Theodore Roosevelt first traveled west to hunt and ranch in the Dakotas. He was deeply affected by the people, animals and the stunning vistas found in the untouched landscapes where he rode. During his time out West, Roosevelt witnessed the extermination of the American buffalo – an experience that changed him forever. He saw the death of these majestic beasts as a “veritable tragedy of the animal world” and wrote about it extensively in his book, “Hunting Trips of a Ranchman”:
It may truthfully be said that the sudden and complete extermination of the vast herds of the buffalo is without a parallel in historic times. No sight is more common on the plains than that of a bleached buffalo skull; and their countless numbers attest the abundance of the animal at a time not so very long past. On those portions where the herds made their last stand, the carcasses, dried in the clear, high air, or the mouldering skeletons, abound.
Last year, in crossing the country around the heads of the Big Sandy, O’Fallon Creek, Little Beaver, and Box Alder, these skeletons or dried carcasses were in sight from every hillock, often lying over the ground so thickly that several score could be seen at once. A ranchman who at the same time had made a journey of a thousand miles across Northern Montana, along the Milk River, told me that, to use his own expression, during the whole distance he was never out of sight of a dead buffalo, and never in sight of a live one.
Thus, though gone, the traces of the buffalo are still thick over the land. Their dried dung is found everywhere, and is in many places the only fuel afforded by the plains; their skulls, which last longer than any other part of the animal, are among the most familiar of objects to the plainsman; their bones are in many districts so plentiful that it has become a regular industry, followed by hundreds of men (christened “bone hunters” by the frontiersmen), to go out with wagons and collect them in great numbers for the sake of the phosphates they yield; and Bad Lands, plateaus, and prairies alike, are cut up in all directions by the deep ruts which were formerly buffalo trails.
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