RIDING THE RANGES IN THE 1870's
From J. Marvin Hunter’s Frontier Times Magazine, July, 1924.
Riding the ranges and following the trails in the days when the Texas longhorns were driven "north of 36" was not the romantic pursuit patrons of the movies, viewing the antics of some smooth-faced and girlishly bedizened lasso twirler or rodeo hero are thought to fancy. It was a serious occupation, attended with many hazards of life and limb, and calling for extraordinary powers of endurance and a courage that was frequently put to the test in meeting sudden dangers or unforeseen difficulties. The men who drove great herds over the long trails in the days before the railroads came rode daily in the face of ambushed perils—of lurking, predatory savages, of stampeding herds, of wind and weather, or long sleepless hours that tried their physical and mental endurance to the limits. Many have wondered at the sadness that pervades the old songs of the cowboys which have recently had a literary revival. But cowboying was, in fact, a rather sad profession. It meant loneliness, great responsibilities, small rewards, unflinching hardihood, and a philosophy that was immersed in the mysteries of wilderness solitudes.
Up in Northwestern Nebraska, at Agate Springs, "on the banks of the beautiful Niobrara," that winds through the country of the old Northwest trails, lives Capt. James H. Cook, now in his sixty-seventh year, says the Kansas City Star. He is one of the last of the old-time plainsmen—cowboy, scout, Indian fighter, ranchero, big game hunter, and once the trusted friend of Red Cloud, the great chief of the Ogalalla Sioux, who organized the last stand of the redman against the white tidal waves that poured into the Dakotas in the 70's. To quote the tribute of his friend, the veteran soldier and writer, Brig. Gen. Chas. King, Cook is "one of the very best of a type of American pioneers now well nigh extinct, yet well remembered—the keen-eyed, cool-headed, fearless men who, for half a century or more, were the guides and comrades of the cavalry of the army of the United States in its tireless, almost ceaseless task of clearing the way for and guarding the lives and property of the thousands of explorers, emigrants and settlers who sought out and peopled almost every cultivable valley from the Missouri to the mountains and from the staked plains of Texas to the British line—the scouts of the plains, men famous in song and story, of whom Kit Carson and Jim Bridger, in the early days and Buffalo Bill Cody and later still, Captain Jim Cook were the shining lights. In a recent book, published by the Yale University Press, "Fifty Years on the Old Frontier," Captain Cook has told the story of his adventurous life. The chapters devoted to his early cowboy days and his drives over the long trails give an unembellished picture of the life of the cowboy—a picture as fascinating in its interest as it is authentic of its depiction of the real life of the pioneer trail riders.
Captain Cook was but a stripling -- a Michigan youth of 17, full of romantic ideas about the west—when he took to the saddle and the life of a cowboy down in the Comanche country and along the borders of the Staked Plains. In 1870 when "Buffalo Bill" Cody was the chief scout of the 5th United States cavalry in the Platte country, Cook, seven years his junior, was taking his first lessons in flinging the lasso. For five years he rode the southern plains and drove herds of the longhorns over the Chisholm trail and over the far western trails into the northwest country. These five years covered the most active period of the overland cattle trade from Texas north; also they witnessed the heyday of a few other western incidentals, such as wild Indians, buffalo, freighters, stage drivers,, emigrants, whisky peddlers,and roaming desperadoes. One of the first things that Cook had to learn in the cowboy business was how to make—and to enjoy—a "Tucson Bed." It was the only sleeping comfort, aside from a saddle, that a cowboy often had. It was very simple in construction. It was made, explains Captain Cook. "by lying on your stomach on the prairie and covering yourself with your back. "But it was allowable "to put your saddle and saddle blanket over your head, in case of a storm, when hailstones larger than hen's eggs came along."
The old cattleman had a very practical way of teaching the raw recruits the economic value of brands. Cook's first cowboy job was with John Longworth, one of Ben Slaughter's caporals, or foreman."I was to go with Longworth," he relates, "out to the Frio and Nueces rivers country to help catch wild cattle, just as soon as Longworth should go broke playing Spanish monte and drinking whiskey. Before many days Longworth went broke and was sick enough to want to get out of town. In about four days we reached the ranch home of Ben Slaughter, father of Charlie, Billy and John Slaughter, later the big cattle drovers on the Texas trail to Kansas. After a while a little old man walked down from the house to our camp. He wore a belt filled with Henry rifle cartridges and the handle of a big butcher knife was sticking out of one of his boot tops. He began to talk to Longworth, using both Spanish and English. I soon discovered this man was none other than Ben Slaughter himself, who was now my employer. One day Longworth drew a rifle from his saddle and started to look a bunch of cattle over for a fat one to kill. In the meantime Mr. Slaughter had mounted a horse and rode down to where we were herding cattle. He said to me, "What's the matter, can't John find a fat one?” Just then I spied a fine fat heifer coming along the edge of the herd. I pulled my Spencer carbine and pointed it toward the animal and exclaimed,`That's a good one.' Slaughter started his horse towards me, fairly yelling, `Hold on, young man, don't you see that's a T-Diamond?' `Yes,' I replied.`What brand is that.?’ ‘l reckon that's my brand,' was the answer. 'We don't kill that kind in this country. Kill any L O W or a W B G' —meaning anyone's brand but his own. `They taste better.' And so Cook learned about brands from him.
In those days great herds of wild cattle swarmed the prairies. They were descendants of the Spanish Longhorns that had followed Coronado's glittering cavalcade across the staked plains. It was part of a cowboy's job to help round up bunches of the cattle and mix them with the tamer herds. It was a thrilling experience for a tenderfoot. Corrals were built, with strongly constructed wings running out from the gates, often two hundred yards and more in length.A decoy herd was taken out to lure the wild cattle in the bunch and the roundup was a function that called for skill and daring of the highest order and one that was full of picturesque aspects. Cook thus describes it:
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"The following morning about sunrise we left the corral, taking with us the decoy herd, Longworth leading the way through the thick growth of chaparral and mesquite. After traveling a mile or more he led the herd into a dense clump of brush and motioned us to stop driving it. Then, telling two men to stay with the cattle, he rode off signaling the other men and myself to follow him. I fell into line behind all the other riders and we rode in single file for a couple of miles. Suddenly I heard a crash ahead and in less than two seconds every rider in advance of me was riding as if the devil was after him. My horse knew the work and plunged after the riders ahead. I gave him the reins, trailing the ones ahead by the crashing of limbs and dead brush—everywhere was brush, timber, cactus. I think I rode all over that pony, first on one side, then on the other. My pony was a cow-catcher by trade, he certainly made me pull leather and I clung to his mane in order to keep in close touch with him. I had a very strong desire for that chase to end. At last it did. I was at the finish.
"All at once I came in sight of one of my Mexican coworkers. His horse was standing still. The man put up his hand for me to stop and I did so willingly. He pointed to the brush ahead and I caught sight of some strange cattle. A few minutes later I heard voices singing a peculiar melody without words. The sounds of these voices indicated that the singers were scattering in the form of a circle about the cattle. In a few minutes some of the cattle came towards me and I recognized a few of them as belonging to the decoy herd. In a few seconds more I saw that we had some of the wild ones too. They whirled back when they saw men, only to find a rider wherever they might turn. Every man now began to ride very carefully and slowly, riding in circles around and around them, all except myself singing the melody known as the `Texas Lullaby.' For all I know I may have tackled that singing trick with wild cattle' for the first time right there, for I was about as excited as the wild cattle were. After a few moments Longworth rode away into the chaparral, singing as he went. The Mexican cowboys closed in on the cattle, starting to drive them after him, pointing the herd in the direction of his voice. I brought up the rear of the herd. We kept quite a distance from the cattle, each man trying to make no sudden move that might stampede the bunch. At last Longworth led the herd into the wings of the corral and the wild ones followed the decoys in." "In writing of these wild cattle," he adds, "I realize that it is a difficult thing to make even the present day cattlemen realize what the words `wild cattle' meant in Southern Texas at the time of which I write. These cattle would not graze on open ground in daytime, but would seek the deepest thickets, lie down with their heads on the ground like deer, on the lookout for danger and ready for a mad rush through the jungles to a place of safety."
Riding the long trail from Texas to Abilene was a trip beset with hardships, with perils of storm, with dangers from Indians stealing in to stampede the herds and with physical sufferings and exposure that often ended by the trailside.
"The first year that I was on the trail," Captain Cook relates."every river from the Red River to the Arkansas was `big swimming,' as the boys termed it. We lost numbers of cattle and horses by drowning. We had some bad hailstorms and windstorms. Sometimes we went for days at a stretch with scarcely a wink of sleep, because of the winds and rain, which made the cattle hard to control. In some places on the trail the country would become so very boggy after a long rainy spell and we had to resort to all sorts of schemes to snatch a little sleep when an opportunity presented itself. When three riders could get away at a time they would go a little way from the cattle and dismount, each holding his horse by the bridle rein. Then they would lie down in the form of a triangle, each man using his neighbors ankles for a pillow. In this manner the sleepers' heads would be kept out of the mud and water.
"Sometimes a rider would go to sleep while jogging along around the herd. There was a limit to the endurance of a cowboy. I have been so close to that limit that on one of two occasions I would get a little piece of chewing tobacco from one of the men and mixing it with saliva would rub my eyelids. This is great treatment when the thoughts seem to be all bent on having a nap. It could well be called a rouser. Yet the eyes, as well as ears had to be kept open, at any moment a rider was likely to be called upon to ride hard, should the herd be suddenly stampeded in his direction, or if the herd ran in another direction, he must hear the rumble and clatter of hoofs and make haste to locate it in time to be of assistance in rounding it up. What spirit fired and sustained those boys who drove the herds over the long trails is more than I can explain. But there were very few instances in which they proved quitters.
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