Buffalo Bones

Explorer Alexander Henry traveled in the region in 1800 and described buffalo herds in great numbers about the Turtle, Park, Goose and Sheyenne rivers.  In places small timber had been destroyed and great piles of wool lay at the foot of the trees, where the buffalo had rubbed against them.

Forty years later Alexander Ross, a Canadian trader, witnessed a buffalo hunt on the Sheyenne River by a party of professional hunters.  He counted tongues of 1,375 buffalo that had been killed in one day.  Very little else was salvaged from the slaughtered animals in that hunt.

In 1839, explorers Jean Nicolett and John C. Fremont traveled in North Dakota.  They entered the state in the Oakes area, went north along the James, then crossed over to the Sheyenne and followed it north.  One of their camping places and a landmark for later parties of transcontinental travelers, was a lake that Fremont named Jessie after his fiancee.  In the Sheyenne valley an immense herd of buffalo hampered their progress for three days.

In 1853, another party of travelers came through and buffalo were again mentioned.  This time it was a railway survey party.  After the discovery of gold in California the need for a transcontinental railroad was evident and various routes were to be surveyed.  General Isaac Stevens, newly appointed governor of Washington Territory, was appointed to survey the north route on his way to his new post. He crossed the Red river into North Dakota near Wahpeton in early June and the party followed the route, which is now the Great Northern Surrey cutoff.

At Lake Jessie a herd of buffalo estimated at two hundred thousand crowded about the lake.  In attempting to force buffalo away from the baggage train, Stevens injured himself and had to ride in the ambulance the rest of the way to Fort Union, west of the present site of Williston.  (An artist with the party drew a picture of the buffalo herd at Lake Jessie and it was among the illustrations used in the published railway survey report.)

But huge as the herds were, the end was beginning.  For several years, 90,000 hides a year were handled by trading companies.  These were only from animals killed from November to March, when the hides were prime.

As early as 1845, thoughtful observers protested the wasteful, wholesale slaughter of buffalo.  That it continued until there were less than nine hundred buffalo left alive on the entire North American continent is a matter of record.

The buffalo was the backbone of the economy of the Plains Indians.  "Uncle Buffalo," as they called him, was used as a commodity and venerated as a symbol.

They fed on the flesh, either fresh or dried and preserved as pemmican.  Sinews were used for thread.  The skins, as one observer pointed out, served as "tepees, raiment, bedding, carpets, canvas, bullboats, baskets, buckets and cases for pemmican and fat, strings for their bows, ropes for tethering animals, lariats for catching young buffalo and at the end were used for shroud and coffin."  Dried and made into pemmican, the meat would keep for years, early historians wrote.

The loss of the buffalo impoverished the Indians and forced them to accept the terms imposed upon them.

As late as 1877 dried buffalo meat and pemmican were sold at Pembina, but the era of "Uncle Buffalo" had ended.

By the early 1880's, when the first homesteaders began to arrive in Griggs County, the buffalo were long gone, and Indians were rare and infrequent visitors.

But though the living beasts were gone, the prairies still carried marks of their passing.  Deep trails through the grass, and basin-shaped wallows gave evidence of their presence a quarter century before.  Bleached, dry buffalo bones lay all over.  (Though the bones are now gone, many trails remain in 1982.)

For many early settlers, buffalo bones were their first cash crop.  The bones were shipped to Detroit, Michigan, to be ground into fertilizer and stores in Cooperstown bought the bones eagerly.

In 1884 the Cooperstown Courier reported, "A leading industry between seeding and the breaking season is the gathering of buffalo bones.  They are worth $9 (a ton) in Cooperstown and dozens of teams are coming in every day loaded down.  An ordinary wagon load is worth $6."

Later it was reported that 250 tons of buffalo bones had been purchased and were awaiting shipment.  This represented bones from at least 10,000 animals! Next year, the price went up to $13 a ton and later that year it climbed again to $18 a ton.  It was estimated that $8000 was paid out for buffalo bones in Cooperstown that year.  This figures out to somewhere near 500 tons, or bones from 20,000 animals.

Source: Cooperstown, North Dakota 1882-1982 Centennial page 24

News & Events