Thursday, November 15, 2012

Buffalo in Brackenridge Park, 1910-1915

Last week, I led a teacher workshop entitled, "Connecting San Antonio History to the Making of Modern America." In one section, we explored the peculiar history of the buffalo in Brackenridge Park.

Brackenridge Park opened in early 1901. The land was donated by philanthropist and businessman George Brackenridge to be designated as San Antonio's largest public park. During the 1890s, Brackenridge used the land and the San Antonio River to develop the city's first pumphouse and waterworks company. Ludwig Mahncke, Brackenridge's longtime friend, urged him to donate the land to the city. Mahncke later served as San Antonio Parks Commissioner before abruptly succumbing to pneumonia in 1906. By the 1910s, Brackenridge Park was regarded as one of the most beautiful city parks in the nation and a prime location for conservation of the natural landscape. "Brackenridge park consists of 200 acres and is interwoven with a series of driveways, which are macadamized (gravel roads) and lead through a huge thicket of pecan and walnut trees. In this park is maintained a huge herd of deer, buffalo and elk."1

Figure 1: Herd of buffalo in Brackenridge Park, 1911
During the early 1900s, it was common for herds of deer, elk, antelope, peacocks, monkeys, bears, and other exotic animals to be brought into public spaces. Exotic animals provided certain status to a burgeoning metropolitan city. Many of these spaces, especially Brackenridge Park, set the tone for what would later become the San Antonio Zoo.

Prior to his death, Ludwig Mahncke drove five head of buffalo from the Texas Panhandle down to his property in San Antonio. Around 1910, the buffalo were transferred across Avenue C (now Broadway) into Brackenridge Park (see figure 1). The San Antonio Light later proclaimed that, "When the former monarchs of the continent were making their last stand against the advances of civilization, Mr. Mahncke had foresight enough to to perceive that the shaggy creatures could no longer have dominion in their old haunts and he secured a herd for San Antonio's big park."2

Brackenridge Park's groundskeeper, Louis Schunke, constructed a high-board fence around the buffalo's grazing area and fashioned several makeshift signs out of scrap boxcar siding, scrawling on them, "Danger, Keep Out!" Frequently, amateur photographers ventured over the fence to capture an image of the wild buffaloes, only to hurriedly claw their way back over the moment the herd moved.

At one time, buffalo were native to San Antonio. The prevalence of the buffalo, less commonly known as the American Bison, was quite strong in almost every part of the United States until the mid-nineteenth century. This is true also for Texas, with the exception of the Lower Pecos River Basin leading into the Sierra Madres near El Paso. Around 1860, several changes occurred that sealed the fate of the buffalo in Texas. The first was climate change. Around 1860, global temperature patterns changed as the earth shook off The Little Ice Age that lasted approximately 500 years. This caused the Texas Blackland Prairie, which in the 1860s included San Antonio, to recede to what is now present day Austin. In its place, the Texas Thornbrush region grew in from the south, choking off any natural food source that the buffalo depended on. Also in the 1860s, the United States systematically mass-slaughtered large buffalo herd in efforts to destroy Native American food sources. This combination led to all but a mass extinction of the buffalo by the 1870s.

In June of 1912, San Antonio celebrated the birth of a baby buffalo in captivity at Brackenridge Park. The birth was rather unexpected since even Louis Schunke had not noticed. The herd was well hidden among the dense tree covering of the park and it was not uncommon for them to go unseen for days at a time. City Alderman Wickeland proclaimed the baby as the "sweetest" buffalo he had ever seen (see figure 2).

Figure 2: Arrival of a Baby Buffalo in Brackenridge, 1912
The San Antonio Light highlighted the importance of the new arrival since there were only 500 buffalo at the time nationwide. The June 1912 birth was actually the third recorded birth within the herd since its transfer to San Antonio. "In having a herd of buffaloes, San Antonio enjoys a distinction not given to many American cities, for the species has become more and more rare with the passing of the years."3

In 1914, the fate of the Brackenridge buffalo began to change. In October, San Antonio police officer Robert Underwood shot one of the buffaloes after it had broken its leg some weeks prior. Louis Schunke delayed killing the buffalo until he was sure that the fracture was untreatable and then Underwood put it out of its misery.4 The open grazing of Brackenridge Park needed more control. Later that year, the city designated an old rock quarry, that butted up against the edge of Brackenridge Park, as the future cite of a zoological garden. The quarry, formerly the cite of Alamo Cement's first manufacturing facility, in turn butted up against the back of the Koehler estate. In 1915, Emma Koehler donated her property west of the river in honor of her late husband and Pearl Brewery magnate, Otto Koehler. Shortly thereafter, the Brackenridge buffalo were transferred to a new facility on the other side of the river.

Sources: City of San Antonio, Edwards Aquifer, San Antonio Light

1. "Beautiful, Picturesque, and Healthy San Antonio, Texas," San Antonio Light (14 Feb 1908), 13.4.
2. "Buffalo Herd at Park has New Arrival," San Antonio Light (28 Jul 1912), 17.2.
3. Ibid.
4. "Kills Crippled Buffalo," San Antonio Light (9 Oct 1914), 13.7.

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