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

Linda Knight Seccaspina was born in Cowansville, Quebec about the same time as the wheel was invented and the first time she realized she could tell a tale was when she got caught passing her smutty stories around in Grade 7 at CHS by Mrs. Blinn. When Derek "Wheels" Wheeler from Degrassi Jr. High died in 2010, Linda wrote her own obituary. Some people said she should think about a career in writing obituaries. Before she laid her fingers to a keyboard, Linda owned the eclectic store Flash Cadilac and Savannah Devilles in Ottawa from 1976-1996. After writing for years about things that she cared about or pissed her off she finally found her calling. Is it sex drugs and rock n' roll you might ask? No, it is history. Seeing that her very first boyfriend in Grade 5 (who she won a Twist contest with in the 60s) is the head of the Brome Misissiquoi Historical Society and also specializes in local history back in Quebec, she finds that quite funny. She writes every single day and is also a columnist for Hometown News and Screamin's Mamas. She is a volunteer for the Carleton Place and Beckwith Heritage Museum, an admin for the Lanark County Genealogical Society Facebook page, and a local guest speaker. She has been now labelled an historian by the locals which in her mind is wrong. You see she will never be like the iconic local Lanark County historian Howard Morton Brown, nor like famed local writer Mary Cook. She proudly calls herself The National Enquirer Historical writer of Lanark County, and that she can live with. Linda has been called the most stubborn woman in Lanark County, and has requested her ashes to be distributed in any Casino parking lot as close to any Wheel of Fortune machine as you can get. But since she wrote her obituary, most people assume she's already dead. Linda has published six books, "Menopausal Woman From the Corn," "Cowansville High Misremembered," "Naked Yoga, Twinkies and Celebrities," "Cancer Calls Collect," "The Tilted Kilt-Vintage Whispers of Carleton Place," and "Flashbacks of Little Miss Flash Cadilac." All are available at Amazon in paperback and Kindle. Linda's books are for sale on Amazon or at Wisteria · 62 Bridge Street · Carleton Place, Ottawa, Canada, and at the Carleton Place and Beckwith Heritage Museum · 267 Edmund Street · Carleton Place, Ottawa, Canada--Appleton Museum-Mississippi Textile Mill and Mill Street Books and Heritage House Museum and The Artists Loft in Smith Falls.

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