Plains Folk



Strange indeed are the habits of thought of people on the plains, especially cattlemen, in regard to sheep. All the old misapprehensions about sheep remain — that they crop grass too closely, that they somehow ruin the range for cattle, that they are just not legitimate objects of animal husbandry. These prejudices go back to the days of the open range, when the big cattlemen sought to keep the range to themselves by terrorizing shepherds and killing their flocks.

Many are the old-timers of the Dakota range, however, who will admit that it was sheep, with their double crop of wool and meat, that got them through the hard times. We know, too, that sheep are great assets in environmental management. Sheep can be trained to eat leafy spurge, that pesky perennial weed of northern range lands, like it was candy. Nowadays it is fashionable among stockmen to cuss the invasive tendencies of bluegrass, brome, and crested wheatgrass, but somehow they don’t want to entertain the idea that early stocking with sheep might be an answer to these problems.

There was once a capable and articulate sheepherder who got tired of the popular disrespect for his profession and finally did something about it: he wrote a book. I’m talking about Archer B. Gilfillan, whose memoir, a cult classic published in 1929, is entitled, simply, Sheep.

The papers and personal effects of Archer Gilfillan are held by University of Minnesota Libraries. These, along with his book, document his career as a sheepherder in northwestern South Dakota from the 1910s to the 1930s.

Gilfillan was born on the White Earth Indian Reservation, his father an Episcopal minister. Young Gilfillan was sent away for schooling, eventually graduating from the University of Pennsylvania. Although a fine scholar, he chose the outdoor life. He tried homesteading, and he tried seminary, but sheep herding occupied his life for seventeen years. Following this he worked mainly as a writer, including a stint with the Federal Writers Project of South Dakota. He died in Deadwood in 1955.

This book, “Sheep,” is a joy to read. There is attitude in the book, of course. Gilfillan writes in full awareness, and some resentment, of popular attitudes toward his profession. He knows people consider shepherds to be queer loners, misfits who don’t fit in with settled society or modern ways. He embraces the identity of idiosyncrasy, however, and goes on to depict shepherds as a special breed of folk – better read than most, more attuned to nature, and, despite human foibles, ultimately responsible husbandmen tending their flocks.

Gilfillan the shepherd is a keen observer and able descriptor of all that goes on around him on the range. His chapter on the yearly round of herding, followed by a focused chapter on lambing and shearing, are classic descriptions of just how sheep herding operated on the range. Lambing, especially, requiring the continual subdividing of flocks and the careful nurture of the lambs, making sure each on got matched and bonded to its mother, is the subject of description that defines what husbandry means. Other creatures, such as coyotes, are praised or damned according to how they affect a shepherd’s life. Dogs are characters in their own right, essential tools that insist on exerting individual virtues.

“Such is the land of the sheep and the herder,” Gilfillan concludes. “A great land! a free land! and, in its own way, a beautiful land. Pure, clear air; a frank, open, and friendly people; a healthful and interesting job – what more could anyone ask?” And for a chronicle of that life, what more could anyone ask than this simple memoir, “Sheep”?

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