“The Last Buffalo”

June 6, 1874

artist unknown

“The Last Buffalo”

Business, Clothing; Endangered Species;

No 'People' indexed for this cartoon.

American West;

"Don't shoot, my good fellow! Here, take my 'robe,' save your ammunition and let me go in peace."

This gruesome Harper's Weekly cartoon graphically reveals the devastation wrought on the buffalo population of the American West in the 1870s.

When the first Europeans colonized the Atlantic coastline in the seventeenth century, buffalo could be found from southern New York to northern Georgia.  As the settlements spread, the buffalo were pushed further westward.  In the 1750s, Daniel Boone hunted buffalo in the Carolinas, but by 1769 he could only hunt them on the western slopes of the Appalachian Mountains.  In 1832 the last buffalo living east of the Mississippi River were killed in Wisconsin.

As Americans explored and then settled the prairie lands of the trans-Mississippi West during the early and mid-nineteenth century, the massive number of buffalo there shocked them.  The plains region of North America had always been the primary habitat for the American buffalo, and in the early-nineteenth century it was home to an estimated 30-200 million.  The wild buffalo was a large, hardy creature that could easily survive the harsh winters of the Western prairie.  

Plains Indians considered the buffalo to be sacred, and it was vital to their survival. They used its hide for robes, blankets, and other protective coverings, its meat for food, and its dried manure for heating fuel.  The method Plains Indians employed for killing buffalo was either to surround the animals or drive them off a cliff.   The instruments they favored were bows and arrows or spears until the introduction of an accurate repeating-rifle in the 1870s.  In battle against the white settlers or army, the Indians treated the buffalo as a decoy and a shield.  The number of buffalo killed by the Indians was small, but it grew as they began supplying white traders. 

The market for buffalo robes was already flourishing by the 1840s, and the hunting of the animal for sport became popular in the Kansas Territory during the 1850s.  The expansion of the railroad system to the American West beginning in the late 1860s adversely affected the buffalo.  The railroad companies contracted with buffalo hunters to provide meat for their construction workers.  More importantly, completion of the lines brought a far larger number of settlers to the region than ever before and provided easier and more productive means of transporting buffalo robes to Eastern markets.  Buffalo meat was shipped by rail only during the winter months until primitive types of refrigerated cars were adopted in the 1870s (though spoilage continued to be a problem).  Railroad companies realized that although the large buffalo herds could be a nuisance when they blocked the tracks, they also entertained the passengers. The firms ran special excursion trains for sightseers and (particularly) sport hunters, which they advertised widely in Eastern newspapers.

Through 1871, the major commercial product derived from the buffalo were robes, and as the supply increased, so did the demand.  The buffalo robes, as the Indians knew, were effective protection against cold weather, which was especially important to drivers and passengers in the open, horse-drawn vehicles of the day.  In the winter of 1870-1871, tanneries in the United States, England, and Germany seeking an alternative source to cattle for leather experimented successfully with buffalo hides.  Word of the new market for buffalo spread quickly and hunters flooded the prairies.  They demanded more accurate rifles, which the Remington and Sharps companies soon provided.  When the southern herds were depleted in the 1870s, hunters moved with the expanding railroads to the northern plains.  By 1884, the buffalo herds in the north had been decimated as well. 

A few isolated voices had been raised before the Civil War to criticize the wanton destruction of the buffalo, but, with the herds obviously plentiful in the West, such concerns were ignored.  As the buffalo population plunged in the early 1870s, a small movement arose for the enactment of protective legislation.  However, those states or territories that passed such measures did so after the local buffalo population had already collapsed, or found that the laws were difficult to enforce.

In 1871, R. C. McCormick, the congressional delegate from the Arizona Territory introduced a bill in the U.S. House for the protection of the buffalo, but it never made it out of committee.  He tried again the next year by showing other congressmen an illustrated article in Harper's Weekly that warned of the impending extermination of the buffalo.  The illustration by Theodore Davis shows wolves and vultures devouring the carcasses of dead buffalo.  McCormick also read letters on the House floor from army officers, Indian agents, and the head of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals that urged the federal government to take action.  

McCormick overplayed his hand when he read a letter pointing out the devastating effect the loss of the buffalo had on the Plains Indians.  It reminded congressmen who favored a hard-line Indian policy that allowing the destruction of the buffalo would expedite the goal of undermining the Indian population.  Yet widespread newspaper reporting of the continued decimation of the buffalo finally prompted Congress to pass protective legislation in the spring of 1874.  But President Ulysses S. Grant pocket-vetoed the measure.  Secretary of the Interior Columbus Delano had recently reported to the president that "the total disappearance of the buffalo" was an effective way to encourage the Indians to adopt an agricultural lifestyle, which (white) reformers desired.  Grant's chief military advisors on Indian policy, Generals William Sherman and Philip Sheridan, argued that the Indians would be forced to capitulate to the army once the buffalo was gone. 

Harper's Weekly continued to condemn the destruction of the buffalo herds.  This cartoon appeared near the time of Grant's veto, and its theme is later amplified in a full-page cover illustration of the December 12, 1874 issue.  The latter sketch, "Slaughtered for the Hide," shows a dead, skinned buffalo (like the one in the cartoon) dominating the foreground of the picture, as the hunter holds a knife in one hand and the animal's skin aloft with the other.  

By the mid-1880s, only a few hundred buffalo existed, located primarily in the area of Yellowstone National Park.  The 1872 law establishing the park prohibited the "wanton destruction" of fish or game "for the purposes of merchandise or profit."  Poachers, though, took advantage of the absence of enforcement mechanisms and no funding during the park’s first five years.  Conditions were so bad in 1886 that a U.S. Cavalry unit had to police the park.  The situation remained much the same until 1894 when President Grover Cleveland signed the Yellowstone Protection Act into law.  It banned killing game, cutting timber, or removing mineral deposits upon penalty of fines and jail time.  Other preservation measures were taken throughout the twentieth century.  Today, there are about 350,000 buffalo in North America.

Robert C. Kennedy

“The Last Buffalo”
July 14, 2024

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