8. Conspiracy

One of the great questions about what happened to the buffalo after the Civil War has long been whether or not the federal government was involved deliberately in attempting to eliminate buffalo in order to make the Plains Indians easier to deal with. That's one, in fact, that is literally another set piece argument in lots of histories. In fact, my experience has been, in talking to people about buffalo—particularly lots of Indian people today . . . . They've basically absorbed that story completely, that there was a government conspiracy involving the American military and the buffalo hunters, the hide hunters, to eradicate the buffalo in order to make it possible to put the Indians on reservations.

I don't know that that story isn't accurate. It well may be accurate. In fact, in a very recent book, one published in 1997, a scholar has argued that it is true—that this is what happened.

On the other hand, I guess I feel constrained to say that there is a lot of doubt about that story. And the doubt has to do with the following bits of historical evidence

First of all, the major evidence we've had for this so-called government conspiracy to wipe out the buffalo, has consistently come from the buffalo hunters themselves. In almost every instance—in fact I can't think of an exception to this—when you look at the accounts from which this story is drawn, they are basically in the form of memoirs written 20 to 30 years after the fact; usually written in the early 20th century, at a time when conservation, especially of wildlife, was a major American crusade; at a time when many people were not pleased about what the buffalo hunters had done. And so those memoirs tend to take on the tone of being more or less apologias.

One of the ones that really stands out, and that is cited in almost every book about the buffalo, is that Phillip Sheridan—the great Civil War commander who was in charge of the reconstruction province that included Texas after the Civil War—when he heard that the Texas legislature was debating a bill to outlaw the hunting of buffalo in West Texas, visited that legislative session in Austin, and got up and made an impassioned plea with the Texas legislature not to pass this bill, based on the argument that the buffalo hunters in fact were doing the government's work for them, and that—as the story goes, almost every time you see it—Phillip Sheridan is supposed to have said, "Rather than outlawing the buffalo hunt, what you actually ought to do is give those buffalo hunters a medal, showing a dead buffalo on one side, and a discouraged Plains Indian on the other side."

Now, that's a great story. I've been guilty of repeating that story myself, as the truth. And the reason I say guilty is because, just a few years ago a couple of historians interested in this problem began to look at the possible speech that Phillip Sheridan is supposed to have made, and they discovered something rather remarkable. First of all, the only account we really have of it is in George Crook's book, On the Border with the Buffalo—he's a former buffalo hunter—written in 1905 as a memoir. There's no other account of it.

Not only is there no other account of it, but when they examined the records of the Texas legislature they found no evidence that Phillip Sheridan either made the speech, or had ever visited the Texas legislature to make any speech on behalf of any bill. The story seems to be purely apocryphal, and it sounds suspiciously as if a buffalo hunter in his old age is attempting to defend himself against charges that he helped wipe out one of America's emblematic western animals by saying that the government wanted us to do it.

One of the other accounts that the buffalo hunters tell is that "The government suppliers at the military posts handed out free ammunition to us if we would go out and kill buffalo." Well, once again, historians have examined that one too, and they've discovered, to their astonishment, they even made troopers pay for ammunition when they went out on their own hunts, in their off-time.

And so we have almost certain evidence that stories like that are invented later by buffalo hunters to sort of buttress and support their own reputations in a conservation age.