Friday, 21 October 2016
Old West Photo Friday: Exterminating the Buffalo to Exterminate the Indian
You've probably seen the above image. It shows a mountain of buffalo skulls and was taken c. 1870 on the Great Plains. It brings to graphic reality the slaughter and near extinction of a species that once blackened the plains in herds numbering tens of thousands.
What's often not mentioned in the history books is that the slaughter of the buffalo was encouraged by the U.S. Army. Commanders of the undermanned frontier garrisons, facing a tough war with the Plains tribes who were fighting to keep their land, realized that the tribes relied on the buffalo for food and clothing. Wiping out the buffalo, they reasoned, would bring the Indians to their knees.
During the 1870s and 80s, the army encouraged buffalo hunters to kill as many buffalo as possible. While Plains tribes would only kill a few and use all the meat and hide, white hunters would often only take the choice cuts like the tongue and leave the rest to rot. They would sometimes hold competitions to see who could kill the most and not even take any meat at all. Army bases generously supplied them with bullets and powder, and allowed their own men leave to go hunting. They would also look the other way when hunters jumped the border onto lands that were supposedly for Indians only.
As William Tecumseh Sherman, who for part of this time was overall commander of the U.S. Army, said, "If I could learn that every buffalo in the northern herd were killed I would be glad. The destruction of this herd would do more to keep the Indians quiet than anything else that could happen, except the death of the Indians. Since the destruction of the southern herd. . .the Indians in that section have given us no trouble."
Below is an early postcard showing two buffalo hunters outside their sod house with their grisly trophies. The caption says what the Army thought this massive hunt signified: "The beginning of better things."
The Plains tribes had a different point of view. As Sitting Bull said, "A cold wind blew across the prairie when the last buffalo fell--a death-wind for my people."
Images courtesy Wikimedia Commons