Buffalo skulls
Photo: Two men shown with a mountain of buffalo skulls, public domain.

© We are conditioned to think of Native Americans as good stewards of Nature, taking only what was essential for their well-being, yet it is not hard to find first-hand accounts of buffalo hunting which paint a different picture. No one would argue the senseless slaughter and waste of these magnificent animals at the hands of the Europeans, however, the loss of the buffalo also rests on the shoulders of the Indian.

“If the chase has been a successful one, the remains of partially dressed buffalos are left; but if not, they [Indians] return, and the carcass is cleaned and meat taken to camp”.

While one might wonder at his qualifications to make such a statement, Thomas Thorpe wrote that, “No part of North America was originally unoccupied by the buffalo”, and took note of the commonality of the Indians wasting a degree of the meat after a hunt. “The Indian gluts himself with marrow and fatness…he spends days and nights in wasteful extravagance, trusting to the abundance of nature to take care of the future.”

“You may say to them that the Indians do not eat all the game they take,–that it is not supposed they eat more than four-fifths of the deer they kill. The skins are of great value to them, and having secured these, the bodies are left for the wolves to devour, and it is much the same with the buffalo; they are hunted for their tongues, and skins, of which they manufacture robes, and sell them to the fur traders. The tongues are esteemed a great luxury. If I should tell you how many thousands of these robes are made and sold in a year by the Osages, and other more distant tribes, you would be astonished that there were any buffaloes to be found within hundreds of miles. Some of their most skillful hunters will kill nearly a hundred deer in five or six weeks. If they do not become civilized before many years, the game will become so scarce that they must waste away in the wilderness, and perish from want”.

Adair stated in 1775, “The buffalo herds are now becoming scarce. The thoughtless and wasteful Indians used to kill great numbers of them, only for their tongue and marrow bones, leaving the rest of the carcases to the wild beasts”.

Josiah Greg noted in 1835 that travelers and hunters wreaked havoc on the buffalo but that the Indians often killed them merely for their skins and tongues. Romans had described the wanton destruction of the buffalo by those who took, “his tongue only” some 60 years prior [1776].

“Still, vast as these herds are, their numbers are much less than in earlier times, and they are diminishing with fearful rapidity…it would be well to attach the most stringent penalties against the barbarous practice of killing buffalo merely for the sport, or perhaps for the tongues alone. Thousands are killed every year in this way. After all, however, it is perhaps the Indian himself who commits the mischief most wantonly”.

Joel Allen studied the destruction of the buffalo with astonishing results, particularly regarding the Indians’ part in decimating the herds through the sale of buffalo robes. For the most part the hides were the only part of the animal that was harvested in those endeavors. His figures were taken from such notable sources as a partner in the American Fur Company and a railroad agent’s reports on the transportation of the robes and given the average waste of some three to five animals for every robe produced he arrived at the figure of 1,800,000 animals killed just by one group of Indians during a three or four month period annually. That does not include the robes kept for their own use.

For doubters of the figure, let us consider the number of such robes that were received at only a few posts on the Upper Missouri during a season. Ft. Benton – 36,000 robes; Ft. Union 30,000; Ft. Clark and Ft. Berthoud about 10,000 each; Ft. Pierre 19,000; bringing the total for the year to about 75,000, “which he informed me was about the annual average at that period”. The number of buffalo products he quoted that were enumerated by the auditors of the Kansas Pacific and other railways which hauled them was mindboggling for the same year, but it cannot be determined how much of them white hunters or Indians were responsible for. It might be noted that at the time this research was gathered and these killings took place [1871-2], herds had already dwindled to a mere fraction of what they’d been a century before and were completely nonexistent in some states.

Caitlin described in detail a one-day Sioux hunt in 1833 at the mouth of the Teton, when some 600 Sioux came into the settlement of the Fur Company at sunset with “fourteen hundred fresh buffalo tongues”, which they exchanged for a few gallons of whiskey. He said not one skin, nor one pound of flesh was saved from the slaughtered buffalo, everything save the tongues left to rot.

After describing the methods used by Native Americans to hunt deer and elk, John Hunter wrote, “The Indians seldom eat the flesh of either of these animals, while that of the buffalo can be obtained; it is, nevertheless, excellent in its season, particularly that of the deer”. He said further that while the Indian had once venerated the beaver, upon discovering the value the whites attached to the skins, they, “hunt it with an avidity and industry that threaten in the course of a few years to eradicate them from their hunting grounds”.

Alaska natives also hunted for the hides alone. Treasury agents noted in 1898 seeing bales of hides waiting to be shipped and upon inquiring what was done with the meat were told that the deer were shot only for the hides. “White men go out and kill the animals for fun…The natives kill them, because they can get a drink of whisky, valued at 25 cents, for every skin secured”.

There are accounts to the contrary, so perhaps the wastefulness varied between tribes, or, perhaps Ernest Seton was correct in saying, “Many of the Indians armed with rifles have learned to emulate the white man, and slaughter game for the love of slaughter, without reference to the future. Such waste was condemned by the old-time Indians, as an abuse of the gifts of God, and which would surely bring its punishment”.

SOURCES: Batty, Joseph H. “How to Hunt and Trap: Containing Full Instructions for Hunting the Buffalo, Elk, Moose, Deer, Antelope, Bear, Fox, Grouse, Quail, Geese, Ducks, Woodcock, Snipe, Etc., Etc.” 1878. NY.
U.S. Dept. of the Treasury. “Seal and Salmon Fisheries and General Resources of Alaska. 1898. Washington.
Thorpe, Thomas Bangs. “The Mysteries of the Backwoods, Or, Sketches of the Southwest”. 1846. Philadelphia.
Tuttle, Sarah. “Letters on the Chickasaw and Osage Missions”. 1833. Boston.
Greg, Josiah. “Commerce of the Prairies”. 1851. Philadelphia.
Romans. “Natural History of Florida”.
Baird, Professor. Pat. Office Rep., Agriculture, 1851-52, Part 2. P. 125.
Schoolcraft’s History, Condition, and Prospects of the Indian Tribes of the United States. Vol. IV, p. 94.
Allen, Joel Asaph. “History of the American Bison”. 1877. Washington.
“The Gentleman’s Magazine”. Aug. 1885.
Hunter, John Dunn. “Memoirs of a Captivity Among the Indians of North America, from Childhood to the Age of Nineteen.” 1823. London.

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