In 1865 thirteen million buffalo roam the Great Plains. This vast untouched wilderness divides America but the rail road cuts through the continent. And on the trains come a million unemployed Civil War veterans.
Their targets are the 900 kilo buffalo, each capable of stampeding at 55km an hour and crushing man and beast before them. So hunters shoot from 180m. A good shot aims for the lungs and drops the target without the rest of the herd even noticing. In this way, 8,000 buffalo a day are slaughtered. And they’re all killed just for their hides. Worth $3 each, one million are shipped out in 1872 from Kansas alone. The long strips of buffalo leather are used in Northern factories as drive belts, and other pieces become coats and shoes.
The Native American tribes on the Plains had depended on the buffalo.
“The buffalo were our strength. From whence we came, and at whose breast we suck as babies all our lives.” Black Elk
The buffalos’ sinews become bow strings, bones become cups and spoons, and its skin is used for clothing, tepees and coffins. Native Americans have co-existed with them since the last Ice Age. In just a few decades, the source of their entire culture is destroyed. In 1865, thirteen million buffalo roamed. By 1889, just 85 wild buffalo exist in the whole of the United States.
COWBOYS AND FARMERS
“For a brief moment the cowboy was king of the West…(He) was created and sustained by the railroad.” Hugh Brogan
Cattle replace buffalo. In Texas, there’s six million. Worth only $4 there, they’re worth ten times that back east. But in 1868, the rail-road stops 1600km short of the herds. To transport them across the west, the cowboy is born. After the civil war, 60% of the South’s population lives in rural poverty. You could either farm, or try to find work as one of the 35,000 cowboys around which now iconic towns like Dodge City are born. For a dollar a day they need to be skilled horseman enough to guide wild herds prone to stampede through even wilder lands: And good enough with a gun to fight off rustlers after their $200,000 herds. In 1873, Colt releases the six shooter, Colt 45, also known as ‘The Peacemaker’. It costs $17, half a cowboy’s monthly salary, with its six bullets costing half a day’s pay.
“Abe Lincoln may have freed all men, but Sam Colt made them equal” Post Civil War slogan
One out of three cowboys is Hispanic or African Americans. Many, such as Nat Love, go from slavery to a dangerous, but undeniable freedom:
The buffalo and other game, the Indians, the delight of living, and the fights against death that caused every nerve to tingle, and the everyday communion with men, whose minds were as broad as the plains they roamed, and whose creed was every man for himself and every friend for each other, and with each other till the end.
But barbed wire signals the end of the cowboy’s way of life. In just twenty years, two and a half million settlers have covered over 2 million square km of open range with farms, setting cattle rancher against homesteader. In the same year Colt releases the gun that will make the ‘Wild West’ famous, an unknown farmer invents something that will end forever the cowboy. In autumn 1873, Joseph Glidden, using a coffee grinder, crudely fashions some steel bars, and binds some barbs between two lengths of wire. His barbed wire design divides the plains into farms and ranches and blocks the cattle trails. Within 10 years, Glidden sells enough barbed wire to go around the world, 25 times. The open plains end forever.