Buffalo and Cow Chips

The scarcity of wood west of the one hundredth meridian forced a reliance on animal-made fuel there. Buffalo excrement, when allowed to dry a few weeks in the hot Plains sun, was clean to handle and usually odorless. It burned with little blaze but formed hot coals, which were very effective for cooking or heating. It was almost the only fuel used by the Forty-niners and other travelers on the Oregon and Mormon trails.

The first permanent settlers came not long after the buffalo were decimated. Fortunately for the settlers, after the buffalo were gone, great herds of Texas cattle were driven to or through Nebraska and filled the ranches that occupied the United States grasslands. Homesteaders were said to invite trail bosses to bed down herds on their property, thus gaining enough cow chips for a winter fuel supply.

According to Everett Dick’s Conquering the Great American Desert, an initial aversion to using the fuel, especially among women, soon dissipated. “In spite of the fact that cow chips were absolutely clean and not messy to handle, not infrequently a fastidious housewife from the East turned up her nose at this effective fuel and, taking a chip between a dainty thumb and forefinger, gingerly tried to get it into the firebox without touching it any more than she could help, as though it were poison. It wasn’t long before she overcame her squeamishness, however, for in this case familiarity did not breed contempt but rather respect and appreciation.”

The following poem from the Trenton Register of December 28, 1894, makes much the same point.

An Idyl of the West
Over the sun-kissed prairie swells She strayed in her youthful grace. The wind-blown tresses of auburn hair Half-hid her bewitching face. Her gathered apron, one slim hand held, As she scanned each tuft with care. And oft and again she lithely stooped To place her treasure there. “O maiden fair, what seekest thou? Pale lily, rose divine Or the shy, sweet buds of the violet?” She lifted her eyes to mine. And then the answer, soft and clear Fell ripe from her coral lips, “Stranger, there hain’t no posies here- I’m lookin’ fer buf’lo chips!”


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