The first people who lived in the Dodge City area didn't live in cities, town or even farmsteads. They camped as they followed their chief commodity and object of their worship.
The Plains tribes, including the Cheyenne, Kiowa, Comanche and Arapaho, were nomadic, and followed the bison, or buffalo. This animal not only sustained them with its meat; the hides provided material for clothing, bedding and building; bones made tools and weapons; and buffalo chips (manure) was a source of fuel. The buffalo was the Native American version of "Wal-mart."
The American Indians only killed what they needed and used nearly every part of the buffalo. Very little was wasted.
Not only was this animal the source of their livelihood, but buffalo was a vital part of the religious life of the Plains Indians. Though they killed them, they also respected and revered this animal.
This is in sharp contrast to the ways of the non-Native hunters who came during the nineteenth century. In contrast to the lances and arrows of the Native Americans, these men possessed high-powered rifles and were able to massacre buffalo in huge numbers. And these new hunters used very little of what they killed. They only kept the hides and left the meat and organs to rot. Only the bones were salvaged years later during a bad economy.
The hides were valued as articles of clothing. But, their main use was to make conveyer belts for factories that cropped up during the Industrial Revolution.
The slaughter of the buffalo wasn't an accident. The growth of farming and ranching in this area was inhibited due to attacks by Native Americans, who were defending their way of life, and by the sheer numbers of buffalo competing for the grass and land.
Officially, the southern herd was off-limits to all but the American Indians. But unofficially, the government encouraged hunting of the buffalo everywhere. Government leaders believed bringing the buffalo to extinction would force the Native Americans onto reservations and their numbers would dwindle.
The motive of the individual hunter was not to get rid of the Native Americans or kill off the buffalo. It was to make money. Selling hundreds of hides at $3.00 per hide, hunters struck it rich.
Merchants made a lot of money as well. In its first year of operation, the Rath General Store in Dodge City shipped over 200,000 hides.
The unofficial policy was effective. In prehistoric times there were as many as 70 million buffalo in North America. By 1875, there were less than 1,000. It is a wonder we still have buffalo today.
This extermination of the buffalo worked. The population of American Indians plummeted, and almost all who remained ended up on reservations.
Kathie Bell works at the Boot Hill Museum and is a history buff. Her column appears weekly in the Dodge City Daily Globe. She can be reached at 227-8188.