Would You Have Been a Bone Picker?


I hope everyone had a great Christmas and New Year’s. Mine was wonderful but I’m ready to settle down and get back to a regular routine.

A few years ago it used to be big business for folks to go out and pick up cans alongside the highways and sell them. But that seems to have fallen along the wayside, whether due to loss of interest or the price they were getting paid.

In the Old West lots of people turned to the bone business to survive. Men loaded up their wives and children in their wagons and set out across the Plains, picking up animal bones, especially those of dead buffalo. Those people who made a living doing that were called “bone pickers.”

BuffaloFrom 1870 to roughly 1883, herd upon herd of buffalo were decimated by buffalo hunters. They’d shoot the animals and leave them to rot in the sun. Then along came the bone pickers to pick up the bones and haul them to the nearest railhead for shipment back East. Firms that specialized in the making of fertilizer and bone china paid dearly for the gruesome shipments.

Bone Pickers earned around eight dollars a ton for the bones, which was pretty good money for that time. It kept a lot of people from starving I imagine.

And they sometimes caravanned with as many as 100 bone wagons traveling together. All those bone wagons must’ve been quite a sight. Here in Texas, San Antonio shipped 3,333 tons back East between July 1877 and November 1878. It was big business.

Bone roads crisscrossed Texas, and Wichita Falls, the place where I lived until recently, sat on a major one. Strange isn’t it that you never know all about a place and find out new things only after you move away?

buffalo bonesTo avoid “bone wars,” the pickers lived by an unwritten code. The first one upon an area had the right to those bones and no one else could come in take over. That way, the bone picker didn’t have to guard his territory day and night or rush to get through.

Bone piles stacked alongside railroad tracks sometimes reached ten feet high, twenty feet wide, and a quarter of a mile long. That’s a lot of bones. This is a neat picture of some beside a railroad track.

Once all the buffalo bones were gone, bone pickers turned to collecting cattle bones. Ranchers would pay to have pastures kept clean of bones. This practice continued well into the twentieth century.

So, are there any bone pickers out there? What is the most desperate thing you’ve ever done to make ends meet?

give-me-a-cowboysmallerThis anthology is still on sale just in case you don’t have it yet. And look for the upcoming new one, Give Me a Texas Ranger, in July 2010!

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Here in the Texas Panhandle, we do love our cowboys. There's just something about a man in a Stetson and jeans that makes my heart beat faster. I'm not much of a cook but I love to do genealogy and I'm a bit of a rock hound. I'm also a NY Times & USA Today bestselling author of historical western romance. You can contact me through my website and I'd love to connect with you on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and more. HAPPY READING!

25 thoughts on “Would You Have Been a Bone Picker?”

  1. Interesting blog, Linda. Thanks.

    No bone pickers (that I’m aware of) and thank God, I’ve never been in a position of desperation. I did work as a grill cook once–that job motivated me to stay in college. 🙂

  2. Hi Tracy,

    Glad you found my blog interesting. Can you imagine how embarrassed the children were to be known as bone pickers? Oh my gosh! They’d have died. I’m glad you’ve never been in a predicament where you had to resort to collecting and selling things. As a kid I sold pop bottles to buy candy because my parents had no money for things like that. My mother also collected green stamps so she could get needed things. I collected them also when I got older. I was able to get things I wouldn’t have been able to otherwise. And I’ve cold cans. And I probably would’ve been a bone picker if that erstwhile activity was around. LOL

  3. Not a bone picker for money, but we have collected antlers, skulls and skeletons for our own collection to use for presentations and science fair projects.
    Not really out of desperation, but we delivered The Washington Post when we lived in the DC area. Our daughter took the route then didn’t want it and no one else was dumb enough to take it. I walked that route at 4:30 AM for three years carrying 40 pounds plus of papers almost every morning, in all types of weather. It was good exercise, but for a 40+ year old with bad knees, not a lot of fun. With the cost of living in suburban DC/ Northern Virginia, what little we made was our “mad money” for trips to McDonald’s or out for ice cream. My husband was an officer and I am a college graduate, and I was doing a job usually done by high school boys. Even when our daughter did deliver, I went with her. Who would want their 14 year old daughter out alone at that time of the day? Can’t say I was heart broken when we moved and had to give it up. Actually, I think we went out and celebrated with hot fudge sundaes;o)

  4. Hi Linda, no, no bone pickers LOL although I try to recycle most everything. When the kids were little, our son collected cans for extra money, and we still save cans and bottles for our neighbor boys, who both raise money for their Scout troop.

    Greata blog, Linda. The tragedy of the buffalo never ceases to give me shivers. oxoxoxoxox

  5. Hi Patricia B,

    Wow, you really had dedication to deliver papers at that time of the morning! I’m in awe of you. Bet that was quite a relief to give up your route. Hot fudge sundaes were definitely in order after that. And you could consider yourself a bone picker of sorts. Bet you found some interesting bones.

    Thanks for coming by to comment.

  6. Hi Tanya,

    Glad my blog was of interest to you. When I ran across this tidbit as I was researching another subject I knew I had to blog about it. Good for you for recycling. Wish more people did it. I’ve become much more aware of the need to recycle the older I’ve gotten. I, too, try to recycle what I can and do my part.

    I agree the buffalo really got the short end of the stick. It’s so sad. But I’m glad at least that they’re coming back from near extinction.

  7. Hi Mary,

    I’m like you. I didn’t know that bone china was made from real bones until I ran across this subject while researching. I figured this off-the-wall topic would catch your eye. You find some pretty weird things yourself, dear Filly sister. It’s interesting to see the different things that turn up in our books from these blogs.

  8. How fascinating – I never knew they did that. Why can’t they teach children in school interesting tidbits like that to make it interesting!!!! I haven’t had any weird jobs but for many, many years I spent hours every day doing refunding and coupon clipping (I still do it some but it’s not as good as it use to be). There were times that I was saving 50% or more of my grocery bill. It was always fun to collect the free item coupons and go to the store and get bags of groceries for next to nothing.

  9. Hi Jeanne,

    Glad you found my blog interesting. I bet the children of bone pickers died of humiliation. They couldn’t have been treated very well by townspeople. I see it as a bottom of the barrel job. Some made good money doing it though. I used to clip coupons too. A few years ago the grocery stores would double the coupon’s worth on certain days of the week. I got some really good bargains doing that. I still do it some but not nearly as much as I used to.

  10. Hi, Linda. Fun post. I wonder if this profession has anything to do with the origin of the saying, “I have a bone to pick with you”? That would be interesting to learn.

    It kind of reminds me of the wagon train settlers picking up cow patties for fuel. Necessity can make the most disgusting task bearable.

    I’m in Texas, too, and we often see down-on-their-luck folks out picking up pecans that fall from the trees in parks or on university grounds. Their fingers turn black from the shells, but the few dollars they earn help fill their stomachs.

    If my kids were hungry, I’d pick up bones. No doubt about it. Thankfully, I’ve not had to face that desperation yet.

  11. Hi Linda,

    It always amazes me to read your post. You blog about some of the most interesting things I have read.

    I guess if I had to be a bone picker I would to survive.

    I have sold all my belongings to help my children.

    I would do anything for my family and if that meant losing everything I owed then I would.

    My heart walks in harmony,


  12. Hi Karen,

    Great to see you come by and leave a comment. I hope things are going well for you. It’s really cold here where I live near Lubbock and another round of it is coming I see.

    I’ve seen those people picking up pecans and selling them. They do make a tidy profit from the labor. I’ve picked them up on occasion but it was so I could make something good to eat. We never know what we’d do until we’re placed in a desperate situation. I know I’d do whatever it called for to survive. No job would be too gross.

    Try to stay warm.

  13. I hate to say it because of the horrid weather elsewhere some of you are having but our little beach town was the warmest place in the nation on Monday. Yowza. 79 degrees isn’t hot but compared to the minuses, pretty summery.

    Here’s a warm hug for all of you out there.

  14. Hi Melinda,

    Great to have you come by. I’m glad you liked my post. I strive to please. Sometimes it’s not easy coming up with something new and different.

    I’m sorry you once had to sell your belongings to help your children. That’s the mark of a loving, caring mother. I know I’d do whatever I had to also to put food on the table. My mother had to do without and go to bed hungry more than once so we could eat. I’ve come real close a time or two myself.

    Hope you have a good day.

  15. KAREN!!!!!!!!!!
    Not cow patties. No No No No No.


    Cow did NOT burn…bad business trying to burn those.

    Or so I’ve heard…In all honesty I’ve never burned either, thank the Good Lord.

    And yes, I’ve have been a bone picker. Are you kidding me? I raised four children on a Nebraska ranch. We had food and space and a roof over our head…but no money. I can squeeze a dime so tight I can wring out a nickel and six pennies.

    And if there was money in buffalo bones, we’d have been right out there.

  16. Mary, you astound me. I should’ve known you’d have been a bone picker. You’re not tight, you’re frugal. Maybe there’s a difference. At least it sounds better. But tell me, why don’t cow patties burn but buffalo will? I’m curious.

  17. HI Linda! I just remembered is was your turn to blog so I wanted to come particpate!

    So, definately no bone picking in my family! Im trying to think of something I might have done in the past to make ends meet…..one thing comes to mind..doing surveys! LOL

    I know, it doesnt sound hard and it’s really not..HOWEVER-I really hate doing it, but you can earn a little money for it and so I did it!

    I actually starting doing them again for a different company and now Im working towards earning some coupons for free movies (dont I wish I could earn free BOOKS! LOL) ….I figure this well help support our movie addiction without throwing away money on them!

    I hope you had a lovely time with your family during the holidays!


  18. Hi Linda and happy New Year. Interesting blog. Never been a bone picker but if I had to in order to put food on the table, better believe I’d do it–as long as it was honest work. I’m a farm girl so mucking out stalls isn’t all that much better I guess. Can’t help but think of the waste what with those Buffalo Hunters leaving all that buffalo meat to rot. What were they thinking?

  19. Hi Linda!!! Great to read your posts, always! We’ve been through some hard times lately and had to find things we could sell to an antique store. Sometimes its hard to give up things, but it does pay for the heat. We did that last year with a few old jewelry items from my grandmother and didn’t get much for them but it got us set to continue the heat last winter. Interesting in the history you found cuz I remember reading too about something with that when they looked for gold. That some was for to get rich and others to get by. Great reading!

    The upcoming anthology looks fab! I loved GIVE ME A TEXAN! I need to get GIVE ME A COWBOY before this new one is out! Congrats Linda! Happy new years too!

  20. Hi Anne Carrole,

    Thank you so much for coming over to comment on my blog. Glad you found it interesting. I have these vivid images in my head of wagons of families picking up bones on the prairie. I’m sure it was really hard work. My back aches to think about bending over all day. Yes, mucking out stalls wouldn’t be any better. In fact, it might be worse. It’s really smelly. The things we do to survive. When it comes down to it, I suppose no job is too gross.

  21. Hi Caffey,

    Wow, it’s great to hear from you! Thanks for stopping by to comment. I’ll send you a private email to catch up.

    I’m so sorry you had to sell your grandmother’s jewelry. It broke my heart. That’s irreplaceble. You must’ve indeed been desperate.

    Take care of yourself.

  22. Hi Melissa D,

    It’s great seeing you here. It’s been a while. Hope things are going well for you and your family.

    Doing surveys wouldn’t be my choice of occupations but it could be worse I suppose. Just proves that we all do things we’d rather not do in certain instances. We just bite the bullet and forge ahead and pray we don’t have to do it long.

    Hope you had a wonderful Christmas and New Year’s. Mine was just great.

  23. Hi Linda,
    I just wanted to stop by today to say hello and wish you a Happy New Year. Great blog!!

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