the slaughter of the buffalo -- 2/8/24

Today's encore selection -- from Dodge City by Tom Clavin. Buffalo herds in the early 1800s in the American West numbered in the tens of millions. Native Americans killed buffalo only as they needed food and carefully used all parts of the buffalo for some purpose. Then came the crazes in the eastern region for buffalo tongues and hides:

"Stories that drifted eastward about the strange, hulking bison caused a new market to spring up: buffalo tongues. They were viewed as something of a delicacy by diners in St. Louis, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. Suddenly, as early as the 1830s, there was a demand for tongues, and after they were cut out the rest of the beast was left to rot. ...

"'The Indians claimed they only killed for meat or robes, and, as soon as they had sufficient, they stopped and went home,' [contemporary businessman] Robert Wright explained. 'Whereas, the [white] hunter never knew when to quit or when he had enough, and was continually harassing the buffaloes from every side, never giving them a chance to recover, but keeping up a continual pop-pop from their big guns.'

"The near eradication of buffalo did not happen overnight in the 1860s and early 1870s. For example, in the mid to late 1820s, hundreds of thousands of robes made from buffalo hides the Indians themselves had tanned were shipped to New Orleans and its eager white consumers and manufacturers. But it was a sensational decline, considering that in only a few decades a population in the tens of millions was reduced to thousands. Still, as late as 1870, the army estimated that as many as fifty million buffalo remained on the prairie and plains west of Fort Dodge. That same year, though, the introduction of a new technology spelled doom for the beasts: their hides could be tanned more efficiently and turned into high-grade leather products. More than ever before there was a rush of killing buffalo. ...

"Just one hide would earn [a hunter] $3.50. Even the least educated frontiers­man could calculate that felling ten buffalo a day would equal $35, an amount many men west of the Missouri River could not make in a month.

Rath & Wright's buffalo hide yard in Dodge City, Kansas, showing 40,000 buffalo hides.

"For some hunters, $35 was the floor, not the ceiling. One of the more well known and obviously ruthless hunters was Tom Nixon. During a thirty-five-day hunt in 1873, his rifle sent 3,200 buffalo to their deaths, and this included a banner day of shooting 120 of the overmatched animals in forty minutes. Demonstrating a preindustrial flair for mass production, Brick Bond had fifteen skinners in his em­ploy and he kept them busy by killing 250 buffalo a day. With the prizes being the hides and the tongues, most of the meat was left on the ground, providing belly-bursting feasts for wolves and coyotes at night and putrefying during the hot summer afternoons. ...

"In the winter of 1873-1874 alone, more than 1.5 million buffalo hides were carried by train from the western hunting grounds to eastern buyers. The first winter that Dodge City was being served by the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe line, Wright and fellow businessman Charles Rath had shipped over 200,000 buffalo hides 'besides two hundred cars of hind quarters and two cars of buffalo tongues.' Sights like hundreds if not thousands of buffalo skulls piled high and bleaching in the sun near railroad sta­tions did not deter the hunters from killing the beasts nor such getting­-rich-quick entrepreneurs from buying the hides and body parts. ...

"The [buffalo] were just so damn stupid and appeared to be begging to be killed. With most animals on the prairie and plains, getting shot at, and especially having one of your own killed, resulted in flight as fast as their paws or hooves could carry them. Not so the buffalo. A hunter could walk to within a hundred yards of a feeding herd, stretch out on the ground, aim, and fire. A good kill shot was through the lungs. After the animal collapsed and died, the others kept eating as though nothing had happened. If the herd began to move -- and at full tilt, buffalo can run more than thirty miles an hour -- the hunter killed the lead buffalo, which stopped the followers in their tracks. ...

"From Dodge City west into Colorado there were dozens of hunting camps operating at a brisk and bloody pace into 1873. Tens of thou­sands of buffalo were felled and skinned. Though some buffalo meat was sold to the railroad to feed its construction crews, the harsh, hot breezes scouring the frontier carried the smell of rotting carcasses. Hunters were looked at with some disgust when they came to town because of the gagging scents they carried and their unkempt, gore­stained appearance. But everyone was making money and would continue to as long as the population of the animals held out."



Tom Clavin


Dodge City


St. Martin's Press


Copyright 2017 by Tom Clavin


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