Stories of the vast size of the buffalo herds in the American west have always left me with doubts. Could the herds have been this big?

The talk of buffalo herds miles across, the whole land alive and moving as they migrated, walking along grazing.

Because of that I found some supposedly reliable first person accounts of the size of the massive herds.

In 1832, after skirting the north fork of the Platte River, Captain Benjamin Bonneville climbed a high bluff that gave him a wide view of the surrounding plains. “As far as the eye could see,” he reported. “The country seemed absolutely blackened by innumerable herds.” (The CAPTAIN at the beginning of his name gives him credibility…right? I will urge you here to discount Captain Crunch and Captain Kangaroo.)

John K. Townsend, while crossing the Platte Valley, stopped on the rise of a hill to view a similar scene. The whole region, he wrote, “was covered by one enormous mass of buffaloes. Our vision, at the least computation, would certainly extend ten miles; and in the whole of this vast space, including about eight miles in width from the bluffs to the river bank, there apparently was no vista in the incalculable multitude.” (I like this story. He inserts his own limitations…Our vision, at the least computation, would certainly extend ten miles….this is a guy who is trying to give details)







One Texas pioneer described a herd which he said covered fifty square miles. (How could he estimate that-see this is when my ‘doubts’ begin)

Another reported that he saw between two and three million buffaloes at one time. (Impossible to estimate that. But then I’m someone who says, there were four hundred people in that crowd…and it ends up being 150. I’m a baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaad estimator…maybe this buffalo counter wasn’t)

A third told of herds that he estimated held four million head. (Again, hello? What hill was he standing on that he could see, count, estimate, whatever)

On the Missouri River in the summer of 1867, the steamer Stockdale, in charge of Captain Grant Marsh, was held up while a herd of snorting and bellowing buffalo crossed the stream. The buffaloes became so thick that the boat could not move, and the captain had to stop its engines. Many of the animals became entangled with the wheel, while others beat against the sides and stern, blowing and pawing. It was hours before the whole herd had crossed and the boat could continue its voyage. (Now here is a very specific, cool, lengthy DETAILED story. With multiple witnesses. Also we boat on the Missouri River. Yikes.)

In 1869 there are reports of buffalo in western Kansas in a herd so immense it held up a Kansas Pacific train for nine hours while it crossed the track. (Lots of witnesses here. A whole Train Load!)

In the early 1870’s, Texas drovers taking longhorn cattle up the Chisholm Trail had to stop in the Indian Territory to let buffalo herds cross their path. The cowmen feared that the buffaloes would cause the cattle to stampede and that some of the longhorns would join the buffalo. (I wonder if any ever did?)

And then came the buffalo hunters.

As the story goes, in the winter of 1871-72, J. Wright Mooar learned from another hunter, Charlie Rath, that there was an order from a company in England for 500 buffalo hides, to experiment with leather. After Mooar had provided tis order, he had 57 hides left. He shipped the surplus hides to his brother in New York, asking him to see if he could interest tanners in them.

The tanners were so interested they ordered all the hides he could deliver. The demand became so great that a whole army of hunters surged into the buffalo ranges.

The buffalo harvest lasted for only seven years from 1871 to 1878. Five to six million beasts were marketed during that period. The herds were wiped out, leaving only a few thousand buffalo living out of the millions that roamed the west.

Except for a remnant in the north, the whole slaughter was completed in little more than a decade. The slaughter ended, not because anyone stepped in to put a stop to it, but because the herds were gone.

The picture at the beginning of this blog I took at a buffalo herd near me. I’ve written about that before in a post called BUFFALO~I lived to tell the tale

This herd is on the Winnebago Indian Reservation.

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22 thoughts on “BUFFALO HUNTERS”

  1. Mary (how fun to have finally met you in Denver!!). What an interesting post, and that picture of the herd is amazing. Sobering to realize how quickly the numbers were decimated.

  2. When cattle mix with buffalo it’s called beefalo.
    Sorry I will miss you when you are at the Abbey. I will be out of town. It’s always nice to visit with you when you are in town.

  3. Hi, Mary. I hope you had a great time at ACFW. I sure did. I saw you a few times from a distance, but never had the chance to speak to you.

    The buffalo decimation of the 1870s makes me so sad. There is a small town outside of Abilene where I live. It is called Buffalo Gap. It has a wonderful historic villiage that I have visited many times. But as I watch the informational film about how the town came to be, I find myself disheartened. The town started as a tent city, or home base, for buffalo hunters. So, there are no more buffalo in Buffalo Gap, TX. Now, all we can do now is erect statues to the magnificent beasts who once roamed these plains.

    Thank you for sharing the accounts you found. I, too, love the ones that are rich in detail. How wonderful to imagine vast numbers of buffalo ranging the prairie! What a sight that must have been.

  4. Howdy, Mary — It’s amazing to think of those great animals roaming the Plains in such numbers. Human being can sure be short-sighted. Your pictures are great. I like the first one. He looks curious!

  5. Mary,

    I love the photos and the post. The buffalo is a very sacred animal, I hold it dear to my heart. They are amazing animals.

    The post was so informative.

    Hope to get your interview questions back soon

    Walk in peace and harmony,


  6. The first one is mine, Victoria. The rest aren’t. The buffalo herd near me is much smaller than that big crowd in the one photo. Still, they’re very cool animals. Seriously, the longer you stare at one, the more oddness you see.

    I love them.

  7. Think about it really, there were supposedly MILLIONS of them, wiped out in ten years? Is that even reasonable? I million bullets?

    The whole thing seems a little over blown to me. I just always wondered if, because they were so big and such weird animals, if the number of them wasn’t grossly exaggerated.

    How many IS a million bullets? Then they’d have to be skinned. Don’t kid yourself that it wouldn’t be a pretty hard job doing that to one. But millions? If that herd the one man saw truly had three or four million buffalo in it…

  8. Hi Mary, what an interesting post! I’d never heard those kind of numbers before. Wow! It must’ve been some sight to see. It’s sad that the hunters killed them all off. And it completely destroyed the animals the Native Americans came to depend on as a food source. That’s horrible.

    On a side note, here in Texas Charles Goodnight actually bred buffalo with longhorns. He even had a special name for them (which I can’t remember right now.) From the reports though the experiment wasn’t that successful.

  9. I’ve also heard that a buffalo / beef cross can be such an extremely dangerous animal that they weren’t good to work with.

    I’ve heard a wild longhorn could be as dangerous and mean as a grizzly bear. So add a buffalo gene to that mix and LOOK OUT.

    I’ve also herd that killing off the buffalo, at least for some, was a very deliberate choice as far as decimating the food for Native Americans. Another way to win a war.

    I’ve also heard that fighting with Native Americans was used by some to distract people from the struggle with slavery and abolition

  10. No matter whose word you go by, that was an awful
    lot of animals! Also an awful loss when they were
    destroyed! With an idea of the “process” involved
    in this “harvest,” all the animal except for the
    hides was probably wasted!

    Pat Cochran

  11. Hi Mary, great blog! Interestingly, Deborah Schneider has a blog on buffalo this very day at our Cactus Rose authors’ blogspot… http://twrpcactusrose.blogspot.com

    (Deb will be a guest here next month.)

    They are/were a grand beast. My hubby saw a small herd of them in the hills near Solvang CA last Saturday during his Livestrong fundraiser bike ride. Private ranchland et al. And yes, I’m sure they’re meant to be beefalo.

    But still, how perfect for a rural Western setting.

    The wanton near-extinction of the species still gives me chills.

    Your pix are fabulous. Thanks for the great info. oxoxoxo

  12. Hi Mary!

    I loved this post. Traditional stories (and the writings of George Catlin — circa 1834) attest to the immense herds that went on for days and days without end. To this day, these stories are passed down from elders to the next generation, so that they might never be forgotten.

    But if you study the research and read of people who were there at the time, you read of these herds that went on and on and on without seeming end.

    I loved the pictures. Great post.

  13. I also think we should learn from history. Destroying the herds (which the Indians never thought would ever happen) starved the tribes so that the government could then go in and put them on reservations (concentration camps, if you please). If a government wishes to do away with you, please note the trouble that they go to to do so.

    Lesson to be learned: You can “always trust” the government — ask any Indian.

  14. History is suppose to teach us something – learn from our past mistakes. We are doing the same to the fishes in the sea as we did to the buffalo. I guess it always seems like an endless supply but it doesn’t work that way (big sigh).

  15. Very interesting post, Mary. It’s hard to believe how fast all those buffalo were wiped out. They came perilously close to becoming extinct. As I remember the story (and don’t quote me because I didn’t check my facts), we were down to just a few of them in a Brooklyn zoo. The wildlife folks started breeding programs to return them to the wild. I saw them in Yellowstone a week ago. What magnificent animals!

  16. Love the buffalo stories, Mary, and I have told about getting caught in a buffalo stampede on a previous blog. Looking forward to seeing you in Norfolk, I hope. My Grand-daughter is marching in a parade at the same time. She says they are next to last so I am hoping to get both in. The date is September 26th right?

  17. Sad but true, white settlers managed to nearly destroy a valuable resource the native peoples had used and preserved for hundreds of years. Have seen the herds in S. Dakota and Wyoming. They are really something.It is hard to imagine how massive they are up close. I’ve never understood why people just assume they can treat wild animals like the family pet. I couldn’t believe how they would get out of their cars and walk near the herd or too close to an animal.

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