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Blackfoot Indians chasing buffalo, Three Buttes, Montana. 1855. Photo courtesy of the National Archive.

he introduction of horses to the North American continent by European explorers in the late 17th century transformed the lives and societies of many Plains Indian tribes. Indians abandoned their settled existence, and began to live as nomads, following the buffalo herds wherever they went. Bison hunting on horseback proved far more efficient than the Indians' prior methods, but it quickly made the nomadic tribes dependent on bison for their very survival. The introduction of firearms not only yielded greater kills during buffalo hunts, but it deepened Indians' dependence on both the buffalo and the Europeans.

With the arrival of Europeans and, later, Americans, various Plains tribes began to engage in the fur trade. While Indians had previously used all the parts of the bison they slaughtered -- from the meat and skin to the hooves, bones, and organs -- the fur trade made it profitable to kill bison solely for those parts valued by traders: the robe and the tongue. Additionally, explorers and settlers noticed that the Indians were not always moderate in their hunting activities outside of the fur trade. An early French explorer wrote of the Crow Indians in 1804, "It is amazing what numbers of Buffaloes they destroy. When hunting, they take but the fattest and cut part of an animal, and [leave] the rest."

frontier fact
The modern bison can weigh up to 2,000 pounds, measure more than a dozen feet long, and stand up to six feet tall. Bison can run up to 35 miles per hour, and consume up to 60 pounds of food per day.
Fanny Kelly, who lived in the captivity of the Oglala Sioux, noted, "The Indians often, for the mere sport, make an onslaught, killing great numbers of [the buffalo], and having a plentiful feast of 'ta-tonka,' as they call buffalo meat. Each man selects the part of the animal he has killed that best suits his own taste, and leaves the rest to decay or be eaten by wolves, thus wasting their own game."

The wanton killing of bison by some Indians, however, would soon be overshadowed by the irreversible impact of American settlers.

With the opening of the Oregon Trail in the 1840s, steady streams of settlers began encroaching on the buffalo's habitat. While the shooting of bison for sport by settlers certainly had an effect on the population, the emigrants' livestock took an even greater toll. Oxen and horses devoured grasses for miles on both sides of the trail, destroying grazing lands for many northern Plains herds. Simultaneously, settlers' livestock introduced new diseases to the Plains, which often proved fatal for buffalo. As steamboats began to make their way onto the Missouri and other rivers of the Plains, thousands of trees were felled for firewood, ruining the bison's winter habitats.

Still, it seemed to many settlers that there was no end to the number of buffalo on the Plains. William T. Hornady wrote,

"[The bison] lived and moved as no other great quadrupeds ever have, in great multitudes, like grand armies in review, covering scores of square miles at once. They were so numerous they frequently stopped boats in rivers, threatened to overwhelm travelers on the Plains, and in later years derailed locomotives and cars, until railroad engineers learned by experience the wisdom of stopping their trains whenever there were buffaloes crossing the track."

While the fur trade, steamboats, railroads, Indians, and settlers were having an impact on the bison, the environment itself may have played a significant role in their destruction. Periods of drought and some extremely cold winters in the mid-nineteenth century could also have hampered the bison's natural population increase.

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