Western Trips

Western Trips

Friday, June 3, 2011

The American Bison And The Sharps Rifle

At one time there was an estimated 20-30 million Bison in existence. The Bison was like a department store for the American Indian.

The Indian hunted Bison to supply almost everything he needed for sustenance. Hides were used for clothing and shelter. Meat was used for food. Bones could be fashioned into tools, utensils and weapons. Virtually every part of the bison was put to some use by the Indians.

Enter the Buffalo Hunters

When the buffalo hunters hit the plains it was a whole different story. Buffalo hides brought a lot of money. It was a lucrative business albeit a business that came with many dangers.

The mass slaughter of the buffalo herds by the commercial hunters probably caused the plains Indians the most grief. While the Indians used the buffalo for many purposes it should be noted that they also sold hides. In the mid 1840's they supposedly sold some 100,000 hides to the American Fur Company.

 Many well known names from the old west were buffalo hunters including the aptly named Buffalo Bill Cody. Pat Garrett, the U.S. marshal who shot Billy the Kid, was another. Wyatt Earp, Kit Carson and Wild Bill Hickok were all buffalo hunters at one time in their lives. Most used the .55 caliber Sharps Rifle. By 1872 it was estimated that over one million bison were killed for their hides alone and were fetching some $3.00 each. As far as the Indians were concerned it was also strange and irritating that the killing was done solely for the hides. The bison carcass was left on the plains to rot. The buffalo hunters were not interested in the meat.

The Long Range Sharps Rifle

The Sharps Rifle pictured left was the most effective weapon for the commercial buffalo hunter. This weapon was a sure shot from some 500 yards distant. This rifle made it possible for a single hunter to kill up to 250 buffalo per day.

These are big numbers and you can imagine the amount of money that could be earned. The buffalo hunting craze had railroads advertising buffalo hunts from moving trains. The railroad passenger would shoot the animal while inside the train and leave the carcass where it lay on the prairie. Buffalo hunting turned into a sport and was taken up by people who didn't need the money. The Indians understandably were both perplexed and angry.

A Huge Slaughter

To further demonstrate the magnitude of the slaughter, the picture left shows a man standing on top of a pile of buffalo skulls. One buffalo hunter claimed that he killed some 20,000 buffalo himself.

Estimates vary, but historians agree that there were at one time millions of buffalo on the plains. By 1885 it was estimated that there remained only 200-300 buffalo still in the wild. That is an incredible figure.

For sure, the Indian had hunted the buffalo for a long time. Even so, they did not put a big dent in the numbers themselves. First of all, the Indians didn't really hunt the animal for commercial value. They respected the buffalo and knew it was an important part of their daily needs. They also didn't have the .55 caliber Sharps Rifle that could pick off the animals at unheard of distances. A plains Indian did not have the means to kill 200 buffalo per day nor did he want to.

An Indian certainly didn't want to exterminate a specie which provided for him and his tribe. As a side  note, the buffalo bones which were left on the plains by the commercial and sports hunters eventually did find a use years later. The sun bleached bones were gathered, sold and shipped to eastern companies which ground them down into fertilizer.

There's another interesting side note regarding the Sharps Rifle. At the Battle of Adobe Walls which is highlighted on another page on this site, Kit Carson and several buffalo hunters were attacked by a band of Comanches led by Quanah Parker. One of the hunters picked off a Comanche warrior sitting on his horse about 2,000 feet away. This panicked the Indians so much that they broke off the attack. They had no idea a rifle could shoot that far.

Amazing as it may sound there were people of that era who did worry about the extinction of the buffalo. One in particular was Charles Jesse Jones pictures below who was called "Buffalo Jones" by many. Born in Illinois he once hired Abraham Lincoln as his attorney.

Jones first began a fruit tree nursery and then relocated to central Kansas where he hunted bison and captured wild horses. Along with several others he established Garden City, KS and served as it's first mayor.

After first being a bison hunter, Jones finally became alarmed at what he saw as the extinction of the specie. He found only 37 buffalo in the area and captured them. He then provided ten animals for the first zoo in Garden City and sold some of the animals for zoo's to be established elsewhere. Jones also captured  bighorn sheep for the Smithsonian Zoo.

During this time he met the famed Texas rancher, Charles Goodnight, who was breeding buffalo with his cattle and calling the result "beefalo". Jones was acquainted with the western novelist Zane Grey (who by trade was a dentist), introduced him to the southwest, and the story is that Grey used Buffalo Jones as the basis for some characters in his novels.

Charles Jones lived an adventurous life and it's interesting how he mixed the hunting of wild animals with efforts to foster their preservation. This was not the norm in an era where the bison population went from millions to hundreds.

he picture below is of a statue at Garden City, KS honoring the preservation efforts of Charles "Buffalo" Jones. The statue is located in front of the Finney County Courthouse. There is also a Buffalo Jones elementary school in Garden City and a Buffalo Jones Avenue. To further honor his preservation activities, in 1901 Charles Jones was appointed the first game warden of Yellowstone National Park by his good friend Theodore Roosevelt. In addition to that he was awarded a medal by Edward VII, King of England, for his work with wild animals.

The Bison and the Buffalo

At this point there should be an explanation of the difference between a bison and a buffalo. Because the two animals look alike, American frontiersmen used both names for the same beast.

The American Bison resides only in North America. The buffalo however lives in both Africa and Asia. Bison and buffalo belong to the same family. One difference is that the American Bison has a large hump on it's shoulder and a large head. Both live off the grasslands. The largest horns are found on the Asian water buffalo which can have a tip to tip span of six feet. The end result is that whichever name you use for the animal, you are essentially correct.

The Brazos Valley Museum of Natural History offers some great exhibits on the American Bison. Located in Bryan, Texas just northwest of Houston, the museum explains the legacy of the bison and what caused the rapid decline in population. Its a good history lesson along with a lot of activities.

For those wishing to see the Buffalo Jones statue and other exhibits in Garden City, Kansas, the city is located in central Kansas about 200 miles west of Wichita and about 60 miles south of Interstate-70. You may also want to plan a stop at the Finney County Historical Museum located on South Fourth Street in Garden City.

The web sites below give information and directions to these attractions and further information on Buffalo Jones.

(Article copyright Western trips. Photos and images from the public domain)





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