Catalina Island Bison

Oh, the mystery since 1924!!

Mysterious Catalina Island Bison herd was formed from Yellowstone National Park Bison in 1924

Until I have proof that says otherwise, I think the original bison came from Yellowstone Park, after the filming of ‘The Thundering Herd.”

If DNA testing is correct today, (meaning advancements are being made) it should tell us whether or not the cattle genes in the present herd came from Texas or not. The Sherwin Ranch of Colorado who sent bison there in 1934, previously tried crossing them with cattle. 

A few years ago I searched into the now Catalina Island Conservancy (CIC) herd, there is not a lot of information to be found. I found an article or two from Catalina Islander(CI), but not enough information to write about. It was already being covered heavily of the same story of the bison being brought to the island to be in a Zane Gray movie, most actually say it was “ The Vanishing American.” I looked into that movie and just couldn’t believe that to be true.  I have seen articles in the more recent years but most were all about the PZP (Porcine Zona Pellucida ) program. Which I think is a great program for them but, nothing to add to the original history.

Then a short while ago I read an article that was leading to the idea the herd must be from Charles Goodnight because they have found cattle genes in almost half the roughly 90 head tested.  That got my attention. But throughout most all articles have I read about Charles Goodnights bison herds, he claimed the two herds were always separate from each other. So he had his pure herd and his herd of crosses, dubbed “cattalo.”  In the DNA that was found in the CI bison, linking the bison genetics back to similar genetics of the Texas bison herd. But…do the cattle genes they found, link back to the same cattle genes found in the Texas herd?

I will hold out my opinion until we have DNA from the 18th century or even older bison. Were there cattle genes in them? I love science and I know its always an ongoing exploration.

Finding out that Zane Gray was friends with Buffalo Jones. I thought maybe that’s where the bison came from. Jones often purchased bison from Goodnight or he gathered them off the plains and he was known for cattle crosses and the desire to make a name. He sold a lot of animals, who knows how many of those genetics are out there.

It’s not widely known that the herd on Catalina is, in my opinion, not a closed herd. I previously always thought it was because it’s just not in the news very much. (Compared to other large herds)  I thought if there were bison being moved about, it would have been in the papers across the states or at least listed in the American Bison Society Reports (ABS). I thought the herd started in 1924 and basically left alone, making it a closed herd.

There lies part of the mystery. First I noticed people were very confused as to where the initial animals came from. The first article I read years ago, said: “perhaps brought in for a movie.” That led to it being circulated multiple times as they were brought in for a movie.  So many articles since then, most all claim Zane Gray brought them to the island to be used in his film “The Vanishing American” and could not afford to take them back to the plains, so they remained on the island.  Then decided not to use the scenes shot and they ended up on the cutting room floor.   That story is still being republished today.

Routt County Sentinel, August 3, 1923

Sterling —Logon county is to have a buffalo ranch. The nucleus of the herd was bought in Texas for Len Sherwin, projector of this unique branch of the livestock business. Mr. Sherwin had already acquired three bulls, and the present herd, consisting of two bulls, twelve cows and five calves, will give him a well-equipped start. The idea is being carried out partly for its novelty and partly for commercial purposes.

In an article published in 1995 tells of an interview with the then living Sherwins from Colorado. Who claim Len and Hilma Sherwin in 1924 sold 14 head to be used in the film “The Vanishing American”. But an article I found published in 1938 says Mr. Wrigley bought the animals in 1934 (not 1924) from a lady in Colorado who was going broke.  Len Sherwin who bought the 3 bulls from Goodnight in 1918 had plans to cross them on cattle. Those were the first bison he had. Later in July 1923, he bought 19 more from Lubbock, TX.  Two bulls, 12 cows and 5 calves. (another article says: cows, heifers, and calves) He was planning on the novelty and commercial business and he just bought them, why would he sell any in just a few months?  In Nov. 1929 it was reported his 40 buffalo escaped and stopped a Burlington train, the train killing one before it could stop. He died in 1929, so it makes more sense that the article in 1934 stating Wrigley bought 17 head from a woman in Colorado who was going broke. The article also states, twelve went to Catalina and the other five to Arizona. In 1935 some 78 head was reported by a Colorado paper.

The next mystery, maybe even a bigger mystery is how come the American Bison Society (ABS) never included them in any of their census. They tracked single animals, but yet never track the Sherwin herd.
ABS 1918 census shows only two herds in Colorado. The Denver-City Park 23 head and La Veta Pass The Trinchera Co, 150 head.
ABS 1920 census shows Castle Rock-Richard Dillon 12 head, Denver-Mountain Park 23 head, Durkley-B. A. Dawson 4 head, Fort Garland-W. B. Turner 173 head.
ABS 1923 Denver Mountain Parks 17 head, Fort Garland—Trinchera Ranch Co est. 133 head, Sedalia-Richard Dillion 6 head. Never is Sherwin’s “largest herd in the U.S.” ever mentioned.
ABS 1926 Denver Mountain Parks 29 head, Fort Garland—Trinchera Ranch Co 100 head, Sedalia—Richard Dillon 6 head, Lamar-Allen Cole 1 head.
ABS 1929 Denver Mountain Parks 59 head, and Fort Garland—Trinchera Ranch Co 99 head.

So I kept researching all my sources, almost giving up and just started searching different words variations.  One little tidbit, in every article, there has to be one real fact. So I went back through all the articles I found, most of them in the Catalina Islander Archives, and started researching each detail, which would lead me to another find. I was impressed with some of the information I was finding. There have actually been more recent papers published on the herd, who knew, but again the same story of where they came from just being repeated.

Yes, I believe the herd came from a movie situation. But not “The Vanishing American” that is so widely published. That movie doesn’t even lend to the idea there would even be a reason to have a bison herd in it. But….”The Thundering Herd” filmed in Yellowstone National Park….that is where I believe the nucleus herd on Catalina Island came from.  I don’t think I am the first to think that.  Jim Watson wrote about this in 2011. He found a similar article, published in the Catalina Islander in 1938.  I found mine Maryland published in 1925. Another article was published in 2012 in a “Letter To The Editor.” It was written by an attorney and Professor of Law. I could not have related to that letter anymore, I wanted to applaud him.


Bisons as Screen Stars

Sixteen of the eighty-six surplus bison that were subtracted from the Yellowstone herd this season have gone to California to join the movies. The Yellowstone bison have often been filmed on their native heath. And during the present season performed a leading role in the production of “The Thundering Herd,” The contingent now bound for Hollywood will be active in completing this feature. When this has completed they will be released on Catalina Island, the Philadelphia Record says.

The animals sent out from the park went to municipalities for the most part, but some went to game preserves and forest and a few to private estates. The largest pair shipped went to Flo Zeigfeld.

 The bison herd in Yellowstone park started in 1902 with 21 animals, 18 cows from the Allard herd of western Montana and three bulls from the Goodnight herd of Texas. They multiply very rapidly, and the herd numbered 780 on Aug 1. There were 120 calves last spring and 100 in the spring of 1923. (end)

The article above also lends to the idea they might be used in a movie in California and it does say they were used in the movie “The Thundering Herd.” Which if I were a movie guy like Zane Grey and had a chance at some free bison, I would also be thinking about a new movie. But, we all know how rumors start.

Yellowstone, after the filming was over they relocated almost 90 head of the bison. Some people have said that it was a Paramount film, not a Lasky. But…. Famous Players Lasky Co., later to become Paramount. They worked together before merging.  The articles below are just a couple I have that are proof Zane Grey indeed was involved in the making of “The Thundering Herd”

In Aug 1925 Yellowstone put the word out “Free Buffalo,” the herd had become too large. Again in 1926.
The Thundering Herd –Released March 1st, 1925
Director:  William K. Howard
Writers:  Zane Grey (novel), Lucien Hubbard
Stars:  Jack Holt, Lois Wilson, Noah Beery
Country:  USA  Release Date:  1 March 1925 (USA)
Also Known As:  In the Days of the Thundering Herd
Filming Locations:  Yellowstone National Park – Arapahoe Reservation (WY)
Company Credits Production Co:  Famous Players-Lasky Corporation

The Vanishing American: Released Feb 15th, 1926
According to an interview with Lasky in September 1925, the idea for adapting Grey’s novel into a feature-film originated in 1922 when he and Lucien Hubbard, the editorial supervisor for Zane Grey Productions, received an invitation from Grey to visit Navajo Mountain and Rainbow Bridge in northern Arizona. The reservation’s stark and boundless desert scenery captivated Lasky and after spending nearly two months there, he suggested they use the vast ranges as the background for a motion picture.
The film began production in June 1925 and finished that September.
June 14, 1925, The Evening Star reports production to begin soon.

The rumor about the herd of 14 bison being brought to Catalina Island for the filming of The Vanishing American was debunked by the curator of the Catalina Museum on the PBS show California’s Gold (1996). (confirmed) When asked where that rumor came from she said their own local paper started in December of 24 and backed it up again 3 weeks later in Jan of 1925.  (articles below)

The Catalina Islander
California Dec 24, 1924


It is quite a unique experience to see a herd of buffalo, fourteen of them, on Catalina Island. But such is now the case when one ventures to the west end.

Mr Tom White,  who is connected with the Lasky Film Company of Hollywood, shipped the animals to the Isthmus last week, and they were later turned loose to browse on the hillsides west of the Isthmus. The animals were shipped to Catalina Island Harbor in separate crates, slowly herded by Mr. Arnold Gillatt, and driven over to the location where they will spend the winter.

It is quite possible that the Lasky Film Company will use the buffalo in a picture during the coming spring. Several of the animals weigh 1,500 pounds each. (end)

Notice it says: it is possible they will be used in a movie, just like the Yellowstone article.

Catalina Islander Jan 1925 The Vanishing American
Catalina Islander       January 1925



The Montgomery Advertiser
Montgomery, Alabama March 26, 1925

In “The Thundering Herd,” to be shown at the Empire theater beginning next Wednesday are three of the principal players of the recent Paramount success, .”North of 36,” an epic of American history in the winning and building of the west.

Jack Holt, Lois Wilson and Noah Beery are the players, the virtue of whose work in “North of 36” demanded that they be east in the leading roles in another great epic picture to be produced. .

“The Thundering Herd” is the picturization of the story by Zane Grey, a tale, of life on the plains and the slaughtering of the great buffalo herds that roamed the west.

Zane Grey was inspired in writing his story by, a trip made into the wild, regions of the west, and a friendship with the really savior of the American bison, one Buffalo Jones.

As in all his stories, there is a definite and thrilling plot to “The Thundering Herd,” that rivals even “The Wagon” and “North of 36.” (end)


You might say the dates don’t exactly match up. Not many articles were published about the filming and owing to the fact it takes months to make a film that could be a very possible explanation.



The Thundering Herd  (Movie released March 1, 1925)The Thundering Herd

This is dated Dec 1924 and says the animals were shipped ‘last week,”  the article in Maryland is dated April 1925. (4 months later from CI article and a reprint of the Philadelphia Record) Four months is a long time for a repeat article, but not uncommon back then nor today. I often find articles of the result, then later find the incident.  (meaning ‘answer’ published before the “question’)  It makes me wonder when the Philidelphia Record was first published. (they went out of business in 1947 and I can’t locate any archives)

The headcount is also in question. The receiving article says 14 head, while the shipping article says 16. Both could very well be true. The two unaccounted for bison could have died being crated or in transport. Both are very stressful for a wild animal.

I found another article dated March 1925, (3 months after the CI article) it was also a reprint of the Philadelphia Record, so the original was printed before March and the movie was in production in January 1925 in Calabasas, California for its scenes. An article published in Feb 1925 says that production in underway in the snows of the Sierra Nevadas and kept there for weeks. When were the scenes shot for Montana’s’ YNP?  December of 1924, like the article in the Catalina Islander claims to receive the first bison of 14 head?  (Keep in mind that the DNA results show MT DNA) Did they film in Montanan first?  Seems crazy to think they were in Nevada for weeks in February and the movie was released the first of March. It could be possible if they arrived in January and wrapped up at the beginning of February. I am guessing about this cause I have no idea how fast they could edit and produce the kind of movies made back then.  The Covered Wagon is a much different situation, with all the props and people used for the making.


The Covered Wagon
(release date Sept 8, 1924-Paramount Pictures (as Famous Players-Lasky Corporation)

“The Covered Wagon”, also a Lasky film with a buffalo hunt. It was filmed on Antelope Island, not Catalina. It was actually filmed in 5 states- 14 different locations.
Great Basin National Park-Nevada, Garrison-Utah (Indian Attack on Wagon Train Scene), Antelope Island-Great Salt Lake-Utah, Garrison Reservoir-Garrison-Utah, Garrison-Utah (Fort Bridger Scene), Garrison- Utah (River Crossing Scene), Paiute Wilderness Area-Arizona, Iverson Ranch – 1 Iverson Lane, Chatsworth- L A, California, Moccasin Mountains,-Arizona, Colorado City-Arizona, Oregon, Skull Valley-Nevada, Snake Valley- Nevada, Sonora-California.(Source:

If this movie was released in September of 1924, seems to me it would be way too early for the bison to be moved in December to the Island. Guessing production started way earlier than the release, because of how elaborate the props were and over 1,000 people involved. Lots of money went into this project with all the schooners, oxen, bison, and covered wagons. Quite the feat!

1922: Scenes from the movie “The Covered Wagon” using the buffalo herd was filmed at what is now called Camera Flats. (Source:

Oct 14, 1922- filming underway for The Covered Wagon.

Antelope Island. “Twelve bison, 4 bulls (males), 4 cows (females) and 4 calves were taken by boat to the island on February 15, 1893, by William Glassman and John Dooly.” (William ‘Bill’ Glassman tried to start development with a bison attraction; it did not come to fruition) These 12 animals apparently came originally from a small private herd in Texas and became the foundation for what has grown into the Antelope Island bison herd.  (Source: All About Bison-Antelope Island and


Lansing State Journal
Lansing Michigan Dec 15, 1923
Pioneers Helped Make This Nation a Power
How They Did It Is Graphically Shown in Picture, “The Covered Wagon.”

This is the story of “The Covered Wagon,” an epic of the great wagon trains, which in 48’ crossed the plains to Oregon from Westport Landing Mo.

This story, new to motion pictures, was made by James Cruze for Paramount with a wealth of detail, great spectacular effects and unlimited effort. It will be shown at the Gladmer theater December 20, 21. and 22.

Most of the picture was filmed in Utah and Nevada. A buffalo hunt was staged on Antelope Island, in the Great Salt Lake, where one of the largest herds of bison in the world is located. The Baker Ranch in Snake Valley, Nevada, was employed for most of the backgrounds an untrodden wilderness for the most part.

Five hundred covered “prairie schooners” were built or purchased, and thousands of Indians and oilier characters are employed. “The Covered Wagon” will be acclaimed one of the greatest dramas of the century and one that will be an invaluable historical record. (end) (scene footage on All About Bison)


The Anaconda Standard
Anaconda, Montana May 1, 1923

Creation of Game Sanctuary in Yellowstone Park and Saving of Bison Attributed Largely to Him.

By the Associated Press. CHICAGO, April .30.
Emerson Hough, popular author, and naturalist, died at the Evanston hospital today after a short Illness.

Mr. Hough, who was 66, was taken to the hospital Thursday suffering from an intestinal obstruction and an operation was performed on Saturday. He appeared to be recovering but suffered a relapse early this morning and died a few hours later. Funeral services will be held at his home tomorrow afternoon. Mr. Hough first attained recognition with his “Mississippi Bubble,” published in l902. Seven years later he published what was probably his most famous novel, “Fifty Four Forty or Fight.”

LIVINGSTON, Mont., April, 30. Creation of the game sanctuary in Yellowstone National park, and the saving of the bison from absolute extinction were attributed largely to the efforts of Emerson Hough, novelist, and sportsman, whose death was reported today. – Horace Albright, superintendent of the park, and Howard Hays, head of the camp company operating in the reservation, both close friends of the writer, said the passage of the congressional enactment of 1890 to protect game in the Yellowstone, resulted chiefly to his work as a writer.

Mr. Hough, as the representative of an outdoor magazine, went into the park on skis in the winter of 1893-94, assisted in the capture of a buffalo poacher who was exterminating the small remaining buffalo herds and then wrote a series of articles which virtually compelled federal action.

 Yellowstone park remained a favorite holiday place of Mr. Hough. Some of his best literary work was done there, including “The Covered Wagon,” which was written in the park during 1921. (end)



The Boston Globe
Boston, Massachusetts May 27 1923

How the Exciting Bison Hunt in “The Covered Wagon” Was Made for the Screen

Among the wonder of “The Covered Wagon” at the Majestic Theatre is how in the world an American bison hunt could be staged in this day and generation. Certainly there aren’t enough of the nearly extinct animals in the few private preserves or zoos, nor would their use be permitted.

But James Cruze, the director, learned of buffaloes on a big barren Island 18 miles out in Salt Lake. So he proceeded to investigate and discovered that a firm known as the Buffalo Livestock Corporation owned the shaggy beasts and for a consideration was willing to let them be used for the picture.  (article continues unrelated)


One more thing about ‘dates,’  I found an article dated Nov 24 1938. It says: in 1924 the picture “The Covered Wagon” was filmed on Catalina and portions were shot at the Isthmus. The buffalo were used in it.  Producers agreed to leave the bison there, probably on account of the cost of feeding them. It goes on to say the herd was 18 head and only 4 cows in the bunch.

This makes no sense to me, we are talking about Wrigley and Zane Gray, who both have very heartfelt interest in the bison and have the money and means, and there is no record of that movie ever being filmed on C.I., I also found no record of the A.I. bison being sold to Wrigley or Zane Grey

Published In 1934 Mr Wrigley (who owned the Island) purchased 17 head from Colorado and 12 were brought to the island, making a balance of 32 considering into account the 3 that were killed previously.

Headcounts reported….
1924 -14 head from YNP -14 head report by Catalina Islander in 1924&1938 16 head by shipper in 1925
1927 – one bison was shot- shooter never found
1933 -A picture taken shows 3 new calves
1934- 8 originals and 11 born – headcount 19
1934 -9 head  added (Fall of 34)  Headcount 28
1934 -12 head added from Colorado 
1934- 32 head (with the 12 head addition above)
1935 – Published in a recent paper that between 1924 and 1935 24 head were introduced to the island.
1935 – In the same paper as above, it also says 1924-1935 23 head were introduced to the island.
1938 – Aug 4th  3 calves born bringing total to 37
1938 – Oct 6 herd numbers exactly 36 head  ( claims 12 of the original herd and later additions and births)

In several papers I have read, from peer-reviewed to Government docs and newspapers. It’s impossible to track the exact headcounts. Very poor records were and are kept and with the births of calves and deaths, natural and otherwise. It’s anyone’s guess. I read that two more bison were shot and the shooters had to bring in a replacement animal from the mainland as a replacement. One was reported to have fallen off a cliff.

Beings so much of the mystery revolves around the Colorado purchase, I had to see for myself. The article in the magazine of 1995 says that in 1918 he bought 3 bulls from Charles Goodnight in plans of crossing them on cattle. It also claims they shipped 14 head to Catalina Island in 1924 for a movie, “The Vanishing American”

In July 1923 he purchased 19 more head from Lubbock Tx. (cows, heifers, and calves) He wanted to expand, for novelty and commercial meat business.  They were in the process of being delivered to the ranch by H.S. Lindsey. (another article says-two bulls, 12 cows and 5 calves.)

I think over time the story has been greatly skewed. They did ship animals to Catalina, but it was 1934 and it was not for the movie, “The Covered Wagon.”

I say this because after reading about the life of Len U Sherwin, he was not a man that would have given up on something he loved. He loved his animals. He raised cattle and many horses and had all his life been involved with livestock.  After all, he purchased his first bison in 1918 and wanted more a few years later. So he knew full well what he was getting into. It was not a quick decision. He was planning a future business move. He had the bulls and 4-5 years later bought females.  I don’t see a man like that turning around months later and selling half his herd.

Len Sherwin died in April of 1929, the article published in 1938 says Mr. Wrigley purchased bison from a woman in Colorado who was not financially secure. A broke woman in those days, selling off her stock, tells me she was a widow and selling stock to pay the bills.

Broke…maybe not. (did someone assume a widow woman selling stock must be having hard times, or did she relay that idea?)

In 1935 she also shipped 28 large bison from her herd of 74 head, out to a California feedlot.

Find A Grave: Son of Len U Sherwin

Carl Leonard Sherwin B July 1912 D June 1984  Earlier this year, Mr. Sherwin was presented the Western Heritage Award and membership in the Cowboy Hall of Fame, recognizing his work with buffalo. The Sherwin buffalo herd had been near Sterling for nearly 65 years, and was begun by his father, Len Sherwin, who purchased the beginnings of the herd from C Goodnight of Goodnight, Texas, in 1918.
The herd had been pastured in the sajne area, east of Sterling, for more than 40 years and at various times was the subject of story-photo graphic documentaries. The Slier- wins and the herd participated in many northeast Colorado, Logan County and Sterling events marking historic or civic occasions. The Sherwins sold their buffalo herd and operated Buffalo Hills Park until selling the operation. During the Western Heritage Awards ceremony at the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City, Mr. Sherwin received the Wrangler Award. Mr. Sherwin married Effia M. Pleas Jan. 22, 1960, in Colorado Springs.


Sources for the above information not already listed:
Newspapers OnlineCatalina IslanderLibrary of CongressColorado Historic Newspapers – Closed Herds_vol13_no1 –
cic_08times – D Propst CIC US Gov doc- Sweitzer_et_al 2004  – Propst N.B. (1995) Where buffalo roam. Persimmon Hill, 60–3 – Vogel_et_al_2007- Durham Bison Ranch Gillette Wy – Wikipedia – IMDB – Findagrave – PBS Archives – California’s Gold Exhibit and Huell Howser Archives


A paper written by Dave Raynolds (Closed Herds) was one of the most accurate reports of real headcounts and animal movements. After the fiasco of the early years’ lack of records, he reported that the famous Durham Ranch in Gillette, Wyoming introduced 15 bull calves being eight months old in 1969. The Durhan Ranch, over the years, removed animals. I reached out to the family and they replied:

“Best as I can remember we sent them 100 or 200 head of yearlings hfrs and bulls and barged them over from Long Beach area. We also barged from them and hauled to slaughter on at least two occasions 200 or more cows and some bulls as they were inbred, smallish and overpopulated. Jack and I went there in the beginning and made the deal with whomever was in charge at the time. Later we dealt with someone else on some more culls but I do not think they bought any more breeders.”

When I asked specifically about the 1969 transfer, he said: “Probably in the early to mid 70’s with more than 1 year involved.”

1970 Montana National Bison Range contributed 7 bull calves.

1983 Government document states between 400-600 bison

1996 CIC bison manager, about 250 head with a good calf crop coming