To some extent, the Corps of Discovery used buffalo much as the Indians did–for clothing, blankets, tents, saddle pads, and moccasins for both men and horses. On the Yellowstone River after the last of their horses were stolen, Sergeant Pryor and his companions made Indian-style "bull boats" by covering cup-shaped wooden frames with buffalo hides.

As they entered the region Dan Flores calls the "American Serengeti," the Corps saw bison in ever-increasing numbers, but they relied more on other game for the six pounds of fat meat each man required in his daily diet. During the fall of 1804, in the 55 days it took to make their way up the Missouri from near today's Yankton, South Dakota, to Washburn, North Dakota, north of Bismarck, they killed only 18 bison. Some of those, however, were so "pore"—lean, that is—that only the tongues and the long bones were taken, for their fat and their rich marrow, respectively. During the same period they consumed 83 deer, 17 elk, and 17 antelope. Throughout the months spent at Fort Mandan, from November 1, 1804 to April 6, 1805, they consumed 120 deer and 46 elk, but only 38 bison. Altogether, throughout the entire period of the expedition, they killed 227 bison for food.


Poster asking for dry buffalo bones

On April 18, 1805, some 35 miles east of present Williston, North Dakota, Meriwether Lewis was reminded of a commercial use for a bison byproduct.

Saw several parsels of buffaloe's hair hanging on the rose bushes, which had been bleached by exposure to the weather and became perfectly white. it [had] every appearance of the wool of the sheep, tho' much finer and more silkey and soft. I am confident that an excellent cloth may be made of the wool of the Buffaloe. The Buffaloe I killed yesterday had cast his long hare, and the poil [perhaps pile, meaning fur] which remained was very thick, fine, and about 2 inches in length. I think this anamal would have furnished about five pounds of wool.

The idea had been abroad for quite a while, in fact, and it remained current for another couple of decades, at least among big-city entrepreneurs who had never tried to shear a 2,000-pound bison.

The French-Canadian Louis Joliet (1645-1700), who explored the upper Mississippi River with the Jesuit missionary Jacques Marquette, had mentioned it. Then, in 1821-22, According to the Canadian writer Ernest Thompson Seton (1860-1946), a company was formed at Fort Garry, on the Red River in Manitoba, and a little buffalo-wool cloth was produced. Needless to say, it was tedious and expensive to collect enough shed wool for spinning and weaving, and so the manufacturing cost exceeded the market value of the cloth. The enterprise soon failed.

Buffalo robes, cured and tanned by Indian women, were far more profitable, and that was the principal market factor that contributed to the near-disappearance of the American bison. A second use of hides was for leather belts to link of the pulleys of machines in the growing number of factories the Industrial Revolution was spawning.

Of course, it was impossible to preserve much of the meat for shipment to market, even if it had been wanted. Briefly, however, there was another opportunity that consumed the last remaining byproduct of the slaughter—bones.

The railroads that penetrated the southern plains in the late 1860s, and the northern plains and Canada in the 80s, provided a cheap and efficient means of transporting the bones of millions of bison back to St. Louis and points east. There they were processed into fertilizer to meet rising demands in the east, and into "bone black," or animal charcoal, used in refining sugar.

In the early 1900s, Charles Goodnight, a rancher who in his own way did much to assure the survival of bison in the Texas panhandle, recommended bison tallow not only for its supposed medicinal properties but also as an all-purpose household cleaner. "The discovery of the age," he called it, but nobody bought that claim.

Further Reading

David A. Dary, The Buffalo Book: The Full Saga of the American Animal(n.p.: Swallow Press/Ohio University Press, 1989).