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Dakota Datebook

The Man Who Saved the Bison


There was a time when vast herds of bison thundered across the Great Plains. Due to overhunting, the population dwindled to almost nothing. On this date in 1914, it looked like the last of the bison were about to leave the Dakotas. The Hope Pioneer announced that the sons of Scotty Philip were selling his bison herd.

James “Scotty” Philip was born in Scotland in 1858. Coming to the United States when he was fifteen, he settled inthe Black Hills. He married Sarah Larribee. They settled down near what would become the town of Philip, South Dakota. Philip met a fellow rancher who had rescued five bison calves from a buffalo hunt. When that rancher died, Philip purchased the herd, which now numbered seventy-four animals. He wanted to save the animals from extinction, and  settled them on his ranch. The bison prospered, and the herd grew to over one thousand animals.

Philip died suddenly in 1911. He was buried in a family cemetery near the pasture of his beloved bison. Newspapers reported that the bison came down out of the hills as the funeral procession passed. They suggested that the animals were showing their respect to the man who saved them.

Selling Philip’s herd might have been the end of the bison. The Hope Pioneer predicted that while some of the bison would be sold to zoos or traveling shows, the majority would be slaughtered for their meat and hides. The time of the bison, it said, was past and it was just as well. The newspaper noted that “the prairies that once maintained these vast herds are now mostly under cultivation and producing another kind of human ration.”

 Fortunately, the newspaper did not have the last word. There were others who shared Philip’s vision. Other ranchers purchased animals from Philips’ herd, and the state of South Dakota purchased thirty-six to establish the herd that now inhabits Custer State Park. Some of Philips’ bison went to North Dakota. Their descendants now inhabit Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

In 1958, Philip was inducted into the Hall of Great Westerners at the Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City. He is remembered as the man who saved the bison.


Dakota Datebook written by Carole Butcher



Hope Pioneer. “The final move toward the extinction of the great American bison…” Hope ND. 1/29/1914. Page 2.

Philip Weekly Review. “Scotty Philip: An Appreciation.” Philip SD. 8/3/1911. Page 3.

All About Bison. “Scotty Philip.” https://allaboutbison.com/bison-in-history/scotty-phillip/  Accessed 12/23/2020.

Project Gutenberg. “James ‘Scotty’ Philip.” http://self.gutenberg.org/articles/James_%22Scotty%22_Philip Accessed 12/23/20.

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