Last year, more than 15 million people visited the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, an amalgamation of Northern California tourism spots that comprises more than 82,000 acres and popular destinations like Muir Woods, Alcatraz Island, Crissy Field, and the eponymous park itself. Golden Gate Park, contained within city limits, was the nation’s third-most visited urban park in 2019. 

On a walk through the park, whether you start by Kezar Stadium at the top of Haight Street, whether you wander in from the Sunset side for Outside Lands, whether you come for the Japanese Tea Garden or Academy of Sciences or a quick smoke on Hippie Hill, you will see something you weren’t expecting. This could be an impromptu drum circle, a man relieving himself by a tree, a fairy house or, as of March of this year, a baby bison.   

The bison of Golden Gate Park have drawn the eyes of locals and tourists for over a century, but the story of how they got here isn’t necessarily a happy one.

In February 1891, superintendent of the park, John McLaren (who has his own park in the Excelsior-Visitacion Valley area), was awaiting a special delivery from Garden City, Kansas. It was expensive, $350 (roughly $10,000 now) plus shipping, and rare, and it weighed (half) a ton. Its name was Ben Harrison. Ben was a strapping young bison bull, and he was going to save his species.  

Bison, not buffalo (that species originates in Africa and Asia), are native to North America. An estimated 60 million roamed, grazed and went about their ungulate lives by the time the first waves of European colonists got off their boats and decided the continent would be theirs.

To dozens of the Indigenous tribes and nations in North America, particularly those of the Great Plains, bison remain a symbol of knowledge and abundance, revered and depended on as a primary food source and a common figure in mythology. To the descendants of the Europeans, bison became an opportunity to cripple native resistance.  

Bison, not buffalo (that species originates in Africa and Asia), are native to North America. (Photo courtesy of the Golden Gate Park)

William “Buffalo Bill” Cody — yes, that one — earned his name and infamy firstly for his prowess turning more than 4,000 bison into food for railroad workers. Born in Iowa and raised in Kansas, Cody was in his 20s at the end of the Civil War in 1865 as the ongoing construction of the Transcontinental Railway brought more and more settlers out west. When it was finished in 1869, porous treaties with Indigenous populations were being drafted and thousands of American Indians were being forcefully herded onto reservations. Then, things got really bad. 

As with the railroad, innovations in weapons and leatherwork were also developing.

The Wincheser rifle had been an asset to hunters since 1866, but its upgrade in 1873 would make it a truly harrowing weapon to the native way of life. Buffalo hides shot up in value as new techniques improved the tanning process, but for many migrants seeking the opportunities they felt Manifest Destiny afforded, killing bison for sport was fun.

The 1870s were the worst of it. Sources differ on the exact figures — some say 5,000 were killed daily; some say 200,000 annually; some say 4.5 million were killed just in 1872-74. By 1889, as few as 85 free-ranging bison remained, with hundreds of others living in zoos or government-sanctioned herds.

A few years earlier, in 1883, Cody would reinvent himself into one of the biggest celebrities of the time with his traveling show, “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West.” In it, Cody likely exaggerated episodes of his own life hunting bison, scouting for the U.S. Army during the American Indian Wars and dabbling in the Gold Rush. 

A 1899 circus poster shows cowboys rounding up cattle and a portrait of Col. W.F. Cody on horseback. (Image courtesy of the Library of Congress)

But while Cody and his associates shot up the Great Plains, further west in California, John Muir and McLaren were planting seeds (literally!) and laying the groundwork for their own memorialization of the “Wild West,” and a way to save one of its most iconic symbols, the American bison.   

Ben Harrison arrived in San Francisco in 1891 with little fanfare. Allegedly, the San Francisco Examiner reporter present at the time gave him the presidential namesake. He was healthy and handsome, and McLaren was afraid he might charge, like a Spanish toro, at whomever had to get close enough to cut his ropes and feed him. The paper reported that when his restraints were cut, he shook his head and took a drink of water, “like a good American.”

Soon, Golden Gate Park had a cow, a female bison from Wyoming dubbed Sarah Bernhardt after the renowned French stage actress. Ben and Sarah’s first baby was born not long after.

By 1899, the animals were moved from their original Kezar-adjacent digs to their current 11-acre paddock. The herd began to grow through reproduction and the addition of bison from other herds around the U.S., including three from Yellowstone Park that arrived in 1905. Even with additional shuffling, the herd peaked at 30 in 1918.

While the novelty of a bison in the middle of San Francisco was strong and enduring, the herd was not, like Cody’s show, just for entertainment. It was also a breeding program to bring the species back from near-extinction. It apparently went well, but exact numbers are tricky — while Golden Gate Park’s website says more than 100 calves were born within it by the time the program ended, the San Francisco Zoo, whose keepers also oversee the bison, says it was more than 500.

Nowadays, though, bison breeding at Golden Gate Park isn’t really possible. The herd hasn’t had a bull in years, and none of the current bison descended from Ben or Sarah. The herd was replenished in 1984, with a group of around a dozen females then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein received as a gift from her husband, Richard Blum, after a bout of tuberculosis weakened the original herd. New arrivals were no longer named after dead presidents or celebrities and, in 1993, were given names relating to Indigenous cultures, updated from their previous Shakespearean monikers. 

American artist George Catlin, who was concerned about the threat to the American bison, drew “Buffalo Hunt” in 1844. This hand-colored lithograph was taken from his “North American Indian Portfolio.” (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

As bison only live about 25 years, aging is continually the herd’s biggest threat. Money is no object, as Feinstein and Blum donated thousands of dollars to the park, in addition to the animals, for upkeep. The current five senior bison have been around since 2011, down from the seven females that were added by the couple that year.

In fact, the five 2020 additions, all females, are also sponsored by Feinstein and Blum. The “baby bison” are technically not babies at a year old; they weigh more than human adults. The San Francisco Recreation and Park Department was set to announce their arrival to the public with Community Day on April 4 to celebrate the park’s 150-year anniversary, but the coronavirus pandemic obviously hindered that. 

The Bison Paddock is located along John F. Kennedy Drive by Spreckels Lake and the golf course. A livestream of the bison herd can be found here. They’re pretty mellow, but who knows, one of them might finally hop that fence.