Near Extinction of the Great Plains Bison 1820–1900

One of the most endearing symbols of early western culture in the United States is the bison. It is estimated that around 30-50 million buffalos roamed the Great Plains at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Bisons were imperative to the survival of Native Americans, which used almost every part of the animal, including furs for clothing, meat for nourishment and the horns for weapons and tools, in order to survive the harsh winters. In an increasingly consumerist society during the 19th century, however, bison were hunted to the brink of extinction by frontier whites. Commodities, mainly bison hides for jackets and leather, were extremely popular, profitable and fashionable back in the eastern regions of the United States. By 1902, fewer than 100 wild buffalos roamed the Great Plains. In 1905, the American Bison Society was founded, and the population has gradually grown to a stable level of around 30,000 wild bison today with many more in captivity. However, the near extinction of the American Bison represents the dangers that modern society posed to wild populations as well as the somewhat hypocritical outlook on saving aesthetically valued species only when the populations faced extinction due to mass slaughter for economic output.

Contributed by Dayton Shackelford
Course: Modern Global Environmental History
Instructor: Dr. Wilko Graf von Hardenberg
University of Wisconsin–Madison, US

Further Readings: 
  • Isenberg, Andrew C. The Destruction of the Bison: An Environmental History, 1750–1920. Studies in Environment and History 18. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
  • Gates, C.C., C.H. Freese, P.J.P. Gogan, and M. Kotzman, eds. American Bison: Status Survey and Conservation Guidelines 2010. Gland, Switzerland: IUCN, 2010. Accessed 7 April 2016.
  • Binnema, Theodore. Common and Contested Ground: A Human and Environmental History of the Northwestern Plains. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2001.