It only took fifteen years, 1870-1885, to almost wipe out the buffalo. Before that, gigantic herds covered the Great Plains, and the Indians who lived there based their way of life and many of their religious beliefs on the huge animals. They were the largest land animals on the continent, and the males were twelve feet long, seven feet high, and weighed as much as 2,500 pounds. The females were not much smaller.
As many as sixty million of these incredible creatures were slaughtered when settlers began to move west. The Indians valued every part of the buffalo they killed—the meat, the hide, the horns, even the bones. But the white settlers considered them a nuisance and killed then whenever they could. In the 1840s, buffalo robes became very fashionable, and buffalo tongue was a specialty in many elegant restaurants. In the 1850s, gentlemen hunters from Europe came to the West to hunt buffalo, each one killing thousands. After the Civil War, in the 1860s, railroads began to spread westward, and the men who built them were fed on buffalo meat. In 1867, the Union Pacific Railroad hired 21-year-old William Cody to hunt buffalo. In 18 months he killed almost 5,000 of them.
But the real massacre began when teams of men started systematically killing them to sell their hides. Then the Indians, whose whole way of life depended on the buffalo, fought back. And that's when the US Army was brought in. General Sherman, who had carried out a policy of total war during the Civil War, believed that the way to defeat the Indian was to kill off the buffalo.
And so, by 1887, the Plains had become strangely silent. The buffalo had disappeared everywhere except Yellowstone National Park, where there was a protected herd of 21. From sixty million to just 21. One of the best-known symbols of the American West had all but disappeared. If it hadn't been for a few men who fought desperately to save them, the buffalo might have been gone forever.
This booktalk was written by university professor, librarian, and booktalking expert Joni Richards Bodart.