- Historic Sites
Prelude To War:
The Slaughter of the Buffalo
February 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 2
in the autumn of i 868 [one year after the signing of the Medicine Lodge Treaty], whilst crossing the plains on the Kansas Pacific Railroad—for a distance of upwards of 120 miles, between K.llsworth and Sheridan [far to the north of the Arkansas RiverJ we passed through an almost unbroken herd of buffalo. The plains were blackened with them, and more than once the train had to stop to allow unusually large herds to pass. A few years afterwards, when travelling over the same line of railroad, it was a rare sight to see a few herds of from ten to twenty buffalo.
In 1873 a plague of grasshoppers destroyed the settlers crops in the Republican River Valley, again far to the north of the Arkansas. Although Mooar and the others had been in business only three years, when the Army sent several companies of troops to provide buffalo meat to keep t lie farmers from starving, they found to their great consternation that there were virtually no buffalo leit. The Mooars and the swarms of buffalo hunters who followed them were doing their business with unbelievable efficiency. As far as the Arkansas River hunting boundary was concerned. William Blackmore went with an army scouting party on a trip along the Arkansas east of Fort Dodge in 1872. They found, he wrote later, ”…a continuous line of putrescent carcasses, so that the air was rendered pestilential and offensive to the last degree. The hunters had formed a line of camps along the banks of the river, and had shot down the buffalo, night and morning, as they came to drink.”
But none of the hunters dared cross the river, and the “dead line” (as it was called) held. For the first five years of the treaty (to 1872), to cross the Arkansas with buffalo guns and a wagon was to risk a horrible death at the hands of the Indians. A few desperate or greedy men did chance it, but then only in winter, when the Indians seldom left their camps, and with light, strong wagons and fast horses. And even then a number of them were picked off and scalped; it was obvious that the tribes of the South Plains had been- driven back as far as they intended to go.
Only after the northern Kansas buffalo herds were gone did the hunters venture in force into the Indian hunting ground south of the Arkansas; they went down as far as, but rarely crossed, the boundary between the state of Ransas and the Indian Territory. In one season they mowed down the south Kansas buffalo like a scythe. On a scout from Dodge City to the Indian Territory, Blackmore recorded that “in 1872 … we were never out of sight of buffalo. In the following autumn, while travelling over the same district, whilst the whole country was whitened with bleached and bleaching bones, we did not meet with buffalo until we were well into Indian country, and then only in scattered bands.”
The suddenness of it all was appalling. Much as it strains today’s imagination, the white men obliterated in one season’s kill the south Kansas herds on which the Cheyennes and Arapahos had, in large measure, subsisted. The Indians were powerless before the onslaught of an entire army of buffalo runners, as the hidemen called themselves, and had retreated to the sanctity of their reserve, where, the government promised them, white men would not—could not—follow. But follow they did, and with more alacrity than when they crossed the Arkansas. During the year the south Kansas buffalo were exterminated, Cheyenne and Arapaho war parties still managed to drive off those of the whites’ hunting outfits that crossed the border into the “exclusive” domain of the Indians, but by the next year, 1873, raids on the Indians’ stocks became more and more frequent, and the Indians, fighting now within their own territory, became less and less capable of fending off the tide of poachers.
Under the terms of the Medicine Lodge Treaty the United States Army was supposed to be patrolling the Kansas-Indian Territory boundary to see that nobody crossed. The troops were indeed watching over the border, but from an early date they had worked out a happy arrangement with the hunters to look the other way whenever the latter made a foray into the forbidden country. The prevalent view of the army men was best summed up by General Philip Sheridan when in 1875 he urged a session of the Texas legislature to defeat a conservation bill that would have preserved the buffalo from extinction. The hidemen “have done more in the last two years,” he said,