A Buffalo Hunt & Other Buffalo History Tidbits

One thing that early European visitors to the Great Plains commented on was the sight of vast herds of buffalo, like the one Napoleon fictionally encounters in Napoleon in America.

Buffalo Hunt: A Numerous Group, by George Catlin, 1844

Buffalo Hunt: A Numerous Group, by George Catlin, 1844

In 1541, Francisco Vázquez de Coronado, one of the first white men to visit the American West, wrote to Holy Roman Emperor Charles V:

I reached some plains, so vast that I did not find their limit anywhere that I went, although I travelled more than three hundred leagues through them. And I found such a quantity of cows [buffalo] in these…that it is impossible to number them, for while I was journeying through these plains, until I returned to where I first found them, there was not a day that I lost sight of them. (1)

At the beginning of the 19th century, an estimated 30 million buffaloes, or American bison, roamed across the grasslands that ran from northern Canada to northern Mexico. (2)

During the ‘running season,’ in August and September, they congregate in such masses as literally to blacken the prairie for miles. In these scenes the whole mass is in constant motion, and their bellows and roars at the distance of a mile or two sound like distant thunder. (3)

Buffaloes supplied food, shelter, clothing and tools for Native Americans. Buffaloes also provided sustenance and warmth – “one [buffalo] robe being more than equal to three good blankets” – for white travelers and settlers on the plains. (4) And buffaloes furnished luxury goods for North American and European markets.

Description of a buffalo hunt

Buffalo Hunt, by George Catlin, 1844

Buffalo Hunt, by George Catlin, 1844

Pennsylvania-born artist George Catlin traveled to the American West five times during the 1830s. In addition to producing striking portraits of the Plains Indians, he wrote eloquently about his experiences among them. In 1832, Catlin accompanied members of the Hidatsa tribe on a buffalo hunt in the Knife River area of what is today North Dakota.

It was suddenly announced through the village one morning at an early hour, that a herd of buffaloes was in sight, when an hundred or more young men mounted their horses with weapons in hand and steered their course to the prairies. The chief informed me that one of his horses was in readiness for me at the door of his wigwam, and that I had better go and see the curious affair. I accepted his polite offer, and mounting the steed, galloped off with the hunters to the prairies, where we soon descried at a distance, a fine herd of buffaloes grazing, when a halt and a council were ordered, and the mode of attack was agreed upon. I had armed myself with my pencil and my sketch-book only, and consequently took my position generally in the rear, where I could see and appreciate every manoeuvre.

The plan of attack, which in this country is familiarly called a ‘surround’ was explicitly agreed upon, and the hunters who were all mounted on their ‘buffalo horses’ and armed with bows and arrows or long lances, divided into two columns, taking opposite directions, and drew themselves gradually around the herd at a mile or more distance from them; thus forming a circle of horsemen at equal distances apart, who gradually closed in upon them with a moderate pace, at a signal given. The unsuspecting herd at length ‘got the wind’ of the approaching enemy and fled in a mass in the greatest confusion. To the point where they were aiming to cross the line, the horsemen were seen at full speed, gathering and forming in a column, brandishing their weapons and yelling in the most frightful manner, by which means they turned the black and rushing mass, which moved off in an opposite direction where they were again met and foiled in a similar manner, and wheeled back in utter confusion; by which time the horsemen had closed in from all directions, forming a continuous line around them, whilst the poor affrighted animals were eddying about in a crowded and confused mass, hooking and climbing upon each other….

In this grand turmoil, a cloud of dust was soon raised, which in parts obscured the throng where the hunters were galloping their horses around and driving the whizzing arrows or their long lances to the hearts of these noble animals; which in many instances, becoming infuriated with deadly wounds in their sides, erected their shaggy manes over their blood-shot eyes and furiously plunged forwards at the sides of their assailants’ horses, sometimes goring them to death at a lunge, and putting their dismounted riders to flight for their lives; sometimes their dense crowd was opened, and the blinded horsemen, too intent on their prey amidst the cloud of dust, were hemmed and wedged in amidst the crowding beasts, over whose backs they were obliged to leap for security, leaving their horses to the fate that might await them in the results of this wild and desperate war. Many were the bulls that turned upon their assailants and met them with desperate resistance; and many were the warriors who were dismounted, and saved themselves by the superior muscles of their legs; some who were closely pursued by the bulls, wheeled suddenly around and snatching the part of a buffalo robe from around their waists, threw it over the horns and the eyes of the infuriated beast, and darting by its side drove the arrow or the lance to its heart. Others suddenly dashed off upon the prairies by the side of the affrighted animals which had escaped from the throng, and closely escorting them for a few rods, brought down their hearts blood in streams, and their huge carcasses upon the green and enamelled turf.

In this way this grand hunt soon resolved itself into a desperate battle; and in the space of fifteen minutes, resulted in the total destruction of the whole herd, which in all their strength and fury were doomed, like every beast and living thing else, to fall before the destroying hands of mighty man.

I had sat in trembling silence upon my horse, and witnessed this extraordinary scene, which allowed not one of these animals to escape out of my sight. Many plunged off upon the prairie for a distance, but were overtaken and killed; and although I could not distinctly estimate the number that were slain, yet I am sure that some hundreds of these noble animals fell in this grand melee.

The scene after the battle was over was novel and curious in the extreme; the hunters were moving about amongst the dead and dying animals, leading their horses by their halters, and claiming their victims by their private marks upon their arrows, which they were drawing from the wounds in the animals’ sides.

Amongst the poor affrighted creatures that had occasionally dashed through the ranks of their enemy, and sought safety in flight upon the prairie (and in some instances, had undoubtedly gained it), I saw them stand awhile, looking back, when they turned, and, as if bent on their own destruction, retraced their steps, and mingled themselves and their deaths with those of the dying throng. Others had fled to a distance on the prairies, and for want of company, of friends or of foes, had stood and gazed on till the battle-scene was over; seemingly taking pains to stay, and hold their lives in readiness for their destroyers, until the general destruction was over, when they fell easy victims to their weapons — making the slaughter complete.

After this scene, and after arrows had been claimed and recovered, a general council was held, when all hands were seated on the ground, and a few pipes smoked; after which, all mounted their horses and rode back to the village.

A deputation of several of the warriors was sent to the chief, who explained to him what had been their success; and the same intelligence was soon communicated by little squads to every family in the village; and preparations were at once made for securing the meat. For this purpose, some hundreds of women and children, to whose lots fall all the drudgeries of Indian life, started out upon the trail, which led them to the battlefield, where they spent the day in skinning the animals, and cutting up the meat, which was mostly brought into the villages on their backs, as they tugged and sweated under their enormous and cruel loads.

I rode out to see this curious scene; and I regret exceedingly that I kept no memorandum of it in my sketch-book. Amidst the throng of women and children that had been assembled, and all of whom seemed busily at work, were many superannuated and disabled nags, which they had brought out to assist in carrying in the meat; and at least, one thousand semi-loup dogs, and whelps, whose keen appetites and sagacity had brought them out, to claim their shares of this abundant and sumptuous supply. (5)

Scottish nobleman James Carnegie, 9th Earl of Southesk, who put an end to several buffaloes on an expedition across the Canadian prairies in 1859-60, observed that “[n]o one, till he tries it, can fancy how hard it is to shoot a galloping buffalo from a galloping horse.” (6)

Assiniboine Hunting the Buffalo, by Peter Rindisbacher, 1836

Assiniboine Hunting the Buffalo, by Peter Rindisbacher, 1836

A buffalo hunt in winter

Native Americans also hunted buffaloes in the winter, when the animals’ coats were thick.

In the dead of the winters, which are very long and severely cold in this country, where horses cannot be brought into the chase with any avail, the Indian runs upon the surface of the snow by the aid of his snow shoes, which buoy him up, while the great weight of the buffaloes, sinks them down to the middle of their sides, and completely stopping their progress, ensures them certain and easy victims to the bow or lance of their pursuers. The snow in these regions often lies during the winter, to the depth of three and four feet, being blown away from the tops and sides of the hills in many places, which are left bare for the buffaloes to graze upon, whilst it is drifted in the hollows and ravines to a very great depth, and rendered almost entirely impassable to these huge animals, which, when closely pursued by their enemies, endeavour to plunge through it, but are soon wedged in and almost unable to move, where they fall an easy prey to the Indian, who runs up lightly upon his snow shoes and drives his lance to their hearts. The skins are then stripped off, to be sold to the Fur Traders, and the carcasses left to be devoured by the wolves. This is the season in which the greatest number of these animals are destroyed for their robes — they are most easily killed at this time, and their hair or fur being longer and more abundant, gives greater value to the robe. (7)

Purpose of the buffalo hunt

Native Americans relied on the buffalo for food, shelter, clothing, bedding and other items.

[T]he buffalo not only furnishes flesh for food, but provides horns, hoofs, hide, and bones for the Indian’s bows, shields, wigwam, covering, and tools. (8)

The Indians also traded buffalo meat, pemmican (see below), buffalo robes, and other buffalo items to white fur traders in exchange for things like tea, sugar, ammunition and whiskey.

The horns of the buffalo are short, but very sharp-pointed, although thick at the base. Being very hard and black, they are highly-prized for cups and other purposes. Its flesh, when fat, is excellent, especially the hump; the skins, covered with an excessively thick hair, nearly approaching to wool, are much used in the Northern parts of the United States, more especially as a wrapper when travelling in the sledges or sleighs, over the ice or snow. (9)

For the Plains Indians, buffalo meat was “the great staple and staff of life.”

[They] live almost exclusively on the flesh of these animals, through every part of the year. During the summer and fall months they use the meat fresh, and cook it in a great variety of ways, by roasting, broiling, boiling, stewing, smoking, &c.; and by boiling the ribs and joints with the marrow in them, make a delicious soup, which is universally used, and in vast quantities. (10)

Catlin was struck by how the Mandans, who lived along the Upper Missouri River, preserved buffalo meat for the winter months.

It is all cured or dried in the sun, without the aid of salt or smoke! The method of doing this is the same amongst all the tribes, from this to the Mexican Provinces, and is as follows: — The choicest parts of the flesh from the buffalo are cut out by the squaws, and carried home on their backs or on horses, and there cut ‘across the grain’ in such a manner as will take alternately the layers of lean and fat; and having prepared it all in this way, in strips about half an inch in thickness, it is hung up by hundreds and thousands of pounds on poles resting on crotches, out of the reach of dogs or wolves, and exposed to the rays of the sun for several days, when it becomes so effectually dried, that it can be carried to any part of the world without damage. (11)

Pemmican: tasty or nasty?

Catlin described a dish of pemmican made by the Mandans.

It [pemmican] is made of buffalo meat dried very hard, and afterwards pounded in a large wooden mortar until it is made nearly as fine as sawdust, then packed in this dry state in bladders or sacks of skin, and is easily carried to any part of the world in good order. ‘Marrow-fat’ is collected by the Indians from the buffalo bones which they break to pieces, yielding a prodigious quantity of marrow, which is boiled out and put into buffalo bladders which have been distended; and after it cools, becomes quite hard like tallow, and has the appearance, and very nearly the flavor, of the richest yellow butter. At a feast, chunks of this marrow-fat are cut off and placed in a tray or bowl, with the pemmican, and eaten together; which we civilized folks in these regions consider a very good substitute for (and indeed we generally so denominate it) ‘bread and butter.’ In this dish laid a spoon made of the buffalo’s horn, which was black as jet, and beautifully polished…. (12)

Carnegie was not impressed with the buffalo pemmican he consumed.

Take scrapings from the driest outside corner of a very stale piece of cold roast beef, add to it lumps of tallow rancid fat, then garnish all with long human hairs (on which string pieces, like beads, upon a necklace), and short hairs of oxen, or dogs, or both, – and you have a fair imitation of common pemmican, though I should rather suppose it to be less nasty. (13)

How to dress a buffalo skin

Sioux Encamped on the Upper Missouri, Dressing Buffalo Meat and Robes, by George Catlin, 1832

Sioux Encamped on the Upper Missouri, Dressing Buffalo Meat and Robes, by George Catlin, 1832

Catlin described how the Plains Indians dressed, or processed, buffalo skins into leather, for use in clothing or other purposes.

The usual mode of dressing the buffalo, and other skins, is by immersing them for a few days under a lye from ashes and water, until the hair can be removed; when they are strained upon a frame or upon the ground, with stakes or pins driven through the edges into the earth; where they remain for several days, with the brains of the buffalo or elk spread upon and over them; and at last finished by ‘graining,’ as it is termed, by the squaws; who use a sharpened bone, the shoulder-blade or other large bone of the animal, sharpened at the edge, somewhat like an adze; with the edge of which they scrape the fleshy side of the skin; bearing on it with the weight of their bodies, thereby drying and softening the skin, and fitting it for use. The greater part of these skins, however, go through still another operation afterwards, which gives them a greater value, and renders them much more serviceable — that is, the process of smoking. For this, a small hole is dug in the ground, and a fire is built in it with rotten wood, which will produce a great quantity of smoke without much blaze; and several small poles of the proper length stuck in the ground around it, and drawn and fastened together at the top, around which a skin is wrapped in form of a tent, and generally sewed together at the edges to secure the smoke within it, within this the skins to be smoked are placed, and in this condition the tent will stand a day or so, enclosing the heated smoke; and by some chemical process or other, which I do not understand, the skins thus acquire a quality which enables them, after being ever so many times wet, to dry soft and pliant as they were before, which secret I have never yet seen practiced in my own country; and for the lack of which, all of our dressed skins when once wet, are, I think, chiefly ruined. (14)

Things you might not know about buffalo robes

Buffalo robes are cured buffalo skins with the hair left on. Carnegie observed:

In buffalo robes the season [in which the buffalo is killed] makes a great difference. Before November the hair is not long enough, and after New Year’s day it gets ragged, and its rich black-brown is bleached to the colour of tow [pale yellow], especially along the animal’s back. The robes are generally taken from cows, and sometimes from young bulls, but never from the old bulls, whose hides are much too thick and heavy. (15)

Carnegie also reported the following incident, which befell him at Fort Garry (now Winnipeg) in January of 1860.

A curious circumstance happened as I was going to bed – as I hastily slipped myself between the buffalo robes, a wide sheet of electrical flame blazed into my face, for a moment illuminating the whole tent. The same thing happened on a subsequent occasion, though rather less vividly. These flames were doubtless similar to the sparks that issue from a cat’s fur when briskly rubbed in the dark during frosty weather. (16)

Fun fact about buffalo dung

Dry buffalo dung is an excellent fuel source. Catlin, who kindled his fires with it, referred to the Mandans making a fine powder of the stuff and using it as tinder to light their pipes. Carnegie provided this description.

[After crossing the Qu’Appelle River], a wide, bare, sandy expanse lay before us, dotted with small hillocks and utterly devoid of trees or brush, though not altogether wanting in fuel, being thickly strewn with dry buffalo dung – ‘bois des prairies’ I believe the French voyageurs call it, it is sometimes also spoken of as buffalo chips. We frequently used it in our camp fires. I rather liked to burn it, as it throws out a very pleasant strongly aromatic smell redolent of wild thyme and other herbs of the prairie. (17)

Buffalo hunted to near-extinction

Buffalo Skull Pile, circa 1892. Buffalo bones were processed for use in glue, fertilizer, dye/tint/ink, or were burned to create “bone char,” a component in sugar refining

Buffalo Skull Pile, circa 1892. Buffalo bones were processed for use in glue, fertilizer, dye/tint/ink, or were burned to create “bone char,” a component in sugar refining.

A combination of over-hunting and environmental change led to the near-extinction of the buffalo. Even in the early 19th century, observers noted that the buffalo population was declining. David Gouverneur Burnet of Cincinnati, who later served as the first president of the Republic of Texas, spent more than a year living with the Comanche Indians in 1818-19. He commented:

It has been remarked that the number of Buffaloes that annually reach the regions inhabited by the Comanches has sensibly diminished within a few years. In the event of a serious failure of that munificent provision of nature, these and other tribes of similar habits will be compelled to resort to agriculture, or to recede northwardly in pursuit of their ancient prey. (18)

Catlin also foresaw the fate of the buffalo. He urged the government to create a large park in which both Indians and buffaloes could be preserved.

It is melancholy for the traveller in this country to perceive that the time is not far distant when these noble animals will at last perish before the cruel and improvident rapacity of the white men and the red. Only a few days before I arrived, an immense herd showing in the distance, a band of several hundred Sioux crossed the river at mid-day, and after a few hours brought in fourteen hundred fresh buffalo tongues for which they received a few gallons of whiskey. Not a skin did they bring; it was not the season for fur. Not a pound of flesh did they bring; the camp required no fresh meat. This is but one instance of the profligate waste of the buffalo. (19)

James Carnegie provided a similar lament.

With the buffalo it is…kill, kill, kill. All the year round the Indians are hunting and slaughtering them, and in the winter they drive them into ‘pounds’ by hundreds at a time, and murder every beast in the enclosures, male and female, young or old, usable or useless. Such waste will soon bring its bitter punishment. (20)

The last of the Canadian buffaloes, 1902

The last of the Canadian buffaloes, 1902

By 1900, there were fewer than 1,000 buffaloes left in North America. In 1905, conservationists established the American Bison Society, which established and stocked several buffalo refuges. Similar efforts to save the diminishing herds took place in Canada. Today there are some 500,000 buffaloes, found both in publicly and privately held herds, although most of these include animals with genes from domestic cattle. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, fewer than 15,000 pure wild American bison remain. (21)

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Indian Interpreter Gaspard Philibert

Visiting Niagara Falls in the early 19th Century

Canada and the Louisiana Purchase

  1. George Parker Winship, Coronado’s Journey to New Mexico and the Great Plains, 1540-41, American History Leaflet No. 13 (New York, 1894), p. 11.
  2. Estimates of the number of buffalo prior to 1800 go as high as 60 million; the 30 million figure is based on the estimated carrying capacity of the grassland. See Tom McHugh, The Time of the Buffalo (Lincoln, NE, 1972), p. 17, and Andrew C. Isenberg, The Destruction of the Bison: An Environmental History, 1750-1920 (Cambridge, 2000), p. 25.
  3. George Catlin, My Life Among the Indians, edited by Mary Gay Humphreys (New York, 1915), p. 228.
  4. James Carnegie, Earl of Southesk, Saskatchewan and the Rocky Mountains: A Diary and Narrative of Travel, Sport, and Adventure, during a Journey through the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Territories, in 1859 and 1860 (Edinburgh, 1875), p. 276.
  5. George Catlin, Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians, Vol. I, Fourth Edition (New York, 1842), pp. 199-201.
  6. Carnegie, Saskatchewan and the Rocky Mountains, p. 105.
  7. Catlin, Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians, Vol. I, p. 253.
  8. Catlin, My Life Among the Indians, p. 7.
  9. Henry George Ward, Mexico, Second Edition, Vol. II (London, 1829), p. 437.
  10. Catlin, Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians, Vol. I, p. 122.
  11. Ibid., p. 124.
  12. Ibid., p. 116.
  13. Carnegie, Saskatchewan and the Rocky Mountains, p. 302.
  14. Catlin, Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians, Vol. I, pp. 45-46.
  15. Carnegie, Saskatchewan and the Rocky Mountains, p. 307.
  16. Ibid., p. 366.
  17. Ibid., p. 67.
  18. Ernest Wallace, “David G. Burnet’s Letters Describing the Comanche Indians, with an Introduction,” West Texas Historical Association Year Book, Vol. 30, 1954, p. 136.
  19. George Catlin, My Life Among the Indians, p. 237.
  20. Ibid., p. 265.
  21. K. Aune, D. Jørgensen, & C. Gates. 2017. Bison bison (errata version published in 2018). The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2017: e.T2815A123789863. http://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2017-3.RLTS.T2815A45156541.en. Accessed January 10, 2019.

6 commments on “A Buffalo Hunt & Other Buffalo History Tidbits”

  • Richard says:

    Thank You! It has been a while since I thought about these things. It is important to remember what happened, and who we are. Now I will have to read more of George Catlin’s first-hand accounts.

  • Lydia says:

    After reading this, I’m surprised and relieved that buffalo didn’t go extinct. I hadn’t realized how close they came to that fate!

    Have you ever tried pemmican? I’m quite curious about it.

  • Shannon Selin says:

    Me too! What surprised me is how many modern-day buffalo have domestic cattle genes, which somewhat diminishes the allure when seeing these magnificent animals in private herds. Growing up in Saskatchewan, I did sample pemmican several times. I vaguely recall making it as a school project, and also tasted more authentic varieties at Batoche and Fort Carlton (although whether those were made with buffalo or beef, I don’t know). I found pemmican dry and not very tasty. It was better when mixed with Saskatoon berries. It’s now possible to buy commercially-made pemmican, which I haven’t tried.

  • David Gouveia says:

    I am interested how a mountain man would in the process of skinning a buffalo would be able to roll the animal over to remove the underside of the animal and thus keep the center piece intact to produce a full length blanket. Considering the buffalo’s weight does a mule have the strength to do the job, or how did they do so?

  • Shannon Selin says:

    Good question, David. I don’t know how one person on his own would be able to do it. In the accounts I’ve read, a number of people were always involved. You might find this description of Native Americans “butchering” a buffalo carcass in the 1840s to be of interest. It was written by George Ruxton, a British explorer and travel writer. “[T]he hunters…turned the carcass on the belly, stretching out the legs to support it on each side. A transverse cut was then made at the nape of the neck, and, gathering the long hair of the boss [head] in one hand, the skin was separated from the shoulder. It was then laid open from this point to the tail, along the spine, and the skin was freed from the sides and pulled down to the brisket, but, still attached to it, was stretched upon the ground to receive the dissected portions. Then the shoulder was severed, the fleece removed from along the backbone, and the hump-ribs cut off with a tomahawk. All this was placed upon the skin; and after the ‘boudins’ had been withdrawn from the stomach, and the tongue – a great dainty – taken from the head, the meat was packed upon the mule, and the whole party hurried to camp rejoicing.” (Life in the Far West, 1849, pp. 72-73)

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No one, till he tries it, can fancy how hard it is to shoot a galloping buffalo from a galloping horse.

James Carnegie, 9th Earl of Southesk