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Serving: Central

Buffalo's decline tragic part of national history

Years ago saw the practical disappearance of the buffalo as a game animal on the Great Plains. However, even before their disappearance, they had already been decimated around the Mid-South. It occurred at such an early date that there is not much recorded history regarding the decline of buffaloes in the Mid-South.

At one time, buffalo grazed, wallowed and roamed over all the states covered by the readers of Delta Farm Press.

Attempts were made to estimate the number of buffalo that roamed North America before the coming of the white man. Such estimates, of course, are little better than guesses, but they are not uninstructive.

One authority estimated that not less than 40 million buffaloes lived on the plains, 30 million on the prairies (including the prairies of Arkansas, Louisiana, western Tennessee and Mississippi), and 5 million in the forest regions — a total of 75 million.

Others placed the total number at between 50 million and 60 million; and still others believed that the number must have been at least 125 million.

The ancient range of the buffalo was from the Atlantic seaboard west to the deserts of central Nevada, and from Texas and the Gulf States north to Great Slave Lake.

The Spanish were the first Western explorers to see and describe them.

Tales told by pioneers concerning the immense numbers of buffalo seen on the plains were a severe tax upon one's powers of belief. A Col. Dodge described a herd 50 miles wide that required five days to pass a given point. Gen. Phil Sheridan (1831-1888) traveled for 120 miles through a continuous herd, packed so densely that the earth was black, and the train was compelled to stop several times.

The next spring a train on the same track was delayed at a point between Fort Marker and Fort Hayes, Kans., for eight hours, while an immense herd crossed the track. “As far as the vision could carry, the level prairie was black with the surging mass of affrighted buffaloes rushing onward to the south.”

With buffaloes existing on the plains in such incredible numbers in the 1860s, their utter disappearance from the southern plains in the 1870s, and from the more northern region in the early 1880s, was truly an amazing circumstance. It was due in the main to the activities of the hide hunters who left their trail of desiccating carcasses and bleaching bones throughout the whole vast region roamed by the buffalo millions.

Before the coming of the white man, the increase in the numbers of buffalo was limited by the Indians and wolves and other breast of prey. Tens of thousands also drowned annually when the herds forded rivers.

However, as soon as the Indians acquired firearms and horses, the animals were killed off more rapidly than their numbers were replenished by natural increase, and white hunters and settlers ably abetted the work of destruction.

In the decade from 1850 to 1860, it is estimated that the Indians alone were killing 3.5 million buffaloes each year. In 1883, Sitting Bull and his band, with some white hunters, killed the last 10 thousand of the northern herd.

After the hide hunters followed the bone collectors. Buffalo bones were strewn over the plains in incredible quantities, and these were gathered up for utilization in carbon works, mostly in St. Louis. It took one hundred buffalo skeletons to weigh a ton. The price per ton averaged $8. In thirteen years, in Kansas alone, $2.5 million was paid for buffalo bones, representing the skeletons of more than 31 million buffaloes.

Civilization was incompatible with such a large animal, so the tale of the passing of the buffalo is a tragic and depressing one.

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