Ruthless Cattle Barons and Little Farmers — Part One

We’ve all read countless westerns, as well as seeing them on the big and little screens, in which the rotten predatory cattle rancher who claims the entire range, with a legion of hired guns (or just one really fast one), gets tough on the little people he sees as standing in his way. The classic novel and then movie of the type was Shane. But the hackneyed plot had been played out often enough in the real world, in Colorado, Wyoming, and of course Texas. Robert E. Howard knew the history of those sanguinary feuds and range wars, and he referred to them often in his letters.

In December 1930 he wrote to H.P. Lovecraft:

The fiercest fights were between sheepmen and cattlemen and later between the small farmer and the ranchmen. That last was a bitter war, carried on with neither honor, mercy or human consideration. Ranchmen cut the squatter’s fences, burned his buildings, and frequently wiped out whole families, men, women and children with no more hesitation than Comanche Indians would have shown. In return the squatter stole the ranchman’s cattle and killed them on the sly, fouled the springs, dammed up the streams, dynamited dams on ranchmen’s property, ambushed cowboys and shot them out of their saddles – and made laws. Thats the way they licked the cattlemen – by legislation. They simply swarmed in and took the country, swamping the original settlers just as they, in turn, had swamped the Indians in an earlier age.”

I’d nitpick just one part of that. It doesn’t appear to me that the sheep and cattlemen conflicts, in Texas especially, came much before the big ranchers’ and little farmers’ bloody disputes. The sheep wars principally took place between 1870 and 1900. The famous clashes between Charles Goodnight’s cowboys, and the sheep herders driving their flocks onto his range along the New Mexico-Texas border, took place in the mid-1870s. The small farmers started encroaching on the big cattlemen’s ranges at about the same time, the 1870s, after the Civil War.

In fact the Texas cattle business was started by the Mexicans, with its roots set as early as 1540. The Spaniards had established cattle spreads in Mexico and then pushed their herds northward, looking for good pasture. The first cowboys were Spanish and Mexican “gauchos,” later known as “vaqueros.” They had brought cattle as far north as Texas by 1690. Their commercial value was limited then, and they were left to roam those wide open spaces and breed to their heart’s content. They did, and these feral Mexican cattle between the Neuces and the Rio Grande crossbred with the eastern cattle of the early Anglo settlers in Texas. The result was what some would describe as a hellish bastard animal with horns spanning seven feet or more, an untamed nature, and a frequent infestation of Texas ticks that made it unpopular outside its home state.

As you’d expect of a Texan critter, they were tough. They could survive on the open range where grazing was often marginal or worse. They could come through droughts and blue norther storms still feisty. They were long-lived – if they survived – and their calves could stand and walk sooner after being born than other cattle breeds.

By the early 1800s there were hundreds of thousands of wild longhorns in the region. They weren’t much of a commercial proposition in those days. Beef wasn’t the meat of first choice in the U.S.A. during the early nineteenth century; pork was more popular. Cattle were slaughtered mainly for their hides and tallow. Texas longhorns gave good lean beef from their carcasses but not an immense amount of fat.

The huge spreads that were effectively kingdoms began to appear about that time, in the days when Texas was really wide open and lately freed from Mexican rule, after Sam Houston’s army had thrashed General Santa Ana at San Jacinto in 1836. The biggest ranch ever known, even in the Lone Star State, was founded by Richard King, who had taken a significant part in Texian affairs before he came to own vast tracts of land. Born into a poor Irish family in New York in mid-1824, King was apprenticed to a jeweler as a child, and hated it. The jeweler was a slave-driver and exploiter straight out of a Dickens novel. He (Richard King) scarpered, stowed away on a ship and was welcomed into the crew when they discovered him. From that beginning he became a steamboat pilot by the time he was sixteen. He served in the Second Seminole War in 1842, and after it ended, he operated steamboats in Florida and Georgia for five years.

When the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) broke out over the U.S. annexation of Texas, King and his partner Mifflin Kennedy ferried army supplies on the Rio Grande. King invested his riverboat profits in land in Texas, and from then on continued acquiring it hand over fist. As REH wrote to Lovecraft in January 1931:

How many know of Captain King, who owned the biggest ranch the world has ever seen? It stretched from inland rivers to the Gulf of Mexico and when the country was settled up, it was divided into whole counties. I have seen the old ranch house which cost nearly a million dollars to build, and it looks more like a castle than an ordinary house. How old it is I cannot say, but the great stone stable has a date of 1856 carved over the door, and once cannons were mounted about the building to resist Indian attacks and Mexican raids. It lies adjacent to the little town of Kingsville, a most beautiful town – the prettiest I have yet seen in Texas. The worthy ranch-man was an old sea-captain and I have heard it hinted that, if he followed the same tactics on sea that he did on land, he must have been a pirate.

Years and years ago he was killed by a Mexican vaquero who worked for him, and who, it is said, carried out his orders regarding various men who owned ranches the captain desired. Be that as it may, they died and their ranches were engulfed in the ever growing boundaries of the great ranch. Giant fortunes are not built without intrigue and bloodshed, whether those fortunes be land or gold, or both.

The King Ranch is a legend in Texas. It still exists, is one of the largest in the world, and was officially made a National Historic Landmark in 1961. REH declared that he could not say how old it was, but King apparently saw the land that would become the nucleus of his immense ranch in 1852, when he came to the waters of Santa Gertrudis (Saint Gertrude) Creek, after riding a long way through arid country. He was travelling to the Lone Star Fair at Corpus Christi at the time, and at the fair over drinks, he and a friend of his, Texas Ranger Captain Gideon Lewis (nicknamed “Legs”) agreed to acquire and ranch it. In July 1853 King bought the Rincon de Santa Gertrudis grant for 300 dollars and sold Lewis a half interest in it for 2,000. He was a genuine nineteenth-century entrepreneur and no mistake. Or as one of the Sackett boys observes in a Louis L’Amour western novel, “If a man can buy cheap and sell dear, he naturally ain’t liable to starve.”

The Santa Gertrudis grant was fifteen and a half thousand acres – not even a back yard compared with what the King Ranch eventually became. Its original brand was the LK, from Lewis and King’s initials, and it’s still one of the King brands. The main contemporary one, though, is the Running W.

But REH’s final remarks about King, and especially the manner of his death, seem to be off a little. The story that he was killed by a Mexican cowboy who worked for him may have become part of his legend in a region where tall tales abound. More down-to-earth records have it that he died of stomach cancer. Gideon Lewis went out in a colorful and violent fashion, though. He was having an affair with a married woman, and her husband showed his objections with a bullet.

The feuds and range wars of Texas had begun already when King founded his ranch. The East Texas conflict known as the Regulator-Moderator War took place between 1839 and 1844, when Richard King was still in the steamboat business. It was fought in a region that had once lain between Spanish Texas and the Louisiana Territory. The U.S.A. and Spain had both tacitly ignored that disputed strip because they couldn’t come to an agreement on the boundary and didn’t reckon it worth going to war over. It was known as the Sabine Free State or the Neutral Ground. Like other such patches (not least the notorious Debatable Land at the western end of the Anglo-Scottish border during the 15th and 16th centuries) it was lawless. Even after Mexico won its independence from Spain and Texas freed itself from Mexican control, the former Neutral Ground remained “wild and woolly and full of fleas, never been curried below the knees.”

The Regulator-Moderator War was essentially a feud over land, with the usual complications thrown in – barn burning, rustling, shootings and revenge killings. Charles Jackson and Charles Moorman were leaders on the “Regulators’” side. These were vigilantes who came into being to control the outlaws and thieves (they said), but as often happens, they became so extreme in their actions that they generated their own opposition in the form of people who wanted to “Moderate” their behavior. Ed Merchant, John Bradley and James Cravens led the “Moderators.”

The carnage dragged on for years. Land values in Shelby County crashed through the floor and people stopped migrating there. Finally the President of Texas, Sam Houston, sent five hundred militia to make and enforce peace. It took Houston personally to get the opposing sides to agree to an armistice. When the Mexican-American War came along, the two factions joined the same company and were happy as long as they had mutual enemies to fight against.

This was the only really serious feud to take place in Texas prior to the Civil War. Maybe I should correct that; it’s the only serious feud I’ve found any reference to. REH himself wrote, in his horror story “The Valley of the Lost,” that:

The feuds of early Texas have been neglected by chroniclers who have sung the feuds of the Kentucky mountains, yet the men who first settled the Southwest were of the same breed as those mountaineers. But there was a difference; in the mountain country feuds dragged on for generations; on the Texas frontier they were short, fierce and appallingly bloody.

Another short story, “The Man on the Ground,” deals with the outcome of a one-on-one feud between two men who have hated each other for a long time and fought savagely but inconclusively before. The ultimate “winner” has been so consumed with fury that he kills his adversary without realizing until afterwards that he’s already dead himself. Both yarns were obviously grounded in the lore and history of REH’s native region.

The cattle industry of Texas was established and growing well before the Civil War. One name of those times has achieved legendary status and is recognized at once even by people who have no knowledge at all of Texan history: Maverick. The name entered the English language as a synonym for stubborn independence, individualism and nonconformity – all of them qualities REH admired, approved – and possessed.

Samuel A. Maverick was born on July 23rd 1803 in South Carolina. He graduated from Yale in 1825, studied law, and became licensed to practice in Virginia in 1829. He ran (unsuccessfully) for the legislature, moved to Georgia and (unsuccessfully) ran a gold mine. Then he tried to operate a plantation his father had given him, but didn’t stay with that occupation long because he didn’t like driving slaves. After just fourteen months, in 1835, he headed for Texas.

The first thing he did there was set about buying large tracts of land – first near San Felipe, then, after he’d recovered from a bout of malaria, around San Antonio. When the Texas Revolution against Mexico began, only six months after Maverick had arrived in the Territory, he, like other Anglos in San Antonio, was placed under virtual house arrest by the distrustful commander, General de Cos, and forbidden to leave the town. Late in October the Texan army arrived and began the Siege of Bexar. Maverick and other prisoners in San Antonio smuggled information out to the Texans, and General de Cos must have remained ignorant of that, since in December he allowed Maverick and his host John Smith to leave the city.

Maverick went straight to the Texans and guided several hundred men under Ben Milam in an attack on San Antonio. After five days’ fighting it was taken, though Milam was shot dead at Samuel Maverick’s side before the surrender. After that Maverick remained at the Alamo with its garrison for some time, was elected a delegate to the Texas Independence Convention, and left with his friend Smith, carrying a message from Travis, the garrison commander, urging the convention to send reinforcements to the Alamo. The convention was taking a break over the weekend (with the Mexican army at the gates of Texas) and a special session on the Monday came too late; Travis, Bowie, Crockett and the Alamo’s other defenders were dead. Samuel Maverick had never been sent on a more fortunate errand in his life.

The following day, he was one of the men who signed the Texas Declaration of Independence. He also helped draft the Texas constitution, but suffered another bout of malaria, and on recovering, had to travel back to Alabama, where his sister needed his help.

Maverick married one Mary Ann Adams, and early in 1837 returned to Texas with his new wife and brother-in-law. He continued buying land in Texas, received his license to practice law there, and became Mayor of San Antonio. Again, as when he had departed the Alamo to attend the independence convention, he had a narrow escape from death on a surveying trip. He happened to leave the surveying camp early, and just missed a Comanche raid that left only one survivor. Afterwards he joined the Texas militia and was involved in various scraps with Comanches and Mexican military expeditions, Mexico still viewing Texas as a rebellious province and its own rightful territory, to be retaken. Captured and imprisoned, Samuel Maverick refused to support or even acknowledge Mexico’s claim to Texas, and eventually gained his freedom again. He returned home, taking with him the shackles he had worn in solitary confinement as a souvenir.

By 1844, he owned more than 55,000 acres, and the next year he increased it by another 11,000. While that pretty much qualified him as a land baron, he could never be called a cattle baron, since he didn’t bother branding his cattle and never owned an impressive number. Cattle didn’t interest him much. His passion was for real estate. True, some neighboring ranchers suspected him of leaving his beasts unbranded so that he could collect any animals like that and claim them as his own, but the figures don’t support the notion. Samuel A. Maverick acquired four hundred head of cattle that he didn’t really want, in payment of a debt, in 1845. He left them in the care of a negro family he employed, didn’t bother having them branded, and more than ten years later, the cattle he owned still tallied four hundred. But “maverick” became a word for a beast that doesn’t carry an owner’s brand and runs wild, as well as for a human being who displays stubborn independence.

And of course it was a television series starring James Garner and Jack Kelly as two brothers, smooth gamblers and ladies’ men, who refreshingly avoided gunfights at any cost, preferring wits and trickery. One of my favorite episodes featured Clint Eastwood – before even Rawhide – as the local gun-fast bully with a fancy for a girl who didn’t like him, but was attracted to Bret Maverick. The Eastwood character resented that and went gunning for Bret. He dodged the fight (which would’ve been suicide) by cabling his brother Bart to get there fast, posing as John Wesley Hardin with a grudge. Helped by a townsman, they faked Bret’s death in a shootout with the spurious Hardin. He left town in a coffin with air-holes.

Sam Maverick (wonder if Bret and Bart were related to him?) may not have been a cattle giant, but Chisum certainly was. REH had a high opinion of old John Chisum, and after writing some disparaging words about a “Boston cattle magnate” by the name of Torrey, who came out west with apparently little idea or appreciation of what was considered good manners in the region, he compares Torrey with Chisum. Not favorably:

John Chisum was a bigger man than Torrey, and did infinitely more to bring law into the wild places than all Torrey’s ilk; and he kept a great table set day and night for who ever might chance along. Sometimes a fleeing outlaw would eat breakfast there, and the posse chasing him would eat dinner at the same table. And if John Chisum respected the custom – indeed no other course ever occurred to John – then certainly Mr. Torrey was not much degraded by observing it to some extent.

– Letter to H.P. Lovecraft, January 1934.

REH had already extolled John Simpson Chisum in another letter to Lovecraft, of January 1931:

John Chisum started to New Mexico in 1868, with his herd of ten thousand cattle, his caravan of waggons and his army of hard-bit Texas cocrovwpunchers, yet his name is hardly known in this country. John Chisum was born in Tennessee and grew up in East Texas. He was an empire builder if one ever lived. To read New Mexican history of the 70’s it would seem that he supported the territory – people either worked for John Chisum or stole cattle from him! In the days of his greatest power his herd numbered more than a hundred thousand head. The Long-rail and the Jingle-bob were known from Border to Border. He always kept open house; there any man could stay and eat his fill as long as he wished and no questions were asked him. Breakfast, dinner and supper places were set for twenty-six at the table in his big adobe house and generally all places were full. He was a figure of really heroic proportions, a builder of empires, yet he was by instinct merely a hard headed business man. Nothing dramatic about John Chisum, and maybe thats why history has slighted [him] in favor of fruitless but flashing characters who blazed vain trails of blood and slaughter across the West. John Chisum never even buckled a gun on his hip in his life; he was a builder, not a destroyer.

Well, 1868 and Chisum’s relocation to New Mexico came after the Civil War, so we haven’t reached that point yet. Whatever else John Chisum was, it’d be a barefaced lie to call him a little man. Born in 1824, in Tennessee as REH says, he moved to Red River County, Texas, at the age of thirteen, with his parents and other relatives. He worked as a building contractor and county clerk before finding his real forte. He became involved in the cattle business around 1854, along the Pecos River. His partner was Stephen K. Fowler of New York, who provided the “back east” money while Chisum provided the local knowledge and on-the-spot management. Fowler invested $6,000 and they placed their animals on a range north of the present day site of Fort Worth, then applied for a land patent. We could say their enterprise was successful. Chisum had a half interest, and by 1860 he reckoned it had become worth fifty grand.

1860 was still before the Civil War as far as Texas was concerned. The Lone Star State didn’t join the Confederacy until the following year. Probably very few people know the name of Chisum’s first partner today, and Fowler’s name is overshadowed by those of the legendary cattlemen with whom Chisum was associated later — Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving.

Like Chisum, Charles Goodnight was not born in Texas but moved there with his family when young – in Goodnight’s case, at ten, in 1846. By the time he was twenty he was an experienced cowboy. He also served in the Texas militia and fought against Comanche raiders, the latter still a menace. It’s fashionable to view the Comanches through a sentimental haze of idealism these days, and they were without doubt a great warrior nation, but then people have taken a romantic view of the reivers of the Anglo-Scottish border, too, waffling about their courage and honor – at a good safe distance in time and space. As Fraser pointed out in The Steel Bonnets, the romancers never had their subject matter come snarling at them over the point of a lance. If they had it would probably have been the last thing they saw.

In 1857, Goodnight joined the Texas Rangers. He led the posse that located Cynthia Ann Parker among the Comanche who had abducted her when she was nine, after a dreadful massacre of her family and community at Fort Parker. But twenty-five years had gone by and she had forgotten her white origins. She never adapted to white ways again and tried to escape and rejoin the Indians, more than once. She died broken-hearted in the end.

Goodnight’s future partner, Oliver Loving, was older, born in 1812. Loving settled in Texas in the 1840s, farmed, ran a store, and ranched. By 1857 he owned a thousand acres and was driving his cattle herds out of Texas to market. In those days the Shawnee Trail, also known as the Texas Road, the Sedalia Trail, and the Kansas Trail, was the only major cattle driving route. The famous Chisholm Trail and Goodnight-Loving Trail had yet to be established. The Shawnee Trail ran from east Texas across Indian Territory. Texas herds were being taken up the trail as early as the 1840s, but by the early 1850s Missouri farmers had begun to oppose the Texas drovers by force, the reason being the ticks on the Texas longhorns, which carried a cattle disease to which the longhorns were immune. Missouri and Kansas beasts were not. Kansas farmers agitated until a law was passed in their territory, in 1859, to stop the Texas trail drives passing through their region.

Then came the slaughterhouse called the Civil War. It was after that, of course, that the Texas trail drives really became huge, the longhorn cattle business burgeoned, the greatest cattle barons flourished, and the small farmers began encroaching on their huge ranges. (Aided by the invention and mass production of barbed wire, which didn’t exist before the Civil War.) It was after the war that the most famous Texas feuds were fought, and the worst conflicts between cattlemen and sheepherders took place – by no means solely in Texas. I couldn’t address that subject except by giving it a post to itself, with, naturally, all the sidelights and commentary I can cull from Robert E. Howard’s letters.

Read Part Two  and Part Three