Black Dog and the Buffalo Nickel

If you’ve been paying attention at all the last few years, you likely know that I love the Wichita Mountains. I mean, really, that place is like nowhere else I’ve ever been, and I’ve been a lot of places. It’s a wildlife refuge, so I feel safe there. And that wildlife refuge wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for Teddy Roosevelt. Well… let me back up. This entire country was a bit of a wildlife refuge until European settlers decided to round up the natives and rid the continent of its furry, four-legged fauna. The Wichita Mountains were originally established as a forest reserve by President McKinley in 1901. Then Roosevelt designated it as a game preserve in 1905. And this is where things get interesting. (Again.)

Let me back up one more time. This continent was crawling with wildlife, even into the 1800s. If you’ve ever been to Africa and seen lions walking down the roads and giraffes craning their necks alongside tall trees, you get a vague idea of what the Americas might’ve been like back in the day. I read a couple books about the Corps of Discovery Expedition of Lewis and Clark (Undaunted Courage by Stephen Ambrose is a classic), and their boat ride out west from 1804 to ’06 was nothing if not a testament to the diversity and breadth of animals ranging across the continent. Current estimates guess that there were sixty million bison roaming North America at that time. By 1890, there were sixty million people living in the US and only 541 bison remained. Quite a trade-off.

I’ve been told that bison are not buffalo but I disagree. Sure, their scientific name is Bison bison bison, generally shortened to “bison.” But the Oklahoma state wildflower is the Indian Blanket, which bears the scientific name Gaillardia pulchella, and no one gets upset that we don’t call it gaillardia. I read a book by Stephen Rinella called American Buffalo and he makes the argument that the two names, bison and buffalo, are used interchangeably, and both properly. Historians believe the name buffalo came from the French, who were trapping and hunting all over this continent before colonization. Beef, Frenchified: Boeuf. In 2019, I had the rare pleasure of seeing the large-but-elusive “bison” in the Baba Budan Giri Hills of southwest India. The beast rose up onto its hind legs, a prodigious body on spindly limbs, leapt over a fence, and disappeared into the forest. But these aren’t bison at all; they’re gaur (Bos gaurus). My friend Jaime Abel usually drives me around whenever I’m in the Colombian countryside where he manages a few cattle ranches, one of which raises water buffalo (Bubalus bubalis) for milk (and mozzarella). But in Spanish, Jaime always reminds me to be careful milking a buffalo because it’s a lot different than milking a buffala. So let names be names. Buffalo in the U.S. are bison.

There were a few bison caged up in zoos at the end of the 1800s, which is pretty much the only place an American could see one by then. One very famous bison was called Black Diamond, a big bull buffalo housed at the Central Park Menagerie (now called the Central Park Zoo). This guy was rumored to be the model for the bison on the obverse of the 1901 ten-dollar bill with portraits of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on either side. (This rumor has since been quashed, as the model for the engraving was apparently based on a stuffed bison on display at the Smithsonian in the late 19th century.)

Black Diamond was also rumored to be the model for the reverse of the buffalo nickel. In 1904 President Roosevelt expressed his dissatisfaction with the artistic state of the American coinage. Thus began a years-long effort to redesign a few things. And eventually, in 1913, the buffalo nickel went to mint. This was designed by James Earle Fraser, the guy who sculpted the “End of the Trail” statue that was in the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. (Subsequently the statue was tossed into a mud pit along with other works of art from the exposition, then rescued and displayed in a park in Visalia California until it was deteriorated by weather and given over to the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City in the 1960s, where you can see it today.) But Fraser never said Black Diamond was the model for the nickel, and further research points toward another bison that was kept at the New York Zoological Park (now called the Bronx Zoo) named Black Dog.

That reminds me of a story. I was in Panama a few years ago, hanging out on a coffee farm where Gesha trees grow as thick as the hairs on a bison’s tail. The top of the farm had an orange tree that turned out to be sour orange (an orange so shockingly sour that it’s almost an addiction) and the bottom of the farm had rows of giant drooping flowers that released an intoxicating perfume at sunset which apparently contains a bit of narcotic that helps stinky people sleep. There were children playing on the dirt roads and a black puppy trailed along with them. So I asked them in my most formal Spanish, “Como se llama tu perrito?” To which they replied (in their best English), “Blek Dog.”

So I don’t know why this Black Diamond was so popular and why he was stealing everyone else’s thunder, but these are the facts.

Back to Roosevelt. Not only was he pissed about how crappy our coins looked, he was also pissed that we’d decimated the bison population across the entire continent. So he, along with the American Bison Society, set out to establish a new herd in the newly minted Wichita Forest and Game Preserve. I recently found a publication from the American Bison Society from 1908 that details the political, logistical, and practical events that took place in order to move bison from New York to Oklahoma. In October of 1907, fifteen bison at the New York Zoological Park were herded into individual wooden crates built specially for the project and loaded onto a train, and seven days later arrived in Cache, Oklahoma where the crated animals were off-loaded onto wagons and carted twelve miles across the prairie to the new bison range. The big breeding bull in this new herd just so happened to be Black Dog himself.

Black Dog, the buffalo nickel model, seeded the herd, which grew to 67 head in 1916, by which time the bull had also grown to be the largest living buffalo, at 2,800 pounds. Today the herd in the Wichitas fluctuates between 600 and 850 head. Every year, the refuge rounds up a majority of the bison for measuring and testing, and then they auction off a number of animals to control the population. But they don’t auction off all of those; some they give away to Indian tribes that are seeding or growing their own herds.

Back in my formative years, long before the DoubleShot, I spent a considerable amount of time in the Wichita Mountains, mostly rock climbing the backside of Elk Mountain and exploring the trails around Dog Run Hollow and Charon’s Garden. So I took a friend on a hike and a climb that I thought would be a relatively simple scramble but turned into an all-day, lip-quivering expedition in which I thought I knew how to get back to the car without using the trail but actually did not. At one point we crested a grassy saddle between two boulder-covered hills and just over the ridge I spooked a big, black buffalo, which ran hither instead of thither, and that was only the beginning of our troubles that afternoon.

In 2016, the Osage Nation purchased the 43,000-acre Bluestem Ranch from mogul Ted Turner. Located in the Osage Hills near Pawhuska, the Osage planned to start their own herd of bison in an effort toward food security and independence. So in 2017 and again in 2021, the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge gave twenty and fifty-one head of bison, respectively, to the Osage, whose herd now numbers around two hundred. Further, in 2022 the Bronx Zoo gave six (three male and three female) bison to the Osage Nation, the first bison given away by the zoo since those original fifteen head were shipped to Oklahoma in 1907.

A few weeks ago, Mark and I drove out to Hominy and beyond the town past the prison and their little casino to the Osage Nation’s Butcher House Meat Market. The Osage built the butcher house in 2021 because of the breakdown in our food systems during COVID. This thing is a big-ass red metal building built like a backward mullet, meat counter in front and the business end in the back. Bison are brought in through the rear door where they’re put down and processed, eventually making their way to the front as steaks and ground and jerky and snacksticks. I know, right? But we were on a mission. We sat down to shoot the bull (not literally, but if anywhere, this would be the place to do it) with a couple guys who’ve since left for greener pastures. And after a taste and a tour, we walked into the coldest room in the house and walked out with coolers full of meat.

We started selling bison during COVID for the same reason the Osage started slaughtering them. But now, we’re really excited to partner with the tribe to bring their bison to Tulsa. It’s been a long journey, if you look back on it. All the way back to the Bronx Zoo and Black Dog relocating to the Wichita Mountains in 1907, where these animals made a comeback and eventually were restored to the Osage Hills in 2017, where native people have been hunting and eating bison for millennia. And now we’ve got more than plastic white buffalos adorning our walls at the DoubleShot. You can secure a tenderloin filet and some ground bison to take home and cook. If you haven’t had it, you should. You can’t ask Lewis and Clark or Teddy Roosevelt about it, but you can trust me. I’ve been hanging out with Black Dog’s progeny for years.