Dakota Datebook

Buffalo Bones

Thursday, November 2, 2006

As the railroad moved west, new towns sprang up along its lines, adding some slight contour to the flat, North Dakota horizon line. But, the towns’ buildings were not the only structures that grew. Along with them were large white monuments of sun-bleached buffalo bones stacked as high as 20 feet, awaiting the arrival of railroad lines. Meanwhile, settlers, Indians, and metis continued to gather bones to add to the monuments for anywhere from $5 to $20 per ton.

The buffalo bone trade was a welcome industry for all, from the Indians and farmers, to the railroads themselves. From the 1860s through about 1890, there was a growing need for animal charcoal to make carbon filters, fertilizers, and glue among other products. The railroads were happy to carry something back east in their empty cars, the collectors were happy to harvest the buffalo one last time to sustain themselves, and ads beckoned for their work. “Buffalo Bones!” announced an advertisement in today’s New Rockford Transcript in 1883. It continued, “I am prepared to buy Buffalo Bones and will pay $8 per ton to be delivered at New Rockford, Dakota Territory.” The ad was from J.G. Moore, but Moore was just one of many who posted ads in papers across the Midwest plains in the late 1800s.
The bone trade was especially important for the Indians once their herds of buffalo were gone from the plains after being nearly exterminated in the hunts of 1874, and one of the first major centers of the bone trade was in Devil’s Lake. Indians from the Fort Totten reservation would gather bones and leave them piled by the lake to be hauled by boat to the boxcars across the lake. In 1883, they had collected about 700 tons of bones. The Indians, however, were somewhat reluctant to pick up the bones because of beliefs, and the trade only increased after the metis and settlers joined in.

For the metis and settlers, the bone trade quickly became a living. The metis would often travel in groups of about 50 families to an area abundant in bones and make camp. They would work their way to a meeting point until the wagons were full and then travel together to town with their loads. There they would camp, while the leaders went into town to inquire about the rates. Once a deal was made, the bones were brought in and weighed, and the metis left for another hunt.

The settlers, meanwhile, often relied on the bone industry to help get them started on their farmstead. Often, immigrants arrived too late in the season to begin farming, and gathered bones instead. One settler recounted gathering bones from the plains with her father and sisters. She said, “My father, my two sisters and I used two teams and two wagons on our bone-gathering forays…My oldest sister and I would take one outfit and my dad and younger sister the other. When we had our loads, we would take them to town and sell them for about $12 per ton. We hauled 14 tons of buffalo bones to Minot, and believe me when I say I don’t know how we would have lived if it had not been for the money we got that way.”

Like most resources, however, the bones were soon exhausted and the trade moved west with the development of the railroad. By 1887, the bone trade diminished from Devil’s Lake and the proprietors left for Montana or the Prairie Provinces. The Minot trade ended in 1891, bringing the buffalo’s uses to a close for a time in the Dakotas. Today, buffalo have become an industry again with the development of commercial ranches for meat and tourism.

By Tessa Sandstrom

Barnett, LeRoy. “The Buffalo Bone Commerce on the Northern Plains.” North Dakota History, v.39.1: 23-42.
Burlingame. “The Buffalo in Trade and Commerce.” North Dakota History, v. 3.4: 263-291.
New Rockford Transcript. Nov. 2, 1883: 2.

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Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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