‘Who Killed All The Buffalo?’

Today’s History Lesson — ‘Was the Buffalo Hunted to Near Extinction?‘”

“That the buffalo was wantonly slaughtered is fact. That the breed was destroyed by guns is ludicrous

“Dr. Rudolph W. Koucky, a pathologist, concluded that something far deadlier than a bullet caused the demise of the shaggy {See below}. His research indicated that the buffalo disappeared so rapidly in 1883 that hunters assumed the herds had moved, but would return next season.

In the fall of 1883, men who purchased hunting outfits returned from the fields with bones to sell, not hides. In 1884, sportsmen who hired guides for buffalo were rewarded with cancellations, instead of hunts. No animals could be found.

One day, Koucky discovered something interesting—a huge pile of bison bones on the Montana plains. The skeletons showed no signs of bullets. They had, the pathologist concluded, “simply laid down and died”. Obviously, the animals were sick.

“Following the Civil War, vast ranches were created in Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado, and Wyoming, mostly with Texas cattle where “tick fever” was common. The first fences built in these areas were erected to isolate infected cattle.

In 1825, an epidemic destroyed all of the buffalo in eastern Nebraska. The animals perished so rapidly that there was no provision for the Indian population in the area. Some of these people died of starvation, others from eating meat from infected animals.

In 1858, another epidemic destroyed the buffalo in the Platte River Valley. The trail from Fort Laramie in eastern Wyoming to Fort Bridger in western Wyoming was noted as “one long offense to the nostrils”. These epidemics occurred in areas where immigrants brought cattle through.

“Beaver trapper Yellowstone Kelly wrote an interesting account, circa 1867:

Our course led over rolling prairie, when we crossed a high and level plain which extended for many miles. The plain was covered with a thin coating of ice and on all sides, as far as the eye could reach was dotted with bodies of dead buffaloes. These animals were in good condition and bore no mark of bullet or arrow wounds. The cause of their death was a mystery to us.

As we marched over the plain toward the valley of the Cheyenne, the appearance of so many carcasses scattered around made a strong impression on my mind, perhaps because they were the first buffaloes I had ever seen.”

“This reputable report from a person without bias bears strong witness to Dr. Koucky’s pathological findings…

“How about 60 million breeding bison “shot off” in the late 1800s?

…Even we hunters have bought into the lie. We even apologize to anti-hunters for our ancestors…

“IT NEVER HAPPENED. Buffalo ranged over a vast domain with not a single legitimate road and few trails. The herds covered Nebraska, Wyoming, North and South Dakota, Oregon, Washington — don’t forget Texas — and the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan. How about Montana? Montana alone comprises 147,138 square miles. Wyoming, Idaho, and Oregon combine for 425,590 square miles.

“Picture the professional hunter, or “buffalo runner”, as he preferred, on foot or horseback, wagon in tow with two to three skinners. The pros preferred ‘Sharps’ and ‘Remington Rolling Blocks’, some scoped, more iron-sighted.

Single-shots, not machine guns.

And no helicopter gunships. Blackpowder caked the bore, sometimes cleared by a urine flood.

How many bison could a skinner skin in one day? A modest-sized cow ran 1,500 pounds on the hoof, her sire going a ton and more.

Does the folly begin to take form? Tell a lie often enough, especially in print, and fabrication outruns truth and logic.

“This is no whitewash job. The American buffalo (bison) was not shot off, because it could not be rendered extinct by bullets due to incredible numbers, vast and often unreachable habitat, primitive travel methods, and inferior firepower. Capt. William Twining, the surveyor who established the border between Canada and Montana, stood on a hill and watched a migrating herd so large that he could not determine beginning or end. Total bison numbers were beyond comprehension.

Respected naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton did his best to calculate the possible number of roaming bison at 60 million, which is agreed upon today by most experts as a reliable figure

“In spite of the horrific trespass upon the bison, the on-foot, sometimes on horseback, runner could not annihilate what scientists continue to call the single largest group of sizeable mammals to roam the world—ever. So, what happened to the buffalo in reality, instead of fabrication?

“Invading Martians are destroyed in H.G. Wells’s ‘The War of the Worlds’ “by the humblest things that God had put upon this earth, after all of man’s devices failed”:


‘Little Boy’ and ‘Fat Man’, dropped from the ‘Enola Gay’ and ‘Boxcar’, atomized Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the waning days of World War II. But loss of life was microscopic compared to the onslaught of the ‘Black Plague’ in Europe.

“That pandemic reduced over 30 million people to corpses in the 1340s.

“Following World War I, Spanish Influenza took a greater toll in a couple months than all the bombs, bullets, and mustard gas railed against soldiers from 1914 to 1918…

“Occasionally, a shard of truth emerges from the broken vessel of “the great buffalo slaughter”. In a scientific report entitled “Extinction and Depletion from Over-Exploitation”, Peter J. Bryant writes that the “buffalo slaughter” was a “calculated military strategy designed to force the Native Americans on to reservations”, adding “about 2.5 million buffalo were killed annually between 1870 and 1875”.

A single sentence reads,

Domestic cattle diseases may have also had a major impact on the herds”.

“Lt. G.C. Donne, noted for his invention of a litter to carry wounded from the Custer Battlefield, estimated a herd of four million animals in central Montana alone. If that figure was even close to accurate, offspring would annually number well over a half-million calves.

Also giving the lie to hunters wiping out the bison is factual data on hide shipment. J.N. Davis, buyer for the ‘Northern Pacific’ line, shipped 50,000 hides in 1882 and another 200,000 hides over the next peak years. ‘I.G. Baker and Co.’ at Fort Benton shipped 20,000 hides in 1880 and 5,000 more by 1883. William T. Hornaday, a major proponent of bison being “shot off”, wrote that 1,337,359 hides were shipped for three peak years based upon an actual figure of 459,455. Willy added the “extra” hides for those “possibly omitted from record”. Hornaday got caught up in his own contradictions. He agrees to 60 million breeding animals in the field, so even if his made-up number of 1,337,359 hides were true, it wouldn’t have made a dent in the total population.

The northern herd disappeared between 1881 and 1882, along with its anticipated 500,000 annual offspring. The Blackfeet Indians in the region suffered enormously. Six hundred and five aged and ill remained at the Indian Agency in 1881. Three thousand more appeared in 1883. They had no food, and the emergency rations did not arrive until 1885. A herd estimated at four million—with an increase potential of about a half-million each year—dwindled to only a few stragglers between 1881 and 1883. A buffalo cow might live 25 years (some make 40). After age two, the dame bears young the rest of her life.

Potential breeding alone makes up for all of the shipped hides.

The Blackfeet’s bison herd perished not from bullets.

“Contradictions are exceeded by wild fabrications like “2,000 buffalo run over a cliff by Indians”. Buffalo Jones inspected the scene. He counted exactly 41 carcasses.

A buffalo hunt at Standing Rock Reservation in June 1882 saw 5,000 buffalo slain. Hornaday, in his usual fashion, upped the figure to 10,000 and also said Sitting Bull was the leading chief of this hunt in 1882. The trouble with Hornady’s tale is that Sitting Bull wasn’t there. According to Indian Agent James McLaughlin, Running Antelope was the leading chief of the hunt.


“One story has 5,000 invading Miles City, Montana, to go hunting for buffalo in 1881. That must have been pretty tough on the store owners, hotel, and barbers, since the total population of the city in 1881 was only 600 souls.

We have no actual figure on buffalo hunter numbers, but hide shipment alone gives the lie to thousands of shooters and skinners. Can we believe that a newspaper would print a lie? Apparently we must, since one article reported 250,000 hides shipped when the on-paper figure was under 40,000. But 250,000 sells more copies than 40,000.

A 2001 “scientific paper” supports 60 million bison on the range, hunters killing most of them. The author states that “perhaps 2.5 million bison were killed annually between 1870 and 1872” WITHOUT A SINGLE NOTE OF DOCUMENTATION for the remaining breed stock…

“The great buffalo lie was further enhanced by “experts” who had never ventured to America, let alone buffalo country. Alexander Lake wrote in ‘Killers in Africa’,

Americans take quite a beating in Africa from sportsmen of other nationalities because of America’s insane slaughter of bison.”

(Never happened, Alex.)

–‘Was the Buffalo Hunted to Near Extinction?’,

Dr. Sam Fadala, Peterson Hunting, September 4, 2012


FEATURE Image: Buffaloes at Rest’ (1911) (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

Buffalo (Photo – Vic Schendel)

Since the total recorded number of hides shipped from the country was less than the anticipated annual propogation of the herd for one single year, it is obvious that some explanation – other than slaughter by hide hunters – must be found to explain the disappearance of the buffalo…

In a two-year period between 1881 and 1883, the northern herd — which in 1881 may have numbered as many as 4 million animals — almost completely disappeared. One explanation for this phenomenon has been generally accepted. Proposed in 1887 by William Temple Hornaday, this assertion claims that the buffalo were exterminated by hunters.

Hornaday’s thesis was received with great acclaim and in subsequent years, books, magazines, newspapers and television programs {and now, the Internet} have repeated that the buffalo herds were eliminated by hunters…

However, a review of the available evidence suggests that this long-accepted explanation is a myth initiated and maintained by bad journalism and poor scholarship.

Between 1840 and 1860, the buffalo on the Great Plains were divided into southern and northern herds by the migration of people into the west… In 1858, a disease epidemic completed the division into 2 herds by destroying the buffalo remaining in the Platte River valley

By 1870, very few of the animals remained east of the Missouri River. In 1878, large prairie fires drove the buffalo from northern Alberta southward into the Missouri River valley.

In the final northern range, made up of Montana and adjacent Canada, the animals existed in tremendous numbers. Traders at Fort Benton in northern Montana, in fact, observed that the buffalo were increasing. Contemporary accounts appear to verify this assertion. One historian reports that travellers in southwestern Saskatchewan once rode 20 to 30 miles a day for seven days, always within buffalo herds

In 1881 and 1882, disaster struck the northern herd. The 4 million animals, together with their anticipated 500,000 annual offspring, disappeared in these two years. Kipp’s post in north-central Montana was abandoned in July, 1882, because there were no more buffalo. In 1883, the hunts by the Blackfeet produced a total of six buffalo. It was said that, in prior years, the Blackfeet killed 100,000 to 150,000 buffalo each year

The disappearance of the buffalo became apparent in the Yellowstone Valley during the winter and spring of 1882-83…

The disappearance of the buffalo was so sudden that, in 1883, the local people did not realize that the buffalo were gone. The hunters assumed that the buffalo had wandered to some other area and would return. In the fall of 1883, men purchased outfits to go hunting but returned with only bones to sell. As late as 1884, guides made arrangements for sportsmen’s hunts which had to be cancelled because buffalo could not be found

Since the total recorded number of hides shipped from the country was less than the anticipated annual propogation of the herd for one single year, it is obvious that some explanation – other than slaughter by hide hunters – must be found to explain the disappearance of the buffalo…

It is, in fact, my firm belief that the several million buffalo died from disease… It is proposed that the buffalo were susceptible to a disease which had not been present and which was introduced from an outside source. The disease was highly fatal because the buffalo had no immunity, and it spread rapidly because the buffalo habitually congregated in large herds. The logical host for such a disease was domestic cattle…

After the Civil War, large ranches were developed in Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado and Wyoming. Most of the catlle for these ranches were brought from Texas, where so-called ‘tick feverwas common. The disease, endemic throughout these states, could be fatal to cattle that had no immunity. Travellers drawn by oxen might be stranded by the sudden death of their animals. Friction, and even bloodshed, occurred when settlers tried to protect their disease-free animals from passing herds of Texas cattle being driven to the northern states. One of the reasons for fencing in the early days of the West was to protect local cattle from Texas herds.

Prior to the late 1770s, most ranchers were kept from the northern buffalo country by the hostile Indians… The country had become peaceful by 1879 and thereafter, it reapidly attracted ranchers.. Few cattle were brought onto the northern buffalo range before 1871. By 1879, thousands of Texas cattle had been driven into southwestern and central Montana… The first Texas cattle were brought into southeastern Montana in 1881… There were no fences and these cattle ran free within the buffalo country

These statements are of utmost importance because they are definite evidence of intimate contact between domestic cattle and the buffalo in 1881 in the Blackfeet country where the disappearance of the buffalo was first observed and in the year when this first occurred. These cattle had originated in the southern states where tick fever was endemic.

The mingling of cattle known to harbour tick fever with the buffalo exactly at the time, and in the place, where the disappearance of the buffalo first appeared is strong, presumptive evidence that the buffalo were devastated by disease. The loss of the buffalo occurred in an area where ther were no ‘white’ hide hunters

All the requirements for an epidemic were present. The host was domestic cattle infected with so-called ‘tick fever’. The buffalo never had contact with the disease and, therefore, had no immunity. The buffalo congregated in large herds, and this close contact provided for a rapid spread of the disease.

Such a disease epidemic was not the first to be recorded. Two other epidemics had occurred in previous years, both associated with advancing civilization and the accompanying cattle. In 1825 in Nebraska, at the vanguard of advancing settlements, an epidemic occurred which destroyed all the buffalo in eastern Nebraska. The Indians suffered from starvation and some died from eating meat from the sick animals. In 1858, an epidemic destroyed the buffalo in th Platte River Valley… This epidemic occurred in the valley where immigrants going west brought cattle with them.

It is impossible to be specific about the disease brought into the buffalo country by cattle. It was called “tick fever” but in 1881, veterinary medicine was poorly developed and, in all probability, several diseases were given the same name. In the epidemics of 1825 and 1858, the cattle had originated in the east, where tick fever was unknown. It would be more appropriate to state that he 1881-82 epidemic was caused by a contagious, cattle-born disease.

To summarize, the concepts that the herds of buffalo on the northern plains were exterminated by hunters is not supported by the available records. Large herds of buffalo, estimated at 4 million, roamed through Montana and southern Canada as late as 1881. The estimated propogation of the herds would permit a harvest of 500,000 animals each year. Yet, the entire population of buffalo disappeared between 1881 and early 1883.

In these three years, available records indicate that about 320,00 hides were shipped from the buffalo country, less than the anticipated increase in the herd for one single year. The descriptions of hordes of ‘white’ hunters in the north country is not supported by the records and appears to be a myth.

The introduction of domestic catlle originating in states where so-called ‘tick fever’ was endemic – at exactly the time and in the area where the disappearance of the buffalo first began – offers evidence that the four million buffalo not accounted for by hide hunting, died from cattle-born disease. The disease was highly fatal to buffalo because they had no prior contact with the disease and, therefore, had no immunity. Two previous disease epidemics among buffalo have been recorded. This concept of extermination by disease is much more plausible than the unsupported assumption that the buffalo were destroyed by hunters.”

–‘The Buffalo Disaster of 1882’,

Rudolph W. Koucky, M.D.

North Dakota History: Journal of the Northern Plains, Vol.50, #1 (Winter 1983)

(State Historical Society of North Dakota)


By 1883, bison were virtually extinct, and hunting is usually blamed. However, records indicate that hunters killed less than the annual increase each year. Evidence implicates disease and habitat degradation instead.”

–‘Reinterpreting the 1882 Bison Population Collapse’,

Sierra Dawn and Stoneberg Holt, Rangelands, Volume 40, Issue 4, August 2018


George Catlin

Near the great bend in the Arkansas River, a Sioux war party watched a tornado overtake a buffalo herd. It deposited the animals’ carcasses in a quarter-mile-long row that was stacked several buffalo deep…

Disease killed them. In the 1820s, the Sioux described a great disease that killed almost all of the buffalo in southeast Nebraska. Seven warriors were returning from a war with the Missouri River tribes… They found a dying bull… Six of the seven ate it, and they all died…”

–‘American Buffalo: In Search of a Lost Icon’,

Steven Rinella


Paul Kane’s oil painting ‘Half-Breeds Running Buffalo’, circa 1846

The eminently fair-minded Robert M. Utley contends that although the army is “frequently” charged with pursuing an “official policy” of exterminating the buffalo, there “was never any such policy

Robert Wooster’s insightful analysis of the War Department’s strategic policy against Indians from 1865 to 1903 acknowledges… that

the army, while anxious to strike against the Indians’ ability to continue their resistance, did not make the virtual extermination of the American bison part of its official policy; in some cases, individual officers took it upon themselves to try and end the slaughter”.

…To campaign effectively against a wartime enemy, it was ordinarily necessary to move on his armies, his works, his communications, or his supplies.

But in a guerrilla war, such as that being fought against the plains tribes, the enemy had no home base, no line of operations or defense, no strategic points to defend and no important storage facilities for ammunition or provisions. A guerrilla foe could be defeated only

by making it impossible for him to exist in the country he operates in“.

The buffalo were to the Plains Indians what the Shenandoah Valley’s grain was to the Confederate armies of “Stonewall” Jackson and Jubal Early. Phil Sheridan had finally gained control of the Shenandoah Valley…by laying

waste the grain fields — the supply of food and forage to the enemy — and it was like robbing the Indian of his buffalo“.

As long as the buffalo roamed in great herds, the plains tribes would spurn the reservations. But the buffalo’s disappearance would draw the tribes to the reservations for subsistence. Furthermore, the Indians’ determination to protect the buffalo pastures of the plains compelled them to oppose the railroad…

…Army officers hoped that America’s Indians could be civilized and Christianized, but the military was thoroughly convinced that Indians respected martial power and that only punishment would persuade them to capitulate… In Sheridan’s words,

if he [the Plains Indian] does not now give up his cruel and destructive habits, I see no other way to save the lives and property of our people, than to punish him until peace becomes a desirable object“.

Evidently, then, at the outset of his winter campaign of 1868-1869, Sheridan was under the impression that the western army could significantly reduce the buffalo herds, thereby demoralizing the plains tribes.

Sheridan’s confidence in the army’s ability to eradicate the buffalo evaporated as his participation in the campaign gave him a better appreciation of the immensity of the southern herd. On 3 December 1868, from a depot on the North Canadian, Sheridan wrote to the army’s assistant adjutant general, informing him that the federal government

makes a great mistake in giving these Indians any considerable amount of food under the supposition of necessity. The whole country is literally covered with game. There are more buffalo than will last the Indians for 20 years“.

Sheridan also realized that north of the Union Pacific Railroad, there ranged another enormous herd. In it, he had personally observed

not less than 200,000 in one day“.

–‘The Frontier Army and the Destruction of the Buffalo: 1865-1883’,

David D. Smits, The Western Historical Quarterly, Vol. 25, No. 3 (Autumn, 1994),

pp. 312-338


Buffalo (Photo – Petersen’s Hunting)

As to the decline of the buffalo, there was plenty of blame to go around — and not just the U.S. Army and ‘white’ buffalo hunters:

A powerful myth emerged — one repeated in many textbooks — that the Indians “used every part of the buffalo“, implying that the Plains Indians used all the buffalo they killed. That was not the case.

Estimates made in the 1850s suggest that Indians harvested about 450,000 animals a year, and some think the figure was far higher than that. After stripping the best meat and some useful parts, the Indians left the remainder to rot. The stench permeated the prairie for miles, and many a pioneer came across acres of bones from buffalo killed by the Indians before they moved on.

Notions that “pre-capitalist” Indians lived in harmony with nature — especially the buffalo — are thoroughly exploded in the new works by these anthropologists and historians.

Indians used the tools at their disposal, mostly fire and cunning, to hunt buffalo. “Box burning“, a common tactic, involved setting simultaneous fires on all four sides of a herd. The French word “Brulé“, or “burnt“, referred to the Sicangu (“burnt thigh“) Sioux division, whose survivors of hunting fires were burned on the legs. Charles McKenzie, traveling the plains in 1804, observed entire herds charred from Indian fires.

Another favored hunting tactic, the “buffalo jump“, involved luring a herd after an Indian dressed in a buffalo skin. At a full run, the brave led the herd to a cliff, where he leapt to a small ledge while the buffalo careened over the edge to their deaths. Either of these methods led to horrible waste and inefficient use of resources.

Isenberg, for one, doubts whether Indian slaughter alone would have made the buffalo extinct but when combined with natural factors — wolf predation, fire, and drought {and disease} — the Indians’ annual harvest probably exceeded the ability of the herds to maintain themselves. More important, as Isenberg points out,

Even had they recognized a decline, the inherent instability of the nomadic societies made it difficult always to enforce the mandates against waste.”

Equally important, many Indian religions held that nature provided an inexhaustible supply, and thus it was impossible to “overhunt“. Put another way, without private property rights, the bison were already doomed before the ‘white man’ arrived…

…The authors unveil evidence of communal economies that engaged in large-scale burning to “clear” forests and also to kill game. “Controlled” burns by the Indians often got out of control and without modern firefighting equipment, flashed through forests, destroying everything in their path.

Deer, beaver, and birds of all sorts were already on a trajectory to extinction in some areas because over and above the hunting done by Indians, natural predators and disasters thinned herds. Isenberg wonders whether the North American bison herd was already falling below replacement levels before ‘white’ hunters arrived…”

–‘Buffaloed: The Myth and Reality of Bison in America’,

Larry Schweikart, Foundation for Economic Education, December 01, 2002

(Larry Earl Schweikart is an American historian and professor of history at the University of Dayton.)


‘Driving Buffalo Over the Cliff’, a painting by Charles Marion Russell

Gone, and yet not gone, the American bison resides in strong numbers in Custer National Park, Yellowstone Park, and private herds, such as the ever-expanding numbers around Gillette, Wyoming. There are ranches dedicated to meat production, as well as the mixed breed “beefalo”.

Remaining buffalo are controversial. Ranchers are leery of infected bison coming out of parks to mingle with their cattle. And you can count on someone being trampled while getting a snapshot of an animal big enough to knock a person from Tuesday into Sunday with a mere fly-chasing flick of its mighty head. It happens every year.

The ‘Great Buffalo Lie’ continues, with children taught in school that the animals were exterminated by hunters over all of North America.

Buffalo“, by Emilie U. Lepthien from ‘Children’s Press’ carries a chapter entitled “The Great Buffalo Slaughter”. Hunters, of course, are “credited” with bringing the bison to near extinction.

Never mind teaching the truth… 60 million free-roaming animals could never be wiped out by shooters on foot, horseback, or mule-drawn wagon over roadless expanses of hundreds of thousands of square miles.”

–‘Was the Buffalo Hunted to Near Extinction?’,

Dr. Sam Fadala, Peterson Hunting, September 4, 2012


Bison graze, just inside Yellowstone National Park (Photograph — Ted S. Warren-AP)

Yellowstone National Park is proposing to reduce its celebrated bison herd by 1,000 animals this winter by rounding up those wandering into adjacent Montana and delivering them to Native American tribes for slaughter, officials said on Wednesday.

The longstanding but controversial annual culling is designed to lessen the risk of straying Yellowstone bison infecting cattle herds in Montana with ‘brucellosis’, a bacterial disease carried by many bison, also known as buffalo…

Brucellosis, which can cause pregnant cows and other animals to miscarry their young, is at the centre of a perennial dispute between Montana ranchers and wildlife advocates over management of Yellowstone’s bison…

More than 700 bison were culled last year, most of them captured and turned over to tribes for slaughter but some killed through hunting. Some tribes, such as the Nez Perce in Idaho, support the program while others oppose it…

–‘Yellowstone proposes controversial slaughter of 1,000 bison’,

Reuters, November 2015



ERBL inc. Canada News



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