Plains Folk

Dry Bones


Those of an Old Testament frame of mind will find resonance in my title today, “Dry Bones”–but in fact I speak not from the Book of Ezekiel but rather from the historical sources of the northern plains in the late nineteenth century.

Last week I talked about the great pile of buffalo skulls photographed at Detroit’s Michigan Carbon Works, where bison bones were burned into bone black for making sugar and fertilizing farms. Now I follow those bones back to their point of origin on the prairies, specifically to the Dakota Territory.

We know from pioneer memoirs, local histories, and brief mentions by academic historians about the bone trade, how bone pickers fanned out across the prairies, retrieved the dry bones of otherwise-vanished herds, and delivered them in trade to the railroad towns. Now, getting into pioneer newspapers chronicling the trade, I am able to correct some misapprehensions and delve into details.

In the first place, pioneer memories notwithstanding, the bone trade was not dominated by homesteaders making a little cash to grubstake their claims. Homesteaders mostly retrieved the remnants not already gathered by previous pickers–individuals who set out in wagons as soon as railroad towns were established in any particular place.

The early bone pickers in North Dakota comprised two groups: transient whites who followed the railroad frontier, and reservation Indians, along with mixed-bloods, or Métis. Turtle Mountain Chippewa and Spirit Lake Dakota were prominent participants in the trade.

Note the locations of those reservations, and we become attuned to another insight from the primary sources. I suspect we are conditioned by experience with Theodore Roosevelt National Park to think of the country west of the Missouri as the buffalo range, but the Missouri Coteau and adjacent Drift Prairie were prime buffalo country, and thus prime bone picking country.

Cooperstown, for instance, was a center for the trade. On 30 May 1884 the Cooperstown Courier reported 250 tons of bones, “representing at least 10,000 animals,” awaiting shipment to the carbon works in Detroit. The going price paid to pickers was eight dollars a ton. Beginning in 1885 every issue of the Courier carried ads like

Wanted 2,000 tons of Buffalo Bones at Whidden Bro’s

$12 per ton for Buffalo bones at John Syverson & Co.

Cash paid, flour or mcdse exchanged for Buffalo Bones

Cash paid for dry Buffalo Bones, at Whidden Bros.

There, you heard that phrase, “dry bones”–and here is the explanation I discovered–I am quoting a Jamestown paper in 1890:

A Kidder county man who gathers buffalo bones for the market is said to let them soak over night in water before delivery. The weight is materially increased thereby.

I am not saying that it was common for bone pickers to work this waterlogging scam, but purchasers advertising for “dry bones” were warning them not to expect premium prices for bones quickly gathered after a good rain.

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