PART I: BIRTH OF A BOOM
The Demise of the Bison
On January 13, 1872, twenty-two-year-old Grand Duke Alexis Romanov, the fourth son of the Russian czar, arrived in North Platte, Nebraska, by private railcar, accompanied by an entourage of courtiers in gold-brocaded Russian uniforms. The grand duke was there for a buffalo hunt.
Two companies of American infantry in wagons, two companies of cavalry on horseback, the cavalry’s regimental band, and an assortment of cooks and couriers had been assembled to meet the duke at the train station. His American hosts included luminaries such as the distinguished Civil War veteran Major General Philip Sheridan, at that time the commander of the U.S. Army Department of the Missouri, the renowned Indian fighter Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer, and William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody, who later became famous for his traveling Wild West show.
The entertainment in the wilderness included a lavish feast among the tents erected at Red Willow Creek, and a meet-and-greet encounter with local tribal chiefs, including Chief Spotted Tail of the Brulé Sioux, who had been coaxed into joining the expedition, along with four hundred Sioux warriors, in return for a payment of twenty-five wagonloads of flour, sugar, coffee, and tobacco. The Americans may well have hoped that Spotted Tail would appear in his famous war robe, which was adorned with over a hundred human scalps taken in battle, but instead he wore a white man’s two-piece gray worsted suit, a rather old one, with a blanket thrown over his shoulders. For entertainment a group of Spotted Tail’s warriors performed their traditional war dance.
The first morning’s hunt found the group galloping over a hillock and down onto a large herd of grazing bison. According to Cody’s embellished account, the duke proved to be a poor shot. He fired his pistol erratically at the largely docile bison from horseback and missed them at a short distance. It wasn’t until Cody handed the duke his own Springfield Model 1863 rifle, nicknamed “Lucrezia Borgia,” that the Russian noble managed to fell his first animal, an event that immediately produced much waving of flags and hats and a champagne toast. The duke leapt off his horse and used his saber to slice off the bison’s tail as a trophy.
The next day the duke managed to kill two more bison. In total, during his five-day hunting trip he would slay eight, including a pair that he allegedly shot from the window of his private railcar somewhere outside Denver. He returned to Russia with their tails, mounted heads, and tanned hides as keepsakes.
Nothing like the so-called Great Royal Buffalo Hunt would ever again occur on American soil. Just three years later such a hunt would be impossible: the bison would be gone.
For the first ninety or so years of their new republic, most U.S. citizens viewed the open areas of the America West as a barren wasteland of no intrinsic or economic value. It was seen as a geographical hinterland, the Great American Desert, fit habitat only for the “savage” tribes of Plains Indians, despite the fact that it covered several hundred million acres. This vast area comprised the Great Plains, the High Plains, the semi-arid prairies, and the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, and it stretched from the Missouri River abutting the present border of Iowa westward to the Rocky Mountains, and from the Red River along the present Texas-Oklahoma border northward to Canada. This dismissive view of the wide-open expanses of the America West persisted because of a poor understanding of the land’s ecological diversity and ignorance of the the fact that the area provided forage for herds of buffalo that numbered in the tens of millions.
The Native Americans who occupied these territories, some two dozen tribes of varying sizes, took a far more enlightened view of the region ?— ?and lived in a more ecologically minded and spiritual harmony with it. For many of these tribes, their culture and livelihood depended on proximity to the bison, whose animal parts they used to clothe, house, arm, and feed their people. And the Native Americans’ dependency on the bison may well have involved more than a somewhat passive harvesting of resources that nature provided. It is likely that for perhaps two thousand years the Plains Indians proactively farmed the buffalo on the Great Plains, treating the area as one gigantic pasture under their jurisdiction. They may well have used fire to remove what once was forest, to encourage the growth of the grass for bison forage ?— ?a thesis, if true, that debunks the popular myth of the American West as an unspoiled, pristine wilderness at the time of European settlement.
Those who saw the great bison herds never forgot the experience. The largest herds appeared to blanket vast valleys in their black fur, in numbers rivaling anything seen on the African savannas. In 1839 Thomas Farnham, riding along the Santa Fe Trail, reported that it took him three days to pass through a single buffalo herd, covering a distance of forty-five miles. At one point he could see bison for fifteen miles in every direction, suggesting a herd that encompassed 1,350 square miles. In 1859 Luke Vorrhees claimed to have traveled for two hundred miles through a single herd somewhere along the border of Colorado and Nebraska. And a dozen years later, Colonel R. I. Dodge passed through a herd along the Arkansas River that was twenty-five miles wide and fifty miles long.
The artist George Catlin, paddling a canoe on the Missouri River in the Dakotas, came around a bend and encountered one such immense herd as it forded the river. The swimming, snorting animals had effectively dammed the water. Catlin and his terrified companions managed to pull their canoes ashore just seconds before being engulfed by the herd. They waited for hours as the bison crossed, watching them shuffle down from the green hills on one side, swim across in a solid mass of heads and horns, and then gallop up the bluffs on the far side. During this time the bison managed to obliterate a fifteen-foot-high riverbank, carving their own road up and out of the river.
The white man’s perception of the plains and prairie lands finally began to change with the rapid economic developments of the decades just prior to the Civil War: the collapse of the fur trade, the discovery of gold, the arrival of the railroad, and the westward flow of immigrants along the Oregon, Santa Fe, and Mormon Trails. By the early 1860s former fur hunters and California-bound settlers, trailing the odd cow along with their oxen, had helped to introduce the first small herds of cattle to the western forts and outposts. Grocers and merchants, seeking to feed the arriving miners and railroad workers, introduced other small herds. The earliest cattlemen of the West, figures such as John Wesley Iliff, a former grocer who assembled a herd outside Denver in 1861 to service the railroad crews, began to believe that domesticated cattle might be able to withstand the long winters and the aridity of the climate. If this surmise was correct, big money could be made in cattle ranching on the open range.
Iliff’s contracts with the railroads and the army forts eventually proved so lucrative that he was able to buy more than a hundred miles of land along t...