Recycling on the Plains: Buffalo Bones for Fertilizer

It's All Trew: Buffalo bones recycled as fertilizer and feed additive provided both additional nutrients and cash for settler families.

| August 2007

  • Familybonemill.jpg
    Montgomery Ward’s family bone mill.
  • Buffalo bones for tansport
    Mounds of bones destined for shipment by rail in 1885.
  • Buffalo skulls
    This mountain of buffalo skulls and bones was photographed in Kansas in the 1880s.
  • DelbertandRuthTrew.jpg

  • Familybonemill.jpg
  • Buffalo bones for tansport
  • Buffalo skulls
  • DelbertandRuthTrew.jpg

The whys and wherefores of the near-extinction of the buffalo will be long debated with no clear conclusions accepted. Most writings of the time dwell on the waste and carnage; many Western movies show the prairies covered with the carcasses of slain animals.

There was waste and carnage to be sure, but not all was wasted. Many a carnivore and hungry predator made a good living following the hunters. Buffalo meat built railroads, mined gold and silver, fed tribes, armies, explorers, wagon trains and early settlers. Buffalo hides made robes and commercial belting to drive the machines of manufacturing in the east. Buffalo horns and hooves produced glue, and the hair of the beasts was used as furniture stuffing.

Before, during and for a short time after the big buffalo hunt, everyone living or traveling on the Great Plains burned buffalo chips for heat and cooking. Settler women and children dragged washtubs across the surrounding prairie gathering buffalo chips, a crude but undeniably economical fuel.

As the buffalo herds diminished and weather took its toll, and as Texas cattle herds began moving north, the buffalo chip was replaced by the longhorn chip. About that time, the bleached bones of the buffalo, found almost everywhere on the prairie, began selling by the ton to be made into fertilizer and live-stock feed additives. In reality, the easy availability of bones was a godsend.

Settler families, hard-pressed for cash, switched from gathering chips to gathering buffalo bones. This chore not only provided much-needed cash, but also cleared grasslands for plowing. Freighters distributing supplies throughout the West began stopping at settlers' homes, purchasing piles of buffalo bones and hauling them to the nearest rail loading facility where they'd be sold for a profit.

Kansas history records the tale of a freighter who hauled two wagonloads of barbed wire to Quitaque, Texas, for Charles Goodnight. "I made more profit on the back-haul of gathered buffalo bones than I did on hauling the original cargo of barbed wire," he reported.


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