Plains Folk

The Extinct Buffalo


During the latter decades of the nineteenth century carbon works in Detroit, St. Louis, and Philadelphia were bidding for buffalo bones to be burned into bone black, which was used for fertilizing fields and refining sugar. The bone trade, harvesting the pale remains of bison herds past, surged across the northern plains with the railroads.

As mentioned in a previous piece, the Coteau country of present central North Dakota was wonderfully productive of bones, with the bone trade picking up in the mid-1880s. The Hope newspaper reported in May 1884 that farmers were gathering “the buffalo bones which lie scattered so plentifully over the prairie.” 135 tons had been received in Hope at a price from $6 to $8 a ton.

At the same time the press reported “hundreds of teams” hauling bones to Bismarck for shipment to Philadelphia. Residents in Emmons County complained their lives and homes were endangered by bone pickers firing the prairie so as to make the finding of bones easier. Dickinson, too, became a lively entrepot for bones in 1884.

Bone traffic slumped for a couple of years, but in 1887 the New Rockford Transcript said, “It is wonderful to see the amount of buffalo bones that are being marketed in this city this summer. Two or three years ago there were piles of them near the depot that contained dozens and dozens of car-loads, and they were being shipped out very regularly too. Last fall it was thought that the bone market was dead, so far as this city is concerned, but there has been enough marketed here already, if taken all together, to make two or three train loads.”

The following year a bone picker near Pingree stated that a wagonload of bones could be gathered by two men in half a day.

Bones remained plenty in the central part of the state through 1890, when a picker named Henry Broughton, from Spiritwood, allowed that “every little slough hole or coulie still contains more or less bones.” In Minot, Strain Bros. General Merchandize advertized their offer of $8 a ton for buffalo bones.

The market was going soft, however. Carbon works had commenced importing shipments of cattle bones from South America and South Africa. Bone pickers around Minot resolved to shift operations west along the Great Northern to Malta, Montana.

By the following year, 1891, the Fargo Republican was about ready to close the books on the bone trade. Under the heading, “The Extinct Buffalo,” the Republican pronounced the bison supplanted by domestic cattle and sheep and gave some figures for the bone trade out of Minot. Its informant was Col. Clement Lounsberry, formerly publisher of the Bismarck Tribune, later a historian.

The figures for tonnage of bones shipped from Minot were 225 tons in 1886, 600 tons in 1887, 375 tons in 1888, 2775 tons in 1889, and 2400 tons in 1890. “Colonel Lounsberry estimates that these bones represent 359,200 animals,” summed up the Republican, “and that these shipments do not represent over one-thirtieth of the entire amount of buffalo bones that have been bleached on the sunny surface of North Dakota.”

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