When the English first settled in Virginia in the 1600s, the buffalo numbered as many as 60 million from coast to coast, surpassing in size even the vast wildebeest herds of Africa.
By the time the pioneers crossed the Great Plains in the 1840s, that population had been devastated, the result of two centuries of hide hunting by mountain men in the West and encroachment by settlers in the East. There remained, however, as many as 20 million buffalo filling the horizon in black shrouds that stretched for tens of miles.
To the first European pioneers, the plains must have been terrifying—the huge spaces, the sun and wind and rain, the lack of wood for warmth and meat for protein. In the buffalo, with its heavy fur and plentiful meat, they found first solace and then dependence. They also found a road map: migrating from feeding grounds to salt licks to calving grounds, the buffalo carved out the first mass thoroughfares across North America, paths pounded through soil and forest and snow-covered mountain passes. With time, the pioneers learned what the American Indian had known for countless generations: the buffalo were the link to continued life.
In the years following the Civil War, financial and government interests sought to sever that relationship. The belief was that wherever the buffalo roamed, so too did the American Indian, whose very presence threatened the success of westward expansion. By the 1870s, the U.S. Army was losing one soldier for every three Indians it killed. Railroad barons, whose interests the Army was in large part working to protect, needed to indemnify their transcontinental investments against native intrusion.
Texas cattlemen, meanwhile, had already begun driving their longhorns north, looking for new forage, links to the Union Pacific, and access to eastern markets. All parties saw the buffalo, which fed and clothed the Indian, as the key obstacle to dominance. “When we get rid of the Indians and buffalo,” enthused General Nelson Miles, commander of a garrison near Fort Keogh, Montana, in 1876, “the cattle . . . will fill this country.”
In an 1875 speech to the Texas legislature, General Philip Sheridan summed up the feelings of the day: “[the buffalo hunters] have done . . . more to settle the vexed Indian question than the entire regular army has done in the last thirty years. They are destroying the Indians’ commissary. . . . Send them powder and lead, if you will; but for the sake of a lasting peace let them kill, skin and sell until the buffalo are exterminated. Then your prairies can be covered with speckled cattle and the festive cowboy, who follows the hunter as a second forerunner of an advanced civilization.”
That Sheridan’s speech is believed to be apocryphal—the invention of a contemporaneous buffalo hunter turned historian—should not diminish its usefulness as a snapshot of life on the plains. For their part, the Indians, wrote Dee Brown in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, were flabbergasted at “a civilization that advanced by exterminating useful animals.”
The rail and cattle tycoons were abetted in their efforts by an unlikely nexus of interests. Chief among them were British banks and investment companies, which, along with eastern banks looking to leverage British capital, conspired to corner the trade in beef (beloved of the British aristocracy) and grab land and resources in a largely unregulated part of the United States. British-owned investment firms such as the Anglo-American Cattle Company, the Colorado Mortgage and Investment Company of London, and the Scottish American Investment Company secured hundreds of thousands of acres of the American West, often through fraud and “stockmen’s associations,” which were really thinly disguised fronts for their interests.
At the same time, other foreign financial organizations invested millions of dollars in U.S. railroads, most notably the Union Pacific. “With the help of eastern and British capital,” wrote one observer in the 1880s, “[the stockmen’s associations] have expanded all of a sudden into confederacies dangerous alike to private enterprise and to public liberty.”
Eastern cities and the markets of Europe, sold on the romance of the buffalo robe, hastened the buffalo’s demise. Buffalo coats, softer than lamb’s wool, were warm and stylishly wild—the frontier brought to the salon. The hides, transformed by new methods of tanning, became belts, bags, the uppers for the most fashionable boots and shoes; the preferred leather for carriage tops, sleighs, and hearses; the prize material for the drive belts in the factories of the Industrial Revolution; and armor and jackets for the English, French, and German armies, which were resupplying in the wake of Bismarck’s wars.
British imports of buffalo hides shot from under 50,000 in 1871 to an estimated 620,000 four years later. The tongues, fresh or smoked, were considered a delicacy by the rich and brought twenty-five cents apiece; the hams went for three cents a pound at the rail depots; the horns and hooves became buttons, knife handles, and glue; and the bones, used as fertilizer or as a whitener for sugar, sold for eight dollars a ton.
The railways placed advertisements offering to pay a bounty on each beast felled. In 1869, a report in this magazine described passengers shooting from “every available window, with rifles, carbines, and revolvers.” Another account told of the Russian Grand Duke Alexis, son of Czar Alexander II, who joined General Philip Sheridan, commander of the Armies of the West, and Buffalo Bill Cody on a hunt.
As reported by Lieutenant General George Custer, who was also in attendance, the Duke was so enthused at the sight of his first kill that he leaped onto the cadaver, carved off its tail, and spattered the blood of his trophy through the air while choking out “a series of howls and gurgles like the death-song of all the fog-horns and calliopes ever born.”
Between 1870 and 1880, at least 10 million buffalo, and possibly as many as 20 million, were killed. Two hundred thousand hides were sold in Fort Worth in a single day. West of Fort Dodge, Kansas, it was said, one could walk a hundred miles along the Santa Fe line hopscotching the dead. Army Colonel Richard Dodge, stationed in Kansas in 1873, wrote that “the air was foul with a sickening stench, and the vast plain, which only a short twelve months before teemed with animal life, was a dead, solitary, putrid desert.”
Thereafter the northern plains would be cattle country. Between 1866 and 1884, at least 5 million longhorns were driven north out of Texas. The number of cattle in Wyoming rose from 90,000 in 1874 to 500,000 by 1880; and by 1883 in Montana, where ten years earlier there were practically no cows, half a million now grazed on grasses untouched by their rivals. “For every single buffalo that roamed the Plains in 1871,” wrote Colonel Dodge, “there are in 1881 not less than two, and more probably four or five, of the descendants of the longhorned cattle of Texas.”
The cattlemen would soon learn the shortcomings of the animal they had chosen to replace the buffalo. In the disastrous winter of 1886–87, hundreds of thousands of cows died of exposure and starvation on the plains, some of them even crushed to death on barbed-wire drift fences during the storms. Buffalo hunter Charles Jesse Jones, a marksman whose fame rivaled even Cody’s, and who shot and skinned ten buffalo a day at the height of business in the 1870s, noted in his memoirs that “Every one of [the cows] died with its tail to the blizzard.” Buffalo, as Jones knew, face storms in marching columns, taking turns driving through the drifts. Cattle lack other essential survival instincts: they calve during storms, unlike the buffalo, which prudently stop and wait for the weather to pass; cows have thin hides and store less fat to counter the cold.
And in the warm months, cattle, if provided the feed, will gorge almost to death; buffalo, whose digestive systems are considerably more efficient, won’t overeat given a binful of grain, and they won’t bloat in a field of alfalfa, as cows do. The buffalo’s sharp hooves even serve to break up and oxygenate soil rather than flatten and deplete it, which improves the turf and increases the variety of grasses, forbs, and shrubs.
Buffalo eat a wider array of plants than do cows, which likely helped to sustain their massive populations. They don’t gather in large groups around springs and streams, opting instead to wallow in potholes, which, seeded with their manure, become fertile ground for much-needed vegetation. In short, they are a better animal than the cow—better built, anyway—for the hardships of the high country and the arid West.
Cows are also major contributors to global warming. A 2006 report issued by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization noted that livestock account for 18 percent of all greenhouse-gas emissions, including, from human-generated activities, 37 percent of methane, which has twenty-three times the warming potential of CO2; and 65 percent of nitrous-oxide emissions (296 times the warming potential of CO2).
By 1889, Jones, who had quit the hunt and would spend the next two decades working to corral the remnants of the herds for conservation purposes, reported that “there cannot be more than one hundred [buffalo] left in the whole United States outside of those in the National Park.” The park was Yellowstone, and it was here that Jones, appointed game warden by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1902, sought to increase the numbers of the holdouts of the last known genetic pool linked to the original 60 million.
This terminal wild bunch, ancestors of the modern herd, had by 1902 been reduced at the hands of poachers to just twenty-three members holed up in the Pelican Valley, one of the coldest and snowiest places in the continental United States, a place no cow would consent to graze.