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Demise of the Buffalo
By Edward S. Curtis
From the "The North American Indian"
Volume 3, published 1908.


The sportsman and the utilitarian join with the Indians in their cry of regret at the ruthless slaughter of the millions of bison which composed the great western herd, and during the last quarter-century all the harsh language at the command of American writers has been hurled at those directly responsible for the extermination. That the destruction was the most brutal and improvident of its kind in the history of civilization there is no question, and that those who went out and mowed the animals down by scores and hundreds in a single day are deserving of every criticism there is no doubt; but when we view the question in a broader way, the blame would seem to rest not entirely with those who shouldered the guns. It was public sentiment that slaughtered the western herd of the American bison - a sentiment which, fostered by our desire further to oppress, to bring under subjection, and to rob of their birthright a people already driven for two generations before a greedily advancing civilization, was supported by the people as represented in the halls of Congress, and which became the governmental policy. And there lay the blame. We slaughtered the buffalo in order to starve the Indians of the plains into submission, thereby forcing them into a position in which they must take what we saw fit to dole out to them.

In 1871, which might be called the beginning of the last decade of the buffalo, the friends of these animals, and of the Indians, made an effort to promote legislation designed to protect the herds from wanton destruction. In June, 1874, the Senate and the House passed a bill for the protection of the buffalo, but the enactment unfortunately failed to receive the President's signature. During the next four years feeble efforts to the same end were made, but without result. By this time the southern herd was represented only by bleaching bones, while the northern herd was within four years of its extinction. The sentiment of the people at this time is reflected in a contemporary report of the Secretary of the Interior, which says:

"The rapid disappearance of game from the former hunting grounds must operate largely in favor of our efforts to confine the Indians to smaller areas, and compel them to abandon their nomadic customs, and establish themselves in permanent homes. So long as the game existed in abundance there was little disposition manifested to abandon the chase, even though Government bounty was dispensed in great abundance, affording them ample means of support. When the game shall have disappeared, we shall be well forward in the work in hand...

"I cannot regard the rapid disappearance of the game from its former haunts as a matter prejudicial to our management of the Indians. On the contrary, as they become convinced that they can no longer rely upon the supply of game for their support, they will turn to the more reliable source of subsistence furnished at the agencies, and endeavor to so live that that supply will be regularly dispensed. A few years of cessation from the chase will tend to unfit them for their former mode of life, and they will be the more readily led into new directions, toward industrial pursuits and peaceful habits."

It must be realized that, however comprehensive the legislation and rigorous its enforcement, restrictive laws could only have retarded for a limited time the inevitable extermination of the wild buffalo. If by care they could have been utilized for twenty-five years longer, they would have served, like other things of primeval life, their natural purpose, and we could have viewed their end with only that regret with which we see the forest fall and the prairies' broad surface turned sod by sod from its natural beauty to the utility that Nature's own laws demand.

To have thus husbanded such a vast natural food supply would have been of inestimable value to the white settler, saved untold expenditure in caring for the Indians and many hundreds of them from pitiful starvation, and preserved the virility of the plains tribes. Those, therefore, who feel that the sooner the Indian, like the buffalo, is exterminated the better, must realize that the most effective effort toward this end was the sweeping of the buffalo from the land.


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