- Historic Sites
Prelude To War:
The Slaughter of the Buffalo
February 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 2
Although curiously neglected by historians, the Buffalo War of 1874-75 was according to General Philip Sheridan, who engineered it, “the most successful of any Indian campaign in the country since its settlement by whites.” By the end of it three of America’s most powerful Indian tribes—the Cheyennes, the Kiowas, and the Comanches—had been subjugated, the bison had been exterminated from the South Plains, and white settlers could move freely into former Indian lands that stretched from central Kansas to central Texas.
By the terms of the Medicine Lodge Treaty, solemnly signed by the South Plains Indians in 1867, the United States government had pledged itself to protect the Indians from exactly such “successes” in return for the tribes’ promises to move onto designated reservations. It was not the Indians who first broke the promises.
In a forthcoming book, The Buffalo War , James L. Haley examines the intolerable pressures that forced the Indians back on the warpath at the tiny Texas town of Adobe Walls and along the Red River just seven years later. This thoughtful, disturbing book, from which the following article is adapted, will be published by Doubleday & Company next month.
The train of events leading up to the Red River uprising begins three years after the treaty council at Medicine Lodge, in the fall of 1870, when a young New Englander named Josiah Wright Mooar came west and founded the business of hunting buffalo for hides. Barely nineteen years old, blond, blue-eyed, just under six feet tail, he arrived in Fort Hays, Kansas, filled with visions of “the grandeur and dangers of the Wild West.” The realities of the world caught up with him there, however, and he was obliged to support himself by the disappointingly unromantic job of supplying the local army post with wood, for which he was paid two dollars per cord. At Fort Hays he made friends with one James White, whose not too dissimilar task was to keep the post commissary stocked with meat. White was a buffalo hunter, and like all the others he took only the choice cuts, leaving the rest of the carcass, including the hide, lying on the prairie. White and the many other buffalo hunters on the Great Plains had made some noticeable inroads in the tremendous herds of buffalo, but still the animals numbered so many millions that they blanketed vast stretches of country.
Mooar and W7hite often talked of the waste of skins, wondering if perhaps they would not be profitable as leather. A market had been growing back east for furry buffalo robes to use as sleigh blankets, for instance, and Indians had certainly tanned buffalo leather for centuries; but Mooar and White’s idea remained merely speculation until an English firm made a contract with a Leavenworth, Kansas, robe and meat trader for five hundred hides. This company was interested in experimenting on the skins for tanning, and a subcontract fell to a hunter named Charlie Rath, who in turn contacted his friends, among them Wright Mooar. The youngster from Vermont fulfilled his part of the quota and found himself with a surplus of fifty-seven hides; he sent the skins to his elder brother, John Wesley Mooar, in New York, to try to sell locally.
The hides were something of a novelty in New York, and they were to be put on display until they were purchased. Two tanners from Pennsylvania saw them being hauled down Broadway in an open wagon and later in the day called on the elder Mooar. They offered him $3.50 apiece for the hides, which Mooar accepted readily, and a fewweeks later they contacted him again. They said they had experimented on the skins and were satisfied that they were useful, and inquired whether the Mooars would be interested in a contract for two thousand skins at $3.50 apiece, a total of seven thousand dollars. John Wesley instantly left New York for the Great Plains, and the Mooar brothers began hunting buffalo on a larger scale than anyone ever had before.
Though the Mooars started a couple of jumps ahead of the pack, the promise of easy, fast money to be had by preying upon the huge herds of buffalo attracted opportunists as surely as the rotting buffalo carcasses attracted flies; the business fairly exploded. Dodge City, Kansas, became the center of the trade, and perhaps the best records of the carnage were preserved by the commander of the local military post, Major Richard Irving Dodge: in 1873 alone the three rail lines serving Dodge City carried away over three quarters of a million hides, “exclusive of robes”; the figure for the three years 1872-74 totals an incredible 4,373,73o buffalo killed. That figure, said Dodge, was for the rail exports alone; other uses added at least a million more to the total.
Though the Indians to the south abhorred the wanton slaughter, they made no concerted move to stop it, as the depredations were confined to lands north of the Arkansas River. Land to the south of the Arkansas was considered Indian hunting ground, a limitation the hide hunters respected, at least in the early years of the Medicine Lodge Treaty. Their restraint was due principally to two factors: the abundance of buffalo still left in the north of Kansas and the ferocity of the Indians south of the Arkansas and in the Indian Territory.
William Blackmore, writing in 1877, recalled that