Walter Shelley Phillips (1867-1940) was a popular Western writer, artist, and lecturer best known by his pen name, "El Comancho." During his childhood in Nebraska and his years as a game hunter for the expanding railroads, Phillips developed relationships with Plains Indians tribes, and these early experiences became the basis for a long career spent re-telling tribal stories, legends, and ways of life for readers and audiences around the country. From 1890 until the early 1930s, Phillips moved back and forth between Seattle and Chicago. He worked as a newspaper reporter for the Seattle Telegraph and later made Seattle his home base while he traveled around the country by automobile as a writer for Field and Stream magazine. Phillips authored 17 books, and his columns were syndicated nationally in newspapers and magazines. He died in Seattle in 1940.
Son of the Heartland
Walter Shelley Phillips was born March 3, 1867 in Fairbury, Illinois, to Eliza Jane and Oregon Hazard Phillips. The family travelled a year later by covered wagon into Nebraska, where they homesteaded and helped found the town of Beatrice. Phillips' father was a Civil War veteran and Army reservist who did surveying and land acquisition for the Burlington Railroad, and later served as the town's postmaster and mayor.
Phillips' formal education ended with elementary school, and even that was marked by numerous absences, as he greatly preferred extended fishing and hunting trips with friends along the smooth-flowing Big Blue River. He was comfortable visiting the downstream settlements of the native Otoes, as well as the Mahas who lived upstream from Beatrice -- people he had met through his father.
During his teenage years, Phillips worked installing telegraph lines and assisting with his father's surveying business. When he was offered a job as a meat hunter with the crew charting the Burlington Railroad route from Grand Island, Nebraska to Billings, Montana, he jumped at the opportunity. During his travels, he found time to make contacts with Native American peoples of the northern plains, including the Dakota, Sioux, Blackfeet, and Crow, listening to their stories and observing their way of life. He claimed to be an adopted member of four Indian tribes. As Lucille McDonald reflected in a 1965 biographical sketch, "He was out to see the vanishing West while it still had Indians and buffaloes" ("El Comancho, Early Author ...").
Despite his limited formal education, Phillips became an avid reader during those early railroad travels, favoring natural history and scientific materials, under the tutelage of the German geologist who was also a member of the crew. Through this association Phillips developed his lifelong interests in geology and chemistry. It was also during this period that he acquired the nickname "El Comancho." Barbara Hergistad, in a 1983 essay for the Senior Leland D. Case Awards in Western History, quotes a 1936 interview by newspaper reporter Camille Yuill in which Phillips said the name was given to him by Jacob Kauffman, widely known as Jew Jake, who ran a former Pony Express stop, turned roadhouse, between the Wyoming Bighorns and the Black Hills. That name was "Comanch," which Phillips modified to "El Comancho." Hergistad also mentions other possible sources of the nickname, including that it came from a Sioux chief, High Horse, who called Phillips "Comanche," a reference to another Indian group. At any event, El Comancho become Phillips' pen name, by which he was better known during most of his career than by his given name.
From childhood, Phillips was interested in drawing, and claimed to have practiced sketching during the 1880's with famed Western artists Frederick Remington and Charles Russell. His association with Russell continued into the 1920's.
Seeds of a Writing Career
In 1887 Phillips sold his first article to a major outdoor magazine, Forest and Stream, which later became Field and Stream, and to which he contributed throughout much of his life, later serving as Western Editor and Manager. In several unpublished memoirs written much later in his life, Phillips mentioned his conscious decision in 1890 to begin writing in a more "professional manner." He returned to Nebraska and found work with the Beatrice Express and the Lincoln Call, and credited his early development as a writer to one of his editors, a kind but demanding Sergeant Peters.
On September 16, 1891, Phillips married a woman he had known since childhood, Rena Adelia Egleston, in Lincoln, Nebraska. The couple moved soon after to Seattle, where Phillips was employed as a reporter for the Seattle Telegraph. A year later he and Rena's first child, Laura, was born, followed two years later by a son, Eldon.
In 1894, Phillips moved to Chicago to do illustrations for a timber industry publication, Northwest Lumberman, which later became American Lumberman. Several years later his family joined him from Seattle. To bolster his drawing skills, he studied at the Chicago Art Institute. In 1895 he did illustrations for The Singing Mouse Stories, the first book of another prolific Western writer, Emerson Hough. Phillips' first book, Totem Tales, was published in 1896. It was a self-illustrated collection of Indian stories that drew heavily on articles that had appeared in Forest and Stream. In 1897 he won a cartoon contest sponsored by the Chicago Record.
A third child, son Rolla, was born in 1898, the same year a series of stories entitled "Just About A Boy" was serialized in Forest and Stream, and which a year later became Phillips' second book. Reminiscent of the author's childhood days on the Big Blue, the book recounts fishing and hunting techniques taught by a teenage master outdoorsman to an older, but less skilled, fisherman after the two meet by chance at a fishing hole.
Return to the Northwest
With the turn of the century, Phillips moved his family back to Seattle following an offer of employment by the Frank Cole Timber Company. Seattle would be his home for the next 20-plus years, but Phillips' growing writing career, especially his regular work for Field and Stream, constantly took him back and forth to Chicago and East Coast cities. He often travelled by automobile, a tedious process at the time, but which afforded opportunities for fishing, camping, developing ideas for articles, and visiting Native American acquaintances.
One extended trip was in 1909, when Phillips spent most of the year in the area about to become Glacier National Park. Employed by the Great Northern Railroad, his assignment was to chart the area, its geography and wildlife, and to develop promotional materials for the railroad, which was eager to use the park to draw passengers for newly established routes. During this period, Phillips contributed to numerous publications, including the Seattle Mail and Herald, Forest and Stream, and Westerner Magazine. Many of his articles and several of his regular columns were syndicated in newspapers and magazines around the country. In 1904 he started his own publication, Pacific Sportsman, which he wrote and edited until 1907, when he sold it to a larger competitor, Outdoor Life, for which he continued to write.
Phillips' forte was fishing and hunting, but he covered other sporting activities, with less than stellar results on one occasion. His report of the 1908 Alexandra Cup sailing race in Vancouver, British Columbia was pilloried in the Vancouver press as "... pure, unadulterated muddle of facts and hopeless ignorance of a great international event." It seems he got the race location wrong, attributed the victory to a boat from Seattle instead of the Canadian boat that actually won, and used somewhat patronizing language to describe the Canadian sailors ("Beautiful Errors ...").
In addition to writing for magazines and newspapers, Phillips wrote and illustrated seven more books before 1920, several of which were subsequently republished:
- Two Young Carusoes (1906);
- The Chinook Book (1913), a guide to the Chinook jargon, a mix of Indian and European languages widely used in interactions between non-Natives and Indians;
- Indian Tales for Little Folks (1914), Indian stories and legends for children, illustrated by the author;
- The Green Opal Ring (1914), Phillips' only attempt at the detective/mystery genre, which he, himself, described as a "trash novel." The book originally appeared in installments in All Stories, a major outlet for fiction writers of the time;
- Three Boys in the Indian Hills (1918);
- The Sandman -- His Indian Stories (1918);
- The Cowboys of Cut Out Ranch (1918), a coloring book of cowboy action scenes.
Perhaps confidence in his success as a writer and the financial wellbeing from a significant inheritance from one of his aunts led Phillips to venture into new territory with his next two books. The Master Power (1922) consists of 360 questions and answers about the nature of the world and Man's place in it. El Comancho Totem Fortune Tellers (1923) is a book and a set of author-illustrated cards used to tell the future.
In the early 1920's Phillips became a regular contributor to Outdoor American, the journal of the Izaak Walton League of America, which formed in 1922 and quickly became the country's first mass membership conservation organization. In that journal, Phillips' articles frequently appeared alongside those of other well-known Western writers, including Zane Gray. From 1923 to 1929, Phillips wrote a widely syndicated column, "Teepee Tales." Some of these columns were compiled into a book with the same title and published in 1927, with illustrations by Charles Livingston Bull, a noted wildlife artist who had previously collaborated on Jack London's Call of the Wild.
On the Road Again
In 1926, Phillips' marriage to Rena collapsed, and by the end of the year Phillips was again based in Chicago, although for the next six or seven years he spent at least as much time on the road as in the city. Always an enthusiastic traveler, he toured frequently around the country, claiming to have crossed it 198 times.
Having gained a level of fame, El Comancho was in demand as a lecturer. This was encouraged by a request from Bill Dilg, the Izaak Walton League President, to lecture around the country about stream and lake conservation, and help establish new League chapters, starting with an extended tour of East Coast cities. From 1926 to 1931, by his own account, Phillips gave 489 lectures to service and sporting groups; after the East Coast trip, these were primarily in the Midwest. He also lectured during this period for the Buffalo (New York) Society of Natural Science and the Chicago Burlington and Quincy Railroad. Phillips kept detailed journals that describe a sometimes difficult life for a man in his late 50's and early 60's. He regularly camped out at night, or slept in his beloved 1920 Franklin automobile during bad weather.
Phillips' career reached its zenith in the late 1920's and early 1930's. He left the lecture circuit frequently enough to do regular radio programs on Chicago station WMAQ, which were heard throughout the eastern U.S. The notice that came from doing a national radio show, in turn, built audiences for his public lectures, some of which drew up to 500 people. While much of Phillips' writing was about Native American tales and lifestyles, the radio programs were more about the experiences of the non-Native settlers: covered wagons, railroad expansion, ranching, and the places and characters of the Wild West. In 1929 these program transcripts were compiled under the title, The Old-Timer's Tale, El Comancho's last published book.
Final Chapter: Black Hills Handyman
The last decade of Phillips' life was set in and around the Black Hills of South Dakota, where he moved in 1930, having visited the area several times before. Twelve Mile Ranch, just west of Custer, where he lived much of this time, was a working ranch and former stagecoach station. It hosted numerous visitors, especially well-to-do Easterners eager to experience the West. Visitors included students from Smith College, who came with their professors to study geology.
Phillips had a small cabin and studio where he could pursue his lifelong interests in drawing, painting, and sculpting. He was commissioned to produce oil paintings of Western scenes, and completed a set of watercolor paintings of local plants and wildflowers. He collected fossils (by his account discovering a major fossil bed) and minerals, and regularly prospected for gold. He worked on several manuscripts that were never completed, including reference guides on geology, chemistry, mineralogy, and a dictionary of technical terms. Phillips earned his keep at the ranch partly by lecturing guests about the geology and natural history of the area, and entertaining them with stories of the Old West. He hunted deer for the ranch kitchen, and occasionally served as school bus driver for the handful of children in residence.
In November 1936, he moved to Rapid City, South Dakota as director of a Works Progress Administration art project at a new Indian museum, where his creations ranged from paintings and carvings for displays, to molded clay souvenirs for the gift shop. He continued to lecture occasionally and taught art classes. Journal entries for the last year of his life regularly noted days on which he felt ill and was not able to leave his cabin. In 1940, Phillips decided to move to Santa Barbara to live with his daughter. While visiting in Seattle, en route to California, he died of a cerebral hemorrhage on September 1, 1940.