"When he came upon the bonepickers he’d been riding three days in a country he’d never seen"
Illustration of bison bone pickers
Public DomainIllustration of bison bone pickers - Credit: Martin S Garretson

Following the widescale slaughter of buffalo herds, well over one hundred million bones lay upon the western plains, extending from the Texas panhandle to Canada’s remote Northwestern border. They lay untouched until the use of bone phosphorus for agricultural fertilizer was discovered in the 1870s and the enterprise of bonepicking was born.

It was often a family enterprise, with bonepicking crews scouring the prairies with six mule-drawn wagons, five for plain bones, one for hooves and horns for use in paints and adhesives. An individual could earn as much as ten dollars a day, big money in an era when ten dollars a week was considered an income on which a man could support a family.

By the time the prairies had become completely cleaned of bones, an estimated $40 million dollars had been paid out to the bonepickers.