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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