Date of this Version
Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 24, No. 2, Spring 2004, pp. 83-100.
During the 1840s and 1850s, more than 300,000 traders and overland emigrants followed the Platte and Arkansas rivers westward across the Central Plains, the winter habitat of the bison. The rapid environmental degradation of this area had the ·effect of driving the bison to the extreme Northern and Southern Plains, where white hide-hunters slaughtered the animals.1 By the mid-1870s indigenous peoples at both ends of the grasslands, in places such as the Texas Panhandle and the upper Missouri River valley, fiercely defended the dwindling herds in an attempt to avoid starvation.2
The Indians' predicament was not theirs alone, however, as Native efforts at self-preservation posed a significant threat to Euro-American plans for the frontier. To that end, government officials on the peripheries of the Great Plains developed a remarkably similar strategy: the use of mounted constabularies to pacify indigenous peoples. Indeed, the North-West Mounted Police were created and the Texas Rangers renewed and reorganized in the early 1870s specifically to address the pressing "native question" confronting Texas and western Canada, among the few places where bison still roamed after 1870. Of course, 'authorities in Austin and Ottawa relied on other armed forces to wrest control of their hinterlands away from indigenous peoples most notably the US Army and the Canadian militia-but no two groups rendered more effective service in this regard than the Rangers and the Mounted Police.3
Few scholars have situated the efforts of these constabularies within the context of the rapidly changing conditions for Indians on the Great Plains after 1865. Studies of the Rangers tend to regard their post-Civil War anti-Indian vigilance as merely the continuation of an inevitable conflict between incompatible cultures, while Canadian historians have overlooked the more coercive dimensions of the Mounties' duties, especially in the 1870s.4 An examination of the two forces, however, reveals that both Austin and Ottawa called on their rural police to manage indigenous populations facing societal collapse, and that the constabularies responded in similar fashion: by controlling or denying the Natives' access to the bison.