The Slaughter of the Bison
Nature Bulletin No 324-A December 7, 1968
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Richard B. Ogilvie, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation
THE SLAUGHTER OF THE BISON
The extermination of the bison was inevitable. The plains and prairies
that supported those roaming herds of huge beasts are now dotted with
cities and towns, crossed by a network of railroads and highways,
plowed to produce vast acreages of wheat, corn, cotton and other crops,
or fenced and grazed by millions of cattle and sheep. We should be
ashamed of the cruel senseless waste when they were slaughtered and
left to rot but the cold fact is that the buffalo were doomed by
Until we came, the Indian was still living in the Stone Age. His
weapons were primitive, his needs were simple, and until horses
appeared -- wild descendants of those left behind by the early Spanish
explorers -- his only domestic animal and beast of burden was the dog.
At least nine tribes of Plains Indians, such as the Sioux-and Comanche,
were nomads who depended almost entirely upon the buffalo, but they
killed no more than what they could use -- usually less. To several other
tribes, like the Pawnee and Kansas, who lived in villages and grew
corn, tobacco and other crops, the buffalo was less essential. That was
even more true of the eastern "woodland" Indians.
The typical Plains tribes attempted no agriculture and made no pottery.
There culture, including their religion and mythology, was based wholly
upon the bison which furnished them with food, clothing, weapons,
tools, utensils and shelter. Their teepee was a conical framework of
long slender poles covered with dressed buffalo hides. They used every
part of the animal. Its flesh was their chief food, supplemented by
berries, edible roots, and by corn obtained from other tribes. The tongue
was a delicacy and the liver was eaten raw. The surplus meat was dried
into "jerky" to be eaten in emergencies or pulverized and mixed with
tallow, marrow and berries to make pemmican. The brains were used in
preparing skins for robes, moccasins, leggings, shirts, parfleches and
bags. Buffalo hides were stretched over the frames of saddles, shields,
and the tub-like "bullboats" for crossing rivers. Spoons and other
articles were made from the horns which, with the hoofs, also furnished
glue. Small bones were used for needles and awls; larger ones for
weapons; shoulder blades for hoes. Buffalo droppings or "chips " were
the principal fuel on those treeless plains.
The wholesale slaughter of the bison began after the Civil War, at first
for their meat -- of which only the tongue, hump and hindquarters were
used. During the 70's and early 80's, millions were killed for their hides
alone, and the carcasses left to rot. As the railroads penetrated the West,
they advertised cheap excursions for "sportsmen" who liked to see how
many buffalo they could kill in one day. Eventually the bones, which in
many areas covered the plains as far as one could see, were gathered by
nesters (homesteaders), and a strange wild breed of men called
"bonepickers", shipped East, and used for fertilizer or to make charcoal
for refining sugar. Then there was nothing left of the buffalo But a
memory. In l900 there were only about 800 left alive.
The Indians bitterly resented this destruction which meant the end of
their way of life. There were years of terrible massacres and bloody
warfare, especially with the Comanche and the Sioux. Their ultimate
defeat was hastened by the extermination of the buffalo, urged and
aided by Gen. Phil Sheridan and the U.S. Army. Today, by careful
management, there are about 25,000 bison in parks, reservations and
zoos in the United States and Canada.
And a hybrid of the buffalo with domestic cattle -- the Catalo.
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Update: June 2012