Western Article
The Mighty Buffalo
Scott Gese

Western Article

“Oh give me a home where the buffalo roam…”

In case you didn’t already know, that is the opening line to a song written in 1876 by Brewster Higley. The song is called “Home on the range.” It’s the official state song of Kansas and the unofficial anthem of the American West.

The ironic thing about this is that in 1876, when the above words were first penned, This country was in the middle of a mass slaughter of over 30 million American buffalo. 

The Buffalo Almost Became Extinct

By 1889 there was reported to be only 1,091 American buffalo left alive. Yes, you read it correctly. Only one thousand and ninety one American buffalo left alive…out of 30 million.

Higley's view of a home on the range was no longer the same.

So what was the reason behind this wholesale slaughter of the American bison?

Well, there are several reasons and a couple of theories floating around out there. Two of the reasons have to do with technology.

One being the advancement of hide tanning methods first developed in Europe.

This new method made the soft hide of the buffalo much tougher and therefore highly marketable as industrial leather. Europe’s demand for American buffalo hides was extreme.

The other reason was the development of the breech loading carbine rifle. This new rifle gave hunters the ability to kill buffalo in large numbers. Buffalo hunters could kill in just a few minutes, all the buffalo they could skin in one day.

One of the really sad parts of this slaughter is that except for the skin and the tongue, which was considered a delicacy, the carcass was left to rot.

There Are Also a Couple of Theories

There is also a couple of more sinister theories behind the slaughter of the American buffalo. It involves money, greed and man’s inhumanity to his fellow man.

They go something like this.

White settlers were migrating to the West and Native Americans were not making it easy. The U.S. Government wanted to give white settlers clear passage to the West so they began a military campaign to remove and relocate the Native American population from the Western plains.

As part of that campaign, it encouraged hunters to shoot and exterminate the buffalo. Why? Because Native Americans were dependent on the buffalo. It was their main source of food, clothing and shelter. The thought was that by eliminating the buffalo, you would eliminate the Native Americans who stood in the way of the Westward migration.

Well, it worked in part. During the same time span the buffalo herds were being wiped out, the Native American population dropped by fifty percent.

One other theory is that there was high interest in the growing cattle industry. The buffalo were a hindrance to that growth as they were located on prime grazing land. They needed to be removed to make room for cattle.

Moved to Protected Lands

What was left of the great American buffalo herds was moved to protected Federal land.

And just for the record.

What was left of the Native American population was moved to designated reservations.

The white man had successfully cleared the land of the American buffalo and the Native American Indian. The way was made clear for commerce and cattle.

Well, those are the theories; you can draw your own conclusions.