Slaughter of the Bison

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:

Courtesy: Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library

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.

9 Responses to Slaughter of the Bison

  1. I agree totally. It is a haunting image and hard to understand the cruelty of men. Like many other things, it is hard to put modern day sensibilities to ways of the past, but it was awful. I am just glad we found a way to bring back these magnificent beasts. And back then, Indians weren’t looked at much better.

  2. Here in Maine hunters shot out all the native woodland caribou by the early 1900s. That was done just for the egos of hunters wanting to display trophy heads in their homes or lodges.

  3. I find the picture and the practice appalling, but in simple terms it was destroying the enemy’s ability to make war by destroying their resources. In WWII we were much more civilized and humanely carpet-bombed enemy cities with incendiary bombs.

  4. “War is Hell”. Scorched Earth policies and actions have been around forever in warfare. As horrible as this was, and as was said everyone can make their own determination about the ‘morality’ of such an approach, it did work. It accomplished the task. Sad but true.

  5. My husband and I discussed this topic just last night. We were watching a portion of Around the World in 80 Days (1956) that depicted a massive herd of bison crossing the railroad in front of the train which was conveying Phileas Fogg and his party across America. Because this was supposed to be dated for the 1870s, we debated if there would have even been that many bison back then OR in the 1950s when they made the film. Luckily, measures have been taken in the last few decades to remedy the problem. Regardless of the morality of depriving Native Americans of their food supply, eliminating any animal from the food chain will screw with the whole ecosystem. The study done during the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone is a case in point.

  6. Chris, you forget our annihilation of the passenger pigeons, and the near collapse of open ocean fishing. Plus our ancestors who put paid to the mastodons, smilodons, and Don Barzini….

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