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Scot who saved American buffalo

HE IS little known in his home country, but the Scot credited with saving America’s buffalo from being hunted to extinction is now the subject of an award-winning film.

The Buffalo King tells the tale of James “Scotty” Philip, who was born in Dallas, Moray, in 1858. One of ten siblings, he emigrated to the US in 1874 aged 15 in search of adventure.

Writer and director Justin Koehler grew up near Philip, South Dakota, a town named after the Scot. “I grew up 20 minutes from that town and I had no idea who Scotty Philip was, which was kind of embarrassing. How could I come from South Dakota and not know who he was?” he said.

“He should be a South Dakota hero, if not a North American hero. But this encouraged me to tackle this story and get it out there the way it should be.”

Working as a labourer, Philip moved from Kansas to the Dakota Territory in the Midwest to look for gold in the Black Hills. When he failed to find his fortune there, Philip moved from job to job. He was a scout in the US army, a ranch hand and a cowboy.

He built up a herd of cattle and settled on a ranch on part of an Indian reservation, which he was only allowed to do as a white man because his wife Sarah was part-Native American. He went on to become a wealthy cattle farmer and a senator.

Koehler said as a schoolboy Philip had won a blindfolded race by fearlessly sprinting for the finishing line. Asked if he had been “peeking”, Philip said: “No, ma’am, I kept the wind in my face.”

“He brought the same attitude here,” Koehler said: “He didn’t care what obstacles he was going to meet, he just went ahead. He just went for it, and it was something that was instilled in him at a young age.”

While he was building his ranch, Philip became involved with the preservation of the buffalo, or American bison. The animals had once roamed the grasslands in massive herds, but a combination of hunting and the introduction of diseases from domestic cattle had driven them to the brink of extinction.

Philip met a rancher called Peter Dupree who had managed to catch five buffalo calves during the last big hunt on the Grand River in 1881. After Dupree’s death, Philip bought his herd for $10,000, the equivalent of $250,000 nowadays.

Koehler said he believed Philip was motivated by outrage at the way the US government had treated Native American tribes. As a soldier he had witnessed the massacres at Wounded Knee and Fort Robinson.

Koehler said: “There are letters he sent back to Scotland in which he says how appalled he was at how the government was treating the Native Americans and what they were putting them through.

“He realised that if you eliminated the buffalo, you eliminated the Native Americans, and that was the mindset of the American government. Scotty could not understand this because he had tremendous respect for the Native Americans.”

He added: “He was just thinking differently from people of that time. In fact, I would say his thinking would be different from most people today.

“If he was alive today, he would be an icon, but he was certainly years ahead of his time.”

In 1901, Philip and his ranchers drove the herd of buffalo, now numbering 50, to a pasture set up specially for them. Through careful management, the herd expanded to almost 1,000 and became the source of stock for numerous national and state parks throughout the US.

Official figures show that the buffalo population was reduced from an estimated figure of 40 million to a low point of just 750 surviving buffalo in 1890, but by 2000 the breed had recovered to 360,000.

Philip’s funeral was attended by hundreds of mourners from all walks of life, following his sudden death aged 53 in 1911 from a cerebral haemorrhage.

Koehler said: “His funeral said it all. It was this huge event. They laid down a track just to get a train to bring out mourners, and the mourners consisted of politicians, because he was a senator; Native Americans; other cattlemen and friends. The diversity of people tells you a lot.”

The documentary has already received critical acclaim on the festival circuit, winning best documentary at the South Dakota Film Festival, as well as opening several other festivals. It has been submitted to the Glasgow Film Festival for inclusion in next year’s programme.

See a Preview of the film at:

This is an article from Tri-State Livestock News...

James "Scotty" Philip's main purpose in life was to become successful and wealthy, but he also had a passion for horse racing. Scotty often raced his own horses at the Powell, LaPlante and Giddings Flat racetracks.

He liked fast horses, once taking a 100-mile ride to Deer's Trading Post, near the location of his first ranch along White Clay Creek in Nebraska, to witness a "race of the century." This memorable race featured horses belonging to J.E. Utterbeck, Scotty's brother-in-law, and one of his best friends from scouting days, Jim Dahlman. (Dahlman later served 21 years as the "Cowboy Mayor of Omaha.") Both were said to possess extraordinarily fast racehorses, always seeking a race against formidable competition!

Remaining neutral, Scotty estimated that over a thousand passionate supporters, both Indian and white, came from miles around to bet their dollars, horses, saddle, bridle, blankets, guns, trinkets and anything else of value on this well-advertised horse race. The winners partied hard - the losers, well - they went home, perhaps "crying in their beer!"

In late 1889, there was joy in the Philip household. A sixth child was born; finally after five daughters, a son saw daylight and was immediately named George, the most popular name in the Philip family. But the happiness was short-lived, six months later, baby George died unexpectedly. Scotty buried him close to the ranch house along the Bad River and proclaimed it "the saddest day of his life."

Scotty, although saddened by the loss of his son, continued his quest for yet unclaimed land close to the Missouri river. On one of his many explorations for the perfect ranch site, he decided to file for a homestead three miles north of Ft. Pierre on land that was bordered on its eastern edge by the Missouri river and included the now-abandoned old military and fur-trading post, known in modern times as the Fort Pierre Chateau.

Scotty and a good friend, Buck Williams, discussed the possibilities of how the newly-elected South Dakota State Legislature would configure county boundaries on the recently opened land. Quickly, the men surveyed and plotted out a new town named "Stanley." The enterprising men built homes in Stanley and urged businessmen and settlers to do the same. They began advertising that, whereas Ft. Pierre had suffered immense losses from multiple floods, Stanley was out of the flood plain. To prove they were serious, the two men built a large, luxurious hotel for travelers, homesteaders and business men.

Justifiably, several citizens of Ft. Pierre were not ready to be uprooted by a couple of dreamers and mounted an anti-Stanley movement! An election was called, and a heated campaign ensued. In the midst of the County seat fight, it was discovered that Scotty Philip was not a U.S. citizen, and therefore, could not vote in this election for which he had so much at stake! Hastily, Scotty was ferried across the river to Pierre and filed the proper citizenship papers.

Election Day finally arrived, and in a close vote, Ft. Pierre won the County seat. Scotty and Buck decided to abandon their dream of having a town named Stanley. A question of what to do with the large hotel building was settled by the two men playing a game of cards, with the winner to be the sole owner of the hotel. Scotty won, and later, sold half of the hotel building, which was removed and used to build a home in Ft. Pierre. The remaining half was moved to Ft. Pierre and still stands. Find its present-day location north of the Robins Water Softener store along Hwy 83.

Scotty Philip's first civic duty occurred in 1890, when, he petitioned the U.S. Government to establish a Post Office in their area. Given that the closest mail service was 18 miles northwest at Grindstone, the Postal Service concurred. The post office was given the name, Philip, and opened on May 27, 1891, with Dan Powell as its first postmaster. In 1898 it was moved to a location six miles upriver, and, in 1907 was moved to the new town of Philip, SD.

A second civic duty began in the summer of 1892, when Scotty, who had only four years of school, determined that his and neighboring children should have an education. As quickly as possible, Scotty built the area's first schoolhouse near his ranch house and hired a teacher, to whom he paid the entire $35 per month salary, plus free room and board at the Philip home. The first teacher left with homesickness after two weeks, but another teacher was quickly found.

The Philip family was enduring more joy and sorrow. In late 1890, an ecstatic Scotty and Sally had a second son, Stanley, followed in 1893 by sister, Tina, who lived just eight months. In 1895 a third son, Roderick, was born and, in 1902 their last child, Annie, was born but, died tragically from a fall in 1907. Tragedy returned in 1908 when daughter Emma, age 27, died of a heart attack. Of their ten children, Scotty outlived five. A blessing was that in 1899, a nephew, George, age 17, who had been orphaned since the age of seven, traveled from Scotland to live with them in South Dakota. The Philip's loved him like their own son.

By the mid-1890s, Scotty had increased his herd to over a thousand head. His reputation as a cattleman grew and likewise, did his opportunities. He was offered partnerships in several cattle operations including the Minnesota-Dakota Cattle (73 ranch), Native Cattle Co., Philip & Stuebe, Binder & Philip and Tom Jones and Philip during the 1890s and 1900s.

At his peak, Scotty, with as many as 65 cowboys in his employment, owned an estimated 40,000 head of cattle and hundreds of horses. Scotty was quick to recognize that the "open range" grass, as he had known it, would inevitably be divided into small, fenced quarter- and half-sections. To continue to operate on such a large scale, he would have to contract with the Indian Bureau for the last "open range" grassland available. Being a "squaw-man," as he called himself, he again had priority, and signed a lease for nearly eight townships (169,000 acres) on the Lower Brule Indian Reservation for 3.5 cents per acre. He built a third ranch headquarters along Cedar Creek in Lyman County, using it regularly until his death in 1911.

During his many rides across the vast prairies inspecting his three ranches, Scotty was mindful that rarely, if ever, did he see any buffalo. Since coming to America, Scotty had always marveled at the buffalo's majestic profile and unparalleled ability to survive the harsh winters of the northern plains. He began formulating plans to save and preserve the endangered symbol of the west.

Shortly after learning of the death of Pete Dupree, who, while participating in the last great Buffalo hunts 20 years previous, had saved five buffalo calves, perhaps saving the buffalo from extinction in South Dakota, Scotty contacted Dupree's son-in-law, Doug Carlin, and made an offer to buy all the surviving buffalo on the Dupree ranch. A deal was made for $10,000, with a catch - Scotty must also take the crossbred "cattalo" which were deemed to be "not worth a damn!" After the deal was sealed with a handshake, Scotty had a crew built a buffalo pasture fence around 15,000 acres north of Ft. Pierre, bounded by the Missouri River on the east and much of the north. The fence would have two sections of woven wire topped by three rows of barbed wire, all attached to large, sturdy posts spaced five to six feet apart.

The fence was completed in the fall of 1901. Until this time, buffalo had never been "fenced in." In September of 1901, Scotty and five of his best riders needed several days to drive the herd of buffalo over the 100-mile trail to the buffalo pasture. A third ranch home near the buffalo pasture was completed in 1902. In 1906, Scotty Philip appealed to the U.S. Congress to help save the buffalo. For an annual lease of $50, Scotty was assigned 3500 acres of unclaimed Government land "to be used as a Buffalo Park along the banks of the Missouri." It became perhaps South Dakota's first tourist attraction. "Excursion boats" brought tourists to see the buffalo and also as a possible enticement to "promote" Pierre as the best choice for the State Capitol of South Dakota.

Along with Scotty Philip, other visionary ranchers from Canada, North Dakota, Montana, Oklahoma and Texas rescued small numbers of buffalo and together, are credited with preserving the unique species for future generations.]

Scotty Philip's legacy of saving the buffalo is visible today on several area ranches such as: the Turner Ranch, Prairie Moon Ranch, Byrd Ranch, and Lower Brule Buffalo Ranch among others.

Editor's Note: Lonis Wendt is the Verendrye Museum historian and program coordinator for the Scotty Philip Days trail ride.

This is the last of five chapters commemorating Scotty Philip's life, leading up to the 100th Scotty Philip Day celebration and trail ride, July 16-23.

Some more information is available at:

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