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The Decimation of the American Bison

I’ve unpacked The American Buffalo in Transition by J. Albert Rorabacher.  It’s available on kindle as well, and it is a good read.  In his chapter “The Decimation of the American Bison” Rorabacher does explain how 60 million bison were reduced to well under a thousand during the 19th century – and he explains the hunting pressures that made it so possible.

“History records that the last free-roaming buffalo east of the Mississippi was killed in the early 1830’s and the majority were gone well before this.” (30) West of the Mississippi it was still the fur trade – but as beaver hats went out of fashion, buffalo robes became a source of income – “As early as 1820, the Red River Settlement, a prosperous trading post on the Red River in Manitoba, Canada, began sending out annual buffalo hunting expeditions.  In the first year alone the hunters filled over 500 carts with robes of buffalo.” (34)  By 1840 the American Fur Company posts had sent 67,000 robes to St. Louis; and in 1848 110,000 robes and 25,000 tongues were sent to St. Louis.”  “So efficient were the Red River hunters that they annually brought in over 500,000 robes.”  By 1847 nearly all the buffalo had been killed in the area of the northeastern Dakota Territory, Minnesota, Manitoba and parts of Saskatchewan.” (35)

“Preference was given to the killing of bison cows, for their hides were of higher quality and more easily worked than those of the bulls, and when desired, the meat from the cows was far more tender.  The year-round killing of bison cows drastically lessened the birth potential of the herds.  Thus, it was almost impossible for the herds to replenish even a small portion of their reduced number.” (42)

Here, Rorabacher shows how the robe trade from the 1840’s onward was setting the stage for the market hunters to move the buffalo into near-extinction.  With each year, the herds become increasingly composed of old bulls.  That time, in the 1840’s, when hunting for robes was both a white and an Indian occupation set the stage – yet the herd numbers were still large, and nobody was noticing.  

In 1871, a tanning process was developed that allowed hides from the old bulls to be processed into drive belts that would power the developing industrial state – and the market hunters, with the Sharps and Rolling Block Remingtons were ready to assist.  Until 1871, the market picked off the cows for robes.  With the new tanning processes, hides went up to as much as $3.00 each.

“The most intense killing of bison, particularly in the Southwestern United States, occurred between 1871 and 1874,  At this time, hides could be sold for $1.25 apiece.”  (43). . . Colonel R. I. Dodge estimated that white hunters killed five buffalo for every hid that reached a market. (44)

By 1876 there were virtually no buffalo in the southern herd, and by 1880 the last buffalo of the once great southern herd was killed.” (44)  “When the Northern Pacific railroad opened the hitherto unsettled lands, of the northern Great Plains, the slaughter of the Northern herd greatly increased . . . in 1882 there were 5,000 or more white hide hunters and skinners actively searching out the buffalo of the northern herd. (45)  In 1887, there remained roughly 541 buffalo in the entire United States. (49)

Rorabacher’s explanation makes sense of how the near-extinction of the buffalo occurred.  The robe hunters had been selecting for more bulls in the herd composition for at least 40 years.  The technology shift that made the bull hides valuable for drive belts to power American industry came at a near perfect time, and the Northern Pacific was the final addition that all but wiped out the species.

I wish I could tell you where to get a hardcover of The American Buffalo in Transition – but Kindle copies are available, and it is a book worth having.

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