bones were worth a lot of money on the open market, people made a lot of money
selling bones on the open market. The bone business thrived from the 1870s, in
the wake of the great buffalo slaughter, until the mid-1930s, long after the buffalo
bones that kick started the business were long gone.
slaughter in Texas lasted roughly from 1874-78 and
produced huge fields of bleaching bones that, as frontier journalist Don Hampton
Biggers wrote “remained to speak in silent language of the unequal contest.” When
railroads were built across the newly opened lands where the buffalo
and Comanche had once roamed, the bones became more than a silent reminder of
a recent slaughter and the end of a way of life; they became a commodity.
the early 1870s, scientists found a good use for the bones as the basic ingredient
in bone meal, which was used as a fertilizer, and as a source of calcium phosphate,
which refineries used to neutralize cane-juice and take the color out of sugar.
A booming market existed in Kansas in the early 1870s until that state’s supply
of bones were exhausted.
end of the Kansas market coincided with the beginning of the Texas slaughter.
Enterprising bone pickers here would construct white mountains of bones, which
freighters hauled out by the ton. Prices in the early days were $3-4 a ton but
reached crazy highs of $22-23 a ton in the 1880s. San Antonio shipped out more
than 3.3 million tons of bones from July of 1877 until November of the following
year. By the 1880s, when the price was at it its all-time high, Texas
was the world’s largest supplier of bones.
Bone haulers piled the bones
into mounds that ranged from the size of a haystack to a two-story house, depending
on how big the killing field had been. The prairies were dotted in every direction
with these hills and mountains of bones. Bones didn’t have to be planted, cultivated
or harvested. They were just there for the picking. Professional freighters hauled
them out by the ton and more, and locals took advantage of the market as well.
“Hundreds of men engaged in the work and a man never thought of traveling
through the country with an empty wagon,” Biggers wrote. “If he had hauled a load
of freight to some ranch he would gather a load of bones for his return trip to
some ways, the bone business contained some of the last vestiges of the business
practices and ethics established by the buffalo hunters. As the hunters had understood
a “right of discovery” to a certain territory, the bone haulers also understood
that when a man went to work in an old killing field, all the bones in that field
were his and his alone, just as the hunters never interfered with another hunter’s
“stand.” Carcasses belonged to the finder but when a man went to work in a buffalo
boneyard, he was the finder of all the bones, regardless of how many buffalo
they might have once belonged to.
Agents fanned out over the old buffalo
range, buying all the bones they could find, which they shipped all over the U.S
and to Europe. Settlers sometimes bought the ground bone meal back as fertilizer
or to supplement their cattle’s diet. The bone business continued well after the
buffalo bones were used up, at which time Texas began shipping out cattle bones
instead. The cattle bones had roughly the same value as the buffalo bones, and
business stayed fairly brisk through the early decades of the 20th Century.
lot of families survived through the Great Depression by selling bones, which
even then were often there for the picking. By 1937, the market for bones was
kaput. Science had found a better way to make bone meal and an easier way to get
Though the bones business never made an impact on the
state’ economy like cotton or cattle,
it cleared the grasslands for plowing and provided an outlet for discovery and
enterprise at a time and place where there was plenty of the former but not very
much of the latter.
3, 2011 Column
"Letters from Central Texas"
Ranching | Texas Animals