- Historic Sites
How They Killed The Buffalo
In the mid-Ninteenth Century, enormous herds roamed the western plains. In a few years only scattered remnants of these survived.
August 1956 | Volume 7, Issue 5
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.”