Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Buffalo Hunters

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.

Railroad workers were paid $35 a month (whites, not Chinese) at the time, so it’s easy to see the lure for a man to take up buffalo hunting when hides sold for $2 (1870) to $3 (late 70's) each and a good hunter could kill 250 animals a day (and needed at least two skinners working with him). It was a year-round profession, and men would bring as many as 2,000 hides at a time to hide yards in places like Dodge City, Kansas, and Fort Worth, Texas.

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.


Caroline Clemmons said...

Ellen, I have found--as you said--that the more I research, the more immersed in the era I become, but I may use only a tiny portion of the reserch. We strive to present our fiction as credible where history is concerned, and that means research. I love delving into a subject, but it does require time. Thanks for sharing your reserch today, but you didn't mention the name of your book.

Paty Jager said...

Ellen, I'm the same way. I research the heck out of things and then end up only using one or two sentences for two days worth of research but I believe my knowing the information helps with the "truth" to the whole story. Buffalo hunting was one or our low spots as a nation. It ranks right there with forcing the Indians to reservations and to be like us.

I enjoy knowing someone else toils as much as I do. ;0)

Kirsten Arnold said...


It's so true about the amount of research for that one or two lines in a book. I also tend to get sidetracked during research finding new and wonderful topics. :o)

The Buffalo hunts were such a tragic aspect of our history. The most disturbing aspects being the terrible waste left behind, and of course the Government using it as a way to subdue a people (another terrible waste).

Thanks for sharing your research with us!


Alison E. Bruce said...

We could start a club: Research Addicts Anonymous. I doubt any of us wants to quit the habit, however.

About the bowler, didn't we recently find out that the bowler was the first "‘hat that won the west’ before the Stetson—or Cowboy hat."

Yup, I just eat this stuff up. Thank you!

Peggy Henderson said...

Research....countless hours spent for one minute factoid. But without it, our books wouldn't be as authentic, now would they.

Back to the American Bison (Bison bison) - so sad and tragic. I've planned a post about the recovery of the Yellowstone Bison, probably for next month's post.

Ellen O’Connell said...

Caroline - It's a new story idea I've just started considering and would be down the road a bit, so it has no name, although I made a folder for it called Blue Curtains for now.

Paty - Looking back at the whole buffalo hunting era, it was a horrific and wasteful slaughter, but the research did make me feel some sympathy with the men who were used to killing their own food and found this a way to make money they couldn't in any other way. Men like Buffalo Bill were grandstanders, but there were also men providing for families with what they earned that way.

Kirsten - Don't get me started on the whole Indian thing. I know it was a different time, etc., etc., but there were people in that time and place who knew better and tried to fight for doing better. They lost the argument and the native tribes lost everything. Now we have people like Elizabeth Warren taking a free ride on the tragic histories of others, and it makes me want to spit.

Allison - It was the recent hat post that made me note the bowler. Of course a hide yard employee wasn't a cowboy anyway.

Peggy - Yes, the research is necessary, and even so I worry about learning just enough through research to show a lack of real familiarity with the subject in the way I write about it. Like the horse colors. I'll do another post on equine errors sometime.

Just the other night I tried a western (not romance, straight western) that had a "gray, dappled horse" in the first sentence. The horse was referred to thereafter as "the dapple." That would be like talking about a "brown, light horse" and then calling it "the light" from then on. I guess there might be someone somewhere who had a bunch of gray horses and so would refer to one of them as "the dapple," but it finished that book for me.


Tabitha Shay said...

About three years ago or so, my husband and I took a vacation to Yellowstone. It was the most amazing place I've ever been to and so want to go again. We were driving down a small paved road and came upon a heard of Bison right in the middle of the road. They lumbered along, in no hurry at all. Two of them walked right beside our car, so close, I could have reached out my window and touched the one on my side. It was awesome, but so huge. I was terrified some idiot driver would honk his horn and send them stampeding. I could just imagine us being trampled beneath their hooves. Loved your article, sad though it is. Research does take time and I find myself getting lost in the pages of history when I do it, but as someone said, we want our historical novels as accurate as we can make them...Tabs

Ellen O’Connell said...

Tabitha - Just the other day someone on the radio was joking about the signs in Yellowstone warning not to pet buffalo. His point was that back in the good old days, no one would have to warn even an illiterate person with no education at all not to pet a one-ton wild animal. It did make me smile, but some of us are still that smart without the signs. :-) Even so, an angry buffalo could undoubtedly do some real damage to a car. A stampede? Oh, boy. Have you ever seen those videos of what a bear can do to a car?

Alethea Williams said...

Great post. Thanks! Sometimes I wonder if writing historicals isn't just a sideline so I can spend my time researching. I remember reading once that the Industrial Revolution was a big driver of bison slaughter; all the belts running the machines were made of bison hide. Anyone else run across this bit of bison trivia?

Peggy Henderson said...

lol, love that. My gray (can't call him white, since he's not an albino) pony used to have dapples!
The equine mistakes in books (and western romances lend themselves beautifully to that) are entertainment in and of themselves.

Peggy Henderson said...

Yellowstone is the most amazing place, that's where all my books are set in, and that's what I blog about mostly.

Peggy Henderson said...

I'm definitely going to do a post on the dumb things people do in Yellowstone (and I have pictures to prove it)

Ellen O’Connell said...

Yup. I made a passing reference in the post to the use as drive belts on machines. Now I have an urge to find out what was used before that, but I'm going to squelch it.

Jacquie Rogers said...

I've seen that picture before and the first thing I always think of is the smell. OMG, that must have been really, really rank! And the waste is just sickening. I've read where thousands of hides went to rot because either there was no means to haul them to market, or there was no market for them. Of course, they'd already wasted all that meat.

BTW, I love to research, too, so won't be joining the 12-step group. LOL.

Anne Manning said...

Another terrific post on Cowboy Kisses. I love what you girls do over here. Keep it up!

Lyn Horner said...

On our honeymoon, hubby and I went to the Tetons, then swung through the tip of Yellowstone on our return trip to Minnesota. A smallish black bear came meandering along the road and everyone slowed way down to snap pictures. My new husband excitedly told me to roll down my window so I could get a better picture. I looked at him and said No! I'd just as soon keep my arms in tact, thank you. I love the man, but he can be sooo foolish at times.

Ellen, I second everything already said about research and the terrible waste of life during the buffalo hunting era. Thanks for reminding us that the Old West was a rough, bloody place.