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The Man Who Saved the Buffalo

The buffalo that roam Custer State Park today can trace their lineage to the five calves that Fred Dupree and his ranch hands captured in 1883. Photo by Chad Coppess/S.D. Tourism.


Many people have heard of Scotty Philip’s role in saving the buffalo: how the herd he built up on his central South Dakota ranch provided the seed stock for the majority of the buffalo being raised today. Not so many people know that if it hadn’t been for Frederick Dupree there might not have been any buffalo for Philip to save.

In a sense, I began this article years ago, when I first heard of Fred Dupree. I didn’t get far on my research until the funeral for Evie Nystrom, of Pierre, in 2003. Evie had originally come from Dupree’s country, the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation. At lunch following the funeral, I was telling the folks sitting at my table how I had tried, without success, to locate Fred’s grave.

“That’s easy,” said Kathy Fisher, one of Evie’s young nieces. “He’s buried on our ranch.” She and her husband, Darrin, work her father’s land about 30 miles south of Eagle Butte. The cemetery where Fred and most of his family are buried is a half-mile from their home.

“We have buffalo on our ranch that are probably descendants of the Dupree herd,” chimed in Karen Hump, who with her husband, Dave, raise 300 head of buffalo on their Cheyenne River Reservation ranch. Kathy and Karen are sisters. Dave is a great-grandson of Chief Hump.

With that, this old writer’s curiosity was sparked, and I was off to Grand River country.

Frederick Dupree was born in 1818 in the village of Longueuil, Quebec, on the St. Lawrence River opposite Montreal. (At various times, Frederick’s surname was spelled Dupuis, Dupree, DuPriest, Dupri and Dupree. Dupree is the spelling on his tombstone.)

As a young man he made his way to Kaskaskia, Illinois, on the Mississippi River below St. Louis. Kaskaskia was home to a large number of French-speaking settlers, like Dupree, and many of them were involved with the booming fur trade whose hub was St. Louis. Fred probably signed on as an engagee, a laborer, working on the boats and trading posts that tapped the rich fur resources of the upper Missouri basin.

Fred Dupree.

When Lewis and Clark first passed through this region in 1804 they reported herds of buffalo that stretched across the plains as far as the eye could see. In the 1840s, still, Captain Grant Marsh would tell of having to wait as long as a day while herds crossed the Missouri River in front of his steamboat. This resource, which once seemed limitless, was not. Buffalo fur was in demand back east and in Europe, and buffalo tongues were considered a delicacy. Indian and white hunters harvested animals by the hundreds of thousands, year after year, and the result was predictable.

We can place Fred Dupree at Fort Pierre in 1838, working as an engagee at the trading post owned by Pierre Choteau & Company. Although the trade in buffalo pelts would go on at the post for many years, steadily diminishing numbers of animals meant the peak was past by the time he arrived. A military survey locates Dupree trading buffalo hides at the mouth of the Cheyenne River in 1855, but he was also getting established in the region’s next big business: raising cattle.

Frederick Dupree called many places home during his ranching years, but his main camp was about 35 miles southwest of Eagle Butte, along the Cheyenne River near today’s Carlin Bridge. Frederick and his wife, Mary Ann Good Elk Woman, a Minneconjou, raised 10 children, nine of theirs and a son from her previous marriage. As each of the children married, a small log house with a dirt floor would be built next to the main house.

There were often a dozen or so tipis near the camp, housing the relatives of Mary Ann and others who happened by. Fred was a friendly, sociable sort. Visitors were always welcome at the Dupree camp, and many stayed for several days; they were given food and lodging and friendship.

Dupree spoke French, Lakota and English, sometimes all three in a single sentence. No one is sure if he could read or write, but he managed quite well regardless. At one point the Black Hills Daily Times estimated Fred’s worth at near $1 million, though it allowed this figure could be, “somewhat overstretched.”

Dupree’s generosity and wealth can be gauged from the account of his daughter’s wedding, as reported in a Pierre newspaper: “At age 17, daughter Marcella married Douglas Carlin, a non-Indian who was the issue clerk at the Cheyenne Agency. Their wedding at Cherry Creek on August 27, 1887, was a major social event at the time. The groom was either the grandson or grandnephew of a governor of Illinois Territory and a nephew of a U.S. Army colonel.”

Douglas and Marcella’s wedding was attended by hundreds of Native American and white friends of the family, including members of the Pierre City Council. Both traditional and civic rites were performed. (Marcella’s ceremonial dress can be seen in the Indian Museum of North America, at the Crazy Horse Memorial.) Fred gave the bride and groom 500 head of cattle and 50 ponies to get them started in life, and the celebration was commensurate with such a gift. For most guests the festivities lasted three days. Others lingered for a week or more, consuming two barrels of whiskey and another of wine. 

Fred Dupree had been in Dakota nearly 40 years by that time. He had prospered, but Dupree had only to look at Mary Ann’s relatives to see that his affluence came with a price. In years past, the buffalo supported the plains Indians’ very existence, providing them food, clothing and shelter. With the animals fast disappearing, those who depended on them were suffering, and Dupree himself bore some measure of responsibility. His trading company and others had shipped pelts by the million, which encouraged a level of hunting that couldn’t be sustained, and his cattle roamed over the ranges that once were home to vast buffalo herds. Dupree must have realized their extinction was inevitable.

In 1883, Dupree and his ranch hands set out to capture some buffalo on the prairie. Once a small herd was located — reports vary as to the exact location, but it was probably near the Grand River — the party camped nearby. How they managed the capture is unclear. Some accounts say they grabbed the animals as they slept. Others surmise that the hunters built a corral or holding area, drove the animals into it, then cut the ones they wanted away from the rest. However it was done, five buffalo calves were caught. From that modest beginning, the Dupree buffalo “herd” grew to almost 60 head.

Unbeknownst to each other, the man who would carry Dupree’s work forward was already living in the area. James ‘Scotty’ Philip was born in Kansas, one of three brothers, the others being George, a Hays City merchant, and Alex, the foremost cattleman in that state. Scotty left his brothers for Dakota Territory in 1875, drawn by dreams of finding gold in the Black Hills. When that didn’t pan out — Philip was caught by the Army and sent on his way because the Hills were still Indian territory at that time — he started hauling freight and then scouted for General Crook before following his brother into the cattle business. By the turn of the century Philip was a bona fide cattle baron, running 20,000 head on his West River spread.

Philip’s attitude toward the buffalo, like Dupree’s, was influenced by his Lakota wife, Sally. When Frederick Dupree passed away in 1898, Philip bought his buffalo. He placed the animals on a riverside ranch, just north of Fort Pierre, where they thrived. By 1911, when Philip died suddenly, the herd numbered almost 900 animals. No buyer was willing or able to take the whole herd, so it was dispersed. Among the buyers was the state of South Dakota, which placed 36 buffalo in the newly established Custer State Park. That herd, in turn, was used to stock other parks and refuges around the country. When ranchers like Roy Houck got back into the buffalo-raising business during the 1960s, and Ted Turner followed in the 1990s, they did so with animals that descended from Philip’s herd.

Frederick Dupree’s final resting place is much the same as when he arrived. Overhead, the sky goes on forever in every direction; underfoot, the gently rolling hills are covered with a carpet of grass. And thanks to him, there are still buffalo to roam upon it as they did years ago.

Editor’s Note: This story is revised from the January/February 2007 issue of South Dakota Magazine. To order a copy or to subscribe, call (800) 456-5117.


08:55 pm - Wed, October 17 2018
Saving a few bison in the face of the determined effort of the selfish, greedy whites who tried to exterminate every living animal,- is a small drop in the bucket. There were millions of bison on the plains when America was truly a land of plenty for the Native Americans who lived there. As General Sherman noted: "Kill the buffalo and you kill off the Indians." White America tried its best to exterminate all Indians, of every tribe. The only difference between those whites and the Germans of the 1930's - is that the Germans had technology and well run concentration camps to do the "ethnic cleansing" of the 'untermenschen.' We can never go back to those pristine times; saving a few bison is a token measure in today's society where Native Americans are still regarded as "second class" citizens.
12:04 pm - Sat, October 20 2018
Georgene Erickson said:
What about modern-day preservation and sustainability? Dan and Jill O'Brien have made an arduous and concerted effort, not only to preserve the buffalo but to bring back the native grasslands, while promoting the health and environmentally prudent of bison products, for consumption, through their Wild Idea Buffalo company. Dan started with the Broken Heart Ranch, in the Sturgis area and advanced to the Cheyenne River Ranch, where they host world-wide visitors to see first hand "where the buffalo roam."
10:47 pm - Sun, August 25 2019
Cynthia said:
“Scotty” James Philip is my Great Great Grandfather. He was born in Scotland, thus that’s why people called him Scotty. He was not born in Kansas. His brothers followed Scotty to the United States. Fred Dupree was fundamentally the person to see how the Buffalo were being slaughtered for nothing but money by the white man, leaving buffalo carcasses to rot. The Buffalo were the Indians lively hood. When Indians killed a Buffalo, they used every part that they could to sustain their way of life. I believe that if Fred Dupree had not taken the actions that he did, I just can’t imagine how the Indians would have survived in that that period of time. My Great Great Grandfather stepped in and took over when Fred Dupree passed away. I have heard many stories about my Great Great Grandfather and I’m proud of the work he did in every aspect of his short time on this earth. Philip South Dakota was named after him and to this day Philip S.D. pays tribute to Scotty Philip every year by having what is known as Scotty Philip Days. I agree, why are Indians considered to this day as second class citizens. People should take a trip to Pine Ride Rez and many others to see how they live! How sad to see what’s happened to our true Native Indians since the hostile takeover of their land. Look at how Mother Earth is being treated. Shout-outs to the people who care about the Buffalo.
09:54 am - Mon, April 6 2020
Stephen Naber said:
Nebraska author Wayne C. Lee wrote a biography of Scotty Philip entitled "Scotty Philip, the man who saved the buffalo" (Caxton, 1975). The description of Mr. Philip's funeral on his ranch was most poignant as it described how the buffalo came to the fence surrounding the cemetery during the service and then dispersed after its conclusion. It was a though they had also come to pay their respects to a man who had kept their species from extinction.
05:46 am - Fri, August 28 2020
Gregg Emerson said:
I was told by a native American lady,who was 99 yrs old in 1975 that after Custer's Battle the Indians took gold and silver and anything of value and ended up in Dupree after winter settled in. Fred Dupree have them first and food for the loot they had. Half they hid somewhere between the battle sight and Dupree.Z7
03:15 am - Sun, May 30 2021
anonymous said:
my father is Donald Dupree I also come from Crazy Horse tiwahe my mothers side. I took care of our tribal Buffalo herd. I can get in the corrals and work them easy.we are Humans like the rest of you all. Only thing we are Lords of this Land Not Imagrants. And we are Very Great horsemen. We Call it being from the Horse Nation
09:56 am - Fri, January 7 2022
This is a fine article, but in my opinion significantly underestimates the impact Dupree and Phillip's wives played in saving American bison. In 2018 I rode my bicycle through Canada past a monument dedicated to Norbert Welsh (1845-1932) immortalized in book and bronze “The Last Buffalo Hunter” (a book by Mary Weekes and monument by the Saskatchewan Historic and Folklore Society). That 3,000 mile solo bike ride I turned into a book, Destination North Pole, where I inserted May 29th's blog: "On this ride, I would rather see (bison) herds than monuments." I ended the blog dedicating it to two ladies with Native heritage: "In a few years, the remaining five calves matured, populated, and were
eventually sold to Scotty Philips with encouragement from Scotty’s
wife (also Lakota) who knew Mary Good Elk Woman Dupree—the
woman who saved the American bison. We live in an interesting culture. One man destroyed and is glorified; one woman saved animals from extinction and is forgotten." My plea is that you remember these fine ladies the next time you write an article about saving the American bison.
03:38 am - Sat, January 29 2022
Rebecca Hopkins said:
Thank you Gary Wietgrefe for giving credit where credit was due.

Mary Good Elk Woman was the daughter of One Iron Horn and Red Dressing, a very prominent Lakota couple. I am a seventh generation Lakota woman descended from Frederick Dupree and Mary Good Elk Woman through their daughter Marcella who married Douglas Carlin. Marcella and Douglas had their daughter Lillian who married Frank Briggs. Lillian and Frank's daughter Bessie Briggs was my grandmother. Bessie (Bett) married Ernest Smith also a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. Bett and Ernie had five children: Tom, Kathy, Randy, Patty and Terry. I am the daughter of Kathy and Gerald Hopkins.

Word handed down within the family is that Mary Good Elk Woman told Fred Dupree to go get bison calves to save some of the bison herd. She also told him not to come home until he was successful. It took many months for Fred, some of his sons/relatives and some of his friends to track down a herd and then they had to sneak up on the calves and take them from under their mothers' noses.
08:56 am - Thu, February 17 2022
Tammy Sandoval said:
Wow! Just to chime in, I was looking for information on my Great Grandmother, Lillian Briggs who was married to Frank Briggs, I am looking for her maiden name, I could not find it. Lillian and Frank's daughter Flora Briggs, who married Earl Kensler, is my grandmother. My mother is Myrna Kenser who married Garland Walters,
12:54 am - Sun, July 10 2022
Danzel Dupris said:
God bless
10:59 pm - Sun, December 25 2022
Thomas Corey Peterson said:
My grandfather Clifford Corey owned a ranch on the Bad River and used to tell us stories of his time working with Mr. Phillips to help save the Phillips Herd of Buffalo. He and a few other men knew how important it was. They saw the killing and knew it was only time and the herd would be wiped out. Clifford and his father Charles also traded with both tribes of Native Americans and their cousin Bachelor Bess was famous for her letters now archived in the state capital. Their nephew George O'Rielly would find the Verendrye Plate in Pierre while kicking a ball.

11:09 pm - Thu, April 13 2023
Dan Eshleman said:
Hi family members 👍
11:15 am - Sat, September 23 2023
Kerry Max Bean said:
Thanks be to The Eternal God for sending a few good men.
07:45 pm - Mon, October 16 2023
Vickie McCubbin said:
My Grand Uncle Martin Sorensen worked for Scotty Philips when he had the buffalo herd. He is buried in the Scotty Philips cemetery out of Ft. Pierre. It's interesting to read all the comments and the family connections people have. I just watched the first episode of the new Ken Burns documentary on the American Buffalo. Fred Dupree is mentioned at the end of episode one. It stated that he purchased the buffalo at the urging of his Native American wife. I am glad she was mentioned.
11:22 pm - Wed, December 27 2023
Nice to read this article. Scotty was a relative of mine and I had the pleasure years ago to be in contact with the Philip family. Sorry was actually born in a small village called Dallas, in Moreyshire Scotland.

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