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EDITORS NOTE: Our author makes many source references in the original book. We leave these out for readability but want you to know that the quotes given in this story are real.
WALTER PRESCOT WEBB HAS CALLED THE GREAT PLAINS the “great obstacle,” and it is true that until the days of the cattle drives of the 1860’s, the American people didn’t seem to know what to do with them. The Spaniards had been equally nonplussed by these vast areas of “cows and sky”—and deficient rainfall.
Both peoples treated the Plains as a nasty experience to be got over as soon as possible so that they could press on to Quivira or El Dorado, or to gather the golden apples of the ‘Willamette Valley. “They were in reality seeking the familiar and shunning the necessity of working out new ways in the Plains.”
The great obstacle was not easily overcome—Coronado, Castañeda, Pike, and Long had not so grossly exaggerated its uselessness to civilized man at the stage of technological development at their time—but when rangy herds of mean-looking Mexican longhorns began to be propelled up into Texas by even meaner-looking Mexican vaqueros and Texas “cowboys,” a useful two-pronged weapon for dealing with its intransigeance had at last appeared.
The Nueces Valley began to fill up with lean kine, which, finding there one blade of grass growing where none (in the deserts of Coahuila and other points South) had grown where they had been before, waxed fatter (but not yet fat), increased and multiplied, and began to low for a market.
At about the same time, or even earlier, the cattle-ranching era had also begun for California. Here too came the Mexican cattle with their lariat-twirling, scraped Vaqueros, about whose equestrian skills the Boston merchants and young Harvard men serving before the mast wrote home with bated breath.
In California the age of hides and tallow, rather than an age of iron or silver, preceded the age of gold. Hides became the local currency, slightly more awkward to carry around shopping than gold dust, but just as widely used as that commodity was later to become in those same valleys.
The easy-going Spanish Californians bought shoes at high prices, made in Massachusetts from those very hides they had parted from, to main-chancing Yankee supercargoes for one to two, dollars apiece, delivered at the cliff edge, in creaking bullock wagons.
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|A California cattle drive, by James Walker.|
When the British fleet, under Admiral Sir George Seymour, came cruising up from Mexico to watch what Commodore Sloat was doing in July 1846 in Californian waters, the enterprising Abel Stearns (out of Lunenburg, Massachusetts, by way of Valparaiso) wrote to an employee from the pueblo of Los Angeles (his hide shed was then one of the two buildings at the San Pedro anchorage down on the coast):
“I received yours of the first inst. in which you observe there is a prospect of some English men of war arriving. I hope it may be the case and that they may want a plenty of beef. . . . If you have a chance, try and make something out of it. John Bull is a lusty old fellow and has a stiff purse.”
Nearly every other American in California at the time thought that Seymour had come to establish a British colony in, or a British protectorate over, California, but Stearns, faced with a surplus of novillos, thought only about supplying him with beef.
Yet, California’s surplus cattle, unlike those of Texas, did not long remain in search of a market. Some had been driven up into Oregon for the American settlers there (of whom there were many more until the late forties than in California)—and Ewing Young, it will be remembered, had turned from fur trapping to ranching as early as the thirties—but even as long a drive as that soon became unnecessary, as beef-hungry miners began pouring into the pastoral solitudes of the now golden state in ‘48 and ‘49.
Not for the last time did California thus solve a pressing economic problem in a unique way, and Abel Stearns’s “Cattle on a Thousand Hills” soon made him one of the richest men in the state, without benefit of gold mines.
It was a much longer trek from hoof to mouth for the Texas longhorns. The cattle trails they blazed had to go from south to north, against the grain of the westward movement. If the miners may be said to have pock-marked the map of the undeveloped West, the Texas cattlemen can be claimed to have cross-hatched it. It was the second major assault by man on the Great American Desert, and one it did not survive.
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|Old-style Texan cowman, by Frederic Remington. From Theodore Roosevelt: Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail (New York and London, 1889).|
While the cattle kingdom, dependent on the vast “open range” of government land for grazing the herds as they found their way north, was developing, “the frontier line was held practically stationary along the vicinity of the 98th meridian. During this period—which lasted, roughly, from 1840 to 1885—the agricultural frontier first jumped across the Plains, established itself on the Pacific slope, and then began to work backwards,” Webb points out.
All this, while mighty convenient to the cattlemen (Webb might have added), badly knocked askew the as yet unformulated “Turner hypothesis,” which was to see the orderly advance westward of civilization and settlement behind a “cutting edge” of frontiersmen.
One thing this grain-crossing did was to inject a way of life, hitherto southern—indeed, quasi-Mexican (especially in its vocabulary)—into the northern plains of Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana, and even into Canada’s prairie provinces.
The “cowboy culture” of the cattle kingdom was to penetrate far beyond the Missouri and Kansas railheads, which were the first objectives of the trail herds. Soon the “Texas cowboy” was all over the Great Plains, sometimes appreciated, often resented; free-spending, painting the town red—and widely imitated.
In the decades after the Civil War the spread of the “cow culture” up out of Texas helped to knit the divided country together again and keep the West “one society”—as it had always tended to be, even during the war. Men who had driven a herd of cattle all the way from the Rio Grande to the Blackfoot reservation in northern Montana—as had Andy Adams’s outfit—could not but acquire a wide knowledge of their enormous country and an easy tolerance of sectional and local differences and idiosyncracies.
These differences occasionally caused trouble, for many of the cowhands were Confederate veterans, but the long drive tended to be a melting pot rather than a tinder box. The railhead cow towns (like the mining camps) contained elements from all over the country, some good, some bad, but very few of them indifferent to the fact that here—as on the long trails, and the new ranches that were being established all over the Great Plains—a new type of frontier history was being made, and a new type of American forged.
Owen Wister’s “ideal” cowboy was not a Texan in Texas but a Virginian in Wyoming; yet he and his fellow Virginians, New Yorkers, Vermonters, Kentuckians, and assorted Midwesterners and Northwesterners had to learn their craft (if not their manners) from the Texas cowboys up from the Rio Grande, the Nueces, and the Pecos. *
* “It was the Texas cowboy who taught his northern cousin the techniques of handling cattle in the vastnesses of the open range. . . . The Montana cowboy was a legitimate copy of the Texas cowboy, but he was just that, a copy of the original . . . the cattleman frontier was a Texas story from beginning to end”— Frantz and Choate: The American Cowboy, p. 35.
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The word “cowboy” seems at first to have been almost synonymous with “cattle rustler.” The Tory “cowboys” of Westchester county, New York, in the American Revolution, plundered the cattle of the patriot “skinners” and vice versa, and in the Texas revolution a “cowboy” was one who ran Mexican-owned cattle across the Rio Grande in the general direction of Louisiana’s markets.
“The name ‘cowboy’ was even then—and still more emphatically later—one name for many crimes, since those engaged in it [sic] were mostly outlaws confessedly.” The name had to travel far and have many rough edges rubbed off it before it could sit becomingly on the lithe and graceful shoulders of that perfect gentle knight, sans peur and sans reproche, Owen Wister’s “Virginian.”
The first cattle king was of course a Texan, one Taylor White, who drove longhorn cattle to Louisiana long before the forties. When he moved to Texas in 1823, “his whole fortune was three cows and calves, two small poneys, a wife and three children—he now  owns about 40,000 acres of land upwards of 90 negroes, about thirty thousand head of cattle, has sixty thousand dollars in specie deposited in New Orleans, marked and branded thirty seven hundred calves last spring and sold last fall in New Orleans 11 hundred steers weighing about 1000 lbs each which he says cost him no more than 7 cents a head to drive them to market at Orleans and what is extraordinary he cannot read or write and has made his fortune raising stock alone.”
Similar modest fortunes continued to be made by Texas cowmen, both lettered and unlettered, up to the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. After the Mexican War had ended any possibility of the Mexicans recovering their herds marooned north of the Rio Grande, the unbranded longhorns—and some branded ones—became public property and increased exceedingly, especially in the Nueces Valley.
Various attempts were made to get these animals, almost valueless in Texas, to profitable markets. In addition to the drives to New Orleans, some were shipped out by sea from Galveston and other Texas ports and roadsteads, others driven up to Missouri, St. Louis, Chicago, and even New York. This last operation took two whole seasons (despite a train ride on the last leg, from Muncie, Indiana, to New York) in 1854.
During the gold rush some were even driven to California, for a steer worth less than $5 in Texas at that time could fetch $160 on the booming Pacific Coast, where the inrush of population had overtaxed the supplies of “cattle on a thousand hills.”
But the way to California was long and hazardous, and the Midwestern farmers feared the Texas cattle fever, so they placed increasing obstacles in the way of the Texas drovers. In addition, Indian cattle thieves were a nuisance everywhere.
From 1861 to 1865 the long-distance cattle drives were made impossible by war conditions, especially in border states like Kansas and Missouri. Most of the pre-war demand had been from the more populous North.
An attempt to reopen the trade in 1866 proved disastrous; though over a quarter of a million Texas cattle were sent north and east that year, very few were sold at a profit; Texas cattlemen—and their longhorns—were still not welcome there.
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|Making a tenderfoot dance, by Frederic Remington. From Theodore Roosevelt: Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail (1889).|
It required a stroke of genius to bring these Texas cattle into the packing stations, sleek, fat, and profitable, and this was provided by one Joseph McCoy—the authentic “Real McCoy”—out of Illinois. After an unsuccessful attempt to interest the shortsighted Missouri Pacific Railroad in his project, he made a deal with the Hannibal and St. Joseph and the Kansas Pacific for the transportation of cattle at preferential rates eastward to Chicago, and then set up his cattle barn, corrals, and scales at the end of the earth, or so it looked that summer of 1867, a place called Abilene—“a small dead place . . . of about one dozen log huts.”
Aside from its good grass and plentiful water, Abilene’s only merit was that it was about to be reached by the railroad from the East. Despite assiduous advertising, both in Texas and along the trails, McCoy attracted only some 25,000 cattle to Abilene in 1867; but it was the start of a movement that, lasting until 1872, was to bring hundreds of thousands of Texas longhorns into Abilene each year, and to see both the birth of a new industry and the crystallization of a new frontier type.
“Abilene, more than four hundred miles north of the Red River and nearly a thousand miles from the Nueces country, was to become the commercial capital of Texas . . . to know in prosperity a lustiness and a greed which would make it legend wherever cattlemen stopped to talk.
It would be superseded by other and better towns . . . but Abilene would be the first and most fondly remembered. . . . In Abilene the Texas cowboy was discovered and first became a distinct type, and here he first displayed for a national audience, those extremes of temperament that make a hero.”
By 1872 Abilene had grown more or less respectable—in 1871 Wild Bill Hickok, its trigger-happy marshall, proved too tough for it, and his commission was allowed to lapse—and, besides, the railroad had pushed out beyond it. Other cow-towns arose: Ellsworth, Newton, Jutesburg, Whichita, Hays City, Ogalalla, Cheyenne, Laramie, and others; Dodge City, a little west of where the Santa Fe Railroad reached the Great Bend of the Arkansas River and near Coronado’s Quivira, was the last, the wildest, and the most notorious of them all.
Dodge City received and transshipped more than a quarter-million head of Texas cattle a year during the boom of the late seventies and early eighties. “In its moment of glory Dodge City was better known than Denver or St. Paul or Kansas City.” Andy Adams’s famous Log of a Cowboy, in which he describes visits to both “Dodge” and Ogalalla, gives Dodge rather a good name, thanks to its formidable peace officers:
“I’ve been in Dodge every summer since said the old cowman, “and I can give you boys some points. Dodge is one town where the average bad man of the West not only finds his equal, but finds himself badly handicapped. The buffalo hunters and range men have protested against the iron rule of Dodge’s peace officers, and nearly every protest has cost human life. Don’t ever get the impression that you can ride your horses into a saloon, or shoot out the lights in Dodge; it may go somewhere else, but it don’t go there.
“So I want to warn you to behave yourselves. You can wear your six-shooters into town, but you’d better leave them at the first place you stop, hotel, livery, or business house. And when you leave town, call for your pistols, but don’t ride out shooting; omit that. Most cowboys think it’s an infringement on their rights to give up shooting in town, and if it is, it stands, for your six-shooters are no match for Winchesters and buckshot; and Dodge’s officers are as game a set of men as ever faced danger.”
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|Map of Principal North-South Cattle Trails 1865-1885.|
Nearly a generation has passed since McNulta, the Texan cattle drover, gave our outfit this advice one June morning on the Mulberry, and in setting down this record, I have only to scan the roster of the peace officials of Dodge City to admit its correctness.
Among the names that graced the official roster, during the brief span of the trail days, were the brothers Ed, Jim, and “Bat” Masterson, Wyatt Earp, Jack Bridges, “Doc” Holliday, Charles Bassett, William Tillman, “Shotgun” Collins, Joshua Webb, Mayor A. B. Webster, and “Mysterious” Dave Mather.
The puppets of no romance ever written can compare with these officers in fearlessness. And let it be understood, there were plenty to protest against their rule; almost daily during the range season some equally fearless individual defied them.
To Adams, it is Ogalalla that is Gomorrah:
“. . .below us in the valley of the South Platte, nestled Ogalalla, the Gomorrah of the cattle trail. From amongst its half hundred buildings, no church spire pointed upward, but instead three fourths of its business houses were dance halls, gambling houses, and saloons. We all knew the town by reputation, while the larger part of our outfit had been in it before.
“It was there that Joel Collins and his outfit rendezvoused when they robbed the Union Pacific train in October, ‘77. Collins had driven a herd of cattle for his father and brother, and after selling them in the Black Hills, gambled away the proceeds. Some five or six of his outfit returned to Ogalalla with him, and being moneyless, concluded to recoup their losses at the expense of the railway company.
“Going eighteen miles up the river to Big Springs, seven of them robbed the express and passengers, the former yielding sixty thousand dollars in gold. The next morning they were in Ogalalla, paying debts, and getting their horses shod. In Collin’s outfit was Sam Bass, and under his leadership, until he met his death the following spring at the hands of Texas Rangers, the course of the outfit southward was marked by a series of daring bank and train robberies.
“We reached the river late that evening, and after watering, grazed until dark and camped for the night. But it was not to be a night of rest and sleep, for the lights were twinkling across the river in town; and cook, horse wrangler, and all, with the exception of the first guard, rode across the river after the herd had been bedded.
“Flood had quit us while we were watering the herd and gone in ahead to get a draft cashed, for he was as moneyless as the rest of us. But his letter of credit was good anywhere on the trail where money was to be had, and on reaching town, he took us into a general outfitting store and paid us twenty-five dollars apiece. After warning us to be on hand at the wagon to stand our watches, he left us, and we scattered like lost sheep.
“Officer and I paid our loans to The Rebel, and the three of us wandered around for several hours in company with Nat Straw. When we were in Dodge, my bunkie had shown no inclination to gamble, but now he was the first one to suggest that we make up a “cow,” and let him try his luck at monte. Straw and Officer were both willing, and though in rags, I willingly consented and contributed my five to the general fund.
“Every gambling house ran from two to three monte layouts, as it was a favorite game of cowmen, especially when they were from the far southern country. Priest soon found a game to his liking, and after watching his play through several deals, Officer and I left him with the understanding that he would start for camp promptly at midnight.
“There was much to be seen, though it was a small place, for the ends of the earth’s iniquity had gathered in Ogalalla. We wandered through the various gambling houses, drinking moderately, meeting an occasional acquaintance from Texas, and in the course of our rounds landed in the Dew-Drop-In dance hall.
“Here might be seen the frailty of women in every grade and condition. From girls in their teens, launching out on a life of shame, to the adventuress who had once had youth and beauty in her favor, but was now discarded and ready for the final dose of opium and the coroner’s verdict—all were there in tinsel and paint, practicing a careless exposure of their charms.
“In a town which has no night, the hours pass rapidly and before we were aware, midnight was upon us. Returning to the gambling house where we had left Priest, we found him over a hundred dollars winner, and, calling his attention to the hour, persuaded him to cash in and join us. We felt positively rich, as he counted out to each partner his share of the winnings! Straw was missing to receive his, but we knew he could be found on the morrow, and after a round of drinks, we forded the river.
“Nevertheless, his outfit was better behaved in Ogalalla than in Dodge City. In Dodge they had to paint the town red on the $25 in gold advanced to each of them by the trail boss, but made such nuisances of themselves that they were shot up by peace officers (without material damage to man, but one of their horses was killed) on the way out.
“In Ogalalla, on a second visit after getting the balance of their pay, “Tom” and his two bunkies won $1,400 playing monte at ‘The Black Elephant,’ and departed quietly after buying new outfits, including “cheap new suits the color of which we never knew until the next day.”
“As we scaled the bluffs we halted for our last glimpse of the lights of Ogalalla. The Rebel remarked ‘Boys, I’ve traveled some in my life, but that little hole back there could give Natchez-under-the-hill cards and spades and then out-hold her as a tough town.’”
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|A fight in the street, by Frederic Remington. From Theodore Roosevelt: Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail (1889).|
Not every outfit was five months on the way, as was that of foreman Jim Flood, which took Adams’s alter ego, young Tom along as a trail hand in the early spring of 1882, and, after receiving the herd from across the Rio Grande River in Old Mexico, delivered it intact on the Blackfoot reservation in the northwest corner of Montana at the end of August.
When all was over, Don Lovell, the owner of the herd, took his cowboys to the railhead of the Northern Pacific at Silver Bow, Montana, and stood drinks all round while they waited for the train. “Turn to and help wait on these thirsty Texans,” he said, “and remember that there is nothing too rich for our blood today. This outfit has made one of the longest cattle drives on record, and the best is none too good for them.”
Chief among the many trails followed by the cattle drives to the northern railheads were: the Sedalia Trail, opened up in 1866 but veering too far east into the wooded Ozarks to be followed in later years; the Chisholm Trail to Abilene via Fort Worth and the Indian Territory, resulting from McCoy’s enterprising idea; the Goodnight-Loving Trail to the Pecos River and then north through New Mexico, Colorado, and beyond; and the Western Trail (which Andy Adams’s heroes followed in 1882), up through the later notorious cow-towns of Dodge City, Kansas, and Ogalalla, Nebraska, and thence into Montana across northeastern Wyoming.
The Goodnight-Loving Trail, named after two well-known cattlemen who used it, belied its cozy name, for it went through Comanche country and was perhaps the most hazardous of all. Every one of these trails had to cross a number of eastward flowing rivers, very few of them “two miles wide and half an inch deep,” as the Platte was claimed to be, for many were swift-flowing, deep, and treacherous.
In Andy Adams’s book the trail boss (or foreman) of one herd loses his life at one such crossing, and, at another, a full day is spent in improvising a bridge of brushwood and logs and cajoling the unwilling longhorns across this makeshift causeway, using, as a last resort, a bellowing calf as a decoy, lugged on the end of a rope and followed by its anxious mother.
The inquisitive steers found it impossible to resist investigating this intriguing situation, and crowded across in her wake.
Only in the earliest years after the Civil War were the Texas cattle driven North principally for shipment East by rail, though this remained an important trade well into the eighties. They were also used to stock the Northern Plains, there to be cross-bred with beef cattle of higher quality but lower stamina from the East, the expensive stud-bulls being worth importing all this way by rail.
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|A buffalo hunter’s camp on the Southern Plains, in the Texas Panhandle, 1874.|
As the population of this area increased, Texas cattle were also used for local consumption, after a period of fattening at the end of their long, slenderizing drives. This would have been the fate of most of the herd driven up by Andy Adams’s outfit in 1882 from the Mexican border to the Blackfoot reservation.
The federal government had undertaken to deliver beef cattle to the Indian reservations regularly, and in most cases it fulfilled its obligations. The Indians, deprived of the now almost extinct buffalo herds and not yet acclimatized to subsistence farming or cattle ranching, might have starved without this “subsidy.” Sometimes they did.
According to the U. S. Tenth Census Report, up to 1880 nearly four and a quarter million head of Texas cattle were shipped eastward by rail. Of these, nearly a million and a half passed through Abilene between 1867 and 1871, over a million through Wichita and Ellesworth between 1872 and 1875, and over a million through Dodge City and Ellis between 1876 and 1879.
The record year was 1871, when over 700,000 Texas cattle reached Kansas. There had still been over four million longhorns in Texas in 1870, about as many as in 1860, despite the size and number of the long drives of the second half of that decade.
The cattle boom in the Great Plains continued until the mid-eighties and in its later years attracted large amounts of foreign capital. Range cattle worth only $7 or $8 a head in 1878 were fetching the peak price of $30 to $35 in 1882, as a result of which the drives increased and the northern range became overstocked.
In view of this glut, the Chicago packers slashed the prices they offered, and cattle were back to $8 a head by 1885. The severe winter of 1885-86 brought disaster to many cattlemen and bankrupted even some of the large corporations—like the Swan Company of Wyoming and the Niobra Company of Nebraska.
Millions of cattle died that winter on the ranges and ranches. “The winter of 1885-1886 was the sort of sharp punch calculated to puncture permanently an overblown speculative bubble,” and by 1887 prime beef cattle were down to under $2 per hundred pounds on the Chicago market. A twelve-hundred-pound steer could net the owner as little as $5, after all shipping and other expenses had been met.
The wheel had thus come full circle to the almost valueless cattle that had roamed the Nueces valley a quarter-century earlier, threatening to become a pest. An era in the history of the American frontier and in the development of the Great West was over, and within a generation!
“To sum it all up, the collapse of 1885 converted ranching from an adventure into a business, which is today carried on with as much system as farming and manufacturing” says Webb. But this transition and the necessary readjustments took time.
“By 1892 the story of the frontier ranch and its cowboys had already been lived, and many cowboys were getting ready to reminisce in print and at cowboy reunions.”
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|Line riding in winter, by Frederic Remington. From Theodore Roosevelt Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail (1889).|
It was not until after 1900 that the Western “cattle business” began to take on its soulless modern form.
Not until around 1950 that the cowboy began to forsake his horse for a jeep and “learn his songs from the radio,” and the cattle barons to “ride the range” in air-conditioned Cadillac ranch wagons, with built-in bars and telephones, or to “mend their fences” on stock markets of a different kind via their own executive aircraft.
“Waiting for a Chinook” took a long time, but when the warm winds began to blow again on the cattle industry, it was, in the twentieth century, to become bigger than ever before. But by then all the romance had gone—or had it?
There was no more romance about the cattlemen, the owners, the tycoons, “The Cattle Kings,” than about the mine owners and entrepreneurs who waxed rich out of the mining boom.
Collis P. Huntington was about as romantic as a bullfrog, and even the gifted turn-of-the-century novelist Frank Norris failed to make an exciting character out of him; John Mackay was almost ostentatiously unglamorous; Joseph McCoy was about as featureless as the Illinois prairies from which he hailed, and he obviously disapproved of the picturesque Texas cowboys out of whom he made his filthy lucre.
The most romantic thing about Charlie Goodnight was his name. It is the hired hands, from the trail boss or foreman down to the wrangler (and even including the cook, usually an ex-cowboy grown too old or too heavy for the saddle, and nearly always an ornery “character,” who have become the heroes of high romance, as imperishable as the knights of the Round Table and the paladins of Roncesvalles.
The noble cowboy has followed the noble savage into literature, and has stayed in much more successfully. Eighty years after the frontier cowboy passed his apogee, three quarters of a century after the open range disappeared from the West, more is written, sung, “shot,” or projected every year about the cowboy than about any other hero of the American frontier, old or new—perhaps about all of them together.
Acres of this effluvia are sheer pulp, following well-worn grooves and repeating stereotypes, but every now and then the cowboy frontier still produces a classic, or the old-time cowboy evokes a bit of descriptive writing, a piece of sculpture, a painting or drawing, a poem, a song, a film script, a piece of acting, or a realistic reappraisal that has true inspiration.
Nearly all of these (and we all have our favorites)—with the possible exception of the last category—tend to paint the cowboy larger than life and twice as handsome. But who cares! Owen Wister’s “Virginian” at his bright dawn, Gary Cooper at High Noon, or Ramon Adams in the campfire’s evening glow have all depicted him as we would like him to have been, even if he was not quite like that.
When Frederic Remington, illustrating young Theodore Roosevelt’s ‘Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail’ in 1888 with cowboys drawn from life, shows the cowboy as he really is most of the time, riding the range and mending barbed-wire fences in winter, blue with cold, muffled up to the eyebrows, sagging on an equally sorry-looking pony, sombrero-less, scarfless, chapless, and bored, we turn eagerly to page 92, where he and his bunkies are painting the town red, or to page 40, where he is riding a bucking bronco, or to page 91, where he is scaring the daylights out of a city slicker.
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|A bucking bronco, by Frederic Remington. From Theodore Roosevelt: Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail (1889).|
This is the cowboy as we want to remember him, but as he very rarely, and for only brief moments, was. Ramon Adams, no cowboy himself and no kin to Andy (except under the skin), but a skilled chronicler and bibliographer of the cowboy era, came up to Denver in 1962 and told us members of the newly formed Western History Association what the “old-time cowhand” was really like.
Though Paul Horgan has produced a highly literary, and greatly respected, evaluation of the cowboy, this writer prefers the saltier and more down-to-earth treatment—which really requires to be intoned aloud in a slow Texas drawl—given by Ramon Adams:
I have been interested in the cowboy and his lingo for more than sixty years—way back, as the cowboy would say, since I was “fryin’ size.” My real interest probably started when Jim Houston, a typical Texas cowboy, told a group of other cowmen, into which I had poked my young ears, of the time he had a narrow escape from a cow on the prod while he was afoot in a branding pen:
“There’s no love-light in that cow’s eyes as she makes for me,” said Jim. “I fogs it across that corral like I’m goin’ to a dance, an’ she’s a-scratchin’ the grease off my pants at ever’ jump. Seein’ I can’t make the fence in time, Brazos Gowdy jumps down off the fence an’ throws his hat in the old gal’s face. Seem’ a cowboy come apart in pieces like that makes her hesitate till I climb the fence without losin’ anything more’n some confidence, a lot o’ wind, and a little dignity. You can take it from me, a cow with a fresh-branded calf might be a mother, but she shore ain’t no lady.”. . .
There is an underlying humor in nearly every utterance of the cowboy. The country he lived in was vast and vivid; the life he lived was hard and lonely. This loneliness, his lack of education, and a certain restrained lawlessness all had their influence. His natural dislike for rule and restraint, his hatred for all authority, his extravagant and often grotesque humor, his exceptional capacity for word pictures—all these attest the spirit of the West, and from such qualities its language is nourished.
Though he led a hard and dangerous life, he could usually see the funny side, even if the joke was on him. His humor grew out of what he knew and observed. It expressed itself in picturesque, full-flavored, fertile, and vigorous speech, in practical jokes and rough horseplay, and in the tall tales he spun around the campfire.
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|Steer rider, by Charlie Russell.|
His capacity for humor was largely due to the fact that he was a young man, full of prank and play. His kind rarely considered the problems of life seriously. His humor was not merely an occasional flash of mood; it was a way of living, a standard reaction to the problems of life. Even in his ordinary everyday speech, his humor was evident.
A typical example is Bud Puryear, an old cowhand of the Texas Panhandle. The ranch had sent several cowboys to drive in a small bunch of cattle to the home ranch. They had to drive these cattle through a desert section nearly all day before reaching the ranch, and both cattle and men suffered extremely from thirst.
By the time they reached the southern edge of the ranch where there was a surface tank, the cattle were frantic and the men’s tongues were swollen. When the cattle smelled the water of the tank they made a run for it, and the men followed.
Bud rode right in among the cattle, lay down on his belly, and stuck his muzzle in the water. The other boys had ridden over to the other side where the water wasn’t muddied.
“Hey, Bud!” one of them yelled over, “Why don’t you come over here where the water’s clear?”
“Hell,” answered Bud, “what difference does it make? I’m goin’ to drink it all anyway.” . . .
The real cowhand’s typical day was anything but romantic. There was no romance in getting up at four o’clock in the morning, eating dust behind a trail herd, swimming muddy and turbulent rivers, nor in doctoring screw worms, pulling stupid cows from bog holes, sweating in the heat of summer, and freezing in the cold of winter.
If, when he got to town, after long months out in the brush, on the lone prairie, or on the long, long trail, the cowboy “cut his wolf loose” and had a little fun, he could hardly be blamed. He was a robust animal, full of vinegar and pride, and generally came from venturesome ancestors.
The old-time cowhand lived in the saddle. He was strictly a riding man, and detested walking, even for short distances. A self-respecting cowhand would never be going far on foot. This is why he was mighty particular about a straight riding job.
When he was out of work and rode to a new range seeking a job, he was careful to inquire about the outfit before he arrived. He didn’t want to sign up with some little “three-up” outfit that didn’t own enough beef to hold a barbecue.
On such an outfit there would be chores to do that were beneath his dignity, such as feeding, digging post-holes, or cutting stove wood, and the only place a cowhand could cut wood and not hurt his pride was at a line camp where it was chop wood or “no eat.”
When he “hit” a fenced ranch for a job, he hoped that all the fencing and cross fencing had been done and no more post-holes needed to be dug. He didn’t want to be caught on the blister end of no damned shovel. High-heeled boots weren’t made for foot work, and he wouldn’t be caught in a low-heeled shoe.
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|Cowboy riding the fence line, by Charlie Russell.|
But he didn’t shirk any duty as long as it could be done from horseback. He worked without complaint long hours through flood and drought, heat and cold, and dust and blizzard, never once thinking of his own discomfort if the cattle and the welfare of his boss demanded his attention.
Fighting prairie fires, the dangers of stampedes, the loneliness of range riding, the discomforts of standing guard in the rain or sleet—none of these things seemed unusual if he could do them from the back of a horse.
On the other hand, he didn’t even want to open a gate unless he could lean over and do it from the saddle. His profession was born of necessity, and with it was born a tradition that he followed jealously until he became the most colorful and picturesque hired man ever known.
About the only footwork he considered honorable was roping in the corral, or doing the branding.
A lot of sunshine put that squint in the old-timer’s eyes, and a lot of prairie wind tanned his face. That ten-gallon hat and those fancy boots were not what made him look like a cowman. It was the elements, the corral dust, and horse smell, and the cow-camp chuck that branded him.
He could go away from the cow country and dress in fancy society togs, and another cowman would still know him to be a cowman.
After the fences came, most of these old-timers were always bellyaching with a yearning to go somewhere where they could spread a loop without getting it caught on a fence post. Most of the real old-timers have now saddled a cloud and ridden into the Great Beyond, and their like will never be seen again. . . .
Rarnon Adams’s cowhand might have been a “character,” but he was hardly either a glamorous figure or a hero. But if his is the cowboy as he really was, then the cowboy of Western mythology is a man transformed—and made larger than life.
The old time cowhand was no hero, not even to his horse (and quite a number of cow horses were reputed to be a sight more intelligent than their riders), yet look what has happened to his latter day image! Clifford Westermeier asks:
“What is there about him that makes a halo of his stetson and a dragon-slaying sword of his six-shooter? The West had other heroes with traits just as admirable—the explorer, the trapper, the prospector, the homesteader . . . ,” and goes on to say that the mystique is no doubt connected with the cowboy’s horse—pas de cheval, pas de cowboy, as that Westernized Frenchman, Paul Coze, has aphorized—but, then, other frontiersmen have ridden horses.
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|Painting the town red, by Frederic Remington. From Theodore Roosevelt: Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail (1889).|
The Freudians, too, have pushed their way in, not to propound a centaur complex, but with the suggestion that “the cowboy hero is the eternal son, repetitively and compulsively acting out an archetypal fantasy. . . . The villain represents the ‘bad’ father, who deprives the narcissistic ‘king of the nursery’ of his heart’s desire, the good mother. In overwhelming the villain, the hero is simultaneously re-enacting the oedipal crime against the father, making restitution for it, and avenging both his father and himself. . . . The saloon and the ‘hangout’ are allusions to the primal scene . . . the gun-battles are threats and counter-threats of castration. . . . The Western story may be considered as a heroic myth in which are concealed themes of oedipal and other conflicts.” And so on.
It is all so simple. If he could read Dr. Barker’s psychoanalysis of the hired man on horseback, the bones of Eugene Manlove Rhodes would buck in his grave at the summit of Rhodes Pass, in his beloved San Andrés Mountains of New Mexico.
No matter whose definition of the American cowboy we choose—Andy or Ramon Adams’s, Eugene Manlove Rhodes’s, Emerson Hough’s, Charles Siringo’s, Philip Rollins’s, Dr. Barker’s, or Dr. Freud’s—he is still with us a hundred years after he first came up from Texas to Baxter Springs and Sedalia.
The myth and the reality, as Frantz and Choate have demonstrated, have become inextricably intermingled. What he was like in the great drives between 1865 and 1885 we can now fairly clearly discern; but what he has since become is beyond history and is the stuff that dreams are made of.
The Rodeo “cowboy” of today, always “on the road,” is essentially a showman and more than a bit of an actor. He possesses great skill, takes great risks, and wins (if he is lucky) big prizes. His long drives are in 300-horsepower ranch wagons. He shuttles from Dallas to Cheyenne, to Pendleton, to Albuquerque; to Madison Square Garden, New York; to Calgary, to Denver.
In 1955 alone there were 421 rodeos approved by the national Rodeo Cowboys’ Association, and in 1961 there were 542, offering over $3 million in prize money. Cheyenne’s Frontier Days Rodeo, called by its proud sponsors the “Daddy of them All,” is worth $2 million to that city in business annually. One rodeo cowboy, Jim Shoulders, won over $43,000 in prize money in a year.
The “cowboy” who “learned his songs on the rad-io” and makes his living playing in horse operas and the like, may never have been on the range at all. William S. Hart, Tom Mix, and Will Rogers were ranch fed, all right, but some of their singing, guitar-strumming successors have been less authentic, though most of them can at least ride a horse.
The “cowboy” of the “Western” movies has had a long inning ever since Bronco Billy Anderson played in ‘The Great Train Robbery’ in 1903, and television has given him a new lease of life. Even Japan now makes her own “Westerns,” and, by way of retaliation, The Seven Samurai was remade in the “Western” idiom by Hollywood for distribution in the English-speaking world as ‘The Magnificent Seven.’
Westerners’ Societies, or “Corrals,” have been founded in many countries besides the United States and Canada, and have flourished, particularly in Great Britain and Germany. The president of the German “Westerners” is himself a prolific writer of Western paperbacks, and those who sit at the feet of Karl May, “the German Fenimore Cooper,” turn out by the thousands to attend an annual festival in which they can watch the cowboy hero “Old Shatterhand” worst his Apache foe.
The cowboy craze has penetrated even behind the Iron Curtain, though “Corrals” do not as yet exist (above ground, at least) in Moscow or Peking.
As for rodeos, since the celebrated one at the British Empire Exhibition in London in 1924 (of which this writer has vivid adolescent memories) they have been organized as far afield as China, the South Pacific, Honolulu, Guam, and North Africa—and, of course, “Down Under.”
Though the big ranchers never acquired the literary glamour of the cowboys they hired in summer and (too often) turned loose in winter to forage for themselves, they were, of course, much more important factors in the cattle industry.
To begin (and end) with, the hired hands on horseback rarely grew rich. Even as recently as 1962, David Brinkley, on the N.B.C. television program “David Brinkley’s Hour,” cited the instance of a twenty-three-year-old cowboy in Wyoming “who began work at a salary of $90 a month, plus room and board [and] is now earning $150. He spends fourteen hours a day in the saddle, riding approximately forty miles; his excursions to town include drinking beer, watching television and eating chicken.”
The typical cowboy works, according to Brinkley, a seven-day, hundred-hour week for wages “that would make a union business agent cry like a baby,” and leaves the world as devoid of personal wealth as when he enters it.
Walter Prescott Webb, more than thirty years earlier, wrote of: “cowboys at work, eighteen hours a day, for the herd left the bed ground by daybreak and kept it until dark; cowboys at work, riding, singing, nursing the cattle; yet it is difficult for those who now read of their hardships to realise that they worked at all.”
Programs like “Brinkley’s Hour” serve to keep the record straight and realistic and help to dispel the illusion that all the modern cowboy does is strum a guitar in an air-conditioned bunkhouse. Very few American teenagers today, in all probability, want to run off and become cowboys—at $90 a month for a hundred-hour week—though Andy Adams’s hero had, in 1880, taken “to the range as a preacher’s son takes to vice.”
But even in 1880 nobody wanted to become a sheepman. These despised rivals of the cowboys were nobody’s ideal. Following their flocks alone and’ usually on foot, they were as much a prey to predatory and resentful humans, both white and red, as were their charges to the wolves and coyotes.
“A cowboy might marry a squaw, but associate with a Sheppard—never.” The feuds of cattlemen and sheepmen sometimes almost reached the scale of pitched battles.
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|Visiting a Colorado sheep ranch. From Harper’s Magazine.|
On the Green River in Wyoming, 8,000 sheep were clubbed to death in one night; in the Tonto Basin of Central Arizona, twenty-six cattlemen and six sheepmen were killed in the Tewkesbury-Graham feud within five years. There was only one thing the open-range cattleman hated more than sheep, and that was barbed wire. But he had to learn to live with it.
He found barbed wire as hard at first as he had the existence of the sheepman and their herds.
During a few days in 1881, “fence-cutters” destroyed 500 miles of barbed wire in Coleman County, Texas, alone. But it was a losing battle, and W. S. James conceded in 1893 that “between barbed wire and the railroads the cowboys’ days were numbered.”
Yet, “though barbed wire revolutionized ranching it did not destroy it, and would not have threatened it seriously, had it not been for its effects on the farmer’s frontier. . . . It was barbed wire and not the railroads or the homestead law that made it possible for the farmers to resume, or at least to accelerate, their march across the prairies and on to the Plains.”