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March 2, 2022

Men Standing With Pile of American Buffalo Skulls at Michigan Carbon Works in Rogueville, 1892

The most famous photograph of bison extermination is a grisly image of a mountain of bison skulls. It was taken by an unknown photographer outside of Michigan Carbon Works in Rougeville, Michigan, in 1892. At the close of the 18th century, there were between 30 and 60 million bison on the continent. By the time of this photograph, that population was reduced to only 456 wild bison.

In 1892, bison skulls await industrial processing at Michigan Carbon Works in Rogueville (a suburb of Detroit). Bones were used processed to be used for glue, fertilizer, dye/tint/ink, or were burned to create “bone char” which was an important component for sugar refining. (Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library)

Increased colonization of the West led to the large-scale slaughter of bison. The arrival of white settler hunters with their weapons, as well as growing market demand for hides and bones, intensified the killing. Most herds were exterminated between 1850 and the late 1870s.

The photograph shows the massive scale of this destruction. A man-made mountain emerging from the image’s grassy foreground, the pile of bones as appears part of the landscape. The image can be read as an example of what Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky has called “manufactured landscapes.”

The Rougeville photograph is often used to illustrate the scale of bison extermination. It appears in conservation publications, magazines, films and recent protest memes. The photograph has become an icon of this animal’s slaughter. But this photograph is more than just a symbol of human-caused destruction and hubris. Analyzing the image with multiple lenses illustrates a history of relationships.

1 comment:

  1. Indians hunted bisons for food. By killing the bisons, the new arrivals from Europe indirectly exterminated the Indians.




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