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The Bone Business

The following is a transcript of Podcast #2

In the early 1800’s buffalo (also called bison) roamed the American and Canadian West in the tens of millions, and the lives of the Plains Indians centered around the massive beasts. The buffalo provided food as well as skins for clothing, blankets, tents, and other leather items. Their dried manure was used for fuel. Indians followed the herds, taking what they needed and teaching the next generation to hunt. Theirs was a buffalo-based culture.

By 1850, the buffalo had split into a northern and a southern herd. The southern herd spread across Texas from the cross timbers in north central Texas, to west Texas, and north into the Panhandle and beyond into the prairies of western Oklahoma and Kansas, spilling over into the  eastern edges of New Mexico and Colorado.

In the decade of the 1850’s, the flow of settlers into Texas was heavy and demand for buffalo products grew.  Dried buffalo tongue became a staple of the settlers’ diet and a popular delicacy in the cities of the East. Buffalo skin blankets and robes were both functional, fashionable, and in high demand.

Enterprising men began to hunt the buffalo to meet these rising desires. In 1848, Christian Sharp had developed a large-bore, single-shot rifle with the accuracy and range ideal for hunting buffalo. Teams of hunters began to hunt in earnest with these powerful rifles. In some cases, hunters contracted with military forts to provide meat to the troops. Mostly, hunters shot the huge animals, taking their tongues and skins, and leaving the remaining carcass to rot.

The Civil War, which began in 1861, essentially halted hunting. A brief reprieve for the buffalo!

Following the war, General Philip Sheridan was assigned to direct the US campaign against the Indians in the Midwest. In case you are wondering if this is the same General Sheridan, notorious in Texas for the quote, “If I owned Texas and Hell, I would rent out Texas and live in Hell!” You are right. He subsequently apologized and blamed his comment on a difficult trip across the state.  However, he did not apologize for the following comment made to the Texas Legislature: “. . . these men (buffalo hunters) have done more to settle the vexed Indian question than the entire regular army has done in the last thirty years. They are destroying the Indians’ commissary. . . . Send them powder and lead, if you will; but for the sake of a lasting peace let them kill, skin, and sell until the buffalo are exterminated. Then your prairies can be covered with speckled cattle and the festive cowboy, who follows the hunter as a second forerunner of an advanced civilization.”

General Sheridan’s blunt comment echoed the national policy: Eliminate the buffalo, push the Indians into reservations, clear the plains for settlement. This policy also supported the growing demand by factories for buffalo skins which could be made into strong, flexible belts for the new machines of the Industrial Revolution. The common man quickly discovered that instead of fifty cents in earnings per day, a single buffalo hide was worth as much as $1.25 to $3.50, and buffalo were easy to kill.  A hunter could kill fifty per day. A team of skinners (or hiders as they were called) would skin the animals leaving carcasses on the blood-stained prairie. Even the railroads contributed to the speed with which the buffalo were killed. Unhappy that herds of buffalo wandered onto the railroad tracks, causing days of delay for trains, the railroads promoted the opportunity to hunt buffalo from their trains.  Men piled into and onto the trains and an untold number of buffalo were killed and left where they fell—carrion for predators.

By the end of the 1870’s the buffalo were scarce. But millions of dead buffalo meant millions and millions of bones. The Texas plains were one giant bone yard and these bones had new uses. They could be ground into fertilizer, used in the processing of sugar, used in the production of delicate bone china, even made into buttons and assorted handles. The expansion of the railroads made the hauling and selling of bones feasible. The bone business was born!

Bone gathering territories were claimed and largely honored by others. As people gathered the buffalo skeletons, mountains of bones began to sprout on the plains. The bones from one buffalo weighed about fifty pounds. In places where a large kill had occurred, two men or a family could gather four to five to tons of bones in one day. A heavy farm wagon could haul the same amount. Bone pickers would deliver their loads via bone roads to the rail heads (or bone heads as they were jokingly called). At the rail heads, bones were organized into rectangular piles the size of boxcars—eight feet wide, eight feet high, and thirty-three feet long — roughly twelve tons of bones per rectangle. Stacking was done by interlocking the horns on buffalo skulls to form the boundary of the rectangle, the interior was then stacked with bones. The bones were loaded and shipped to markets located in New Orleans and all across the East Coast. Towns like Abilene, Midland, Sweetwater, and Colorado City were large shipping points.

The bone business was good business. Bone picking was a way to supplement a family’s income, this was especially important given the uncertainties of pioneer life. It was also an opportunity to work hard for a large payoff. In the late 1870’s a ton of bones was worth four to six dollars. A decade later, in the 1880s, bone scarcity had driven up the price to between twenty and twenty-two dollars a ton.

Toward the end of the 1880s, the buffalo bones were gone, but in the harsh Texas winter of 1886–87, hundreds of thousands of cattle in Texas and all across the Great Plains died. This event, known as the “great die-up” provided new opportunities for bone picking. By then, bone prices had settled down to eight dollars per ton.

Bone picking continued through the 1920s when each Texas county had “bone men” who would contract with farmers and ranchers to keep pastures bone free.

There is no question but that the buffalo shaped our state’s history. The plains Indians created a unique nomadic culture around the buffalo. The extermination of the buffalo was a conscious political action by the U.S. government to force the Indians to alter that lifestyle and move to reservations. A task that would have been much more difficult otherwise. The deaths of the buffalo served industry as the Industrial Revolution began and the need for a thick, strong leather was created. And, picking the very bones of the gigantic beasts supported settlers and helped fuel railroad expansion. Yes, the mighty buffalo has had a mighty impact on Texas. No bones about it!

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