- Historic Sites
Prelude To War:
The Slaughter of the Buffalo
February 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 2
to settle the vexed Indian question than the entire regular army has done in the past thirty years. They are destroying the Indians’ commissary … for the sake of lasting peace, let them kill, skin, and sell until the buffaloes are exterminated. Then your prairies can be covered with speckled cattle and the festive cowboy, who follows the hunter as a second forerunner of an advanced civilization.
As Phil Sheridan was the commander of the military division in which the slaughter was taking place, it seemed unlikely that the buffalo runners would meet any opposition from the Army; indeed, the soldiers enjoyed a buffalo hunt as much as anybody, and they did not even take the hides; they were just after the sport. As early as the campaigns of the i86o’s the men under Colonel George A. Custer, operating as part of Sheridan’s famous “winter campaign,” divided into small squads to see which could kill the most buffalo in one day. Tallies were kept by cutting out the animals’ tongues (later fed to camp dogs), and the rule was that the losers had to fix dinner for the others.
With the Army standing idly by, the “dead line,” once accepted as the Arkansas River and then moved south to the border of the Indian Territory, was moved south yet again in 1873, on a de facto basis, all the way to the next large river south of the Arkansas, the Cimarron. That meant that the Indians had lost all control over what had been the reservation given them at Medicine Lodge, of which the Cimarron was the southern boundary. They were left to look for game in lands to the south and west.
For the voracious buffalo runners the 1873 killing season on the Cimarron was so successful that the Great Southern herd was depleted to the point where it would never again migrate north of the Canadian River, which at the Texas panhandle meridian is some one hundred miles south of the Cimarron. To gain any sense of the proportion of the slaughter one need only trace the carnage on a map: from the Arkansas to the border of the Indian Territory to the Cimarron to the Canadian, the prairies denuded of their thundering black herds and left silent and white, with millions of skeletons bleaching in the sun—all in the space of the three years 1872-74. The Indian tribes reeled before the juggernaut.
Totally heedless of what this would mean to the Indians, the hunters began to lay plans for the 1874 hunt on the Canadian. That, however, meant a hundred miles deeper penetration into the Indian Territory, a forbidding foray to even the bravest of them. Since none of them wished to isolate themselves in the middle of hostile Indian country, two of the plainsmen, Wright Mooar and John Webb, rode south of the territory into the panhandle of Texas, where very little hunting had ever been done except by the Comanche and Kiowa Indians, to investigate rumors that the prairies there were still grazed by huge and untouched herds of buffalo. Mooar and Webb did indeed find the herds and on their return reported that they had ridden through “an almost solid mass” of buffalo.
At this time, in the fall of 1873, the Kansas hunters began to worry that the Army might for once try to hinder their crossing Indian land, and sent emissaries in the persons of Wright Mooar and another hunter, Steele Frazier, to Major Dodge, the commander of Fort Dodge, whose job it was to patrol the border. Anxious to make a good impression on the major, Mooar and Frazier bathed (reputedly an extreme measure for a buffalo hunter) and wore brandnew suits of clothes to the interview. As he later reported, Mooar’s specific question to Dodge was “Major, if we cross into Texas, what will be the government’s attitude towards us?” Even to cross Indian land was illegal by the terms of the Medicine Lodge Treaty, but it was the only way to get from Kansas to Texas, and besides it could be argued, technically, that a crossing would not be illegal if it were made over the so-called no man’s land to the west of the actual Cheyenne-Arapaho reservation. On the other hand, they would have no license to hunt there, and Texans might feel differently about shooting their buffalo—not because the Texans were against killing buffalo, but because the presence of buffalo in the panhandle helped keep the Kiowas and Comanches out of central Texas settlements. Mooar and Frazier soon found their caution unnecessary, however. Major Dodge, himself a sportsman and hunter, received them warmly and finally confided: “Boys, if I were a buffalo hunter, I would hunt where the buffaloes are.” And thus was formalized the unwritten alliance between the hidemen and the United States Army.
The buffalo runners therefore agreed to carry out the next season’s hunt high on the “Staked Plains” (El Llano Estacado) of the Texas panhandle, the vast, grassy plateau that rises abruptly from the flat lowlands. This would put them west of the Indian Territory and outside the Indians’ hunting reserves, the northern part of which of course they had already depleted. Theoretically, the Indians should have no quarrel with them, except for the brief but necessary trespass, if indeed it were a trespass. The hunters knew, however, the Indians would not see it that way. As far as the Indians were concerned, all the buffalo south of the Arkansas River were theirs, and the whites had stolen from them. The heat for revenge was high; the presence of white hunters among the last herds of buffalo on the South Plains would likely touch off a savage Indian war, and the hunters knew it.