Imagine, if you can, 30 million bison grazing across North America as the first European settlers landed at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607. Millions of bison grazed the Great Plains, sometimes in herds twenty miles wide and sixty miles long. A few million lived east of the Mississippi. Some lived in the Rockies, and a small number of bison lived west of the Rockies.
Bison could once be found in at least 40 of the Lower 48 states. So many bison traipsed across North America that they made obvious trails, many connecting grasslands with salt licks. Later, Native Americans improved those bison trails, called traces, and even built villages along some. Explorers and settlers used the traces in their westward travels. Some modern roads still follow the traces left by long-gone bison.
Now consider, if you will, that those once mighty herds were reduced to just 325 wild bison surviving in the Lower 48 by 1884.
How did so many bison vanish in less than 300 years?
Eastern bison were killed to feed settlers and make room for livestock
James Bailey, in American Plains Bison: Rewilding an Icon, estimates that two to four million bison lived east of the Mississippi, including near what is now Washington, DC They ranged from what is now New York to Florida.
The vanishing act in the East began in Virginia in 1730 and moved westward, according to National Park Service data. By the 1770s bison had vanished from most or all of the Carolinas, Alabama, and Florida. By 1808 they had vanished from Ohio, by 1830 from Indiana, and by 1832 from Wisconsin.
In just 100 years they were removed from the East.
Plains bison were killed to make warm bison robes
Though bison had vanished east of the Mississippi, the Great Plains was still home to 15 million more, according to M. Scott Taylor in a working paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research.
The vanishing act on the Great Plains started slowly in the early 1800s as Native Americans traded bison robes with Euro-Americans in the East. A robe was made from the thick and furry winter coat of a bison. Obtaining a robe required hunting bison in the cold and snowy northern states, a tough job that moderated the killing of bison.
Bison were killed to feed railroad workers
But bison killing ramped up with the first transcontinental railroad. The western portion from Council Bluffs, Iowa, to Oakland, California, was built between 1863 and 1869. Once completed, the transcontinental railroad revolutionized the settlement of the West. This railroad line also divided millions of bison into what were called northern and southern herds.
Building the railroad required lots of workers. Those workers required lots of food. And there, grazing nearby were bison, a seemingly endless supply of fresh meat. The animals were easy to kill and many bison hunters did so. In 1867-68 Buffalo Bill Cody, for example, killed 4,280 bison in eighteen months to feed railroad workers.
Bison were killed to fuel an industrial revolution
The killing of bison catapulted to an industrial scale in 1870 with the coming of the Second Industrial Revolution. Just ten years before this industrial revolution, cotton goods and lumber were our young nation’s top industries. Ten years into the industrial revolution, machinery and the iron and steel industries topped the list.
Producing and operating lots of new machinery required lots of leather drive belts. The demand for cattle hides to make drive belts outstripped the supply, writes Mary Ann Franke in To Save the Wild Bison.
But early in the 1870s, according to Taylor’s working paper, tanners in Germany and England developed a process that would turn the seemingly unlimited supply of summer bison hides into useable leather. That leather would become soles for the boots of European armies. That leather would become belts to run machinery in Europe and America. An international demand for bison hides boomed. So did the rifles of thousands of bison hunters.
The slaughter of the southern herd began just south of the first transcontinental railroad in Kansas and southern Nebraska. As bison in those states vanished, hunters headed south to Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico.
From 1872 to 1874, 5,000 bison were killed each and every day of the year, according to US Fish and Wildlife Services data. Ten thousand hunters crowded the plains. Hides went for $1.25 ($26 in today’s value). Tongues brought $.25 ($5 today). A bison hunter could earn more than twenty times what he might earn as a ranch hand. The hide and tongue were taken and the rest of the bison was left to rot on the plains.
By 1874, with the killing of three to five million bison, this slaughter on the southern plains was nearly over. As the supply of bison declined and the industrial demand continued, prices increased. By 1881 each hide fetched $2.50 ($62 today) to $4.00 ($100) each. Profit hungry, hide hunters moved north to slaughter the northern herd in the Dakotas, Wyoming, and Montana.
By 1883 the annihilation in the northern plains was complete and almost all bison in the Lower 48 had vanished.
Bison were killed for sport
Wealthy hunters also took bison just for the thrill of the kill. Dan Flores, writing in American Serengeti: The Last Big Animals of the Great Plains, describes how in 1855 an Irish nobleman, Sir George Gore, “stacked up animals like cordwood—2,500 buffalo and 40 grizzlies alone” in the Powder River drainage in today’s Wyoming,
By the 1870s, the transcontinental railroad carried passengers through the heart of bison country and advertised “hunting by rail” and promoted sport killing of bison.
A smithsonian.com article quotes from an 1867 Harper’s Weekly article that described that killing. “Nearly every railroad train which leaves or arrives at Fort Hays on the Kansas Pacific Railroad has its race with these herds of buffalo; and a most interesting and exciting scene is the result. The train is “slowed” to a rate of speed about equal to that of the herd; the passengers get out firearms which are provided for the defense of the train against the Indians, and open from the windows and platforms of the cars a fire that resembles a brisk skirmish.”
Bison were killed as a means of ethnic cleansing
That smithsonian.com article also describes how in 1867, General William Tecumseh Sherman wrote to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, “We are not going to let thieving, ragged Indians check and stop the progress” of the railroads. He and others believed that if the railroad—and the westward expansion—was to succeed, the Native Americans had to go.
In 1873 the US Secretary of the Interior wrote in his report that we would not regret the total disappearance of bison from the West because of how the loss would impact Native Americans.
In 1875 General Phil Sheridan spoke before the Texas State Legislature as that body debated protecting the state’s few remaining bison. Sheridan proclaimed that once bison were exterminated, the Indians would be controlled and civilization could advance.
After the slaughter, even the bones became valuable
Since only the hides were taken from bison killed for industrial use, tons of carcasses were left to rot on the Great Plains. For a while this benefitted wolves, coyotes, and vultures who dined on the meat.
But another market opened up: the bones of bison were used in refining sugar and making fertilizer. Bison bones were used in place of cattle bones to make fine bone china.
At first, just homesteaders collected bones. But with fewer and fewer bison left to hunt, out-of-work bison hunters became bone pickers.
The USFWS estimates that bone pickers collected the bones of thirty-one million bison in Kansas alone between 1868 and 1881. Pickers were paid on average $8 per ton (about $180 today).
Like the hunt for hides, the bone hunt went from south to north. By 1880 the southern plains were picked clean, says James Bailey, and the bone pickers moved to the northern plains. Finally, all the evidence of the slaughter of 30 million bison had vanished too.
By 1884 only 325 wild bison survived in the Lower 48. This included two dozen hiding deep within Yellowstone National Park where hunting was not allowed.
You may be wondering: “Why didn’t state or federal governments step in and stop the vanishing act?”
There was governmental action—of a sort:
- In 1864, Idaho passed what was probably the first law to protect bison. But bison were already long gone from the state.
- By the early 1870s as bison killing escalated to an industrial scale, other states acted. Wyoming and Colorado passed laws prohibiting the waste of bison meat; neither law was enforced. The Kansas legislature passed a similar law; the governor vetoed it.
- In 1874—while 5,000 bison were being killed every day—the US House and Senate passed a law that would do away with such wanton destruction. President Grant refused to sign the bill.
Perhaps behind the lack of effective governmental action was the drive to expand the nation at any cost to bison. After all, as millions of bison vanished, more grassland became available for farming or raising sheep and cattle. It’s probably not coincidental that just a few years after bison had vanished, the US Census Bureau stated that the western frontier had vanished as well. With bison gone, the West could be called settled.
Today, our nation’s last remaining continuously wild bison—all 5,000 or so of them—are confined in Yellowstone National Park. And each winter hundreds of bison are captured and shipped to slaughter instead of being shipped elsewhere to form genetically pure herds. The irrational treatment and incredible waste of bison has not stopped.
His bestselling In the Temple of Wolves; its sequel, Deep into Yellowstone; and its prequel, The Wilds of Aging are available signed.
His books are also available unsigned or as eBook or audiobook on Amazon.