Book Remarks — Cowboy Life: the Letters of George Philip, by Cathie Draine

Draine Book coverCowboy Life: the Letters of George Philip, edited and with an introduction by Cathie Draine; afterword by Richard W. Slatta; illustrations by Mick B. Harrison. South Dakota State Historical Society Press, (Pierre, S.D.) 2007.

George Philip was a cowhand, and as my uncle Harold might have said, clearly a “helluva hand.” But he was also a lawyer whose writing is strikingly literate and well organized, making this book a rare treasure of Western lore. During the 1930s, Philip wrote to his grandchildren, explaining thoroughly and with sly humor the arduous labor required by a big ranch in western South Dakota as the century turned at the end of the open range era.

He records the facts clearly and with vivid details, and no romanticism at all, destroying fantasies that have shaped many perceptions of cowboys in literature and the movies. No, cowhands did not usually carry six-shooters, and most were lousy shots; and yes, most of them loved gambling, tobacco and alcohol.

Draine book cowboy photo with textDeftly, Philip shoots down every myth about cowboys, insisting on a realistic view of the work done. “Although it now seems to be part of the blood lust of the spectators in their demands on the performers at the rodeos,” he writes on August 16, 1940, “it was no part of a cowhand’s business to ride cattle of any sort.” Cattle are supposed to make money for their owner, and riding them wears off fat and makes them wild. Philip’s point about care for the cattle made, he proceeds to recall an occasion when a collection of wild range steers tossed on their ears cowboys who later became respectable citizens, all of whom he names.

Anyone who wants to write an authentic western novel should include this book as research material. The deceptively simple title really tells the story: you’ll find here everything you might want to know about the real life of a cowboy. Unnerving as it is, I’d be delighted to read a novel that includes Philip’s explanation of how to take care of a saddle sore, or boil.

Clearly, the cowhands he describes respected the dozens of horses that they rode in the course of their work, but “Some one had to be boss and it better not be the horse,” declares Philip. A cowhand’s horse was a tool, part of his working outfit and many of those he rode remained in his memory. Shorty, he says, “like some horses and most humans, had some unreasoning idiosyncrasies and was disposed to indulge them.” He mentions that Cub, “in addition to whirling, sunfishing, and all the other things that a broke horse like him should not do, began turning himself inside out twice each jump. At that my poise left, and so did I.” Of Dave, he says, “He never hurt me, and no other L-7 man ever rode him. It was small loss when he left.” And then there was Mouse, the horse that “threw me splashing into the edge of the stream.” You’ll especially appreciate the chapters on horses if you, like Cathie Draine and I, know the pleasure of a good horse’s nicker of greeting and the way they rub their velvet noses against you.

What he said to horses that were being uncooperative, Philip explains, “must be considered in the nature of a privileged communication, although it could hardly be said to be confidential, for anyone within four miles could have heard it if sulphur and brimstone did not affect his hearing.” Laughing, I remembered the first time I swore at a bunch of cattle that were giving me trouble on a winter’s day. When I caught up with my father, he mentioned quietly how well sound carried on the prairie.

Though a modest man, Philip was clearly proud of his prowess as a cowhand as he outlines the distinction between a cowhand and a ranch hand, making clear what cowhands did, and did not, do:

The cowhand was one hired to work on the roundups. . . and to do any work that related to the handling of cattle and horses. A ranch hand was one hired to work around the ranch. He would put up some hay, feed any poor cattle taken into the ranch, do whatever riding was needed. . . build and maintain a fence. . . and do any of the thousand and one things that might show up to be done around the ranch.

Again and again, Philip tells how cowhands were sent on horseback, perhaps with only a bedroll, maybe a slicker, and little or no food, into the rolling prairie to find a particular ranch or roundup. Without hesitation, these men found work on isolated ranches in mile after mile of grassland between the Cheyenne and White rivers, a landscape that is now Stanley and Lyman counties. He and men like him regularly rode from eastern Pennington County to the Missouri River, a distance of more than a hundred fifty miles.

Draine book photo of George PhilipCathie Draine, who edited this book so brilliantly, is the granddaughter of the letters’ author, George Philip; her astonishing grandfather would be proud of her. A retired teacher and freelance writer, she often writes for the Rapid City Journal. She provided the staff of the South Dakota Historical Society Press with notes from her voluminous research that helped them create almost fifty pages of chapter notes that are among the most useful I’ve ever seen, defining terms, providing further resources, and furnishing explanations.

Here’s an example: Concluding her introduction, she notes that the Rapid City Daily Journal eulogized George Philip as “Scottish immigrant, western cowboy, forthright citizen, an eminent lawyer [and] a friend of man. . . . Whether on the range or in the court room or by the fireside, here was a man to tie to.” The phrase “a man to tie to,” explains the chapter note, was first uttered during World War I by Captain Charles E. Stanton at Lafayette’s gravesite in the cemetery at Picpus in Paris, France, on 4 July 1917.

An Appendix includes the plan for the 1901 spring roundup, including instructions for two months of gathering livestock for West River cowhands. No. 16, for example, reads “Box Elder Roundup. Will commence May 15th, at head of Box Elder, working down the creek to the mouth; thence up the Little Missouri to the Holben ranch, including Willow and Thompson creeks. Al. Taddiken, Foreman.”

One sure measure of a book’s usefulness as research material is always the index; many a fine book has been dishonored with a skimpy, inexact index. The 15-page index of Cowboy Life is detailed, and includes chapter and note information as well.

Richard W. Slatta, professor of history at North Carolina State University, provides a useful Afterword to the book. He is author of numerous books and articles on cowboys and the American West, including Cowboy: The Illustrated History, and Cowboys of America. He puts in perspective George Philip’s experience as a young cowhand during the nation’s last open-range cattle boom in the West River country of South Dakota by reviewing the history of ranching in Dakota Territory, with particular attention to the opening of Indian lands.

Draine book illustration

Mick B. Harrison, professional artist and painter, was raised on the South Dakota prairie and often illustrates western and prairie subjects using his own experiences as background. His lively pen and ink drawings add vividly to the experience of this book. The cowboys he portrays don’t look like movie stars, with nicely-shaped hats and leather vests, but like real cowhands, with shapeless chapeaus and rolled-up pants as they struggle to brand a bawling calf. He is a member of the Artists of the Black Hills and paints from his studio in Belle Fourche, South Dakota.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2019, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Sanson Ranch Buffalo Jump: Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota

Sanson Ranch Buffalo Jump, Wind Cave National Park

Recently I was able to join a Wind Cave National Park tour of the Sanson Ranch, including the buffalo jump. I highly recommend taking this hike, which is not difficult but leads to some spectacular country as well as providing a view of local history.

The ranch is closed to public access [as of 2013] so you can’t go without a guide; inquire at Wind Cave National Park headquarters eleven miles north of Hot Springs off Highway 385 at 26611 US Highway 385, Hot Springs, SD 57747-6027; Visitor Information: 605-745-4600; Fax: 605-745-4207; or by email from the website, The website provides hours of operation plus a special section on Sanson Ranch Information. The ranch is now closed to the public while planning goes on, but you can see photographs and other information.

The website summarizes the Sanson family ranching operation:

Carl Sanson and his family ranched this area for 105 years. Terrible weather, fires, and personal tragedies were just some of the many hardships he faced. However, like other ranchers, he cared for and protected the land and had many wonderful experiences during his lifetime. Carl said ranch life in the Black Hills was “next-year country.” If things were bad one year, he hoped for things to be better the next year. The Sanson family operated the ranch from 1882 until 1987.

Carl knew about the tipi rings and the buffalo jump, although he admitted that his family’s farming operations disrupted some of the tipi ring sites.

Hikers look over the edge of the buffalo jump to the valley below. The Sanson family owned this property from 1882 to 1987. It then was purchased by the Casey family. The Conservation Fund, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting important places across America, acquired the property at auction from the Casey family when it became available, and held it until federal funds became available to purchase it. The land is now part of Wind Cave National Park.
Hikers look over the edge of the buffalo jump to the valley below. The Sanson family owned this property from 1882 to 1987. It then was purchased by the Casey family. The Conservation Fund, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting important places across America, acquired the property at auction from the Casey family when it became available, and held it until federal funds became available to purchase it. The land is now part of Wind Cave National Park.

Our walk took us from the Sanson family home and corrals uphill past a beautifully constructed root cellar and across a creek, avoiding the poison ivy and studying more beneficial native plants. We approached the buffalo jump by moving up a slight rise that hid the cliff from sight as the ranger described how the prehistoric Indians built brush fences and waved buffalo robes to make the bison run toward the hidden cliff. The drive lines are visible in the grass: long rows of stone aimed at the precipice.

Standing at the top of one such drive line, looking down toward the cliff and the people gathered there, I could suddenly almost smell the bisons’ excitement and fear, hear the shouts as the animals fell over the cliff.

Buffalo can, as Carl might have said, “spin on a dime and give you nine cents change,” so the Indians had to get the animals moving fast enough so that even if the lead animals sensed the danger, the weight and momentum of the running herd behind them would push them over.

For people with no guns, this was the most efficient method they could devise of killing large numbers of animals so their flesh could be harvested and stored. But it must have been brutal: buffalo with broken bones piled at the bottom of the cliff as hunters moved in to kill them. (For more information on this method, look for the Head-Smashed-In jump site in southwestern Alberta, Canada.)

Being able to stand on a place where prehistoric man hunted, then where pioneers created a ranch while respecting their predecessors, is a powerful experience. I could hardly bear to look at the map depicting what the site would have looked like with houses.

The buffalo jump "drive line." The rock in the foreground is part of a guideline prehistoric hunters used to direct bison toward the jump. This is what the bison would see as they ran towards the jump. The cliff edge, where the people in the photo are standing, is nearly invisible from this angle.
The buffalo jump “drive line.” The rock in the foreground is part of a guideline prehistoric hunters used to direct bison toward the jump. This is very close to the view bison would have seen as they ran towards the jump. The cliff edge, where the people in the photo are standing, is nearly invisible from this angle.

I was especially happy to see Carl and his family recognized by the park service since Carl Sanson was a great influence on my life as a horsewoman. He helped advise a horse club that a friend, Mikkey Murphy, and I organized when we were teenagers. Patiently, Carl worked with a dozen horse-crazy kids, teaching us how to respect our horses as well as to get the best performance from them. He also hauled our horses around when we were short of qualified drivers and stock trailers.

My father, for example, believed horses were to be used for work rather than entertainment, so while he usually hauled my horse to the meetings, he wasn’t especially encouraging. Carl understood that we teenagers regarded our horses as good friends and encouraged us to treat them as such.

With the help of Carl, who probably drew on his experiences as a polo player, we devised a number of intricate maneuvers to execute at rodeos and fairs. The one I remember most vividly, because I was so badly injured while doing it, began when we lined up facing the audience in the arena. My friend Mikkey and I were on opposite ends of the line, carrying tall flags which we shoved in front of our boots in our stirrups, braced against our knees.

Then we broke the line in the middle and each half rode toward the other. We had to be careful with spacing so each half of the line passed through the other. As the line of riders moved from a walk to a trot to a full gallop, the riders on the end, Mikkey and I, went faster than anyone else. So when, on one pass, we accidentally crossed flags, the impact nearly ripped both of us out of the saddle. Both of us kept our seats, but the slam of the flagpole against my knee hurt so badly I thought I might faint. Still, we completed our maneuvers and rode from the arena.

When I eventually lowered myself from the horse, my knee was so swollen I couldn’t get my jeans down to look at the damage. Carl found some ice and packed it on to reduce the swelling. A doctor later told me I’d torn the knee cap loose and ripped some of the cartilage. This was the same knee my horse Oliver later tap-danced on, so it’s never been right since.

But when any of us had horse wrecks, Carl was there to pick us up, dust us off and tell us– firmly but kindly– to get back on those horses. When his horse was gored by a buffalo roundup in Custer State Park, he stayed in the barn with the horse, night and day, doctoring its wound, until it recovered.

Carl negotiated with The National Park Service to buy the ranch when he had to retire to a nursing home, but the deal fell through and the land was auctioned. Eventually, the owners decided to develop it– turn it into just another exclusive subdivision, destroying its history and culture, locking it up so that it could only be enjoyed– in a limited and shallow way– by a privileged few would might never have realized the cost of their golf course, swimming pool and home sites.

But Carl, that generous man, wanted the National Park Service to have the land, so I find it especially fitting that the ranch on which he lived his rich life has become part of our national and state heritage.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House
Hermosa, South Dakota

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For more information:

For more about Carl Sanson, read Jessie Sundstrom’s book Carl Sanson: Black Hills Rancher, published in 2009; it’s available at the visitor center in Wind Cave as well as at several other Black Hills locations.

Giving Away the Saddles

My father on Zarro and me on Blaze, 1953.
My father on Zarro and me on Blaze, 1953.

Recently I gave away my saddles: my father’s old Duhamel saddle, the saddle made for me when I was twelve by a saddlemaker in Buffalo Gap, and George’s, also an antique. They went to a family in the neighborhood, with two sons and a couple of nieces who may eventually grow into one or more of the saddles. The two boys have been wanting saddles of their own but the cost simply wasn’t possible.

When I showed the high school boy my father’s old-fashioned saddle, his eyes opened wide and he smiled so hard he must have strained a muscle. Suddenly I could see my father on his Tennessee Walking horse Zarro. And I seemed to see him smile at this long-legged kid, as tall at 17 at my father was as an adult.

Then the younger boy took my saddle in his arms– the weight nearly felled him– and with a determined frown hoisted it over his shoulder to carry it outside. He put it down on the ground while his mother opened their car– but he put it down with the sheepskin lining against the ground. Quietly, the older boy corrected him: when you put a saddle down, you tip it over, so the horn rests on the ground, to keep from breaking or straining the tree inside and to keep the sheepskin lining clean.

Riding on the ranch, 1984.
Riding on the ranch, 1984.

After they left, I cried, thinking over long memories of riding with my father and George, but I smiled too, to know those saddles will be ridden and cared for by another family for more generations than I will live.

Later I realized that giving my saddles away is an admission that I am unlikely to ride a horse again. Of course I didn’t ride all the time we lived in Cheyenne but I always had my saddle oiled and ready.

I’d suffer plenty of muscle pain if I rode again but the worst part would be that I’d be riding a horse I didn’t train. Many of the times I’ve done that, I’ve regretted it: no one trained horses the way I learned to do from my gentle father. Horses are intelligent and sensitive and too many of the ones I’ve ridden that were owned by someone else had been treated so that they were untrustworthy. I’ve been kicked in the upper arm, thrown, rolled on.

No, I’m not likely to ride a horse someone else has trained and that means I’ve given up something that was of deep importance to me. The freedom of riding a horse here on the ranch has been unparalleled in my life; the sheer joy of moving in such harmony with a horse’s muscles and mind is like nothing else I’ve ever experienced.

With the saddle in the 1980s.  The stock trailer has been sold as well.
With the saddle in the 1980s. The stock trailer has been sold as well.

I have made this choice many times in the past few years and giving away the saddles was making it again, more permanently. I’m nearly seventy years old but I’m not in bad shape. I could buy a young horse, train it, spend time riding. Or I could buy an older, well-trained horse and enjoy rides all over the pastures I still own. But I have responsibilities to my partner, to my dogs, to my garden and most of all to my writing. The time I devoted to riding would need to be taken from something else and I choose not to shortchange those other elements of my life. Most importantly, I’ve chosen to sit in this office chair and write about the life I lived, hoping to help inspire protection of the prairies and the ranching life so that other youngsters may know the life of freedom I knew on horseback.

When the family asked if they couldn’t pay something for the saddles, the teacher in me arose. In return for the gift, I asked only that the two boys write me their thanks. I reasoned that besides providing them with good practice in writing in general and in expressing gratitude in particular, the exercise would serve as an illustration that generosity is an important part of enjoying a satisfying life.

To prove my confidence was not misplaced, here are the letters I received.

From the high school student:

Linda, I want you to know how awesome it is to have a usable piece of history. Every time I use the saddle, I think about your Dad and the kind of hardworking but interesting person he must have been. Thank you for sharing your history with me!

From the grade school student:

Linda, I like character. The saddle I ride has that. Plus it has a neat story. A South Dakota author grew up having adventures in my saddle. Pretty neat.

From their mother and father:

Linda, Your husband’s saddle has been used by [two nieces who live nearby]. We do cherish the fact that you saw our children and extended family as keepers of your story in any form. We also love that you see them as responsible and caring enough to preserve some very fun saddles that would have stories to tell if they could talk.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House
Hermosa, South Dakota

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