FRONTIER PANEL – Cowboy Cattleman COWBOYS: MYTH VS. REALITY The era of American cowboys was remarkably short. A 20year old cowboy who took part in the first cattle drive in 1867 was only 38 when the days of long drives & the open range came to an end in 1885. The number of cowboys who took part in this burst of western excitement was also small, less than 40,000 – fewer than the present student body at the University of Texas. Seldom in U.S. history have so few come to be known by so many in so short a time. That does not mean cowboys disappeared in 1885. The cattle business, with both cowboys & cowgirls, continues to this day. However after 1885, the life of cowhands became more settled. This section refers to pre-1885 cowboys. COWBOYS What most people know about the cowboy is a thick mixture of fact & fable. In the late 1800s, dime novelists in the East produced hundreds of paperback books about the West. To pep up sales, they stretched the truth. In the novels, gun fights & fistfights in saloons were regular events. Billy the Kid, Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Calamity Jane, & Wild Bill Hickok were heroes. The western cowboy became the symbol of two-gun toughness & “thank you, ma’am” manners. But who were the cowboys – really? Their average age as 24; most were southerners, fresh from fighting in the Civil War. One in seven was Mexican, & another one in seven was Black. Some were northerners & a few, English. Cowboys lived in their own world, & it had its own code of behavior. Blacks, Whites & Mexicans kept their distance from one another. Cowboys tended to be close-mouthed. Some wouldn’t press a newcomber for a last name because it was viewed as meddling. It was a male world in which even to see a woman was a special occasion. The life of a cowboy centered around cattle. Ranchers hired cowboys to round up cattle in the spring, brand the newborn calves, & drive the marketable steers to the railroad towns. From there, the animals were shipped to Kansas City, Chicago, & other cities for slaughter. The work was seasonal. The men signed on for the spring round up, then worked around the ranch in the summer or joined in the drive north. In the winter, most cowboys were laid off. They might paint houses in town or help storekeepers. Others might hunt wolves for bounty money. Come spring, it was back on the ranch & back on the range. Life on the ranch was hard. Bunkhouse air was thick with the smell of unwashed bodies, chewing tobacco, & dry cow manure. Out on the range there was plenty to do. Jobs included doctoring sick cows, dehorning young animals, fighting fire, & on some ranches, making hay. In the 1800s, when barbed wire began to close the open range, fence laying & repair became additional jobs. The “money” tasks, however, were the round-up and long drive. Before ranchers could send their cattle off to the railroad shipping towns, they had to round up the cattle. Because of the size of the spreads, it was no easy task. Many Texas ranchers had more than 100,000 acres. After the herd was assembled & the branding finished, those beef chosen for sale were headed out on the long drive. At a rate of 10 miles a day, the drive took more than 3 months. For the cowboy earning $100 & all the dust he could eat, it was hard money. Cowboys faced unfriendly Indians, outlaws, stampedes touched off by lightening, blisters, heat, & cold. But there was an end, one of the railroad cow towns that dotted the plains. Their names became household words throughout the U.S. – Wichita, Abilene, Ellsworth, & Dodge City. Here the cattle were sold. An animal worth $3 to $4 in Texas, for example, was worth up to $40 a head in Kansas. The cowboys were paid, & 3 months on the trail forgotten. COW TOWNS The first cow town was Abiliene, Kansas. In 1867, when Joe McCoy arrived with his first heard of cattle, Abilene consisted of 12 log huts. Two years later, 150,000 cattle passed through Abilene, & the town was known throughout the country. Just as the cattle business was seasonal, so was the population of Abilene. In April, 1871, the towns population was 500. By June, it was 7,000, including cowboys, gamblers, buyers, shopkeepers, entertainers, saloon-keepers, farmers & one marshal – Wild Bill Hickok. In its first 3 years, Abilene saw no real attempt at law & order. The only marshal before Hickok was Bear River Tom Smith. He had held the job for 5 months when a homesteader wanted for murder killed him. Wild Bill coolly stepped in. He did his job well – in fact, too well. In October 1871 he broke up a crowd by killing a troublemaker & mistakenly shot an officer rushing to the scene. The townspeople, who were tired of trouble, fired Hickok & sent out word that cowboys were no longer welcome. Lawlessness like that in Abilene was a problem in other towns, but it was exaggerated by tall stories & eastern writers. Noonday gunfights on Main Street were very rare. Western “heroes” who were shot - & the number included Morgan Earp, Billy the Kid, Jesse James, Ben Thompson & Hickok himself – were usually shot in the back of from ambush. There are documented cases of only 45 men dying by violence between 1870-1885 in Abilene, Dodge City, Ellsworth & Wichita. That is 1 man per town per year. ride into the Indian country (present-day Oklahoma) to find cowboys who were interested in walking their herds up to Abilene. Within the next 5 months, 25,000 cattle had arrived, & McCoy was on his way to becoming a very successful & wealthy man. The common belief was that cowboys had many fistfights is wrong. Many cowboys regarded fighting with fists as degrading. Saloon-emptying brawls seldom took place. News of Abilene soon drifted into Texas, & several cattle trails were quickly made to Kansas. The most famous of these was the Chrisholm Trail, which extended from southern Texas to Abilene. In the 1870s, when Dodge City, Kansas was established, another Texas trail, the Western, came into use. This was soon followed by a third, the Goodnight-Loving Trail, which led to Cheyenne, Wyoming. Along these dusty, sunbaked routes & in the cow towns along the way – Abilene, Ellsworth, Wichita, Dodge City – the cowboy made history. Does that mean there were no cowboy heroes? The answer depends on what a hero really is. Look carefully at Billy the Kid & you’ll find a half-grown man of low intelligence who was a cold-blooded killer. But what about the young men who rode trail all day, stayed up all night calming several thousands steers during a thunderstorm, & they put in another day with barely a nap? Men of few words, they were true to their words. Most never fired a gun at another man, & they rarely complained about life’s hardships. Except for a few wild days in town, their lives were hard, bring, & often lonely. If a man who endured all this may be regarded as a hero, then the West had lots of them. COWBOYS IN THE 1870s Spanish settlers first brought cattle to Texas in the 1500s. Allowed to wander wild, these cattle later bred with cattle brought by settlers from the U.S. A new breed was created – the Texas longhorn. The longhorns quickly multiplied. By 1860, 3 or 4 million longhorns roamed the southern tip of Texas. When the Civil War ended in 1865, many Texans returned to find the cattle wandering over much of the state. In Texas they were worth only 3 or 4 dollars a head, but in St. Louis & Chicago, buyers were paying 30 to 40 dollars a head. Now, to drive these cattle all the way from Texas to S. Louis was no easy job. The trail across Missouri to Illinois was closed to Texas longhorns in 1866. The Missouri farmers did not want the large herds running through their lands. The trail to CA, where miners would pay high prices for beef, was too long & hard for the cattle. In 1867, a 30-year old Illinois man, Joseph G. McCoy, solved the Texans’ problems. He built a cattle-trading station near the railroad in Kansas. McCoy figured that cattle could be driven north from Texas, sold in Kansas, & carried by train to packing houses in Chicago. With the help of the new refrigerator cars, fresh beef could be sent from Chicago to the east coast. It took only a few months to build Abilene, Kansas, & have it ready for action. Only the cattle were missing. McCoy did not waste any time. He sent a business associate on a 200-mile Remarkably, this history was made by few men in a short time. There were no more than 30,000 cowboys of whom 5,000 were black. And by the 1890s, only 25 years after Abilene was built, the peak of the cowboy era had come to an end. Cowboy life was not showdowns at high noon. It was mainly long, hard hours on the trail. A WILD, RECKLESS BUNCH Those first trail outfits in the 1870s were sure tough… They had very little grub & they usually ran out of that & lived on straight beef; they had only 3 or 4 horses to the men, mostly with sore backs, because of the old-time saddle; they had no tents, tarps & few rain slickers; food consisted of corn meal & bacon, dirt floors in the houses with no luxuries. In the early days in Texas, in the 1860s when they gathered their cattle, they used to pack what they needed on a horse & go out for weeks, on a cow-hunt. This was before the name roundup was invented… Most all of them were Southerners & they were a wild, reckless bunch. For dress they wore wide-brimmed highheeled boots & sometimes a vest. Their clothes & saddles were all homemade. Most of them had an army coat & a blanket. Lay on your saddle blanket & cover up with a coach – that was the best bed on the Texas trail… at first. One night at sundown, after we had been working the cattle in the brush all day, we came to a little open prairie just about big enough to bed down the herd. I tied my horse to the wagon, took off my chaps, laid down on them, pulled my slicker over me & went to sleep. About 9 o’clock a clap of thunder woke me up & somebody hollered: “They’re running.” I grabbed my hat & jumped for my horse, forgetting to put on my chaps & I spent half the night chasing the cattle through that thorny bush. When daylight came & we got them all together, we hadn’t lost a head. But I was a bloody sight. I had a big hole in my forehead & my face was covered with blood, my hands were cut to pieces because I’d left my gloves in my chaps pocket & my knees were the worst of all. I was picking thorns out of them all the way to Kansas. They used to have some terrible storms on the North & South Platte [rivers]. The year before this, in ’82, I was in one that killed 14 cattle, 6 or 7 horses, & 2 men. But I believe the worst hardship we had on the trail was loss of sleep… Our day wouldn’t end until about 9pm when we grazed the herd onto the bed ground. And after that every man in the outfit except the boss & horse wrangler & cook would have to stand 2 hours night guard. Suppose my guard was 12pm – 2am. I would stake my night horse, unroll my bed, pull off my boots & crawl in at 9, get about 3 hours sleep, & then ride 2 hours. Then I would come off guard & get to sleep another hour & a half, till the cook yelled “Roll out” at half past 3. So I would get maybe 5 hours sleep when the weather was nice & everything smooth & pretty, with cowboys singing under the stars. It if wasn’t so nice you’d be lucky to sleep an hour. But the wagon rolled on in the morning just the same.