Every once in a while in my travels through various photo archives, I come across an image that hits me with unexpected power. My most recent encounter involved a photo that documents in chilling fashion one of the darker legacies of westward expansion in the wake of the Civil War:
These are bison skulls—thousands and thousands and thousands of them. They’re piled up outside the Michigan Carbon Works in Rougeville, Michigan, waiting to be ground into fertilizer.
Estimates vary widely about the number of bison—commonly called “buffalo”—in North America at the start of the 19th Century. I’ve seen numbers ranging from 30 million to 60 million. That’s a pretty huge disparity, but either way, that’s a lot of bison.
“These last animals are now so numerous that from an eminence we discovered more than we had ever seen before, at one time,” Lewis and Clark wrote during their famed expedition in 1806; “and if it be not impossible to calculate the moving multitude, which darkened the whole plains, we are convinced that twenty thousand would be no exaggerated number.” And that was in just one spot.
Yet, by the end of the 19th Century, there were as few as 456 wild bison left.
A number of factors contributed to the near-extinction of the bison, but foremost among them were Union generals William T. Sherman and Phil Sheridan. In an effort to “pacify” western Native Americans, they advocated the destruction of the bison as a way to take away the Native Americans’ main food supply. With no wild bison available, the various tribes would have to relocate to newly established reservations.
“I think it would be wise to invite all the sportsmen of England and America . . . this fall for a Grand Buffalo hunt, and make one grand sweep of them all,” Sherman wrote to Sheridan in 1868.
Sheridan, for his part, was delighted by the approach. “If I could learn that every Buffalo in the northern herd were killed I would be glad,” he wrote. “The destruction of this herd would do more to keep Indians quiet than anything else that could happen, except the death of all the Indians.”
As a man-made ecological event, the scale of bison slaughter was unprecedented. There were so many dead animals that carcasses were usually left to rot where they lay once they were skinned for their hides, which made a convenient alternative to traditional leather from cows.
But enterprising businessmen did sometimes take the time to round up the detritus on the plains and convert those bison corpses into money by converting them into fertilizer. What grim work. Imagine if your job was to haul all that offal to, say, Michigan.
My intent here is not to get into the history of bison slaughter or the morality of U. S. Army policy toward Native Americans. I’ll provide some resources below if you want to do more reading. Rather, I want to invite you to look closely at this image. It haunts me and raises uncomfortable questions. Perhaps it will do the same for you.
For Further Reading:
You can read more here: The Extermination of the American Bison by the Smithsonian’s William T. Hornaday, courtesy of Project Gutenberg.
Here’s an excellent analysis of the army’s bison policy: “The Frontier Army—Destruction of the Buffalo: 1865-1883” by historian David D. Smits.
Here’s more about the human-bison relationship from an ecological perspective: “Historical photo of mountain of bison skulls documents animals on the brink of extinction” by visual studies researcher Danielle Taschereau Mamers.