<< Previous  Next>>

1899 National Zoological Park Washington D.C.

Smithsonian Institution Archives.  Image #2003-19498

1899 School Children Looking at Bison
Viewing the first bison at the National Zoological Park



The Morning Post North Carolina Dec 27 1899

(Scientific America)

One of the most extraordinary events that has characterized the last half of the present century is the extermination, the wiping out of the American bison. There is little use in restoring to invective or endeavoring to stigmatize those who are guilty of this crime, but it would be well if the acts could be held up in a bright light that those who committed them might be excoriated in the crime to come, when a few bones and pictures will alone tell the story of a mighty race swept from the face of the earth by civilized people of the 19th century.
“In 1870, and later” said an Army officer to the writer “the planes were alive with bison, and in crossing at places I had difficulty in avoiding them, so vast where the herds. If anyone had told me then that in 20 or 30 years they would have become almost entirely extinct, I should have regarded the statement as that of an insane person.”
That so many of these animals could have been killed in mere wantonness seems incredible when their vast numbers are realized. We first hear of the bison from Cortez and his followers in 1521. Montezuma had one in a zoological garden, the specimen, in all probability, having been caught in Coahuila. In 1530 Cabeza saw them in Texas; and in 1542 Coronado found a herd in what is now the Indian Territory; one of his officers describing them as horrible beast that demoralized the horses. In 1612 Sir Samuel Argoll observed herds of bison near the national capital, and, in all probability 287 years ago herds of bison grazed on the site of the capital building out Washington. In 1678 Father Hennepin observed them in what is now northern Illinois, and in October 1729 Col. W Bird saw herds and North Carolina and Virginia.
These and other facts have provided data by which the early geographical distribution of the bison has been determined, and it is known that this grand animal, that is today represented by a few individuals, formally arranged in millions from the Atlantic seaboard to the Gulf of Mexico, from Texas to the Great Slave Lake, and as far west as Central Nevada. As to their numbers, they were like the sands of the seashore, and the accounts given by those who hunted them 20 or 30 years ago, today seem like vagaries of a disordered imagination. Mr. Hornaday, who has hunted in South and Central Africa, where game is remarkably plentiful, states that the bison of this country previous to 1870 exceeded, in all probability, all the African game of every kind. An Army officer in service on the plains in 1867 stated to the writer that on one occasion he was surrounded by buffaloes, and that from the top of a small hill he could see nothing but a black mass of their bodies. It was impossible to estimate their numbers, and the party were in great fear lest they should be caught in a stampede, the rush being irresistible.
Col. Dodge in his memoirs, states that on one occasion he rode 25 miles in Arkansas, always being in a herd of buffalo’s, or many small herds, but with one small separating strip between them. The animals paid but little attention to him, merely moving slowly out of the way or advancing, bringing the whole herd of thousands down on him with the roar of an avalanche. This he meant by standing fast and firing when they came within short range, the shot causing them to divide. In one day Col. Dodge killed 26 bison from his wagon; not in sport, but as a protection. Otherwise they would have run him down and crushed man, horses and wagon.
This herd observed by Col. Dodge was later found to be 50 miles wide and to occupy five days in passing a given point on its way north. From a high rock, from which points 10 miles distance could be seen in every direction, the earth seemed to be covered with bison. To make an accurate estimate of the numbers seen would be impossible, but Mr. Hornaday, by a conservative calculation, estimates that Col. Dodge must have seen 480,000, and that the herd comprised half a million buffaloes. A train on the Kansas Pacific Road in that state in 1868 pass between the towns of Ellsworth and Sheridan hundred and 120 miles through a continuous herd of buffaloes. They were packed so that the earth was black, and more than once the train was stopped, the surging mass becoming a menace to human safety.
“ You cannot believe the facts as they existed in the days of 1871 to 1872” said an Army officer. “I was at that time on duty in the pay department, which made it necessary for me to travel on the Atkinson, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad. One day the train entered a large herd, which scattered in seemed to go wild at the shrieking of the whistle and the ringing of the bell. As we went on the thicker they became until the very earth appeared to be a rolling mass of humps so far as we could see. Suddenly some of the animals nearest us turned and charged; others fell in behind, and down on us they came like an avalanche. The engineer stop the engine, let off steam and whistled to stop them, while we fired from the platforms and windows with rifles and revolvers, but it was like trying to stay a tidal wave. We stood in the center of the car to await the crash, some of the men going to the rear. On day came, the earth trembling and plunged heads down into us. Some were wedged in between the cars, others beneath; and so great was the crushed that face toppled three cars over and actually scrambled over them, one buffalo becoming bogged by having his legs caught in the window. Such accidents occurred several times, and twice in one week were trains derailed by charging buffaloes, whose numbers it was impossible to compute. Hunters have heard the roaring of buffaloes at a distance of from 3 to 5 miles, and that the earth trembled when they charged we can well imagine when the large bulls are known to weigh 2000 pounds, the cows 1200 pounds. The question of interest today is how was it possible to destroy so many animals and so short a time and what methods were employed. The natural fatalities were few compared to the enormous numbers. The cow bison displays little affection for her young, and many cabs were lost every year; but, all in all, the conditions were extremely favorable to them, and their increase was enormous. Many were destroyed by stampeding over precipices. In 1867, 2000 buffaloes, or half a herd, became entangled in the quicksands of the Platte River. At another time I heard was lost by breaking through the ice of Lac ui Parle in Minnesota. The cold winters sometimes killed many that remained in the far north, but these dangers were as nothing compared to man. Man soon found that the buffaloes had a value. The Indians slaughtered them by the thousands for their skins, bone and for food; they killed 100 oftentimes to secure five, and waste and prodigality were the rule. Yet so vast were their numbers that doubtless the Indians inroads upon them had little effect so far as extermination is concerned. But with the white man it was different. Some wish to make records, and killed for sport; some killed for the hides and heads; some became professional buffalo butchers to provide the gangs of the railroad men with meat, slaughtering a magnificent animal for its tongue alone. It has been estimated that previous to 1870 nearly ¾ of 1 million buffaloes could have been killed yearly and the herds Contact; how many were killed and wasted will never be known. Each animal, however, had a value at this time estimated by Hornaday at $5.00; the robe, $2.50; the tongue, $.25; hind quarter meat. $2.00; bones, horn in hoofs, 25 cents; and this was sufficient to attract an army of destroyers. The hides were the greatest feature, and one firm in New York between 1876 and 1884 paid the killers nearly 1,000,000 or, to be exact $923,070 for the Robeson hides, which represents the final extinction of the animal. The government never interfered, owing to protest of interested legislators and that neglect of higher officials. Another firm paid 216,004 roads and skins, and there were scores of private traders in the field. The word went out to kill everything in sight, and from 1876 there was a price on the head of every buffalo. It is a dark and disagreeable subject to probe, but it is interesting to note some of the methods of these national calamity makers. A band of half breeds into hunts, according to Ross, killed 47,770 buffaloes, 620 men being engaged in the sport, out of which about 30,000 animals were wasted or partly eaten. Hornaday estimates that 1820 1825 five buffalo expeditions went out, composed of 610 carts each, killing 118,950 buffaloes. From 1825 to 1835 expeditions of 750 carts each, killed hundred and 46,250 buffaloes. From 1830 1875 six expeditions, of 895 carts, killed 171,528,000 animals. From 1835 to 1840 54 expeditions of 1090 carts each, killed 212,530,000 buffaloes. Total number killed by the Red River half breeds alone in 20 years, 652,275, value at three dollars, 261, 375,000. An interesting table has been furnished the government by the firm handled 246,175 skins, costing 924,790. In 1878 they received 41,268 robes; in 1883 5000; in 1884 nine. The end had come, and the buffalo was a memory. Another dealer, Joseph Ullman, states that in 1881 he handled 41,000 robes, at $3.50 and 12,000 at $7.50. In 1882 he purchased 40,000 hides at $3.50 and 10,000 robes at $8.50. The prices hunters received were; cowhide $3.00: bull hide $2.50: yearling 1.50: calves 50 cents. The expense of transportation brought the hide up to $3.50 in New York. This dealer in four years paid out $310,000 to these men, who killed buffaloes by the tens of thousands for $2.50 a head. Both of the above mentioned dealers and eight years paid out $1,233,070 to the exterminators.
That the real extermination of the buffalo was caused by the demands of trade there can be no doubt, aided and abetted by sportsmen, Indians, and others; but the blame really lies with the government that in all these years permitted a few ignorant Congressman to block the legislature in favor of the protection of the bison, so that all the efforts of humanitarians were defeated and the bills when passed pigeonholed.
There were many methods of extermination that are graphically illustrated by paintings and models in the Smithsonian Institution. The still hunter was the most insidious enemy of the, buffalo, and a single man by sneaking up on a herd has been known to kill 1000 in a single season. One Capt. Jack Bridges, of Kansas, has the honorable (?) Record of having killed 1142 buffaloes in six weeks. He took the contract to that affect and bagged his game. Up to 1870 there were undoubtably several millions of buffaloes alive, but the just for blood was on and soon came the demand for Robeson hides from the dealers, and men could not make a living at anything else went out to kill buffaloes. In the different states there were regular killing outfits that cost, in rifles, horses, carts, etc. from $2000 to $5000. Such methods developed some famous charters. Buffalo Bill was one. He contracted with the Kansas Pacific Railroad to furnish them with all the buffalo the men could eat as the road was built; and, according to Mr. Cody’s statement they ate 4,280 buffaloes in 18 months, for which he received $500 per month the price he paid for his title.
Many buffaloes were killed by running them down: this was the popular method among the Indians who shot them with rifle or bow and arrow, or chase them over precipices. The great herds north of the Missouri were mostly exterminated by the Indians of the Manitoba Red River settlement, who hunted them in a regular army. One division of such an army or exterminators consisted of 603 cards, 700 half breeds, 200 Indians, 600 horses, 200 oxen, and 400 dogs. The movements against the buffaloes in Nebraska were often made by 3000 people, and each man killed at least 10, 30,000 buffaloes bit the dust. In this way Indians as above killed, it is estimated, 652,000 buffaloes.
The completion of the Western railroads divided the buffaloes into two herds, northern and southern. In 1871 the southern herd was composed of an estimated 3 million and from now on the animals dropped the waves so rapidly that it was estimated that 3000 or 4000 a day were killed; it became evident that they were doomed and appeals were made to the government by hundreds. From 1872 to 1874 there were 1,780,461 buffaloes killed and wasted;3,158,780 in all killed by white people and the skins shipped east over the Atkinson, Topeka, and Santa Fe road. During the same time the Indians 390,000; besides these settlers and mounted Indians killed 150,000, so that the grand sum total for these years was 3,698,780. In the following year, 1875, the deed was done. The southern herd had been swept from the face of the year; the northern herd it went in the same way. In 1882 it was believed that there were 1000-0 buffaloes alive in the herd, but there were at least 5000 white hunters in the field shooting them down at every point. Such a merciless war of extermination was never before witnessed in a civilized land. Then came 1883; thousands took the field this year and Sitting Bull and some whites had the honor of killing the last 10,000. There were living at the last government census, made eight years ago, 236 pure blooded buffaloes in captivity, the last of the untold millions that covered this continent during the past.