The Plains Indians were known for using every part of the bison. From the meat to the hides to the sinews, they could put the entire animal to good use. Buffalo hunters were known for being more wasteful.
They sometimes took only the tongues, an Eastern delicacy, leaving the carcasses to rot in the sun.
But the industrial revolution was able to find uses for parts of bison that would otherwise go to waste. The hides were prized for making the heavy belts that powered machinery. They were stronger and longer lasting than belts made from cattle leather.
Surprisingly enough, industry also powered a bone trade. Bison bones that littered the prairie were collected and burned for fertilizing fields and refining sugar. In 1884 the Dickinson Press reported on twenty-seven yoke of oxen arriving with loads of bones, followed by thirty-four yoke of oxen coming in from Deadwood. The following year there were ads in the Griggs Courier for bones at twelve dollars per ton. So, it is no wonder that the bison were disappearing from the Great Plains. By 1903, the once vast herds were dwindling. The Ward County Independent reported that plans were being made for one last buffalo hunt. One of the notable participants would be famed buffalo hunter Buffalo Bill Cody.
But all was not lost. On this date in 1904, James J. Hill was anticipating a new crop of bison calves. Hill had shipped six bison to North Oaks, his 5, 000 acre breeding and hobby farm near St. Paul. The first year, the animals did not take kindly to captivity, and the breeding season was disappointing. The second year was somewhat more promising, and each year the results were more successful. After thirteen years, the herd had grown to twenty-six bison with more calves to be born in the spring. Besides breeding bison, Hill also crossed them with domestic cattle. This produced an animal with the hardiness of the bison and the quality meat of the cattle. Hill was lauded for his efforts to prevent the bison’s extinction.
If not for some farsighted individuals like Theodore Roosevelt and James Hill, the bison might have gone extinct. Today about 400-800 wild bison roam in Teddy Roosevelt National Park.
Dakota Datebook written by Carole Butcher
Bismarck Daily Tribune. “Hill Raises Herd of Bison. 29 February 1904. Bismarck ND. Page 1.
Griggs Courier. 29 May 1885. Cooperstown ND. Page 8.
Dickinson Press. 28 June 1884. Dickinson ND. Page 1.
Ward County Independent. “130 Tons of Buffalo Bones.” 21 October 1903. Minot ND. Page 1.
Isern, Dr. Tom. “The Extinct Buffalo.” Plains Folk. Prairie Public Radio.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park. “Bison/Buffalo.” https://www.nps.gov/thro/learn/nature/bison-buffalo.htm Accessed 1 January 2018.