FRONTIER PANEL – Cowboy Cattleman

FRONTIER PANEL – Cowboy Cattleman
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.
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.
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.
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
Cowboy life was not showdowns at high noon. It was mainly
long, hard hours on the trail.
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
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.