The Morbid Economy of the 1800s



Photo from Web Odysseum


In December 1, 1886 issue of the Almonte Gazette it had an article about people being quite excited about having a train come from the west through our small towns. Was it carrying rare spices or interesting people? No, it was carrying bleached buffalo bones. Why would anyone get excited about bleached buffalo bones? So after I did some research I came up with some pretty interesting tidbits from Bloomberg View.


The completion of the first transcontinental railway in 1869 divided the Great Plains in two. Some of its earliest passengers were buffalo hunters, and as they spread out from the railroad’s embankments, the vast buffalo herds were divided, as well.

It marked the beginning of their end. By the tens, perhaps even the hundreds, of millions, the animals were killed for their skins, which were then easily transported to the coasts for the fashionable classes to buy. One man boasted of taking down 1,500 buffalo in a week — 250 in a single day.

The first hunters got as much as $10 per skin. As more sought to cash in, the price plummeted to $1. Still, very good money for the era.

On the other hand, the buffalo skinners, those who followed the hunters and did the dirty work, were paid only a small percentage, plus all the buffalo meat they cared to eat. They went for the tenderloins and tongues and left the rest to rot. Vultures, like the hunters, enjoyed a few bounty years.

Then the herds were gone. Homesteaders arrived to a landscape white with buffalo skeletons. These would become, in many cases, their first harvest. “The prairies of the Northwest are covered with the bleached bones of the countless dead,” a New York Times correspondent wrote in December 1884, “and here commerce steps in again to ask for something else: the very last remnant there is left of an annihilated race.”

Animal bones were useful things in the 19th century. Dried and charred, they produced a substance called bone black. When coarsely crushed, it could filter impurities out of sugar-cane juice, leaving a clear liquid that evaporated to produce pure white sugar — a lucrative industry. Bone black also made a useful pigment for paints, dyes and cosmetics, and acted as a dry lubricant for iron and steel forgings.


Photo from: Rare Historical Photos


Fresh bones could be boiled to extract gelatin for food, glues and photographic emulsions. Their leached husks, rich in phosphorous, were one of the first industrial fertilizers.

And so the homesteaders gathered the buffalo bones. It was easy work: Children could do it. Carted to town, a ton of bones fetched a few dollars. Sent to rendering plants and furnaces in the big industrial cities, that same ton was worth between $18 and $27. Boiled, charred, crushed or powdered, it was worth as much as $60.

A former bone trader named M.I. McCreight calculated that at least $40 million worth of bones was purchased by the processing plants in all — about $1 billion in today’s dollars. “A rather sizable pay-roll,” he noted dryly in his memoir, “to have escaped the notice of history writers.”

The gathering of bones traced the routes of the railroads. Swaths of land 40 miles to each side of the tracks would be picked bare; newspaper reports from the 1870s, aiming to amuse their citified readers, spun corn-pone tales of farmers bringing in “bumper crops.”

By the 1880s, however, a few reporters were expressing nervous awe at the scale of the cleansing, and even despair for what had been lost. In 1891, not 25 years after the slaughter began, the Chicago Daily Tribune ran a dispatch titled “Relics of the Buffalo.” The relics were the animals’ empty pathways and dust wallows, worn into the surface of the Manitoba plains over countless years. The bones, let alone the living creatures, were long gone.

In reports from the era, the full cost of the buffalo-bone trade is usually revealed by the things not said. No note of lament or irony can be found in a 1907 Washington Post story describing the peculiar nature of Seneca Street in Topeka, Kansas. In the 1880s, it was “paved with buffalo skulls” thrown aside by the bone traders — big but hollow, they weren’t worth the space they took up in boxcars. “In light of subsequent values this was the most expensive pavement on earth,” the writer observed, for by 1907 buffalo remains had become collectors’ items, and “a pair of buffalo horns and the head of an animal of that breed will easily bring $400.”-Bloomberg View


Come and visit the Lanark County Genealogical Society Facebook page– what’s there? Cool old photos–and lots of things interesting to read.

Information where you can buy all Linda Seccaspina’s books-You can also read Linda in Hometown News and now in The Townships Sun

About lindaseccaspina

Before she laid her fingers to a keyboard, Linda was a fashion designer, and then owned the eclectic store Flash Cadilac and Savannah Devilles in Ottawa on Rideau Street from 1976-1996. She also did clothing for various media and worked on “You Can’t do that on Television”. After writing for years about things that she cared about or pissed her off on American media she finally found her calling. She is a weekly columnist for the Sherbrooke Record and documents history every single day and has over 6500 blogs about Lanark County and Ottawa and an enormous weekly readership. Linda has published six books and is in her 4th year as a town councillor for Carleton Place. She believes in community and promoting business owners because she believes she can, so she does.

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