*These antiquated methods of bison hunting do NOT reflect modern hunting ethics. Today, the vast majority of hunters in the United States spearhead conservation efforts and play a vital role in the preservation of indigenous species, including the American bison.
Just after the Revolutionary War, over sixty million American bison, or buffalo, tromped over American soil from the coast of California to as far east as North Carolina, and in herds so massive they altered topography.
One hundred years later, only a few hundred remained in whisper-thin herds, brought down by a century of greed, bloodlust, and ignorance.
Although the US military’s “scorched earth” tactics against the Native-Americans often take the brunt of the American bison’s near-extinction, along with habitat loss from the settling of ranchers and farmers, those are secondary causes to the bison’s near-demise.
Ordinary greed brought waves of commercial buffalo hunters, who left square miles of the American West covered in fly-blown corpses. The processes and profits of these commercial hunters symbolized Westward Expansion in the US and the subjugation of our country’s indigenous people.
The Heaviest Land Mammal in the Americas
In the Americas, only the moose stands taller than the American bison, and no land mammal in North or South America surpasses the bison in weight. Mature bulls can weigh over a ton, with the largest ever recorded in the wild weighing 2,800 pounds. Both males and females sport horns that curve upwards, which they use for defense and, in the case of bulls, to compete with other males.
The heft and somewhat clumsy proportions of the American disguise its speed and agility. In a dead run, it can reach up to 40 mph and has been known to jump six foot fences. But running and jumping is not its primary defense: its massive head, horns, and weight have allowed bison herds to graze with little fear of predators. Grizzly bears and wolves do prey on bison, but only lone animals, the old, the sick, or the very young. In a fight between a full-grown grizzly and a healthy bison bull, put your money on the bison.
Both tragically and ironically, this natural confidence made them easy prey for commercial hunters.
American Bison in Dollars, Not Sense
Native-Americans famously used every part of the American bison, reflecting the time, effort, and danger involved in hunting a one-ton mammal. Commercial hunters did not. Historically, these hunters sought only three parts of the bison: the skin, the tongue, and the bones. They would harvest choice bits of meat from the animal, but never with the efficiency or reverence of the Native-Americans.
The skin of a bull American bison sold for approximately $4 in 1870. Adjusting for inflation, that’s around $100 today. A substantial amount of money, but not a fortune. Gathering supplies, traveling, tracking, and processing a single bull would only earn a meager living; these hunters needed to hunt and process bison by the dozens or hundreds to avoid sustenance life. To do this, bison hunters utilized another great American talent: industrialization.
Bison held little to no cultural relevance for Americans in the late 1800s, only a practical one. Hands down, the most profitable part of the beast, the skin, provided the greatest use: the animal’s leather, thicker and tougher than that of ordinary cattle, worked wonderfully on machine belts, and the demand for bison leather skyrocketed in both the United States and Europe.
In addition to “caping out” the buffalo, hunters would quickly remove its tongue, considered a delicacy at the time and served in some of the country’s finest restaurants. Even today, in bison farming’s heavily-regulated market, the tongue remains a popular and exotic cut of meat.
The bones of the American bison also became a sought-after commodity. In the early 1800s, the wine and sugar industries discovered bone char removed impurities and unattractive colors from products better than the wood charcoal they had been using. The demand (and price) for bone char increased and an animal as large and heavy as the bison provided a literal mountain of bones. After killing and skinning buffalo, outfits would just let them rot in the sun for weeks or months, sometimes returning to collect the bones once the animal had decayed, sometimes letting farmers and settlers collect the scraps.
“Let Them Kill, Skin, and Sell…”
The US military, then the authority in the unconquered West, endorsed the slaughter of the American bison. Major-General Philip Sheridan, in charge of the American military in the West, supported subsidizing the efforts of hunters to wipe out the species. He recognized the difficulty in fighting a hostile force in such a wide ranging area, despite superior numbers and supplies of the military.
In his mind, and in the mind of the US Army, attacking the food source of Native-Americans would be a decisive strategic victory and subjugate the indigenous people; settlers would be free to cultivate the Plains without fear of reprisal.
“[The buffalo hunters] are destroying the Indians’ commissary. And it is a well known fact that an army losing its base of supplies is placed at a great disadvantage. Send them powder and lead, if you will; but for a lasting peace, let them kill, skin and sell until the buffaloes are exterminated. Then your prairies can be covered with speckled cattle.”
~Major-General Philip Sheridan
Industrialized Extermination of the Bison
Lone buffalo hunters (like famous lawman Wyatt Earp) only made a dent in the population of bison. The real slaughter came from the outfits of buffalo hunters working in tandem and brought to the American West on the Transcontinental Railroad.
Because of their extraordinarily thick skulls, buffalo hunters did not aim for its head, but for a double lung shot. The hunter positioned himself perpendicular to the bison and aimed just above and behind its forelegs. The Sharps rifle, a powerful .50 caliber black powder rifle, stood out from competitors, partially because of its power and accuracy, and partially because the US military, which held a surplus of the rifles after the Civil War, sold them at a low price. Although a single-shot rifle, its use of metal cartridges and breech-loading design made it easy to load and fire from a sitting or kneeling position.
As mentioned early, the bison’s confidence served these hunters more than the animals. Once a hunter (and an assistant or two) took a careful, concealed position, they would chose an easy target, fire, and drop the animal. The herd noticed the sudden and violent death (a lung shot meant the bison would choke and aspirate blood before falling), but without seeing a direct cause, the herd would remain in place and continue grazing, albeit a little warily.