Plains Folk

Pile of Bones


A photograph of a massive pile of buffalo skulls circulates on the internet, generally with moral messages attached. Writers use the image as visual condemnation of injustice to American Indians, waste of wildlife resources, and the need for mindful conservation.

I have no quarrel with those messages, but my interest in the image is more historical. You can find the photograph online in the digital collections of the Detroit Public Library.

All the circulating images are copies of this single photograph, an albumen print that originally was misidentified, but has been found by the librarians to depict a scene in the yards of the Michigan Carbon Works, Detroit.

Carbon works? Well, bones were burned to make bone charcoal, known in the trade as “bone black.” Bone black was a useful catalyst for purifying wines, vinegars, and most important, sugar. Michigan Carbon Works also used the bones to make Bone Black Homestead Fertilizer, which was rich in phosphorus.

Leaping ahead–this historic image from Detroit was the inspiration for the symbolic pile of skulls that appears in the film, Revenant. Only that pile was made of styrofoam, with the pieces affixed to a frame of studs and webwire.

Back to the historic image itself–I began with the assumption that the image was doctored, and so examined it for evidence of such, but found none. I did notice that the pile of skulls was not as big as it first appears. It really was not twenty feet high, or deep; rather, the pile was made on a hillside.

What puzzled me is why there would be a pile specifically of skulls, sorted out from the other bones. Then it dawned on me there must have been some specific market for skulls, probably as curios. I suspect they were hung on barroom walls and in other such situations.

There are two men in the photo, both wearing three-piece suits and bowler hats. One stands atop the pile, the other at the bottom. Each has a foot resting on a propped-up skull, as if to exhibit it. I suspect they were not factory employees. Probably they either were associates of the (unknown) photographer, or they were persons involved in the marketing of skulls.

Was this photograph, then, perhaps a promotional creation? The skulls are not just piled, but arranged meticulously, for appearance. My working theory is that these men involved in the skull trade made the pile, or more probably had it made, specifically for photographic depiction, the photo to be used in promoting their product.

There are many other historic photos of piles of buffalo bones, along railroad tracks in places like Regina (a town originally known as “Pile of Bones”), Dickinson, and Dodge City. We historians always have noted the passing importance of the bone trade in the homesteading era, but on reflection, I find I have a lot of unanswered questions about it. And there are new sources available to address those questions.

Stay tuned for more on this somewhat grisly subject.

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