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Family in front of tepee.
n the 1870s, buffalo robes became fashionable, and industrialists discovered that buffalo hides could be used for machine belts. The destruction of the bison gathered speed as dealers used the nation's expanding railroads to transport the hides to market. Railroads were particularly interested in disposing of bison; the enormous herds delayed trains, and frequently destroyed huge sections of track. Several railroads offered "hunting specials" across the Plains to their customers; passengers were welcome to shoot as many bison as they possibly could from the comfort of their train car. After a particularly good summer of "hunting specials" in the 1870s, several railroads had to cancel the excursions for a time because the smell from the rotting carcasses on either side of the tracks was so nauseating to passengers.

The number of bison being killed for sport and for profit was astronomical; in 1874, the editor of a Dodge City newspaper wrote, "It is no uncommon thing to find sixty to eighty thousand buffalo robes and hides in the train yard on any given day."

While the Federal government never officially sanctioned a policy regarding deliberate destruction of buffalo, there were many who noted that the elimination of the buffalo would also lead to the elimination of the "Indian problem." In 1874, the Secretary of the Interior stated, "The buffalo are disappearing rapidly, but not faster than I desire. I regard the destruction of such game as Indians subsist upon as facilitating the policy of the government, of destroying their hunting habits, coercing them on reservations, and compelling them to begin to adopt the habits of civilization."

The largest publicly protected herd of buffalo in the United States currently resides in Yellowstone National Park.
Similarly, Senator James Throckmorton of Texas reasoned, "It would be a great step forward in the civilization of the Indians and the preservation of peace on the [frontier] if there was not a buffalo in existence."

Throckmorton's wish was very nearly realized. By the 1880s, the number of buffalo on the Plains dropped off dramatically. In 1882, nearly 200,000 buffalo hides were shipped East from Dakota Territory. One year later, the number had dropped to 40,000. In 1884, the hides from Dakota bison barely filled a single freight car. In 1883, the year in which FRONTIER HOUSE is set, the last two major herds are believed to have been killed on the Northern Plains, one by Sitting Bull's Sioux and the other by white hunters. At the same time, it was estimated that there were 500,000 cattle grazing on the bison's former habitat in Eastern Montana alone.

The evidence of the buffalo's reign on the prairies was evident for years afterward. A.M. Bede, a judge from North Dakota, wrote that "The country out here looked like a charnel house with so many skulls staring at a man, and so many bones that newcomers felt nervous, and in some cases, could hardly plow the land."

After a century of belated protective measures and conservation efforts, an estimated 150,000 bison currently live in the United States, in public and private herds.

Works Consulted


Hoxie, Frederick E. PARADING THROUGH HISTORY: THE MAKING OF THE CROW NATION IN AMERICA 1805-1935. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Ward, Geoffrey C. THE WEST: AN ILLUSTRATED HISTORY. Boston: Little, Brown, 1996.

Isenberg, Andrew C. THE DESTRUCTION OF THE BISON. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

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