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He tested buffalo against bulls.

One-time freighter and scout Scotty Philip built a cattle ranching empire in South Dakota and then, because of his love of the vanishing American bison, became a buffalo king. During his rise to prominence, he made himself known along the southern international border thanks to several cattle-buying trips to Texas and Mexico. In 1907 this man of action with a curiosity to match sent two of his buffalo by train to Juarez, Mexico, to test their mettle in the ring against Spanish fighting bulls.

A packed house turned out for the first fight on a Sunday afternoon. As it entered the ring, the larger of Philip’s two male buffalo limped a little, having injured a hind leg while kicking at the walls of a railroad car during the journey south. Next, a red Spanish bull was released into the ring, and he immediately charged the challenger from the north. The bull was aiming for the buffalo’s flank, but at the last second the buffalo pivoted and met the bull head-on. The bull backed away and charged again. The second head-to-head clash knocked the bull back on his haunches, but the determined beast tried again and still again. That fourth attempt was his last, though, as it caused him to tumble and flee from the strong-headed American buffalo. Four more bulls were given a chance that day, and though each went on the attack, Philip’s mighty buffalo defeated them all and then chased them around the ring while the crowd roared its approval.

On the following Sunday, Philip’s younger, smaller buffalo took on the matador. The fight was to end with the matador killing the buffalo. But after the buffalo made a few passes at the matador’s cape, it looked as if the man, not the beast, was most in danger. The action was stopped. Afterward, the smaller buffalo was sold and butchered for meat, while Philip’s larger buffalo disappeared somewhere south of the border, where rumor had it still fighting bulls. Still, Philip’s buffalo had proved to be winners. And back at his ranch up north, along the Missouri River near old Fort Pierre, Philip’s bison herd was running strong in his so-called Buffalo Pasture.

Philip had seen his first buffalo back in the 1870s after spending the first 16 years of his life in the Scottish Highlands, where he was born on April 30, 1858, and called James or Jimmie. Upon moving to the United States in 1874, Philip first lived with an older brother in the Scottish farming colony of Victoria, outside Hays, Kan. Finding farming too tame, he went in 1875 to work on a ranch near Cheyenne, Wyoming Territory, where people began to call him “Scotty.” The name stuck, but Philip didn’t. He headed for the hills, the Black Hills of Dakota Territory, in search of gold. He began placer mining but was evicted by the cavalry. The Black Hills were technically part of the Great Sioux Reservation and off limits to white prospectors. When Philip tried to return there with another fellow, Boston Smith, they had a run-in with Indians and became separated. Philip figured the Indians had gotten Smith. Eventually, Philip did do some prospecting near the mining camp of Deadwood in the northern hills, but his golden dreams didn’t pan out.

During the next few years, Scotty Philip worked as a rancher, teamster, guide, scout and dispatch rider around Fort Laramie, Wyoming Territory, and Fort Robinson, Neb. In 1879 he married Sarah Laribee, whose father was a respected French trader and whose Cheyenne mother had been adopted by the Lakotas. One of Sarah’s sisters was married to the Lakota warrior Crazy Horse. Through his marriage, Philip was allowed to establish a ranch near the Pine Ridge Agency. In 1881 he moved his ranch to where Grindstone Creek meets the Bad River (his namesake town, Philip, S.D., now stands near this site). His cattle herd kept growing, and by 1882 he had also started hauling freight from Nebraska to the Black Hills. Although the blizzards of 1886 and ’87 wiped out 80 percent of his herd, Philip stayed in the cattle business. When land was opened up following the break up of the Great Sioux Reservation in March 1889, he expanded his ranching operation by buying land north of Fort Pierre and also leased nearby land on the newly created Lower Brulé Sioux Reservation. In the 1890s he ran about 20,000 head. He was known as an innovator, digging an artesian well to set up an irrigation operation and using natural gas for heating. He also became a South Dakota state senator.

Although he was a man of action, Scotty Philip rarely resorted to violence. He claimed to have hit a man in anger only once. Sy Hiett, his competent range foreman, liked to go on drinking sprees when not working. One day, Hiett was on a serious drunk in Fort Pierre when he ran into Philip in front of the Stock Growers Bank. For some reason Hiett drew a knife and lunged at his boss, cutting Philip’s coat. Philip knocked him to the sidewalk and then carried him upstairs to the doctor’s office to get the back of his head stitched up. Philip paid the bill, and the next day Hiett was back running Scotty’s cattle outfit, wondering why his head hurt like hell.

One of Philip’s fondest memories came from 1901 when he and his men needed to get a herd of cattle to the other side of the Missouri River. The ferry wasn’t working, so Philip had no choice but to drive them across. He asked the ferryman, whom he did not recognize, to stand by in his rowboat to aid any rider who got into trouble. Sure enough, Philip’s own horse began to struggle in the water, and Philip found himself out of the saddle, desperately clutching a stirrup. The ferryman rowed over to the cattle boss and helped him into the boat. Only then did the two men exchange introductions. The ferryman was Boston Smith, the very same fellow whom Philip thought the Indians had killed near the Black Hills back in 1875. The two former prospectors had a happy reunion along the banks of the Missouri.

That same year, Philip bought a herd of 60 buffalo from the estate of rancher Pete Dupree, who had kept five buffalo calves after participating in one of the last big buffalo hunts on the Grand River in Dakota Territory in 1881. Not wanting to see these great animals disappear from the western Plains, Philip kept them behind fences in his Buffalo Pasture. He soon added other buffalo to his prized herd. A few cattalo—crossbreeds between cattle and buffalo—saw the light of day, but Philip had them killed and butchered since he only wanted purebred buffalo. In 1906 Congress set aside 3,500 acres of public land adjacent to the Buffalo Pasture to be rented to Scotty for $50 a year “exclusively for the pasturing of native buffalo.” Philip’s herd grew to nearly 1,000 buffalo, and he was able to sell some to parks, zoos and other ranchers who wanted to raise the animals for meat. In 1911 Philip died of a cerebral hemorrhage and was buried in a family cemetery he built near his Buffalo Pasture. At the funeral, hundreds of his buffalo reportedly came out of the hills to pay their last respects to the man who had helped “save” them.


Originally published in the April 2007 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.