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Be They Buffalo or Bison, They’ve No Place to Roam

Posted by Laurie Frost on October 20, 2009

Rath & Wright’s buffalo hide yard in 1878, showing 40,000 buffalo hides, Dodge City, Kansas. ARC Identifier 520093

A collection of buffalo, elk, deer, mountain sheep and wolf skulls and bones near Fort Sanders, Albany County, Wyoming, 1870. ARC Identifier 516956

When I was looking for National Park images, I came across the shocking pictures above. I hadn’t grasped how intensively the species was hunted in the nineteenth century, but according to the Nature Conservancy, by the early twentieth century, “less than 100 free-roaming bison remained in the world,” when once millions of these creatures, the largest land mammals on the North American continent, could be found coast to coast.  Conservation efforts prevented the extinction of the species, and numbers have increased, but the American Prairie Foundation notes that because of cross breeding with cattle, “of the 500,000 bison alive today, fewer than 7,000 are non-hybridized.” It considers the species “ecologically extinct.”

Blackfoot Indians chasing buffalo, Three Buttes, Montana, 1853. ARC Identifier 531080

The Plains Indians hunted the buffalo (while buffalo is probably the more widely used word, technically, the species is Bison bison, and so some prefer to call them bison), but the differences between them and the newcomers to the hunt are significant. One big difference: guns. And Indians generally — but not always — as Shepard Kreech explains in “Buffalo Tales: The Near-Extermination of the American Bison” on a  National Humanities Center webpage, used every part of their prey they could, unlike the settlers who killed herds to sell their hides on to distant traders.

Arapaho camp with buffalo meat drying near Fort Dodge, Kansas, 1870. ARC Identifier 518892

Kreech begins his overview of the role of the buffalo in the Plains Indians lives by noting that they ate

an incredible variety of bison parts: meat, fat, organs, testicles, nose gristle, nipples, blood, milk, marrow, fetus.But the buffalo represented more than food. For many it provided over one hundred specific items of material culture. Day or night, Plains Indians could not ever have been out of sight, touch, or smell of some buffalo product. It was the era’s Wal-Mart.

Distributing buffalo hides, ca. 1936. ARC Identifier 285666 The creator of this picture is listed in the bibliographic record as Department of the Interior, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Rosebud Agency. The Rosebud Reservation, part of the Sioux Nation, is in South Dakota.

Hides with and without fur on were used for clothing, moccasins, bedding, and tipi covers. Other parts and their uses included:

  • Hair: ropes, stuffing, yarn
  • Sinew: thread, bowstrings, snowshoe webbing
  • Horns: arr ow points, bow parts, ladles & spoons cups, containers
  • Brains: to soften skins
  • Fat: paint base
  • Dung: fuel, to polish stone
  • Teeth: ornaments
  • Paunch & Large Intestine: containers
  • Penis: glue
  • Compare this to the meaningless slaughter of buffalo from trains:

    ”]Illus. in: Harpers Weekly, v. 2 (1867), p. 792.

    Illus. in: Harper’s Weekly, v. 2 (1867), p. 792. [LC-cph 3b08935]

    or the hunter interested in the securing the largest numbers of hides he could:

    Illus. in: Harpers Weekly, 1874 Dec. 12, v. 18, no. 937. LC-USZ62-55602

    Illus. in: Harper's Weekly, 1874 Dec. 12, v. 18, no. 937. LC-USZ62-55602

    Image with the identifier prefix ARC are from the National Archives; those with LC, the Library of Congress.

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