Skin and Bones: The Decimation of the Plains Buffalo


  • Nancy Phillips



In the 16th century, North America (Turtle Island) was home to 25 to 30 million buffalo roaming freely on the Great Plains, but by the end of the late 19th century only a few hundred remained. After European contact, a combination of ecological changes, species pressure and disease created tension between the buffalo herds and threatened their survival. However, the dramatic decrease associated with the buffalo is ultimately attributed to human agency. Unofficial military policy, sport-hunting, and a capitalistic hunger for resources brought the once plentiful herds to near extinction in just a few decades. The decimation of the buffalo was encouraged by both the American and Canadian governments because it was viewed as a solution to the “Indian problem” – Indigenous people were thought to be easier to control if their main source of subsistence had vanished. Fundamentally, the means by which the buffalo were slowly eradicated from the Great Plains had a profound influence on the lives of Indigenous peoples and offers an insight into Indigenous-Settler relations during the 19th century.