Was bison slaughter a U.S. military tactic in the Plains Wars?

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Dear Cecil: Did the U.S. government intentionally starve the American Indians to death by slaughtering the bison? Is there official documentation to support this claim? I’ve read a variety of accounts about the slaughter of the American bison—food, sport, shits and giggles. Feeling Buffaloed in Texas


Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

One thing’s for sure: the latter half of the 19th century wasn’t such a hot time to be an American bison. The animals’ numbers, in the tens of millions when Europeans arrived on the continent, plunged to fewer than 400 before the end of the 1800s, with the worst of it coming between 1870 and 1883. There were, as you suggest, a number of reasons the bison took such a bad turn. A new tanning technology made the processing of hides more efficient; more extensive rail lines made transporting them easier; a burgeoning market thus inspired more buffalo hunters.

And then there’s the claim you’ve heard, Buffaloed: that the U.S. government—finding its westward expansion policies unwelcome to the people who, you know, already lived out there—made it a policy to slaughter the bison, not necessarily to starve the Native people to death, but to pressure them onto reservations. Certainly there was recent precedent for such a tactic: beginning in 1863, Colonel Kit Carson brought to near extinction the breed of sheep called the churro as part of an overall campaign to destroy the Navajos’ livelihood in the southwest and thus pacify them. As regards the eradication of the bison, however, and its role in the Plains Wars in the 1860s through 1880s, things were a little less explicit.

A persuasive case comes in a 1994 paper by David D. Smits in Western History Quarterly. Smits reminds us, first, just who happened to be prosecuting the campaign against the Plains Indians: generals William Tecumseh Sherman and Philip Sheridan, who’d enjoyed great success in laying waste to the Confederacy during the Civil War. They’d learned from that experience, Smits argues, that it’s not enough to fight the enemy on the battlefield: you’ve got to destroy his resources, as Sherman famously did on his March to the Sea. It’s true that Smits is working with thin official documentation—a notarized letter from President Ulysses S. Grant sure would help a historian out in this situation, but no one’s yet dug such a thing up. There’s plenty of other evidence to go around, though:

  • The simple fact is that, for whatever ultimate reason, the army killed a hell of a lot of bison, as shooting practice or as part of army-sponsored civilian hunts. And it was easier than fighting Native people on their own turf. Sometimes military commanders equated the two; Smits quotes Colonel George Custer alerting his men to “a chance for a great victory over that bunch of redskins the other side of the hill.” Custer was referring to bison.
  • In 1869, the Army Navy Journal reported that Sherman had floated what Smits calls a “trial balloon”: he’d “remarked, in conversation . . . that the quickest way to compel the Indians to settle down to civilized life was to send ten regiments of soldiers to the plains, with orders to shoot buffaloes until they became too scarce to support the redskins.” In Smits’s view, this proposal was accepted tacitly if not publicly.
  • In an 1868 letter to Sherman, Sheridan wrote, “The best way for the government is to now make [resisting Plains warriors] poor by the destruction of their stock, and then settle them on the lands allotted to them”; Smits takes “stock” to include bison as well as horses.
  • The growing hide market brought hunters to buffalo grounds in Texas that had been set aside for Native people; seeking admission anyway, the hunters approached a local military commander, Colonel Dodge, who at the least didn’t discourage them and seems to have suggested they could hunt in Indian territory without interference. Smits relates an earlier quote from Dodge: “Every buffalo dead is an Indian gone.”

All told, Smits believes (as do other historians) the dots connect sufficiently to reveal a government policy, however unspoken—he notes Sheridan’s “tendency, when dealing with contentious or potentially embarrassing matters, to issue oral rather than written commands.” Smits’s article occasioned a rebuttal from another academic, one William A. Dobak, whose arguments frankly strike me as weak. (Taking issue with Smits’s use of private journals as sources, Dobak reminds us that “memoirists are not under oath”—as if historians should rely on sworn testimony and nothing less.) Still, they illuminate the void at the center of this question, where some paper evidence would, ideally, be.

So was there an “official” policy? I’m not convinced it particularly matters. We know the army enthusiastically slaughtered bison; we know it encouraged others to do so; we know that the men directing the campaign viewed this as an important front in the Indian wars. Official or no, the actions were deliberate, and the outcome devastating for any people or animals not lucky enough to be affiliated with the U.S. Army. Sheridan and Sherman really couldn’t have hoped for any better.

Cecil Adams

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.