Howard Terpning
The Last Buffalo

The Last Buffalo 

The Last Buffalo
A Limited Edition Print
by artist Howard Terpning
Edition size:1000
Image size: 32"w x 19 1/8"h

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Buffalo numbers (early 1800's population estimates of 45 million to over 60 million with herds described as up to 25 miles long) were already beginning to decline during the heyday of the robe trade as Indians slaughtered them. to sell their woman-finished skins to the white man. The real slaughter began in the early 1870's, however, when commercial use was found for the untanned "flint" hides. At first neither Indian nor white man believed the great herds could be killed out; the buffalo seemed as many as the grains of sand. But by 1873 they were almost gone from the middle plains region, along the Republican and Arkansas rivers. Hunters based out of Dodge City, Kansas, next moved south into Texas, where by the late 1870s they had wiped out the southern herd. By 1883 the last large herd containing about 10,000 buffalo was slaughtered on the northern plains.. By 1890, less than 1000 buffalo remained in the U.S.

Indian attempts to stop the hunters were in vain. Though official policy forbade the hide harvest, officials winked at it. Military reasoning was that if the buffalo were removed, the Indian would at last be forced to reservations. Moral judgments aside, that proved to be good prophecy.

For a time the Indians held out hope that the buffalo had retreated into a hole in the ground, the same hole from which tribal legends said they had first appeared.

It was their darkest hour. The white man's promises had all proved empty, and the People were sick and hungry and with- out hope. Their land was lost to them, replaced by the wretchedness of the reservation, and the buffalo were all gone. For political purposes, the government cut the food rations of the People, and the crops they had planted withered in the dry prairie ground. Illness and epidemics plagued the People, and the old ones and the babies began to die. In the depths of despair, they heard the first whispered rumors of redemption.

In early 1889, a Paiute medicine man, Wovoka, had been given a vision in which the People could reclaim their world through a dance. The Ghost Dance would bring back the dead and transform the living into immortals. The buffalo would return, and the white man would disappear forever. In addition to dancing, the People were to put aside the old rivalries and practice peace with one another, to become innocent in their hearts and give up the ways of warriors. The white man was alarmed as the Ghost Dance movement swept across the plains and spread to all the tribes living on reservations.

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