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How They Killed The Buffalo

July 2024
10min read

In the mid-Ninteenth Century, enormous herds roamed the western plains. In a few years only scattered remnants of these survived.

Stories of the vast size of the buffalo herds that once roamed the Great Plains of the West sound like the imaginings of a Paul Bunyan. They would hardly be credited today except that they were attested by many reliable travelers and by early settlers.

Often the herds of shaggy beasts darkened the whole horizon. In 1832, after skirting the north fork of the Platte River, Captain Benjamin Bonneville climbed a high bluff that gave him a wide view of the surrounding plains. “As far as the eye could see,” he reported, “the country seemed absolutely blackened by innumerable herds.” John K. Townsend, while crossing the Platte Valley, stopped on the rise of a hill to view a similar scene. The whole region, he wrote, “was covered by one enormous mass of buffaloes. Our vision, at the least computation, would certainly extend ten miles; and in the whole of this vast space, including about eight miles in width from the bluffs to the river bank, there apparently was no vista in the incalculable multitude.”

These accounts were matched by others that came from the high plains of northwest Texas. One pioneer there described a herd which he said covered fifty square miles. Another reported that he saw between two and three million buffaloes at one time. A third told of herds that he estimated held four million head. Many frontiersmen, like the Indians, thought there were enough buffaloes to last forever.

Sometimes the herds were so solid that they impeded travel. On the upper Missouri River in the summer of 1867, the steamer Stockdale , in charge of Captain Grant Marsh, was held up while a herd of snorting and bellowing shaggies crossed the stream. The buffaloes became so thick that the boat could not move, and the captain had to stop its engines. Many of the animals became entangled with the wheel, while others beat against the sides and stern, blowing and pawing. It was hours before the whole herd had crossed and the boat could continue its voyage.

Two years later, buffaloes were so thick in western Kansas that an immense herd held up u Kansas Pacific train for nine hours while it crossed the track. As late as the early 1870’s, Texas drovers taking longhorn cattle up the Chisholm Trail had to stop in the Indian Territory to let buffalo herds cross their path. The cowmen feared that the buffaloes would cause the cattle to stampede and that some of the longhorns would join the shaggies.

Many of those who saw the enormous buffalo herds in the West and assumed that they always would be there lived to see the plains cleared of them. Except for a remnant in the north, the whole slaughter was completed in little more than a decade. The near extermination of the buffalo came because his hide was worth a dollar or so to hardy hunters willing to takechances on being scalped by Indians.

For as long as they could remember, the Indians had been hunting buffaloes. The tribes living on the Great Plains were especially dependent on them for their meat, for robes for winter warmth, and for hides used in making tepees. When the early Spanish explorers first saw the buffaloes on the plains, they called them Indian cattle.

Yet the Indians, although sometimes they hunted for pleasure, as a rule killed the buffaloes only when they needed meat or hides. Until the Spaniards brought horses from Europe, the Indians hunted afoot with bows and arrows or with lances, sometimes disguising themselves under wolf skins. After they began to steal horses from the Spaniards and to capture and tame those that had gone wild, they became expert riders and used their mounts in hunting.

“The Indian is a great epicure,” said Colonel Richard Irving Dodge. “He knows the choicest tidbits of every animal and how to cook them to his taste. The great fall hunt yields him the fullest enjoyment of his appetite.” Most of the red men, though, were less patient. The warrior who killed a buffalo likely would cut it open and eat at once the raw liver and some of the other meat.

Some of the early travelers in the West hunted buffaloes for sport as well as for meat. One such was Washington Irving, who, with several companions, went on a buffalo hunt in the Indian Territory in Ortober, 1832. Irving, after several misses, downed an enormous bull with his pistol. He took the tongue on his saddle and carried it back to camp.

A number of European visitors traveled to the West to try their marksmanship on the shaggies. Among them was Sir William Drummond Stewart, who came from Scotland in 1843 to shoot buffaloes. In the Platte Valley he and his party found all they could want—a herd estimated at a million head. On some days when they finished shooting the prairie was strewn for miles with dead animals. [ See “First ‘Dude Ranch’ Trip to the West,” A MERICAN H ERITAGE , February, 1956 .]

The most publicized hunt of this type was that of the Grand Duke Alexis, a son of Czar Alexander II of Russia. Early in 1872 the Grand Duke went by rail to the Kansas frontier town of Hays, where General Philip Sheridan arranged a hunting party. Chief Spotted Tail of the Sioux staged a war dance for the entertainment of the royal visitor, and William F. Cody, better known as Buffalo Dill, coached him on shooting. As soon as Alexis had downed a hull a Io and the other hunters had drunk his health in champagne, he was ready Io return to his private car.

At the time of the Grand Duke’s hunt, the decade of the slaughter of the buffaloes for their hides was about to begin. In that span the vast herds—estimated to have held 75,000,000 head before the Indians acquired horses—were reduced to a fragmentary herd in the north and a few stragglers elsewhere. Already the mounted Indians had begun to trim the size of the herds, especially after they could sell choice robes to white fur traders and mountain trappers.

In the 1840’s the American Fur Company sent large cargoes of robes down the Missouri River to St. Louis. The count included 76,000 robes in 1840 and 110,000 robes and 25,000 tongues in 1848. The skins of the cows only were used for robes, since those of the bulls were too heavy. Meanwhile butchering by the whites was increasing. Pioneer farmers in Kansas and Nebraska killed thousands of buffaloes for their meat. On January 9, 1873, the Wichita Eagle reported, “Choice humps and rounds of buffalo are selling at three cents a pound on our streets.” As early as 1844, Josiah Cregg had viewed with alarm the excessive killing of the buffaloes, and other warnings followed. Yet to most eyes the herds seemed as large as ever.

The start of the great buffalo hunt is linked with the name of J. Wright Mooar, who became the mightiest of the hide men. Mooar, of Scotch ancestry, was born in Vermont in 1851. He traveled west in 1869 and, after working as a horsecar conductor in Chicago and as a carpenter at Rochelle, Illinois, went on to Hays, Kansas, in the fall of 1870. There he chopped cordwood for a government contractor on Walnut Creek, thirty miles south of the fort.

As this was buffalo country, Mooar soon joined in the more lucrative occupation of hunting. With five associates he equipped a small outfit, with two horse teams and one ox team. At that time the market for hides was limited largely to their use in making lap robes. Mooar and his fellows killed for meat. Mooar shipped the hind quarters to Ouincy, Illinois, and to Kansas City, leaving the rest of each carcass, including the hide, to rot on the prairie.

In the winter of 1871-72, Mooar learned from another hunter. Charlie Rath, that the Leavenworth firm of W. C. Lobenstein had an order for 500 buffalo hides. A firm in England wanted them for experimental use in making leather. After Mooar had provided a quota of this order, he had 57 hides left. He shipped the surplus hides to his brother, John Wesley Mooar, who was a clerk in a jewelry store in New York, asking him to see if he could interest tanners in them.

The tanners were so interested that Wright Mooar soon had orders for all the hides he could deliver, and his New York brother went to Kansas to handle the business end of the enterprise. As more tanners discovered that buffalo hides made leather good for many uses, the demand became so great that a whole army of hunters surged into the buffalo ranges.

With Dodge City as the principal outfitting and shipping point, most of the hunters worked in small groups, going out with wagons for hauling back the hides. They used heavy rifles, some of them Sharps made especially for killing buffaloes. In some cases, two hunters worked together, sharing both the shooting and the skinning. In a bigger outfit, two or three expert marksmen might hire a larger number of less skilled men for the more menial work of skinning and drying.

The buffaloes, although suspicious of strange smells, had poor eyesight and were less alert than most game animals. If the hunter approached against the wind, usually he could come close to the herd without being noticed. Often he could kill many of the animals before the others sought safety in flight. Some hunters fired from the saddle, but more preferred to work afoot and thus have steadier aim and take more hides with less ammunition. The hunter tried to shoot the buffalo just behind the shoulder blade and to penetrate the heart. A wounded bull could be dangerous, but usually the rifleman could dodge long enough to place the mortal shot.

One of the Kansas hunters, who hired fifteen skinners, claimed to have killed 1,500 buffaloes in a week, 250 of them in a single day. Billy Tilghman took 3,300 hides in one season. With a long-range Sharps ride, even an ordinary marksman could average fifty hides a day. At one place on the prairie a surveying party found 6,500 carcasses from which the hides had been stripped. The untouched meat had been left to rot or to be devoured by wolves. A Santa Fe railway conductor, J. H. Helton, said he could have walked for a hundred miles along the right of way without stepping off the carcasses. So great, was the slaughter that in 1872 and 1873 the railroads hauled 1,250,000 hides out of Kansas and nearby territory.

This hide hunting, phis the killing of an estimated 350,000 head by Indians in that period, thinned the Kansas herds enough to make further shooting less profitable there. In search of new herds, J. Wright Mooar and John Webb saddled their horses and took a trip through the Texas Panhandle. For five days they rode through a sea of grazing buffaloes.

Their report excited the other hunters, but there was some hesitation because the Medicine Lodge treaty of 1867 had reserved for the Indians all the hunting grounds south of the Arkansas River. On the other hand, Texas, which owned the land now in question, had not been a party to the treaty. Mooar asked advice from the commander of the Third Infantry at Fort Dodge, Richard Irving Dodge.

“Boys, replied the officer. “If I were hunting buffalo I would go where the buffalo are.”

That was enough for the hunters. Willing to risk the danger of Indian scalpers, they quickly formed parties and set out to the south. They were followed in the spring of 1874 by dealers in hunting supplies and hides. The first of these, Charlie Myers, drove south with about forty hunters and teamsters, taking eight wagons and six-yoke teams of oxen. On the Canadian River in the Texas Panhandle he cut cottonwood logs and built a branch of his Dodge City store. This site was a mile and a half fast of the ruins of the Adobe Walls trading post that a party sent out by William Bent had established about 1843. Around the Myers store the men built a corral and a stockade.

Soon afterward another Dodge merchant, Charlie Rath, also arrived to set up a Texas branch. He opened for business in a sod house near the Myers cabin. Next, James Hanrahan, also from Dodge City, came in with a supply of whisky and built a sod-house saloon between the two stores and near the Myers stockade. Then Tom O’Keefe set up a picket house for a blacksmith shop between the saloon and the Rath store. All were ready for business by the first of May, and the newcomers called their village Adobe Walls.

Business flourished with the success of the hide hunters, but danger from Indians was never far away. Hostile warriors, who had killed and scalped several of the hunters in isolated camps, made a concentrated attack on Adobe Walls at dawn on the morning of June 27, 1874. The 700 attackers were mainly from the Cheyenne, Comanche, and Kiowa tribes and were led by Quanah Parker and Lone Wolf. Mooar and others had gone north with hides, but the outpost had 28 men and one woman. The defenders successfully fought off the Indians but lost four men.

Other temporary headquarters of the Texas buffalo hunters in the next few years included Tepee City, on Tepee Creek, and Rath City, near the Double Mountain Fork of the Brazos River. The latter outpost, established by Charlie Rath in January, 1877, lasted until May of the following year. In addition to offering supplies and a market for hides, it had a wagon yard, a Chinese laundry, and a combination saloon and dance hall.

In the middle and late 1870’s the principal Texas headquarters for the hunters was Fort Griffin, on the Clear Fork of the Brazos. From this outpost long wagon trains hauled the hides to Dallas and Denison. One of the trains might include as many as forty wagons, each drawn by six or eight mules. As the hides made light freight, they were piled high and were held in place with poles and ropes. After Fort Worth obtained its first railroad, on July 4, 1876, it became the chief Texas shipping point for hides.

In the winter of 1876-77 an estimated 1,500 hunters were shooting buffaloes on the Texas plains, and by early spring Fort Griffin had about four acres filled with piles of hides waiting for the wagon trains to haul them to Fort Worth. In the latter town, one morning in May, 1877, a reporter noted a caravan of ten wagons coming in. “In front were eleven yoke of oxen driven by one man and dragging after them four large wagons, heavily laden. Two other teams, with seven yoke each, drawing three wagons, followed. There probably were 2,500 to 3,000 hides in the train.”

In the same spring another Fort Worth observer was impressed with one lot of 60,000 hides piled high on a platform near the Texas and Pacific Railroad. During the season, Fort Griffin sent in about 200,000 hides, which brought the hunters about a dollar each. But the peak of the slaughter had passed, and the end was in sight. The hunters had broken up the great southern herd, leaving only scattered remnants.

In the winter of 1877-78 the skinners took more than 100,000 hides in Texas. This virtually wiped out the southern herd. The only noteworthy commercial hunting left was that in the northern plains in the early 1880’s. Like many of his fellows, J. Wright Mooar put away his buffalo guns and turned to cattle ranching in Texas. His careful aim had downed 20,000 of the shaggies in eight years.

The widespread and wasteful slaughter had aroused shocked opposition, especially in the East. Several western states passed laws to curb the killing, but these measures came too late and were not strictly enforced. Realists in the West knew that the buffaloes would have to go before the hostile Indians of the Great Plains could be subdued and the ranges opened for cattle ranching.

Representative James A. Garfield expressed this view in 1874 when, in a debate in Congress, he reported that the secretary of the interior would rejoice, as far as the Indian question was concerned, when the last buffalo was killed. Early in the following year General Phil Sheridan put it even more clearly when he addressed a joint session of the Texas legislature, which was considering a bill to protect buffaloes.

The hunters, said the General, ”…will do more in the next year, to settle the vexed Indian question than the entire regular army has done in the last thirty years. They are destroying the Indians’ commissary.…Send them powder and lead…let them kill, skin and sell until the buffaloes are exterminated. Then your prairies can be covered with speckled cattle and the festive cowboy, who follows the hunter as a second forerunner of an advanced civilization.”

When the hunters had completed their slaughter, only the white bones remained strewn over the plains. Many a pioneer farmer and ranchman eked out his meager income in a drought year by gathering these bones and hauling them in his wagon to the nearest railroad town, where they were shipped off to be made into carbon or fertilizer.

In isolated valleys enough buffaloes were left to let the breed survive and to supply circuses and zoos and those ranchmen who liked to keep a few for sentimental reasons. Today the federal game preserves are so well supplied that every year or two the government has to sell a few hundred head to keep the ranges from being overgrazed. Yet the vast herds have vanished; they roam only in song and story and in the minds of a few old men with long memories.

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