The buffalo bone trade was lucrative on the Prairies

Leith Knight
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Moose Jaw -

In frontier Moose Jaw, the next best industry to railroading was the gathering and shipping of buffalo bones.
Few people realize the magnitude of the bone industry on the Great Plains.
It began in the American West when settlers discovered that bones were worth a few dollars per ton in the eastern States, where they were made into phosphate fertilizer and into carbon used in the refining of sugar.
The bone boom on the Canadian Prairies started soon after the arrival of the railroad and the first settlers. Initially carloads were shipped from Regina in 1883, and were soon followed by shipments from Moose Jaw, Swift Current, Medicine Hat and Calgary.
When the rails reached Saskatoon in 1890, bone gathering became that settlement's leading industry. In fact, by that time buffalo bones were the Prairies' largest export.
The bone industry was a great help to the homesteaders through the successive crop failure years of the 1890s. For many, bones were the first cash "crop" and enabled them to meet expenses until the newly cultivated land yielded.
George Tuxford, a pioneer of the Tuxford district, wrote: "In 1882 they say the prairie was simply covered with skeletons . . . and you can still (c 1890) come across an old skull and bones here and there."
The earliest mention of commercial bone gathering in the Moose Jaw area appeared in the Moose Jaw News in the fall of 1884: "Mr. Doolittle who has been in town for some time past collecting buffalo bones for a Philadelphia firm, shipped three carload to that place last night."
At first bone gathering was confined to areas close to railroad shipping points. Gradually, the area extended as the prairies were gleaned and the trails to the bone fields sometimes reached 100 miles in length. Coulees and cutbanks where herds of buffalo might have stampeded to their deaths were especially fruitful, often yielding from 40 to 50 tons of bone.
The most effective method of gathering bones was to set fire to the prairie grass in early spring or late summer in order to expose the white bones.
By 1886 the buffalo bone industry on the Canadian prairies was shifting into high gear. In July 1886, the Saskatchewan Herald of Battleford reported: "Mr. A. Blair has handed over 100 tons of bones at Pense this season already, besides large quantities at Belle Plaine and other points west."
Since 100 assorted skeletons made a ton of bones, Blair's delivery to Pense represented 10,000 buffalo.
One of Moose Jaw's bone dealers was Felix Plante, whose general emporium was appropriately called the Buffalo Store. The Regina Leader reported the "enterprising merchant, Mr. Plante, is doing a large business in buffalo bones, averaging 25 carts daily."
Sometimes there just wasn't enough boxcars to handle the bone harvest, and large stacks accumulated beside the tracks at shipping points. Usually these bones were piled in the shape and size of a boxcar, with skulls forming the outside walls and the smaller bones tossed in the centre.
An early resident of Estevan recalled that from a distance these heaps looked like fences of snow.
At Moose Jaw, such piles accumulated along the CPR tracks just west of the station and were loaded by pitch forks into open boxcars,
From Parkbeg it was reported that in June 1891, bone pickers "have formed quite a colony here and have a large stack of bones piled alongside the track ready for shipment."
Loads of buffalo bones were dumped along the right-of-way of the Soo Line even before that rail line was built, and when it was finished in 1893, bones made up its first cargo.
In 1893 the bone business came to an abrupt end when eastern importers, caught in a financial panic, refused to accept further bone shipments.
However, by this time the prairies had been picked clean and the last buffalo bone harvest was over.
The total tonnage of buffalo bones gathered on the Canadian prairies is unknown.
James Leslie's records showed that he shipped 750 carloads from Saskatoon, and he estimated that the total number of carloads gong from that point alone was between 3,000 and 3,500.
A similar number was probably shipped from every major loading point, including Moose Jaw.
Translated into animals, all the carloads shipped from Moose Jaw likely represented well over a million buffalo, and is indicative of the extent of what author and historian Grant MacEwan has called "the most spectacular slaughter of wild animals in world history."

Organizations: Canadian Prairies, Moose Jaw News, Saskatchewan Herald Buffalo Store Soo Line

Geographic location: Moose Jaw, Saskatoon, Great Plains Eastern States Swift Current Medicine Hat Calgary Philadelphia Belle Plaine Parkbeg

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Recent comments

  • Elizabeth Beckett
    December 14, 2015 - 22:20

    I just saw the Kent Monkman Installation at the Gardiner in Toronto. My complete lack of knowledge of this history led me to your informative article. Thank you. e

  • jkalexandra
    March 17, 2015 - 20:13

    i'm sorry it's just that my son is mad he didn't mean to say that you'r stupid

  • jkalexandra
    March 17, 2015 - 20:11

    you'r really STUPID YOLO

  • Janet Olson
    May 30, 2012 - 02:19

    Mr. George Doolittle was my Great Grandfather. I have an newspaper article taken from the Moose Jaw News, Nov. 7th, 1884, written in the "Saddle, Sleighs and Sadirons of Chestermere, Alberta which is what you have written in your article. To find out more about him do they have earlier newspapers to look at? How is that done when one is living far away?