The demise of the buffalo

Kathie Bell/Special to the Globe
The demise of the buffalo was driven in part by the industrial revolution. SUBMITTED PHOTO

Much of the cause of the slaughter of the American bison, or buffalo, was due to the value of the animals' hides. Most people tend to think they were valued because they made fine robes or coats. But that wasn't really the case.

During the 1870's, just when the buffalo hunt was picking up steam, industrial growth skyrocketed in the U.S. and Europe, and demand for leather industrial belts expanded.

Cowhide tended to stretch and factory workers would have to occasionally stop production to tighten belts by cutting out sections. The epidermal layer in buffalo hide is up to three times thicker than that of cattle and has wider spaced sub-dermal collagen fibers making it more durable and flexible, and better suited for use in industrial conveyor and drive belts.

In 1871, just prior to the area of Dodge City being settled, tanners in Europe and America devised a new, more efficient, method of treating buffalo hides. In addition to U.S. markets, foreign demand for buffalo hides rose in England and Germany for use in factories. That is how many, if not most, of the buffalo hides were used.

On top of this, the expansion of railroads after the Civil War facilitated easier transportation of hides to the east and supplies for the buffalo hunters in the west. In late 1871, an English tannery, commissioned a Leavenworth, Kansas hide dealer, William C. Lobenstein, to supply them 500 hides.

Josiah W. Mooar was one hunter contracted to fill this order. After meeting his quota, Mooar had 57 hides left. He reasoned U.S. tanneries could treat the hides as well as the British and shipped the hides to his older brother, John W. Mooar in New York for him to get "the tanneries of New England" interested. John Mooar sold all the hides as soon as they arrived to a tanner from Pennsylvania who offered $3.70 each for them. Within weeks the same tanner ordered 2000 more.

There were other parties interested in expanding the market. Frederic R. Young in his book The Delectable Burg wrote, "In 1871 a Kansas City hide dealer, J.N. Dubois, sent circulars through Western Kansas offering to buy bull hides for $1.75 and cow hides for $1.25. By late 1872 the area around Dodge City became known as 'The Great Slaughter Pen.' Ten to twenty million animals had been killed and skinned, driving the price from $3.50 to 25¢ a hide."

Despite the drop in price, the killing of buffalo and sale of hides was still profitable.

Some argue Europe was just as responsible as America for the slaughter of the buffalo. It was Europeans who invented the new method of buffalo hide tanning, and a good share of the factories that used buffalo leather industrial belts were in Europe.