The grisly business of buffalo bones

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."

Read Tim Heffernan's story in Bloomberg News

Image: IMG_7329, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from beggs's photostream


    1. The same people call chimpanzees monkeys. Don’t bother correcting them – it frustrates you and just pisses them off.

  1. I live in Manitoba, we see the paintings at our Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature of what the plains used to look like with thousands of buffalo roaming. It is a shame that humanity has such high disregard for nature.

    1.  You mean the Manitoba Museum? (minus the sexist parts, now). I’m just old enough to remember the old name as well, but still.

      Back to bison. I grew up in the extreme south-west corner of Manitoba near the border with North Dakota. Two interesting notes about the area: you can still see the remains of much earlier indigenous ‘buffalo’ jumps, including one that I know of near my old stomping grounds, all over the ravines and valleys near the Souris River (not to mention a lot of burial mounds, and the occasional stone point); and, there is a modern wild plains bison herd on protected land in Riding Mountain National Park, several hours north of my hometown area.

      I cannot express in words how gorgeous Riding Mountain is, and it’s one of the few places you can see a wild herd of bison.

  2. I always wondered why the buffalo hide was such a commodity back in the day…the trapping and almost complete eradication of beaver made sense: beaver hats.

    But the fashionable ladies of New york and Baltimore weren’t wearing full on bison robes…were they?

    Then, this quote from The Mark Inside by Amy Reading (a bb recommendation!):

    “When tanners learned to turn buffalo hides into strong leather for use as industrial belting in steam engines in the 1870’s, the fate of the buffalo was sealed: the Industrial Revolution literally as well as metaphorically drove the buffalo to extinction”

    1. I was under the impression that getting rid of the bison was more of an ethnic cleansing strategy to get the tribes whose way of life revolved around the bison off their land.

  3. Of course, a bonus to all this was that this made things tough for Native Americans.

    Some U.S. government officials even promoted the destruction of the bison herds as a way to defeat their Native American enemies, who were resisting the takeover of their lands by white settlers. One Congressman, James Throckmorton of Texas, believed that “it would be a great step forward in the civilization of the Indians and the preservation of peace on the border if there was not a buffalo in existence.” Soon, military commanders were ordering their troops to kill buffalo — not for food, but to deny Native Americans their own source of food. One general believed that buffalo hunters “did more to defeat the Indian nations in a few years than soldiers did in 50.”

  4. I live in eastern Montana.  The locals were picking up bison bones well into the Dirty Thirties.  They were just piled up with the bones of the other animals, domestic and wild, that died in those drought years.  
    The stink from hundreds of dead bison rotting across the plains was, I gather, quite impressive.

  5. And once all the buffalo were gone, the cows showed up en masse, imported from europe. 

    Sometimes when I’m driving through the western part of the US, I wonder what it would be like to see ranchers move away from cattle and switch back to the native buffalo. Would buffalo fare better? Or are cattle an “improved” model?

    There’s a handful of buffalo ranches out there but they’re “botique” enterprises. Nothing compared to the hundreds of miles of cattle ranges you witness as you drive through Wyoming or Montana. 

    1. Having had delicious, delicious bison meat on a few occasions, I would certainly love to see more ranchers switch to the native fauna. It’s quite a bit leaner than beef, too.

    2. One of the best features of cows (from a rancher’s point of view) is that they are predictably stupid. With the emphasis on predictable. Its easy to know what a cow is going to do in any given sitiuation. Bison are unpredictably stupid, which is an entirely different thing.

      I love how they taste but I’d hate to raise them.

      1. I think Ryan gets at why we don’t see more bison ranchers.  Could you imagine trying to put up a fence that would keep bison in?  And then running it over a large enough area for them to live in?

        I’d bet, though, that given a few decades of selective breeding, we could produce buffalo stupid enough to be raised like cows.  But then, would they be as delicious?

  6. “Half-breed” — denoting mixed Native American and European heritage — at least among Native communities, is not as derogatory as it used to be. And the presence of a dirt-poor “half-breed” people scouring the plains for whatever scant remnants is its own interesting history. I guess hard times really bring people together.

    I grew up in Southern California, and half of my white classmates were of Okie descent — dust-bowl refugees — and almost all of them had some kind of Cherokee/Choctaw/ other Native ancestry. Of course, Cherokees were/are a southern tribe who were relocated to the  plains at gunpoint during the Trail of Tears. Judging by the number of dirty-blond haired Cherokees I’ve met, they were quite a randy bunch.

    Prior to that, it was common for tribes all up and down the eastern seaboard, whose populations had plummeted from disease, to adopt other people into their numbers: escaped and/or emancipated slaves, white indentured servants and orphans etc. More than a few cases of white people simply defecting from the horribly stifling culture of the time.

    Race and American history is quite intertwined and very different than you would first think judging by the rhetoric we use to describe it.

    1. I’m descended from those part-Cherokee/Choctaw Okie dust-bowl denizens myself, although my family didn’t get out of Oklahoma until some time in the 50’s.

  7. “Judging by the number of dirty-blond haired Cherokees I’ve met, they were quite a randy bunch.”

    Um, you’re saying that the fact that the Cherokee had mixed race children, after being forced to move halfway across the continent and assimilate with white culture, means that the Cherokee are extra horny?!?!

    This is so wack, I don’t know what to say except that I hope you seize this as a learning moment.  Let’s assume your heart’s in the right place, and it’s just time to examine the racist stereotype of the oversexed native/negro and take it out of your personal repertoire.  I mean, you wouldn’t have said, “Judging by the number of dirty-blond haired Cherokees I’ve met, THE EUROPEANS were quite a randy bunch.”  Right?  Think about why that is.  

    Merely having offspring does not make the Cherokees any more horny than any other race.  

    Okay, now that that’s out of the way, you also might want to consider the high rate of rape of American Indian women (even still today).  Think of the mixed-race descendants of enslaved African women.  We know rape of enslaved women was common.  We don’t see the mixed-race descendants today as evidence that African women slaves were extra-horny.  Well, rape of American Indian women is tragically common, too.  Please do not misunderstand – that is not to say that all the mixed race offspring are from rape.  It’s to say that the blond Cherokee you mention are not evidence that the Cherokee are especially horny.  They are merely evidence that Cherokee and Europeans procreated.

    1.  Also, if I were running the Ebonex Corporation, its themsong would be a slightly modified version of Malcolm McLaren’s “Double Dutch”…

      Hey Ebo-… Ebo, Ebonex
           Bah-bah bah bah-bah..
      Hey Ebo-… Ebo, Ebonex
           Bah-bah bah bah-bah..
      Hey Ebo-… Ebo, Ebonex
           Bah-bah bah bah-bah..

  8. Sad and ghoulish business.  These poor creatures are the victims of a holocaust. I would no more want to showcase their bones than I would the bones of children killed in a gulag.

  9. Manifest Destiny – it’s also the name of the trophy you get in the PS3 version of “Red Dead Redemption” when you kill every buffalo/bison in the game. 

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