Where the Buffalo Roamed, a Strange and Morbid Economy

(Corrects year of railway’s completion in first paragraph and number of buffalo in 14th paragraph.)

Aug. 30 (Bloomberg) -- The completion of the first transcontinental railway in 1869 divided the Great Plains in two. Some of its earliest passengers were buffalo hunters, and as they spread out from the railroad’s embankments, the vast buffalo herds were divided, as well.

It marked the beginning of their end. By the tens, perhaps even the hundreds, of millions, the animals were killed for their skins, which were then easily transported to the coasts for the fashionable classes to buy. One man boasted of taking down 1,500 buffalo in a week -- 250 in a single day.

The first hunters got as much as $10 per skin. As more sought to cash in, the price plummeted to $1. Still, very good money for the era.

On the other hand, the buffalo skinners, those who followed the hunters and did the dirty work, were paid only a small percentage, plus all the buffalo meat they cared to eat. They went for the tenderloins and tongues and left the rest to rot. Vultures, like the hunters, enjoyed a few bounty years.

Then the herds were gone. Homesteaders arrived to a landscape white with buffalo skeletons. These would become, in many cases, their first harvest. “The prairies of the Northwest are covered with the bleached bones of the countless dead,” a New York Times correspondent wrote in December 1884, “and here commerce steps in again to ask for something else: the very last remnant there is left of an annihilated race.”

Skulls and Bones

Animal bones were useful things in the 19th century. Dried and charred, they produced a substance called bone black. When coarsely crushed, it could filter impurities out of sugar-cane juice, leaving a clear liquid that evaporated to produce pure white sugar -- a lucrative industry. Bone black also made a useful pigment for paints, dyes and cosmetics, and acted as a dry lubricant for iron and steel forgings.

Fresh bones could be boiled to extract gelatin for food, glues and photographic emulsions. Their leached husks, rich in phosphorous, were one of the first industrial fertilizers.

And so the homesteaders gathered the buffalo bones. It was easy work: Children could do it. Carted to town, a ton of bones fetched a few dollars. Sent to rendering plants and furnaces in the big industrial cities, that same ton was worth between $18 and $27. Boiled, charred, crushed or powdered, it was worth as much as $60.

A former bone trader named M.I. McCreight calculated that at least $40 million worth of bones was purchased by the processing plants in all -- about $1 billion in today’s dollars. “A rather sizable pay-roll,” he noted dryly in his memoir, “to have escaped the notice of history writers.”

The gathering of bones traced the routes of the railroads. Swaths of land 40 miles to each side of the tracks would be picked bare; newspaper reports from the 1870s, aiming to amuse their citified readers, spun corn-pone tales of farmers bringing in “bumper crops.”

By the 1880s, however, a few reporters were expressing nervous awe at the scale of the cleansing, and even despair for what had been lost. In 1891, not 25 years after the slaughter began, the Chicago Daily Tribune ran a dispatch titled “Relics of the Buffalo.” The relics were the animals’ empty pathways and dust wallows, worn into the surface of the Manitoba plains over countless years. The bones, let alone the living creatures, were long gone.

In reports from the era, the full cost of the buffalo-bone trade is usually revealed by the things not said. No note of lament or irony can be found in a 1907 Washington Post story describing the peculiar nature of Seneca Street in Topeka, Kansas. In the 1880s, it was “paved with buffalo skulls” thrown aside by the bone traders -- big but hollow, they weren’t worth the space they took up in boxcars. “In light of subsequent values this was the most expensive pavement on earth,” the writer observed, for by 1907 buffalo remains had become collectors’ items, and “a pair of buffalo horns and the head of an animal of that breed will easily bring $400.”

Living On

By 1915, there was a national outcry to save the last buffalo, a pitiful group of fewer than 100 living in Yellowstone National Park. Buffalo at last received legal protection, and the rescue of the species became one of the earliest and happiest victories of the conservation movement.

Today, herds of the animals again roam the Plains -- media mogul Ted Turner owns about 55,000 of them -- and although they do so in fenced enclosures, and the herds are shadows of the originals, the scales of both are sufficiently grand to give the illusion of wilderness.

But the slaughtered buffalo also live on, in a ghostly and haunting form. Phosphorous doesn’t travel well through soil. And so while some fertilizers can simply be watered in, bone meal -- still used, but now mostly a byproduct of hog butchery -- has to be tilled into the earth. The buffalo bones, shipped east to be ground into powder, often went back west to enrich the vast farmlands that replaced the prairie. They are still there, slowly dissolving, a little bit of them coming up with the crops each spring -- a little bit of them going down with every bite.

(Tim Heffernan writes about heavy industry and the natural world for the Atlantic and other magazines. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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