“A burning shame” – defending bison in 1874

Some Nebraskans were aware of the values of wildlife conservation years before effective measures were enacted into law. The Daily Nebraska State Journal of Lincoln carried the following editorial in favor of saving the buffalo in its February 1, 1874, edition:

“There is no law for the protection of the buffalo. The consequence is that these animals are being slaughtered at such a wholesale rate as will insure their total destruction within a very few years.

“The extent to which this slaughter is carried on is incredible. In the western portion of this state their carcasses are so thickly strewn that a gentleman informs us he could stand at any point and count five hundred carcasses. . . . That a terrible warfare is being waged against these poor brutes is certain from the fact that one firm on the U.P. railroad has been shipping their hides at a rate of 500 a day. . . .

“There are hunters who follow the business of killing these animals merely for their hides, sometimes not removing any portion of the meat but leaving it to rot on the plains. . . . It would be a burning shame if the buffalo should be wiped from the face of the earth. Let us have a law to protect the buffalo.”

Several impulses were behind this slaughter. Killing for hides was fashionable at the time, in order to supply eastern tastes in exotic clothing. Buffalo hides made excellent robes and coats, and the leather was used for harness, belts, and shoes. The Journal reported the establishment of a new tannery in Lincoln that planned to process five hundred hides a week. Buffalo killing was also an indirect way of controlling the Plains Indians. If the buffalo was eliminated, it was thought, the Indians would be starved into submission. Another impulse was killing for “fun.” Excursion trains of hunters journeyed onto the plains of Nebraska, where mass slaughters took place from the open windows of railroad cars.

The Journal’s editorial was well ahead of its time. No powerful advocates of conservation appeared in 1870s America. Between 1870 and 1885 an estimated ten million bison were killed by white Americans. Though deprived today of their free-range habitat, their resurgence from near extinction is a matter of popular interest.

— Patricia C. Gaster, Assistant Editor for Research and Publications


Photo: Bison on the Federal Game Preserve near Valentine, circa 1920.

(Posted 7/22/2010; updated 6/13/22)

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