American Legal History


This article describes legislative efforts to prevent the slaughter of the American Bison as it was hunted to near-extinction during the latter half of the nineteenth century. While a number of individual states passed legislation criminalizing hunting bison, none of the bills proposed in the United States Congress went on to become law. One effort, H.R. 921 “to prevent the useless slaughter of buffalo within the Territories of the United States” passed both Houses of Congress but failed to garner President Grant’s signature, in what is known as a “pocket veto.”(1)

A number of interest groups were active in enacting legislation to protect the bison. Native American tribes, concerned about the disappearance of an important food source, lodged official protests with the United States Government. Animal rights activists lamented their pointless slaughter and sought to impose limits on hunting. For example, Henry Bergh, president of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, collected sympathetic letters from Army officers and others in the West in support of an end to bison hunting. (2) Colonel W. B. Hazen, stationed in Fort Hays, Kansas, wrote: "I earnestly request that you bring this subject before Congress with the intention of having such steps taken as will prevent this wicked and wanton waste, both in the lives of God’s creatures an of the valuable food they furnish.(3)

A handful of western states enacted laws to protect the bison in response to these concerns. Idaho passed such a bill in 1864, making it illegal to hunt buffalo, elk, deer, antelope, mountain goats, and sheep between the months of February and July. Wyoming passed a similar bill in 1871, as did Montana and Colorado in 1872. The Colorado Game Law required that hunters not leave any flesh to spoil. In 1872, the Kansas legislature passed a bill “to prevent the wanton destruction of buffaloes,” but state governor did not sign it.(4)

Federal Legislative Action

Reform efforts at the state level coincided with multiple attempts to enact federal regulation of bison hunting. Between 1871 and 1876, several determined efforts to protect the Bison were made in Congress. These bills varied considerably with regard to the geographic extent of regulation, the time at which hunting would be allowed, and the magnitude of the fines imposed.

The first such measure at the federal level was recorded on March 3, 1871, when R. C. McCormick? , a delegate from Arizona and former territorial governor, introduced H.R. 157, which would have imposed a significant $100 fine for killing the bison, though it would not have interfered with the trade in their hides. The text of the Bill read: "Be it enacted, etc., That, excepting for the purpose of using the meat for food or preserving the akin, it shall be unlawful for any person to kill the bison, or buffalo, found anywhere upon the public lands of the United States; and for the violation of this law the offender shall, upon conviction before any court of competent jurisdiction, be liable to a fine of $100 for each animal killed, one-half of which sum shall, upon its collection, be paid to the informer." The Bill was ordered to be printed and approved by the Committee on Public Lands, but no further action was taken.(5)

The following year, similar legislation was considered in the Senate, but these efforts, too, proved unsuccessful. On February 14, 1872, Senator Cornelius Cole of California introduced resolution on game conservation, which directed the Committee on Territories to inquire into the expediency of enacting a law for the protection of the buffalo, elk, antelope, and other useful animals running wild in the territories of the United States against indiscriminate slaughter and extermination, and that they report by bill or otherwise. The Senate considered by unanimous consent and agreed to the resolution, but pigeonholed it. Two days later, Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts introduced a bill in the Senate (S 655) restricting the killing of the bison on the public lauds; which was read twice by its title and referred to the Committee on Territories; but it too was never reported to the full Senate.(6)

Meanwhile, Delegate R.C. McCormick? continued to push for regulation in the House of Representatives. On April 5, 1872, McCormick? made a speech in the House, while it was in Committee of the Whole, arguing for a restriction on the killing of bison. The following day, he was granted leave to have printed in the Globe some remarks on bison killing. He lamented the seemingly pointless killing of bison. "In various trips over the plains, Mr. Speaker, my attention has been called to the reckless slaughter of that noble and valuable animal, the American bison or buffalo. An illustration in a recent number of Harper’s Weekly well depicts the appearance of the plains where the buffalo roams, the country for miles being covered with the decaying carcasses of these animals killed in wanton sport; in many cases neither the hide nor a pound of flesh having been taken by the hunters." McCormick? quoted at length an editorial from Harper’s Weekly, then read the bill he introduced in March 13, 1871 and letters from army officers provided by Henry Bergh, president of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. (7)

The next effort to pass legislation protecting the bison came nearly two years later when, in early 1874, Illinois Representative Greenburg L. Fort introduced H.R. 921 to prevent the useless slaughter of buffalo within the Territories of the United States. This Bill, similar to McCormick? ’s, was ultimately passed by both houses of Congress but was never signed by President Grant.

On January 5, 1874, the Bill was read and referred to the Committee on the Territories, which on March 10 recommended its passage. The Congressional Record described the bill as follows:

"The first section provides that it shall hereafter be unlawful for any person who is not an Indian to kill, wound, or in any manner destroy any female buffalo, of any age, found at large within the boundaries of any of the Territories of the United States.

"The second section provides that it shall be, in like manner, unlawful for any such person to kill, wound, or destroy in said Territories any greater number of male buffaloes than needed for food by such person, or than can be used, cured, or preserved for the food of other persons, or for the market. It shall be in like manner unlawful for any such person or persons to assist or be in any manner engaged or concerned in or about such unlawful killing, wounding, or destroying of any such buffaloes; that any person who shall violate the provisions of the act shall, on conviction, forfeit and pay to the United States the sum of $100 for each offense, (and each buffalo so unlawfully killed, wounded, or destroyed, shall be and constitute a separate offense,) and on a conviction for a second offense may be committed to prison for a period not exceeding thirty days; and that all United States judges, justices, courts, and legal tribunals in said Territories shall have jurisdiction in cases of the violation of the law."(8)

HR 921 was passed by the house with 132 ayes and not one opposing vote. On June 23, the bill came up in the Senate, which likewise passed the measure.(9)

There was substantial opposition, however, within the Grant Administration and the President never signed the bill into law. This resulted in a “pocket veto” when the bill died at the end of the legislative session. Columbus Delano, then the Secretary of Interior, had argued in favor of the destruction of the bison because it would starve the Indians into submission. While visiting a delegation of Sioux in 1871, he refused to promise to restrict hunting of buffalo in their area.(10) In his 1873 annual report, Delano stated that he would not regret the complete disappearance of the bison because this would “civilize” the plains Indian tribes by increasing dependence upon agriculture. Likewise, the two western military chiefs, Generals Sheridan and Sherman, held the position that the elimination of the bison was necessary to force the Indians to comply with military orders. President Grant privately supported his fellow generals, though he publicly said little on the subject.(11)

Other notable bills include a proposed tax on buffalo hides (H.R. 1689), which Fort introduced on February 2, 1874.The bill was referred to the Ways and Means Committee, but no further action was taken. In 1876, Fort made another attempt to pass his legislation. On January 31, 1876, he introduced HR 1719, identical to HR 921, which was referred to the Committee on the Territories but never returned.(12)

Despite the failure of federal action to save the bison, efforts continued at the state level. In 1875, Nebraska passed a law to protect the animals in 1875. The Texas legislature debated but never passed a bill. New Mexico passed a bill in 1880. Dakota Territory passed on in 1883.(13)



1 : Hornaday, William T (1889). The Extermination of the American Bison. p. 517.

2 : Gard, Wayne (1959). The Great Buffalo Hunt. pp. 206-208.

3 : id.

4 : Dary, David A. (1974). The Buffalo Book. p. 123.

5 : Hornaday p. 513. Cong. Globe, 42nd Cong., 1st Sess. 80 (1871). (View the page cited)

6 : Dary p. 125. Hornaday p. 514.

7 : Cong. Globe, 42nd Cong., 2st Sess. 179 (1872). (View the page cited)

8 : 2 Cong. Rec. 2106 (1874). (View the page cited)

9 : Hornaday p. 517

10 : Gard pp. 207-212

11 : Dary p. 127

12 : Hornaday p. 518

13 : Gard pp. 215-216


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