In 2011, the Verendrye Museum in Fort Pierre and historian John Duffy asked Justin Koehler if he would film a trail ride in honor of James “Scotty” Philip, namesake of the South Dakota town.
Koehler, a native of nearby Midland, did some quick Internet research before saying yes. What he found astonished him. Philip, an immigrant from Scotland, rose from his meager upbringing to become the man most responsible for saving the buffalo from extinction.
“I was embarrassed. I grew up about 20 minutes from Philip and I didn’t know anything about Scotty,” he said. “There was no way not to tell his story."
The result is “The Buffalo King,” an hour-long documentary produced by Koehler and Aaron Pendergast that will be shown during the Black Hills Film Festival. Although the story of the buffalo may lure viewers initially, Koehler hopes they also appreciate the story of a man he says was ahead of his time.
“The buffalo is such a symbol of America, the strength, the power. Everyone knows the buffalo almost went extinct. But no one know who prevented them from going extinct,” said Koehler, 33, who works for two production companies in Denver.
Philip left Scotland as a 15-year-old, drawn by stories of the American West. He married a Native American woman, became a wealthy rancher in the 1880s and was elected to the state Legislature.
To tell his story, the film uses a combination of footage shot for the trail ride and more than 100 historical photos from the South Dakota Archives, the Library of Congress and private collections.
“The photographs have so much information and they’re kind of shocking,” Koehler said. “There’s a lot to soak in. We wanted it so that people couldn’t look away.”
Included are scenes of sky-high piles of buffalo hides and skulls, the result of overzealous hunting that dropped the number of buffalo from 40 million to about 100.
“It was easy pickings. The buffalo is such a powerful animal, but they would just stand there. And they (the hunters) would getting good money,” Koehler said.
Philip noticed piles of hides in Dodge City, Kan., in 1874 when he was traveling by train.
“He knew something was going on, but what could he do? He was searching for his own fortune,” Koehler said.
Philip went to the Black Hills intending to strike it rich, then hauled freight for a living and eventually invested in cattle, becoming one of the biggest cattle moguls in the United States with 40,000 head.
“By that point, he had established himself. He became fairly wealthy and had married a Cheyenne woman,” Koehler said. “I think he really respected that culture.”
That may have played a role in how Philip felt about the buffalo, Koehler said. Philip had met Pete Dupree and his son, Fred, who had rescued five bison calves from one of the last buffalo hunts in 1881. When Dupree died, Philip didn’t want to see the demise of the herd, so he purchased it and drove it to a pasture north of Fort Pierre.
“He spent $10,000 for 80 head. He bred that herd up to 1,000. He had the largest buffalo herd in the world at one point,” Koehler said.
Today, there are 500,000 head of buffalo in the U.S., thanks in large part to Philip.
Koehler held a private showing of “The Buffalo King” in Pierre in February, and was encouraged by the positive reaction. He'd like to create more South Dakota documentaries, and is currently looking for sponsors for a film about South Dakota cowboy Casey Tibbs.
“There’s a lot of history out here that’s very interesting,” he said. “This is something I would love to do for a living. There’s a ton of rich history, a ton of interesting characters. We have a lot to be proud of.”