The Land of the Desperado

 

By Emerson Hough in 1907

 

The vast West

The vast West

There was once a vast empire, almost unknown, west of the Missouri River. The white civilization of this continent was three hundred years in reaching it. We had won our independence and taken our place among the nations of the world before our hardiest men had learned anything whatever of this Western empire. We had bought this vast region and were paying for it before we knew what we had purchased. The wise men of the East, leading men in Congress, said that it would be criminal to add this territory to our already huge domain because it could never be settled. It was not dreamed that civilization would ever really subdue it. Even much later, men as able as Daniel Webster deplored the attempt to extend our lines farther to the West, saying that these territories could not be States that the East would suffer if we widened our West and that the latter could never be of value to the union!

So far as this great West was concerned, it was spurned and held in contempt, and it had full right to take itself as an outcast. Decreed to the wilderness forever, it could have been forgiven for running wild. Denominated as unfit for the occupation of the Eastern population, it might have been expected that it would gather to itself a population all its own.

It did gather such a population, and in part, that population was a lawless one. The frontier, clear across to the Pacific, has at one time or another been lawless; but this was not always the fault of the men who occupied the frontier. The latter swept Westward with such unexampled swiftness that the machinery of the law could not always keep up with them. Where there are no courts, where each man is judge and jury for himself, protecting himself and his property by his own arm alone, there always have gathered also the lawless; those who do not wish the day of law to come, men who want license and not liberty, who wish crime and not lawfulness, who want to take what is not theirs and to enforce their own will in their own fashion.

There are two states of society perhaps equally bad for the promotion of good morals and virtue — the densely populated city and the wilderness. In the former, a single individual loses his identity in the mass, and, being unnoticed, is without the view of the public, and can, to a certain extent, commit crimes with impunity. In the latter, the population is sparse and, the strong arm of the law not being extended, his crimes are in a measure unobserved, or, if so, frequently power is wanting to bring him to justice. Hence, both are the resort of desperadoes. In the early settlement of the West, the borders were infested with desperadoes flying from justice, suspected or convicted felons escaped from the grasp of the law, who sought safety. The counterfeiter and the robber there found a secure retreat or a new theater for crime.

The foregoing words were written in 1855 by a historian to whom the West of the trans-Missouri remained still a sealed book; but they cover very fitly the appeal of a wild and unknown land to a bold, a criminal, or an adventurous population. Of the trans-Missouri, as we of to-day think of it, no one can write more accurately and understandingly than Theodore Roosevelt, President of the United States, who thus describes the land he knew and loved. Some distance beyond the Mississippi, stretching from Texas to North Dakota, and westward to the Rocky Mountains, lies the plains country. This is a region of light rainfall, where the ground is clad with short grass, while cottonwood trees fringe the courses of the winding plains streams; streams that are alternately turbid torrents and mere dwindling threads of water.

The great stretches of natural pasture are broken by gray sage-brush plains, and tracts of strangely shaped and colored Badlands; sun-scorched wastes in summer, and in winter arctic in their iron desolation. Beyond the plains rise the Rocky Mountains, their flanks covered with coniferous woods; but the trees are small, and do not ordinarily grow very close together. Toward the north, the forest becomes denser, and the peaks higher, and glaciers creep down toward the valleys from the fields of everlasting snow. The brooks are brawling, trout-filled torrents; the swift rivers roam over rapid and cataract, on their way to one or other of the two great oceans.

Southwest of the Rockies evil and terrible deserts stretch for leagues and leagues, mere waterless wastes of sandy plain and barren mountain, broken here and there by narrow strips of fertile ground. Rain rarely falls, and there are no clouds to dim the brazen sun. The rivers run in deep canyons, or are swallowed by the burning sand; the smaller watercourses are dry throughout the greater part of the year.

Beyond this desert region rise the sunny Sierras of California, with their flower-clad slopes and groves of giant trees; and north of them, along the coast, the rain-shrouded mountain chains of Oregon and Washington, matted with the towering growth of the mighty evergreen forest.”

Such, then, was this Western land, so long the home of the out-dweller who foreran civilization, and who sometimes took matters of the law into his own hands. For purposes of convenience, we may classify him as the bad man of the mountains and the bad man of the plains; because he was usually found in and around the crude localities where raw resources in property were being developed; and because previous to the advent of agriculture, the two vast wilderness resources were minerals and cattle. The mines of California and the Rockies; the cattle of the Great Plains — write the story of these and you have much of the story of Western desperadoism.

Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Badlands National Park, South Dakota

For, in spite of the fact that the ideal desperado was one who did not rob or kill for gain, the most usual form of early desperadoism had to do with attempts at unlawfully acquiring another man’s property.

The discovery of gold in California caused a flood of bold men, good and bad, to pour into that remote region from all corners of the earth. Books could be written, and have been written, on the days of terror in California, when the vigilantes took the law into their own hands. There came the time later when the rich placers of Montana and other territories were pouring out a stream of gold rivaling that of the days of ’49; and when a tide of restless and reckless characters, resigning or escaping from both armies in the Civil War, mingled with many others who heard also the imperious call of a land of gold, and rolled westward across the plains by every means of conveyance or locomotion then possible to man.

The next great days of the Wild West were the cattle days, which also reached their height soon after the end of the Great War, when the North was seeking new lands for its young men, and the Southwest was hunting an outlet for the cattle herds, which had enormously multiplied while their owners were off at the wars. The cattle country had been passed over unnoticed by the mining men for many years, and dismissed as the Great American Desert, as it had been named by the first explorers, who were almost as ignorant about the West as Daniel Webster himself. Into this once barren land, a vast region unsettled and without law, there now came pouring up the great herds of cattle from the South, in charge of men wild as the horned kind they drove. Here was another great wild land that drew, as a magnet, wild men from all parts of the country.

This last home of the bad man, the old cattle range, is covered by a passage from an earlier work: The Story of the Cowboy.

“The braiding of a hundred minor pathways, the Long Trail lay like a vast rope connecting the cattle country of the South with that of the North. Lying loose or coiling, it ran for more than two thousand miles along the eastern ridge of the Rocky Mountains, sometimes close in at their feet, again hundreds of miles away across the hard table-lands or the well-flowered prairies. It traversed in a fair line the vast land of Texas, curled over the Indian Nations, over Kansas, Colorado, Nebraska, Wyoming, and Montana, and bent in wide overlapping circles as far west as Utah and Nevada; as far east as Missouri, Iowa, Illinois; and as far north as the British possessions.

Even today you may trace plainly its former course, from its faint beginnings in the lazy land of Mexico, the Ararat of the cattle range. It is distinct across Texas, and multifold still in the Indian lands. Its many intermingling paths still scar the iron surface of the Neutral Strip, and the plows have not buried all the old furrows in the plains of Kansas. Parts of the path still remain visible in the mountain lands of the far North. You may see the ribbons banding the hillsides today along the valley of the Stillwater, and along the Yellowstone and toward the source of the Missouri River. The hoof marks are beyond the Musselshell, over the Badlands and the coulees and the flat prairies; and far up into the land of the long cold you may see, today if you like, the shadow of that unparalleled pathway, the Long Trail of the cattle range. History has no other like it.”

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