February 26, 1891
On this day, an American bison named Ben Harrison took up residence in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.
Newspaper coverage of the event muddied the waters as to the actual date of his arrival. Some sources list that February Thursday as the day the park’s new superintendent, John McClaren, (left) actually purchased Ben Harrison. Stories by the local press listed his arrival without fanfare on the 15th, having been in transit a full week from Kansas.b
Plan “A” called for Ben to be let out of his shipping crate into a livestock stall. Fearing it was too flimsy to hold the big unhappy bison, Plan “B” called for moving him to a half-acre paddock. Another four feet of fencing was quickly added to the five-foot-high enclosure over concerns the 2,000 pounder might actually jump out.
Ben came as a bachelor. The Commissioners simply couldn’t afford a pair priced at $1,200, between $35 and $40,000 today. Ben was a bargain at $350. Raised in Kansas by C.J. “Buffalo” Jones, (right) the freight wasn’t exactly cheap either at $250, about $6,000 now. Wells Fargo, however, reduced their fee to just $100.
In addition to furnishing Ben Harrison, Jones was better known as the inspiration for author Zane Grey’s, first Western, “The Last of the Plainsmen.”
Within a short time Ben Harrison was joined by Sarah Bernhardt. Since then 500 calves have been born to the Golden Gate bison.
Bringing the continent’s largest land mammals in an urban park was in response to the alarming possibility the country’s most iconic animal could actually become extinct. William Temple Hornaday, (above) America’s premier zoologist and taxidermist for the Smithsonian Institution, had headed west in 1886 expecting to encounter those thundering herds that, according to Lewis and Clark, “darkened the prairie.” He found none.
Smithsonian’s bison paddock in 1887
The next year he initiated what became the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, installing a popular “Noah’s Ark” of native species on the Washington Mall. It took San Francisco just four years to catch up.
Ahead of the pack by decades, however, was Texas cattleman Charles Goodnight (right) of Goodnight-Loving fame. His herd on the Paloduro Ranch, near Goodnight, Texas, was one of the first domestic herds in the country and one of the earliest rescues. Begun with just six Southern bison calves in 1878, their bloodline from their descendants had a global reach after they were sent to eight states and two foreign countries.
By the 1890’s the bison did, indeed, need rescuing. When Lewis and Clark described the prairie’s thundering herds, there were an estimated 50 million ranging over the Great Plains and western Canada. (Right, darker shaded areas) By the time Hornaday intervened, that number had dwindled to about 500,000 and just 15 years later there were perhaps as few a 300 left.
Popularly known as buffalo, it was a misnomer from the start when early explorers thought they resembled the Cape or water buffalo of Africa and Asia. Hunted for both sport and profit, Buffalo Bill Cody, (left) hired to provide meat for the railroads, was said to have killed in excess of 4,000 alone. Another untold number perished at the hands of wealthy Europeans while even more were shot from the windows of trains in bison-killing contests.
Bison trophies from railroad hunting contest
Seen by homesteaders as competition to domestic cattle and used by the government as a control measure to force Native Americans onto reservations, Hornaday’s race to the rescue is credited with saving the entire species. He and President Teddy Roosevelt together formulated plans for a society to protect the bison. The American Bison Society was finally founded in 1905.
Hornaday’s dedication to bison preservation transformed him into an avid conservationist. He authored a dozen books and hundreds of articles on conservation including the best-selling “Our Vanishing Wildlife” in 1913. He died in 1937 at the age of 82. Mount Hornaday in Yellowstone is named in his honor.
Yellowstone’s Mount Hornaday
According the most recent bison census, herds in North America total about 385,000, the vast majority on private ranches and farms. Native American tribal herds and those grazing on state and Federal land account for about 40,000 of the current population. An ambitious plan by the National Bison Association aims to increase the bison count to one million by the year 2025
Ben Harrison’s 33 successors that still amble around Golden Gate’s bison paddock don’t get a lot of thumbs up from park visitors these days. “Nothing to see here,” is a common comment. Given the near extinction of the nation’s largest land animal, without the efforts of the early parks and zoos, there would have literally been “nothing to see here.”
National Bison Range, U.S. Route 93 and Montana Highway 200 at Ravalli, Montana, is one hour north of Missoula. Founded in 1908, its more than 18,000 acres is home to between 350 to 500 bison. The NBR’s Visitor Center and two scenic roads provide access to the best viewing areas. The center is open in summer, May 11 through October 1, 9:30 to 4 Tuesday through Friday. Day pass fee for private vehicles is $5 and a Bison Range season pass ins $15. Military members and dependents and individuals with disabilities are admitted free. Salish and Kootenai Tribal members, free with ID. For more information go to fws.gov/refuge/ national_bison_range.
In addition, there are a total of 21 public herds in parks and preserves across the U.S. and Canada. Five are located in U.S. National Parks in the U.S. , two in Canada and most welcome visitors year round. In addition to dozens of zoos across the country, there are free-range public herds in Alaska, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, North and South Dakota, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah and Wyoming. For more information on sites open to the public go to bisoncentral.com/general-info or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
© Text Only – 2020 – Headin’ West LLC – All photos – public domain or fair use.
*Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable. When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.