The American Cowboy

Herding cattle

Cutting out from the herd in 1907.

It seemed at one time somewhat a matter of doubt as to which should prosper most, the herdsmen or the cattle thieves. As the cattle of many proprietors intermingled freely on vast ranges, it was comparatively easy and safe for a few marauders to pounce down upon detached groups of cattle here and there separated from the main body of the herds, and drive them off over some mountain range to a distant valley or range where grazing was abundant, and there brand the calves with a chosen hieroglyphic representative of a separate ownership, and change the marks of cattle already branded, by one or more dashes with a red hot iron.

It was clearly seen that in order to stamp out this new and threatening evil recourse must be had to a drastic remedy. Accordingly, the various cattle associations organized a detective service, composed mainly of brave and trusty cowboys, who were charged with the duty of reconnoitering the whole country in order to discover the miscreants in their lairs, also to watch for altered and surreptitious brands at the railroad shipping stations. In this way a large number of stolen cattle was recovered, and many cattle thieves were apprehended. When the latter were arrested within the limits of the efficient administration of the law, they were handed over to the civil authorities. But when caught beyond the limits of organized counties, administrative justice was extemporized.

The cattlemen and the cowboys themselves supplied judges, jurymen, witnesses, attorneys, constables, and executioners. Sometimes a level-headed cowboy was placed upon the judicial bench. The cattlemen assert that the extreme and only penalty was never inflicted except upon the clearest evidence of guilt. When the verdict of guilty was pronounced, a short shrift, and a stout rope, and a grave without a coffin or a winding sheet ended the proceedings.

Newton, Kansas cowboy

Cowboy Scene, Newton, Kansas, 1908

But a great change has taken place. On the northern ranges, cattle stealing has become almost entirely a thing of the past. States and territories have enacted laws requiring that all cattle shall be branded and that the brands shall be recorded in the office of the clerk of the county in which the owner of each herd resides. The brands are also published. Thus the light of publicity is thrown upon the whole range cattle business, and at the same time, it has acquired all those securities which characterize organized and well ordered commercial enterprises.

At first, the raising of cattle on the northern ranges was confined mainly to settlers possessed of small means. But soon, men of enterprise and capital saw that the placing of great herds on the ranges of the north, as had been done for years in Texas and in Mexico, would, under adequate protection, be attended with great profit, for already railroads traversing or extending out into the territories afforded the facilities for transporting cattle to the three great primary cattle markets of the United States, viz., Chicago, St. Louis, and Kansas City — Chicago being by far the largest and thence to the markets of the world.

It was an enterprise which required both capital and courage. The State of Texas had for years been a prolific breeding ground for cattle. At that time cattle were worth on the ranges of that State but little more than their hides and tallow. Two-year-old steers could be purchased in almost unlimited numbers for from $3 50 to $4 50 a head. Besides, Texas had an army of cowboys, who were acquainted with the Indian in all his ways, and who rather courted than refused passage at arms with the Undians. Here were, therefore, three material elements of success in a great undertaking — capital, cattle, and cowboys. Intelligent enterprise came in and formed the combination, and not long afterward it became a matter of personal interest with the Indian to remain on his reservation all the year round. Speedily the Texas steer superseded the buffalo, and the cowboy became the dominant power throughout New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, and the western portions of Dakota, Nebraska, and Kansas. Within the brief period of 15 years, the cordon of cattle interests was drawn so close around the Indian reservations that the monarch of the plains became ye gentle savage.  As a general rule, the ranch cattle business has, under good management, been wonderfully successful. Hundreds of men who a few years ago went into the business with exceedingly limited means have become cattle kings, and now count their assets by hundreds of thousands and even by millions. In certain instances also women have embarked in the enterprise, and among the number are those who now rejoice in the sobriquet of cattle queens.

The market value of the surplus product of the entire range and ranch cattle area during the year 1884 was about $40,000,000, aside from the consumption within that area. Besides, the increased value of herds during the year is estimated at quite as much more.

Throughout that area the cattle business is the chief commercial enterprise; but as trade makes trade, it has been instrumental in creating important collateral and related trade interests. One of the most important results of this has been that the several transcontinental rail roads have built up a large and profitable local traffic. The original conception of transcontinental traffic was that it would be confined almost entirely to through business, but the local tonnage of the Northern Pacific Railroad during the year 1884 constituted ninety- five per cent. of its total tonnage, and the local tonnage of the Union Pacific Railroad constituted forty-three per cent of its total tonnage.

The cowboy of today, especially on the northern ranges, is of entirely different type from the original cowboy of Texas. New conditions have produced the change. The range cattle business of Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and Dakota is, as already stated a new business. Those engaged in it as proprietors are chiefly from the States situated east of the Missouri River and north of the Indian Territory.

Branding Cattle, 1891

Branding Cattle, 1891

Among them are also many Englishmen, Scotchmen, Frenchmen, and Germans of large means, embracing titled men who have embarked in the business quite extensively. Many of these came to America originally as tourists or for the purpose of hunting buffaloes, but the attractiveness of the cattle business arrested them, and they have become virtually, if not through the act of naturalization, American herdsmen. Some of this class have, from the force of romantic temperament and the exhilaration of range life; themselves participated actively in the duties of the cowboy.

Organization, discipline, and order characterize the new undertakings on the northern ranges. In a word, the cattle business of that section is now and has from the beginning been carried on upon strictly business principles.

Under such proprietorships, and guided by such methods, a new class of cowboys has been introduced and developed. Some have come from Texas, and have brought with them knowledge of the arts of their calling, but the number from the other States and the Territories constitutes a large majority of the whole. Some are graduates of American colleges, and others of collegiate institutions in Europe. Many have resorted to the occupation of cowboy temporarily and for the purpose of learning the range cattle business, with the view of eventually engaging in it on their own account, or in the interest of friends desirous of investing money in the enterprise.

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