1876 Report

Featured image: “Herd of Buffalo on the Prairies,” in Henry R. Schoolcraft, History, Condition, and Prospects of the Indian Tribes of the United States, vol. 4 (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1856), 98.

The work of J.A. Allen, excerpted below, represents an exhaustive study for the time. It receives no credit as inspiration for “passionate advocacy of the vanishing prairie bison” from Canada’s man of letters, Charles Mair, author of “The Last Bison” (1888), and “The American Bison,” (1891)—Mair instead claiming his insights spring from personal experience.[*] A comparison of both content and perspectives regarding causes of extermination, however, suggests Mair likely owed Allen something more than a mention.

J.A. Allen, The American Bisons, Living and Extinct, no. 10, Memoirs of the Museum of Comparative Zoology, at Harvard College ser. vol. 4 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1876).

[155–156:] “Extermination in Eastern Dakota.—As late as 1850 General John Pope stated that the buffalo ranged ‘in immense herds between the Pembina and Shayenne [sic] Rivers,’ and were ‘found in great numbers, winter and summer, along the Red River,’ being ‘frequently killed in the immediate vicinity of the settlements at Pembina.’[1] Mr. Henry Rice also states that in the spring of 1847 a party of Red River hunters, numbering twelve hundred carts, went in a body south to Devil’s Lake, in Minnesota (now Dakota);[2] while Mr. J. E. Fletcher states that twenty thousand buffalo were at this time annually killed in the country of the Sioux and Chippewa Indians, south of the United States and British boundary, mostly within the present Territory of Dakota.[3] The Hon, H.H. Sibley has given an interesting account of a buffalo-hunt in Eastern Dakota (then part of Minnesota Territory) in Schoolcraft’s great work on the Indian Tribes of the United States,[4] and incorporates therewith a detailed account, furnished him by the Rev. Mr. Belcourt, of the chase of the buffalo on the Pembina Plains.[5] It contains not only much valuable information respecting the peculiar modes of hunting pursued by the Red River hunters, but also important statistics respecting the rate of their destruction at the date of writing (1853).

Mr. A. W. Tinkham, in the ‘Itinerary’ of his route from St. Paul to Fort Union, in June and July, 1853, speaks of using the bois de vache for fuel on the Maple River, and reports killing his first buffalo on the Sheyenne [sic: Cheyenne], one of the chief tributaries of the Red River. At this time, he says, large herds roamed over the prairies of the Sheyanne River, and extended as far south as the South Fork of the Sheyenne. He also met with recent indications of the buffalo on the White Earth River.[6]

Governor Stevens, in speaking of the abundance of the buffalo on the Shayenne River, near Lake Zisne, the same year says: ‘About five miles from camp we ascended to the top of a high hill, and for a great distance ahead every square mile seemed to have a herd of buffalo on it. Their number was variously estimated by the members of the party, some as high as half a million. I do not think it any exaggeration to set it down at 200,000. I had heard of the myriads of these animals inhabiting these plains, but I could not realize the truth of these accounts till to-day, when they surpass everything I could have imagined from the accounts which I had received.[7]

According to Assistant Surgeon Asa Wall, buffaloes were still common about Fort Abercrombie, on the Red River, as late as 1858.[8]

Mr. W.H. Illingworth, the well-known photographer of St. Paul, informs me that in 1866, when he made a journey from St. Cloud westward to the Yellowstone, he met with immense herds for two days in passing the Coteau des Prairie, west of the James River. They seem to have wholly disappeared east of the Missouri soon after this date, surviving in Southern Dakota, however, between the James and Missouri Rivers, for some years after their extermination over the plains of the Red River. As already stated. they were exterminated east of the Red River as early as about the year 1850,[9] and, being at that time rapidly pressed westward by the Red River hunters, were wholly exterminated during the few years next following throughout the whole basin of the Red River, and even throughout the whole of the northern half of Dakota. In Southern Dakota, between the James and the Missouri, they lingered for some years later, but wholly disappeared east of the Missouri prior to the year 1870.

buffalo upper missouri

Karl Bodmer, watercolour, “Herd of Bison on the Upper Missouri,” (1833).

Region between the Upper Missouri and 49th Parallel.—The former existence of the buffalo over the whole of the region drained by the Upper Missouri is well substantiated by the evidence they themselves have left, and which exist in the form of well-defined trails and osseous remains. When Lewis and Clarke ascended the Missouri in 1804, they met with them at frequent points along almost its whole course, from the mouth of the Big Sioux to the Forks, [10] and subsequent explorers found them on its remotest sources. As late as 1856 this whole region was occupied, at least temporarily, by roving bands. …

[157–158:] Respecting the present range of the buffalo between the Missouri River and the 49th parallel, and the evidence of their recent occupation of this whole belt of country, I am indebted to Dr. Elliot Coues … The communication dated ‘Washington, March 2, 1875,’ is as follows:—

‘The time when the buffalo ranged in this latitude (parallel of 49°), eastward of the Red River of the North, passed so long since that the traces of their former presence have become effaced. The present generation of hunters in Manitoba and adjacent portions of the United States trail to the westward, by several well-known routes, in pursuit of robes and meat. In travelling from the river I saw no sign whatever until in the vicinity of Turtle Mountain, where an occasional weather-worn skull or limb-bones may be observed. Thence westward to the Mouse River, the bony remains multiply with each day’s journey, until they become common objects; still, no horn, hoof, or patch of hide. In the space intervening between this river and the point where the Coteau de Missouri crosses the parallel of 49°, quite recent remains, as skulls still showing horns, nose-gristle, or hair, and portions of skeletons still ligamentously attached, are very frequent. At La Rivière de Lace, a day’s march west of the Mouse River, there was a grand battue [sic] a few years since, as evidenced by the numbers of bones, the innumerable deserted badger-holes, and the circles of stones denoting where Indian lodges stood. Within the Coteau the most recent remains are the rule; and a hundred miles from such edge (nearly north of the mouth of the Yellostone) living animals were seen in the summer of 1873. …

In the western portion of the Red River basin numberless buffalo-trails still score the ground, with a general north-south trend.’ …

[160:] It thus appears that twenty years ago buffaloes were accustomed to frequent the whole region between the Missouri River and the 49th parallel, from the western boundary of Dakota, or the 104th meridian, westward to the Rocky Mountains, occurring even throughout the foot-hills of the latter … but that they are now restricted to the region between Frenchman’s Creek, near the 107th meridian, and the Rocky Mountains, over much of which area their occurrence is merely irregular or less fortuitous. …

[172:] Mr. Huyshe, writing in 1871 of the region about Fort Garry, says: ‘Buffalo are no longer found nearer than three hundred miles west of Fort Garry, and are gradually being driven further and further west by the advancing stream of civilization.’[11]

In a valuable communication respecting the present and former range of the buffalo in the British Possessions, kindly sent me by Mr. J. W. Taylor, U.S. Consul at Winnipeg, Mr. Taylor, under the date of ‘United States Consulate, Winnipeg, B.N.A., April 26, 1873,” writes as follows:

‘In preparing this reply to your note requesting information respecting the comparative numbers and present range of the buffalo, I have consulted Mr. Andrew McDermott, an old and intelligent resident of Selkirk Settlement, now known as the province of Manitoba. This gentlemen, when a very young man,—from 1812 to 1821,—and has since been a successful trader. His position in the country is attested by his recent appointment as the Manitoba Director of the Canada Railway Company.

My informant, in 1818, was in the midst of a large herd, only two miles west of Fort Garry, where I am writing. His party stood for an hour in the midst of the black moving mass, with difficulty preventing themselves, by the constant discharge of fire-arms, from being trampled to death. Now, in 1873, the nearest point where the animal is found is at the Woody Hills, upon the International frontier, three hundred miles southwestwardly, while you must go five hundred miles west to meet large bands, Formerly a variety called the wood buffalo was very numerous in the forests surrounding Lakes Winnipeg and Manitoba, the last survivor having been killed only two years ago, on Sturgeon Creek, ten miles west of Fort Garry. The wood buffalo is smaller than its congener of the plains, with finer and darker wool, and a superior quality of flesh, It more resembles the “bison” of naturalists.’ …

[174, quoting Dawson:] ‘I believe that, at the present rate of extermination, twelve to fourteen years will see the destruction of what now remains of the great northern band of buffalo, and the termination of the trade in robes and pemican, in so far as regards the country north of the Missouri River.’[12]

L.A. Huffman, photograph, “Killing Cows and Spikes,” (1907).

[177:] At the present time, as well as heretofore, those animals are most sought after on which the perpetuation of the race depends,—the young animals of both sexes and the cows. The older bulls are alike generally useless both to the Indians and the white hunter. The skins of the cows are alone used by the Indians in furnishing themselves with robes; the young and middle-aged cows are regarded as especially desirable by the white hunters, since they afford the best meat for the market, although along with them are killed yearlings, and two- and three-year-olds of both sexes; but bulls older than five or six years are not generally desired, though many have of late years been killed merely for their hides. The hunting season being chiefly in the fall and winter, the cows are then with young, and thus two animals are killed in securing one.

[187:] …very few robes are manufactured of the hides of buffalo except such as, in hunter’s parlance, are killed when they are in season, that is during the months of November, December, and January, and even of these are large proportion are not used for that purpose, and also that the skins of cows are principally converted into robes, those of the males being too thick and heavy to be easily reduced by the ordinary process of scraping. … [13]

robe press.JPG

Illustration, “Robe Press,” from “The Buffalo Range,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine 38, 24 (January, 1869), 162.

[188:] Respecting the number killed by the Red River hunters, I have met with no satisfactory statistics. …

[192:] The meat of the buffalo is often spoken of as being dry and tough, and far inferior in quality to beef. This is in a measure true, the flesh of middle-aged and elderly bulls being of this character, that of old bulls being eaten only when none other can be obtained. The flesh of a young fat cow, or of a yearling or two-year-old bull, however, is not surpasses by the finest beef, from which it cannot usually be distinguished. …

[193:] The tongue of even an old bull is always regarded as a delicate morsel, and is often saved when no other part of the animal is touched. The hump is generally considered to be next in delicacy and tenderness. …

[194:] Pemmican, though made sometimes from meat of other animals, as deer, elk, moose, mountain sheep, and reindeer, is prepared principally from the buffalo. It is put up in bags of from ninety to one hundred and ten pounds’ weight (according to different authorities), and consists of nearly equal parts, by weight, of pounded dried meat and tallow. The method of its preparation has been repeatedly described by different Northern travellers,[14] whose accounts differ somewhat in respect to the details, as they do in respect to its flavor and desirability as an article of food. The Earl of Southesk[15] speaks of it as scarcely endurable, and Captain Butler says that when prepared in the best form it “can be eaten, provided the appetite be sharp and there is nothing else to be had.—this last consideration is, however, of importance.”[16]

[200:] Among the products of the buffalo, mention of ‘buffalo chips,’ or bois de vache, as the French voyageurs term it, should not be omitted. This material, as most persons doubtless well know, is simply the dried excrement of the buffalo, which the traveller on the treeless plains finds a very serviceable substitute for wood. … After an exposure of six months it burns quite readily, but is not at its best as an article of fuel till it has had the suns and frosts of a year. It burns in much the same manner as peat, and though making but little flame yields a very intense heat.

[202:] —The Chase. An account of the means and methods [of hunting] by which the buffalo has become so nearly exterminated forms an interesting chapter in its history, since they have varied at different times and at different localities, in accordance with the customs of the different Indian tribes, and with the wants and implements of the white man. …

Charlevoix’s account of the Indian method is as follows: “In the Southern and Western Parts of New France, on both Sides of the Mississippi, the most famous Hunt is that of the Buffaloe, which is performed in this Manner: The Hunters range themselves on four Lines, which form a great Square, and begin by setting Fire to the Grass and Herbs, which are dry and very high: Then as the Fire gets forwards, they advance, closing their Lines: The Buffaloes, which are extremely afraid of Fire, keep flying from it, and at last find themselves so crowded together that they are generally every one killed. They say that a Party seldom returns from hunting without killing Fifteen Hundred or Two Thousand. But lest the different Companies should hinder each other, they all agree before they set out about the Place where they intend to hunt,” etc.[17]

[203–204:] Mr. Catlin, in his ‘North American Indians,’ has described with considerable detail the methods of hunting the buffalo among the Sioux Indians … Being bold and desperate horsemen, they almost invariably pursue the buffalo on horseback, despatching him with the bow and lance with apparent ease. The horses, being well trained to the chase, as well as very fleet, soon bring their riders alongside their game. … Riding near the rear of the herd he selects his animal, which he separates from the mass by dashing his horse between it and the herd, and, riding past it to the right, discharges his deadly arrow at the animal’s heart, which penetrates ‘to the feather.’ ….

In winter, when from the depth of the snow these huge creatures are unable to move rapidly, they fall an easy prey to the Indian, who overtakes them readily upon his snow-shoes, and despatches them with his bow and arrow, or drives his lance to their hearts. This being the season for gathering the robes, it is also a period of great slaughter. The skins being stripped off, the carcasses are generally left to the wolves, the Indians laying in during the fall a supply of dried meat for the winter. Catlin has also given an illustration of Indians disguised in wolf-skins creeping upon a herd that is unsuspectingly grazing on the level prairie, where they are shot down before they are aware of their danger by their disguised enemies.[18]

George Catlin, print, “Buffalo Hunt under the Wolf-skin Mask,” (c. 1844).

[205–206:] The Indians of the Northern Plains [Cree] were long in the habit of hunting the buffalo by impounding them, or by driving them into an artificial enclosure constructed for the purpose, within which the buffaloes were at their mercy. … Audubon states that the Gros Ventres, Blackfeet, and Assinniboines often also took the buffalo in large pens in a similar manner.[19]

[207–208:] On the plains, where no timber is available for the construction of pounds, the Indians pursue a different but an almost equally destructive method. The hunting party, numbering usually hundreds of horsemen, select such a portion of a large herd as they desire, to destroy, and, surrounding them, thus cut them off from the rest of the herd, and prevent their escape in every direction by enclosing them with a cordon of armed horsemen. The slaughter is begun simultaneously on all sides; and … usually continues until the whole ‘surround’ is killed … In their casual hunts the Indians simply follow the herds on horseback, shooting from the saddle when in full pursuit, using either bows and arrows or the modern fire-arms with great dexterity.

Descriptions of the systematic expeditions of the Red River half-breed hunters have been given with greater or less fulness [20] … The distinctive features of these grand hunting expeditions are their magnitude, the number of persons engaged in them, and the almost military character of their organization. As previously stated, these expeditions generally numbered from five hundred to upwards of twelve hundred carts, accompanied by from two hundred and fifty to six hundred hunters, nearly twice this number of women and children, besides a draught animal (either a horse or an ox) and a dog to each cart, and riding animals in addition for the hunters. Setting out from Fort Garry, the expeditions for many years hunted over the Pembina plains, extending their trips southward and westward over the prairies and plains of the Red River, the Shayenne, and the Coteau de Missouri. The Red River half-breed hunters have undoubtedly done more to exterminate the buffalo than any other single cause, and have long since wholly extirpated them throughout not only this vast region, but also over the extensive prairies of the Assinniboine, the Qu’appelle, and the lower Saskatchewan. Their method of hunting was for several hundred horsemen armed with fire-arms to make a grand simultaneous rush into the very midst of the immense herds …

[209–210:] The dexterity in loading and firing on horseback while at full speed exhibited by these half-breeds, as well as their tact in recognizing their game on the field of slaughter after the killing is over, is represented as surprising. Formerly, when hunting with the old flint-lock musket, says Mr. Taylor, they would drop a charge of powder into the palm of the hand, thence into the muzzle of the gun, following it with a bullet from a stock carried in the mouth, firing as often as this operation could be repeated. The use of the modern breech-loading arms, however, long since rendered this process needless. They seldom leave a mark to designate their own animals, though some do, leaving first a cap, then a sash, and so on, until, as often happens, these means of designation fail, five or six to a dozen buffaloes being generally killed in a single run by a good hunter. Riding in clouds of dust and smoke, in company with hundreds of other horsemen, crossing and recrossing each other’s tracks, among dead and wounded as well as among the terrified and fleeing animals, it certainly evinces, on the part of the hunter, no small degree of discriminating power, after an hour of such wild, bewildering confusion, to tell not only the number of animals he has killed, but also the exact spot where each lies. Yet this, we are told, is constantly done.

According to Simpson, the Red River hunter, in winter, when snow was too deep to pursue them on horseback, approached buffaloes by crawling to them on the snow, disguised sometimes by a close dun-colored cap, furnished with upright ears, to give him the appearance of a wolf, which, through constant association, the buffaloes regard without dread. Towards spring, when the deep snow is covered with a hard crust, which, while it supports the hunter, proves a great impediment to the buffaloes, they are easily run down by the hunters, and despatched with daggers while floundering in the deep drifts, even women and boys assisting in killing the then almost helpless animals.[21]

small arms shooter

Illustration, “A buffalo Hunt,” from “The Buffalo Range,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine 38, 24 (January, 1869), 154.

[214–215, regarding buffalo hunters at the time of writing:] Although successful in the pursuit of the buffalo, their success arises from the unsuspicious nature of their victims rather than from skill in the use or selection of their arms. The improved breech-loading United States musket is their favorite weapon, and most of them will use no other. A few employ Sharp’s and Winchester rifles; arms of small calibre, however, they generally despise. Yet with these heavy arms, used, as they are, at short range, only about one shot in three proves fatal, many of the poor beasts getting but a broken leg in place of a fatal shot. This is owing in part to carelessness or lack of skill in shooting, and in part to the inaccuracy of the arms. However good the gun may be originally, it soon deteriorates and is eventually ruined by rough usage. A few of the good hunters have good guns, take good care of them, and use them effectively, killing their game as readily at three hundred and four hundred yards as do the others at one fourth that distance. A rifle having a calibre of 45/100 inches is as effective a weapon against the buffalo as need be used, if accurate and skillfully employed, the fatality of the shot depending not so much upon the size of the ball used as upon the part of the animal hit. I have seen, for instance, an old buffalo bull shot entirely through the body at a distance of two hundred and thirty yards by a ball from  six-pound rifle, having a calibre of only 45/100 inches, the wound killing the animal almost instantly.

[215–216:]—Domestication of the Buffalo. Now that the buffalo is apparently so nearly exterminated, it is greatly to be regretted, not only that its ultimate extinction has been so rapidly hastened by improvident and wanton slaughter, but that no persistent attempts have as yet been made to utilize this valuable animal by domestication. … That the buffalo calf may be easily reared and thoroughly tamed needs not at this late day be proved. The known instances of their domestication are too many to admit even enumeration, but they have usually been kept merely as objects of curiosity, and little or no care has been given to their reproduction in confinement, and few attempts have been made to train them to labor….

[217:] Sibley observes, in speaking of the buffalo of the Red River of the North, that ‘in spring the calves are easily weaned, and when trained to labor become quite useful. One farmer, who had broken a bull to the plough, performed the whole work of the field with his aid alone.’[22]

[218, Robert Wickliffe, in a letter addressed to Messrs. Audubon and Bachman, dated Lexington, Kentucky, November 6, 1843, observes:] ‘old hunters have told me that when a young buffalo calf is taken, it requires the milk of two cows to raise it. … The young buffalo calf is of a sandy red or rufous color, and commences changing dark brown at about six months old, which color it always retains.’[23]

group with calf

“American Buffalo,” in Phebe Westcott Humphreys, A Natural History for Young People (1900), 142.

[*] Albert Braz, “Wither the Whiteman: Charles Mair’s ‘Lament for the Bison’,” Canadian Poetry Journal 49 (Fall/ Winter 2001), http://www.canadianpoetry.ca/cpjrn/vol49/braz.htm.

Reference notes taken from the above report:

[1] Report of an Exploration of the Territory of Minnesota. (Congressional Reports, 31st Congr. 1st Session, Senate Doc. no. 42, p. 27.)

[2] Congress, Rep. 31st Congr., 1st Sess., House Ex. Doc., Vol. VIII, No. 51, p. 8.

[3] Ibid., p. 41.

[4] Schoolcraft’s History, Condition, and Prospects of the Indian Tribes of the United States, Vol. IV, pp. 101–110.

[5] The account given by Sibley as that furnished by Mr. Belcourt seems to be merely a translation of Mr. Belcourt’s account of Buffalo-hunting by the Red River half-breeds originally contained in a letter addressed by Mr. Belcourt to Major S. Woods, and dated “St. Paul, November 25, 1845.” This document was published by Major Woods in his Report on his Expedition to the Pembina Settlement in 1849 (Congressional Documents of the 31st Congress, 1st Session, House Doc. No. 51, pp. 44–52).

[6] Pacific R.R. Exploration and Surveys, Vol. 1, Governor Steven’s Report, pp. 252–258.

[7] Pacific R.R. Rep. of Expl. and Surveys, Vol. XI, pt 1, p. 59.

[8] Med. Statistics U.S. Army, 1855–1860, p. 34.

[9] See above, p. 114.

[10] Expedition, etc., Vol. I, pp. 67, 75, 77, et seq.

[11] Huyshe (G. L.), The Red River Expedition, p. 230, 1871.

[12] Report on the Geology and Resources of the Region in the Vicinity of the Forty-ninth Parallel, etc., 1875, p. 296.

[13] [H.H. Sibley, quoted in] Schoolcraft’s History, Condition, and Prospects of the Indian Tribes of the United States, Vol. IV, p. 94.

[14] See Ross, The Red River Settlement, pp. 262–264; Sibley, in Schoolcraft’s History, Condition, and
Prospects of the Indian Tribes, Part IV, p. 107; Hind, Canadian Exploring Expedition, Vol. I, p. 312;
Butler, The Great Lone Land, p. 153, etc.

[15] Saskatchewan and the Rocky Mountains, p. 302.

[16] The Great Lone Land, p. 134.

[17] Letters, Goadby’s English Ed., p. 68.

[18] North American Indians, Vol. II, pp. 249–257.

[19] Audubon and Bachman’s Quadrupeds of North America, Vol. II, p. 49.

[20] McLean (John), Notes of Twenty-five Years’ Service in the Hudson’s Bay Territory, Vol. II,
pp. 297–302; Ross (Alexander), The Red River Settlement, pp. 255–264 ; Hind (H. Y.), Canad. Expl.
Expedition, Vol. II, pp. 110, 111.

[21] Narrative of the Discoveries on the North Coast of America, etc., p. 404.

[22] Sibley (H. H.), in Schoolcraft’s History, Condition, and Prospects of the Indian Tribes of the United
States, Vol. IV, p. 110.

[23] Audubon and Bachman’s Quadrupeds of North America, Vol. II, pp. 52–54. Mr. Wickliffe’s account of his observations and experiments has been repeatedly quoted by different writers on the subject of the domestication of the buffalo (see Baird, Patent-Office Report, Agriculture, Part II, 1851–52, pp. 120 – 128; Hind, Canadian Exploring Expedition, Vol. II, p. 113), and embraces nearly all of importance as yet published relating to the subject. In this connection may be noticed the astonishing dogmatism with which Schoolcraft, four years after the publication of Mr. Wickliffe’s account of his experiments in domesticating the buffalo, and three years after its republication by Professor Baird, asserts that while “the calf of the bison has often been captured on the frontiers, and brought up with domestic cattle,” and been “measurably tamed,” that “it produces no cross” and “is utterly barren in this state.” He alludes also to the statement of Gomara that it is susceptible of domestication, his statement being revived, Schoolcraft adds, and “in a manner galvanized by a justly eminent writer [Humboldt], after the uniform observation of the French and English colonists of America, disaffirming [!], for more than two centuries, the practicability of its domestication”; and further states that “all visitors and travellers who have spoken on the subject coincide in the opinion that the bison is incapable of domestication, and that it is not without imminent peril to themselves that the fierce and untamable herds of it are hunted.”—History, Condition, and Prospects of the Indian Tribes of the United Slates, Part V (1856), p. 49.

“Domestic Cow and Buffalo,” Schoolcraft, History, Condition, and Prospects of the Indian Tribes of the United Slates, vol. 4 (1856), 93:

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