I have traveled the interstate that cuts through North Florida’s Paynes Prairie a number of times. It is a flat expanse of land and brush that, from the highway, resembles more of a thirsty marsh. I always knew there were bison there but I never once stopped to find them, roaming as they probably were in the savanna that had been named after a Seminole Chief, King Payne. King Payne led his tribe after his father was killed in 1783 and until his own death in 1812 when he was shot and killed by Daniel Newnan (who, oddly enough, has a lake named after him in the middle of Paynes Prairie). The Seminole Indians were a runaway band of Creek Indians, wild people, which is what the word “seminole” means. They, like the bison that used to occupy the land out west by the millions, were slaughtered to near extinction. The survivors, both bison and Indian, were eventually relocated.
But herein lies an unexpected connection between Florida and Oklahoma, and it isn’t the Creek Nation (which does include the Seminoles). Those bison from Paynes Prairie are direct descendants of the bison from Wichita Mountain National Wildlife Refuge here in southwest Oklahoma. By the end of the 19th century, bison had become extinct in Oklahoma. In 1907, the Plains bison were re-introduced to the state by way of the Bronx Zoo. Oklahoma’s Wichita Mountain inherited fifteen of these massive animals. Ten of those Plains bison were transported to North Central Florida’s Paynes Prairie in 1975 where historical records show the animals once lived and thrived. Current documents and land management experts agree they are still thriving.
My brother and I have been working quite hard on tracing our own family roots and I was really excited to learn there is a sister of a grandfather from six generations back who settled in Jones, Oklahoma, a mere half-hour drive from my home in Oklahoma City. Considering the widespread scattering of family names, it was almost a relief to learn relatives are nearby, even if they are complete strangers and, as local records show, long-deceased. It kind of feels like there was a trace of me here already. So when I finally got to see a bison on an early-year trip to Lawton, Oklahoma, I felt like I was meeting a long-lost relative of someone I should have made more time for when I lived in Florida. If there had been extra days planned in during my return home this past summer, I would’ve made a trip inland to say hello to the Paynes Prairie bison. They probably would have appreciated some messages of goodwill from the Oklahoma herd.