Title: Millions of Buffaloes | Recollections of the Time When Buffaloes Darkened the Western Plains | A Herd of the Animals That Covered One Hundred Miles of Prairie | Bones of Over Six Millions of Buffaloes Gathered by One Railroad

Periodical: The Daily Inter Ocean

Date: July 9, 1887

Author: Ta-To-Ka

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Recollections of the Time When Buffaloes Darkened the Western Plains.

A Herd of the Animals That Covered One Hundred Miles of Prairie.

Bones of Over Six Millions of Buffaloes Gathered by One Railroad.

GREAT BEND, Kan. July 2.—Special Correspondence.—During Kendall's Santa Fe expedition in 1841 the party one evening while in camp on the bank of the Arkansas, about three miles from the city in which this letter is written, were visited by an old trapper, and a discussion arose in relation to the immense number of buffaloes that at that moment were in sight and grazing in the "bottom" of the "Big Bend" the river makes at this point, Kendall asked his guest:

"How many buffaloes did you ever see at one time?"

"'Can't say, exactly; probably between two and three million," replied the old trapper with a cool, matter-of-fact indifference, as much as to say that he was keeping as near the truth as possible.

The writer has passed the last thirty years of his life west of Missouri, and does not declare that he has seen two or three millions of buffaloes at one time, but he has stood upon a high roll of the prairie frequently, where there was neither tree nor bush to obstruct the vision in any direction, and has seen these animals darkening the plains at every hand. And once, in the winter of 1867, I rode with a party of friends for four days through one continuous herd. It is a simple calculation—our journey averaging thirty miles per day, with a perspective whose radius was constantly a length of ten miles—and with only six animals to the square acre, and their number was even greater—that the herd contained over a million buffaloes.

At that time, as every old plainsman knows, there were more and larger herds in "Northern Texas" than anywhere else on the Western prairies, because their then most powerful enemies, the Indians, did not range so low down on account of the whites.

In the winter campaign against the Cheyennes, Kiowas, and Arrapahoes, in 1868, I have frequently dismounted my cavalry to fire at the leaders of immense herds, numbering tens of thousands, to prevent them from
as they madly rushed by, making the very earth tremble.

General A. T. Smith [1] has often told me that when he was a young officer crossing the plains—years before my time—the buffalo were so numerous they were compelled to use their howitzers at times to turn them from the trail.

It seems impossible, especially to any one who, only twenty-five years ago, saw them on their natural pastures, apparently as numberless as the sands on the sea shore, that they could ever be destroyed, but when I look back only a little more than a decade and remember that right here, where I pen this letter, how they roamed in such numbers, and now how far away are the few hundreds which remain, I am compelled to accept the sad fiat that in a very short period they will take their place with the dodo and the great auk, stuffed, and in a glass case in the halls of our museums, monuments of an extinct genus, annihilated by the wantonness of man.

Twelve or fifteen years since Congress made an attempt to preserve the buffalo, but it proved abortive because the law was not specific enough, and was a "dead letter" by its own insufficiency. If the railroads and express companies had been forbidden, under severe penalties, to transport the hides, the wholesale slaughter that was inaugurated with the advent of the locomotive on the plains might have been prevented; but thousands entered the field then as butchers, for the sake of the robes which the age demanded.

The Hon. William F. Cody ("Buffalo Bill"), who is now hobnobbing with royalty on the other side of the water, gained his world-known sobriquet for his carnage among these monarchs of the prairies in 1869.

Charlie Rath, [2] one of our best citizens, prince of good fellows, and a large bank account to his credit to-day, can number the hides he has procured by the hundred thousand, for several years successively.

I have purchased many a fine silk-robe, smoke-tanned and beaded from the Indians in early days for half a loaf of bread or a pound of sugar; now $50 in cash would not procure me such a magnificent article—for it does not exist.

Last November an old plainsman—a rare specimen of the genus homo now—an expert hunter, and a friend of a quarter of a century, started from the town of Cimarron, on the Arkansas, on a buffalo hunt. I happened to be there, and offered him $20 to bring me

I met him on his return six weeks afterward. He had been far south to the once famous haunt of the animals, but killed none—or, as he expressed it: "I never saw hide or hair of one."

To give an idea of the unpardonable slaughter of the buffalo from 1872 to the end of the succeeding nine years, at which time they disappeared from the Kansas plains, the following facts may be considered sufficiently explicit:

Mr. Woodruff, agent for an Eastern sugar-refinery, paid out during the years above specified to the early homesteaders of the "Upper Arkansas Valley" $2,500,000 for bones gathered on the prairie within a distance of as much as fifty miles from the railroad.

When it is considered that it required twenty bleached carcasses to make a ton—the average price of which was $8—an estimate can easily be made of the number of animals the large sum first quoted represents in round numbers 6,250,000, and this only on one line of railroad.

I have seen the track of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe piled up on both sides with buffalo bones for a distance of fifteen miles at a stretch.

These "bald blear" [3] skeletons of the desert were the salvation of the primitive occupants of the rich and prosperous counties of the Kansas of to-day. Then the whole region was the "theater of the tornado and the race-course of the winds," [4] the locusts' habitat and the debatable ground of the continent. But for that demand of chemistry for animal charcoal in the purification of the product of the cane our pioneers would have been driven away by the very sterility of their surroundings.

With the extinction of the desiccated remains of these once famous sovereigns of the plains, the phenomenal mutations of climate began, and the wilderness was redeemed—man subordinated nature to his demands—and the "desert blossomed as the rose."

The first authentic record we have of the American buffalo—or, properly, bison—is found in the itinerary of the famous Spaniard Coronado, of his
MARCH ACROSS THE PLAINS of Colorado and Kansas, only forty-eight years after the discovery of America, by his historian Castenado. [5]

He says: "At Cicuye, [6] one of the Indians told them of cows, and showed the picture of one painted on his body."

(They, the Spaniards, always wrote of the buffalo as vacas (cows).]

Castenado says, in referring to this painted picture of the cow:

"We would never have guessed it from seeing the skins of these animals, for they are covered with a frizzled hair which resembles wool."

The following quaint description is given by Castenado of the Great Plains, over which the exhausted Spaniards wandered after the treachery of their guide, El Turco: [7]

"All that way of plains are as full of crooked-back oxen as the mountain serrena in Spain is of sheep, but there is no such people as keep those cattle.

"The men clothe themselves with leather, and the women, which are esteemed for their long locks, cover their heads with the same.

"They have no bread or any kind of grain, as they say, which I accounted a very great matter.

"Their chief food is flesh, and that oftentimes they eat raw, either of custom or for lack of wood. They eat the fat as they take it out of the ox, and drink the blood hot, and do not die withal, though the ancient writers say that it killeth, as Empedocles [8] and others affirmed."

The writer of this has seen the Cheyennes eat the hot and quivering liver and fat torn from a freshly killed antelope when out hunting with them.

Castenado continues: "These oxen are of the bigness and color of our bulls, but their bones are not so great. They have a great bunch upon their fore shoulder, and more hair on their fore part than on their hinder part, and it is like wool. They have, as it were, an horse mane upon the backbone, and much hair and very long from their knees downward.

"They have great tufts of hair hanging down their foreheads, and it seemeth they have beards because of the great store of hair hanging down at their chins and throats.

"The males have very long tails, and a great knob or flock at the end, so that in some respects they resemble the lion, and in some other the camel.

"They push with their horns, they run, they overtake and kill an horse when they are in their rage and anger.

"Finally, it is a foul fierce beaste of countenance and form of body.

"The horses fled from them, either because of their deformed shape, or else because they had never before seen them.

"Their masters have no other riches nor substance; of them they eat, they drink, they apparel, they shoe themselves, and of their hides they make many things, as houses, shoes, and apparel, and ropes; of their bones, they make bodkins; of their sinews and hair, thread; of their, horns, mawes, and bladders, vessels; of their dung, fire, and of their calves' skins budgets, wherein they draw and keep water. To be short, they make as many things of them as they have need of, or as many as suffice them in the use of this life."

Thus Castenado tells us, as quaintly translated in the English of the period (Hakluyt's Voyages, [9] vol. iii. London, 1600), how: Came the restless Coronado
To the open Kansas plain:"
and the Spaniard's impressions of the buffalo, whose utilitarian character continued with the animal until his extinction in the nineteenth century.

From other authentic records it appears that the habitat of the buffalo at the date of the invasion of the "new world" by Europeans, extended from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and from the isthmus to Hudson's Bay.

What a sad retrospect. In a little less than four hundred years man has accomplished what would have required, without his effort, an aeon of geological change.


Note 1: General A. T. Smith is unidentified. [back]

Note 2: Charlie Rath (1836-1902), an immigrant from Stuttgart, Germany, joined William Bent's trading empire in Colorado as an independent freighter hauling supplies and trade goods, including buffalo hides, across Kansas. [back]

Note 3: "Bald blear" from a poem entitled Cleopatra by William Wetmore Story:

"And the bald, blear skull of the desert
With glowing mountains is crowned,
That burning like molten jewels
Circle its temples round


Note 4: Loose reference to an 1886 speech entitled "The New Kansas" by Kansas' Speaker of the House of Representatives, J. B. Johnson, whose actual quote is "...The whole region was condemned as the theater of blasted hopes, fit only as the race-course of the winds and the arena of the tornado." [back]

Note 5: Francisco Vásquez de Coronado's historian/chronicler was Pedro de Casteñeda de Nájera. [back]

Note 6: In 1540 Coronado brought his army of 1,200 to Cicuye Pueblo (called 'Pecos' by the Spanish and now part of New Mexico's Pecos National Historical Park) in pursuit of gold, silver, and other riches for Spain. [back]

Note 7: El Turco (the Turk) was an Indian captive who described to Coronado a place of gold, silver, and rich fabrics — Quivira; in 1541 El Turco guided Coronado to Quivira where only bison, cornfields, and grass huts were found. [back]

Note 8: Empedocles, born in 490 B.C. in Agrigento (Sicily), was a Greek pre-Socratic philospher best known for being the originator of the cosmogenic theory of love and strife. [back]

Note 9: Richard Hakluyt (1552 or 1553-1616), translator of Pedro de Casteñeda de Nájera's writings from the Coronado expedition, was an English writer who promoted settlement of North America by the English. [back]

Title: Millions of Buffaloes | Recollections of the Time When Buffaloes Darkened the Western Plains | A Herd of the Animals That Covered One Hundred Miles of Prairie | Bones of Over Six Millions of Buffaloes Gathered by One Railroad

Periodical: The Daily Inter Ocean

Date: July 9, 1887

Author: Ta-To-Ka

Topics: Buffalo Bill's Wild West in Britain

Keywords: American bison American bison hunting American Exhibition (1887 : London, England) American Indians Cheyenne Indians Empedocles Firearms Hunting Shooting

People: Casteñeda de Nájera, Pedro de, active 16th century Coronado, Francisco Vásquez de, 1510-1554 El Turco, d.1541 Hakluyt, Richard, 1552?-1616 Rath, Charles, 1836-1902 Story, William Wetmore, 1819-1895

Place: Pecos Pueblo Site (N.M.)

Sponsor: This project is supported in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Geraldine W. & Robert J. Dellenback Foundation.

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