In 1870, James McKay, a well-known Red River half-breed trader and hunter, reported that during the 1850s he had traveled for twenty days through a continuous herd of buffalo. The herd was so large that for as far as he could see on all sides was the landscape, black with the animals. However, by 1870, the construction of the railroads and the pressure of white hunters had decimated the buffalo on the plains.
It was said by many if the buffalo were left unmolested, and the Indians and half-breeds were allowed to hunt them the way that they had always done, the buffalo would have lasted forever and the natives would have stayed strong. But the building of the railroad was the death knell for the buffalo and for the Indigenous people who relied on them.
While it is certain that the Red River half-breeds hunted them in immense numbers, they were not to blame for the destruction of the buffalo on the plains. The true cause of the destruction of the buffalo was committed over a short period of time by the American “pot-and-hide hunters”. These men, in order to gratify the cravings of wealthy citizens for tongues and hides, were formed into large parties, with lavish outfits supplied by eastern firms who used the railroads to transport countless white hunters, under who the work of extermination speedily began.
The white hunters and their financiers saw profit, and then the havoc became truly stupendous. The hunters' were given the best weapons, and their methods were so systematic, that the very skinning of the buffalo they slaughtered was done by horse-power. The dead buffalo were fastened to a stake and an incision was made, after which a span of horses was hitched to the hide, and off it came. The hides were then shipped to the nearest railway points in wagons, and the carcasses were left to rot upon the ground. In this way it is estimated that in three years nearly six million animals were destroyed.
This destruction went on all over the plains from Manitoba to Texas. It was reported that during one winter, there were so many carcasses of slaughtered buffalo that a man could go along the banks of the Frenchman Creek for fifty miles by simply jumping from one carcass to another.
Once the buffalo were almost gone, it was a simple task for the government agents and land speculators to force the Indians and half-breeds into taking scrip, signing treaties, and moving onto reservations, because the only other choice was starvation. It was an act of genocide and a great evil of colonialism in North America.
Mair, C. (1891). The American Bison: Its Habits, Method of Capture and Economic Use in the North-west. (From) the Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada, volume VIII, section II, 1890.