The Demise of the Buffalo

History’s a complicated mosaic, and the more I read and hear from Indian elders, the more complicated it gets. But also, more interesting. Historians have tales to tell, arguments to make, which means that they sometimes miss the nuances—or even the major protagonists—in their stories. In the texts I grew up with, diseases were missing, climate was missing, and in almost all cases in American history, Indians were missing. They were a sidebar, friendly at first in sharing foods, then hurdles overcome as the nation moved across a continent. Fortunately, new histories are giving us old and neglected stories of the trials of Indians, Blacks, Latinx and Asians—and recounting their contributions to the current world.

I recently read an extraordinary book, Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power. In it the Finnish historian, Pekka Hamalainen, who teaches in England, argues that the Lakota Nation—one of seven allied groups of the “Sioux” Indians—rose and moved from the Great Lakes region to the great American prairie, where it became the dominant mid 19th century power. The book is hundreds of pages of historical correction, beginning with the naming of the Sioux, which turns out to be a French corruption of an Ojibwe word meaning “snake.” But white men frequently gave one Indian tribe the name given it another—enemy or antagonistic tribe, and that is another story.

The Lakota rose on the backs of horses, gradually gained and adapted to as they moved west. They were aided by guns, which they got from the fur trade as it moved west with them. Their power across the great American Middle—among other Indian tribes and the French, English, and American trading companies and governments—was built on dominating the fur trade. And as that trade moved from beaver to buffalo hides, millions of hides were shipped south and east, to New Orleans down the Mississippi, and to New York overland, especially after the railroads met the continent’s middle. At one point, Hamalainen says that 100,000 hides were shipped downriver from St. Louis each year.

What he doesn’t do is tell us why the demand for buffalo was so huge. I’ve read in several places that killing buffalo was the Anglo-American’s way of starving Indians and forcing them onto reservations. And it was. But before that, when the buffalo were still plenty and the Lakota were rising to power, it was Indians who were killing them and processing hides, passing them on to the European traders. And it was the Industrial Revolution that wanted the hides—a historical footnote I’d not known about.

Until a friend asked recently why there weren’t old buffalo robes still hanging in closets and antique stores—how could so many of them have just disappeared? I passed that story on to Barrie Qualie, a well-read retired rancher who grew up in Canada and knows something about ranching and the country from Saskatchewan to Barstow. “Well, they used the buffalo hides for factory belts,” he answered. We googled, and found a December, 2018 article in the Dodge City Globe by writer Kathy Bell, “The Demise of the Buffalo.” She writes:

“Much of the cause of the slaughter of the American bison, or buffalo, was due to the value of the animals’ hides. Most people tend to think they were valued because they made fine robes or coats. But that wasn’t really the case.

“During the 1870′s, just when the buffalo hunt was picking up steam, industrial growth skyrocketed in the U.S. and Europe, and demand for leather industrial belts expanded. Cowhide tended to stretch and factory workers would have to occasionally stop production to tighten belts by cutting out sections. The epidermal layer in buffalo hide is up to three times thicker than that of cattle and has wider spaced sub-dermal collagen fibers making it more durable and flexible, and better suited for use in industrial conveyor and drive belts.”

The train came West as American and European industry grew; settlers and goldminers came with buffalo hunters; buffalo bones were crushed for fertilizer; and buffalo were killed to take away Indian independence. But in the initial chapters, it was buffalo belts that largely drove the trade. Another nuance in American history, one even Pekka Hamalainen failed to notice.

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