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The Buffalo Bone Pickers


      Travelers on the western plains paid little attention to the bones of the once-great herds of buffaloes that had been slaughtered and left to rot where they fell, though some complained that on sunny days the bleached bones were very glaring.

     These dismal skeletal remains would eventually dissipate. In the meantime no one gave a thought to removing them. There were simply too many, over too vast an area. A hundred million, it was estimated, extending from the Texas panhandle all the way to Canada's remote Northwestern border.

     In May 1879 a St. Louis firm announced that it would purchase buffalo bones and suddenly, an enterprise was born that was to last until the prairies had been picked clean of the bleached skeletons.

     Researchers for this firm, the giant of the period's soap, paint and chemical industry, had discovered that buffalo hooves and horns could be made into a principal ingredient of paints and adhesives. A skeleton's plain bones could be pulverized and mixed with potash, ferrous compounds and nitrates and made into fertilizers capable of stimulating crop growths in the most unpromising soils.

     "We will pay $8 per ton, cash on the barrel head, for plain bones at our railhead depots and $14 per ton for hooves and horns," posters, which the company's field men nailed over the plains regions, announced.

     These prices, and the ease with which the skeletons could be found, started hundreds of men and boys in the business of "bone picking." It was often a family enterprise, pa, his sons, and grandpa and sometimes uncles and male cousins and nephews, worked in a share-the-money teams. a typical family bone-picking crew went onto the prairies with six mule-drawn wagons, five for plain bones, one for hooves and horns.

     The pickers carried heavy ball-peen type hammers to break the skeletons, the femurs, pelvic and shoulder bones, which were to heavy to fling into a sideboard wagon. Also the big hammers were used to knock jointed bones apart, the knee, hips and shoulders, and to break vertebras into manageable sections.

     It was a leisurely way to make money to payoff the mortgage, or to buy new plows, mules, horses and livestock or even new furniture. No one, except the overtly greedy, got up early to beat someone to a bone pile. "Heck, there's bones enough to last forever," the Nebraska Historical Society reports a Platte valley farmer as saying.

     This was the attitude of nearly all of the bone pickers. It was hard to visualize a time when there wouldn't be any buffalo bones. They were everywhere, and ion tremendous quantity. You might have to wagon out a little further as time went on, but there'd always be bones.

     These seemingly unlimited skeletal remains were the result of the slaughters of the Great Plains herds, which wouldn't have occurred if there hadn't been money in it and there wasn't money in it until eastern manufacturers began to use buffalo hides for shoe and boot leather, harnesses, saddles and buggy and furniture upholstery.

     Almost simultaneously manufacturers of carriage blankets discovered the properly tanned buffalo hides became as soft as elk hides.

     As if these discoveries weren't enough to assure depletion of the buffalo herds, eastern U.S. gourmets suddenly developed an appetite for buffalo tongues.

     Sadly for the herds, hide and tongue hunters seldom worked together, there-by casing incredible waste. No one knows how many thousands of buffalo were killed by money-hunters who cut the tongue out of each of the big beast, tossed it in a brine keg and left the buffalo's body and its hide to rot on the prairie.

     When the buffalo slaughtering began, as in the future days when bone-picking would become profitable, it appeared to an industry with inexhaustible resources. There were at least 100 million buffalo on the western plains. They were breeding all the time. It would seem strange, but true, that they were virtually exterminated in just a few money-grubbing years.

     When the slaughter was over, less than 1500 buffalo remained of the original 100 million. Now on the plains, where they once roamed, were their sun and wind-bleached skeletons, an annoyance to sod busters and ranchers.

     Then as suddenly as slaughtering buffalo had become an industry, retrieving their bones became a business in which a man could earn as much as ten dollars a day without really working up a sweat. This was big money in an era when ten dollars a week was considered an income on which a man could support a wife and children well.

     But it was inevitable that bone picking wouldn't always be an individual's or family, money making business. Fast-buck entrepreneurs got into it on a wagon-train, cheap-labor, fast pick-up, big territory basis.

     Other bone pickers made money, too. Farmers, hard-timed by the depression of the 1870s, were able to payoff debts and even buy a few luxuries. Many a frontier marriage was launched and a farm down-payment, by a hard-picking young man. Townspeople who got into the business earned more than town wages. Even city people from Kansas City, Omaha and St. Louis came to the flatlands to pick buffalo bones. Many prospered. Others, unfamiliar with the areas and confused by their distance, became lost, perishing or dying of privations. Some were murdered by rival bone pickers, there were raw hiders who had no qualms about killing a man with a full wagon. Money has always been a strong motivation.

     The business ended almost as quickly as it had begun. Suddenly, it seemed there just weren't any more bones. The plains were bone dry. And just how must did it cost to clean up the prairies? FORTY MILLION DOLLARS!