Cowboy Life by George Philip
In the next few weeks Tri-State Livestock News will share excerpts from “Cowboy Life,” a compilation of letters George Philip wrote to his children Geordie, Jean and Bob.
“As a young man George Philip emigrated from Scotland to escape a harsh apprenticeship. In 1899, he arrived on the doorstep of his uncle, James (“Scott,”) Philip, patriarch of one of South Dakota’s foremost ranching families. For the next four years, Philip rode as a cowboy for his uncles L-7 cattle outfit during the heyday of the last open range. But the cowboy era was a brief one, and in 1903 Philip turned in his string of horses and hung up his saddle to enter law school in Michigan. Scotty had given his young nephew a herd of cattle to get started but a “smart operator fleeced me out of my herd,” he admitted later and in 1903 he determined to “go to law school and learn how to write a contract so I would never fall prey’ again to a clever operator. With a law degree in hand, he returned to South Dakota to practice in the wide-open.
Something was said of the right of a roundup boss. He was as completely boss of a roundup outfit as the captain is of his ship. Sometimes that led to strange conclusions, and perhaps one can be recited.
In the fall of 1907, after I was engaged in the law business at Fort Pierre, Scotty came to me one Friday night and invited me to go with him the next morning to his ranch on the Lower Brule Indian Reservation. As we were leaving for the ranch on Cedar Creek the next morning, Scotty suggested that my saddle blanket and bridle be put n the back end of the buggy. His comment was, “you may want to take a ride.”
When it was nearing sundown that late afternoon, and as we were approaching the ranch, he said, I”I am going to start a beef roundup in the morning, and I want you to take charge of it. We will ship from Reliance three weeks from today.”
Down went my heart to my boot soles. He had the whole reservation leased, and it was then a considerable area. I had not in four hears done any riding that would toughen a fellow. I was trying to establish a law business in Fort Pierre. I did not want to ride through a roundup anyway. He had Bunk White working for him. Stanley Philip was working there. Other reasons came and went. They were met with final answers so far as Scotty was concerned: a fellow should always keep himself fit to do a lot of riding (something he never did); the law business would come some time, but the roundups always ha to be made now; it would be good or me to ride through a full beef roundup; Bunk White, although a splendid cowhand, was not available because of his color; Stanley was too young, having just turned seventeen. All my reasons went by the board. Scotty wanted me to take charge, so that settled it.
After we had been working about a week, Scotty came to our camp on Yellow Medicine Creek in his buggy. It was just at suppertime when he arrived and turned his team loose. By this time we were carrying a fair-sized beef herd. I went to the different fellows and told them who was to stand guard. Scotty ws not especially pleased to be told to get his saddle back out of the back end of his buggy because he as to stand first guard with another rider, who was named. It was plain that his first inclination was to decline the assignment as soon as he saw that it was seriously intended. Then he realized that the law of the range still applied to a roundup, although except within large leased pastures, the day of the roundup had passed. He knew there was no appeal from the decision of a roundup boss, not even to the owner. He knew that, under the law of the range, he could do one of three things: 1) he could hitch up his team and drive away; 2) he could fire the foreman and hire another; or 3; he could stand the guard. He stood the guard, which was only a mild bit of retaliation for the job he put up on me when he invited me down to the reservation. A strange experience occurred before the guard was concluded.
Cowboy Life, The Letters of
Edited and with an introduction by Cathie Draine
Afterword by Richard W. Slatta
Illustrations by Mick B. Harrison
Plus $5.00 shipping
South Dakota State Historical
900 Governors Drive
Pierre, SD 57501
Copyright © 2007 by the South Dakota State Historical Society Press. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with Permission.
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Outtagrass Cattle Co. cartoon by Jan Swan Wood for the June 19, 2021, edition of Tri-State Livestock News