The End of the Bison on the Great Plains

The end of the Bison on the Great Plains happened around the 1880s. This was the point when herds of millions of buffalo became a few hundred survivors in the early 20th century and then the 25, 000 which are now living in our National Parks.

Bison, or buffalo as we now call them, on the US Great plains once numbered somewhere between 30 to 100 million, but by the end of the 19th century there were only a few hundred left in the wild.  125 is one number I have seen for the surviving bison at the end of the 19th century.

Today, some 20,000-25,000 remain in public herds.  These survivors are mostly in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. The link directly above leads to a wonderful and simple timeline for the end of the bison as they once were.

This epic catastrophe was not an accident or any kind of natural event. Like most wildlife extinctions, the 19th century almost-extinction of the buffalo was caused entirely by humans. Specifically it was deliberately planned by the US army as a way to starve Native Americans into submission.

Once Bison were the most numerous large mammals to ever exist on the face of the earth.  

In 1871, an American soldier named George Anderson sent a letter to his sweetheart describing a herd he saw in Kansas: “I am safe in calling this a single herd,” he wrote, “but it is impossible to approximate the millions that composed it. It took me six days on horseback to ride through it.”

Buffalo are very fast, which makes them more dangerous than almost anyone can believe. This is why a few Yellowstone tourists get gored every year. These two buffalo are streaking along in Yellowstone.

It’s hard for us to imagine now, but buffalo were once in such abundance they could literally drink a river dry.

William Cody was a legendary 19th century frontiersman who in his later years conducted buffalo hunts for well heeled tourists in the 1860s and 70s.  The US army often supplied him with guns and sundries to make his hunts more successful.

Most Buffalo, like this one are in Yellowsrtone these days.

“The Army wasn’t in the business of guiding hunting trips for tourists but it was in the business of controlling the Native Americans in the area, and that meant killing buffalo. One colonel told a wealthy hunter who felt guilty after he shot 30 bison, “Kill every buffalo you can! Every buffalo dead is an Indian gone.” 1

“On one of Cody’s buffalo hunting trips, the Army had supplied an armed escort and 25 wagons filled with cooks, linen, china, carpets for their tents, and a traveling icehouse to keep their wine chilled. The reason for such extravagance was undoubtedly because the New Yorkers were well-connected, but also because Major-General Phillip Sheridan, the man with the task of forcing Native Americans off the Great Plains and onto reservations, had come along with them. This was a leisure hunt, but Sheridan also viewed the extermination of buffalo and his victory over the Native Americans as a single, inextricable mission––and in that sense, it could be argued that any buffalo hunt was Army business. “

Yellowstone Buffalo herd with calves.

Not all the bison were killed by the army or by their wealthy clients. American settlers and hide-hunters also helped kill Buffalos to near-extinction, and tourists shot the animals from the windows of trains as if the slaughter could last forever.

Many things contributed to the buffalo’s demise. But one important factor was that for a long time, the country’s highest generals, politicians, even then President Ulysses S. Grant saw the destruction of buffalo as the solution to the country’s “Indian Problem.”

Sheridan was one such general. “He was a major-general for the Union during the Civil War. It was there he learned the power of destroying enemy resources. He’d used the same scorched-earth strategy that William Tecumseh Sherman, then a major-general, used in his March to the Sea, tearing  up railroad ties, toppling telegraph poles, and lighting nearly all of Atlanta and anything an infantryman could digest ablaze. After the war, President Grant asked Sherman and Sheridan to command armies in the Great Plains.”

Plenty of new Buffalo calfs are born every year in Yellowstone.

Sherman knew that as long as the Sioux hunted buffalo, they’d never surrender to life with a plow. The buffalo had to go.

But by 1870s the Indian wars had paused.

“In the lull, enlisted men like William Cody found other ways to stay busy, and to make money.  They became buffalo hunters.  Cody had joined the Cavalry at 17, and he earned the name “Buffalo Bill” because in one 18-month stretch he claimed to have killed 4,280 buffalo. In 1870, a bull hide sold for $3.50.”

“Then in 1873 an economic depression hit the country, and what easier way was there to make money than to chase down these ungainly beasts? Thousands of buffalo runners came, sometimes averaging 50 kills a day. They slaughtered so many buffalo that it flooded the market and the price dropped, which meant they had to kill more. In towns, hides rose in stacks as tall as houses. This was not the work of the Army. It was private industry. But that doesn’t mean Army officers and generals couldn’t lean back and look at it with satisfaction.”

A pile of buffalo skulls in the mid 1870s waiting to be ground up into fertilizer. That pile was once a pretty good sized buffalo herd all by itself.

Andrew C. Isenberg, author of “The Destruction of the Bison,” and a professor of history at Temple University said that the military looked at what the private sector was doing and they didn’t need to do anything more than stand back and watch it happen.

“In the next decade, the hide hunters exterminated nearly every buffalo on the plains. Colonel Dodge would later write that “where there were myriads of buffalo the year before, there were now myriads of carcasses. The air was foul with a sickening stench, and the vast plain which only a short twelve months before teemed with animal life, was a dead, solitary desert.”

Buffalo in Lamar Valley in Yellowstone

”The wasteland was so scattered with the bones of dead animals and buffalos that all the prairie felt like a graveyard risen. One judge called it a “charnel house, with so many skulls staring at a man, and so many bones that newcomers felt nervous.”

“A few men saw the future though. And even before the buffalo runners had wiped out almost every animal and the U.S. Army had to protect the last remaining wild herd in Yellowstone National Park, conservationists lobbied Congress to pass a bill that’d save buffalo. It did not sit well with Sheridan. No record exists of his words, but one hide hunter later said Sheridan had defended the industry to legislatures by saying: “These men have done in the last two years, and will do more in the next year, to settle the vexed Indian question, than the entire regular army has done in the last thirty years.”


More reading about the end of buffalo in America

Andrew C. Isenberg, The Destruction of the Bison,

American Serengeti, by Dan Flores

Buffalo Holocaust

Timeline for the almost extinction of the American Bison

JB MacKinnon, The Once and Future World: Nature as it was, as it is, and as it could be.

JR McNeill, The Great Acceleration: An environmental history of the anthropocene since 1945

Farlely Mowat, Sea of Slaughter

Michael McCarthy, The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy

What’s Happening to the Bees and Butterflies?

‘Kill Every Buffalo You Can! Every Buffalo Dead Is an Indian Gone’

  1. Much of this article and some of it’s words were taken from the Atlantic Magazine article linked to above. All quotations in this article are from this Atlantic magazine article which is titled “Kill every Buffalo you can! Every Buffalo Dead is an Indian Gone.

Buffalo along the Madison River in Yellowstone
Bull Buffalo in Yellowstone
Buffalo herd in Yellowstone high country
Yellowstone Falls in Yellowstone Natioanal Park
Trumpeter Swan on Madison River in Yellowstone National Park.

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