Monday, July 27, 2015
At the end of the 5th episode of Ken Burns' amazing documentary series "The West," they recount the history of building two rail roads across the continent from "sea to shining sea." The wonder of this historical documentary lives through telling stories of real people from the era embodied in the voices of famous actors reading published and private letters through a tapestry of fantastic still period photos of people and actual events. As the tale of the rail road construction unfolds, Burns weaves into it the conspired extirpation of American Buffalo. When the photo above appeared, I took a halting involuntary breath, then stopped the show abruptly to search it out on the internet.
Buffalo blood mathematics in the 1800's was calculated at a profit of $3.00 US per animal and a cost of .25 cents per rifle shell. Much later, when the bison bones on the prairie were bleached white you could come back to harvest them and for your labours expect to recieve from $2.50 to $15.00 a ton. At the peak of the slaughter many hunters shot more than 250 buffalo per day. Prior to 1800 it is estimated 50 million buffalo lived in continental North America, but by 1889 there were just 835 buffalo remaining in the wild. An estimated 500,000 buffalo exist today, with about half them in Canada.
"The thing we had to have, we businessmen with rifles, was one shot kills. We based our success on... the overwhelming stupidity of the buffalo, unquestionably the stupidest game animal in the world... If you wounded the leader... the rest of her herd, whether it was three or thirty, would gather around her and stupidly "mill" ... All you had to do... was pick them off one by one... I once took 269 hides with 300 cartridges. Adventurous? No more than shooting a beef critter in the barnyard... It was a harvest. We were the harvesters." Frank H. Mayer
Hunters began killing buffalo by the hundreds of thousands in the winter months. One hunter, Orlando Brown brought down nearly 6,000 buffalo by himself and lost hearing in one ear from the constant firing of his .50 caliber rifle. The Texas legislature, sensing the buffalo were in danger of being wiped out, proposed a bill to protect the species. General Sheridan opposed it, stating, ”These men have done more in the last two years, and will do more in the next year, to settle the vexed Indian question, than the entire regular army has done in the last forty years. They are destroying the Indians’ commissary. And it is a well known fact that an army losing its base of supplies is placed at a great disadvantage. Send them powder and lead, if you will; but for a lasting peace, let them kill, skin and sell until the buffaloes are exterminated. Then your prairies can be covered with speckled cattle.”