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End of the Bison: Deliberate Slaughter to Destroy the Plains

This map depicted the range of the bison in North America in 1889 - the blue indicated the current numbers, and the red dates indicated the time when a bison was last seen (Texas Tech University).

The U.S. Army was instrumental in the slaughter of bison to destroy the Plains tribes.

During the Colombian Exposition/ World's Fair in Chicago in 1893, American historian Frederick Jackson Turner famously lectured that the "west had been won" and that the frontier had been officially "closed." Much of his thesis might have been due to this 1889 map.

This "map illustrating the extermination of the American Bison" shows U.S. and Canada, but for our purposes, I focused on the Southwest. The red lines indicate the extent of the bison extermination from the areas by the red date; the blue circle shows the range of animals still existing, with the green circles showing the census of the bison. In the Texas panhandle, according to this map, only 25 heads of bison existed by 1889.

The killings of these bison was deliberate. Destroying them meant opening the range for cattle and railroads, and it also served a military purpose of starving the tribes who relied on the animals for food. It rightfully outraged many Americans of the period, except for the people who stood to make a lot of money for the land.

Some quotes by "famous men" of the United States Army whose unofficial policies and prejudices led to a near-mass-extinction event:

"The 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 will be covered with speckled cattle and the festive cowboy who follows the hunters as the second forerunner of an advanced civilization."

-- Philip Sheridan

"These men flocked to the plains, and were rather stimulated than retarded by the danger of an Indian war. This was another potent agency in producing the result we enjoy today, in having in so short a time replaced the wild buffaloes by more numerous herds of tame cattle, and by substituting for the useless Indians the intelligent owners of productive farms and cattle-ranches."

-- William Tecumseh Sherman

“If a village is attacked and women and children are killed, the responsibility is not with the soldiers but with the people whose crimes necessitated the attack."

-- William Tecumseh Sherman

The remaining animals were located on the Adair and Goodnight Ranches around the Caprock, until the lands became part of the Texas Parks and Wildlife system. Today, this historic remnant comprises the Texas State Bison Herd. A new calf was recently born near one of the parking lots at Caprock Canyon State Park!

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