Ruthless Cattle Barons and Little Farmers — Part Two

The previous post omitted a couple of things to do with the Texas cattle industry before the Civil War. The drives then were small compared to the ones that came later; but the Shawnee Trail, or Texas Road, from East Texas through Indian Territory, wasn’t the only cattle route, as I inadvertently made it seem. Texan cowboys drove herds west to California in the gold rush days of the eighteen-fifties, to supply the hungry miners with beef. The journey took five or six months and would usually start from San Antonio or Fredericksburg. From there the drive normally followed a southern route through El Paso to Los Angeles, and from there, north to San Francisco. Cattle worth five or ten bucks in Texas would sell for ten times that much in the gold rush boomtowns – or even twenty times as much, so the trail drives were worthwhile. But a glut in the beef market came in 1857 and prices went down.

I also seem (not deliberately – through sheer ignorance) to have slighted the Opelousas Trail over which Texas cattle were driven from the Gulf Coast to the New Orleans market in the early nineteenth century. Well, I never claimed to be expert on the history of Texas, just to find it fascinating. And putting every matter of interest into these two meager articles would be impossible. A thousand-page volume couldn’t contain that.

The Civil War shattered the cattle business, and much more. It was the bloodiest human butcher’s yard the USA has seen. At just one battle, Shiloh, over 13,000 Union soldiers died, and over 10,000 Confederates. The idiots on both sides, who had been confidently predicting a quick end to the war, and quick and easy victory, were silent after that.

Texas is often considered the archetypal Confederate state, but in fact about a quarter of the Texican population was for staying with the Union. Among the German immigrants in central Texas, that feeling was very nearly unanimous. (This may have contributed later to the genesis of the Mason County War.) Texas’s governor, the legendary Sam Houston, also wanted to stay with the Union. He thought secession at that time was “rash action”. He went as far as refusing to take the oath of allegiance to the Confederacy. Texas replaced him as governor and declared its secession from the United States of America early in March, 1861. Sadly, in a declaration of its causes for secession, it set out a fervent justification of black slavery and white supremacy. The declaration didn’t mention that the first man to die in the American Revolution against the British had been, in Harlan Ellison’s words, “a black dude named Crispus Attucks.”

Texas supplied some of the best cavalry soldiers the Confederacy had. It supplied beef to feed the southern soldiers, too. The legendary John Chisum, exempt from military service, became one of the major beef suppliers in the Trans-Mississippi Department. When the war ended – and the Confederacy, as we all know, lost – John Chisum was among the first to drive cattle into eastern New Mexico for sale to the army and the Indian reservations. Any number of Indian agents and their backers were rotten crooked low-lifes, who stole the Indians’ assigned beef to market on the sly, but that wasn’t Chisum’s fault; he just supplied the beef cattle, and seems to have done it honestly. Most people who’ve written about him without axes to grind seem to consider him a man of integrity.

Prolific western writer J.T. Edson denigrated Chisum as a manipulator exuding false bonhomie in one of his novels, but then Edson also low-rated Wild Bill Hickok and Wyatt Earp, describing the latter as a “fighting pimp,” in the interests of building up his fictional Texan heroes Dusty Fog and Mark Counter. The latter was, in Edson’s stories, better with a gun than Hickok and a better lover, too. The author had Calamity Jane, no less, forgetting about Hickok fast enough in Mark Counter’s arms. This blogger is skeptical about Edson’s portrayal of John Simpson Chisum, too.

Shortly after the Civil War ended, Chisum formed a partnership with those other cattlemen of mythical stature, Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving. Their almost incredible efforts did much, in J.T. Edson’s words, to “set Texas back on her feet.” A majority of Texas’s best cowboys and riders had worn cavalry uniform through the war; until it was over, the Texas longhorns had bred wild and undisturbed, until there were about five million of them in the Lone Star State. The southern states’ economy had been ruined and beef cattle were worth very little – in Texas. But they were worth plenty further north. Taste had changed and beef had become a desired meat. At the Kansas railheads, a beast worth five or even two dollars in Texas might be worth forty if it could only be delivered there, past the storms, flooded rivers, rustlers and fierce Indian raiders who didn’t appreciate the benefits white men had brought them, but who did appreciate meat in their hungry bellies.

The Texas cowboys of the great cattle drive era included black former slaves who, like the Native Americans, still had to eat. Despite being depicted in Hollywood movies as exclusively WASP, they were about fourteen per cent colored, with an even higher proportion of them Mexican. The vaqueros, after all, had been the original Texas cowboys.

Charles Goodnight’s early career has been given a thumbnail sketch in the previous post. In 1866 he and Oliver Loving drove their first herd of cattle northward by the route that would become known as the Goodnight-Loving Trail. With a crew of eighteen cowboys they took 2,000 head of cattle to Fort Sumner, New Mexico. Food supplies were badly needed for the eight thousand Navajos interned at the Bosque Redondo Reservation – largely due to lousy planning by the government department responsible for them. They sold some of the cattle to the agent at Bosque Redondo, and then Goodnight turned back to Texas, while Loving went on towards the railhead in Denver, Colorado.

It was Goodnight who invented the chuck wagon and used it on that first cattle drive. He modified a type of sturdy army surplus wagon for the purpose, adding storage space in the form of drawers and shelves at the back, a hinged lid to provide a flat cooking surface, a water barrel at the side and firewood in canvas slings underneath. Naturally, trail drive food had to consist mainly of edibles that kept well, like sourdough and baked beans. (Who doesn’t remember the great baked bean sequence in Blazing Saddles?)

Oliver Loving ran into some difficulty at the Raton mountain pass on the Colorado-New Mexico border. Another astonishing frontier character, “Uncle Dick” Wootton, had constructed a toll road there and was claiming fees from those who used the pass. In order to get through, Loving paid up instead of engaging in a movie shootout, and took his herd to Denver. He sold it there for a lot more than the ten cents a head Wootton had demanded, and with fewer losses from his trail crew than a battle would have cost, no doubt.

So began the era of the great cattle drives. They were never all sweetness and light, though. The Goodnight-Loving Trail was founded in part because taking herds to the Missouri railheads – such as Sedalia – led to angry reactions from farmers who didn’t want their crops trampled or Texas ticks spread to their own livestock. As the railroads extended west, cattle drives across the open prairies of Oklahoma and Kansas became feasible. There were fewer resentful farmers and fewer bandits to contend with. The Goodnight-Loving Trail began in central Texas, made a wide loop through New Mexico, and then ran straight north to Wyoming. Of all the major cattle drive trails it was the longest – seven hundred miles.

Charles Goodnight himself amended the trail he’d founded. He contracted with John Wesley Iliff of Cheyenne, Wyoming, to deliver a cattle herd there at the Union Pacific railhead. He made the delivery, then went to New Mexico with his crew and bought more cattle from John Chisum, who had moved to that state and founded the South Springs Ranch. Heading back north, Goodnight shortened his trail and made it more direct by striking across from the Pecos River to the Canadian, and going through the Tinchera Pass into Colorado, thus avoiding “Uncle Dick” Wootton’s tolls at Raton. Goodnight made only one more cattle drive along that route, but other trail bosses used the famous stock road he’d created until the end of the trail drive era in the 1880s.

As for John Simpson Chisum, by then a resident of New Mexico, he was later a local figure in the Bloody Lincoln County War, though not a combatant. His cattle being rustled was one of the factors which led to the war and a certain unwilling involvement with Billy the Kid and his “Regulators”, though he didn’t precisely admire Billy. (Prominent among the Regulators was Hendry Newton Brown: see this blogger’s two-part post, “Hendry Brown – Armed and Really Dangerous.”)

Chisum wasn’t the founder of the Chisholm Trail, another route famous in song and story. That was named after Jesse Chisholm, originally from Tennessee, a part-Cherokee trader, guide and interpreter. Before the Civil War he constructed a string of trading posts in (what is these days) western Oklahoma. With the help of the Lenape Indian chief Black Beaver, his friend, Chisholm rounded up stray cattle in Texas and drove them over the trail they founded together – from Chisholm’s southern trading post near Red River, to his northern one near Kansas City. After Joseph McCoy built huge stockyards in Abilene, Kansas, Texas ranchers began taking herds there over the Chisholm. The first Texans to do so were O. Wheeler and his partners, in 1867, with 2,400 steers.

Jesse Chisholm and Black Beaver (Suck-Tum-Mah-Kway) were both remarkable men. Chisholm spoke more than a dozen native American dialects, and was much in demand as a guide and interpreter because of his noteworthy fairness, honesty and impartiality. Active in Texan affairs for twenty years, he was of considerable help to Sam Houston and played an important role in many peace and treaty councils. He helped regain captured children from Comanches and Kiowas, and, knowing they would have trouble fitting back into white society, adopted them as his own.

Like Chisholm, Black Beaver of the Lenape was a famous guide, scout and interpreter. At the opening of the Civil War, he acted as guide to hundreds of Union troops and a large wagon train, helping them evade a much larger force of Confederate soldiers. Concealing a group that size, and hiding its tracks, wasn’t an easy task, as even a novice like me can perceive – but Suck-Tum-Mah-Kway took the entire bunch across half a thousand miles of Indian Territory to Kansas with no losses. Not one person, not one wagon, not even one animal. Now that’s the sort of guide through hostile country that you pray for. He became a chief among his own people and later a wealthy rancher – which was damned good going for a Native American in those days.

Robert E. Howard gave the Chisholm Trail a mention or two in his correspondence. It had passed pretty close to his home town. In a letter to H.P. Lovecraft, circa December 1930, he wrote:

One branch of the old Chisholm Trail ran within about thirty miles of this town, and the early squatters in this country subsisted mainly on strays that somehow got left in their brush corrals after the herds had gone on. But it was dangerous business; the punchers disliked having their steers swiped and they didn’t like squatters anyhow. But gad, everybody stole cows in those days. All the big ranches were built or at least aided materially with running irons and mavericks. The big cattlemen who hanged rustlers were generally just as much thieves as the men they strung up; it was big business devouring the little, and the small-time promoter paying the penalty for his puniness.

In the same letter, REH observed:

I have never been to California but I hear that there is a great deal of prejudice in that state against Texans, just as there is in Kansas and Oklahoma – Kansas prejudice dating back to the days when Texas cowboys took the big trail herds up the old Chisholm to Abilene, and shot up the town to celebrate. Well – it wasnt such a hell of a town that the Kansans had to get snooty about it. Admitting that the Texas puncher of the old days was a dangerous and boisterous varmint, still when the boys had hazed a herd of longhorns up from the Border, through flooded rivers, blizzards, deserts and hostile Indian country, it was natural that they’d want to blow off steam. Abilene owes its very existence to the big Texas herds that flowed through it to the markets of Chicago and the East.

From what I’ve read there was a lot of truth in that. It’s also a fact that most cowhands didn’t own much except a horse, a lasso and a six-shooter, and if they wanted to hooraw and have fun, those were about the only means they had available, and with which they were proficient. But that didn’t console a trail-end town they decided to haze up a tree.

Towns in England during the Middle Ages which hosted large tournaments found themselves in a similar quandary. Sure, the event was good for business. Inn-keepers, forage merchants, blacksmiths, whores – everybody made a good thing out of the jousting. But it was dangerous too. Proud knights swaggered through the streets doing as they pleased. The squires were always ready to quarrel over the merits of their respective masters. Once in the town of Ipswich, a bunch of rambunctious squires rioted and burned half the borough. The more it changes, the more it’s the same thing.

It went both ways. Texas cowhands and trail bosses didn’t have much use for the Kansas lawmen and saloon-keepers. The town lawmen were often in league with the madams, hookers and tinhorn gamblers who fleeced the drunken cowboys – when the badge wearers weren’t gamblers and saloon-keepers themselves. A cowboy who objected to being robbed could end his days with a bullet in his back or a knife in his brisket. Wyatt Earp wasn’t too unjustly given the epithet, “That fighting pimp?” by J.T. Edson’s heroes. In Peoria, Illinois, in 1872, that was indeed his profession. He and his brother Morgan were arrested for “keeping and being found in a house of ill-fame.” The brothel in question was Jane Haspel’s establishment on Washington Street. He also worked on a floating brothel jocularly named the “Beardstown Gunboat.” In Tombstone – after working as a lawman in Deadwood and Dodge City – he was a saloon keeper and faro dealer before he became a lawman again. We can suppose his saloon had at least a couple of dollymops working there.

Kansas lawmen that weren’t crooked still had to do things that made them unpopular with trail crews, like enforce peaceful behavior. Often it was a matter of southern pride to brace the local badge-toter if he became what the wild boys deemed officious. Besides, cowhands were loyal; they “rode for the brand.” If one of them was beaten and jailed, let alone killed, they would side with him and avenge him, whatever the rights and wrongs of the matter.

Some trail crews had wilder reputations than others. Clay Allison, a Texas rancher and gunfighter with his origins in Tennessee, had few inhibitions about killing. He may have been psychotic; a famous passage in his army discharge papers says “Emotional or physical excitement produces paroxysms of a mixed character, partly epileptic and partly maniacal.” It’s a matter of record that he led at least two lynch mobs. Once he refused to surrender his guns as a town ordinance required, in Las Animas, Colorado. That ended in a gunfight between Clay and his brother John on one side, and Sheriff Charlie Faber and his deputies on the other. Clay Allison killed Faber. In Dodge City he reputedly had a dangerous confrontation with then Deputy Marshal Wyatt Earp. (But others later testified that Earp had not even approached Clay Allison.)

Then there was “Texas John” Slaughter, also a bad man to cross. He wasn’t large, but he was trigger-fast and brave. He served in the Confederate Army and later in the Texas Rangers, under Captain John Files, before he became a cattleman. Running a cattle transporting company with his brother, he drove herds to New Mexico, California and Kansas, as well as south to Mexico. The Slaughters were among the first to drive herds up the Chisholm Trail. A passionate poker player, John Slaughter quarreled with a man named Barney Gallagher in a poker game in San Antonio in 1876, accusing him of a crooked deal. He forced Gallagher at gunpoint to hand back his winnings. The resentful Gallagher followed Slaughter to his ranch and said he was going to shoot him. He tried, but he missed. Texas John didn’t.

The hostilities bred by trail drives were never as simple as wild cowboys versus staid townsmen and their peace officers. Sometimes different trail crews clashed with each other in a bloody fashion. REH felt bound to explain the causes of such battles to New Englander H.P. Lovecraft, who was himself a pretty good example of the civilized eastern dude. As Howard put it:

  … they were questions of life and death, fought out under the naked sun, in the dust and the glare of the open lands, with sweat and muscle-ache, and perhaps blood. Here is a thing that cost lives in the old days often enough: two herds, being driven toward distant ranges or markets, meet at a muddy water-hole in the midst of the parched wilderness. A drouth has endured for months, turning the whole country into a barren inferno under a molten sky. For days the steers of both herds have staggered through that hell. They are mad for water; all night they have lowed and bellowed piteously, pushed on in a desperate effort to find a creek or spring. Now they have found it, but both herds have arrived simultaneously. There is enough for one herd, not enough for both. It is far to the next water. The herd that drinks will reach the next hole and survive. The other herd will leave its bones on the plains. Each herd represents the total fortune of its owner. Owners and cowboys have toiled and labored gigantically through heat and snow and sand storm and driving sleet. The boys have not been paid for months; they will be paid only when, and if, the steers are sold at the market for which they are headed. One herd must perish and its destruction means bankruptcy for its owner, and means that the boys have worked for nothing. How would you solve that problem?

No, being a cowboy or a wrangler wasn’t easy. Nor did the real thing ever look like Roy Rogers or Steve McQueen. Battered faces, missing ears, teeth or fingers and smallpox scars were routine. As stated above, they were often Mexican or Afro-American, and sometimes immigrants from Europe. Others had labored on the Transcontinental Railroad, and when that was finished, decided they did not want to go back east and suffer the subhuman conditions that were the lot of the “working stiff.” They preferred to work as cowboys, often in the hope of saving a stake in order to homestead their own little spreads, but some turned to working cattle permanently. Either way, on the cattle drives they were seldom either shaven or washed, and by the end they wore clothes that could stand and walk by themselves. The first thing they craved in the trail-end towns after a bucket of beer was a hot bath. If they lived to make it. Injury or disease on the drive, with only the roughest medical care available, often meant dying out on the lone prairie.

Under those conditions, about four million head of Texas longhorn cattle were driven north in the twenty years that followed 1866. The high beef prices made it possible for Kansas to compete by bringing in eastern breeds like Herefords and grazing them on the Kansas plains. They did produce better beef than the longhorns, but they weren’t as tough or resilient. Besides, they were vulnerable to the diseases spread by Texas ticks, and the Kansas ranchers began agitating to the state legislature to have strict quarantine measures taken. The politicians listened, and in 1872 a quarantine border was established south of Abilene. It became unlawful to move Texas cattle north of that line, to the commercial detriment of Abilene. Entrepreneur Joseph McCoy, who had been elected mayor of Abilene in 1871, moved his stockyards operation from Abilene to Wichita as a result. This turned Wichita (along with Caldwell and Ellsworth) into the latest wide-open, rip-roaring cattle towns. Wyatt Earp served as a policeman in Wichita before being dropped from the town payroll for beating up a candidate for city marshal. It was after that incident that Earp moved to Dodge City.

A solid proportion of the towns’ municipal expenses went to pay their lawmen to keep the violence under control. In Abilene, for the last three quarters of 1871, it had been 48 per cent. At Caldwell in 1880 for the same part of the year – the last nine months – it was 33 per cent. During Ellsworth’s first two years as a Kansas cattle town, the city marshal earned $150.00 a month while cattle trading season ran, and half that for the remainder of the year. But in 1876, after Wichita had been a rip-roaring cattle town for four years, the quarantine line was shifted again, southward, as the laws were changed, and Wichita suffered a decline just as Abilene had. Maybe Robert A. Heinlein was writing a profound truth when he produced the line, “Nobody’s life, liberty or property is safe while the legislature is in session.” Anyhow, the long cattle drives moved west to Dodge City, another Kansas town, and north to Cheyenne in Wyoming. Whatever violence and uproar they brought with them, they created prosperity, too, in the form of farming and ranching communities that hadn’t existed in those regions before, and growing towns founded on the capital the cattle business created. Abilene, as REH mentions, owed its very existence to the Texas herds, and it wasn’t the only town so indebted. The populations of Kansas and Nebraska doubled, redoubled, and doubled again in the last half of the nineteenth century, because of the beef industry.

The combination of immense half-wild longhorn herds in the Southwest and new railheads further north had created the era of the great cattle drives, of Goodnight, Loving and Chisholm. Now advances in technology altered the situation yet again. G.H. Hammond of Chicago, in 1869, shipped beef from his meat packing plant to Boston in an air-cooled railroad car – the first, or one of the first, to use the technique. A decade later, the first true refrigerated cars were invented, which revolutionized meat packing and transport even further. At the same time, the railroads were spreading, and long cattle drives were becoming less necessary.

None of these factors altered the ways of the wide range lands and the big cattlemen as much as one unassuming farmer named Joe Glidden. I had believed I could describe his part in the west’s history this post, but space is running out. Glidden, along with various range wars, the Sutton-Taylor Feud, Cattle Kate, and the conflict between sheepherders and cattle ranchers, will have to await Part Three.

Read Part One and Part Three