The buffalo – the common name for the American bison – is both a symbol of the Old West and the North American continent and has been a living component in some Western films. The bison has been traditionally respected by Plains Indigenous cultures and in the 19th century was central to both Plains tribal culture and sustenance. The Indigenous peoples of that region would draw upon the animal for everything from food to leather and ceremoniously honored the buffalo for having given its life to their people.

By the 1870s, as US nation-state expansion continued westward, many US federal officials had begun to encourage white hunters to kill the buffalo be it for sport, meat or hides. The slaughter of the buffalo accelerated when eastern US tanneries – where skins are made into leather – began to buy buffalo hides. In addition to using the skins for clothing and rugs, the skins were also turned into industrial machine belts for the steam-driven pulley system in factories of the time. Buffalo hides were also part of a large export market to Europe.

Commercial hunting outfits took far more bison than Plains tribes or individual hunters. It has been argued that for-profit buffalo hunting operations in the 1870s took from 2,000 up to 100,000 animals per day on the Plains. In contrast to the Plains tribes use of the entire animal, the non-Indigenous hunters would typically just take the buffalo skins and leave the remainder of the animal to decay where it lay.

 1870s photo of buffalo skulls to be ground into fertilizer.

Conservative estimates speculate the American bison to number 25 to 30 million at the time of European arrival. In the mid-1870s more than 10 million buffalo were killed with just around 2000 left by end of the century. The US Army approved of the slaughter of the bison as it knew that would weaken the resistance of the Plains tribes against moving onto reservations. Railroad companies also wanted the buffalo reduced as herds could damage trains in a collision.

In terms of portrayals in Westerns, the buffalo are part of the first communications in Dances with Wolves (1990) between Lieutenant Dunbar (Kevin Costner) and the Lakota. In this this well-known scene (with actors Graham Greene and Rodney Grant) the image of the buffalo is part of their first verbal exchanges.

Dunbar will be drawn into the life of the Lakota group after he locates a herd of bison and takes part in the hunt – this next scene gives a sense of the power of the buffalo (and demonstrates a number of impressive riders on horseback).

Buffalo Bill – who helped to create a framework for both the rodeo and Western films with his Wild West shows – gained his name for his skill in hunting buffalo for the army and railroads. By the end of the 19th century he called for them to be saved.

Facing the Storm: Story of the American Bison is a 2011 documentary film that explores the history of the bison on this continent – here is a trailer for that film:

(Copyright – Chad Beharriell)


  1. Thanks for your comment/visit, Reza. I enjoyed your post about Seven Men from Now (1956) on your own blog…looks like an interesting site with its exploration of arts & culture.

    Take care,

  2. Very interesting post Chad, and that image of the mountain of skulls is quite startling.
    Relatively few westerns have dealt head on with the slaughter of the buffalo and its pivotal role in shaping the course of history. Have you seen Richard Brooks’ The Last Hunt? It’s well worth checking out in this context.

  3. Thanks for the note, Colin. I will research that film you mention – much appreciated.

    Next week the PBS series Independent Lens will be airing that documentary that I link to in this post – the series typically runs on Thursdays. I will be doing a follow-up post to let those interested know about it.

    Thanks again,

  4. Full disclaimer: I love bison meat, it is by far the most tasty thing to eat.
    I agree the image of the skulls is startling. It is surreal. Interesting how the story of the buffalo mirrors the story of First Nations in many ways…maybe that was the point of the documentary. On a grander level, it mirrors the story of many things in this world affected by the March of Progress Ltd.

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