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Published March 31, 2014, 09:44 AM

The story of Scotty, a buffalo pioneer

Recently I attended “Buffalo King,” a 2013 documentary movie on the life of James “Scotty” Philip, at the Fargo Film Festival.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

Recently I attended “Buffalo King,” a 2013 documentary movie on the life of James “Scotty” Philip, at the Fargo Film Festival. It was of special interest because my father was from Philip, S.D. My Norwegian ancestors settled near Philip in 1907. The Philip High School mascot is the “Scotty,” and the town is home to Scotchman Industries, a metal fabrications business.

Born in Scotland in 1858, Philip emigrated at age 15. He joined his brother’s cattle operation near Hays, Kan., but soon roamed to Wyoming and Dakota Territory. Philip failed at gold mining in the Black Hills and started a freight enterprise, which he parlayed into a cattle empire. He ranched for a time in Nebraska where he met and married Sarah, who was a Native American woman (a sister-in-law to Oglala warrior Crazy Horse), which allowed Philip to graze his cattle on Sioux Indian land.

Philip had tens of thousands of cattle on a ranch based near Philip but become known for his role in preserving the American bison from extinction. He started his buffalo herd at Fort Pierre with 50 animals on a 20,000-acre ranch. Among other things, he and his nephew George Philip famously staged fights between bison and Mexican fighting bulls in Juarez, Mexico, which the bison won.

Philip died in 1911 of a cerebral hemorrhage. He was 53.

By chance, also attending the movie in Fargo was Bruce Carlson of Moorhead, Minn., a retired industrial arts teacher. Carlson, a native of Detroit Lakes, Minn., told me how his grandfather had bought a building that had been the Square Deal Tanning Co., operated by three brothers named Beck starting in the 1910s. The Becks, originally from Michigan, lived in Detroit, Minn., which was renamed Detroit Lakes in 1926.

Later, Carlson brought me a Square Deal brochure found in the building. It prominently quotes a June 19, 1925, letter from A.H. Leonard, sales manager for “The Famous ‘Scotty’ Philip Buffalo Herd.” Leonard effuses: “I cannot find words to express to you people how well pleased I am with the shipment of fourteen buffalo coats and nine buffalo robes that was received a week ago.” Leonard’s wife, Hazel, was Philip’s eldest daughter.

Leonard’s letterhead then describes the Philip herd as “Genuine North American Bison, Heard (sic) Numbering About 1,000 Head. Buy a Pair for the Ranch or Farm. We Supply Buffalo for Zoos, Parks, Circuses and Barbeques.”

Recently, I had coffee with Cathie Draine of Piedmont, S.D., one of George Philip’s granddaughters. Seeing Cathie interviewed in the movie, I asked her how long the famous buffalo ranch stayed in the family. She didn’t know but referred me to her cousin, Sheilah Philip, near Kansas City. Sheilah forwarded to me a column in the Hays (Kans.) Free Press that told of a buffalo hunt, arranged by Leonard and hosted by Scotty Philip’s widow in December 1920. At that time, the herd was at about 825. Descendants and movie-makers believe the family operation faltered in 1925 — apparently after the letter to the Square Deal tannery.

Happily, buffalo are still with us. In 2007, the U.S. Census of Agriculture showed there were 198,000 buffalo in private U.S. herds. The industry expects the herd to decline some in the 2012 census. We’ll know in May.