A Cow Hunter’s Court

 

By Edgar Beecher Bronson in 1910

 

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The death of Shanghai Rhett, at Llano, Texas, made another hole in the rapidly thinning ranks of the pioneer Texas cow hunters. Cow-hunting in early days was the industry upon which many of the greatest fortunes of the State were founded, and from it sprang the great cattle ranch industry that between the years 1866 and 1885 converted into gold the rich wild grasses of the tenantless plains and mountains of  Texas, New Mexico, Indian Territory, Kansas, Nebraska, ColoradoWyomingDakota, and Montana.

The economic value of this great industrial movement in promoting the settlement and development of that vast region of the West lying between the 98th and 120th meridians, and embracing half the total area of the United States, is comprehended by few who were not personally familiar with the conditions of its rise and progress. There can be no question that the ranch industry hastened the occupation and settlement of the Plains by at least 30 years.

Farming in those wilds was then an impossibility. Remote from railways, unmapped, and un-trod by white men, it was under the sway of hostile Indians, before whose attacks isolated farming settlements, with houses widely scattered, would have been defenseless.  Moreover, there was neither a market nor means of transportation for the farmer’s product. All these conditions the Texas cow-hunters changed, and they did it in little more than a decade.

In Texas were bred the leaders and the rank and file of that great army of cow-hunters whose destiny it was to become the pioneers of this vast region. Pistol and knife were the treasured toys of their childhood; they were inured to danger and to hardship; they were expert horsemen, trained Indian-fighters, reckless of life but cool in its defense; and thus they were an ideal class for the pacification of the Plains.

Shanghai Rhett’s death removed one of the comparatively few survivors of this most interesting and eventful past.

In Texas after the Civil War, when Shang was young, a pony, a lariat, a six-shooter, and a branding iron were sufficient instruments for the acquisition of wealth. A trained eye and a practiced hand were necessary for the effective use of pistol and lariat; the running iron anybody could wield; therefore, while a necessary feature of equipment, the iron was a secondary affair. The pistol was useful in settling annoying questions of title; the horse and the lariat, in taking possession after title was settled; the iron, in marking the property with a symbol of ownership. The property in question was always cattle.

Before the Civil War, cattle were abundant in Texas. Fences were few. Therefore, the cattle roamed at will over hill and plain. To determine ownership each owner adopted a distinctive “mark and brand.” The owner’s mark and brand were put upon the young before they left their mothers, and upon grown cattle when purchases were made. Thus the broad sides and quarters of those that changed hands many times were covered over with this barbarous record of their various transfers.

The system of marking and branding had its origin among the Mexicans. Marking consists in cutting the ears or some part of the animal’s hide in such a way as to leave a permanent distinguishing mark. One owner would adopt the “swallow fork,” a V-shaped piece cut out of the tip of the ear; another, the “crop,” the tip of the ear cut squarely off; another, the “under-half crop,” the under half of the tip of the ear cut away; another, the “over-half crop,” the reverse of the last; another, the “under-bit,” a round nick cut in the lower edge of the ear; another, the “over-bit,” the reverse of the last; another, the ” under-slope,” the under half of the ear removed by cutting diagonally upward; another, the “over-slope,” the reverse of the last; another, the “grub,” the ear cut off close to the head; another, the “wattle,” a strip of the hide an inch wide and two or three inches long, either on forehead, shoulder, or quarters, skinned and left hanging by one end, where before healing it leaves a conspicuous lump; another, the “dewlap,” three or four inches of the loose skin under the throat skinned down and left hanging.

Branding consists in applying a red-hot iron to any part of the animal for six or eight seconds, until the hide is seared. Properly done, hair never again grows on the seared surface and the animal is “branded for life.” A small five-inch brand on a young calf becomes a great twelve-to-eighteen-inch mark by the time the beast is fully grown. In Mexico the art of branding dates back to the time when few men were lettered and most men used a rubrica mark or flourish instead of a written signature. Thus, in Mexico the brand was always a device, whatever complex combination of lines and circles the whim of the owner may conceive. In this country the brand was usually a combination of letters or numerals, though sometimes shapes and forms are represented. Branding and marking cattle and horses is certainly a most cruel practice, but under the old conditions of the open range, where individual ownerships numbered thousands of head, no other means existed of distinguishing title.

During the Civil War these vast herds grew and increased unattended, neglected by owners, who were in the field with the armies of the Confederacy. So it happened that hundreds of thousands of cattle ranged the plains of Texas after the war, unmarked and unbranded, wild as the native game, to which no man could establish title. This situation afforded an opportunity which the hard-riding and desperate men who found themselves stranded on this far frontier after the wreck of the Confederacy were quick to seize. Shang Rhett was one of them. From chasing Federal soldiers they turned to chasing unbranded steers, and found the latter occupation no less exciting and much more profitable than the former.

Branding Cattle

Branding Cattle

First, bands of free companions rode together and pooled their gains. Then the thrift of some and the improvidence of others set in motion the immutable laws of distribution. Soon a class of rich and powerful individual owners was created, who employed great outfits of 10 to 50 men each, splendidly mounted and armed. These outfits were in continually moving camps, and travelled light, without wagons or tents.

The climate being mild even in winter, seldom more than two blankets to the man were carried for bedding. The cooking paraphernalia were equally simple, at the most consisting of a coffee pot, a frying-pan, a stew kettle, and a Dutch oven. Each man carried a tin cup tied to his saddle. Plates, knives, and forks were considered unnecessary luxuries, as every man wore a bowie knife at his belt, and was dexterous in using his slice of bread as a plate to hold whatever delicacy the frying-pan or kettle might contain. Sometimes even the Dutch oven was dispensed with, and bread was baked by winding thin rolls of dough round a stick and planting the stick in the ground, inclined over a bed of live coals. Often the frying-pan was left behind, and the meat roasted on a stick over the fire; and no meat in the world was ever so delicious as a good fat side of ribs so roasted.

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