How They Killed The Buffalo


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.