The Buffalo War

There are times when the eventualities of history turn on a single event, seemingly small and insignificant when it occurs, but pivotal in hindsight and much greater than its own individual tragedy or triumph. In the last great Indian war, The Buffalo War of the Southern Plains, before the death throes of the Cheyenne Exodus and Wounded Knee, the killing of Pat Hennessey, Irish freighter, nudged the wheel of time and set it moving inexorably toward the closing of the American West.

 

Cheyenne Buffalo Camp

The Buffalo Prairie once stretched from Canada to Mexico across the plains of North America and supported vast herds of bison that provided life and sustanance to the native tribes. As white settlers began to move into these hunting fields, hostilities became fierce and the United States government sent troops and built forts for the protection of the travelers in the region.

Agreements were made, promises were given, and treaties were signed. The Comanche, Plains Apache, Kiowa, Southern Arapaho and Southern Cheyenne tribes relinquished hunting grounds in the Medicine Lodge Treaties of 1867 in exchange for tracts of land reserved for them.

Article 1 of the Treaty with the Cheyenne and Arapaho promised that " If bad men among the whites, or among other people subject to the authority of the United States, shall commit any wrong upon the person or property of the Indians, the United States will, upon proof made to the agent and forwarded to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs at Washington City, proceed at once to cause the offender to be arrested and punished according to the laws of the United States, and also reimburse the injured person for the loss sustained.

Article 2 of the Kiowa and Comanche Treaty described the bounds of the reservation and promised that ". . . no persons except those herein authorized so to do and except such officers, agents, and employés of the Government as may be authorized to enter upon Indian reservation in discharge of duties enjoined by law, shall ever be permitted to pass over, settle upon, or reside in the territory described in this article, or in such territory as may be added to this reservation, for the use of said Indians."

A mountain of buffalo skulls

With the exception of these tracts of land set aside in Indian Territory, present day Oklahoma, the buffalo prairie was opened to settlers and buffalo hunters.

The herds were decimated. Buffalo hunters killed for food to feed the men building the railroads, killed for robes and hides, killed for sport. No one knows how many buffalo there were before the mass extermination began. Estimates of 50-60 million have been proposed but by the Run of 1889, there were fewer than 2,000 left alive. The army ignored the problem. At the height of the killing, General Philip Sheridan encouraged the buffalo hunters saying, "These men have done more in the last two years, and will do more in the next year, to settle the vexed Indian question, than the entire regular army has done in the last forty years. They are destroying the Indians' commissary."

Without food, the tribes were forced onto the reservations, dependent on rations of government beef.

There is conflicting information on just whom Pat Hennessey's provisions were intended for, even multiple possibilities for the destination fort, but it was the transportation of food that fueled the final events of the closing of the West.