Almost Extinct

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From millions to hundreds

Thunder once roared over the vast plains of North America. It came not from the sky but from the soil, as myriads of black cloven hooves pounded the ground. Those hooves belonged to the continent’s largest land mammals—thousand-pound behemoths called bison.

How numerous were those mighty migrants? No one knows. Estimates range from 30 to 60 million. What we do know is that a single century—the 1800s—witnessed the species’ decline to about 325 survivors. Aside from its speed and magnitude, the near extinction of bison was striking for yet another reason: It was deliberate.

 Who killed the bison and why?

“I would not seriously regret the total disappearance of the buffalo from our western plains, in its effect upon the Indians,” wrote Columbus Delano, Secretary of the Interior, in 1873. Shocking as those words may sound today, they exemplify the spirit of Manifest Destiny: the widespread belief that pressing westward was the United States’ fate, right and duty.

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The major obstacle to achieving Manifest Destiny was the presence of the frontier’s original human inhabitants—American Indian nations—few of whom showed much interest in being converted or “civilized” by the growing horde of westward-expanding settlers. In the latter half of the 19th century, that cultural collision sparked decades of violent clashes known as the Indian Wars.

One of the most fervent warriors was General Philip Sheridan, a Union veteran hardened by the “total war” tactics that shattered the Confederacy. Sheridan set about unleashing that same pitiless style of combat on Native Americans. Among his fiercest weapons was a national craze for bison hunting.

How did bison numbers diminish so quickly?

Almost anyone who could afford the cost booked passage on trains slashing across the prairies. Leaning out the window, hunters could swiftly and easily shoot bison after bison. Now and then, the trains stopped so people could collect the slain animals’ skins (a valuable commodity) and tongues (a culinary delicacy). They left everything else to rot.

Bison-Extinct-1The extent of the slaughter is hard to grasp. One of the few statistics available hints at its enormity: In 1872-74, a single railway company shipped nearly 500,000 bison hides back to the East. The scale of the slaughter is further illustrated by the recollection of a rancher who traveled a thousand miles over a landscape dotted with buffalo carcasses and containing not a single live bison.

General Sheridan applauded the carnage in an 1874 speech to the Texas Legislature. Bison hunters, he said, were “destroying the Indian’s commissary.” He urged letting them “kill, skin, and sell until the buffaloes are exterminated.” They nearly did.

This content is drawn from the Jan/Feb 2014 issue of Smithsonian Zoogoer. Article: “In the Beginning, Bison.” Author: Peter Winkler, Editor, Smithsonian Zoogoer.