Great American Buffalo Slaughter

Within a space of a little more than a decade, the numbers of buffalo roaming the plains of North America were reduced from what may have been as many as thirty million animals to only a few thousand. In addition to driving the buffalo to near extinction, mass killings of the animals destroyed the traditional way of life of the Plains Indians.

Summary of Event

In 1853, an estimated sixty to seventy million buffalo still roamed the plains of North America. Within thirty years, that number was reduced to a few thousand animals. The precipitous decline of the buffalo was the result of human greed, uncontrolled exploitation, and a U.S. government policy. Buffalo;slaughter of
Native Americans;and buffalo[Buffalo]
[kw]Great American Buffalo Slaughter (c. 1871-1883)
[kw]American Buffalo Slaughter, Great (c. 1871-1883)
[kw]Buffalo Slaughter, Great American (c. 1871-1883)
[kw]Slaughter, Great American Buffalo (c. 1871-1883)
Buffalo;slaughter of
Native Americans;and buffalo[Buffalo]
[g]United States;c. 1871-1883: Great American Buffalo Slaughter[4500]
[c]Environment and ecology;c. 1871-1883: Great American Buffalo Slaughter[4500]
[c]Expansion and land acquisition;c. 1871-1883: Great American Buffalo Slaughter[4500]
Cody, William
[p]Cody, William;buffalo hunting

Known to scientists as the American bison, buffalo are the largest land animals native to North America. Before Europeans settled in North America, buffalo ranged from the Rocky Mountains to the Atlantic shoreline and from northern Mexico to southern Canada. Canada;buffalo in The greatest concentration of the animals was on the grasslands of the Great Plains. Buffalo provided the basis for a complete way of life for Native Americans living on the plains. They provided food, clothing, tools, and shelter. An important part of the culture of the nomadic Plains Indians was the buffalo-hide tepee, which could be collapsed quickly and easily transported when communities were ready to relocate. Indians also used hides for blankets, clothing, and shoes. They used the animals’ horns to make utensils, cups, powder horns, toys, Toys;Native American and decorative items. They used buffalo hair to make rope, halters, pads, and other items. They also used other parts of the buffalo to make soaps, oils, cosmetics, glues, bow strings, pouches, and much more. On the largely treeless plains, the dried droppings of buffalo provided fuel for cooking and heating. Throughout history, few human societies have developed cultures that depended on a single species of animal as strongly as the cultures of the Plains Indians depended on buffalo.

On the northern Great Plains, where the terrain was rugged, buffalo herds feeding near cliffs were often driven over precipices by Indian men and boys waving buffalo robes and shouting, an event known as a buffalo jump. Other people then rushed in to butcher as many of the animals as they could. Indians rarely intentionally killed more animals than they needed, but buffalo jumps frequently left more animals dead or dying than their pursuers could handle. Contemporary observers described slaughters of from two hundred to two thousand buffalo in such hunts. However, because of the relatively small numbers of Native Americans in North America and the primitiveness of their weapons, the impact of Indians on buffalo Buffalo;and Native Americans[Native Americans] populations was slight.

After the U.S. Civil War ended in 1865, U.S. Army troops were freed to go west to battle the Cheyennes, Lakota Sioux, Crows, and other tribes on the frontier. Army units contracted with local settlers to supply their troops with buffalo beef for provisions. Workers constructing the new transcontinental railroad Railroads;and buffalo hunting[Buffalo hunting]
Railroads;transcontinental also had to be fed. Contractors included William Cody Cody, William
[p]Cody, William;buffalo hunting , who would become better known as Buffalo Bill, who was probably the best known of all the buffalo killers. Hunters frequently skinned the buffalo, cut out their tongues, and took only small portions of the animals’ meat, leaving the remainder to rot on the prairie.

Dressed hides from animals shot by professional hunters were shipped east to be sold as lap robes for winter sleigh and buggy rides or were turned into overcoats. Highly romanticized stories by eastern writers about the exploits of Buffalo Bill and other buffalo hunters quickly made buffalo robes a status symbol. Demand increased, and ever more buffalo were slaughtered. Often only the animals’ skins were taken, while their carcasses were left to scavengers. Every year, hundreds of thousands of buffalo were killed for food and hides.

Many buffalo were also killed for sport, as it became popular for people to travel to the Great Plains simply to shoot buffalo. The railroads that linked the East and West cut across the ancient north-south routes of the buffalo. The seemingly endless herds were an annoyance to train crews and a temptation to the passengers. When trains were delayed, passengers often fired into the massed animals, killing some and wounding many more. The railroads encouraged this, with advertising to induce people to ride their trains.

Passengers on a Kansas-Pacific Railroad train shooting buffalo in 1871.

(Library of Congress)

It is difficult to obtain accurate data on the number of buffalo slaughtered. Accurate records were rarely kept, and killings took place over a wide area. However, partial statistics can suggest what the overall picture may have been. For example, in western Kansas in 1872, approximately two thousand hide hunters each killed about fifteen buffalo a day. At that rate, hunters were killing thirty thousand buffalo per day in that one small region. As soon as herds in one area were reduced so much that hunting became unprofitable, hunters moved elsewhere, seeking larger herds. An 1869 report noted that during a good year, about 250,000 hides were shipped to the New York market alone. That figure is equivalent to the total number of buffalo estimated to be alive in North America at the turn of the twenty-first century. Total railroad Fur trade;and railroads[Railroads] shipments to the East between 1872 and 1874 were estimated at 1,378,359 hides.

A peculiarity in buffalo behavior made them particularly easy targets for hunters. Although buffalo could be easily stampeded, hunters firing from ambush could pick off the animals one by one without upsetting herds because the animals simply stood where they were as fellow buffalo were shot and dropped around them. Hide hunters called such a shooting “a stand.” Some members of herds simply poked their noses at their fallen comrades and then calmly returned to grazing. Good hunters could kill seventy-five to one hundred buffalo per day. One especially skillful hunter won a bet with other hunters by shooting at a stand from ambush, killing 120 buffalo in only forty minutes.

The slaughter of the buffalo was far from a managed or controlled affair. Hunters indiscriminately shot the adults and subadults. Calves were ignored except, possibly, for camp meat. Unweaned, orphaned calves, not yet able to graze the abundant grasses, were left to starve to death. After one particularly large herd was killed, five hundred to one thousand calves wandered off to starve.

While the introduction of professional hunters alone threatened buffalo with extinction, an even more nefarious threat appeared. The U.S. government took the position that the still-warring Native Americans could be subdued if buffalo were denied to them. The U.S. Army began a program of interdiction of the herds. General Philip H. Sheridan Sheridan, Philip H.
[p]Sheridan, Philip H.;and buffalo slaughter[Buffalo slaughter] spoke out strongly in favor of continuing the slaughter of the buffalo “to settle the Indian question.” Sheridan’s Civil War comrade, General William Tecumseh Sherman Sherman, William Tecumseh
[p]Sherman, William Tecumseh;and buffalo slaughter[Buffalo slaughter] , echoed these sentiments. He stated that the only way to force Native Americans to reservations and turn them into peaceful farmers was to clear the prairies of buffalo. The government further encouraged the slaughter of buffalo by providing free ammunition to hunters.

As early as 1873, significantly fewer buffalo were observed in western Kansas. Kansas;buffalo in Hide hunters moved to the northern Great Plains territories and continued the slaughter. The decline spread throughout the range of the buffalo, and it soon became obvious to most observers that the great herds were gone.

The intensive slaughter for hides was brief, occurring mostly from 1872 to 1874, but the activity extended from 1871 through 1883. Most herds were wiped out within about four years, and the hunters then moved on to other areas. Although a few buffalo survived, their numbers clearly slipped below the level that ecologists regard as a minimum viable population size. For many animals, more than one male and one female are required to begin a breeding population. The great slaughter left the prairies littered with buffalo skeletons. For years, farmers gathered cartloads of bones to sell to fertilizer Fertilizers processors. One bone buyer estimated that from 1884 to 1891, he bought the bones of as many as six million buffalo skeletons.


While the killings were winding down, neither settlers nor Native Americans could believe that the buffalo were really gone. Many settlers thought that the herds had migrated to Canada Canada;buffalo in and would soon return. Native Americans, drawing on their mythologies, believed that the animals had returned to a great cavern in the ground to reappear when the right prayers were said and the right supplications were made. However, the great herds were, in fact, gone. The impact of the hide hunters’ indiscriminate slaughter and the U.S. government’s interdiction policy destroyed not only the buffalo but also the Native American nomadic way of life. Reluctantly, but with resignation, Indians were compelled to become farmers on reservations as the U.S. government had sought. Perhaps the worst blow to the Plains Indians, however, was their loss of the religious and cultural relationship they had had with the buffalo. Their entire civilization and lifeways had been destroyed along with the animals on which they depended.

Only a few scattered buffalo and some in private herds escaped the slaughter. Later, brought together in national parks National parks, U.S.;buffalo in , preserves, and other protected areas, they survived and multiplied. During the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, commercial breeding of buffalo for hides and food was greatly increasing their number. By the year 2005, it was estimated that more than one million buffalo were alive in North America.

Further Reading

  • Carter, Robert A. Buffalo Bill Cody: The Man Behind the Legend. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2000. Popular biography of the most famous buffalo hunter of them all.
  • Dary, David A. The Buffalo Book: The Full Saga of the American Animal. Chicago: Swallow Press, 1974. Detailed account of buffalo in North America. Black-and-white photos, index, bibliography.
  • Foster, John, ed. Buffalo. Edmonton, Canada: University of Alberta Press, 1992. Small collection of papers by specialists in ecology and sociology detailing the relationship between the Plains Indians and the American buffalo. Illustrations.
  • Isenberg, Andrew C. The Destruction of the Bison: An Environmental History, 1750-1920. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Illuminating multidisciplinary study of the natural and human causes of the near-extinction of North American buffalo, which the author believes may have numbered as many as thirty million animals. Illustrations and maps.
  • McHugh, Tom. The Time of the Buffalo. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1972. Factual and readable revision of a professional wildlife biologist’s dissertation. Illustrations, index, and detailed bibliography.
  • Matthews, Anne. Where the Buffalo Roam. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1992. Describes a plan to restore the Great Plains to their natural condition and the buffalo to their former numbers. Illustrations and index.
  • Wetmore, Helen Cody, and Zane Grey. Buffalo Bill: Last of the Great Scouts. Commemorative ed. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2003. New edition of a biography written by Cody’s sister that was originally published in 1899. Includes the original illustrations by Frederic Remington and other notable artists of the Old West.

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