That Flores article

Thomas Kavanagh, Curator (TKAVANAG@UCS.INDIANA.EDU)
Fri, 12 May 1995 15:58:09 EWT

!Warning, long post!

Back on May 3, Larry Cebula wrote:

>The environmental historian Dan Flores (in a 1992_Journal of
>American History_ article) estimates that 2/3rds of the
>buffalo on the southern plains were killed before 1850--by

Yesterday, Bret Diamond wrote that he was getting

>overwhelmingly negative: i.e. continued reference the the Flores
>article that suggests that Native Americans were to blame for
>the decline of the buffalo, not the white "unsettlers."

It seems we should look take a critical look at the Flores

Flores, Dan L.
1991 Bison Ecology and Bison Diplomacy: The Southern Plains from
1800 to 1850. Journal of American History 465-485.

There are a number of problems with Flores' argument, not
the least is that it is hard to follow, and sometimes goes off on

He asks several questions, including the specific: What
factors brought on an escalation of Indian raids into Mexico and
Texas in the late 1840s? Why are there so many reports of
starving Indians in the 1850s? (1991:466).

To answer these specific questions, he must first answer the
general question: "How successful were the horse Indians in
creating a dynamic ecological equilibrium between themselves and
the herds?" For Flores, "the crux of the problem . . . is to
determine whether the Plains tribes had established a society om
ecological equilibrium, one whose population did not exceed the
carrying capacity of its habitat" (1991:476). Therefore he must
answer the questions (1) how many bison were there? and (2) how
many people were there?

He began by noting that "there very likely were never 100
million or even 60 million bison on the Plains during the present
climatic regime" (1991:470). Using data from the 1910 livestock
census (the same kind of data used by W.R. Brown, 1987) he gives
an estimate of roughly 5,150,000 cattle and 1,890,000 horses, or
approximately 7 million bison units; rounding it up for the
different conditions of "pre-horse times," he gets 8.2 million;
28-30 million for the whole Plains; he also assumes that at
equilibrium, the 18 percent annual increase (based on modern
protected herds; 1.4 million calves) would have been balanced by
an equal mortality rate, 1.4 million animals. Again, based on
the modern protected herds in the national parks, he estimates a
natural mortality rate of between 3 and 9 percent. That leaves
some 9 percent unaccounted for if there was equilibrium.

Flores must also determine how many people were/could have
been exploiting the herds. He first rejects Jerrold Levy's
estimate of 10,500 as "demonstrably too low." Then, borrowing W.
R. Brown's calculations, themselves based on H. P. Thompson's
caribou utilization figures (1966), he estimates that "Indian
susbsistent (caloric requirement plus the numbner of robes and
hides required for domestic use) at about 47 animals per lodge
per year. At an average of 8 people per lodge, that works out to
almost 6 bison per person over a year's time" (1991:479). He then
turned to the estimates of population size. Accepting
contemporary accounts, "six of the seven population figues fior
the Comanches estimated between 1786 and 1854 fall into a narrow
range between 19,600 and 21,600" (1991:479); the other tribes add
another 10-12,000. BUT, even "if the historic southern Plains
hunting population reached 30,000, the human hunters would have
accounted for only 195,000 bison per year if we use the estimate
of 6.5 animals per person"(1991:479). Indeed, "theoretically, the
Southern Plains biomass . . . would have supported the needs of
more than 60,000 Plains hunters"(1991:480)!

From this general situation, Flores can then answer his more
specific questions: (1) Why were Comanches able to replace
Apaches? (2) What brought the Cheyenne and Arapahoes to the
Southern Plains? (3) Why, after decades of fighting between the
Comanches and Kiowas and the Cheyennes and Arapahoes, did they
reach rapprochement in 1840? (4) What factors brought on an
escalation of Indian raids into Mexico and Texas in the late
1840s? (5) Why are there so many reports of starving Indians in
the 1850s?

Flores doesn't really answer the first question; the second
is simple: there were lots of bison on the southern Plains. The
third, fourth, and fifth have to do with a decline in those
numbers. That is, by 1800-1850, those "theoretical" conditions no
longer existed. First, there was competion from the increasing
wild horse herds, whose diet overlapped with bison at about 80%;
there were an estimated 2 million on the southern Plains. There
were new diseases; anthrax, tuberculosis, and brucellosis. There
was a change in the climate cycle (although Flores does not
mention it per se, the little ice age was coming to an end).
Finally there were new peoples on the southern Plains. These
included not only the Spaniards and Anglos in New Mexico and
Texas, but also freighters on the Santa Fe trail who shot into
and stampeded herds, New Mexican Ciboleros--Pueblos and Hispanic,
and the almost fifty thousand removed eastern Indians. Finally,
there was an increasing market for buffalo robes, and that trade
brought much needed goods to the Indians. Based on the Agent's
report for 1855, Flores estimates that the Cheyennes were killing
"twice the number . . . [needed] for subsistence hunting alone"
(1991:483). Moreover, many of those market kills were of cows,
easier to work than bull hides. All in all, "Drought, Indian
market hunting, and cow selectivity must stand as the critical
elements--albeit augmented by minor factors such as white
disturbance, new bovine diseasses, and increasing grazing
competition from horses--that brought the bison crisis of the
midcentury southern Plains" (1991:483).

That is, the answers to (3), (4), and (5), given the decline
in bison numbers--not brought about by white hide hunters--were
the southern Plains peoples (a) sought alliance with each other,
(b) were forced to eat their horses, (c) which they raided into
texas and Mexico for.


On a very general level, I agree with Flores' argument. That
is, the increased precipitation of the Little Ice Age, ca 1500-
1850, allowed increased bison populations which induced more
humans to exploit them. The change in that cycle, ca. 1850,
brought significant changes to the bison carrying capacity. [It
is interesting to speculate what might have happened had the
Plains peoples been still free in the 1930s; what effect would
that drought have had on their social organizations?] At the same
time, the historical events of European contact brought several
other factors into the ecological balance: new pressures on
peoples to move and the resulting cascade of first the Siouans
and Algonkians, and later the removed eastern Indians, onto the
Plains; the introduction of the horse, which resulted in a change
in the social organization of hunting and ultimately became a
competitor of the bison; the historical development of market
hunting and the politics designed to maintain it, culminating in
the so-called Buffalo War of 1873-74 [it was not just to preserve
the bison from white hunters, but to preserve the Yamparika
Comanche's market share]. Since the white hide hunters only
attacked the southern Plains herds after 1873, any earlier
decline cannot be attributed to them.

However, I have several problems with the argument; these
are mostly quibbles with the specific data used, but they can
have significant effects upon the whole.

For instance, the appropriateness of environmental data from
the Southern Plains of 1910 to model environmental relations of
the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries is
questionable. Specifically, does Flores' adequately account for
the increased precipitation of pre-1850? If not, then his figure
of 8.2 million bison pre-horse may be too low.

Similarly, although he noted of his population estimates, "I
have a historian's bias in favor of documentary evidence for
estimating human populations; Plains observers computed village
sizes relatively easily by counting the number of tents"
(1991:479, n36). Unfortunately, Flores did not extend his
historian's bias to a critique the validity of the "six of the
seven population figues for the Comanches estimated between 1786
and 1854." Such an activity would have shown that most of those
figures were unreliable. Indeed, although many observers reported
such tipi counts, none are based on first hand observation. To
put it bluntly, there are no historically reliable tipi-counts
after 1788.

At the same time, I believe that most of those estimates are
too high. One source of that error is from the person/lodge
ratio. Flores uses the figure of 8 persons per lodge; in the
1700s, the estimate was 12 persons per lodge; in 1846, it was
down to 5 per lodge. Either lodges were getting smaller,
Comanches were getting wealthier, or observers were getting more
accurate. [How 12, or even 8, people could fit in a Comanche tipi
is not clear; see Will Soule's photographs of Horseback's camp in
1873 (Kavanagh 1991, "Whose Village..." Visual Anthropology)]. If
the lower ratio is used, then the Comanche population may well
have been in the range of 10,000 rather than the 20,000 used by
Flores. Another point of concern is the effect of epidemic
diseases on the human population. Once again, there is no
adequate data either of the population before the outbreak, nor
of its effects upon the population; all of the accounts listed in
Ewers (1973) are questionable.

But if both of those 'quibbles' are accepted, that there
were *more* bison than Flores estimates, then the comment that
"theoretically, the Southern Plains biomass . . . would have
supported the needs of more than 60,000 Plains hunters"(1991:480)
would have to be revised upward. Moreover, if there were fewer
people on the Southern Plains [smaller Comanche population, no
Cheyennes, Kiowas, or Arapahoes, some Apaches, and the Caddoans]
in the period up to 1800, then the whole question of an
"equilibrium" comes under question. We are forced to look at a
moving process of inter-relations between variables rather than a
static "equilibrium," including that the process by which human
populations expand to the limits of their environments has a time
element; that there are times when populations are living in a
paradise of abundance. To be specific, are we saying that it was
the move of the Kiowas, Cheyennes, and Arapahoes to the south
that tipped the balance [I know some Comanches who would agree to
that] and they just happened, unfortunately, to make the move at
the very end of the cycle that produced the abundance? Moreover,
they all got caught up in the politics and economy of the market.

Having said that, there is the question of the combined
effects of "Drought, Indian market hunting, and cow selectivity
. . . augmented by minor factors such as white disturbance, new
bovine diseasses, and increasing grazing competition from
horses." Flores argues that there was increased Indian starvation
ca 1850 leading to the eating of horses. While there can be no
doubt that droughts did occur, and that there were often periods
of "no buffalo," I am not sure that the data which Flores musters
is relevant to a "bison crisis of the midcentury southern

In reference to the motivation for Comanche raids south of
the Rio Grande in the 1840s, Flores argues, "their raids into
Mexico increased all through the 1840s, as if a respource
depletion in their home range was driving them to compensate with
stolen stock" (1991:480). Indeed, Comanches raided Rio Grande
beginning in the late 1830s, and the height of those raids was
indeed between 1846 and 1852. But I believe that that height
corresponds not to a drought on the Plains, but rather to the
period of demand for horses from the overland trails to
California and Oregon. That is Comanches were stealing horses to
sell into St. Louis.

Flores has some of that trade correct:"Horses that Bent's
traders drove to St. Louis commonly started as stock in the New
Mexican Spanish settlements (and sometimes those were California
horses stolen by Indians who traded them to the New Mexicans)
that were stolen by the Comanches, then stolen again by Cheyenne
raiders, and finally traded at Bent's... whence they were driven
to Westprt, and sold to outfit American immigrants tio the West
Coast" (1991:475). However, I would question whether the stock
started in *New* Mexico or California; I know of no references to
horses coming back from California to New Mexico, and there were
no significant horse herds in New Mexico to raid, nor indeed
significant reports of Comanche raids in Mexican New Mexico of
the 1840s (pre-1848).

The Comanche horse trade was not just with the Bents.
Besides Anglo-Americans, other Indians also bought horses. In the
summer of 1846, Wild Cat and a party of Seminoles went to
Comancheria to trade for furs and mules (Foreman 1934:245). In
1847, Osages bought "1500 head of mules worth $50-75,000" for
which they traded tobacco, lead, powder, blankets, blue cloth,
strouding, and firearms," and had already made arrangements for
the next years' trade (Richardson 1847); but that same year, two
hundred and fifty Seminoles trying for furs and mules met little
success (Foreman 1934:245). In February, 1848, the Arapaho chief
Coho told Thomas Fitzpatrick that he had nothing to do with the
raiding along the Santa Fe Trail, "except to buy the Comanche's
horses" (Fitzpatrick 1848a). In 1848, Fitzpatrick reported that
"for two years, the Comanche have been meeting Osages for trade,
by which the Comanche receive their necessary supplies in barter
for horses." In the spring that year, a party of sixteen Creeks
and Cherokees headed by Unus Macintosh, went out to buy horses
"Our mules were laden with tobacco, vermillion etc., which we
expected to barter with the Comanches for mules" (Foreman
1939:165). In 1853, Cuervo (Crow), a follower of Bajo Sol, told
the Durango, Mexico Registro that the Comanches sold the animals
they stole "to tall white men with big feet, . . . Yankees who
pay them with powder, bullets, rifles, swords, tobacco, and
whiskey" (Smith 1970:32).

Then there is the question of Comanches eating horses.
Flores states: "the Comanches were reported to be eating their
horses in great numbers by 1850 . . . William Bollaert mentions
that the Texas Comanches supposedly ate 20,000 mustangs in the
late 1840's" (1991:480; n 39). Unfortunately, while indeed
Bollaert made that comment, its appropriateness as an indication
of Comanche starvation is questionable. The comment was not made
from personal observation; rather while wandering around in
southern Texas, on June 7, 1844 Bollaert noted in his journal,
and totally without context, "The Comanches are supposed toi have
eaten 20,000 mustangs during the last 5 years. They barbecue
mustangs sometimes whole by digging a large whole in the ground,
then in goes the mustang, other stones laid on, and then a big
fire. Sometimes as a tid-bit, the head" (Hollon and Butler
1956:361). Bollaert isa the only mention of such a practice.
Also note that the date of the alleged horse feast is ca. 1839-
44, not Flores' "late 1840s". Rather than a valid observation, I
believe Bollaert was reporting a camp-fire tall-tale attempting
to explain what the Comanches were doing with so many horses.

Finally, I believe Flores has placed too much weight on the
bison as the determining resource factor in southern Plains
political ecology/economy. While it was important, after the
horse, it was mostly important in the domestic economy and in the
cosmology. Other factors, warfare, and the translation of ewar
booty into trade commodieties, and trade and diplomatic relations
with Euroamericans, were equally important. Between 1786 and
1820, the Spaniards in New Mexico and Texas provided over 18,000
pesos worth of diplomatic gifts to the Comanches: cloth,
clothing, foodstuffs, guns, ammunition, metal goods, knives, and
kettles, etc., not counting trade goods. From the Comanche
chiefs, who controlled access to those goods, they were dispersed
to the people and beyond. Indeed, in 1805, when the Cheyennes
came south, the told the Spaniard's that they wanted peace "on
the same terms as with the Comanches": they wanted to bypass the
Comanches as middlemen in that distribution.

There is one final conclusion: Larry Cebula's arguement that

>The environmental historian Dan Flores (in a 1992_Journal of
>American History_ article) estimates that 2/3rds of the
>buffalo on the southern plains were killed before 1850--by

is a misreading of the article. The number "2/3" nowhere appears
in it, and it ignores the complexity--albeit faulty in detail--of
the ecological relationships.


But there is also the question about how this whole matter
relates to "indigenous ecology." There are, I believe, two parts
to this question. On the one hand is what I believe to be a naive
understanding of ecological principles on the part of many
anthropologists. Much of this is fostered by the simplistic
retelling in Intro Anthro textbooks of our classic studies as
ecological myths ("charters for behavior"). For instance,
Haviland has continued, over six editions, to refer to
Rappaport's study of the Tsembaga Maring as living in balance
with their environment; he gives no indication that it might be a
moving and dynamic balance, and that in the process of
maintaining that balance some individuals might be killed, and
some groups might disappear, absorbed by others. We have assumed
that human societies always and everywhere but in Europe live in
the climax stage of ecological relations; that all human
populations in a geographical province have converged on an
optimum adaptation, and that it is only by the unnatural
expansion of Europeans that those adaptations have become
maladaptive. In terms of the Plains, since Oliver's 1962
retelling of Eggan's 1933 scenario, there has been little or no
critical examination of the pieces of the model. But it is an
ethnographic fiction--a poor one at that--and it should be part
of our responsibility to expose it as such.

Ironically, it may be that to ignore the evidence of
ecological dynamics is to deny that Indians live in nature. But
of course, "ecological principles" are nothing more than cultural
constructs based on our own materialistic view of the universe.
Other cultures might have different views of the relationships
between human and non-human persons and forces. The difficulty
can arise from uncritically translating those cultural beliefs
into "ecological" metaphors, particularly when those ecological
terms are loaded with political baggage from many sides. If the
debate is in our political arena, it may be that our job as
cultural middlemen is a much to explain to the Indians what WE
mean by ecology, as to explain to others of our own, what THEY
mean. Moreover, I do not believe that as anthropologists we must
*uncritically* act as "advocates for the people that we earn our
living studying about" (Diamond May 11), particularly if that
advocacy requires the blatant manipulation, or worse suppression,
of evidence.

Thomas Kavanagh
Curator of Collections
Mathers Museum
Indiana University