The Machined Massacre of the American Bison

Saddest of all, other bison would often approach the dead or dying animal, either to investigate or to offer assistance. Either way, a clean kill would put more bison in range, and their deaths would bring yet more curious bison, and more…

Even today, using a herd animal’s instinct to help one another is a horrifying way to hunt, a sentiment most modern hunters share. It worked. A buffalo hunter could spend an entire afternoon dropping bison after bison without standing up. A professional hunter of some talent would frequently carry more than one rifle to allow the other to cool down.

Factories on the Hoof, On the Rail

These crews operated like portable factories, with dozens or even hundreds of men working in unison. The actual hunters (like Buffalo Bill Cody) were only one appendage. Teamsters drove the horses and supply wagons. Cooks provided food for the crews.

Skinners used teams of horses or mules to peel the skin off the dead bison, then removed its tongue (skinners or cooks often took the fatty flesh of its hump for immediate consumption). Security agents tagged along to protect crews from thievery or attack. Even the hunters themselves, standing tall in the hierarchy of the industry, had assistants to tote, clean, and load their rifles.

There are no studies or statistics to measure the rates at which these crews exterminated the American bison. Those numbers only mattered later. Anecdotal evidence shows that hundreds of factory crews like this operated across the American West in the late 1800s, and these crews could and did kill and process thousands of bison each day.


With millions roaming the prairies, those dead thousands hardly seemed a worry. There were plenty to go around, settlers believed. Improved technology coupled with creative marketing, contributed to the bison’s dwindling numbers. Railroad owners advertised hunting “expeditions” by rail, adding novelty to the sport. Trainloads of adventurers would pile into cars and chug across the Great Plains until they came across a nearby herd, a common sight in that day.

The appearance of the train would often alarm the animals, so the herd would run, and the driver would set the train’s speed to match the herd’s gallop. Then the passengers, using their own weapons or weapons provided by the railroad, would fire from the open windows of the moving train, mowing the running bison down. A journalist described the tragic result of an animal that turned to face such a confusing enemy:

“Frequently a young bull will turn at bay for a moment. His exhibition of courage is generally his death-warrant, for the whole fire of the train is turned upon him, either killing him or some member of the herd in his immediate vicinity.”

“Buffalo Hunting”, Harper’s Weekly, 1867




Awareness of the American bison’s plight didn’t first come from scientists or naturalists but rather parties that had profited by the species’ death, namely ranchers, hunters and farmers in the West. Buffalo Bill Cody, who had earned his income and fame as a great hunter of the beast, publicly denounced his former industry, and predicted the species could not support the unregulated hide industry. He was among the first hunters to recommend an official “hunting season” for bison.

By 1900, only hundreds of the animals remained in North America. After several farmers purchased and protected handfuls of bison on private land, the American Bison Society formed, supported by President Theodore Roosevelt, himself both a famous hunter and conservationist. The efforts of these early environmentalists pulled the species back from extinction, although few species in history ever got as close as the American bison.

Heavily protected, and recognized as the official mammal of the United States, the American bison population has very slowly increased, now pocketed in famous herds across the United States: the Yellowstone Park Bison Herd, the Antelope Island Bison Herd, the Henry Mountains Bison Herd, among others.

Today, around 30,000 bison exist in public herds, with an additional 350,000 living in private herds. Among the most recent is the Kankakee Sands Bison Herd: in 2016, the Nature Conservancy placed 23 American bison on a thousand acres along the Indiana-Illinois border in northern Indiana, and the herd has more than doubled in size since then.


Want to Know More?

The wonderful article “Where the Buffalo No Longer Roamed” from Smithsonian Magazine illustrates the connection among the Transcontinental Railroad, the bison hunters, and the American military forces in the West.

The Atlantic’s article “Kill Every Buffalo You Can. Every Buffalo Dead is an Indiana Gone!” details several personalities (like Buffalo Bill Cody and General Sheridan) behind the buffalo slaughter.

Discover the cultural and environmental importance of the bison to indigenous cultures in this introduction to “The Destruction of the Bison: An Environmental History, 1750-1920” by Andrew C. Isenburg, professor of American History at the University of Kansas.