Border Towns of the American West

By Randall Parrish in 1907


Driving Cattle

Driving Cattle

Cow-Towns the Nuclei of Permanent Settlements

The pushing forward of railways into the wilds of the Plains caused a rapid advance of settlement where formerly, the sustenance of life had been impossible. At the end of the unfinished line, as it progressed westward, there was always a mushroom town built of shacks and tents, among which saloons and brothels were prominent, the streets generally littered with discarded tin cans, and, at night, swarming with a heterogeneous population. Here lived the surveyors, the graders, the track-layers, and the train men, and about them clustered swarms of parasites desirous of living off their wages through the glittering allurements of sin.

Some of these temporary halting-places became towns and cities of importance in later years, and one or two held the honor of forming the end of the Long Trail in the closing era of the cattle trade; but more often they passed into absolute oblivion as the road advanced, their very names forgotten.

Yet every eight or ten miles along the gleaming rails there was left the nucleus of settlement, sometimes a mere water-tank, with its attendant section house, planted like a guard in the grim desert; again, some such desolate spot would arrive at the dignity of a cow-town, a shipping place for the cattle of neighboring ranges. Under the stimulus of this passing trade the place would flourish and expand, shacks would spread out over the prairie into the semblance of a straggling village; general stores would appear along the main street, usually facing the track, rude, barn like structures; saloons, gambling-dens, and dance halls would be strewn thickly in between the few legitimate business houses, while cattle pens straggled along the road in evidence of the town’s real mission. During the height of the cattle trade, after the moving westward of the Long Trail, these places became centers for a wide extent of trade, and led a wild, riotous, and prosperous life.

The Cowboys’ Idea of Enjoyment 

Painting the town red

Painting the town red

To thousands of cowboys, riding the sun-browned plains of Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado, and Indian Territory, isolated for weary months of incessant toil in the saddle and at the home ranch, such squalid settlements, when finally reached once or twice a year, afforded their sole glimpse of the wider world. Here, to their minds, was life; and, no sooner was their bunch of cattle safely penned for shipment, than they turned themselves loose, seeking all the enjoyment to be found. They were like children attracted by tinsel and tawdry glitter, and all that was offered them was of the lowest. The vices of the border were few and coarse, but these the cowboy off duty was eager enough to sample. He found plenty of teachers ready to assist, so long as he parted freely with his coin. Every man stood for himself alone in those days and in that land; he was what he proved himself to be by the rude code of the border. There were no artificial distinctions, no social barriers; it was a world governed by physical force, dominated by passions unrestrained. The West asked no questions of any man; all that had been, in other days, east of the Missouri, was blotted out. Here he stood eye to eye with his fellows, and no voice challenged him.

Character of the Frontier People

Emerson Hough writes:

“Virtue was almost unknown in the cow-town of the ‘front’ in the early days. Vice of the flaunting sort was the neighbor of every man. The church might be tolerated; the saloon and dance-hall were regarded as necessities. Never in the wildest days of the wildest mining camps has there been a more dissolute or more desperate class of population than that which at times hung upon the edge of the cattle trail or of the cattle range and battened upon its earnings. The chapters of the tale of riotous crime which might be told would fill many books, and would make vivid reading enough, though hardly of a sort to the purpose here. ..

It is strange that the records of those days are the ones that should be chosen by the public to be held as the measure of the American cowboy. Those days were brief, and they are long since gone. The American cowboy has atoned for them by a quarter of a century of faithful labor, and it is time the atonement were written for him in the minds of the people by the side of the record of his sins.”

Picturesqueness of the Cow-Towns

Vintage Abilene, Kansas

Vintage Abilene, Kansas

These little cow-towns, while they lasted, were full of color, excitement, and picturesqueness. Never again can their like be seen. The environment was dull, desolate, forlorn; all that was worthy of the eye, the thought, was the pulsing human element. All about was the barrenness of Great Plains, stretching unrelieved to the horizon, while here in the middle of the grim picture clustered the rude, unpainted houses, the shacks, the grimy tents flapping in the never-ceasing wind, the ugly red station, the rough cow-pens filled with lowing cattle, the huge, ungainly stores, with false fronts decorated by amateur wielders of the paint-brush, and the more ornate dens of vice.

The pendulum of life was ever swinging here: if the day was dull, the night made up for it in clamor; if a week passed listlessly, the next was crowded full with riot and spending. It all hung on the coming and going of those reckless riders of the range. When the dust rose high above the trail, the sleeping parasites awoke in eager anticipation and set their traps for the victims riding in so gaily to their fate.

Mixed Society of the Cow-Towns

Soiled Dove

Soiled Dove

How the vivid memory of it all comes back, intensified rather than faded by the years. Society was mixed, no man cared who his neighbor was, no man ventured to question. Of women worthy of the name there were few, — the station-keeper’s wife, perhaps, with one or two others, — yet the night saw flitting female forms in plenty, and the lights of the saloons displayed powdered cheeks and painted eyebrows. It was a strange, restless, commingled population enough — cowboys, half- breeds, desperadoes, gamblers, saloon-keepers, merchants (generally Jewish), petty, officials, and drunkards by profession. The town was an eddy which caught odd bits of driftwood, such as only the frontier ever knew.

Queer characters were everywhere, wrecks of dissipation, derelicts of the East, seeking nothing save oblivion. Life was cheap in the midst of such chaos, and all the dignity of the law vested itself in the town marshal or the sheriff.

He ruled not through any terror of courts behind him, but by sheer force of personality, and an acknowledged ability to ” drop ” his man. The position was no sinecure, and he who held it successfully needed to be a man of nerve.

Early and often was he put to the test, and any failure to “make good” was his official death-knell. Those who “won out” through such trials of endurance were, with hardly an exception, of the same stripe — cool, quiet, courageous fellows, just, patient, and fair in their treatment of offenders, but quick as a steel trap, and as unyielding in fight as a bulldog.

The first requisite for any man who would prosper in a cow-town was undoubtedly “sand.” Anyone permitting himself to be “run over,” was from that moment an object of contempt, and sooner or later every new arrival was put to the test, and labeled accordingly. If he “made good,” his future career in that community was a much easier road to travel. Every border town in those days was certain to contain its bully, or ” bad man.” He was generally a surly desperado, possibly a coward at heart, but generally a surly desperado, possibly a coward at heart, but malicious and quarrelsome when in liquor. Not infrequently two, or more, of this interesting class partnered together in search for trouble. Their special game was “tenderfeet,” or new arrivals, for the old hands were not so easily dealt with. Yet the man who minded his own business, and kept his mouth shut, was seldom interfered with. The majority of the gun-fights so prevalent in those days, occurred between men who were hunting for trouble, and only occasionally was there a killing in which the victim was any loss to the community.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *