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 Texas : Features : Columns : "It's All Trew"

Buffalo slaughter had benefits
Animals' remains provided needed items for early settlers

by Delbert Trew
Delbert Trew
The whys and wherefores of the near-extinction of the buffalo will be debated from now on with no clear conclusions accepted by all. Most writings of the time dwell on the waste and carnage and many western films show the prairies covered with the carcasses of slain animals.

There was waste and carnage beyond doubt but a close study shows not all was wasted. Many a carnivore and hungry predator made a good living following the hunters. Buffalo beef built railroads, mined gold and silver, fed tribes, armies, explorers, wagon trains and early settlers. Buffalo hides made robes and commercial belting to drive the machines of manufacturing in the east. Buffalo horns and hooves produced glue, and the hair of the beasts stuffed the furniture of the time.

Before, during and for a short time after the Big Hunt Period, everyone living on or traveling the Great Plains burned buffalo chips for both heat and cooking. Settler women and children dragged wash tubs across the surrounding prairie gathering buffalo chips for this crude but economical fuel.

As the buffalo herds diminished and weather took its toll, the buffalo chip was replaced by the longhorn chip as the Texas cattle herds began moving north. About this time, the bleached bones of the buffalo, lying almost everywhere on the prairie, began selling by the ton to be made into fertilizer and livestock feed additives. In reality, it was a godsend.

Settler families, hard-pressed for cash, switched from gathering chips to gathering bones. This chore not only provided much-needed income it also cleared the grassland for plowing. The freighters distributing supplies throughout the West began stopping at settler's homes, purchasing the piles of buffalo bones and hauling them to the nearest rail-loading facility for profit.

Kansas history records one freighter who hauled two wagon loads of barbed wire to Quitaque for Charles Goodnight as saying, "I made more profit on the back-haul of gathered buffalo bones than I did on hauling the original cargo of barbed wire."
Herd of Buffallo, Good Night Ranch, Goodnight Texas
Good Night Ranch, Goodnight, Texas
Postcard courtesy www.rootsweb.com/ %7Etxpstcrd/
The bulk of buffalo bones were ground by machines, sacked and sold back to the settlers for fertilizer. Later, ground bones were added to livestock feeds to provide much needed calcium. It was believed bone meal mixed with ground oyster shells made stronger egg shells for poultry.

Major machinery companies sold large volume bone grinders while Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward sold small bone chippers, nippers and grinders for small farm processing.

There are many early day photographs of itinerant wanderers-of-the-prairie pushing wheelbarrows gathering buffalo bones and piling them into huge ricks. By writing their names on a buffalo skull, the ownership of the rick was established. When the surrounding area was picked clean, they contacted a freighter who hauled the bones to the nearest railhead loading station for shipment to a fertilizer plant. It provided a good living as long as it lasted.

Interestingly, the legal description for the original town plat for McLean begins with the sentence, "Starting at a pile of buffalo bones, thence south ..." I wonder how many legal descriptions throughout the West begin in this manner.


Delbert Trew

"It's All Trew"
July 3, 2007 Column
E-mail: trewblue@centramedia.net.
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