Catlin has given some idea of the enormous numbers of bison that were killed during the first half of the nineteenth century (Illustrations of the Manners and Customs and Conditions of the North American Indians, London, 1841). In 1832 he stated that 150,000 to 200,000 robes were marketed annually, which meant a slaughter of 2,000,000 or perhaps 3,000,000 bison. So great was the destruction that he prophesied their extermination within eight or ten years. Frémont about the same time also bore witness to the appalling destruction.
The death knell was struck when the construction of the Union Pacific Railway was begun at Omaha in 1866. Previous to the advent of the first transcontinental railway the difficulties of marketing the results of the slaughter served as a slight check on the rate of extermination for, although the bison were being killed out at a rate greatly in excess of their natural increase, they would have existed for some years longer than the coming of the railroads and additional swarms of white hunters rendered possible. This railroad divided the original great body of bison into southern and northern herds. That was the beginning of the end. Although the range of the northern herd was about twice as extensive as that of the southern, the latter contained probably twice as many bison. Hornaday estimates that in 1871 the southern herd contained 3,000,000 animals, although most estimates give a higher total than this.
The slaughter of the southern herd began in 1871 and reached its height two years later. From 1871 to 1872 the wastefulness was prodigious. The skins that were marketed bore no indication of the enormous slaughter. In four short years the great southern herd was wiped out of existence, and by 1875 it ceased to exist.
By the time the destruction of the northern herd began in earnest, the bison in Canada had already become very scarce. The remnants of our former herds were assiduously hunted by the Indians as they constituted their main supply of food. As Hornaday states: "...the herds of British America had been almost totally exterminated by the time the final slaughter of our northern herd was inaugurated by the opening of the Northern Pacific Railway in 1880. The Canadian Pacific Railway played no part whatever in the extermination of the Bison in the British Possessions, for that extermination had already taken place. The half-breeds of Manitoba, the Plains-Cree of Qu’Appelle, and the Blackfeet of the South Saskatchewan country swept bare a great belt of country stretching east and west between the Rocky Mountains and Manitoba. The Canadian Pacific Railway found only bleaching bones in the country through which it passed. The buffalo had disappeared from that entire region before 1879 and left the Blackfeet Indians on the verge of starvation. A few thousand buffaloes still remained in the country around the headwaters of the Battle River, between the North and South Saskatchewan, but they were surrounded and attacked from all sides, and their numbers diminished very rapidly until all were killed."
The main part of the northern herd was to be found in the United States. Here the Indians of the northwestern territories were waging a relentless war on the animals. Hornaday computes that the number of bison slaughtered annually by those tribes must have been about 375,000. The destruction of the northern herd began in earnest in 1876 and became universal over the entire range four years later. By this time the annual export of robes from the buffalo country had diminished three fourths. The construction of the Northern Pacific Railway hastened the extermination of the herd. White and Indian hunters killed so long as there were buffaloes to kill. The hunting season which began in 1882 and ended in February, 1883, completed the annihilation of the great northern herd and only a few thousand head were left, broken into straggling bands. The last shipment of robes was sent out from the Dakota Territory in 1884. In 1889, Hornaday, on the basis of all available data, estimated that the number of buffalo running wild and unprotected was 635 animals! Was the destruction of an animal ever so completely brought about? It furnishes what is undoubtedly the most striking and appalling example of the fate of an animal existing in apparently inexhaustible numbers, when left exposed to unrestricted slaughter, and should be a serious lesson to the people of this continent and of the world for all time. That in the face of advancing civilization the buffalo had to go was inevitable. It occupied lands that were to furnish homes and occupation for millions of immigrants and that now produce so large a part of the world’s staple crop.
Time, however, will not efface the traces of the bisons’ occupation of the continent. They blazed the trails that later became important highways. As A.B. Hulbert in his Historic Highways of America has pointed out, the bison selected the route through the Alleghanies by which the white man entered and took possession of the Mississippi Valley. They found the best routes across the continent and "human intercourse will move constantly on paths first marked by the buffalo." It is interesting that the bison found the strategic passageways through the mountains; it is also interesting that they marked out the most practical paths between the heads of our rivers, paths that are closely followed today by the Pennsylvania, Baltimore and Ohio, Chesapeake and Ohio, Wabash, and other great railroads.