"When the buffalo are extinct they, too, must dwindle away." Francis Parkman
Slaughtered for the hide, Harper's Weekly 12th December 1874
“The suddenness of it all was appalling. As much as it strains today’s imagination, the white men slaughtered their buffalo in hundreds of thousands, utterly obliterating in one season’s kill the southern Kansas herds on which the Cheyennes and Arapahoes had, in large measure, subsisted.” (1).
“they kill my buffalo, and when I see that, my heart feels like bursting. I feel sorry….. has the white man become a child that he should kill recklessly and not eat? When the red men slay game they do so that they live and not starve.” (2)
Between 1872 and 1873 over three million buffalo were killed. The reason was purely economic, but the result was to destroy the basis of the way of life of the peoples who inhabited the area where the annihilation took place: the southern plains.
“Everything the Kiowas had came from the buffalo. Our tipis were made of Buffalo hides, so were our clothes and moccasins. We ate buffalo meat. Our containers were made of hide, or of bladders or stomachs. The buffalo were the life of the Kiowas.” Old Lady Horse, Kiowa (3)
Before 1870 some buffalo were killed by the new Americans but the impact on the numbers of the buffalo was minimal. Some were shot for sport, some out of ennui from passing trains, others were shot for meat, for example to feed railroad workers.
“Large private hunts could be arranged for people of sufficient importance or money. Several with important guests came out to hunt under the guidance of the Wild Bill Hickock of the romantic magazine and newspaper stories.” (4)
The effect on the vast herds of all this was negligible.
William F Cody, was employed to supply the Kansas Pacific railroad with meat in 1867. He was reckoned to have killed 4,862 in eight months, thereby earning his nickname, “Buffalo Bill”. But even he could hardly have made any noticeable difference in their numbers.
Cody, operating before the introduction of the Sharps in 1870, used a Springfield ‘needle gun’, so named because of their long firing pins, and used a technique similar to the native Americans in which he contained the herd within a valley. Once the lead buffaloes were shot the others turned back and were then encouraged to mill about aimlessly in a circle by shooting any deviating from the circling movement. Where native Americans achieved a modest degree of success with bows and arrows, Buffalo Bill was deadly in his efficient despatch of the magnificent beasts.
“On this morning the buffaloes were very accommodating, and I soon had them running in a beautiful circle, when I dropped them thick and fast, until I had killed thirty-eight; which finished my run.” (5)
A technical advance in weaponry made it possible for the slaughter to take place far enough away that there was little chance of the buffalo being warned by the scent of the exterminators. The 0.50 calibre Sharps rifle was capable of being reasonably accurately fired over distances of nearly a mile. The effect on the herd of some of their number falling over for no apparent reason was one of disinterest or mild curiosity. They did not have the faculty to reason what had happened, nor the reflex of an early warning system built up by previous experience. The result was devastating, and not just for the animals themselves, for it meant that the hunters no longer had to “run” the animals to kill them. They did not have to “hunt” at all. This misnomer was recognized in the term they applied to the proceedings: a “stand”. The “Big Fifty” rifle, complete with telescopic sight was mounted on top of a tripod to give a steady aim.
“One hunter, Wylie Poe, who operated out of Fort McKavett, Texas, once killed ninety animals in a single stand without moving. Another famous hunter, Orlando “Brick” Bond, normally killed 250 beasts per day, keeping fifteen skinners busy in his wake.” (6)
Regardless of the actual truth behind these claims, clearly the effect of the new method of killing them was ruthless and unrelenting. Such a rate of slaughter was hardly necessary before 1870 because there was no economic reason to kill buffalo, let alone kill them in large numbers. The change came in 1871 when a new method of tanning the buffalo hide was developed and suddenly what had been of limited use became a product in demand. Just as the hunting of beaver for their fur had been clinically efficient until their population was decimated by 1840, a similar fate now befell the buffalo, in an even shorter period of time. The new tanning method was developed in New York by Wright Moar, when his brother John Moar sent him about fifty buffalo hides which he had collected with the help of a buffalo hunter named James White. This opened up the possibility for great profit to be made. Before this the buffalo hide could only be used with the hair on, tanning them took a long time and was very hard work, for it did not break down easily.
Once the process had been developed, in 1871 the buffalo hunters set up a group of buildings made of sod turves five miles west of Fort Dodge on the Santa Fe Trail. The name initially given to this town gave away its raison d’ être: Buffalo City, A few months later when the railroad reached it, it had become Dodge City and now became the centre of the trade, transporting the hides back east to be tanned. William Blackmore, an English traveller, had observed in 1867
“an almost unbroken herd of buffalo. The plains were blackened with them, and more than once the train had to stop to allow unusually large herds to pass.” Five years later they were still very much in evidence:
“In 1872 we were never out of sight of the buffalo. In the following autumn, while travelling over the same district, whilst the whole country was whitened with bleached and bleaching bones, we did not meet with buffalo until we were well into Indian country, and then only in scattered bands…. There was a continual line of putrescent carcasses so that the air was rendered pestilential and offensive to the last degree. The hunters had formed a line of camps along the banks of the river (Arkansas) and had shot down the buffaloes, night and morning, as they came to drink. I counted sixty-seven carcasses in one spot covering four acres.” (7)
This ‘Indian country’ was what had been ‘guaranteed’ as hunting land by the Treaty of Medicine Lodge Creek. The hunters knew this and at first they held back from crossing the Arkansas. However, once northern Kansas had been cleared greed reasserted itself and gradually the buffalo hunters became braver, crossing the Arkansas river and venturing as far as the border of Kansas with Indian territory. Here the eastern extremity of ‘Indian territory’ was a narrow buffer zone before the Red River and Texas would be reached. Aware of the Medicine Lodge Creek treaty they were reluctant to take the flagrant step of crossing into the Texas Panhandle. But despite the wariness of the hunters, the US army had no intention of upholding the terms of the treaty in favour of the Indians, who were left to harass the hunters on their own. Wright Moar and Steele Frazier scrubbed up and visited Fort Dodge to test the army’s reaction to further encroachment. After trying to find out by oblique questioning without success Wright Moar asked a direct question:
“Colonel, if we cross into Texas, what will be the government’s attitude towards us?”
Colonel Richard Irving Dodge’s answer made it abundantly clear:
“Boys,” said the Colonel, “if I were a buffalo hunter, I would hunt where the buffalo are.” (8)
In saying so Colonel Dodge was merely expressing in practical terms the policy of the US army leaders like Sherman and Sheridan.
“They (the hunters) have done more …to settle the vexed Indian question than the entire regular army…. For the sake of lasting peace, let them kill, skin and sell until the buffalos are exterminated” General Philip Sheridan (9)
The hunters did not have to ask twice. In spring 1874 they moved further south to the Canadian River, deep into the Texas Panhandle and built a base near the old settlement of Adobe Walls. Buildings and a corral were constructed of the chiefly available material: sod turves. In doing so this completely negated the terms of the Treaty of Medicine Lodge Creek. Only seven years earlier, in 1867, this had ‘guaranteed’ the whole area to the north of the Canadian as hunting lands of the native Americans of the southern plains. Now it had been or was about to be stripped of buffalo. The demise of the southern Cheyenne, Arapaho, Comanche and Kiowa was nearly complete. All that remained was for them to unite to fight back in one last ditch struggle which came to be known as the Red River War.
1. James Haley, The Buffalo War 1874, page 24
2. Satanta, Kiowa, Dee Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, page 195
3. Lee Miller, From the Heart, page 229
4. Mari Sandoz, The Buffalo Hunters, page 85
5. Buffalo Bill Cody, Autobiography
6. Comanches, T R Fehrenbach page 523
7. James Haley, The Buffalo War 1874, pages 23 and 24, Andrist page 181
8. James Haley, The Buffalo War 1874, page 27
9. Lee Miller, From the Heart, page 228