7/28/10 - buffalo

In today's excerpt - the tragedy that ensured the doom of the North American Plains Indian was the unprecedented slaughter of the American buffalo since they had become almost completely dependent on the buffalo for identity, sustenance and supplies:

"The greatest threat of all to the [North American Plains Indian] identity, and to the very idea of a nomadic hunter in North America, appeared on the plains in the late 1860s. These were the buffalo men. Between 1868 and 1881 they would kill thirty-one million buffalo, stripping the plains almost entirely of the huge, lumbering creatures and destroying any last small hope that any horse tribe could ever be restored to its traditional life. There was no such thing as a horse Indian without a buffalo herd. Such an Indian had no identity at all.

"The first large-scale slaughter of buffalo by white men with high-powered rifles took place in the years 1871 and 1872. There had been a limited market for buffalo products before that. Even as far back as 1825, several hundred thousand Indian-tanned robes had made it to markets in New Orleans. There had been demand for buffalo meat to feed the railway workers building the transcontinental railroad in the 1860s, spawning the fame and legend of hunters like Buffalo Bill Cody. But there was no real market for buffalo hides until 1870, when a new tanning technology allowed them to be turned into high-grade leather. That, combined with a new railhead in Dodge City, Kansas, meant that the skins could be shipped commercially.

"For hunters, the economics of the new business was miraculous, all the more so since the animals were so stupefyingly easy to kill. If a buffalo saw the animal next to it drop dead it would not flee unless it could see the source of the danger. Thus one shooter with a long-range rifle could drop an entire stand of the creatures without moving. A hunter named Tom Nixon once shot 120 animals in 40 minutes. In 1873 he killed 3,200 in 35 days, making Cody's once outlandish-sounding claim of killing 4,280 in 18 months seem paltry by comparison. Behind the hunters stood the stinking, sweating skinners, covered head to toe in blood and grease and the animals' parasites. Legendary hunter Brick Bond, who killed 250 animals a day, employed 15 such men. Covered wagons waited at [the trading post of] Adobe Walls to take the stacked skins to Dodge City. Except for the tongues, which were salted and shipped as a delicacy, the carcasses were left to rot on the plains. The profits, like the mass killing itself, were obscene. In the winter of 1871-72 a single hide fetched $3.50.

"Within two years these hunters, working mainly the Kansas plains close to Dodge City, had killed five million buffalo. Almost immediately, they were victims of their own success. By the spring of 1874 the herds on the middle plains had been decimated. The economics of hunting became a good deal less miraculous. As one scout traveling from Dodge City to the Indian territory put it: 'In 1872 we were never out of sight of the buffalo. In the following autumn, while traveling over the same district, the whole country was whitened with bleached and bleaching bones.' Thus the hunters were forced to move farther from the railheads in search of prey. ...

"Surprisingly, only a few voices cried out against the slaughter of the buffalo, which had no precedent in human history. Mostly people didn't trouble themselves about the consequences. It was simply capitalism working itself out, the exploitation of another natural resource. There was another, better explanation for the lack of protest, articulated best by General Phil Sheridan, then commander of the Military Division of the Missouri. 'These men [hunters] have done in the last two years ... more to settle the vexed Indian question than the entire regular army has done in the last thirty years,' he said. 'They are destroying the Indians' commissary ... For the sake of a 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.' Killing the Indians' food was not just an accident of commerce; it was a deliberate political act."


S.C. Gwynne


Empire of the Summer Moon: Quannah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Camanches, the most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History


Scribner a division of Simon & Schuster


Copyright 2010 by S.C. Gwynne


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