Did the Exterminatin of the Buffalo help to end the Indian Wars?

MAGolding

Ad Honorem
Aug 2015
2,466
Chalfont, Pennsylvania
#1
I tis often said that the extermination of the buffalo by hunters was a significant factor in ending the Western Indian Wars. But to me it seems more reasonable to say that the hostile western Indian groups were defeated mostly by the United States Army and partially by the United States Volunteers.

Here is a link to a map of the buffalo range. American bison - Wikipedia

I think that the map somewhat exaggerates the range of the buffalo. For example, it shows all of Pennsylvania as part of the buffalo range. This article Untitled Document states, for example, that thee were few buffalo in Pennsylvania in colonial times and that they were mostly or totally in the watershed of the Ohio River.

This article says:
Bison are known for the large herds that once roamed the great plains but they also were found in the east…even in Pennsylvania. The bison in the east roamed in smaller herds because there was less grass and more trees here. The last wild bison in Pennsylvania was killed in the late 1700s while there were still great herds in the west.
Buffalo in Pennsylvania?

And this article says:
“Archaeological evidence suggests they just weren’t around here, otherwise the Indians would have been hunting them and we would find evidence of them.”
and
In any event, by the early 1800s, the buffalo of the East, meaning the herds of the Ohio Valley and western Pennsylvania, were wiped out — a prelude to the near extinction of the Western herds, which by the early 1890s numbered 500 to 1,000.
How Far East? Not Too Far

In any case, buffalo were hunted by Indians east of the Mississippi but such buffalo hunts were probably not an important part of their lifestyles and the eastern buffalo were probably hunted to extinction by white settlers only in places where the Indians had already been defeated and were no longer fighting for. So the extinction of the eastern buffalo herds should not have been militarily important.

In 1803 the United States bought the Louisiana Purchase, all of the lands west of the Mississippi River and part of the Mississippi River drainage Basin, lands that included the plains of the west where the buffalo roamed. And for 30 or 40 years there were few conflicts with the plains Indian tribes that hunted the buffalo on the plains.

In 1846 the USA acquired Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, regions with few or no buffalo, and annexed Texas, which started Mexican-American War which resulted in the USA gaining the American Southwest, a region with few or no buffalo. After the Mexican War wars with the western Indians became more and more common, both in the plains area of the Louisiana Purchase where buffalo were common and in the areas acquired in the 1840s, where buffalo were rare or non existent.

The period of the Indian Wars in the trans-Mississippi west can be defined as lasting for 40 years from about 1850 to about 1890 or for about 30 years from about 1850 to about 1880. And the most intense period of those western Indian Wars lasted for about 20 years from about 1857 to about 1877. The bloodiest Indian Wars in the west seem to have been the Snake War of 1864-68 with 1,782 casualties, the Dakota War of 1862 with about 1,390 soldier and Indians killed and wounded & about 600 white settlers massacred, The Great Sioux War of 1876-77 with about 847 casualties, the Red River War of 1874-75 with about 684 casualties, the Yavapai War of 1871-75 with about 652 casualties, the Nez Perce War of 1877 with 418 killed and wounded, and the Modoc war of 1872-73 with 208 casualties, all happening in the 15 years from 1862 to 1877. Note that the Paiutes in the Snake war, the Yavapais, and the Modocs weren't buffalo hunters and the Nez Perce were only part time buffalo hunters.

Everything You Know About the Indian Wars Is Wrong | HistoryNet

The vast majority of the Americans fighting in the west were members of the regular army, the United States Army, except during the Civil War of 1861-65. When the war started in 1861 there were about 16,000 men in the reguler army, with about 5,000 stationed in the west. The US government recruited men by the tens and hundreds of thousands to fight the Rebels during the Civil War, most of them United States Volunteers. The tiny percentage of those US volunteers who were sent to the west soon outnumber the regulars who had been stationed there before the war. The Volunteer soldiers in the west reached about 15,000 to 20,000 men by 1865. After the Civil war, the Regular Army was never more than about 26,000 men except for 1866-69, and there wer e probably never more than 10,000 or 15,000 men stationed in the west.

As for buffalo hunting contributing to the defeat of the Indians, by 1869 the southern Plains warrior Indians were almost all on reservations and were mostly peaceful, having been both enticed by the benefit of a secure food supply on the reservations and defeated on many occasions by soldiers of the US Army and the US Volunteers. In 1868-69 the completion of the first transcontinental railroad split the area of the buffalo on the plains into a "northern herd" in parts of Wyoming, Nebraska, North and South Dakota, Montana, and the Canadian Plains, and a "southern herd" in parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, and New Mexico.

The southern herd was probably twice as numerous as the northern herd, at least three million, possibly much higher, in 1871, making a total of at least about 4,500,000 buffalo in the two herds. But even if there were 9,000,000 buffalo in the two herds it would have been a steep decline from the 30,000,0000 to 60,000,000 that are often estimated for the buffalo population a few decades earlier. In 1866-71 the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway and the Kansas Pacific Railway were built across the lands of the southern herd, making it possible for white buffalo hunters to ship buffalo hides and robes east to sell. Hundreds of thousands of buffalo hides were sent to market each year, but due to inefficiencies there were three, four of five buffalo killed for each hide sent to the market. One estimate is that about 3,158,730 buffalo were killed by white hide hunters n 1872 to 1874, during which period it is estimated that various Indian tribes killed about 390,000 buffalo of the southern herd to sell the hides. By 1875 the great southern herd was reduced to a few thousand scattered survivors.

Meanwhile, the northern herd was steadily shrinking. Indians wiped out the buffalo on the Canadian plains by 1879. When the Northern pacific railroad began to be built across the range of the northern herd in 1880 professional white hunters began to ship their robes and hides east on the railroad. The hunting season of October 1882 to February 1883 reduced the Northern herd to a few thousand scattered buffalo. When the buffalo hunters set out for the 1183-84 hunting season they found nothing to hunt and lost their investments. In 1884 one railroad car of buffalo robes was sent east.

The Project Gutenberg eBook of The Extermination of the American Bison, by William T. Hornaday.

General William T. Sherman, commander of the military Division of the Missouri, which contained the plains and the buffalo herds, from 1866-69, and of the US Army from 1869-1883. and General Philip Sheridan, commander of the Military division of the Missouri from 1869-1883, were in favor of the extinction of the buffalo and had had the army do what it could to help the hide hunters and hurry up the process, believing that it had to be impossible for the plains warrior tribes to survive off the reservation for them to actually stay on the reservation. They couldn't believe that the warrior tribes would stay on the reservation out of fear of being attacked by the army if they left, and so they supported the extermination of the buffalo which would make it impossible for the plains warrior Indians to survive off the reservation.

http://history.msu.edu/hst321/files/2010/07/smits-on-bison.pdf

But the accuracy of that belief is in question. As General Nelson A. Miles pointed out in 1890, once the buffalo herds disappeared they were soon replaced by herds of cattle, which hostile Indians could hunt to support themselves when on the warpath.

As far as I can tell the Indian Wars on the buffalo plains were coming to an end - with the hostile groups learning that it was too dangerous to fight the US Army and that reservation life was preferable to the dangers of war - when Generals Sherman and Sheridan, not appreciating that the Indian Wars were almost over anyway, began to support the buffalo hunters anyway they could. And one result of the buffalo hunter's activities was the attack on a group of buffalo hunters in the Second Battle of adobe Walls in 1874 which started the Red River War or Buffalo War with about 684 casualties which might never have happened without the army's support of the buffalo hunters.
.
So the Indian Wars on the plains were winding down and coming to an end when the US Army started to support the buffalo hunters and there isn't much evidence that such support did more good than harm from the army's point of view.
 
Likes: Edratman
Sep 2012
910
Spring, Texas
#2
There were two different kinds of Bison, Plains and Woods. The "Buffalo" found in the East were Woods Bison which were smaller than the Plains Bison. The Woods Bison was never "Thick on the Ground". They can still be found in Northern Canada. The Plains Bison were in huge numbers. The great herd went up and down the Great Plains. The Herd changed the terrain as they traveled. The hooves chopped up the grass and ground so certain types of grasses are favored.

The US Army had a severe problem catching Hostile Indians on the Great Plains. One problem was many of the garrisons were Infantry. Another problem was Army Horses were heavy and grain fed. The Hostile bands were almost never caught unless they wanted to be. The Indian Ponies were grass fed and did not carry much of a load. The US Army tried several strategies with varying success. Setting fire to the Plains helped. Attacking Winter Camps often hit the wrong people, unless there were hostile relatives visiting. Diseases certainly killed most of the native populations.

Pruitt
 
Likes: Edratman

Chlodio

Ad Honorem
Aug 2016
3,061
Dispargum
#3
I agree Indians who did not live in buffalo country were not effected by declining buffalo populations. I also agree that some Indians were already settled on reservations before declining buffalo populations became a major problem for the Indians. I would point out, however, that just because Indians were on reservations that does not mean they were tamed or harmless. Indians frequently left the reservations to go on the warpath.

I think there's a pretty close cause and effect relationship between declining buffalo populations and the end of the Plains Indian wars. Buffalo populations were seriously reduced already by the early 1870s and the wars ended about '76-'77. Once a serious disruption in the food supply like that happens, it doesn't take long to have an effect. One reason for the massive congregation of Indians on the Little Big Horn in 1876 was that was the only place where large numbers of buffalo could still be found. So the decline of the buffalo was seriously effecting Indian behavior. My readings of the Battle of Little Bighorn claim a mindset among the Indians that it was their last horrah! in terms of a big buffalo hunt. They were aware that they were unlikely to ever experience that again. Unwanted changes were coming and there was nothing they could do about it.

I've seen that quote before about buffalo being replaced by cattle but didn't know it was Miles who said it. My recollection is that he did not say Indians could hunt or kill cattle instead of buffalo. No one was incentivized to protect buffalo, but ranchers were incentivized to protect their cattle. Raiding cattle was far more difficult and dangerous than hunting buffalo. By the time cattle took over the Great Plains, the Indians were already defeated. Miles was speaking somewhat figuratively. In that quote, buffalo represent the wild frontier while cattle represent civilization.
 
Likes: Edratman
Oct 2015
671
Virginia
#5
Isn't destroying the supporting logistical base an often used method of defeating a "guerilla" resistance? Destroying the buffalo herds must have caused serious problems for the plains tribes (Lakota, Cheyenne, Kiowa Comanche et al).
 
Jul 2016
7,353
USA
#6
I have bad memories regarding this topic. When I was at school, our teacher gave us an essay regarding this info. I didn’t feel like writing, so I ordered it at https://ca.edubirdie.com/essay-writing-help, it was not bad essay, but then teacher asked me why I think think Miles said so and I didn’t know what to answer, so she understood that I’m not the one who wrote it:(
You paid an internet service to write you a school report? What grade was this in? How much did you pay?
 
Jul 2016
7,353
USA
#7
Isn't destroying the supporting logistical base an often used method of defeating a "guerilla" resistance? Destroying the buffalo herds must have caused serious problems for the plains tribes (Lakota, Cheyenne, Kiowa Comanche et al).
To an extent. But it wasn't done for the motive of defeating enemy logistics. Buffalo hides were worth good money. It wasn't very hard to hunt them. People wanting work could make a pretty decent living, while it lasted (similar to beavers and other trapping done decades earlier). I'd say that Americans going west to hunt buffalo did more to create the conflicts then end it. The various Plains Indians weren't completely reliant on large herds (their demands weren't huge) but they considered mass slaughter of them on their "lands" as trespassing and retaliated with violence, which inflamed relations that were poor to start with.
 
Oct 2015
671
Virginia
#8
To an extent. But it wasn't done for the motive of defeating enemy logistics. Buffalo hides were worth good money. It wasn't very hard to hunt them. People wanting work could make a pretty decent living, while it lasted (similar to beavers and other trapping done decades earlier). I'd say that Americans going west to hunt buffalo did more to create the conflicts then end it. The various Plains Indians weren't completely reliant on large herds (their demands weren't huge) but they considered mass slaughter of them on their "lands" as trespassing and retaliated with violence, which inflamed relations that were poor to start with.

True. An example of "unintended consequenses"?
Remember Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) in "The Searchers".
 

Baltis

Ad Honorem
Dec 2011
3,995
Texas
#9
There were two different kinds of Bison, Plains and Woods. The "Buffalo" found in the East were Woods Bison which were smaller than the Plains Bison. The Woods Bison was never "Thick on the Ground". They can still be found in Northern Canada. The Plains Bison were in huge numbers. The great herd went up and down the Great Plains. The Herd changed the terrain as they traveled. The hooves chopped up the grass and ground so certain types of grasses are favored.

The US Army had a severe problem catching Hostile Indians on the Great Plains. One problem was many of the garrisons were Infantry. Another problem was Army Horses were heavy and grain fed. The Hostile bands were almost never caught unless they wanted to be. The Indian Ponies were grass fed and did not carry much of a load. The US Army tried several strategies with varying success. Setting fire to the Plains helped. Attacking Winter Camps often hit the wrong people, unless there were hostile relatives visiting. Diseases certainly killed most of the native populations.

Pruitt
I have done a lot of reading about the buffalo hunters recently. Interestingly enough, they first believed there was one herd but then decided there were three. A southern, middle, and northern. But then someone noticed the middle herd had no young or old animals but only those in their prime. It became apparent that the middle group was really just the top migration of the southern herd, which left their weaker members below the Arkansas River during the annual migration period. So the overall conclusion was that two herds existed, southern and northern. The southern herd caught the hunters attention first, which brought on the siege at Adobe Walls and the Red River War.

And yes to the overall thread, only the Plains Indians of the buffalo culture were impacted by the killing of the buffalo. It was the relentless pursuit of the army that brought the other tribes to reservations. But, even with regard to the Plains Indians, a close study will see that the extermination of the southern buffalo herd came after the tribes (Comanche, Kiowa, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Kiowa-Apache) were already defeated militarily. They had a couple of minor breakouts among the Quehada Comanche bands after 1874 but nothing all that serious. True that the final bands did not come in until 1877 or so but they were just a few scattered villages along the far edge of the Llano Estacado. Most of the southern buffalo herds were hunted after the Red River War.