Old bones

Monday, April 9, 2012

The American Bison, or Buffalo, has been called the most important wild animal in the development of North America. It was the greatest source of food (and most other necessities -- clothing, shelter, tools) of the Plains Indians, and it served the same function for the early white explorers.

The bison herds roamed the western plains in huge numbers -- estimated at 60-100 million animals, from Canada to Mexico, from the Rockies to as far to the east as Pennsylvania. Early travelers reported seeing vast herds reaching from horizon to horizon, as far as the eye could see. The western plains of Nebraska were at the heart of this "buffalo country."

All this changed in an amazingly short period of time following the Civil War. Professional hunters were engaged by the railroads, the Army and other government agencies to kill buffalo. Some were slaughtered for the meat for the crews who were pushing the railroads across the country -- and suddenly eastern markets developed an insatiable appetite for clothing made from buffalo hides, and for buffalo tongues (which were rumored to have aphrodisian properties). In the early '70s, the period of time when Buffalo Bill acquired his reputation (and nickname for his skill in killing buffalo), it was not uncommon for a lone gunman to kill 150 buffalo without once leaving his hiding place. In a short two-year period 4 million animals were killed and their hides shipped out on the Sante Fe Railroad (as just one example) -- their carcasses left on the ground to rot. Some say it was part of the Government plan to control the Indians. Whatever the reason, by the late 1800s those 60 million buffalo had been reduced to (an estimated) 1000 animals, spread out over several states.

By 1883 the hills and valleys of Southwestern Nebraska were covered with buffalo skeletons, which lay bleaching in the sun. Eastern sources were making it known there was a demand for those buffalo bones, which could be ground up and used for fertilizer, or used in some way in the process of refining sugar. The horns of the buffalo, while rough and scaly in the natural condition, were susceptible to accepting a high polish, "and under the hands of a man who knows the trick, they can be made into attractive wall ornaments, and when well finished resemble ebony."

Collecting these bones and selling them was one way the early settlers in Southwest Nebraska had of making a few dollars of real cash.

A sign nailed to a post at a local rail station read, "We will pay $8 a ton, cash on the barrelhead, for plain bones at our railroad depots and $14 a ton for hooves and horns." At every railroad siding one might see huge piles of bones -- some of them hundreds of feet long, awaiting shipment to the east. Collecting bones was a leisurely way to make money to pay off a mortgage, or to buy new plows or horses and mules, or even new furniture. No one, except the exceptionally greedy ever got up early to beat someone to a bone pile. A report at the Nebraska Historical Society quoted a Platte Valley farmer, "Heck, there's bones enough to last forever."

For a few years it seemed as if the region had tapped into an inexhaustible supply of bones that would make everybody rich, without too much work. Farmers, who were hurt by the depression of the 1870s were able to pay off mortgages. Many a frontier marriage was financed, and a down payment made on a farm, by a hard- picking ambitious young man. Townspeople even got into the bone- picking business, when they found that a man could quite easily earn $10 a day picking up bones. This $10 a day was viewed as something quite grand, in the time when $10/week was considered enough to support a man and his family!

Pickers even came from the cities, Omaha, Kansas City, and Chicago. Some prospered. But some lost their lives. "Raw-hiders" had no qualms about killing a lone picker with a full wagon load of bones, then marketing his haul as their own.

In the July 3, 1883, edition of the McCook Tribune, there was a story that three McCook area men, John Stone, Charles Bowles, and W.S. Fitch, had set out on an expedition to collect buffalo bones, which was referred to as "boning." (Note: William S. Fitch was one of the McCook area's first settlers. A friend of Buffalo Bill, Mr. Fitch operated a trading post southwest of McCook in one of the first two-story houses in this part of the state.)

Usually two men joined forces for these boning expeditions, but occasionally one man would go alone. It was a lonely venture, even for two. By 1883, to journey to where the bones had not been gathered, meant a trip to a place far from habitation. The lone "boner" filled his wagon and hauled the bones to the nearest railway siding, very often many miles away. The country was devoid of settlers, and the bone gatherer often traveled for days on the open prairie without seeing another human being.

From the Tribune: "At night the "boner" camped near a stream or river, as water was indispensable for his animals -- horses or mules if he could afford them, otherwise oxen. At night he tethered his animals, cooked his evening meal over a fire fueled by buffalo chips, wrapped himself in his blanket and slept beneath the stars.

The life was lonely and monotonous, yet fraught with danger. Any trivial accident, if there was no help around could prove to be serious ... The body of a "boner" was found in his wagon on the Frenchman Creek this spring after he had gone on his quest last fall. It was not known how he met his fate -- whether quickly, painlessly, or as a result of injury or a crime, or after a lingering illness." Another item, "... a lone "boner" lost his horses, which were found in the possession of two thieves. The "boner" had been left stranded many miles from civilization, and had he not been found, on the second day, by a party of hunters his plight might have been indeed grave."

Ray Search, who was a boy in the early 1900s, recalled that he and his friends sometimes went out on bone-gathering outings -- more as a lark than a serious occupation. Still, they were able to recover some bones, usually at an isolated buffalo wallow. For their efforts they could earn a few dollars. These bones they sold to the brother of Banker, Pat Walsh, who acted as a buyer for Eastern interests, and had his place of business on West Second between B and C Streets.

By Ray Search's time Mr. Walsh had expanded his business into buying used metal, but still was a ready buyer for all the buffalo bones the boys could bring in.

These bones he added to a sizable pile on the lot beside his business, awaiting the time to be shipped out by rail.

Almost as suddenly as the bone picking business began, it ended. Suddenly it seemed that there were just no more bones to be found on the prairie. The prairies had been picked clean. And just how much did it cost to make this dramatic clean-up?

It is estimated that buyers paid out some $40 million to the bone pickers in a span of a little over 10 years -- $40 million to have the Plains cleared of buffalo bones. Some have viewed this as a bargain.

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