It was nearly half a
century after the journey of
Clark that the
were crossing the Plains, whither, meanwhile, the Mormons had trekked in
search of a country where they might live as they liked. Still the wealth
of the Plains remained untouched.
was in the eyes of the world. The great cow-range was overleaped. But, in
the early fifties, when the placer fields of
began to be less numerous and less rich, the half-savage population of the
mines roared on northward, even across our northern line. Soon it was to
roll back. Next it worked east and southeast and northeast over the great
dry plains of
so that, as readily may be seen, the cow-range proper was not settled as
most of the West was, by a directly westbound thrust of an eastern
population; but, on the contrary, it was approached from several different
angles--from the north, from the east, from the west and northwest, and
finally from the south.
The early, turbulent
population of miners and adventurers was crude, lawless, and aggressive.
It cared nothing whatever for the
tribes. War, instant and merciless, where it meant murder for the most
part, was set on foot as soon as white touched red in that far western
All these new white men
who had crowded into the unknown country of the Plains, the Rockies, the
Sierras, and the Cascades, had to be fed. They could not employ and remain
content with the means by which the red man there had always fed himself.
Hence a new industry sprang up in the United States, which of itself made
certain history in that land. The business of freighting supplies to the
West, whether by bull-train or by pack-train, was an industry sui generic,
very highly specialized, and pursued by men of great business ability as
well as by men of great hardihood and daring.
Each of these freight
trains which went West carried hanging on its flank more and more of the
white men. As the trains returned, more and more was learned in the States
of the new country which lay between the
and the Rockies, which ran no man knew how far north, and no man could
guess how far south. Now appears in history Fort Benton, on the
the great northern supply post--just as at an earlier date there had
appeared Fort Hall, one of the old fur-trading posts beyond the Rockies,
Bent's Fort on the
and many other outposts of the new Saxon civilization in the West.
Later came the
and the stage coach which made history and romance for a generation.
Feverishly, boisterously, a strong, rugged, womanless population crowded
westward and formed the wavering, now advancing, now receding line of the
great frontier of American story.
for long there was no sign of permanent settlement on the Plains, and no
one thought of this region as the frontier. The men there who were
prospecting and exploiting were classified as no more than adventurers. No
one seems to have taken a lesson from the
buffalo. The reports of Fremont long since had called attention to the
nourishing quality of those grasses of the high country, but the day of
had not yet dawned. There is a somewhat
feeble story which runs to the effect that in 1866 one of the great
wagon-trains, caught by the early snows of winter, was obliged to abandon
its oxen on the range. It was supposed that, of course, the oxen must
perish during the winter.
But, next spring the owners were surprised to find that the oxen, so far
from perishing, had flourished very much--indeed, were fat and in good
condition. So runs the story which is often repeated.
It may be true, but to
accredit to this incident the beginnings of the cattle industry in the
Indian country would surely be going too far. The truth is that
the cow industry was not a Saxon discovery. It was a Latin enterprise,
flourishing in Mexico long before the first of these miners and
adventurers came on the range.
Something was known
of the Spanish lands to the south through the explorations of Pike,
but more through the commerce of the prairies--the old wagon trade
Missouri River to the Spanish cities of Santa Fe and Chihuahua.
Now the cow business, south of the Rio Grande, was already well
differentiated and developed at the time the first adventurers from
the United States went into
and began to crowd their Latin neighbors for more room. There it was
that our Saxon frontiersmen first discovered the cattle industry. But
these southern and northern riflemen--ruthless and savage, yet
strangely statesmanlike--though they might betimes drive away the
owners of the herds, troubled little about the herds themselves. There
was a certain fascination to these rude strangers in the slow and
easeful civilization of Old Spain which they encountered in the land
below them. Little by little, and then largely and yet more largely,
the warriors of San Jacinto reached out and began to claim lands for
themselves--leagues and uncounted leagues of land, which had, however,
no market value. Well within the memory of the present generation
large tracts of good land were bought in
for six cents an acre; some was bought for half that price in a time
not much earlier. Today much of that land is producing wealth; but
land then was worthless--and so were cows.
This civilization of the Southwest, of the
new Republic of
may be regarded as the first enduring American result of contact with
the Spanish industry. The men who won
came mostly from Kentucky and Tennessee or southern Ohio, and the
first colonizer of
was a Virginian, Stephen Fuller Austin. They came along the old
Natchez Trace from Nashville to the Mississippi River--that highway
which has so much history of its own. Down this old winding trail into
the greatest valley of all the world, and beyond that valley out into
the Spanish country, moved steadily the adventurers whose fathers had
but recently crossed the Appalachians. One of the strongest thrusts of
the American civilization thus entered the cattle-range at its lower
end, between the Rio Grande and the Red River.
In all the several
activities, mining, freighting, scouting, soldiering, riding
or even sheer adventuring for what might come, there was ever a trading
back and forth between home-staying men and adventuring men. Thus there
was an interchange of knowledge and of customs between East and West,
between our old country and our new. There was an interchange, too, at the
south, where our Saxon civilization came in touch with that of Mexico.
We have now to note some fundamental facts and
principles of the cattle industry which our American cattlemen took over
ready-made from the hands of Mexico.
Texas had an abundance of small, hardy horses of African and Spanish breed,
which Spain had brought into the New World--the same horses that the Moors
had brought into Spain—a breed naturally hardy and able to subsist upon
dry food. Without such horses there could have been no cattle industry.
These horses, running wild in herds, had crossed to the upper Plains. La
Verendrye, and later
Clark, had found the
using horses in the north. The
as we have seen, had learned to manage the horse. Formerly they had used
dogs to drag the travois, but now they used the "elk-dog," as they first
called the horse.
the original cow country, that is, in Mexico and
countless herds of cattle were held in a loose sort of ownership over wide
and unknown plains. Like all wild animals in that warm country, they bred
in extraordinary numbers. The southern range, indeed, has always been
called the breeding range. The cattle had little value. He who wanted beef
killed beef. He who wanted leather killed cattle for their hides. But
beyond these scant and infrequent uses cattle had no definite value.
The Mexican, however,
knew how to handle cows. He could ride a horse, and he could rope cattle
and brand them. Most of the cattle of a wide range would go to certain
water-holes more or less regularly, where they might be roughly collected
or estimated. This coming of the cattle to the watering-places made it
unnecessary for owners of cattle to acquire ranch land. It was enough to
secure the water-front where the cows must go to drink. That gave the
owner all the title he needed. His right to the increase he could prove by
another phenomenon of nature, just as inevitable and invariable as that of
thirst. The maternal instinct of a cow and the dependence of the calf upon
its mother gave the old rancher of immemorial times sufficient proof of
ownership in the increase of his herd. The calf would run with its own
mother and with no other cow through its first season. So that if an old
Mexican ranchero saw a certain number of cows at his watering-places, and
with them calves, he knew that all before him were his property--or, at
least, he claimed them as such and used them.
Still, this was
loose-footed property. It might stray away after all, or it might be
driven away. Hence, in some forgotten time, our shrewd Spaniard invented a
system of proof of ownership which has always lain at the very bottom of
the organized cow industry; he invented the method of branding. This meant
his sign, his name, his trade-mark, his proof of ownership. The animal
could not shake it off. It would not burn off in the sun or wash off in
the rain. It went with the animal and could not be eradicated from the
animal's hide. Wherever the bearer was seen, the brand upon its hide
provided certain identification of the owner.
Now, all these basic
ideas of the cow industry were old on the lower range in
Texas when our white men first drifted thither. The cattle industry, although in
its infancy, and although supposed to have no great future, was developed
Texas became a republic. It never, indeed, changed very much from that time
until the end of its own career.
One great principle was accepted religiously
even in those early and crude days. A man's cow was HIS cow. A man's brand
was HIS brand. There must be no interference with his ownership. Hence
certain other phases of the industry followed inevitably. These cattle,
these calves, each branded by the iron of the owner, in spite of all
precautions, began to mingle as settlers became more numerous; hence came
the idea of the round-up. The country was warm and lazy. If a hundred or a
thousand cows were not collected, very well. If a calf were separated from
its mother, very well. The old ranchers never quarreled among themselves.
They never would have made in the South anything like a cattle
association; it was left for the Yankees to do that at a time when cows
had come to have far greater values. There were few arguments in the first
rodeos of the lower range. One rancher would vie with his neighbor in
generosity in the matter of unbranded calves. Haggling would have been
held contemptible. On the lower range in the old times no one cared much
about a cow. Why should one do so? There was no market for cows--no one
who wished to buy them. If one tendered a Mexican cinquo pesos for a
yearling or a two-year-old, the owner might perhaps offer the animal as a
gift, or he might smile and say "Con mucho gusto" as he was handed a few
pieces of silver. There were plenty of cows everywhere in the world!
us, therefore, give the old Spaniard full credit alike in picturesque
romance and in the organized industry of the cow. The westbound thrust
which came upon the upper part of the range in the days of more shrewd and
exacting business methods was simply the best-known and most published
phase of frontier life in the cow country; hence we have usually accepted
it as typical. It would not be accurate to say that the cattle industry
was basically much influenced or governed by northern or eastern men. In
practically all of its great phenomena the frontier of the old cow-range
was southern by birth and growth.
There lay, then, so long unused, that vast and splendid land so soon to
write romantic history of its own, so soon to come into the admiration or
the wonder of a great portion of the earth—a land of fascinating interest
to the youth of every country, and a region whose story holds a charm for
young and old alike even today.
It was a region royal in
its dimensions. Far on the west it was hedged by the gray-sided and
white-topped mountains, the Rockies. Where the
once lived, the cattle were to live, high up in the foothills of this
great mountain range which ran from the Rio Grande to Canada. On the east,
where lay the Prairies rather than the Plains, it was a country waving
with high native grasses, with many brilliant flowers hiding among them,
the sweet-William, the wild rose, and often great masses of the yellow
From the Rio Grande to
the Athabaska, for the greater part, the frontier sky was blue and
cloudless during most of the year. The rainfall was not great. The
atmosphere was dry. It was a cheerful country, one of optimism and not of
gloom. In the extreme south, along the Rio Grande, the climate was
moister, warmer, more enervating; but on the high steppes of the middle
western Nebraska, there lay the finest out-of-doors country, man's country
the finest of the earth.
But for the time, busy
with more accustomed things, mining and freighting and fighting and
hunting and trading and trapping, we Americans who had arrived upon the
range cared little for cows. The upper thrust of the great herds from the
south into the north had not begun. It was after the Civil War that the
first great drives of cattle from the south toward the north began, and
after men had learned in the State of
Texas that cattle moved from the Rio Grande to the upper portions of the State
and fed on the mesquite grass would attain greater stature than in the hot
coast country. Then swiftly, somewhat luridly, there leaped into our
comprehension and our interest that strange country long loosely held
under our flag, the region of the Plains, the region which we now call the
In great bands, in long
lines, slowly, towheaded, sore-footed, the vast gatherings of the prolific
lower range moved north, each cow with its title indelibly marked upon its
hide. These cattle were now going to take the place of those on which the
had depended for their living these many years. A new day in American
history had dawned.
Emerson Hough, 1918. Compiled and
of America, updated January, 2012.
Excerpted from the book The Passing of the
Frontier, A Chronicle of the Old West, by Emerson Hough, Yale
University Press, 1918. (now in the public domain)
About the Author: Emerson Hough (1857–1923) was an
author and journalist who wrote factional accounts and historical novels
of life in the
West. His works helped establish the Western as a popular genre in
literature and motion pictures.
For years, Hough wrote the feature "Out-of-Doors" for the Saturday
Evening Post and contributed to other major magazines.