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Buffalo and Native Americans In North America

Millions of buffalo once roamed North America, grazing the plains and prairies and populating the mountains. Fossils prove that more than 10,000 years ago the indigenous people of this continent hunted buffalo. Historical documents dating soon after Columbus's landfall describe the animal's importance to the people dwelling west of the Mississippi. According to early explorers, "the plains were black and appeared as if in motion" with buffalo herds.(1)

Recent scholarship documents the buffalo's dominance in the religion, philosophy, and economy of Native Americans. Woven into the fabric of Native American life for millennia, the buffalo was revered and honored.

Throughout the ages, Native American tribes practiced rituals to attract buffalo or guide hunters to the herds. Some sang special songs; others presented food to buffalo heads. Several tribes used buffalo skulls in dances and conducted ceremonies designed to lure the animals near. Others captured lizards and then released them with faith that they would scurry away in the direction of the nearest buffalo herd.(2)

Until the mid-1700s most Native Americans hunted on foot. Masters of buffalo psychology, they knew that the animals' imposing stature masked a tranquil nature. The success of common hunting techniques such as the "surround" traded on Native Americans' ability to approach within close range of the herds. The surround required an entire tribe to encircle and close in on a small group of buffalo, forming a tight human trap which facilitated the bowmen's work.

Toward the end of the 18th century, Native Americans began using horses more frequently in the pursuit of buffalo. Several skilled hunters on horseback could provide as many buffalo as a tribe could use. Proficient and resolute hunters, Native Americans nevertheless killed only as many animals as they needed.

From cradle to grave, Native Americans found thousands of creative uses for the buffalo, putting every bit of the animal to service. Buffalo meat and hide fed and clothed the tribes. Women lay on the softness of a buffalo skin robe to give birth and dusted their babies with a soft powder made of buffalo chip and silt.(3) Children played with tops crafted from buffalo horn tips, slid down hills made of buffalo ribs and skin, and occasionally stockpiled buffalo chips to launch at friends.

Young men proved their ability as providers by killing the buffalo of their ladies' choice. Young women exhibited their promise as wives by tanning the hides. Native Americans made saddles of buffalo hide padded with buffalo hair and used calfskin as blankets. The bond between man and beast endured eternally; tribes wrapped corpses in buffalo skin robes to prepare them for burial.

At the dawn of the 19th century a host of changes conspired to re-define the role of the buffalo in relation to mankind and nearly caused the animal's complete annihilation. Along the way these developments corrupted the natural scheme upon which Native American traditions so depended.

Fur traders began to trickle onto the Plains early in the 1800s soon after Lewis and Clark reported the availability of furs and hides along North Dakota's Missouri River. Around 1830, Blackfoot country on the upper Missouri opened to white trappers, and slaughter of the buffalo for commercial purposes escalated.(4)

At the same time demand for beaver skin slackened, making the presence of trappers on the plains even more threatening to the buffalo.(5) Formerly reliant upon beaver skin as their chief commodity, trappers compensated for the weak market by stepping up production of buffalo robes. Buffalo meat proved a valuable asset, too; thriving businesses along the emigrant trails sold meat to people in passing wagon trains.

Until the mid-1860s the Missouri River provided the most expedient route to market for the products of buffalo country. Then railroad companies answered the demands of cattlemen, farmers, and miners for better transportation, and provided western states with ties to the eastern seaboard. The first railroad to invade buffalo territory, the Kansas Pacific, claimed vast tracts of valuable grazing land. Consumption of buffalo -- and thus demand for it -- increased exponentially as trains delivered meat to eastern butchers and hides to far-flung tanners.

Railroads even capitalized on the sometimes-bothersome presence of the animals near the tracks, advertising buffalo hunting from train windows as sport. Buffalo "plinkers" abounded, as shooting the animals became a popular social pastime among respectable citizens and scoundrels alike. In this and other ways, the Anglo-American's gun brought fear and discord to the Plains. It upset the balance of life on the plains by conveying power to those who acquired it first.

Trappers and hunters adopted the Native Americans' mounted chase as the hunting method of choice, but used firearms instead of bows and arrows to deliver the fatal wounds. Frequent gunfire harassed ordinarily relaxed buffalo into constant motion. Reliant upon the animals' natural placidity for the success of the surround and other traditional hunting methods, Native Americans turned with more frequency to the chase in reaction to the new restlessness of the herds.

The increased selectivity that the chase afforded hunters meant that the more desirable animals perished in greater numbers. Cowhide brought a higher price than the skin of bulls, so fur traders killed female buffalo disproportionately.(6) Lower buffalo birth rates led to smaller herds as increasing numbers of mature animals were slaughtered each year.

Before long, entrepreneurial resourcefulness among white trappers and hunters gave way to indulgent excess. Dead buffalo meant big business. During the winter of 1872-1873, the peak season for hide shipments, one firm reported handling 200,000 hides, more than 1,600 pounds of meat, and $2.5 million worth of bones. Records show that approximately 1,500,000 hides shipped in 1872 and 1873, and more than 160,000 in 1874 -- a total of well more than three million hides sent to market in only three years.(7)

As the numbers of buffalo slaughtered for commercial purposes grew, senseless destruction of the animal began in earnest. During the early 1870s, for example, Thomas C. Nixon of Kansas set the world record for killing buffalo. Friends gathered to witness Nixon set "a record for buffalo killing which would last for all time." In 40 minutes he killed 120 buffalo.(8)

Hoping to effect cultural hegemony, many Anglo-Americans advocated eradicating the buffalo population completely. Recognizing the inextricable link between Native Americans and buffalo, some Anglo-Americans regarded elimination of the animal as a way to starve Native Americans into submission.(9) Once the buffalo disappeared, they reasoned, tribes would have to adopt Anglo-American's ways or die. In 1876, U.S. Representative James Throckmorton of Texas said, "I believe it would be a great step forward in the civilization of the Indians and the preservation of peace on the border if there was not a buffalo in existence."(10) The extermination of the buffalo is likely the first example in history of an attempt -- and a successful one, at that -- to eliminate a species for the purpose of achieving a political objective.

By 1880 it was clear that the buffalo was doomed. Hundreds of sportsmen rushed to secure a trophy buffalo head, some with the ambition of winning a place in history by felling the very last one.

Two buffalo-hunting expeditions undertaken in consecutive years brought the reality of the dwindling populations into sharp focus for naturalists and sportsmen alike. Upon discovering that the U.S. National Museum had no buffalo skins in its inventory that were acceptable for display, the museum's chief taxidermist, William Hornaday, set out for Montana on a buffalo-hunting excursion in 1886. Eight weeks in the field yielded Hornaday a handsome crop of 25 animals.(11)

Only one year later, a contingency from New York's Museum of Natural History launched an expedition to the same area for the same reason, but aborted the mission after three months without a single buffalo sighting.

Men with guns tracked down buffalo even in areas that should have sheltered the animals. Poachers infiltrated Yellowstone Park in droves despite regulations prohibiting hunting on park grounds. Lax punishment for the offense combined with the enticing profitability of a successful hunt conspired against the animals. When a 1894 inventory in Yellowstone reported only approximately 20 live buffalo, Congress rushed to pass the National Park Protective Act, which imposed a penalty of stiff fine or imprisonment for the offense of buffalo poaching.(12)

As the Yellowstone herd struggled for survival, unprotected buffalo were defeated. In Lost Park, Colorado, poachers exterminated four buffalo - likely the last free-ranging, unprotected herd in the country - in 1897.(13)

Subsequent to his post at the U.S. National Museum, William Hornaday headed up the New York Zoological Park, and from this position put into effect several measures designed to revive buffalo populations. In 1905, he sent 12 of the Zoological Park's buffalo to a new, 8,000-acre reserve in Kansas as a gift to the U.S. for the establishment of a national buffalo herd. Later that year, with the help of President Theodore Roosevelt, Hornaday and naturalist Ernest Harold Baynes founded the American Buffalo Society. By coordinating gifts of land, money, and animals, the society slowly nursed buffalo populations back from the verge of annihilation.

Despite last-ditch efforts to save the species, only an estimated 1,000 buffalo survived to see the dawn on the 20th century on a continent where just 100 years before 60 million had inhabited the land.(14)

Once upon a time Native Americans and Anglo-Americans alike looked to the buffalo for warnings about unsuspected threats. When a man saw a herd stampeding toward him he took cover, fearing that men on horseback might follow in the cloud of dust billowing behind the animals. Upon discovering the corpse of a dead buffalo he wondered how the animal died. If it had been killed by arrows he examined how they were nocked and feathered for hints about who might have fashioned them. If someone had scooped out the animal's brains he knew that hunters had killed it, as no warring party would bother with the brains. If he noticed buffalo avoiding a watering hole he wondered what was wrong with the water. Witnessing a herd fleeing downwind, he looked upwind to ascertain what threatening scent motivated the animals' flight.(15)

A hearty, adaptable species teetered at the brink of extinction after only a century of exploitation. Poignantly dramatic, the buffalo's rapid demise and its crushing impact on native cultures offers modern-day Americans a warning: abuse nature's resources at your own risk. Your future depends on them.


1. Buffalo/Buffalo. Online. America's West: Development and History. Available: http://www.americanwest.com:80/buffalo/index.htm. December 30, 1996.

2. Ed Park, The World of the Buffalo (Philadelphia and New York: J.B. Lippincott Co., 1969) 42.

3. Larry Barsness, Heads, Hides, and Horns (Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1985) 72.

4. Francis Haines, The Buffalo (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1970) 188.

5. Haines, 188.

6. Haines, 44.

7. Haines, 196.

8. David Dary, The Buffalo Book (Chicago: The Swallow Press, Inc., 1974) 85.

9. American Buffalo. Previously online. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. December 23, 1996.

10. Bryan Hodgson, "Buffalo Back Home on the Range," National Geographic November 1994: 71.

11. Tom McHugh, The Time of the Buffalo (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1972) 293.

12. McHugh, 294.

13. McHugh, 294.

14. Online. America's West: Development and History.

15. Barsness, 5.

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