Dakota Datebook

American Buffalo – Part 2

Wednesday, December 17, 2003

In the early 1800s, millions of buffalo covered the prairies in vast thriving herds. But by the end of that century, the species had been all but wiped out.

With the coming of the homesteaders and the railroad, it was inevitable that the buffalo would be threatened. But a threat that was unforseen came with the railroad. Every fall, prairie fires would start from sparks being thrown by the trains. L. C. Ives, of Veblen, SD, told of when his company of cavalry, the Second Minnesota Volunteers, were returning from an Indian expedition up the Yellowstone in 1863:

“Plains burned in every direction and blind buffalo seen every moment wandering about. The poor beasts have all the hair singed off; even the skin in many places is shriveled up and terribly burned, and their eyes are swollen and closed fast… In one spot we found a whole herd lying dead. The fire having passed only yesterday, these animals were still good and fresh, and many of them exceedingly fat… At sunset we arrived at the Indian camp, having made an extraordinary day’s ride, and seen an incredible number of dead and dying, blind, lame, singed, and roasted buffalo. The fire raged all night toward the S. W.”

Another hazard for the herds came in the spring when they would break through rotting ice covering rivers and lakes. Hundreds of drowned buffalo washed up on shores every year.

But the true end of the animals came from frenzied hunters eager to cash in on skins and tongues. The herds were followed and exterminated by gangs of men employed just for this purpose. Sometimes, the animals were also shot for sport from the windows of passing trains.

Old hunters told of killing 75 to 100 buffalo a day; the skinners removed the hides, pinned them to the ground to dry, and later gathered and hauled them to the nearest river or railway point for transport. In the 1870s, the main cargo traveling the river between Fort Benton and Bismarck was made up of buffalo hides. One firm alone shipped more than 60,000 carcasses in one year. Big wages were paid and big profits realized, especially as rifles improved.

As early as 1821, the buffalo were becoming scarce around Pembina, and within five years, there were no more animals within 200 miles. The history of the buffalo during this time is little more than a massive slaughter. In 1840, a buffalo hunt west of Fargo brought 1,375 buffalo tongues into camp the first day, and more than 2,000 buffalo were killed by 400 mounted hunters.

By the 1870s, historic reports of buffalo dramatically shifted to when people last saw a buffalo in their region. The Fargo Record reported an old bull killed near Sykeston in 1881, and the last one near Stump Lake was chased, but not killed. In 1883, one was seen near Sawyer; it was chased by horsemen but not caught. Fifty years before, people reported buffalo as far as the eye could see. Now, they were all but exterminated. And along with that extinction came the end of a way of life for the Native Americans who had been linked to the animals for centuries.

A few buffalo have survived, and are now protected in private and public parks. A small national herd roams in Sullys Hill Park south of Devils Lake, and a small group receives prominent attention on the edge of Jamestown. Stockmen have played a large part in expanding their numbers as well. But nobody in our lifetime will ever experience the sounds, the sights and the adrenaline of being surrounded by 20,000 buffalo at one time.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

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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