PITTSBURGH — The last Native Americans, of the Blackfeet Tribe, left Allegheny County parks on March 25, 1931. They moved here from Montana to work as gamekeepers after North Park and South Park were built, but tired of gawking picnickers and longed to return to Montana.
The parks were created largely by the influence of one county commissioner, Edward V. Babcock, in the late 1920s. Babcock, a wealthy industrialist and timberman, saw the rapid industrialization of the greater Pittsburgh area and urged for the preservation of rural lands. His conviction in creating a park system prompted him to purchase the nucleus parcels at his own expense, later reselling them at cost back to the county. Additional adjoining land parcels were purchased through eminent domain, displacing at least a dozen families.
Designed to be “the people’s country clubs,” North Park and South Park were farmlands at the beginning. Reforestation programs were started in 1927 by the newly organized Department of Parks, using native trees and following vast landscaping plans drawn up by Paul B. Riis, who also designed Yellowstone and other national parks. Riis called for stone lodges, golf courses, road systems and North Park Lake.
While the parks were still largely under construction, Babcock became enthusiastic about having “big game” in the parks, like at his 15,000 acre estate in Somerset County.
Thirty-six bison were brought in a convoy of 15 trucks from a preserve in Schnecksville, PA (known today as the Trexler Nature Preserve), along with deer and other native wildlife to fill the park and entice visitors. Commissioners failed to secure any moose, which Babcock had also suggested.
Robust six-foot-high fences were installed along Lake Shore Drive and Walter Road in North Park, with armed guards surrounding the herd in case they became rowdy before installation was complete.
Romantic thinking at the time led to the belief that Native Americans should be the caretakers of the bison herd and county commissioners sought their new employees, and their families, from the Blackfeet Nation reservation in Montana. Though the “chief” titles are likely not authentic, Chief Big Beaver went to North Park and Chief Wild Eagle and Chief Red Horn went to South Park, each with their own tribes.
Some accounts suggest there may have also been a family of Sioux in South Park.
Chief Big Beaver was described as a larger-than-life, full-blooded Blackfeet, whose tall stature and native dress were exactly the image the commissioners were eager to exploit. The family set up a tipi on Flagstaff Hill and became a de facto sideshow attraction to the bison herd. An observation tower was also constructed to help keep the animals in view of visitors.
Chief Wild Eagle and Chief Red Horn quickly decided that winters in Pittsburgh were too severe and both departed South Park after one season.
Chief Big Beaver and his family opted to manage the bison herd much as their ancestors would have, for food and clothing. Park authorities were not enthused by this interpretation of their curator role and accepted his resignation. Allegations of poaching were offset by a lack of compassion from the commissioners and both sides were eager to part company.
The chief, his wife and their four children, one of whom was born in Pittsburgh, were given free passage back to Montana.
A 1931 Parks report expressed no sentimentality about the departed Blackfeet, saying that the money was well spent and, “As was hoped, they drew to the parks and entertained thousands of delighted children and adults.” The report also noted that activity permits had risen from just 115 in 1927 to 1,299 in 1931.
The remaining bison herds became contentious and several males were castrated in an attempt to quell their aggression. By the 1940s all the remaining bison were consolidated into a single herd in South Park, led by a bull named Hitler. Unfortunately for the 2,000-pound bull, his escape attempt on Jan. 21, 1940, ended in gunfire after he left the park grounds and became a menace to traffic.
Park employees stopped naming the individual bison shortly after that.
The South Park bison herd numbers between 10-20 in recent years, with one to two calves born annually.
After the bison were relocated, the North Park deer herd was placed in a pen built along Pearce Mill Road. They remained there until 1991, when the seven remaining deer were released after vandals damaged the fence. By the time the fence was repaired, the Pennsylvania Game Commission ruled that confining the deer would be illegal after they mingled with the wild deer in the park. The fence was repurposed to separate two softball fields.
Cox Media Group