George McJunkin – Black Cowboy & History Changing Amateur Archaeologist

By Matt Doherty

George McJunkin was born into slavery in Rogers Prairie Texas on his master, John Sanders McJunkin’s ranch ten years before the start of the Civil War. George’s father, who had purchased his freedom years before, was a blacksmith and raised mules for the freighters hauling buffalo hide east from the Indian country.

During the war, while all the white cowboys were away fighting, George learned to ride from the Mexican vaqueros that stayed behind. After the war ended there was an abundance of cattle roaming Texas. The cattle had multiplied to nearly 5 million head while men were away fighting. Cowboys would gather the cattle and drive them north to the railheads to be shipped to big cities in the east where they were slaughtered for meat.

Cowboys Taking a Break

At night George would sneak off to the river to listen to stories around the fire from the Cowboys driving the Longhorns north to Abilene Kansas. George dreamed of the freedom of being a cowboy and was amazed by the equality the black, white, and Mexican cowboys shared.

One night in the spring of 1867 George gathered up two ropes, an extra pair of wool pants and stuffed a couple of pieces of cornbread into a gunny sack and headed barefooted down the dirt road. George stopped at the first house after sunup and told them to inform his parents of his whereabouts “tell them I’m going to be a cowboy and to look for school.”

As he made his way further down the road he passed a group of horses and one old mule that had strayed from the McJunkin ranch. Rather than walking, George decided he would borrow a horse since master McJunkin did owe him for all the free labor. Using his better judgment he knew that he would be less likely to attract attention if he was riding a mule. He fashioned a halter out of his rope and rode on down the road. Along the way he stopped and helped dig a well for a couple of white settlers who were building a sod house. The man paid him a fistful of quarters and with that, he purchased his first pair of boots when he arrived in Comanche. He was hired on as a Horse Wrangler for an outfit that was camped outside of town.

The Cowboys were driving longhorns north to Abilene to the railheads to be shipped the east. Along the trail, George learned how to handle horses during the day, and at night the Cowboys taught him to read the night sky. Once they reached Abilene, George bought some new clothes and his first horse. But instead of heading north with the other black cowboys he decided to take up his bosses offer to cowboy for him the next year and headed back south to Texas for the winter. As he was skirting around Comanche, George saw a familiar old mule that he caught and returned to the McJunkin ranch.

Across the Staked Plains

A view of Palo Duro Canyon near the entrance of the park

Palo Duro Canyon

Upon arriving home, George was offered a job by Gideon Roberts after he watched George make an outstanding bronc ride on a big grey mare. Roberts and 3 other men were driving 700 horses across The Comanche controlled staked plains of West Texas to New Mexico to sell on the Santa Fe Trail. Once they reached Palo Duro Canyon in West Texas they built a cabin and started rounding up more horses for the herd.

One day, while George was all alone in the canyon, he heard the sound of thundering hooves. It was a group of Comanche Indians stealing all of the horses. In the frenzy, George’s saddle horse broke loose and joined the stampeding mustangs. The Indians rode up to George realizing he was unarmed one laughed at him and said: “black Mexican can walk now.” They held their rifles over their heads, spun the ponies around and rode off after the newly acquired herd.

When Roberts and the other men returned they started the long task reassembling the herd. They only saw one more Indian that winter. Roberts shot him and had George bury the Indian so others would not seek reprisal. It seems Indians got their revenge though as they found the lifeless body of Gideon‘s brother who had not returned from a turkey hunt. He had been bludgeoned to death with a tomahawk.

Dry Cimmaron in the Hi-Low country

Capulin - National Park Service

Capulin Volcano National Monument. Photo by the National Park Service.

Once the herd reached the original numbers before the Indian raid they headed out for New Mexico. Upon arriving in the Hi-low country of northeastern New Mexico George fell in love with the Dry Cimarron Valley or the Seco Cimarron as the Mexican sheepherders called it. George climbed up the slopes of Capulin Mountain, an extinct volcano that jetted out of the landscape like an enormous anthill giving a commanding view of the valley. The breathtaking view of the green meadows full of wild Iris nestling the Juniper blanketed mesa reminded him of the promised land in the Bible.

Besides the Comanche, the only other inhabitants of the valley were the Spanish sheepherders. Two of them, Carlitos Cornay and Candido Archuleta who also were the first cattleman arriving in the area with the “Dutch outfit” became George’s closest friends. George spent his days exploring the river and following the horses as they grazed on the open range. There were few travelers along the Cimarron cut off of the Santa Fe Trail. Most stayed on the main route and there were few others in need of horses in the area.

Commercial Street in Trinidad, Colorado today, photo by Carol Highsmith, 2016.

Commercial Street in Trinidad, Colorado today, photo by Carol Highsmith, 2016.

Following Charles Goodnight and the thousands of longhorns heading north to the mines and military outpost, Roberts had George drive the horses over Trinchera pass into Colorado where they set up the first horse ranch a few miles east of Trinidad. The ranch was located on the Purgatory river near the Mountain branch of the Santa Fe Trail. Robert sold the horses as fast as George could break them and it wasn’t long before a Roberts horse trained by George was highly sought after commodity.

Trinidad at this time was a rough lawless town employing Bat Masterson for a time as sheriff. Even Billy the Kid rode into town looking to kill four doctors but fortunately was talked out of it by Sister Blandina Segale (Catholic nun who is currently being canonized becoming America’s next saint). George would only stay in town long enough to get supplies and quickly headed back to the ranch. On one of his supply runs he bought a fiddle. George loved to play the fiddle at the old Trinchera Plaza at night for his friends when he wasn’t taking reading and writing lessons from Gideon Roberts sons Emmett and Coke. He would teach the boys how to break horses in exchange for his lessons.

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