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18 Apr
2016

How to Avoid Being Crushed in a Stampede

This post is the first in a series about the era of the cattle drive from Texas to Dodge City, Kansas. 

“Ride! Ride like the devil! Ride for your life, man!  Stick spur in your pony’s flank, and press hard and press long; lean low over your saddle bow—speak quick, sharp words of encouragement and command to your beast, and ride for your life! For behind you, like the waves of a mad sea, are ten thousand frightened steers, and you are scarce the length of your horse ahead of them!  If your pony stumbles….if anything happens by which his speed is checked…the hoofs that are thundering at your heels shall tramp every semblance of humanity out of your body before you can utter a prayer or curse!” (quoted in “The Western: The Greatest Cattle Trail 1874-1886 by Kraisinger and Kraisinger)

Grandfather disappeared

My grandfather not only disappeared from his family in Weatherford, Texas after he took a load of corn to town in 1879, he also disappeared from the official records.  I could find no information in the 1880 census nor any other official record until he shows up filing a homestead claim in Glendo. Wyoming in 1891.  What was he doing in those missing years?

I never imagined my grandfather, H.D. Scott, involved in the famous longhorn cattle drives from Texas to Dodge City, Kansas.  But, I found two clues in the National Archive documents:  H.D., himself, claimed he worked cattle during that time and one of the government agents reported that he served as “a cook on an overland expedition” for an outfit from Dodge City.

Texas Cattle Drives

albuminLOCcowboysathchuckwagon3a18543rAs a result of these clues I began to explore the Texas cattle drives that began in the late 1860’s on the famous Chisholm Trail.  At the time it was the only trail through Indian Territory to Kansas.  Later, between 1874 and 1886, cattle were driven up the much longer Western Trail not only to Kansas but also up to Ogallala, Nebraska, Wyoming and Montana according to The Western: The Greatest Cattle Trail, 1874-1886 by Gary and Margaret Kraisinger.  The cattle shipped from the Western Trail on rail cars headed east are reported to be over five million cattle!

TV, movies and novels have glorified the Texas cattle drive and the Cowboys that served as drovers.  Life on the trail was not very glamorous. Cowboys slept on the ground and ate monotonous food.   They coped with blistering sun, thunderstorms, floods and Indians.  It was lonely, and at the time very dangerous.

Wild Longhorn Cattle

The Longhorn was a defensive and skittish animal descended through natural selection on the range from Spanish and Anglo-American cattle.  These animals were wild, with long powerful legs and hard hoofs, capable of surviving long drives with minimal grazing feed.  The Kraisingers report that they could do “a several-hundred-mile trek and …still gain weight.”  But any sudden noise such as thunder and lightning, or strange event, lighting a match or the sound of a tin cup, could cause a frantic stampede such as described above.  The consequences could be gruesome:

“We went back to look for him, and we found him among the prairie dog holes, beside his horse.  The horse’s ribs were scraped bare of hide and all the rest of horse and man was mashed into the ground as flat as a pancake.  The only thing you could recognize was the handle of his six-shooter.  We tried to think the lightning hit him, and that was what we wrote his folks…But we couldn’t really believe it ourselves…I’m afraid his horse stepped into one of them holes and they both went down before the stampede.”  (quoted in Kraisinger and Kraisinger)

The drover’s job was to get the terrified animals under control by riding his mount abreast of the lead steer to turn them to run in a circle.  The circle could be miles wide but gradually as the cattle were exhausted they would mill in a circle and quiet down.  Rivers had to be crossed even in at flood stage.  There was a right way to negotiate a river that took the time of day, and outside influences into account.  Cattle, horses, and men could lose their lives in a fast-moving river.

The wave of homesteaders moving into former Indian Territories and the advent of barbed wire brought the era of Longhorn cattle drives to a close by 1886.  But during a short period of time, savvy organizers and contractors could make a fortune.  Some report over $100,000 according to Harry Drago! However, there was always a risk of losing upwards of 1500 head of cattle in a herd of 3000.  The drovers didn’t get rich.  They might receive $30.00 a month with $100 for the trail boss.  Some of them, though, did parlay their opportunity into becoming land owners with a herd of cattle.

Creating the Story

Once I determined that I would write my family story as fiction, the clues in the Archive documents lead me to explore this history and the stories of the cattle drives.  I have found both challenge and enjoyment in creating the story of my character’s experience as a cook on a Texas cattle drive.  Here’s a short excerpt from his second day on the drive:

He enjoyed the camaraderie on this crew.  It reminded him of his time in the Union Army–sleeping on the ground, boring food, dirty, no women or home comforts.  A hard life. But it was eased by the easy-going company of men joking with each other, telling stories or singing around the campfire.  Being here was like putting on old boots that have molded to your feet. He didn’t need to worry about these men learning his secret. Cowboys minded their own business.  He was sure their pasts weren’t pure and no one asked any questions, including Jake  (From Trust, Betrayal, and Forgiveness:  A Family Story).

 

     

 

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