Whither the bison: What happened to the Prairies' once-mighty herds?

Where did the bison go? How could so many disappear in a few decades?

How could so many bison disappear in a few decades?

Bison bones are loaded into a Canadian Pacific Railway boxcar. (Library and Archives Canada - PA066544)

Historian Bill Waiser's many books include In Search of Almighty Voice: Resistance and Reconciliation (2020).

They are some of the most arresting photographs from Saskatchewan's past: Tens of thousands of dried, bleached bison bones, stacked like cordwood along rail lines, waiting to be loaded into boxcars.

The bones serve as testimony to the near-extinction of the bison, with the popular story being that the animals were wantonly slaughtered by white hunters, madly firing their guns from passing trains.

That story, though, is an American one, simply applied to Canada.

It never happened north of the border because the bison herds were effectively gone from the Saskatchewan territory by 1879. The Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) was not built across the Canadian Prairies until 1881 and completed four years later.

The first CPR passenger train did not reach Pile of Bones — later renamed Regina in honour of Queen Victoria — until August 1883.

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If passengers on that first train were shooting at anything, it was more likely gophers.

It has been estimated that the northern plains of the western interior likely supported from five to six million bison in the early 19th century. By the 1860s two-thirds were gone. (Bill Waiser)

What happened to the bison?

It has been estimated that the northern plains of the western interior likely supported from five to six million bison in the early 19th century. By the 1860s, though, two-thirds of the animals were gone.

As Methodist missionary George McDougall gloomily summed up the situation along the upper North Saskatchewan River: "A time of starvation. No buffalo."

Where did the bison go? How could so many disappear in a few decades?

Bison were once the mainstay of subsistence lifestyle for the First Nations on the northern Prairies. And their demise had a direct bearing on the history of Indigenous and non-Indigenous relations in Western Canada in the latter half of the 19th century.

Bison decline

The largest consumer of bison meat was the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC). The dozens of company posts across the Canadian northwest, along with the incoming and outgoing canoe brigades, ran on pemmican–dried, pounded bison meat, mixed with fat and sometimes berries. Pemmican not only packed a caloric punch, it could be stored for years.

The Canadian grasslands served as a kind of pantry for HBC operations. Here, hundreds of thousands of pounds of bison meat were processed annually for the trade. Canadian historian George Colpitts has even suggested in his book, Pemmican Empire, that HBC provisioning posts were more like abattoirs.

First Nations bands supplied bison meat to the HBC by working their bison pounds intensively or hunting the herds from horseback. The Métis were also vitally involved. Families from Red River travelled out onto the plains every summer in large cart caravans. Once they located the herds, their hunts were a marvel of co-ordination and skill.

This William Perehudoff piece illustrates hunting bison from horseback in the mid-19th century. (Saskatchewan Archives Board/S-MN-B 3118)

These hunting pressures eventually took a toll on the bison. Herds began to contract southwestward, while the overall number of animals began a steep decline.

The Cree responded to this crisis by travelling southward to the Cypress Hills region and present-day northern Montana, and the Poplar and Milk Rivers, where they often clashed with the Blackfoot over the dwindling bison herds. The Métis also began to winter inland to be closer to the herds.

At its northern posts, the HBC even tried making pemmican from caribou. 

By the time the region became part of the Dominion of Canada in 1870, hunger stalked the northern plains.

After a visit to the region during the 1873 field season, Dr. Alfred R.C. Selwyn, director of the Geological Survey of Canada, reported: "The discontent and uneasiness at present, prevailing amongst the Indians, [is] almost entirely a question of the future supply of food … the extermination of the buffalo means starvation and death."

Bison an issue at treaty

During the Treaty Six negotiations in 1876, First Nation leaders talked about possible famine and the need for government support as they made the transition from hunting to farming. They also wanted something done about the shrinking bison herds.

When Treaty Commissioner Alexander Morris met with the Willow Cree near Duck Lake in late August 1876, much of the discussion dealt with the disappearance of the bison.

"I am alarmed when I look at the buffalo," one councillor told Morris. "It appears to me as if there is only one."

Chief Beardy was equally anxious about the bison and suggested that special steps be taken to preserve and manage the remaining animals.

"I do not want very much more than what has been promised, only a little thing," Beardy pleaded. "On account of the buffalo, I am getting anxious."

Bison numbers were in steep decline by the 1860s. (Adrian Paton)

Senior Cree Chief Sweetgrass also raised concerns about the disappearing bison at the Treaty Six meeting at Fort Pitt in early September 1876. Sweetgrass had first raised the alarm in April 1871, telling the lieutenant governor for the Northwest Territories: "Our country is no longer able to support us." Five years later, he was still waiting for action.

Ultimately, Treaty Six did not contain any specific provisions regarding bison protection; there was only Morris's word during the deliberations that government action would be forthcoming.

The 1877 bison protection ordinance

On March 22, 1877, at the end of the first — and only — meeting of the North-West Territories Council at Fort Livingstone, near present-day Pelly, Sask., Lt.-Gov. David Laird proclaimed 10 ordinances, including No. 5: "An Ordinance for the Protection of the Buffalo."

The bison protection ordinance contained regulations about what animals could be hunted (especially around females and calves), how they were to be hunted (such as pounds and jumps) and when they could be hunted (including closed seasons). Any person "in circumstance of personal necessity" could also kill any bison at any time for "immediate wants." The ordinance also dealt with the reporting and prosecution of anyone in violation of the regulations.

LISTEN | Historian Bill Waiser shares bison history 

From the beginning, there was uncertainty around whether the regulations could be effectively enforced. It was never clear how the North-West Mounted Police (NWMP) were going to incorporate the monitoring of the bison herds into their many other duties. All the Mounties could really do was depend on informants — and only after animals had been killed. 

There was also opposition to the regulations. The Métis, who lived by the hunt, saw it as an attack on their livelihood. First Nations were equally alarmed. They had asked that the bison be protected for their benefit — not that their own hunting activities be controlled.

The new rules were a classic example of newcomers thinking they knew what was best. First Nations leaders were not consulted during the framing of the bison protection ordinance. 

Ironically, it was the fugitive Sitting Bull who asked cryptically in response to the new law: "When did the Almighty give the Canadian government the right to keep the Indians from killing the buffalo?"

He might also have asked, given the starving condition of his band at the time: What buffalo?

Starvation summer of 1879

The bison protection ordinance made little difference to the fate of the bison. Except for a few small herds that occasionally wandered north into Canadian territory, they were essentially gone from the northern plains by 1879. 

Many in the West believed that the bison would be lost one day, but it was supposed to be years away. Assistant NWMP Commissioner James Macleod was personally shocked by how suddenly it happened. So too was the new Indian Commissioner Edgar Dewdney, who claimed in his first annual report that the "disappearance of the buffalo had taken the Government as much by surprise as the Indians."

It was quite an understatement. Dewdney toured the northwest during the summer of 1879, and, according to his diary, was forever encountering First Nations groups anxious about how they were going to survive the coming winter.

Indian Commissioner Edgar Dewdney pursued a 'sheer compulsion' policy. (Saskatchewan Archives Board/G.F. Shepherd Fonds)

Henriette Forget, the wife of Amédée-Emmanuel Forget, clerk for the North-West Territories Council (and Saskatchewan's first lieutenant-governor), also kept a record of how the disappearance of the bison was playing out at the new territorial capital at Battleford. 

"Rumours of starvation, from different parts of the country," Henriette wrote in late April 1879. "The buffalo having disappeared rendered the condition of the Indians most deplorable, what a question to solve."

Dewdney knew the answer. Even though he was not responsible for the disappearance of the bison, Dewdney deliberately used the crisis for his own purposes. He called his policy, "sheer compulsion."

Dewdney withheld rations from First Nation bands who had refused to take treaty or had left their reserves. This hard-hearted policy starved Big Bear and his followers into submission, and after holding out for six years, the chief reluctantly entered treaty at Fort Walsh in December 1882. 

Dewdney also insisted that if treaty bands wanted provisions, then they had to take up their reserves. And once on their reserves, if bands wanted to be fed, then they had to work for rations. Dewdney was prepared to do whatever was necessary to gain the upper hand over First Nation bands, regardless of the treaty agreements.

Bison bone market

By the late 19th century, bison bones were in great demand for the fertilizer industry. There was no shortage of American buyers. The North-West Fertilizing Company, of Chicago, for example, offered $19 per ton in the fall of 1888 — a price that Wisconsin's Janesville Carbon Chemical Works gladly matched.

Supplying bison bones to fertilizer manufacturers was relatively easy money. Millions of skeletal remains littered the Prairie landscape. They had accumulated over hundreds of years. It was a simple matter of collecting and stockpiling the bones at railway sidings along the railway and then loading them in boxcars. 

There was a certain irony to the business. The bones of the once-great bison herds — herds that had fed people for generations — were being cleared away for a new agricultural industry that was to turn the Western Interior into Canada's breadbasket.

Breaking the Prairie sod. (University of Saskatchewan Archives and Special Collections/R. Wall Fonds/MG284)


Historian Bill Waiser’s many books include In Search of Almighty Voice: Resistance and Reconciliation (2020).