In 1600, the North American bison population (called ‘buffalo’ by early American settlers) was c. 25–30 million. The first European impact was indirect: the introduction of the horse to the Native Americans. This improved their hunting efficiency, and encouraged tribes to the east of the plains to engage in hunting. Coupled with European traders’ appetite for bison hides, their range began to shrink by the late 18th century. But the next century would witness a – largely intentional – apocalypse. As settlers moved west, the warlike Plains Indians presented a formidable obstacle, but they were dependent on bison. General Sheridan said of buffalo hunters, ‘let them kill, skin, sell until the buffalo is exterminated. Then the prairie can be covered with speckled cattle and the festive cowboy’. And they did. Thousands were shot from slow-moving train ‘hunting excursions’ and left to rot. By 1889, there were less than 300 bison left, and the Plains Indians were defeated, corralled and broken.
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