NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Did Indians Help Slaughter The Buffalo?

November 19, 1999

The slaughter of millions of American bison by 19th century white hunters is a historical given -- the most famous conservation horror story in American history. The problem, says a growing number of scholars, is that it didn't happen.

Scholars argue that Indians used the buffalo as their principal entree into the market economy in the 1840s; armed with horses and guns, they embarked on the destruction of the vast herds to supply the growing demand for buffalo robes.

Among the findings of such researchers as Dan Flores, A. B. Hammond Professor of western history at the University of Montana:

  • As steamboats starting plying the Missouri River west into buffalo country in the 1840s, buffalo hunting by the Kiowa, Blackfeet, Sioux and other Plains tribes soared.
  • Pre-1840, 60,000 Plains Indians killed about half a million bison a year for sustenance.
  • In the 1840s, the kills rose to more than 600,000 a year, and concentrated on cows, resulting in severe damage to the herds' reproductive capacity.
  • While white hunters did slaughter buffalo in the millions in the 1870s and 1880s, they did little more than supply the coup de grace.

Environmental factors also helped shrink the herds. From the 1500s to the mid-19th century, a period known as the little ice age favored grasses buffalo eat. When a drought hit in the 1800s, the buffalo population crashed just as the tribes started hunting buffalo to sell hides to white traders.

Source: Jim Robbins, "Historians Revisit Slaughter on the Plains," New York Times, November 16, 1999.


Browse more articles on Environment Issues