Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version

Spring 2001


Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 21, No. 2, Spring 2001, pp. 101-14.


Copyright 2001 by the Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln


The eradication of the vast bison herds from the North American Great Plains is one of the oldest topics in western history and, recently, also one of the most popular. Drawing ideas and methodologies from ecology and zoology, historians have revealed in the 1990s an entirely new anatomy of the destruction. According to the new interpretation, the great slaughter of the 1870s merely delivered a clinching blow to herds that had already been weakened in a number of ways. Concentrating on the Southern Plains, Dan Flores has concluded that large-scale dying may have begun as early as 1840, when a peace among Comanche, Kiowa, Plains Apache, Cheyenne, and Arapahoe opened the previously contested hunting grounds for Native hunters. A severe drought in 1846, along with exotic bovine diseases and Euro-American disturbance, brought about a full-blown crisis by mid-century. Following Flores's lead, Elliott West has revealed a similar development on the Central Plains, although he argued that the principal catalyst of the crisis was a zoological phenomenon known as "species packing." In the 1840s, thousands of white overlanders and their horses, oxen, cattle, and sheep swarmed onto the already crowded Central Plains, throwing off the delicate ecological equilibrium. Basically, there were not enough resources for everyone-the Euro-Americans, Indians, domestic herds, and bison.1

By now, these revisionist studies have become the new canon of bison ecology, which is not necessarily what the authors had had in mind. Both Flores and West intended their essays to be broadly conceived, at least partly hypothetical works that would encourage us to rethink some of the fixed notions about the buffalo's demise.2 However, New Western historians, eager to promote studies supporting their theses, hurried to sanction the two essays. Touching upon such themes as complexity of Euro-American takeover and interrelatedness of environmental and economic processes, Flores and West's writing resonated so perfectly with the core paradigms of the New Western History movement that few had the patience to wait for affirmative studies.3 This impatience is problematic because Flores and West's studies contain a number of unresolved questions that have to be answered before they can be accepted as the new standard of bison ecology.

The first question involves geographic scope. Flores's essay focuses on the regions immediately south of the upper Arkansas Basin, and West's study concentrates to the areas immediately to the north. Both are thus essentially geographically focused case studies, models for more inclusive further research. The second question involves timing, the temporal trajectory of destruction. Flores and West designated the 1840s as the critical period, witnessing the expansion of indigenous hunting following the 1840 detente, swelling overland traffic, and a prolonged dry spell. Both emphasize that starvation was Widespread by 1850, suggesting that the bison populations had declined by several hundred thousand, if not by millions, by that time. But is such a drastic decline conceivable in a mere decade? After all, drought did not begin until 1846, and the five Native groups involved in the 1840 detente can be documented as killing only slightly more than 100,000 animals a year.