The Buffalo Wool Company — “The scheme became a laughing stock in England

by Bruce Cherney

John Pritchard thought he had a good idea that had the potential to be a very bad idea for the massive herds of  buffalo then roaming the Great Plains of North America.

“Why wait any longer for a proper stock of sheep,” he pondered, “when there is buffalo wool right here, the very stuff that gives the prairie buffalo one of the warmest winter coats?”

Of course, no sensible person would be prepared to wrestle a 1,000-kilogram  wild buffalo (its true name is North American bison) so that it could be shorn; thus, the only good buffalo was a dead buffalo when it came to making Pritchard’s Buffalo Wool Company a success in the Red River Settlement. 

Obtaining wool from buffalo wasn’t a new idea as several others had thought about the possibilities of spinning and converting the humped creature’s wool into warm garments. 

French-Canadian explorer Louis Joliet (1645-1700), while exploring the Mississippi River, looked upon the vast herds of hoofed animals with the eye of an entrepreneur and believed he had stumbled upon the germ of a new enterprise.

“Saw several parsels of buffaloe’s hair hanging on rose bushes,” wrote Merriweather Clark — of American explorers Lewis and Clark fame — in a journal entry for April 18, 1805, while some 50 kilometres east of present-day Williston, North Dakota, “which had been bleached by exposure to the weather and became perfectly white. It (had) every appearance of wool of the sheep, tho’ much finer and more silkey and soft. I am confident that an excellent cloth may be made from the wool of the buffaloe. The buffaloe I killed yesterday had cast his long hare, and the poil (perhaps pile as in fur — all the word spellings different from today’s are Clark’s) which remained was very thick, fine, and about 2 inches in length. I think that this anamal would have furnished about five pounds of wool.”

Pritchard probably arrived at the same conclusion independent of Clark and took the next step by proposing in 1820 to the Hudson’s Bay Company that a buffalo wool industry was a sure-fire way to bring the Red River Settlement out of its economic doldrums.

Since its founding in 1812 by Lord Selkirk, the settlement, located along banks of the Red and Assiniboine rivers, had faced one disaster after another. 

In the early years of the settlement, the meddlesome North West Company did all in its power to discourage the settlers. In May 1816, the Nor’westers stirred up the Metis to the point that Cuthbert Grant embarked on a sabre-rattling expedition. After looting Brandon House, Grant and the Metis rode to Seven Oaks (actually first known as occurring on Frog Plain) where they were confronted by Governor Robert Semple and a party of settlers. The resulting Battle of Seven Oaks witnessed the death of Semple, 20 colonists and one of Grant’s men. 

Pritchard was among the wounded in Semple’s party. He was taken prisoner by Grant and removed to Fort William where he was liberated by Lord Selkirk. Later he testified in the trials in Montreal of Nor’westers who had taken part in Seven Oaks — Grant was the primary defendant though he skipped bail and was never tried — as well he was co-author of a book based on the testimony given at the trials. The irony is that Pritchard started out as a fur trader with the Nor’westers but was forced to leave the company when he was branded as a coward for failing to oppose HBC rule in the territory. While in Montreal, it was Pritchard who warned HBC’s Colin Robertson about the dangers facing the settlers. With Robertson’s permission, Pritchard returned to Red River from the East by snowshoe in the winter of 1814-15.

The HBC and Nor’westers merged on March 21, 1821, ending the threat to the Red River settlers. 

While the supposed purpose was to establish an agricultural settlement to provide the HBC with fresh produce, early attempts to grow grain and vegetables had been disastrous. If the Nor’westers didn’t drive them off and burn their crops, hordes of grasshoppers descended upon their fields and devoured every growing thing in their path. From 1818 to 1821, the settlers’ crops were completely consumed by grasshoppers. 

Things weren’t going too well for the settlers and that’s why Pritchard thought he had hit upon something that would revive their spirits. The plight of the settlers and a desire to provide them with some economic base was also why the HBC supported the scheme.

To test the mechanics of his scheme, Pritchard pulled wool from buffalo hide and then separated the coarse long hair to obtain the undercoat of fine hair that he believed could be processed into wool. At Pembina, he wrote that he was able to obtain “300 pounds of fine wool and 1,000 pounds of coarse wool,” which was later shipped to England via York Factory.

He fired off letters to Andrew Wedderburn Colvile, Lord Selkirk’s brother-in-law and the administrator of the earl’s estate (Selkirk had died in 1820), as well as leading British manufacturers of wool products.

In a June 1821 letter, he wrote that he was sending to England wool that was “equal to the finest that has ever been seen on the London market ... A good skin will yield six or seven pounds of wool, from which two or three pounds will be the finest quality suitable for export to England. The rest is principally fit for coarse cloth, blanket stuff and mattresses. Besides, there is a low quality hair from which we intend to make rope.”

“His calculations appear to have been all based on the supposition that wool and hides, the staple articles could be had for the mere trouble of picking them up,” wrote fur trader and historian Alexander Ross (1783-1856) in his book Red River Settlement. Ross, known to the original colonists as “the professor,” retired with his family to the Red River Settlement and had first-hand knowledge of the Buffalo Wool Company. 

Ross served with the Pacific Fur Company from 1810 to 1813, the Nor’westers from 1813 to 1821 and the HBC from 1821 to 1815.

Ross outlined the purposes of the Buffalo Wool Company as:

“1. To provide a substitute for wool; as it was supposed, from the numbers and destructive habits of the wolves, that sheep could neither be raised nor preserved in Red River, at least to any extent.

“2. The substitution contemplated was the wool of the wild buffalo, which was to be collected in the plains, and manufactured both for the use of colonists and for export.

“3. To establish a tannery for manufacturing the buffalo hides for domestic purposes.”

Pritchard believed these ends could be accomplished without much money and little skill.

After receiving the approval of Colvile, 100 shares at £20 each (£1 then equalled $5) were issued for the Buffalo Wool Company. Furthermore, Colvile gave the company 100 acres of land in Red River for headquarters and a warehouse.

Pritchard was so overcome with gratitude that he sent two untamed buffalo — a heifer and cow — to Colvile as a gift. What Colvile thought of Pritchard’s gift when it arrived at his London address has not been recorded.

What is known is that Colvile had grave doubts about the viability of the scheme from the very beginning. While he knew it was iffy at best, he supported the scheme, knowing the colonists had to have something to rally around or they would abandon the Red River Settlement. Many settlers had already left the settlement because of one disaster following another.  

From the minutes of the Council of Assiniboia (appointed by the HBC to govern the region), it is evident that Pritchard had its full support and by extension the support of the HBC. The council said it wanted to do everything in its power to encourage the “infant establishment.” 

The council’s minutes indicate they were prepared to  furnish the buffalo skins “killed at the proper season at the price of 5s.” (s is for shilling which was 1/20th of a pound [£] in value, while d is for pence and there were 240 pence to the pound.) Hunters were told by the council to only bring to Pritchard those hides that were fit for the trade — that is, young buffalo between one and two years old because they were judged to produce a superior quality of wool than older animals.

The council felt that the price paid for hides could easily be recouped by the sale of wool in England.

A problem Pritchard immediately encountered was that the buffalo hunt failed in the region. According to “his own calculation the posts of Red River would not fully meet his demand.” The council therefore ordered that buffalo hides from the Saskatchewan district be forwarded to the Buffalo Wool Company in the following season.

Ross wrote that no sooner was the £2,000 ($10,000) “placed in the bank (the HBC was the settlement’s banker and issued its own bank notes) than operations were commenced with as much confidence as if the mines of Potosi (a city in Bolivia with a nearby ‘mountain of silver’) had been at their door. All the plainhunters were set in motion; the men were encouraged to exert every nerve to procure hides, and the women to gather wool.”

Orders were sent to England for machinery, implements, dyes and skilled workmen. Besides Pritchard, a clerk and storekeeper among others were hired at high wages,  “... and as nothing could be done in those palmy days without the bottle and the glass, spirits were imported by the hogshead.

“A second immigration of operatives consisted of curriers, skinners, sorters, wool-dresser, teasers, and bark-manufacturers, of all grades, ages, and sexes.”

The boys and girls employed by the Buffalo Wool Company at first received 2s. 6d. to 7s. per day, while men at first received 7s. 6d., but wages rose until they reached 15s. per day.

“High wages gave a high tone to the undertaking,” said Ross.

With the high salaries offered, the settlers threw aside their hoes and plows and wholeheartedly embraced the Buffalo Wool Company.

“The hope of realizing gold from articles hitherto perfectly useless, diverted the elements of civilization into the channel of barbarism, and substituted an uncertain reserve for the solid reliance on agriculture,” wrote Ross.

An unexpected side effect of the Buffalo Wool Company was that hides soon began to cost 6s each. On the other hand, wool from sheep cost but 1s. 6d. per pound.

In England, mill owners began testing the buffalo wool they received. They had been skeptical from the beginning and their tests proved the merit of their initial doubts.

The advantage of sheep’s wool is that its fibres are crimpy and serrated making it ideal for spinning into a yarn that is strong and firm. 

On the other hand, buffalo hair is straight and lacking the characteristics that make sheep’s wool ideal for yarn. 

Still, the English manufacturers put the buffalo wool to an honest test. They produced a few simple garments, but came to the conclusion that buffalo wool had no future. It was found their mills could not handle the coarse hair, and the yarn made from the fine hair lacked strength and quality.

Buffalo wool also defied the millers’ best efforts to dye it.

The few samples of cloth sent to Red River from England cost $12.50 per yard to manufacture at home but could only fetch $1.10 a yard in England. 

Meanwhile back in Red River, the employees of the company were having a great time.

Ross said curiosity got the better of him and he decided to take a peek at “this fool’s paradise. Alas! what scenes of disorder! what waste, what excess and folly! Half the people were off-duty, officials as well as others, wallowing in intemperance. One man lying drunk here, another there; the bottle and glass set up at every booth, and all comers invited to drink free of cost. The hides were allowed to rot, the wool spoiled; the tannery proved a complete failure.”

Money and liquor was flowing so freely that the Buffalo Wool Company had spent its £2,000 start-up capital and more, ending up with a massive  £4,500 debt owing to the HBC.

But Pritchard's enthusiasm had not diminished, nor had that of Lady Selkirk who looked upon the settlement as a personal responsibility left to her by her late husband. Above all, she wanted the settlement to succeed and she equated the success of the colony with the fortunes of the Buffalo Wool Company.

She threw all her efforts into the company, convincing Scottish woolen manufacturers Wellstood and Ogilvie to give buffalo wool another try. Lady Selkirk firmly believed that buffalo wool garments would be a hit in London fashion salons because they would be seen as an exotic item.

Mixed with silk, the buffalo wool became more manageable, but no matter how they tried, the manufacturers could not dye the resulting product. It was found that bleaching buffalo wool had no effect. Despite all their efforts, buffalo wool remained the same dark-brown colour it had been before it entered the dying vats.

As a last resort, a manufacturer turned the buffalo wool into “beautiful” ladies’ stockings. The stockings were warm, but extremely itchy.

Lady Selkirk didn’t give up and took to wearing the stockings whenever she appeared in public. But even she could not start a new fashion trend. To her disappointment, the “buffalo craze” never materialized.

Without an export market for its product and a mounting debt, the Buffalo Wool Company faded into bankruptcy and oblivion after only a couple of years’ existence. It was one of those harebrained schemes that never truly had a chance of success. 

Several years later, the HBC simply wrote off the debt, much to the relief of the company’s original shareholders who feared that they would be taken to court to recover the money owed.

One positive side effect of the failed enterprise was that the salaried employees did have money on hand to purchase cattle. On August 28, 1822, 170 head of cattle were delivered to Point Douglas after a 1,600-kilometre overland journey from St. Louis, Missouri. As a result, the prairie’s first farming community was never again without cattle, oxen, beef, milk, butter or cheese — items of far greater value to the settlers than buffalo wool. The appearance of the cattle probably helped prevent the collapse of the colony.

However, buffalo were not really given a reprieve from wholesale slaughter because of the Buffalo Wool Company’s dismal failure. A recent study by University of Calgary environmental economist M. Scott Taylor blames Europeans for their insatiable desire for buffalo hides which could be tanned into a leather more durable than that from cattle hide.

About six-million bison hides were exported to Europe from 1871 to 1883, Taylor wrote in a paper for the Bureau for Economic Research.

While the movement westward by railroads and people destroyed buffalo habitat and the animals were unmercifully slaughtered by hunters, Taylor asserts that the final impetus for their near-extinction was a tanning technology developed in Europe. This enabled heavy buffalo hides to be tanned into leather that could be used to make the massive belts that drove machinery during the Industrial Revolution.

Buffalo were given only a momentary reprieve when it was found that there wasn’t a market for their wool but it ended when it was discovered there was a massive market for their hides.

Pritchard, called “a wild visionary speculative creature” by HBC Governor Sir George Simpson (c.1787-1860), failed to learn a lesson from his time spent managing the Buffalo Wool Company and became embroiled in another disastrous scheme — the Tallow Company — but that’s another story. 

Pritchard died in 1856; Pritchard Avenue in Winnipeg is named after him.