Haunting Photos of the Bison Extermination in 19th Century America


As the United States expanded westward in the early 1800s, the trade in American bison fur, skin, and meat began to flourish across the Great Plains.

By the 1860s, these iconic animals had roamed the plains for millennia, their herds numbering in the millions, a sight so awe-inspiring that it was dubbed "the thunder of the plains."

For generations, they have been the lifeblood of Native American tribes, providing not only food and clothing but also shelter and spiritual significance.

But the scenario began to change after the Civil War. The continued progress of the railroads brought with it a wave of new cities, bustling trains, and interconnected telegraph lines, ushering in an era of rapid change.

This change spelled trouble for the bison, as European settlers, motivated by profit, destroyed the once abundant herds.

By the 1880s, their numbers had dropped from nearly 30 million to just 325, a catastrophic decline.

Before the advent of horses, Native American hunters used innovative methods to hunt bison.

They would drive the animals into large chutes made of rocks and willow branches, then trap them in enclosures known as buffalo pounds.

Once controlled, the bison were either killed on the spot or driven over rocks in a practice called buffalo jumping.

Archaeological sites containing both pounds and jumps can be found in various locations in the United States and Canada.

The arrival of horses, originally brought by the Spaniards, revolutionized hunting techniques. By the early 1700s, horses had become an integral part of the nomadic hunting cultures of indigenous groups.

This progress allowed tribes, once confined to the eastern regions, to move westward in search of the large bison populations found on the Great Plains.

The horse was the missing tool that made it possible for Native Americans to begin systematically exploiting the vast resource of protein, fat, and hides stored in the bodies of the estimated 30 million bison on the plains.

On horseback, hunters could follow migratory herds more closely and over a wider range, kill animals more efficiently, and bring back more meat and hides.

Attracted by previously unimagined hunting possibilities, Native Americans entered the Plains from all directions, creating one of the most famous hunting cultures in history.

By the early 19th century, Plains Native Americans had mastered a range of mounted bison-hunting methods tailored to the climates and landscapes of the region.

In winter, they would lead bison into snow-filled ravines or drifts, while in summer they would take them into swamps, rivers or temporary corridors for hunting.

In the northern plains, where horses were rare, many tribes relied on traditional methods such as foot surrounds.

To control bison activities, Plains tribes often burned parts of the grasslands. Nevertheless, the most popular technique was the mounted chase.

Here, hunters would gallop after the bison on fast horses, using spears or arrows to strike their prey.

Despite the availability of muskets, hunters preferred short bows due to their ease of use on horseback and their lack of gunpowder and shot, which were usually saved for combat.

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