Buffalo Nickels

I remember as a kid picking through change, looking for Indian Head pennies and nickels. They were both pretty much out of circulation by the 1960s, but every now and then I’d find one. The Indian Head penny, minted from 1859 to 1909 – when it was replaced by the Lincoln cent – wasn’t much to look at, but the nickel was spectacular. Some called it the “Buffalo nickel.” It looked like this:

The change in the appearance of both the penny and the nickel was due to President Theodore Roosevelt making known his dissatisfaction with the artistic state of the country’s coinage in 1904. Not long after, the U.S. Mint sprang into action, hiring artists to come up with new designs. Abraham Lincoln was originally proposed for the nickel, but ended up on the penny, and the American Indian, now consigned to reservations across the West, was promoted from the penny to the nickel, with a bison on the reverse side. The artist that designed the Buffalo nickel never disclosed the name of the Indian chief that served as his model, claiming it was a composite, although he did specifically mention two Plains Indian veterans of the Battle of Little Bighorn, Iron Tail (an Oglala Lakota Sioux) and Two Moons (a Cheyenne) whose portraits he had painted.

The Buffalo nickel was replaced by the Jefferson nickel in 1938 and thus, for a time, the American Indian and the American Buffalo – both having been removed from the Americanized West – were consigned to the dustbin of history. But, for the bicentennial of the Lewis & Clark Expedition of 1804, commemorative designs of the Jefferson nickel were minted in 2004 and 2005 with four different reverse designs, all significant to the Expedition, one of which brought back the bison. The American Indian was also restored with Sacajawea being honored on the one dollar coin in 2000 in a series of “Native American dollars,” the reverse side of which has changed annually since 2009.

And all of this is a prelude to what greeted us when we visited the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park Thursday:

We spent the entire day here, driving the Scenic Loop Drive and then hiking the Big Plateau in the backcountry wilderness area. When we left the Park much later in the day, the old bull, above, was still standing here. I had to stop to make sure he was real and alive. He was. [Due to road erosion undercutting the road base, the last 12 miles of the 36-mile Scenic Loop Road is closed, so the drive currently ends at the Badlands Overlook.]

After entering the Park and saying “hello” to the old bull, we stopped a few miles in at the prairie dog town shown on the map, above, near Peaceful Valley Ranch. These things are everywhere in the Dakotas. This particular prairie dog town must have covered hundreds of acres, pockmarking the surface with mounded burrows spaced about six feet apart (can you say “social distancing?”). According to Encyclopedia Britannica, the largest prairie dog colony is in Texas, stretching across 25,000 square miles with a population estimated at 400 million of these squirrel-like rodents!

Prairie dogs – I couldn’t stop calling the “gophers” – weigh about 2 lbs. and grow to be around a foot long. They are herbivores with strong clawed paws, enabling them to dig extensive burrow systems in the hard-packed soil. Western farmers and ranchers consider them a nuisance, but they’ve been around since the Pliocene Epoch, more than 3 million years now, and I suspect they’ll be around until somebody builds a better mouse trap.

Just past the prairie dog town we turned right at the first fork, thinking it was the main road, but it turned out to be a wrong turn. We soon discovered that we had gone up the closed section of the Scenic Loop Drive, but at the barricade there was a herd of bison grazing along the side of the road, so we stopped to watch them for awhile:

Continuing our drive on the open part of the road, we stopped again near Boicourt Overlook to observe another herd of wild animals, this time, horses that have eluded capture here since the 1950s:

We eventually made it to Badlands Overlook where we turned around. Here’s the view from there:

On the drive back, we spotted a Pronghorn grazing uphill. This American antelope can run 40 mph and leap 20 feet, but he didn’t want to put on a show for us.

A few miles from the Park gate, we turned in at Peaceful Valley Ranch, had a quick picnic lunch, and then headed out for our hike up onto the Big Plateau. The trail guides we read in advance didn’t mention a river crossing, but that’s what greeted us once we broke out of the trees near the Ranch.

After fording what I later discovered was the Little Missouri River, we made our way up the 450-foot ascent on the Big Plateau Trail…

… to, you guessed it, the top of the Big Plateau! The trail led straight across the top of the plateau to a rise in the distance and the junction with the Maah Daah Hey Trail that we would travel for our return:

But, off in the distance, we could see another herd of bison, scattered across the plateau, centered on the trail we had planned to hike.

Hey! I thought these things were supposed to have been hunted to near extinction by the builders of the transcontinental railroads. What gives? Apparently, the bison didn’t get the memo. They seemed to be everywhere here in Teddy Roosevelt’s Park. No wonder the Hidatsa and Lakota Sioux (among others) treasured this land as their hunting grounds.

The American bison, commonly known as the plains buffalo, is native to North America. Although many of those we encountered stood about five feet tall, a mature bull – and we did see several – can stand 6.5 feet tall at the shoulders and weigh, literally, a ton! They are not to be messed with, as Dale reminded me, insisting that we NOT hike through the herd. I relented and we made our way around the periphery, keeping our distance (as you can see in the photo, below):

Up the rise to our connecting trail, stopping to search for our destination, off in the distance,…

… then down the other side through the remains of a petrified forest…

… on the Maah Daah Hey Trail…

… to the Ekblom Trail junction, watched over by a friendly and well-marked gopher (oops!), I mean, prairie dog. Then, on to the Jeep and back to the RV.

It was nice to stretch our legs after all the driving of the last two days: a little under 6 miles; a beautiful day in North Dakota.

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