By this point in your lives, most of you are by no doubt aware of the massive slaughter of buffalo that happened in the United States in the late 19th century. Across the plains, thousands of buffalo were killed every week during a brief period where the hides of these animals could fetch upwards of $10 a pop. (The Bureau of Labor Statistics inflation calculator only goes back to 1913, so it's hard for me to say what that's worth today. But we know from the context that even when the value of buffalo hides dropped to $1 each, the business of killing and skinning buffalo was still considered a damned fine living.)
You might think that the business ended there, with dead, skinned buffalo left to rot on the prairie. And you're sort of right. But, in a story at Bloomberg News, Tim Heffernan explains that, a few years later, those dead buffalo created another boom and bust industry—the bone collection business.
Animal bones were useful things in the 19th century. Dried and charred, they produced a substance called bone black. When coarsely crushed, it could filter impurities out of sugar-cane juice, leaving a clear liquid that evaporated to produce pure white sugar -- a lucrative industry. Bone black also made a useful pigment for paints, dyes and cosmetics, and acted as a dry lubricant for iron and steel forgings.
... And so the homesteaders gathered the buffalo bones. It was easy work: Children could do it. Carted to town, a ton of bones fetched a few dollars. Sent to rendering plants and furnaces in the big industrial cities, that same ton was worth between $18 and $27. Boiled, charred, crushed or powdered, it was worth as much as $60.
... By the 1880s, however, a few reporters were expressing nervous awe at the scale of the cleansing, and even despair for what had been lost. In 1891, not 25 years after the slaughter began, the Chicago Daily Tribune ran a dispatch titled “Relics of the Buffalo.” The relics were the animals’ empty pathways and dust wallows, worn into the surface of the Manitoba plains over countless years. The bones, let alone the living creatures, were long gone.
It's a fascinating read. And to give you a more vivid idea of what this short-lived industry looked like at its height, I want to share a quote with you that Heffernan found in an August, 1891 issue of The San Francisco Chronicle. This quote isn't in his Bloomberg story. It also uses some derogatory language towards people of Native American ancestry. So you'll want to be aware of that going in. Despite that racism, I think it's worth posting here for the visual description of the bone business.
Reading this quote (and Heffernan's story) is where I, for the first time, got a real understanding of how insane the buffalo slaughter really was, and the impact it must have had on both Native American communities and the overall ecology of the West. To grasp the idea of millions of dead animals as more than a statistic, you have to "see" the aftermath.
From The San Francisco Chronicle, August 1891, in an article titled "Half-Breeds Scouring the Plains for Fertilizer Material":
"Scarcely a station along the road but has two or three pyramids of bones awaiting shipment. To the traveler they have the appearance at a distance of hills covered with snow, but upon closer examination the skulls, ribs, and other bones of human beings as well as animals are revealed in all their hideousness. These half-breeds have worked industriously at the gathering of the bones, as the absence of them on the prairies will attest. They are well paid for their work."
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.