What Happened to the Buffalo?
Dickinson, October 20, 1883
Buffalo hunters returned here yesterday with excellent reports from the fall hunt. A single herd of 10,000 buffalo moved north through the Standing Rock Reservation in late September and the local hunters waited impatiently for the “buffs” to move off the reservation.
Eight hundred Lakota from Standing Rock burned the prairie grass along the reservation line in order to keep the herd away from the white hunters. A local rancher has complained that he Indians were “so bold as to ride up and fire the prairie right in front of our men who were trying to put the fires out.” The fires have been raging south of Dickinson since September 20. Local authorities expect the flames to spare the town.
The white hunters claim that in three days of hunting the Indians killed a total of 5,000 of the buffalo. However, the women skinned and butchered only one-tenth of the animals and then the hunting contingent returned to the reservation on orders from Agent James McLaughlin. Ranchers and Lakota were “scowling at each other,” with numerous confrontations. McLaughlin responded to fears in Mandan that trouble could break out near the reservation line over hunting rights.
After the Lakota left, the commercial hunters met the remaining buffalo with a hail of bullets. Vic Smith and his partner Frank Chase, based in Dickinson, reported great success. Smith, known as the “Champion Shot of the Dakotas,” stated that when the smoke cleared, he and a host of white hunters had killed nearly all of the remaining 5,000 buffalo. He declared that “when we got through with the hunt there was not a hoof left.”
Hunters are getting extremely good prices on even ordinary buffalo robes. Robes that normally sell for two dollars are bringing six to seven dollars each. The robes are especially favored in the East for keeping sleigh-riders warm on even the coldest nights.
Perhaps as many as ten to twenty buffalo escaped the white and Lakota hunters. Survivors may be hiding in the Badlands of the Little Missouri River. Hunters in Montana report that the buffalo are scarce or very scarce, with no herds sighted.
Some hunters believe that the herd may have been the last remaining outside of Yellowstone National Park. Chief Sitting Bull told a reporter, “We were taught to live on buffalo, but I am told they are nearly all killed. I would like to have that killing stopped if I could.”
The Native people believed that the Great Spirit had given them the buffalo for food. The Tatonka, as they were called by the Lakota, defined the life, culture and future of the people. Tatonka is a great gift from the Great Spirit.
The buffalo herds were mammoth before the arrival of whites. The best comparison likened their numbers to the number of fish in the sea. When a herd migrated north or south in search of new forage, they formed a solid mass for ten miles or more. Estimates of their total numbers at their peak population range from fifty to one hundred-twenty million animals in North America.
Before horses were used for hunting, the Indians would drive buffalo off cliffs, herd them into miry swamps or sneak up on them disguised as wolves. Cliff sites, known as buffalo jumps, were used near Dickinson, Killdeer and at many points in the Badlands. The native people used all parts of the buffalo and would camp for months near a kill site, processing the meat into pemmican and the hides into clothes and tipis. The robes provided a soft mattress in summer and a warm cover in winter.
Horses, lost by the Spaniards in the sixteenth century, made the buffalo more accessible. The Great Plains tribes became some of the world’s greatest horseman and used that skill in buffalo hunting.
The Indians never could take more buffalo than the natural increase of the herds. However, the Americans were able to kill enormous quantities of bison from long distances due to improved rifles. When railroads were built into the domain of the southern herds in Kansas in the 1850s, commercial hunters sought to obtain buffalo hides. The hides and robes were shipped East in ever-increasing quantities. A hunter could kill as many as 150 buffalo in a day by approaching them from downwind. The powerful buffalo guns could knock down a bull from 200-600 yards without disturbing the rest of the herd. Hunters would get a dollar for every hide, so the more they killed the more money flowed into their pockets.
By the 1860s the professional hunters had disrupted the traditional migrations of the herds, which in turn changed the habits of the Plains tribes. After the Civil War, the U.S. Army set out to conquer the Great Plains peoples. General Phil Sheridan, in charge of the Indian campaigns, viewed the buffalo as “the Indian’s Commissary,” and proclaimed that only when the beasts were totally exterminated would the Native people lose their source of food and their independence. He asked that the reservation Indians be given ammunition and guns so that they could help the commercial hunters destroy all the herds.
The southern herd was wiped out and the hides were shipped East on the Central Pacific Railroad after 1869. The northern herd suffered the same fate after the Northern Pacific extended west from Bismarck in 1880-81. The railroad went right through the center of the northern buffalo herd, allowing easy transport of the hides and robes. The last herds in the United States thus were found in the Montana and Dakota territories. In the last years hunters used Marlin Repeating Rifles, “the NEW and ACCEPTED Buffalo Gun” and Cooper Improved Rifle Sights which were “highly recommended by the most experienced buffalo hunters in eastern Montana.” The herds became so scarce that it was estimated in Eastern Montana in this year that there were “two hunters to every buffalo.”
Individuals in Dakota Territory are trying to save a few buffalo. Hunter Vic Smith captured some calves for domestication in the East in June 1883. Frederick Dupree saved five young buffalo in southern Dakota territory in 1882-83 and these are slowly growing in numbers on ranches near Fort Pierre. The largest number of animals live in Yellowstone Park.
By Dr. D. Jerome Tweton
Originally published as The North Star Dakotan student newspaper, written by Dr. D. Jerome Tweton and supported by the North Dakota Humanities Council