Head of Buffalo Bull: from specimen in the National Museum Group (Cosmopolitan Magazine)
Although the range of the northern herd covered about twice as much territory as did the southern, the latter contained probably twice as many buffaloes. The number of individuals in the southern herd in the year 1871 must have been at least three millions, and most estimates place the total much higher than that.
During the years from 1866 to 1871, inclusive, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fé Railway and what is now known as the Kansas Pacific, or Kansas division of the Union Pacific Railway, were constructed from the Missouri River westward across Kansas, and through the heart of the southern buffalo range. The southern herd was literally cut to pieces by railways, and every portion of its range rendered easily accessible. There had always been a market for buffalo robes at a fair price, and as soon as the railways crossed the buffalo country the slaughter began. The rush to the range was only surpassed by the rush to the gold mines of California in earlier years. The railroad builders, teamsters, fortune-seekers, “professional” hunters, trappers, guides, and everyone out of a job turned out to hunt buffalo for hides and meat. The merchants who had already settled in all the little towns along the three great railways saw an opportunity to make money out of the buffalo product, and forthwith began to organize and supply hunting parties with arms, ammunition, and provisions, and send them to the range. An immense business of this kind was done by the merchants of Dodge City (Fort Dodge), Wichita, and Leavenworth, and scores of smaller towns did a corresponding amount of business in the same line. During the years 1871 to 1874 but little else was done in that country except buffalo killing. Central depots were established in the best buffalo country, from whence hunting parties operated in all directions. Buildings were erected for the curing of meat, and corrals were built in which to heap up the immense piles of buffalo skins that accumulated. At Dodge City, as late as 1878, Professor Thompson saw a lot of baled buffalo skins in a corral, the solid cubical contents of which he calculated to equal 120 cords.
Five Minutes' Work: from a photograph by L. A. Huffman.
At first the utmost wastefulness prevailed. Everyone wanted to kill buffalo, and no one was willing to do the skinning and curing. Thousands upon thousands of buffaloes were killed for their tongues alone, and never skinned. Thousands more were wounded by unskillful marksmen and wandered off to die and become a total loss. But the climax of wastefulness and sloth was not reached until the enterprising buffalo-butcher began to skin his dead buffaloes by horse-power. The process is of interest, as showing the depth of degradation to which a man can fall and still call himself a hunter. The skin of the buffalo was ripped open along the belly and throat, the legs cut around at the knees, and ripped up the rest of the way. The skin of the neck was divided all the way around at the back of the head, and skinned back a few inches to afford a start. A stout iron bar, like a hitching post, was then driven through the skull and about 18 inches into the earth, after which a rope was tied very firmly to the thick skin of the neck, made ready for that purpose. The other end of this rope was then hitched to the whiffletree of a pair of horses, or to the rear axle of a wagon, the horses were whipped up, and the skin was forthwith either torn in two or torn off the buffalo with about 50 pounds of flesh adhering to it. It soon became apparent to even the most enterprising buffalo skinner that this method was not an unqualified success, and it was presently abandoned.
A Dead Bull: from a photograph by L. A. Huffman
The slaughter which began in 1871 was prosecuted with great vigor and enterprise in 1872, and reached its height in 1873. By that time, the buffalo country fairly swarmed with hunters, each party putting forth its utmost efforts to destroy more buffaloes than its rivals. By that time experience had taught the value of thorough organization, and the butchering was done in a more business-like way. By a coincidence that proved fatal to the bison, it was just at the beginning of the slaughter that breech-loading, long-range rifles attained what was practically perfection. The Sharps 40-90 or 45-120, and the Remington were the favorite weapons of the buffalo-hunter, the former being the one in most general use. Before the leaden hail of thousands of these deadly breech-loaders the buffaloes went down at the rate of several thousand daily during the hunting season.
During the years 1871 and 1872 the most wanton wastefulness prevailed. Colonel Dodge declares that, though hundreds of thousands of skins were sent to market, they scarcely indicated the extent of the slaughter. Through want of skill in shooting and want of knowledge in preserving the hides of those slain by green hunters, one hide sent to market represented three, four, or even five dead buffalo. The skinners and curers knew so little of the proper mode of curing hides, that at least half of those actually taken were lost. In the summer and fall of 1872 one hide sent to market represented at least three dead buffalo. This condition of affairs rapidly improved; but such was the furor for slaughter, and the ignorance of all concerned, that every hide sent to market in 1871 represented no less than five dead buffalo.
Scene on the Buffalo Range: from a photograph by L. A. Huffman
By 1873 the condition of affairs had somewhat improved, through better organization of the hunting parties and knowledge gained by experience in curing. For all that, however, buffaloes were still so exceedingly plentiful, and shooting was so much easier than skinning, the latter was looked upon as a necessary evil and still slighted to such an extent that every hide actually sold and delivered represented two dead buffaloes.
In 1874 the slaughterers began to take alarm at the increasing scarcity of buffalo, and the skinners, having a much smaller number of dead animals to take care of than ever before, were able to devote more time to each subject and do their work properly. As a result, Colonel Dodge estimated that during 1874, and from that time on, one hundred skins delivered represented not more than one hundred and twenty-five dead buffaloes; but that “no parties have ever got the proportion lower than this.”
Buffalo Skinners at Work: from a photograph by L. A. Huffman
"The most approved party consisted of four men -- one shooter, two skinners, and one man to cook, stretch hides, and take care of camp. Where buffalo were very plentiful the number of skinners was increased. A light wagon, drawn by two horses or mules, takes the outfit into the wilderness, and brings into camp the skins taken each day. The outfit is most meager: a sack of flour, a side of bacon, 5 pounds of coffee, tea, and sugar, a little salt, and possibly a few beans, is a month’s supply. A common or 'A' tent furnishes shelter; a couple of blankets for each man is a bed. One or more of Sharps or Remington’s heaviest sporting rifles, and an unlimited supply of ammunition, is the armament; while a coffee-pot, Dutch-oven, frying-pan, four tin plates, and four tin cups constitute the kitchen and table furniture.
“The skinning knives do duty at the platter, and ‘fingers were made before forks.’ Nor must be forgotten one or more 10-gallon kegs for water, as the camp may of necessity be far away from a stream. The supplies are generally furnished by the merchant for whom the party is working, who, in addition, pays each of the party a specified percentage of the value of the skins delivered. The shooter is carefully selected for his skill and knowledge of the habits of the buffalo. He is captain and leader of the party. When all is ready, he plunges into the wilderness, going to the center of the best buffalo region known to him, not already occupied (for there are unwritten regulations recognized as laws, giving to each hunter certain rights of discovery and occupancy). Arrived at the position, he makes his camp in some hidden ravine or thicket, and makes all ready for work.”
Of course the slaughter was greatest along the lines of the three great railways -- the Kansas Pacific, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fé, and the Union Pacific, about in the order named. It reached its height in the season of 1873. During that year the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fé Railroad carried out of the buffalo country 251,443 robes, 1,017,600 pounds of meat, and 2,743,100 pounds of bones. The end of the southern herd was then near at hand. Could the southern buffalo range have been roofed over at that time it would have made one vast charnel-house. Putrifying carcasses, many of them with the hide still on, lay thickly scattered over thousands of square miles of the level prairie, poisoning the air and water and offending the sight. The remaining herds had become mere scattered bands, harried and driven hither and thither by the hunters, who now swarmed almost as thickly as the buffaloes. A cordon of camps was established along the Arkansas River, the South Platte, the Republican, and the few other streams that contained water, and when the thirsty animals came to drink they were attacked and driven away, and with the most fiendish persistency kept from slaking their thirst, so that they would again be compelled to seek the river and come within range of the deadly breech-loaders. Colonel Dodge declares that in places favorable to such warfare, as the south bank of the Platte, a herd of buffalo has, by shooting at it by day and by lighting fires and firing guns at night, been kept from water until it has been entirely destroyed. In the autumn of 1873, when Mr. William Blackmore traveled for some 30 or 40 miles along the north bank of the Arkansas River to the east of Fort Dodge, “there was a continuous line of putrescent carcasses, so that the air was rendered pestilential and offensive to the last degree. The hunters had formed a line of camps along the banks of the river, and had shot down the buffalo, night and morning, as they came to drink. In order to give an idea of the number of these carcasses, it is only necessary to mention that I counted sixty-seven on one spot not covering 4 acres.”
White hunters were not allowed to hunt in the Indian Territory, but the southern boundary of the State of Kansas was picketed by them, and a herd no sooner crossed the line going north than it was destroyed. Every water-hole was guarded by a camp of hunters, and whenever a thirsty herd approached, it was promptly met by rifle-bullets.
During this entire period the slaughter of buffaloes was universal. The man who desired buffalo meat for food almost invariably killed five times as many animals as he could utilize, and after cutting from each victim its very choicest part -- the tongue alone, possibly, or perhaps the hump and hind quarters, one or the other, or both -- fully four-fifths of the really edible portion of the carcass would be left to the wolves. It was no uncommon thing for a man to bring in two barrels of salted buffalo tongues, without another pound of meat or a solitary robe. The tongues were purchased at 25 cents each and sold in the markets farther east at 50 cents. In those days of criminal wastefulness it was a very common thing for buffaloes to be slaughtered for their tongues alone. Mr. George Catlin relates that a few days previous to his arrival at the mouth of the Tetón River (Dakota), in 1832, “an immense herd of buffaloes had showed themselves on the opposite side of the river,” whereupon a party of five or six hundred Sioux Indians on horseback forded the river, attacked the herd, recrossed the river about sunset, and came into the fort with fourteen hundred fresh buffalo tongues, which were thrown down in a mass, and for which they required only a few gallons of whisky, which was soon consumed in “a little harmless carouse.” Mr. Catlin states that from all that he could learn not a skin or a pound of meat, other than the tongues, was saved after this awful slaughter.
The Chase on Horseback: from a painting by George Catlin (National Museum)
Judging from all accounts, it is making a safe estimate to say that probably no fewer than fifty thousand buffaloes have been killed for their tongues alone, and that most of these are undoubtedly chargeable against white men, who ought to have known better.
A great deal has been said about the slaughter of buffaloes by foreign sportsmen, particularly Englishmen; but I must say that, from all that can be ascertained on this point, this element of destruction has been greatly exaggerated and overestimated. It is true that every English sportsman who visited this country in the days of the buffalo always resolved to have, and did have, “a buffalo hunt,” and usually under the auspices of United States Army officers. Undoubtedly these parties did kill hundreds of buffaloes, but it is very doubtful whether the aggregate of the number slain by foreign sportsmen would run up higher than ten thousand. Indeed, for myself, I am well convinced that there are many old ex-still-hunters yet living, each of whom is accountable for a greater number of victims than all buffaloes killed by foreign sportsmen would make added together. The professional butchers were very much given to crying out against “them English lords,” and holding up their hands in holy horror at buffaloes killed by them for their heads, instead of for hides to sell at a dollar apiece; but it is due the American public to say that all this outcry was received at its true value and deceived very few. By those in possession of the facts it was recognized as “a blind,” to divert public opinion from the real culprits.
Nevertheless it is very true that many men who were properly classed as sportsmen, in contradistinction from the pot-hunters, did engage in useless and inexcusable slaughter to an extent that was highly reprehensible, to say the least. A sportsman is not supposed to kill game wantonly, when it can be of no possible use to himself or any one else, but a great many do it for all that. Indeed, the sportsman who kills sparingly and conscientiously is rather the exception than the rule. Colonel Dodge thus refers to the work of some foreign sportsmen:
"In the fall of that year  three English gentlemen went out with me for a short hunt, and in their excitement bagged more buffalo than would have supplied a brigade.” As a general thing, however, the professional sportsmen who went out to have a buffalo hunt for the excitement of the chase and the trophies it yielded, nearly always found the bison so easy a victim, and one whose capture brought so little glory to the hunter, that the chase was voted very disappointing, and soon abandoned in favor of nobler game. In those days there was no more to boast of in killing a buffalo than in the assassination of a Texas steer.
Where the Millions Have Gone: from a painting by J. H. Moser (National Museum)
It was, then, the hide-hunters, white and red, but especially white, who wiped out the great southern herd in four short years. The prices received for hides varied considerably, according to circumstances, but for the green or undressed article it usually ranged from 50 cents for the skins of calves to $1.25 for those of adult animals in good condition. Such prices seem ridiculously small, but when it is remembered that, when buffaloes were plentiful it was no uncommon thing for a hunter to kill from forty to sixty head in a day, it will readily be seen that the chances of making very handsome profits were sufficient to tempt hunters to make extraordinary exertions. Moreover, even when the buffaloes were nearly gone, the country was overrun with men who had absolutely nothing else to look to as a means of livelihood, and so, no matter whether the profits were great or small, so long as enough buffaloes remained to make it possible to get a living by their pursuit, they were hunted down with the most determined persistency and pertinacity.