and drying the meat for future use (that is, making pemmican). The Indians, on the other hand, are careful to lay by (produce) during the (winter) hunting season large stores of dried meat for summer consumption.”
According to the article, aboriginals living on the prairie “look with no favorable eye on these Red River breeds. They say that their medicine is bad for the buffalo ...”
By this time, the Métis were being lured into the mass slaughter of the buffalo to satisfy the demand for fashionable buffalo robes and hides for leather.
Winnipeg newspapers in 1876 still contained advertisements for buffalo robes, dried buffalo meat and pemmican. But by 1879, the same newspapers reported that native people were starving on the prairie.
The November 21, 1879, Free Press contained a front page article on a journey made by naturalist Prof. John Macoun from Eastern Canada to the Rocky Mountains during the previous summer. In the Red Deer River district, they entered a Blackfeet camp and found that its inhabitants were starving. “There was not a berry bush but was stripped of its berries and even many poplar trees had been stripped of their bark to be used as food.”
“Every man, woman and child there without another word started on the run for bare life ... At first I was amazed, but I soon was told the cry was, ‘Buffalo coming.’ No wonder indeed that old man (chief) ran so fast, for that afternoon six buffalo were killed — four of them from his horse — and his people were saved ...
“Just think now, three years ago these hills were black with buffalo, so that you couldn’t see the grass. In that day all a young chieftain did was to mount his horse, approach the nearest flock, select the choicest cow, in a moment she was dead, and in all the camp had plenty of food.”
But by the time Macoun visited the Blackfeet camp, the presence of plains buffalo had become a rare sight and the people accordingly suffered. Ironically, native people abetted the demise of the buffalo — although their impact was significantly less than that of white hunters — by killing up to a third more buffalo than they required for food and byproducts in order to trade hides and robes for factory-produced goods and whiskey brought across the Canadian border by unscrupulous Americans (one reason for the creation of the North West Mounted Police in 1873 was to protect aboriginals from the American whiskey traders).
Augustus Jukes, a North West Mounted Police doctor, said the destruction of the buffalo left native people not only without food, “but also without robes, moccasins and adequate tents or ‘tepees’ to shield them from the inclemency of the impending winter. Few of their lodges are of buffalo hide, the majority being cotton only, and many of these in most rotten and dilapidated condition ... Their clothing for the most part was miserable and scanty in the extreme.”
With the demise of the buffalo, Macoun lamented that aboriginals had to rely upon the goodwill of the government — which wasn’t always forthcoming — for provisions or else starve.
Jukes said the extreme “wretchedness and need” of the people required “prompt and sufficient provision being made for them by he government.”
But the Sir John A. Macdonald government in Ottawa was adopting a policy that put more emphasis on agricultural training while decreasing food supplies to aboriginal people. The argument was that cutting back on food would lessen aboriginal reliance on costly government handouts and force them to become “civilized” by taking to producing crops to abate their hunger.
Until they embraced “civilization,” their plight was often intentionally ignored. It is estimated that during the winter of 1883-84, 10 per cent of aboriginals living on the Canadian prairie died of malnutrition and disease.
The mass slaughter left behind one byproduct with a monetary value — bones. “Here commerce steps in again to ask for something else; the very last remnant there is left of an annihilated race,” commented the New York Times.
Collectors of the bones earned $3 to $6 per ton, which were shipped to eastern cities to be turned into fertilizer, used in the refining of sugar or converted into buttons or knife handles.
The Northwest Bone Syndicate of North Dakota purchased thousands of tons of bone from collectors each year which was shipped to the Michigan Carbon Works in Detroit and the Northwestern Fertilizer Company and Empire Carbon Works in East St. Louis, Illinois.
Processed buffalo bones produced “bone black,” a charcoal used to remove colour and impurities in sugar refining, while “bone ash” was used as a high-phosphorous content fertilizer. Ironically, the fertilizer often returned west from the eastern factories to be used on the farms where the buffalo bones were originally collected.
To speak of the numbers of bones collected staggers the imagination. Saskatoon alone was known to have accounted for 3,000 railway carloads. The first shipment of bones from Canada to the U.S. was in 1884. F.F. Timms of Regina was reported in the Moosimin Courier to have amassed four carloads, or 48 tones, of buffalo bones valued at $312, which was shipped to M.L. McKenzie in St. Paul.
How Buffalo Bones Became Big Business, an article by Le Roy Barnett of Michigan State University (reprinted in Canadian Geographic magazine, which first appeared in North Dakota History, V.39, No. 1), related that the Courier report signalled the commencement of the bone collecting business in Canada at a time when sources of bone in the U.S. were becoming scarce.
With the depletion of American resources, Barnett wrote that U.S. agents “turned to the grasslands north of the border, and soon the vestiges of the buffalo that had dotted the Canadian landscape began to disappear ...
“By late 1889 nearly all the accessible skeletons near the Canadian Pacific tracks had been mustered at sidings between Indian Head and Medicine Hat, leaving many bone-hunters waiting for one of several proposed branch lines to open up new areas for their trade.”
Saskatoon storekeeper W.H. Duncan began to accept bone for goods in 1890, which was apparently quite popular with the Métis, who brought in bones by the wagonload, which was valued at between $5 to $7 a ton.
The volume arriving in Saskatoon became so great that the railway could not handle the volume, as a result, the skeletons accumulated and were placed into 2.4 metre wide by 2.4 metre high and 10 metre high piles, each of which was equal to the capacity of one rail car.
According to Barnett, at one time in 1890, the remnants of 25,000 animals arrived at the Saskatoon depot awaiting shipment.
To more easily collect the bones in 1891, the Métis bone pickers fired the prairies to remove the tall grass and expose the bones. “From the time they started firing the prairies until the middle of June, these people brought the remains of over 100,000 animals to the Saskatoon market ... By the first week of August the remains of about 168,000 buffalo were estimated to be in just one pile near the station, and there were other smaller ricks (piles) in the yards as well.”
During a nearly three-year period about 3,200 carloads of bones were shipped each. “As the average freight car of the era carried 12 tons of bones,” wrote Barnett, “and the bison’s skeleton weighed about 50 lbs. (22.5 kg) when dry, the skeletons shipped from the Saskatoon area represented the anatomy of 1,500,000 buffalo.”
The boom lasted until 1893 when the market fell out for want of more bones and the effects of an economic recession in the U.S. Similar to the buffalo themselves, their bones were at first plentiful and then became too scarce to remain a commercially viable commodity.
Many realized the demise of the buffalo was just around the corner, but few acted in time to prevent their disappearance from the North American plains. Laws were passed in the late 1870s in Canada and the U.S. to prevent their extinction, but by then the damage had already been done.
Individuals such as Charles Alloway, who was a Red River cart freighter, businessman and later a Winnipeg banker, related in 1929 that he had recognized “back in 1873 ... that the day was dawning when the vast herds would be depleted. I had bought as many as 21,000 buffalo hides from a single brigade of Indian hunters, paying $3 for the average and $4 for the large ones. It didn’t take any higher mathematics to realize that this rate of killing them off couldn’t go on forever, especially as there were dozens of (Métis) brigades out hunting at a time.”
Alloway and James McKay, a fellow freighter, frontiersman, interpreter and Manitoba politician, accompanied one Métis brigade to Saskatchewan in 1873 with the goal of obtaining a few buffalo calves. They captured three calves which took them an entire summer to bring to McKay’s farm at Deer Lodge in Winnipeg. The two men repeated the process the next summer, capturing “two little heifers and a husky little bull,” although one died en route to Deer Lodge.
“By the spring of 1878 our little herd had grown from five calves to 13 animals purebred and three crossbred to domestic cattle. We realized we had something of value, although at the time we didn’t know the buffalo was practically extinct.”
If not for men in North America such as Alloway and McKay, the buffalo would have become only a faint memory from another era when the animals roamed the plains in the tens of millions.
Mayor Gordon W. “Pawnee Bill” Lillie, who protected a small herd of buffalo on his ranch in Oklahoma, said: “The causes of the extermination of the buffalo might be summed up as follows: Man’s reckless greed, his wanton extravagance, destructiveness and improvidence in not husbanding the resources that come to him by nature ready made. The total and inexcusable absence of protective measures and agencies on the part of the national government (the Council of the North-West Territories in Canada did pass an act to protect the buffalo in 1877, but by then it was too late) and of hunters generally, both white and red, for the robe and flesh of the cow over that of the bull. The phenomenal stupidity of the animals themselves and their indifference to man. The perfection of the modern breech-loading rifle and other sporting firearms in general.”