Ruthless Cattle Barons and Little Farmers — Part Four

The last article in this series (Part Three) dealt at some length with the Texas feuds which followed the Civil War and grew out of it. Robert E. Howard saw them as manifestations of pride and independence, to a degree, anyway. I’ve quoted a story of his, “The Valley of the Lost” which has for its protagonist a Texan feudist, John Reynolds. The story describes Texan feuds as “short, fierce and appallingly bloody.” REH made a similar comment in a letter of March 1933 to August Derleth.

Texas feuds were short and bloody. They did not, as in Kentucky, drag on through the generations. The Sutton-Taylor, and the Lee-Peacock feuds were probably the most famous – the latter the more obscure because it was fought in the thickets and river bottoms of eastern Texas. It last[ed] from 1867 to 1871, during which time more men were killed than in the whole course of the famous Hatfield-McCoy feud of Kentucky.

As the 1870s drew to a close, the circumstances that had created the great cattle drives were changing. In 1869 a Chicago meat packer named Hammond had shipped beef to Boston in an air-cooled freight car. Some years later, the true refrigerated car was designed at the orders of Gustavus Franklin Swift, by an engineer named Andrew Chase. Chase produced a chilled car better insulated than its predecessors. Instead of being placed in compartments at the base or ends of the car, the ice was installed from the top, and the cold air produced sank downward.

(The major railroads all rejected the concept. They weren’t afraid that Chase’s car would fail to perform as he claimed. They were afraid that it would succeed. They had big investments in the traditional cars for transporting live cattle, and the holding pens in their rail yards, which would be superseded if refrigerated transport became a big new thing. It did. Swift created his own line, made his first run in 1878, and the bigger railroads missed their chance.)

The railroads were changing the map as well as their methods. Among the new cattle boomtowns was Ogallala, on the Platte River in Nebraska. The Indian agencies in northern Nebraska had to have beef in large quantities, to supply the Red Cloud and Spotted Tail reservations. The Bosler brothers held the contracts to do that, and made big profits. By the mid-1870s, too, the farmers were moving west in large numbers, disrupting the classic cattle trails – which had been established in the first place to avoid the complaints of the farmers. There had been a financial panic in 1873, but by 1875 the ranges along the Platte were opening up. More than 60,000 Texas cattle were driven to Ogallala that season, and in 1876 the number was much higher.

Part of Ogallala’s prosperity came about because Dodge City was still thriving as a cattle centre. The Western Trail to Dodge had largely replaced the older Chisholm Trail, and the younger, stronger beasts could continue from Dodge to Ogallala. The route through northern Kansas and south-western Nebraska was the driest part of the trip, especially the last thirty miles. But thirst was the worst problem. The Ogallala and Brule branches of the Sioux nation had been moved to reservations in northern Nebraska. The drovers didn’t have to fight off Red Cloud’s braves any longer. General Crook’s campaign of 1876 finished the last Sioux resistance, and the discovery of gold in the Black Hills of Dakota caused a rush. The price of Ogallala beef rose hysterically high, the usual result of any outbreak of gold fever. The Native Americans got shafted yet again as a result. For the Texan trail crews, though, it was good news.

Back in Texas itself, things were changing, and not necessarily for the better. The big cattlemen, the stereotyped SOBs who trampled on the struggling smaller operators, whether cowboys or farmers, were banding together in organizations to control grazing and water rights. They discouraged rustlers by hanging them high. (Rustlers, of course, were those the big men defined as rustlers.) Range rights became more fragile, grass and water scarcer.

By the 1880s “big business devouring the little” had progressed much further. Eastern and British capital was a factor in creating many a Texas cattle baron. The legendary Charles Goodnight had been a hired cowhand in his early days, and he became a big rancher in partnership with the Anglo-Irish businessman John Adair. Another western legend, Shanghai Pierce, had also been a hired hand, but before he died was boss of a million acres. How? In association with the Kountze Brothers, back east bankers and financiers. Trail driver Henry Campbell found backing from the Chicago banker Colonel Britton, which is how the Matador ranch was established. David Montejano’s book, Anglos and Mexicans in the Making of Texas, 1836-1986, describes the situation in a succinct paragraph.

Success and failure, good and bad luck, the judicious investment and the foolish one combined to separate cowboys into two groups; those who owned cattle and fenced pastures and those who hired themselves out to tend the cattle and fences. The distinction became especially pronounced once the cattle boom attracted investors from “back east” and from London. English syndicates as well as American concerns made cattle and range investments representing millions of dollars. By the late 1880s British ranching interests controlled one of every four or five acres in the Panhandle.

REH knew about it too, and wasn’t delighted by the situation. Besides being a patriotic Texan, he was powerfully aware of his Irish descent. He saw this foreign investment – by the English particularly — as a new form of the never-to-be-sufficiently-cursed absentee landlord system. He let off steam about it in July 1933, in one of his letters to Lovecraft.

The big ranches fell into the hands of Eastern and British corporations. The owners knew nothing about local conditions and cared less. They wanted money to be made from beef, and some of them didn’t care how it was made. An unsavory breed sprang up – gunmen, hired by the owners and managers to protect their interests. Which is the least civilized: a man who goes out with a gun and openly fights for his property, or a man who hires a thug to do his shooting for him?

REH wrote a longer passage about some aspects of the Goodnight-Adair partnership. It wasn’t flattering to Adair, even though Adair was Scottish-Irish. He was a lot more complimentary to Adair’s wife Cornelia – born Cornelia Wadsworth – however. The JA Ranch in northern Texas was immense, over 1.3 million acres, and it was founded in a common way. Charles Goodnight provided the experience and expertise, Adair the working capital. In one of his letters to the horror king and Cthulhu Mythos creator Lovecraft, REH wrote, in January 1934,

Then there was the case of Lord Adair. The Irish lord had made some big investments in the cattle business — beef was being exploited in Texas then as oil and farm products were later and the British companies were dipping their hands in the pot — and he and his wife were visiting the famous Goodnight ranch on the range of the South Paladuro. Goodnight was the nobleman’s partner. Goodnight and his waddies were out on the round-up and he sent Cape Willingham, one of his vaqueros, into the ranch for the mail. Willingham was a real man – later sheriff of thirteen Panhandle counties at once; and those are big counties. He was in my opinion the best sheriff Texas ever had, for he kept Tascosa from becoming another Dodge City, and maintained the maximum of order with the minimum amount of bloodshed; therein he differed from Wild Bill Hickok who never arrested a man if he had the slightest excuse for killing him.

Cape came into the dining room of the big log ranch-house, dusty and sweaty from the branding-pens, with his bandanna and chaps on, and naturally Mrs. Goodnight set him a plate. At this Lord Adair, who was eating with his wife at the table, went into a fine British fury. He was not going to eat with hired hands, not he! Mrs. Goodnight answered with some surprize that she and her husband always ate with the punchers. But the Lord would not be pacified; he bellowed with outraged pride, and insisted on finishing his meal, with his wife, at another table. Naturally that didn’t please Cape very much. As far as manhood went, he was so far above this monocled Irish monkey that there was no comparison. But I doubt if Cape thought of that. He was not conceited. But he had been insulted, and the men of that day didn’t meekly swallow insults.

A short time later the Goodnight men started the drive to Dodge City, and Lord Adair accompanied them. No, I’ll take that back. Adair didn’t go up the trail; I doubt if he could have stood the grind, even in a wagon. He merely went to the camp where the steers were being held after the round-up. It started raining and a blizzard began to blow, and along about one o’clock one morning Cape Willingham came in from his night-herd guard, and saw the tipi under which his Lordship was snoozing. He piled his lariat over the top of the tent and dashed off into the night with it. The next thing was Lord Adair scudding for the mess-wagon in his night-shirt through the sleet and freezing wind, screeching like a locomotive. They say he exhibited hysteria and seemed extremely upset. He demanded that Willingham be fired (the usual vengeance of his type) and probably was pacified somewhat when he saw Goodnight pay Cape off, and Cape head for Tascosa. He didn’t know that Cape was being given a vacation with pay.

Lady Adair had more sense than her husband; she survived him by many years, becoming known as the Cow Queen of the Panhandle, and was respected and liked by everyone. She wasn’t a snob like he was, and thought it not beneath her dignity to eat with the men who worked for her.

Since the name of Cape Willingham has risen, from one of REH’s letters too, further mention is in order. Caleb Berg Willingham’s memory deserves it. This blogger suspects that, like the redoubtable El Paso marshal Dallas Stoudenmire, he’s been largely overlooked because his name isn’t as dramatic or memorable as, say, Johnny Ringo’s. Willingham worked for Charles Goodnight on the JA ranch for two years in late 1870s. He was married by then, to Mary Marguerite Mays. He later rode and drove for a government mail line (the “Lightning Express”) between Fort Elliot and Las Vegas. In 1880 he became the first sheriff of Oldham County, Tascosa being the county seat, with twelve so far unorganized counties attached, just as REH wrote.

Willingham failed in his bid for re-election in 1882 even though he’d brought several badmen to justice. In “Hendry Brown — Armed and Really Dangerous: Part Two,” I’ve mentioned that gun-fast and savage Hendry Brown, reckoned by REH as one of the greatest gunmen ever, was Cape Willingham’s deputy in Tascosa for a time. Early in 1881, Willingham sacked him because he was too aggressive and ready to kill … “always wanted to fight and get his mane up.” Clearly any man who could tell Hendry Brown “You’re fired”, and make it stick, must’ve had the balls of a leopard.

Cape Willingham was also, surely, the only lawman ever to become involved in a fatal gunfight over the murder of a duck. A gang of cowboys came riding down the main drag, hoorawing and shooting their pistols. Sheriff Willingham had seen one of the cowboys empty his six-shooter at a passing flock of ducks, just for the hell of it. The woman who owned the ducks fainted; in some versions of the story she was pregnant. Willingham braced the cowboy (who had eight friends with him) and told him he’d have to apologise and pay for the duck he’d slaughtered. This occurred as the rambunctious group was coming out of Jack Ryan’s saloon. The duck-murdering culprit jumped on his horse, and Willingham ordered him to stay still and throw up his hands, but he drew a pistol instead. Cape Willingham was armed with a shotgun. The cowboy’s next address was Boothill.

A digression, though, and space is a-wasting. Eastern and British investment had done much to create the huge ranches of the cattle barons; new refrigerated railroad cars had changed the meat transport industry. A third and better known factor in changing the west was barbed wire. Joseph Glidden’s invention probably resulted in more bloodshed than Hickok, Hardin and Billy the Kid perpetrated between them.

The big ranchers found barbed wire a blessing at first. It could fence off huge expanses of range cheaply. With the great cattle drives ending, the ability of Texas longhorns to stand drought, bad weather and long journeys became less advantageous than the better meat quality of softer breeds. It also became necessary to keep the newly introduced beef strains separated from the common range stock native to the region. When the “nesters” and “sodbusters” began moving into the range lands and using barbed wire to keep the cattlemen’s beasts out of their crops and away from their water sources, though, the ranchers found that less acceptable. Their traditional wide free range (even if in a lot of cases it was legally public domain) was being encroached upon. One cattleman, asked how much land he claimed as his, replied boldly, “Everything from Fort McKavett to Coleman.” And that was eighty miles. The product of Glidden’s Illinois-based DeKalb Company became known as the “Devil’s Hatband” or the “Devil’s Rope” to some – Native Americans among them.

Despite some over-simplified depictions, it wasn’t merely a case of cattle ranchers against farmers, or cattle ranchers against sheepherders. The big free-grass ranchers found themselves at odds with fenced-range cattle ranchers. Windmills made almost as much of a difference as the wire. It was the railroads who brought windmills into Texas from the early 1870s, to provide water for their trains’ engine boilers. The ranchers seized the innovation to install a well and windmill in each of their fenced pastures, and direct access to a stream wasn’t needed any longer. Separate summer and winter pastures, and pastures for blooded stock only, became practical. By the 1890s, shorthorns and Herefords (“whiteface”) had ousted the Texas longhorn as money-makers. Tough old-timers used the word “shorthorn” as a derogatory term.

The “Fence Cutting War” began in 1883. It was brought on by a bad drought. Open range cowboys rode by night with pliers in their belts, cutting fences where they found them and fighting if they were caught. At other times they merely cut fences when they found them in the way of their herds, and did so by broad daylight. As REH said, in a letter to Lovecraft in January of 1934:

There used to be a law – may still be for all I know – which made it a penitentiary offense to carry a pair of pliers, or any kind of a wire-cutter in Texas. That sounds foolish, perhaps, but there was a good reason for that law. When the country began to be fenced up, there was so much wire-cutting that it caused several bloody feuds, and began to assume such proportions that even the law-makers took notice. Of course, the law hasn’t been enforced in many years, and if it’s still on the statutes it’s because they haven’t bothered to erase it.

You can understand its being made a penitentiary offense. By the fall of 1883, the fence cutters had caused more than 20 million dollars in damages across the state of Texas, and men had been killed in shootouts motivated by that activity. At the beginning of 1884 the governor called for a special assembly to resolve the issue. The large scale fence cutting did cease as a result, but in February 1885 a Texas Ranger – Ben Warren – was shot dead while trying to arrest fence cutters. Any sympathy the Rangers might have had for the fence cutters evaporated after that. In 1888 a Ranger in Navarro County planted dynamite charges rigged to explode and blow the culprits to hell if the specific section of fence was cut. He was reprimanded and ordered to remove the dynamite; the Adjutant General felt that he’d gone slightly too far.

Then there were the sheep wars. They were actually not half as ferocious in Texas as they were in Wyoming and Colorado. Charles Goodnight settled his punchers’ differences with intrusive sheepherders peacefully. Again, it wasn’t a clear-cut matter of cattlemen versus sheepherders. The fenced-range sheepmen didn’t like the irresponsible nomadic sheepmen either, because they tended to cut fences on the former and drive flocks across their grazing ground – and the nomads’ beasts often brought diseases like sheep scab with them.

With regard to the cowboy versus sheepherder animosity, though, it was real enough. The cowboys swore blue, scarlet and purple that sheep grazed grass down to the roots and left nothing for cattle, and that cattle wouldn’t go near pasture that stank of sheep anyway. There was also the fact that the small sheepherders were usually Spanish, Mexican or Native American, while the cowboys – the majority – were Anglos

But plenty of big sheepmen in Texas were Anglos, and made fortunes out of it. On that subject, I’m greatly indebted to Janice Maupin of the University of Texas for her paper, “Sheep and Goat Ranching – Texas Style.” Reading it corrected a lot of my own misunderstandings. Ms. Maupin points out that in the New World, the romantic and noble shepherd of Biblical reference “rapidly descended to the lowest rung on the social ladder”. The goatherds don’t even exist if you go by the amount of publicity they get in legend and movies, even though “95% of the mohair in the U.S. is produced in Texas”. Nevertheless, “more sheep fortunes were built by sheepherders than cattle fortunes by cowboys”, and “what little public knowledge is afforded this truly Southwestern-style entrepreneur rarely encompasses more than his over-dramatized skirmishes with the cowboy.”

The Spanish padres of the missions helped spread sheep husbandry across the wild frontier in the early days, and then, after 1800, pure-bred merinos were imported from Spain as an improvement on the rough “churro” woolies. Texas was from the beginning regarded as about the best country on the North American continent for sheep and goats. Mesquite grass, plentiful in Texas, provided good grazing for sheep, and while the state experienced – still does – very dry years and very wet ones, it’s for the most part free of greatly protracted droughts.

The man who really established sheep ranching in Texas was George Kendall. Quoting Janice Maupin again, “He was the first to conceive the idea of engrafting the native Mexican sheep with the merino stock. For seventeen years he bred the best sheep in the state, employed the most modern methods such as the dipping vat, and circumvented many obstacles raised by the Civil War.”

As noted above, Wyoming and Colorado saw worse sheep wars than Texas. So did Arizona, which hosted the ironically named Pleasant Valley War between the Tewksburys and the Grahams. There had actually been trouble between those two families dating back to a couple of years before sheep were introduced to the area — but the Tewksburys leased sheep in 1885 and employed a Basque sheep herder, who was subsequently murdered by the Grahams. The famous scout Frederick Russell Burnham (and it just ain’t possible for reasons of space to cover his amazing career in this post) had been drawn into the conflict in 1882 as a young ranch hand and barely escaped with his life. The conflict lasted about ten years, and in the end all but destroyed both families involved. About two dozen people died.

The Graham-Tewksbury feud wasn’t the only hostile action over sheep in that state. In 1884, near the San Francisco Peaks just north of Flagstaff, cattlemen with a grudge against sheepherders rounded up about a hundred wild horses, and after tying cowbells around their necks and rawhide to their tails, stampeded them through herds of sheep that numbered about twenty-five thousand, adding to the woollies’ panic with gunfire and yelling. Many of the sheep were killed or injured, and not much later another bunch of cowboys drove about four thousand sheep into the Little Colorado River, where they drowned. In Garfield County, Colorado, thousands of sheep were driven over a cliff by cowboys in 1894, into Parachute Creek. A sheepherder who tried to stop the destruction was shot, though not fatally. In another incident that year, one and a half thousand sheep were killed. In North Rock Springs, Wyoming, about twelve thousand sheep were destroyed in a single night by being stampeded over a cliff, in 1896.

Wyoming, also, was the place where the story of Cattle Kate was enacted, and reached its appalling finish. Her actual name was Ellen Liddy Watson and there’s very little doubt that she was innocent. The villains of the piece were the big ranchers of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, created in 1873 to serve their interests, and which had grown into a powerful political force by the time Ellen came to the vicinity of Cheyenne. For all intents and purposes it ran the territory government, and the laws concerning cattle ownership were the ones that suited them. Its members included legislators and about four governors; the WSGA formed the core of the Cheyenne Club, rich, exclusive and solely for the well-connected.

The Stock Growers Association had as its main stated aims the formal registration of brands and an end to cattle rustling. But it regarded rustlers, and the small ranchers and farmers, as the same creatures – pestilential vermin all. It purposely made the fee for registering a brand so high that few small ranchers could pay it, thereby putting them on the wrong side of the legal fence. It limited their bidding at cattle auctions by a variety of discriminatory tricks. It was a whole organization of arrogant bad guys straight out of Shane. It hired gunmen and killers in real life just as the big rancher in Shane did. Some of them wore a badge.

Ellen Watson had already had a tough time before she came to Wyoming. At eighteen she married one Bill Pickle, who turned out to be a drunken, abusive sonofabitch – to the point of lashing her with a horse whip. After a certain time, she left him and went back to her father’s home. To his credit her dad sent Pickle on his way at shotgun point when he appeared to claim his wife. Ellen filed for divorce. This was after she’d moved to Red Cloud, Nebraska. Later, in Rawlins, Wyoming, she worked as a cook and waitress at the Rawlins House, a boarding establishment. The Stock Growers Association later put around the story that the Rawlins House was a brothel and Ellen had been its star whore, but first, the Rawlins House was a decent place, not a bordello, and second, there’s not a skerrick of evidence that Ellen Watson was ever a prostitute in any of the places she went. A canard and slander put about by the Stock Growers.

In 1886 she met a homesteader by the name of Jim Averell – unlike her first husband, a nice guy. He’d opened a combination eating house and store on his property. Ellen found work as a cook there, after a while she and Jim Averell were lovers, and then they married.

Unusually for the time, Ellen wanted her own place, independently from her new husband’s. She filed on a homestead near his. For that reason they kept their marriage secret; legally, a married couple couldn’t file for a homestead each. Jim and his friends helped her get started and build a cabin on Horse Creek. Everything looked fine at the beginning.

Enter the villain, and member of the WSGA, Albert Bothwell. If he didn’t have a thin black moustache, thin black tie and a quirt dangling from his wrist, he should’ve. He’d been irrigating his hay meadow from that same creek for some time and regarded it as his. What in hell was some nester woman doing filing a sixty-acre homestead right there in the middle of his range? “His” range, by the way, was fenced with over sixty miles of mostly illegal barbed wire, but the laws and regulations of Wyoming Territory hadn’t pulled him into line for that – not with the governor in the WSGA’s silk-lined pocket.

He offered to buy Ellen’s land. She turned him down. By most accounts she was a good neighbor and a generous friend, who helped out with her considerable cooking and housekeeping skill if other women came down sick. She fostered a couple of kids who’d had a tough time, too. Then she made the mistake of buying two dozen head of cows and calves from a passing wagon train, cheap, because the folk with the wagons had to get rid of them or see them perish. Albert Bothwell gnashed his teeth at the thought of this woman owning cattle, even on a small scale. In mid-1889 he told five other ranchers that Ellen had rustled and branded some of their beasts. They raced out to Ellen’s place with Bothwell. Now, any rancher of the times could recognize his own beasts at half a mile, and certainly they could have told the difference between their own well-fed stock and animals that had recently been starving. They preferred Bothwell’s lie.

Although Ellen’s young wards tried to help her, they were kicked out of the way and Ellen herself was shoved into a buggy. The ranchers took her by force to Jim Averell’s place. They accused him of being her rustler accomplice and said they had an arrest warrant on him. He demanded to see it. They shoved a rifle under his nose and answered, “That’s our warrant.” Meanwhile the kids ran for help, and found it in the shape of Jim’s nephew and a cowboy friend, Frank Buchanan. The pair grabbed six-shooters and rode to the rescue.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t a movie and there was no fade-out to a happy ending. Jim and Ellen had already been hung from a pine tree. Buchanan and the nephew opened fire with their pistols, but they couldn’t halt the lynching or get near enough to help, and rifle fire forced them to retreat. None of the lynching party was ever arrested. The Cheyenne papers … well, they dubbed Ellen Liddy Watson “Cattle Kate” and made her out to be a former whore. The story was accepted and believed. Neither Ellen’s survivors nor her family could do a thing against the vested interests. Frank Buchanan, like other witnesses and people who knew Ellen’s real character, was intimidated, killed or bought off. Bothwell lived happily ever after. Unless, as some stories relate, he went off his head and died raving mad.

It’d be nice to believe it, but it sounds too poetically just to be factual.

The lynching murder of Ellen and Jim was prominent among the incidents leading to the Johnson County War. There were other lynchings and shootings by the WSGA’s minions. They included the shooting of rancher Nate Champion at his own KC Ranch, for trying to organize a competing, alternative roundup. While it wasn’t a Texas range war, the Wyoming Stock Growers did import and hire two dozen gunmen from Paris in northeast Texas. They were hard cases all, no doubt.

The Sheriff of Johnson County, Frank Canton, was in WSGA pay and strongly disinclined to make an issue out of any murders their vigilantes committed. Canton, in fact, wasn’t his real name; it was Josiah Horner. In the 1870’s he’d been a rustler on his own account, as well as a bank robber and gunman. Probably a number of the small ranchers and farmers lynched on mere accusation, or found dead on the prairie, were down to Canton.

At last the Johnson County War became so serious that the Governor of Wyoming had to appeal to President Benjamin Harrison. This although he was aligned with the WSGA himself! The President sent in the Sixth Cavalry. That, eventually, ended it. The Johnson County War passed into popular myth and inspired a number of books and movies. Often they’re fictionalized versions of the war, set in other states, but their ultimate source isn’t hard to recognize. In a way it marked the passing of the old Wild West and ushered in the twentieth century. Robert E. Howard was born only fourteen years after the Johnson County War ended.

Read Part One, Part Two and Part Three