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Mysterious Island: Buffalo riddle solved?

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One of our most enduring mysteries on Catalina Island would seem to have a simple answer. And that is just exactly how our herd of buffalo, or American Bison, got to the Island in the first place.

For decades, it was taken as gospel that our iconic buffalo are the progeny of a small herd brought to the Island in 1923 to film a silent movie entitled “The Vanishing American,” a screenplay adaptation of Zane Grey’s novel of the same name.

One of our most enduring mysteries on Catalina Island would seem to have a simple answer. And that is just exactly how our herd of buffalo, or American Bison, got to the Island in the first place.

For decades, it was taken as gospel that our iconic buffalo are the progeny of a small herd brought to the Island in 1923 to film a silent movie entitled “The Vanishing American,” a screenplay adaptation of Zane Grey’s novel of the same name.

I had heard this story ever since I first moved to the Island nearly 20 years ago and it is still the boilerplate answer to inquisitive visitors on the part of everyone from food servers and ticket agents to tour guides.

The story apparently got started from an article in the December 13, 1923, edition of this very newspaper that heralded the arrival of a “herd of buffalo, fourteen of them.” The story goes on to say that the bison were brought out by Hollywood’s Famous Players-Lasky Pictures and that it was “quite possible” they would be used in an upcoming film.

This “upcoming film” is not named in the article, but it has always been assumed it was “The Vanishing American,” which was filmed on the Island about that date.

The problem with this assumption is that Lasky Pictures also filmed a few other Westerns out here as well around the same time.

But to go on:

I first started to realize that something was amiss with the “Vanishing American” theory after then-Catalina Island Museum Director Patricia Moore actually got ahold of a copy of the film and watched it only to find there were no buffalo in it!

The idea then got started that, well, maybe they brought the buffalo here for that film, shot some footage of them roaming around the Island, and then decided to edit them out. Yes, that must be it.

But then, five years later, I came upon a rough draft of an old Santa Catalina Island Company brochure from 1947 while doing some research at the Museum. This draft stated that the initial herd was brought out to film James Cruze’s “The Covered Wagon.”

The Museum had a copy of this film as well, so one day Ron Pyke and I pulled up a couple of chairs at the Museum Research Center and watched it. Unlike “The Vanishing American,” there indeed were buffalo in this film, but it was clearly not filmed on Catalina Island.

 But now, with a drum roll and a tip o’ the hat to our own Time Capsule author Chuck Liddell, it appears that after all these years our long-sought answer may have been hiding in plain sight, as they say.

On the front page of this very paper, in the October 6, 1938, edition, is a small article headlined “Famed ‘Thundering Herd’ of Buffalo Has Tripled During Island Stay.” The “Thundering Herd” is a reference to another silent film from that era filmed on Catalina Island and released in 1925. The article states that the herd was “brought to the island by the Lasky organization, which filmed the picture.”

But here’s the key part: After filming was complete, says the article, “Jesse Lasky made the Island a present of the herd…”

From these humble beginnings, one buffalo begat another and we arrive today at our herd of between 150 and 200 bison.

To the casual visitor to Catalina, such a discovery may not seem significant.

But for those of us enamored with Catalina history, this would be a profound revelation, almost akin to discovering that Neil Armstrong wasn’t really the first human to set foot on the moon.

Could we finally have our answer? Possibly, but there are still some issues. For one thing, “The Thundering Herd” was a Paramount Picture, not a Lasky, and was directed by William K. Howard.

As a matter of fact, I couldn’t find Jesse Lasky’s name associated with the film anywhere. (As an interesting aside, that 1925 film was Gary Cooper’s film debut in an uncredited role).

Also, the fact that the film was released nearly a year and a half after the buffalo were brought to the Island doesn’t disprove anything, but it doesn’t help either.

I’d love to get a copy of this film and watch it for myself.

But, unfortunately, like the vast majority of silent films, it is officially classified as a “lost film” and therefore in all likelihood it is gone forever.

I guess it’s safe to say that those wily buffalo still have us all stumped.    

Jim Watson is the author of “Mysterious Island: Catalina,” available on Amazon, Kindle and in stores all over Avalon.

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