Early explorers of the west saw vast numbers of American bison, perhaps as many as 60 million animals, the greatest populations of any ungulate on earth. As one Native American put it, in the early days, the “country was one robe”.
As this animated map shows, the 19th century saw rapid reductions in the bison’s range in Texas and beyond, nearly resulting in the eradication of the animal before its gradual recovery during the 20th century.
The bison’s decline was due to many reasons. In the early 1800s, hunters sought their hides for robes, their meat for food, and their bones for buttons, chinaware, and fertilizer. The hunt accelerated in the 1870s to supply the heavy leather belts that drove the saws, lathes, mills and drills of the Industrial Revolution. Also, the U.S. military realized that Indian tribes could be controlled if the bison herds were reduced, essentially destroying their commissary, way of life, and morale. Construction of new railroads, and development of new, more powerful and accurate rifles greatly expanded and sped the hunt.
Hornaday, William. 1889. The Extermination of the American Bison. Smithsonian Institution.
Lott, Dale, 2002. American Bison: A Natural History. University of California Press.