"Let them kill, skin, and sell until the buffalo is exterminated, as it is the only way to bring lasting peace and allow civilization to advance."
About 40 million buffalo or bison were estimated to have lived on the Great Plains. They roamed freely, American Indians hunted them for food and other necessities, and a harmonious ebb and flow between man and beast prevailed. In the 1860s, after the Civil War, new army posts were established on the Plains. The army contracted with local men to supply buffalo meat to feed the troops. Railroad companies did the same to feed their construction crews, and soon the availability of work for the buffalo hunter increased in the West.
Also known as Buffalo Bill, William F. Cody, perhaps one of the most successful buffalo hunters, is said to have killed 4,128 buffalo in eighteen months working for the railroads. Some buffalo hunters killed more than that, perhaps an estimated 150 in a day. A great demand kept the hunters in business.
When the railroad tracks were laid, the "iron horse" and buffalo met. Delays occurred as buffalo herds took perhaps half a day to cross the tracks. The railroads saw a way to capitalize on this and solve a problem. They advertised hunting by rail, a sport for the "fun" of killing because the buffalo were left for dead.
In the east a demand for buffalo robes became an incentive to kill more buffalo. The robes were used as coats and lap robes when riding in sleighs and carriages. Leavenworth, Kansas, became a trading center for the robes. Tannerys found a new use for buffalo hides as the drive belts for industrial machines, and the demand for them increased. This meant year-round work for former seasonal buffalo hunters who contracted with the army and the railroads. Other uses for buffalo included grinding their bones into fertilizer and eating their tongues in fine restaurants.
The American Indians were becoming increasingly angry and resentful of the demise of their food supply at the hands of the white man. This period was at the height of the Indian Wars. Capitalizing upon the demand for buffalo by hunters and the subsequent shrinking herds were factors that led American Indians to the reservation system of living and altered their lifestyle and culture.
When the great era of the buffalo ended, there were an estimated 1,200-2,000 surviving buffalo left in the United States. Fortunately, early conservation efforts led to the establishment of Yellowstone National Park in 1872. This was the world's first national park, and preserved a small buffalo herd. Still, buffalo were being killed on Federal land, so in 1894 the Lacey Act was signed into law, prohibiting the killing of any wildlife in federal preserves. The bison was saved from extinction. Today it is estimated that there are over 150,000 bison on public preserves and in private hands. Ironically, the buffalo's existence rests in the hands of the same group that tried to exterminate him: man.