The buffalo, known to Europeans and Americans since the days of Hernán Cortés and Francisco Vázquez de Coronado, lived in countless millions on the Great Plains of the United States until the late 1880s. They had been hunted by all who found them, especially by the Indians, to whom they satisfied many necessities of life. When the frontier of the United States extended to the Great Plains, among the obstacles to be overcome were the Indians and the buffalo—the former for well-known reasons and the latter because they existed in such tremendous numbers as to make farming and ranching impossible and also because they represented the commissary of the warlike Indians.
The immediate cause for the tremendous slaughter of buffalo in the 1870s and 1880s was the completion of the transcontinental railroad. When the Union Pacific was completed in 1869, it became possible to ship hides from the Great Plains to eastern markets for a profit. A second result was the division of the buffalo into two great herds, the northern and the southern. The southern herd was the larger and was exterminated first. The slaughter in the south began in earnest in 1874 and was over by 1878. In the north the great hunts began in 1880 and were over by 1884. The rapid destruction can be seen from these figures: in 1882, 200,000 hides were shipped out of the Dakota Territory; in 1883, 40,000; and the following year, only one carload. Even so, it was estimated that for every two hides shipped, three were lost. Except for a few herds protected on government property or maintained on private ranches, the buffalo were exterminated.
The number of hunters involved in the great hunts is not known, but an estimate for the northern range indicated that in 1882 there were at least 5,000 hunters and skinners at work. Only the strong and adventurous were attracted, most being frontiersmen from Kansas and other border states who were interested in recouping their fortunes. Occasionally an adventurous Englishman was found in the camps. It took a hardy man to brave the elements and the Indians and, most of all, to stand up under the back-breaking work involved in hunting and skinning. Hunting camps often numbered about four men. A group of that size, preparing for a three-month hunt, needed a considerable amount of specialized equipment and supplies, including two two-horse teams hitched to light wagons. One of the wagons hauled the provisions and camp outfit, which might consist of one medium and one large-sized Dutch oven, three large frying pans, two coffeepots, camp kettles, bread pans, a coffee mill, tin cups, plates, knives, forks, spoons, pothooks, a meat broiler, shovels, spades, axes, a mess box, and so forth. The other wagon hauled the bedding, ammunition, two extra guns, a grindstone, war sacks, and the like. For the three months' hunt, the amount of ammunition required was 250 pounds of lead in bars done up in twenty-five pound sacks, 4,000 primers, and three twenty-five-pound cans of powder. Of the four men, ordinarily two were hunters and two cooks and skinners. On a normal day's run, the hunters would locate the herd, single out a small group, and approach as near as possible from downwind. Once close to the group, the hunters formed a "stand" if possible, so that the buffalo were shot in such a way that the rest were not frightened away. The hunter shot at a slow rate so that his gunbarrel did not overheat and expand; he shot at the outside buffalo only, or at any that started to walk off; and he would try to drop each one with one good shot, as a wounded buffalo would soon cause the whole group to bolt. Finally, the group would break, and the surviving animals would wander off, the hunter following and shooting stragglers. When it was impossible to form a stand, the hunt progressed on a trail-and-shoot form, the hunter following a wandering band of buffalo, shooting at intervals as the opportunity presented itself. This method was feasible because the buffalo was a notoriously stupid animal that evidently recognized danger only when he could smell it. He also nearly invariably traveled into the wind so that a hunter could follow with little possibility of detection. These two techniques of hunting were the most desirable and common. There were others, of course, such as lying in wait for buffalo to pass a certain concealed point. A good hunter would kill as many as 100 buffalo in an hour or two, and from 1,000 to 2,000 a season. Most hunters killed in the morning and aided with skinning in the afternoon.
After the hunter had done his work, the skinners entered the picture. The hides were removed from the carcasses with skinning knives, loaded onto a wagon, and taken back to camp. To speed the skinning process, the wagon was rigged with a forked stick to the center of the hind axle, with the end dragging the ground behind. A chain or rope was attached to the same axle; and when a carcass was to be skinned, the wagon was driven up to it and the rope or chain was attached to a front leg. After the upper side of the carcass was skinned, the wagon was moved, pulling the carcass over a bit, the stick suspended from the back axle acting as a brake. In that way, skinning was made considerably swifter and easier. When the green hides were brought to camp, they were stretched and staked or pegged to the ground with the meat side down. After three to five days they were turned, and so alternated every day until they were dry, at which time they were piled. Usually they were placed in four stacks: bull hides, cow hides, robe hides, and kip hides (hides from younger animals). Buyers ordinarily came out to the camp; the hunters received about $2.00 per bull hide with other prices scaled down accordingly. After the deal was made, the buyer generally sent a freight wagon to the camp to pick up the hides and take them to Fort Worth, Texas, Dodge City, Kansas, or some other railhead, where they could be shipped to buyers in the East.