The extermination of the buffalo on the Plains occurred largely between 1870 and 1885, when an estimated ten million bison were killed by white Americans. Killing for hides was fashionable at the time, in order to supply tastes in the East for exotic clothing. Buffalo hides made excellent robes and coats, and the leather was used for harness, belts, and shoes.
Buffalo killing was also an indirect way of controlling the Plains Indians. If buffalo were eliminated, it was thought, the Indians would be starved into submission. Another impulse was killing for “fun.” Excursion trains of hunters journeyed onto the prairies of Nebraska, where mass slaughters took place from the open windows of railroad cars.
The Daily Nebraska State Journal (Lincoln) on February 1, 1874, editorialized in favor of saving the buffalo: “There is no law for the protection of the buffalo. The consequence is that these animals are being slaughtered at such a wholesale rate as will insure their total destruction within a very few years.” Read more excerpts from the editorial in a Timeline column on the Nebraska State Historical Society website.
The Journal’s editorial was well ahead of its time. No powerful advocates of wildlife conservation appeared in 1870s America. — Patricia C. Gaster, Assistant Editor for Research and Publications