THE LAST BUFFALO IN OKLAHOMA
One of the true joys of being a kid growing up in the Arbuckle Mountains was the exploration of the hills and streams. On many occasion I have looked from a hilltop at the barren plain below and wondered what it looked like two hundred years ago before the coming of civilization when the plain was covered with buffalo.
When I was doing the research for my book on the History of Ft. Arbuckle, I came across a book that was truly a gem. The post surgeon at Ft. Arbuckle wrote his book in 1874 from his personal journals compiled while he was stationed at Ft. Arbuckle from 1850 to 1853. Lt. Rodney Glisan spoke often in his book about the wildlife around the Arbuckle Mountains. There were antelope, elk, mountain lions, wild turkey, bear, prairie chicken and buffalo. Within three years he related that they had to go ten miles from the post to find a buffalo since the dietary needs of the troopers stationed at the post required much meat. Two hundred men can eat a lot of meat in one day.
It has been estimated that at one time there were at least 100,000,000 buffalo on the Great Plains of America. The herd that grazed in Western Oklahoma was estimated to be between four and twelve million. It is said that the herd was twenty-five miles across and took five hours to pass a given point. Colonel Dodge reported a herd of buffalo on the Arkansas River in northern Oklahoma that he estimated in excess of 1,000,000 animals. What a sight that must have been!
But, the buffalo suffered the consequences of government Indian policy after the Civil War. The U.S. Army was having considerable trouble rounding up the warring tribes of the plains. These tribes such as the Kiowa, Comanche, Cheyenne, Arapaho and Plains Apache were quite capable of sustaining themselves on the prairie. These tribes did not need government assistance or interference nor did they need the handouts from government Indian Agents.
The plains Indians depended on only two things for their subsistence; the horse and the buffalo. The Army knew that if they removed any one of the two you had the Indian conquered and the social and cultural order of these tribes would collapse.
As soon as the Indians were placed on a reservation, they were off again the next spring raiding, killing and stealing livestock. Horses were the money of these tribes. The solution may have been for the U. S. Government was the wholesale slaughter of the buffalo. Once the extinction of the buffalo was accomplished, the Indians would have to go to the reservations and cow-tow to the Indian agents and the government. As the buffalo disappeared so did the Indian’s food, clothing, shelter, culture and social order. The government could have stopped this slaughter at any time but they chose not to do it.
Brick Bond, a buffalo hunter out of Ft. Dodge, Kansas claimed that he killed 1,500 buffalo in seven days and 250 in just one day. During the winter of 1871, the Santa Fe shipped 200,000 hides, out of Ft. Dodge, back to the East. When a hunter secured a good vantage point well hidden from the herd, he would shoot the first buffalo.
When the animal fell, the other animals in the near area would gather around, smell the blood, and begin pawing the earth with their hoofs. The remaining animals would not stampede unless they saw the hunter or an unfamiliar critter approaching the herd. The remainder of the herd was shot down as fast as the shooter could reload and shoot them. It is said that in 1877 a buffalo hunter named Tom Nickson killed 120 buffalo at one stand in 40 minutes and from September 15th to October 20th he killed 2,173 animals. The hunter or the killer did not skin the buffalo. He had to be a crack shot and only killed the buffalo. The skinners came later in the wagons and began the gristly task of taking the hides of hundreds of animals.
After the Civil War, industrialization in the northeast U.S. began at a fever pitch. The great migration from the East and Southeast United States to the Great Plains created a need for many new products for the immigrants. Buffalo hides were used for many things but the biggest single use in the U.S. was for drive belts in steam-powered factories.
These belts made of buffalo hide were the toughest known material known to man at that time. They were practically indestructible. So with American factories trying to supply the new immigrants to the Great Plains, ranchers competing with the buffalo for range grass, farmers trying to plant wheat and corn and the Army trying to corral the wild plains tribes, it is no wonder that the buffalo’s days were numbered.
A buffalo hide brought between $1 and $4 and the best winter hides brought $5. All the hunters took from the animal was the hide. The rest was left to rot on the ground or as food for coyotes and buzzards. Within a few years, there was a great need for bones. The farms of the East were depleted of nutrients and bone meal was the answer. Homesteaders on the western plains came to the new land with little money. When they put in a crop it was a year before the settlers could get money for supplies. The answer seemed to be the bones of the great herds that were slaughtered several years before.
These old buffalo bones sold for $6 to $10 per ton and were the initial income of many of the “sod-busters” in Kansas, Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle. So, until the first crop was harvested the settlers spent their spare time gathering these bones from the great buffalo herds where the families made a bare existence that would allow them to buy coffee, sugar and flour until the first harvest.
In 1876, the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes of the Leased District sold 15,000 hides for $5 each. By the next season of 1877-8 the total take was only 218 hides. The next season of 1878-9 there was not a hide taken for sale. The buffalo were gone from Oklahoma.
The farmer did not want the buffalo that would destroy his wheat crop. The rancher did not want the buffalo that would move across the prairie and churn up the soil and eat the grass to the root destroying the grazing for a year. The Army did not want the buffalo because the Indian depended on the animal for his livelihood. American industry and apparel wanted every buffalo hide it could get. The poor buffalo just wanted to eat some good grass and make more baby buffalos. No wonder it didn’t stand a chance.
For several years only a small herd was seen in the panhandle of
Oklahoma called “No Man’s Land”.
The last wild buffalo, a lonely old bull, in Oklahoma was killed in
Cimarron County in October of 1890.
Contributed by Dennis Muncrief, August 2002.