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Monday, July 9, 2012

The Last Buffalo Barbecue in America

Illustration from The Herald - Los Angeles, CA - January 26, 1898

The National Cattleman's Beef Association's website has a section on the organization's history. Here is an excerpt:
Here is the rest of the story.

On January 27, 1898 the National Stock Growers held what was billed as the last buffalo barbecue to be held in America to end their three day national convention held in Denver, Colorado. They planned a "monster barbecue" at the Union Stock Yards with a huge attendance of 12,000 people and 200 waiters. To feed the large crowd they ordered 10,000 pickles, 1000 pounds of cheese, 3000 loaves of bread, 200 "possums," 35 barrels of hams, 30 sheep, 2 bears, 15 antelope, 4 elk, the hind quarters of 16 beeves (steers), and 5 buffalo (American bison). There may have been as many as 10 buffalo barbecued; sources conflict on the number. They also constructed 1200 feet of tables. (As reported by the Omaha Daily Bee, Jan. 6, 1898.) The Daily Public Ledger of Jan. 15, 1898 added that they were also serving 35 barrels of yams and 300 kegs of beer. The St. Paul Globe of January 28, 1898 reported that mutton was also served. In addition to the barbecue there were also bull fights and rough riding tournaments.
New York Tribune - Jan. 28, 1898
The Albuquerque Daily Citizen of January 27, 1898 reported that "thousands" attended the event and mentioned that Secretary Wallace of New Mexico read an exhaustive history of the sheep industry in the United States. (That sounds pretty boring.) The article goes on to report the adoption of resolutions and leaves the reader with the impression that the event was a great success. The Herald of January 28, 1898 and the Fergus County Argus of February 28, 1898 also reported that the barbecue and the convention were both successes. However, there are numerous other reports that the barbecue was a disaster. For example, The Kansas City Journal of January 28, 1898 reported that trains and street cars transported 25,000 to 30,000 people to attend the barbecue. "So great was the crowd that the six tons of meat served was hardly enough to satisfy all, and before the crowds could be served the tables against which they were surging broke away, and, brushing aside police and military guards, the crowd overran the grounds, helping themselves to what was in sight." The report goes on to say that while the crowd was "good-natured" there was no chance of restoring order and management declared the barbecue over. The author of the article blamed the barbecue's organizing committee claiming that they gave out 35,000 tickets and that was just too many. Numerous other papers also reprinted the article.

The January 28, 1898 Roanoke Times ran a story with the headline "Disorderly Barbecue. Thirty Thousand People Scramble for the Edibles." The story goes on to report that, unlike the Kansas City Journal that stated it was a "good-natured crowd," the crowd was in an "ugly mood" and police charged the "mob" and "clubbed many, but were overpowered and pelted with bread, chunks of beef and other missiles. Many women fainted and were borne away." The story claims that many were wounded, one seriously, and another person died.

Salt Lake Herald
January 28, 1898
The January 28, 1898 Salt Lake Herald ran the headline "Barbecue Ends Disgracefully" and the crowd rushed "like an immense pack of wolves upon the provisions." The writer went on to write about the "stampede of humanity that carried everything before it" and "cleaned up the barbecue in 15 minutes."

An eyewitness account of the barbecue was published in the February 11, 1898 edition of the Kansas City Journal. In that report E. E. Richardson, secretary of the Live Stock exchange, is quoted as saying:
"I never saw anything like it in my life. The trouble arose in the first instance over the mistake in issuing 40,000 tickets to a 10,000 [person] barbecue. Then, a little free beer aggravated the situation and when the first row of people had crowded around the tables loaded with venison, elk, antelope, buffalo, bear, etc., there was a simultaneous rush by the crowd that could not be accommodated. Before half a dozen bites could be taken, the mob was on the tables and then there was a really disgraceful scene. Well dressed young men grabbed great dripping platters and hid them under their coats. Finely dress women caught up all the tin cups they could carry and lugged them off as souvenirs. The people seemed to be crazy and the delegates to the convention, who were the real guests of the occasion, didn't get a smell of all the costly meats and other provisions."
The January 31, 1898 edition of the Salt Lake Herald has a one line comment about the barbecue: "That barbecue has become a nightmare to Denver."

"Riot at a Barbecue"
Chicago Eagle February 5, 1898
The Chicago Eagle of February 5, 1898 called the barbecue "a wild scene" saying that "Facilities not being sufficient to accomodate the throng, there was much delay and the tables were finally stormed by hungry visitors. The efforts of fifty policemen and a detachment of militia to keep order were laughed at."

The barbecue was controversial from the start. Killing and serving buffalo was against the law at certain times of the year in Colorado in 1898. Several newspapers, including the January 22, 1898 edition of The Salt Lake Herald, reported:

"Game Warden Swan of Colorado has announced in the most positive terms that any attempt to carry out the program of serving buffalo at the live stock banquet will result in the confiscation of the game and the arrest of all those responsible in the matter, even if he has to call out the state militia. The management of the barbecue, on the other hand, declare that the game is already in cold storage, and will be served regardless of the game warden."
There is no word on whatever happened to the first official Colorado State Commissioner of Forest, Game, and Fish J. S. Swan, who is referred to as "Game Warden Swan" in the article, and his plan to arrest the organizers of the barbecue. He did have strong feelings about saving the bison. In his biennial report on the State Forest, Game and Fish to the governor of Colorado for the years 1897 - 1898 Swan stated "The killing of any buffalo should be made a penal offense, with a proper reward to any one furnishing evidence on which a conviction is secured." Swan was appointed Commissioner in 1897. The Rocky Mountain News, April 6, 1897 edition states that he was a "newspaper man by profession." I find it interesting that a "newspaper man" was appointed by the governor to be the state commissioner of Forestry, Game, and Fish. As a side note, On April 16, 1897, Colorado Governor Alva Adams signed House Bill 129, to create the Department of Forestry, Game and Fish.  Immediately afterward, the governor appointed J.S. Swan to be the state’s first official State Forest, Game, and Fish Commissioner.  This legislation established a comprehensive framework for protecting the state’s wildlife.  Over the next century, this newly established agency would evolve to become the Colorado Division of Wildlife, as we know it today. (Colorado Division of Wildlife Handbook, 2010 - PDF)

Either way, the three day convention was significant because it was the first successful attempt to unite live stock organizations from all around the United States. There is no doubt that the political influence the organizations gained by uniting together was great. That fact may explain why some newspapers reported that the barbecue was a failed event filled with angry mobs and others called it a great success. Like today, don't expect to read much impartial reporting in a 19th century newspaper. The Wichita Daily Eagle of February 4, 1898 reported that the Denver Chamber of Commerce adopted a resolution stating:
"The directors desire, as representing the Denver Chamber of Commerce and Board of Trade, to deprecate and condemn the unwarranted, untruthful, and slanderous statements sent out by some irresponsible and sensational correspondents of certain eastern newspapers, which statement concerning the last day's entertainment of the visiting delegates, consisting of a barbecue held at the Union Stockyards, was untruthful, highly sensational and not warranted by the facts. There was no riot, no bloodshed, no conflict between crowds and police, nor the military, nor was the strong arm of the law called upon to quell any mob, for the reason that there was no such occasion for any such display of authority."
The same resolution praised some other newspapers and the Associated Press for their "incalculable benefit."

Still even today, it seems that some in Denver don't want to talk about "that Denver barbecue." The Historic Denver website blames free beer for the riot and that's about all they say about the entire event and the website doesn't mention that it was a barbecue.

The photos below are of a large public barbecue held in Colorado in 1906 and illustrate how tables were arranged at Colorado barbecues of that era in order to serve the large crowds.
A 1906 Free Barbecue at a Town Lot Auction Sale in Swink, Otero County, CO
Photo courtesy of Western History/Genealogy Department, Denver Public Library
The aftermath of a successful 1906 Free Barbecue at a Town Lot Auction Sale in Swink, Otero County, CO
Photo courtesy of Western History/Genealogy Department, Denver Public Library
The Washington Times July 23, 1904
Well, as we all know, this wasn't the last buffalo barbecue, thank goodness. Though, it's easy to see why many thought it would be. In 1800, there were approximately 50 million bison living in North America. By 1889, there were less than 900 bison left alive in the United States. This fact boggles the mind. What's worse is, why would anyone want to kill any of the few bison that remained?

Richmond Dispatch March 30, 1902
The Stock Growers weren't the only ones who barbecued the scarce bison in those days. The Confederate Veterans Association barbecued bison at their reunion dinner held at Dallas, TX in April of 1902.

In The Extermination of the American Bison, by William T. Hornaday, the author writes:
In 1871 there were more Bison/Buffalo than people in North America. Historical accounts vary as to precise dates and numbers, but it is quite accurate to say that the American Bison or Buffalo was almost entirely gone from North America by 1900. The proud, stalwart and beautiful beast that was sacred to the New World's Native Peoples for thousands of years, and roamed in herds of tens of thousands (an estimated 60 million once occupied the Great Plains), was virtually decimated within just a few years when the U. S. Government decided that the "Indian" could be "discouraged" (official term) by eliminating its sacred animal. In 1867 the famed General Sheridan had declared "Kill the buffalo, and you kill the Indians." This became official policy.
Fortunately, the American bison was saved and today there are about 500,000 bison in North America. Fewer than 20,000 are free ranging. Other interesting facts about bison include:

  1. Bison can gallop at speeds of up to 35 miles per hour and are good swimmers.
  2. The largest populations of wild, free-ranging bison are found in Yellowstone National Park in the U.S. and Canada’s Wood Buffalo National Park.
  3. By its first birthday, a bison may weigh more than 400 pounds.
  4. Over 90 percent of bison today are under private ownership and are raised like cows for bison meat.
  5. Bison meat has 70% to 90% less fat than beef and 50% less cholesterol.
I think the take away from all of this is just the fact that bison meat tastes good! It's also a healthier choice than beef. Here is a recipe for grilled bison burgers.

Separate 1 pound of ground bison meat into four equal size balls. Form each into a patty and season with salt, pepper, granulated garlic and a pinch of cayenne. Handle the meat as little as possible. The less handling of the meat you do the better its texture will be.

Fire up you grill to a medium heat. Because bison meat is so lean, you don't want to cook it over a really hot fire like you can cook beef burgers. The medium heat will slowly cook the meat without burning the outside before the inside is done.

When the burgers reach an internal temperature of 160 degrees F, they are done. Enjoy them with the toppings of your choice.

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