RECOLLECTIONS OF A COWPUNCHER
by E. C. "Teddy Blue" Abbott, 1950
| When my father got over here in 1871, the Texas trail had only been in existence three or four years, but it was a big business already, and a steady stream of herds was moving north. By 1880 Texas cattle had got as far north as Miles City, Montana, and Texas cowboys with them. The name cowpuncher came in about this time, when they got to shipping a lot of cattle on the railroad. Men would go along the train with a prod pole and punch up cattle that got down in the cars, and that was how it began. It caught on, and we were all cowpunchers on the northern range, till the close of range work.
Those first trail outfits in the seventies were sure tough. It was a new business and had to develop. Work oxen were used instead of horses to pull the wagon, and if one played out, they could rope a steer and yoke him up. They had very little grub and they usually run out of that and lived on straight beef. They had no tents, no tarps and few slickers. They never kicked, because those boys was raised under just the same conditions as there was on the trail, corn meal and bacon for grub, dirt floors in the houses, and no luxuries. In the early days in Texas, in the sixties, when they gathered their cattle, they used to pack what they needed on a horse and go out for weeks, on a cow-hunt, they called it then. That was before the name roundup was invented, and before they had anything so civilized as mess wagons. And, as I say, that is the way those first trail hands were raised. Take her as she comes and like it. They used to brag that they could go anyplace a cow could and stand anything a horse could. It was their life.
Most of all them were Southerner's, and they were a wild, reckless bunch. For dress they wore wide-brimmed beaver hats, black or brown with a low crown, fancy shirts, high-heeled boots and sometimes a vest. Their clothes and saddles were all homemade. Most of them had an army coat with cape which was slicker and blanket, too. Lay on your saddle blanket and cover up with a coat was about the only bed used on the Texas trail at first. A few had a big buffalo robe to roll up in, but if they ever got good and wet, you never had time to dry them, so they were not popular. All had a pair of bullhide chaps, or leggins they called them then. They were good in the brush and wet weather, but in fine weather were left in the wagon.
As the business grew, great changes took place in their style of dress, but their boots and cigarettes have lasted nearly the same for more than sixty years. In place of the low-crowned hat of the seventies, we had a high-crowned white Stetson hat, fancy shirts with pockets, and striped or checkered California pants made in Oregon City, the best pants ever made to ride in. Slickers came in, too. In winter we had nice cloth overcoats with beaver collars and cuffs. The old twelve-inch-barrell. Colt pistol was cut down to a six- and seven-and-a-half-inch barrel, with black rubber, ivory or pearl handle. The old big roweled spurs with bells give place to handforged silver inlaid spurs with droop shanks and small rowels, and with that you had the cowpuncher of the eighties when he was in his glory.
In person the cowboys were mostly medium-sized men, as a heavy man was hard on horses, quick and wiry, and as a rule very good-natured; in fact, it did not pay to be anything else. In character their like never was or will be gain. They were intensely loyal to the outfit they were working for and would fight to the death for it. They would follow their wagon boss through hell and never complain. I have seen them ride into camp after two days and nights on herd, lay down on their saddle blankets in the rain and sleep like dead men, then get up laughing and joking about some good time they had had in Ogallala or Dodge City. Living that kind of a life, they were bound to be wild and brave.
In the eighties, conditions on the trail were a whole lot better than they were in the seventies. Someone had invented mess boxes to set up in the hind end of the wagon; they had four-horse teams to pull it, lots of grub, and from six to eight horses for each man to ride; and the saddles had improved. When I was on the trail in '83, the trail bosses had got the handling of a herd down to a science.
They found that about 2,000 head on an average was the best number in a herd. After you crossed Red River and got out on the open plains, it was sure a pretty sight to see them strung out for almost a mile, then sun flashing on their horns. An noon you would see the men throw them off the trail, and half the crew would go to dinner while the other half would graze them onto water. No orders were given; every man knew his place and what to do. The left point, right swing, left flank, and right drag would go in to dinner together. The first men off would eat in a hurry, catch up fresh horses, and go out on a lope to the herd. It sure looks good, when you are on herd and hungry to see the relief come out on a lope.
Eleven men made the average crew with a trail herd. The two men in the lead were called the point men, and then as the herd strung out there would be two men behind them on the swing, two on the flank, and the two drag drivers in the rear. With the cook and horse wrangler and boss, that made eleven. The poorest men always worked with the drags, because a good hand wouldn't stand for it. I have seen them come off herd with the dust half an inch deep on their hats and thick as fur in their eyebrows and mustaches, and if they shook their head or you tapped their cheek, it would fall off them in showers. That dust was the reason a good man wouldn't work back there, and if they hired out to a trail outfit and were put with the drags, they would go to the boss and ask for their time. But the rest of them were pretty nearly as bad off when they were on the side away from the wind. They would go to the water barrel at the end of the day and rinse their mouths and cough and spit and bring up that black stuff out of their throats. But you couldn't get it up out of your lungs.
Going into a new country, the trail boss had to ride his tail off hunting for water. But he would come back to the wagon at night. Lots of times he would ride up on a little knoll and signal to the point.....water this way, or water that way. And that is when you will see some trail work, when they are going to turn the herd. If they're going to turn to the right, the man on the right point will drop back, and the man on left point will go ahead and start pushing them over, and the men behind can tell from their movements what they want to do. By watching and cutting the curve, you can save the drags two or three hundred yards. It's the drags you have to protect.....they are th weak and sore-footed cattle.....and that's what counts in the management of a herd.
There is quite an art, too, to watering a herd. You bring them up an spread them out along the bank, with the lead cattle headed downstream. The leads get there first, and of course, they drink clear water, and as the drags keep coming in they get clear water, too, because they are upstream. Oh, those trail bosses know their business, and their business was to get their herd through in good shape; that was all they thought about.
But when you add it all up, I believe the worst hardship we had on the trail was loss of sleep. There was never enough sleep. Our day wouldn't end till about nine o'clock, when we grazed the herd onto the bed ground. And after that every man in the outfit except the boss and horse wrangler and cook would have to stand two hours' night guard. Suppose my guard was twelve to two. I would stake my night horse, unroll my bed, pull off my boots, and drawl in at nine, get about three hours' sleep, and then ride two hours. Then I would come off guard and get to sleep another hour and a half, till the cook yelled, "Roll out," at half past three. So I would get maybe five hours' sleep when the weather was nice and everything smooth and pretty, with cowboys singing under the stars. If it wasn't so nice, you'd be lucky to sleep an hour. But the wagon rolled on in the morning just the same.
| ["Teddy Blue" Abbott hired out as a hand for the A. J. Davis, S. T. Hauser and Granville Stuart outfit.]
It was a wonderful outfit, very well run, and the best I ever knew for a cowboy to work for. Granville Stuart fed well, never asked his men to work too hard, took a great interest in their welfare, and was always willing to help them when they were in trouble.
Of all the big stockmen I ever knew or heard about, he was the fairest and the best friend to the cowpunchers. A great many of the big men in the cattle business were opposed to letting the cowboys own cattle, because they thought if a man was allowed to have his own little bunch, with his own brand on them, it would encourage him in branding mavericks and other forms of stealing.
Granville Stuart never agreed with this. In '85 or '86, at the stock association meeting at Miles City, he made quite a speech, in which he tried very hard to get all the members to allow their cowpunchers to own cattle on the range. He said that 99 % of them were honest men, that if they were allowed to buy mavericks and own cattle it would give them a chance to get ahead and give them an interest in the range, that this would do more than anything else to stop rustling, since the boys were on the range all the time. He was voted down at the time, but he was right. The few outfits that did allow their men to own cattle never had any cause for complaint. Mr. Stuart himself stuck to his policy, against the opposition of some of his own partners.
Another thing about cowpunchers, they were the most independent people on earth. That was why certain customs were followed on the range that you wouldn't find with any other class of men who worked for wages. For example, once a string of horses had been turned over to you, no one, not even the boss, could ride one of them without your permission, though they were his horses. I remember when Con Kohrs, the big, long-legged old Dutchman who was president of the D. H. S. company after the hard winter, came up to the ranch one time and asked the foreman to get him a horse. And the first man, the foreman went to said, "Hell, no, he can't ride none of my horses." That fellow wasn't aiming to disoblige anybody, he just didn't like to have anybody else riding his horses. Once when Bill Burnett was foreman at the D. H. S., he came near quitting because Granville Stuart sold a horse out of his string. He asked for his time, but it was just a misunderstanding and was straightened out. Those things were a matter of etiquette, and as I told you, Granville Stuart didn't know a whole lot about the cattle business when he started. If he had gone to the man first and said, "I've got a chance to get a good price for that horse," the man would have said go ahead.
But if they were independent, they were proud too, and that independence and that pride made for the best results in a cow outfit. To tell the truth, it wasn't thinking about the owners' money that made them so anxious to turn out their herd in good shape. What they cared about was the criticism of other cowpunchers. They didn't want to hear it said, "That's a hell of an outfit," so they made it a point to prove the opposite. But that sensitiveness on their part and that belief that their outfit was the best on earth was all to the advantage of the owners, and that was why John Clay was such a fool when he made that speech before the feeders' convention in Illinois, in 1914, attacking the old-time cowpunchers.
"The chief obstacle of the range at that time," he said, "was the cowboys, who were mostly illiterate, uncivilized; who drank and thieved and misbranded cattle, and with a kind of rough loyalty, never told on one another in their crimes."
John Clay was a hard-fisted Scotchman who had no understanding of the kind of men who worked on the range. "A kind of rough loyalty" to each other, yes, they had that, in money matters, too. A real cow outfit had only one pocketbook. I've seen them come off herd, when one man had only forty or fifty dollars, and the others would lend him a hundred dollars to go to town. He'd pay it back sooner or later. They were all like a bunch of brothers. And if they weren't, they were no use as an outfit and the boss would get rid of them.
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