John Mattingly: Socratic Rancher 2-4-13
During the great buffalo slaughter of the 1800s, tens of millions of buffalo were massacred at an astounding rate, often as many as 250-300 head per day by a single buffalo hunter, whose primary economic motivation was the hides. This resulted in a brisk trade in buffalo hides — in the tens of tons per day — moving back East. Most people know about the buffalo hide trade, but few know the somewhat startling extent of the trade that developed in buffalo bones.
The buffalo bone trade of the 1870s and 1880s in the U.S. generated revenues equal to that of a large, modern-day corporation. In Buffalo Bone Days (M.I. McCreight, Nupp Printing CO., 1939) described as a “short history of the buffalo trade,” claims that at least two million tons of buffalo bones were shipped out of Kansas Territory alone in the three years 1883-1885 with a value of over $40 million, fob St. Louis Carbon Works.
The Great Plains were home to an estimated peak population of 100 million buffalo. Colonel R.I. Dodge wrote that he witnessed “herds 25 miles in width and of equal or far greater length,” an obvious problem for the new railroads and homesteaders in an unfenced West. When the slaughter was over, the Kansas Territory became “a wilderness of whitened skeletons.”
Enterprising bone pickers made a fortune. There are photos of bone piles as large as three football fields and 30- to 40-feet high that were moved East by railcar and barge. In an ironic twist, tribes were hired to gather bones for $2 a ton. Buffalo bones then sold for a low of $8 and a high of $18 a ton between 1868 and 1881. Buffalo were slaughtered from the Canadian border to south Texas. The value and volume of bones removed from the West is staggering.
An estimated 112 million tons of buffalo bones were shipped from the Great Plains to fertilizer processing plants in the East during the heydays of the buffalo bone trade with an estimated grand value of over a billion dollars, which, in those days, was on the scale of the captains of industry. It is somewhat astounding that this slice of history has been overlooked by historians.
Perhaps more pertinent, is that the buffalo bones removed from the Great Plains of the U.S. also removed a lot of phosphorus, a critical element for plant growth that is already scarce in the parent material of the soils of the Great Plains. The buffalo bones were shipped mostly to St. Louis, Philadelphia, and New York and processed into bonemeal fertilizer, which is a balance of calcium and phosphorus.
To make an educated guess as to how much phosphorus was removed, we know that 85 percent of the phosphorus in a buffalo is in the bones and teeth, so most of the phosphorus left with the bones. The bones themselves are 12-15 percent phosphorus, so from the estimated 112 million tons of bones, about 1.5 million tons of phosphorus were shipped from West to East. In today’s market, that would have a value of nearly $300 million and would fertilizer about 120 million acres.
It isn’t a stretch to conclude that the great buffalo slaughter, followed by the export of the buffalo bones, contributed to the chronic phosphorus deficiency in the arid West. ❖