Buffalo Bones Once Plentiful on Nebraska Prairie

Unloading buffalo bones at rail terminal, Dakota Territory, in 1885. NSHS RG1204-3-2

The slaughter of the buffalo left the prairie marked by millions of tons of their bones, the skeletal remains of an entire species. Settlers wanting to augment their meager cash incomes sometimes collected and sold these bones, which were usually ground for use as fertilizer. Harry B. Harlan, born on a farm near Waverly, Nebraska, in 1874, recalled gathering buffalo bones with family members during the summer of 1880 in Furnas County:

“That first summer I remember going with Uncle Allen and his team and wagon with side-boards on, to gather a load of buffalo bones. In those days money was scarce, and a dollar looked as big as a wagon wheel to the settlers. A man was glad to work all day for a dollar. Some one in Arapahoe would buy the bleached bones to ship to some fertilizer plant perhaps. A big load of the bones would bring two or three dollars, perhaps more, so, if a man put in a day with his team gathering up a load, and another day to take it to town – it would be hard money, wouldn’t it?”

Buffalo bones piled at Fort Totten, Dakota Territory, in 1885. NSHS RG1204-3-1

Harlan said the bones were plentiful, “usually scattered here and there, where the animal happened to fall, and sometimes two or more skeletons were in one place. There were many huge skulls with wide spreading short horns; bulls horns thick and stubby; cows horns more slender. I found lots of flint arrowheads nearby, or sticking in a bone when the buffalo had been killed by an Indian. We found some bones with a big lead bullet smashed into them. Some of the bullets were as big as the end of a man’s thumb, being from large bore ‘buffalo guns’ sometimes used by hunters.”

Harlan also remembered another artifact of the buffalo valuable to settlers: the buffalo robe. A buffalo hide, carefully tanned or softened and with the hair left on, “would be in nearly every farmers rig for a warm wrap in riding. Some carried a robe the year round as padding for the wagon seat. We had one of those buffalo robes, the inside leather soft and pliable, the outside long curly hair making it perfect protection for winter weather. The robes were plentiful then and comparatively inexpensive for millions of buffalo had been slaughtered a few years previously intirely [sic] for their hides.”

For information on another benefit to settlers bestowed by the buffalo, see “Buffalo and Cow Chips” on the Nebraska State Historical Society website. – Patricia C. Gaster, Assistant Editor / Publications

Become a Member!

Our members make history happen.

Join Now

You May Also Enjoy

The Church Built Top to Bottom – St. Mary Magdalene Church in Omaha

The Church Built Top to Bottom – St. Mary Magdalene Church in Omaha

FDR at the Martin Bomber Plant

FDR at the Martin Bomber Plant

Martin Luther King Jr. Visit to Lincoln

Martin Luther King Jr. Visit to Lincoln

About History Nebraska
History Nebraska was founded in 1878 as the Nebraska State Historical Society by citizens who recognized Nebraska was going through great changes and they sought to record the stories of both indigenous and immigrant peoples. It was designated a state institution and began receiving funds from the legislature in 1883. Legislation in 1994 changed History Nebraska from a state institution to a state agency. The division is headed by Interim Director and CEO Jill Dolberg. They are assisted by an administrative staff responsible for financial and personnel functions, museum store services, security, and facilities maintenance for History Nebraska.
Explore Nebraska
Discover the real places and people of our past at these History Nebraska sites.

Upcoming Events

View our new and upcoming events to see how you can get involved.

Become a Member

The work we do to discover, preserve, and share Nebraska's history wouldn't be possible without the support of History Nebraska members.

Latest Hall of Fame Inductee

The Nebraska Hall of Fame was established in 1961 to officially recognize prominent Nebraskans.

Become a Member

The work we do to discover, preserve, and share Nebraska's history wouldn't be possible without the support of History Nebraska members.
Nebraska Collections
History Nebraska's mission is to collect, preserve, and open our shared history to all Nebraskans.
Explore Nebraska
Discover the real places and people of our past at these History Nebraska sites.

Our YouTube Video Collection

Get a closer look at Nebraska's history through your own eyes, with our extensive video collections.

Additional Research Resources

History Nebraska Research and Reference Services help connect you to the material we collect and preserve.
Support History Nebraska
Make a cash donation to help us acquire, preserve, and interpret Nebraska’s history. Gifts to History Nebraska help leave a legacy and may help your taxes, too! Support the work of History Nebraska by donating to the History Nebraska Foundation today.

Volunteers are the heroes of History Nebraska. So much history, so little time! Your work helps us share access to Nebraska’s stories at our museums and sites, the reference room, and online.