Emptying the Great Plains

of Indians and buffaloes...

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With the hunt for Indians the White Man also initiated the hunt for the buffalo, the Natives' major means of survival in the plains. In the 1870s, an eastern vague for wearing buffalo robes set in as well as the use of buffalo hides for machines belts. Finally, as soon as it was discovered that the Plains peoples' existence wholly depended on the 'American bison' the buffaloes' fate was sealed. Entrepreneurs used the expanding railroad networks to kill the animals and transport their prized pelts and hides swiftly to the eastern market. Eastern sport hunters as well as sightseeing trains headed west to shoot the animals, and, finally, there was 'Buffalo Bill', William Cody, the organizer of the legendary 'Wild West Shows: he contributed substantially to the extinction of the 'American bison' by killing more than 4,300 bisons in less than an eight months' time. 

 

The migration West, in truth, exploited nature ruthlessly and proved destructive and fatal for the Natrives. In fact, the 'trans-Mississippi West' was far from empty when the newcomers arrived. An estimated 360,000 Indians were dwelling on the Great Plains for whom the non-Indians descending in the plains after 1850 had no understanding at all and only little inclination to respect or to preserve their cultural 'ways'. Military defeat, occasional massacres as well as alcohol and diseases emptied the Plains of all of its original inhabitants. By 1890, the relocation of the Native Americans to inferior lands was brought to an end, thus opening once and for all the path for the White Man's way of life. For a detailed discussion on the displacement of the Natives by the Federal Army see Brigitte Pitzl's discussion on Dee Brown's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.

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The buffalo, or, more properly, the North American bison, was the last furbearer to suffer near extinction, and its fate is at once the most instructive and the most mysterious. It is instructive because most buffaloes died as industrial animals rather than as animals of fashion, like the beaver or the otter. The discovery that buffalo hides could be turned into a cheap leather suitable for making machine belts, together with the expansion of the railroad network across the West after the Civil War, sealed the bison's fate. Against Indians resistance, professional buffalo hunters moved onto the Plains in the early 1870s. The hunt peaked between 1872 and 1874. In total, the hide hunters took an estimated 4,374,000 buffalo during these years. To this has to be added the Indian kill of approximately 1,215,000 on the Plains during the same period, as well as the smaller number of bisons killed by settlers and sportsmen. In the 1870s, Congress passed a bill protecting the bison, but President Ulysses S. Grant vetoed it.

 

back to: The Building of the Transcontinental Railroads

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