by Bruce Cherney (part 3)
Archaeological evidence shows that aboriginal hunters were driving buffalo over steep riverbanks in the Hartney, Lauder and Melita areas along the Souris River in Manitoba. But by the 1860s, only scattered individual animals could be found in the Souris River Valley, where once there had been hundreds forming a single herd. The carnage wrought upon the buffalo was not the direct result of aboriginal survival requirements — the buffalo and natives had shared the plains for thousands of years without an appreciable drop in the animal’s population — but the commercial demand for hides and meat converted into pemmican.
For aboriginal hunters, virtually all parts of the animal were useful. Meat was cut from bones using stone or bone knives held in wood or bone handles. Some of the meat was immediately consumed, but most was made into pemmican.
Daniel Harmon, a North West Company fur trader who spent five years in the Swan River and Assiniboine River regions of Manitoba in the early 1800s, described the butchering of a buffalo: “The Natives generally cut up the body of an animal into eleven pieces, to prepare it for transportation to their tents, or to our forts. These pieces are the four limbs, the two sides of ribs, the two sinews on each side of the back bone, the brisket, the croup, and the back bone. Besides these, they save and use the tongue, heart, liver, paunch, and some part of the entrails. The head, they carry home, the meat which is on it they eat; and the brains they rub over the skin, in dressing it.”
Using special tools hafted into bone or wood handles, buffalo skins were scrapped free of tissue and fat. If the hide was to be used as a robe, the hair was left intact. Otherwise, the hair was removed and the hide tanned into leather for the making of clothing, footgear, pouches and bags. The “thread” for sewing the latter articles was provided by buffalo sinew, the tough fibrous tendons split into thin strands.
Bison bones were another valuable commodity. Large fragments of limb bones were sharpened and used for cutting and butchering. Other pieces could be fashioned into awls and used to pierce hide when sewing. Barbed tips for fishing spears were made from bone. The outer covering of bison horns became cups and ladles, and hooves were boiled to make glue.
Since they are rich in fatty marrow, the bones were smashed open and the marrow extracted for consumption.
Most of the discarded bones were broken further into smaller fragments which were boiled with water in pottery, bark or leather cooking vessels. As the fat from the bones rose to the surface of the liquid, it was scooped off into a container. This “bone grease” or “butter” was used to flavour other dishes and with the other fat from reserves from buffalo, became a major component of pemmican.
Today, we may cringe at the thought of consuming such a fat-filled diet, but in the context of the plains, fat was essential for the survival of aboriginal people and early European settlers, explorers and fur traders — lean-meat animals were invariably shunned unless intense hunger led to desperation. When hunting buffalo, aboriginals intentionally targeted the plumpest animals — cows preferred — which, in turn, had the most fat content.
Fur trader Alexander Henry wrote in 1808, “Small openings are left (in the buffalo pounds) to admit the dogs to feed upon the carcasses of the bulls, which are generally left as useless.”
The bull’s uselessness resulted from having little of the energy-rich tissue to satiate the craving for fat.
“Despite their smaller size,” according to Jack Brink (Imagining Head-Smashed-In: Aboriginal Buffalo Hunting on the Northern Plains, AU Press, 2008), “cows have a greater absolute weight of fat than males do, for most of the year. This is a characteristic of females in many species (again including our own); reproduction requires greater fat reserves for energy, and since the females have to carry and nurse the young, they are genetically disposed to have greater fat reserves ... Aboriginal bison hunters learned this lesson thousands of years ago.”
Brink related the story of American artist George Catlin, who singled out and shot the biggest bull only to suffer ridicule and laughter from the rest of his party “for having aimed at an old bull, whose flesh was unsuitable for food.”
The only time of the year Métis and natives intentionally hunted bulls was in the spring and early summer when they were generally fatter than cows coming off stingy winter grazing.
Explorer John Palliser frequently found himself in the position of having to eat lean meat: “We could not get any fat or grease to trade from the Indians, which was a bad look out, as it is nearly as hard to live on the dried meat of a lean animal alone without grease, as it is to starve altogether.”
“It seems improbable,” wrote Brink, “but despite eating kilograms of meat a day, people died because it was lean meat. In such cases, the body craves but does not get the fat it needs to provide energy and maintain normal body function.”
And remember, these were all extremely active people, who easily burned off hundreds of calories each day.
Other examples of buffalo’s many uses: 16 hides made a teepee; hides were also converted into moccasins, skins for boats, drum covers; ribs made sledges for children; the bladder was used to carry water; the stomach was a cooking pot; buffalo chips (dried manure) were used as fuel for fires when wood was scarce; and brains were used as a tanning paste.
The end of jumps, pounds and traps came with the re-introduction of the horse to North America. Once plentiful until about 11,000 years ago, the horse became extinct at the same time that other mega-fauna (44 kilograms and greater) — mammoths, giant ground sloths, sabre-toothed cats, camels, etc. — disappeared from the continent. Although new archaeological evidence indicates that small pockets of horses may have survived up to 7,500 years ago.
The horse was never domesticated by aboriginals prior to the animal’s disappearance, following the retreat of the vast ice sheets that once covered much of the northern half of the continent.
The horse again became a denizen of the New World with the arrival of Europeans. Spanish conquistadors and colonists brought horses back to North America in the 15th and 16th centuries. Some escaped their handlers and spread to establish flourishing wild herds on the plains. It was the ancestors of these horses that aboriginal people domesticated, which was a practice learned from other tribes and Europeans as the animals extended their range northward — often through trade between adjacent groups — from Mexico.
The use of fleet and nimble ponies did more to end traditional aboriginal hunting methods than the introduction of black-powder muskets. Aboriginal riders found that arrows could be fired from bows more rapidly and were more effective in bringing down buffalo at short ranges than difficult-to-load muskets. It wouldn’t be until the late 1860s and the acquisition of cartridge-fed repeating rifles by native people that the era of buffalo hunting using bows and arrows passed into folklore.
But the use of horses had an unintended consequence, as native, Métis and white hunters were able to relentlessly pursue buffalo year-round. The coming of the railway to the West, starting in the 1860s in the U.S., was also a dire portent for the future survival of the species. William “Buffalo Bill” Cody was hired by the Pacific Railroad to provide meat for its crews. It is estimated that he killed 4,200 buffalo in his best year of slaughter. A boast was made that he once killed 500 in a single day.
“The Pacific Railroad, the Sharps rifle and man’s insatiable destructiveness have done their work,” wrote William J. Hornaday, a specimen collector for the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, “and the nobelist ruminant has gone down before them. The leaden hail of the breech-loader has swept millions of buffalo from the face of the earth before a single strong hand had been raised to stop the merciless slaughter.”
While Hornaday bemoaned the disappearance of the buffalo from the plains, he admitted to being guilty of abetting the slaughter. In May 1886, he led a party charged by the Smithsonian to, “Go at once in search of buffalo, and secure a series of specimens for the National Museum at all hazards.” Remarkably, the party was to hunt down even the last remaining buffalo on the U.S. plains to satisfy their commission.
In an article called The Last Buffalo Hunt (reprinted from the Times-Democrat in The American Settler, April 30, 1887) Hornaday said the museum had been so obsessed collecting foreign specimens that it failed to notice that the vast herds that once covered the plains were disappearing at a rapid pace. “Judge, then, of our surprise, and even consternation, when my numerous letters of inquiry all save one, elicited the same response: ‘The buffalo are all gone, and I cannot tell you where you can find any.’
“I am obliged to confess that I have been guilty of taking part in the extermination of the buffalo,” wrote Hornaday. “Were it at all to my credit I could even boast of having just killed a greater number in proportion to the whole number now alive than any other man in the United States except Jim McNancy.”
In the spring of 1886, Hornaday and his men killed two bulls and captured a two-week-old calf in the Montana Territory that was taken back to Washington. The calf was captured by running its mother down, forcing the cow to abandon its calf due to exhaustion. Later in the fall, the expedition had “elegant luck” and managed to kill another 20 animals to the astonishment of the local Indians who could not believe so many buffalo could be found.
“Twenty years ago,” Hornaday wrote, “buffalo swarmed in countless thousands over the whole of the great pasture region of the West — from the Saskatchewan to Southern Texas, and eastward from the Rocky Mountain to the borders of civilization. Their number was estimated variously from six to ten millions, and later figures have proven that the former was by no means above the actual fact. Within the memory of man or the limits of history, so far as I know, no other species of quadruped has ever existed in such mighty multitudes as Bos Americanus twenty years ago.”
Further into the article, Hornaday said that he had earlier been told by plainsmen that buffalo were so numerous that it would be impossible to kill them all off.
But plains hunters almost accomplished what was once considered unimaginable.
“In the year(s) 1872, 1873 and 1874 the Atchison, Topeka and Sante Fe (Rail)road carried out 459,463 buffalo hides, and Colonel Dodge considers it quite certain that its two rivals (Kansas Pacific and Northern Pacific, and Union Pacific railroads) carried an equal if not greater number, making a grand total of 1,378,389 hides.”
Colonel Dodge said the methods used by the hide hunters were so wasteful that it was necessary to kill three buffalo for every marketable hide.
During this period of mass slaughter, each buffalo bull hide was worth $1.15, while a cow hide brought in just 63-cents. In the early 1870s, when buffalo were still relatively plentiful, the price for a bull hide was as high as $3.50.
By 1883 in the U.S., the number of hides shipped fell to a mere 25,000, a single car load shipped from Dickinson, Dakota Territory, by J.N. Davis.
“In 1885,” wrote Hornaday, “not a single hide was on the market, and the buyers announced the end had come. It was then the years 1881, 1882 and 1883 which saw the complete destruction of the great northern herd, or about ten years after the southern herd went down of its extermination (almost) is perfectly surprising.”
(Next week: part 4)