Wednesday, May 30, 2012
Most of the time I think of myself as a TOB (Tough Old Broad), but real life keeps proving me wrong. Much of the research for my Native American romance, Dancing on Coals, was disturbing, and the particulars of the scalp hunting industry were downright upsetting.
Recently I had an idea for a story that would touch on buffalo hunting as background for one character. What I knew about the whole thing just off hand wasn’t particularly pleasant, and delving deeper didn’t change that but did give me some insight. For me, writing romances set in the Nineteenth Century West is always a balance between the love stories, which are a truth of the human condition in all times, and what we know was often a brutal and unromantic environment. Buffalo hunting was decidedly on the brutal side.
As an organized profession buffalo hunting got off the ground in a big way as the railroads expanded. The railroads hired hunters to provide meat for their crews. After the Civil War, the industry took off as demand for buffalo robes rose all over the country. I remember my Canadian relatives in Ontario showing me an old buffalo robe when I was a girl. Other uses developed, such as making drive belts for machines out of the tough leather.
Reading about it doesn’t give me any urge to pin posthumous skill medals on those hunters. William F. (“Buffalo Bill”) Cody got his nickname for his large daily kills, but Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Pat Garrett, and Wild Bill Hickok are all said to have earned a living hunting buffalo at one time or another. The nature of this herd animal is such that the hunter could set up a stand (put his Sharps .55 on a tripod in a fixed location), kill the leader of a group, and the others would mill in confusion instead of running away.
The hides were taken and the meat left to rot where the bison fell, except for the tongue, which brought an extra 25 cents because it was considered a delicacy and popular in restaurants. A secondary industry of collecting bones and grinding them for fertilizer also grew out of the slaughter.
The Government’s fine hand was in all this too, of course. Killing off the buffalo was promoted as a way to starve the Plains Tribes into submission (and it did), and therefore the extinction of the bison was officially encouraged and any preservation efforts discouraged. There were an estimated 50 million bison on the Plains before “civilization” arrived, and less than 2,000 alive in 1884 at the end of the buffalo hunting era.
Today there are several buffalo ranches here in Colorado that I drive by on a regular basis, and the estimate I saw was that the descendants of those 2,000 survivors now number over 300,000 nationwide. Some small part of me wonders why no one decided to cultivate the bison that were already there in the good old days instead of flooding the Plains with cattle, but then I have a reality check and remember that the barbed wire fence that confines a cow doesn’t impress a buffalo. The fences around the buffalo ranches are impressive things that remind one of movies about gulags, only more formidable. I’ve heard that “cowboys” who herd buffalo carry shotguns as necessary tools, but never checked to see if that’s a tall tale or has some factual basis.
One of the things that amazes me is how much I have to find out about certain subjects when in the end I'm only going to include a sentence or paragraph about it in a novel, but that seems to be the way it goes.
P.S. The guy in the photo looks like he's wearing a bowler, doesn't he? But I think those are cowboy boots.