Bone Business

By: Ralph A. Smith

Type: General Entry

Published: November 1, 1994

The best years of the Texas bone business were 1870 to 1937. Freighters returning to Kansas from Texas forts loaded their empty wagons with old, brittle, ash-colored buffalo bones and piled them along the right-of-way of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway. A good report on their industrial use reached Kansas at about the same time that the AT&SF rails arrived. The railroad therefore set off a boom of bone picking, hauling, and shipping north of the Arkansas in 1872. As it died down in 1874, the slaughter of the Texas buffalo herd began. When the latter ended in 1878, it had added many thousands of fresh bones to the old from the Cross Timbers to the upper Panhandle to below the Colorado River and up the Pecos River and other streams into New Mexico.

Half a dozen bone roads ran northward to points along the AT&SF and other lines, and at least as many went eastward to the rail heads built in Northeast and Central Texas in the 1870s. The Fort Griffin-Dodge City road was the best known of the first group. Those going eastward reached heads at Austin, Dallas, Denison, Fort Worth, Gainesville, Round Rock, Sherman, and San Antonio. The Old Buffalo Road ran from Cottle and Foard counties to Henrietta and Wichita Falls. Several bone roads came off the Caprock, and another from Glasscock and Sterling counties went down the North Concho River to San Angelo.

As many as 100 bone wagons traveled together. A king-sized wagon drawn by oxen or mules, plus its two trailers, could carry 10,000 pounds of bones. When the panic of 1873 stopped rail construction, bone pickers rushed into the field and raised hundreds of "little mountains" of bones along the right-of-ways. Freighters hauled out army, merchant, and ranch supplies and brought back bones. Agents, brokers, buyers, and speculators bought piles, and freighters hauled them to the rails or to intermediate points like Doans, Griffin, Henrietta, San Angelo, and Wichita Falls. San Antonio shipped 3,333 tons between July 1877 and November 1878.

Resumption of rail construction extended the Texas and Pacific from Fort Worth across the bone lands in 1880–81, the Southern Pacific to the Pecos by 1882, and the Fort Worth and Denver City to Henrietta, Wichita Falls, Harrold, Vernon, Quanah, Childress, Washburn, and Texline between 1880 and 1888. For several years in the early eighties Texas led the world as a source of bones. Prices climbed from three or four dollars a ton in the early seventies to as high as twenty-two or twenty-three dollars briefly in the eighties, then settled around eight dollars by the end of the century. Texas bones went to Baltimore, Boston, Detroit, Harrisburg, New Orleans, New York, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Europe. Old bones were ground into meal, fresh ones supplied refineries with calcium phosphate to neutralize cane-juice acid and decolor sugar, choice bones went to bone-china furnaces for calcium phosphate ash, and firm bones went to button factories.

Abilene, Sweetwater, Colorado City, Big Spring, and Midland had their great bone piles. Several are described as stretching half a mile along the tracks and being thirty feet wide and sixteen high. From Abilene 109 cars of fifteen tons each, or 1,635 tons, were sent to New Orleans after mid-1881. Colorado City became the largest Texas and Pacific shipping point. Hundreds of families beat droughts, debts, and famine by picking and selling bones. Huge piles of bones were built by men like James Kilfoile and his crews, who worked ahead of the rail gangs laying railroad tracks. One picker piled up eighty tons at Big Spring and sold the heap for $4,000. To avoid "bone wars" pickers recognized the unwritten law of right of discovery, preemption, and priority to a reasonable area.

Cattle bones supplanted buffalo bones before 1900. By the 1920s each county had several bone men, who would keep pastures clean of bones for them. In the 1930s "boning" temporarily returned to popularity to ease woes of the Great Depression. But with economic recovery and the discovery of a new process of making bone meal, it passed out. The bone business had contributed greatly to the freight and rail business and saved many families from being forced back East in the early days. One source estimates that Texas alone shipped out a half million tons of buffalo bones, worth $3 million at six dollars a ton. See also BUFFALO, BUFFALO HUNTING.

Ralph A. Smith, "The West Texas Bone Business," West Texas Historical Association Yearbook 55 (1979).

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Ralph A. Smith, “Bone Business,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed July 07, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

November 1, 1994