Oh, give me a home where the buffalo roam. The lyrics to that 1873 cowboy ballad invoke images of the Old West beyond mere words. The mighty American bison, for centuries lord of the prairies. When so many of the huge beasts roamed the plains that at times it seemed the ground itself was one great dark blanket of animals from horizon to horizon. But by the time Utah territory was being settled, the massive herds already were vanishing from the Great Basin; the last buffalo in Utah was seen in the 1830s.
So how did they find their way to Antelope Island in the Great Salt Lake? Earlier this month, the Utah State Parks Department reported its herd of some 700 on the island was robust and healthy. There are varying stories about how that came to be, but the most colorful is a 1925 account in The Salt Lake Tribune left by a correspondent who wrote under the pen name "Old-Timer." (The Tribune kept no records concerning his identity, but an educated guess would be that the writer was J. Cecil Alter, a weather-bureau meteorologist whose leisure interest was Western American history and who doubled as director of the Utah State Historical Society, which he helped organize in 1928.)
According to Old-Timer, the bison were brought to the island in the 1880s, but recent research has adjusted that date. Rick Mayfield, director of Utah Department of Business and Economic Development, has learned the original bunch of animals (four bulls, four cows and four calves) once belonged to William Glasmann, rancher and Ogden newspaper publisher. In retracing the herd, Mayfield found they were bought through Charles J. (Buffalo) Jones, Garden City, Kansas, one of several men credited by the Smithsonian Institution with saving America's bison herd from extinction.
Largest herd: Jones had rounded up buffalo calves on the plains of Kansas in the 1880s for his own ranch. Then, with seventy or so animals acquired from Manitoba, the Kansan was able to claim the largest herd in America. A portion of that Manitoba stock was sold to Glasmann, who was developing the town of Garfield on the south shore of the Great Salt Lake. He planned to include a proposed zoological garden and "Buffalo Park," but the project proved impractical and the bison were sold.
John E. Dooley owned most of Antelope Island. He bought the Glasmann buffaloes and, in February 1893, ordered them shipped over to the island. That makes 1993 the bison-tennial of the herd--doesn't it? At this point, it would be wrong to tell more in anyone's words but Old-Timer's. Here is the way he wrote it that June 25, 1925: "M.C. Udy out Farmington way. He's the one as told me the story. Yes, he was there. It was him and J.W. Walker handled the pikes and while maybe he don't know as much about hunting buffaloes as some others, when it comes to herding 'em--say, that guy's there.
Well, the way he tells it, he had been working over on Antelope Island for the Island improvement company back in the '80s. J.W. Walker succeeded him as foreman and then, when his outfit bought Bill Glasmann's buffalo herd, Walker got Udy to help him move the critters. They was on a ranch over back of Lake Point, the way Udy tells it. Him and Walker takes a ride over there one day along about '89 intending to drive the herd of 17 bulls and cows up the lake shore to the company landing at Farmington where the old cattle boat used to load and unload its beef cargo to and from the island."
Buffalo stampede: "There was one old cow who'd lost a leg so they herded her onto a wagon for transport. Walker and Udy starts out with the rest on hoof and they no sooner gets outside the corral than here comes some of Glasmann's cowboys whooping it up to beat Billy Time. The buffalo take fright at the noise, and stampede. Walker and Udy nigh kill their horses trying to head off the herd, but then Glasmann rides up to 'em and says, 'Let 'em run.'
The cowmen, seeing that buffalo can't be handled like range cattle, but must be coaxed rather than herded, take Bill's advice and, after about four miles of dead running, the buffalo forget what it was scared 'em and they slows to a walk. Walker and Udy makes a wide circle round the herd. Careful not to rouse 'em into another run, they coaxes 'em along the lake shore, letting 'em browse along easy like, and that night they goes into camp near the Rudy ranch down by the old grist mill near the Jordan river and 14th North.
Next morning they begins edging the critters along toward Farmington. 'Bout 10 o'clock they gets onto the State highway and that afternoon they brings them into camp near the boat landing down by the old Lake Shore resort. Their company has a loading chute there for cattle. The scow would tie up at the water end of this run and on the shore end there was a corral. With cattle, all was needed was to get 'em into this corral and then drive 'em up the chute into the scow. The old boat used to handle 40, 50 head and its deck space was enclosed with heavy timbers so as to prevent any of 'em trying for a swim. Likewise to prevent capsizing the craft a length of telephone pole was run fore and aft down the middle of this pen so that they couldn't all crowd to either side."
Clumsy rigging: "The cattle boat was a scow built with a flat bottom and it had a clumsy sail rigging that required a lot of handling. When winds were fair the passage from the island to the shore might take only a couple of hours. But there were times when the wind died out and then they had to heave to or else break out long poles [pikes] and push the boat along from a rail runway. They lands the first shipment the same evening and comes back for more. But the buffalo that had made chute jump didn't show any inclination to get back into the corral. It took another three or four days of coaxing with hay bait to get 'em back. Meanwhile Walker and Udy adds another foot of timber up the chute side and when late in the afternoon they get the strays up to the pen they rides them hard right into the boat.
The buffalo didn't know what was being done to 'em and lest they catch on and start something, the rangers decide to make this trip right away that night. Well, they gets 'em over to the island and turns 'em loose. Right then they washes their hands of any more buffalo herding.
They're the meanest critters, so Udy tells us. Why at times while Walker was foreman at the island, they used to raid the home ranch for eats. They wasn't content to eat range grass, he says. Instead, they'd walk into a nice potato plantation about ready for harvest and kick up the tubers with their hooves. Couple o'hundred bushel a night would be wiped out when they was going good. To stop this, Walker loaded up a shotgun with good, heavy buckshot and lets 'em have a few doses. That was about the only way to sting them enough to make them travel, Udy says."
Democrat barbecue: "They been out there ever since, some of them getting killed off once in a while for a Democrat barbecue or a movie, but otherwise having about their own way. Yes, that's Antelope Island. Udy don't know why they calls it by that name. He never heard of no antelope out there, he says.
But the days of the old sail scow are long past. Walker is dead. Udy don't crave any more buffalo herding and leasees of the island are said to have been complaining that the old plains critters now  numbering nearly 500 head forage too much of the range that otherwise might be used for feeding sheep or cattle.
There was only 17 when we took 'em out,' Udy demurs, and they had been more or less tamed on the Glasmann ranch. It's going to be some job to get rid of 400, unless you kill 'em off. Who wants to do that? It's one of the finest buffalo herds in the world. We ought to preserve it as a reminder of the past. Leastwise, I feel that way after Will Walker and I had such a job getting 'em started.'"