Thursday, March 1, 2012

Old West: Labor Unions for Cowboys?

Again, your e-mail has had me searching for information! This time, it was an interesting question that I received from someone in Australia.

Meg says that she enjoys Westerns, especially older Westerns. Western Comedies are her favorites. And among her favorite Western Comedies is the movie, The Hallelujah Trail.

The Hallelujah Trail came out in 1965. It is a Western Comedy spoof starring Burt Lancaster, Lee Remick, and Brian Keith.

This movie is as good as it gets to make a movie great. For a Western, it has it all! It has the U.S. Cavalry, Denver Miners, Wagon Trains, Indians, Indian Attacks, Temperance Ladies, and even Irish Teamsters always threatening to strike.

The basic gist of the story is that a wagon train heads for Denver with a cargo of whisky for the thirsty Miners. Chaos takes place as the Temperance League, the US cavalry, the Miners, and even the local Indians, all try to take control of the valuable cargo of whisky.

During the movie, a group of Irish teamsters who were hired to drive the wagons - issues demands and threatens to strike unless they get some whiskey - as rations!

Whisky rations?

Now that's something that I've never been exposed to. I have heard that the British Navy has rations of rum that they give to their sailors at sea, but other than that it sounds like an interesting concept to have in your Union contract.

My friend downunder asked the curious question, did Cowboys have Labor Unions in the Old West?

I have to be honest and say that this made me sort of laugh at first, because to me, well I figured that the last folks who would have ever wanted to start a Labor Union would be Cowboys.

But before we get to the heyday of the American Cowboy, let's remember that America has always had Cowboys in one way or another.

The American Cowboy of the mid to late 1800s originated from the Spanish and Californio Vaquero traditions prevalent throughout the West.  American Cowboys called a Wranglers were specifically tasked with training and working the horses used to work cattle.

In addition to ranch work, everything from putting in fences to digging wells and painting the ranch buildings, some cowboys participated in ranch and local town rodeos.

The All American Cowgirl, first defined as such in the late 19th century, isn't as well documented historically as the Cowboy but established herself as well.

Both have something in common, its the ability to work at virtually identical tasks and obtained considerable respect for their achievements. Whether it's riding and roping, or castrating and branding, Cowgirls can stand side by side Cowboys with no problem at all.

Among the livestock tenders of the 19th century, there was the Stock Boy or Stock Tender, the Mule Skinner, the Bull Whacker, and yes, the Teamsters - who by the way got the name "teamster" from the fact that they handled the teams of horses and mules that pulled the wagons.

Between 1865 and the mid 1870s, about 1.5 million head of cattle were driven from Texas up to those developing railheads in Kansas. By the mid 1880s, nearly 5 million head of cattle had come up the Chisholm Trail, the Dodge City Trail and others.

From the late 1870s and into the early 1880s on, another great source of cattle drives was what was then called the "Far West." These were cattle drives from California, Oregon, Wyoming, Montana and Northern Colorado.

These drives were meant to get their cattle to either the railheads in Kansas, or as eventually was the case all the way to the meat packing houses, stockyards, and railheads in the city of Chicago.

Was the cowboy who participated in these cattle drives the rugged, self reliant individual that legend would have us believe? Well yes! He was truly tougher than nails.

But there are some who try to point at a couple of events, and yes using those events, there are those naysayers who are trying to say that they are representative of the American Cowboy of the late 19th Century.

They try to say that as an employee, those hired by the Cattle Baron to work at this occupation, the cowboy was not a rugged, free, self-reliant individual.

They say that he instead "worked in very close cooperation with his compatriots, under a rigid system of regulations and laws far more cumbersome and far more burdensome than would have been the law if he sold shoes in a store in Sedalia, Missouri."

Their premise is that a Cowboys cannot be rugged, free, or a self-reliant individual if he is having to work in cooperation with his compatriots under a set of laws.

Imagine that! If they are right, then all of the labor and toil and self-sacrifice that Cowboys made were in reality a sign of their being dependant on others. That is a line of crap!

If they are right, then all of the instinctual reactions needed at a moment's notice that are all very well documented during a Cowboy's life on the trail and on the ranch means nothing. I'm sorry, but to me, I see that sort of reasoning as nothing but bullshit coming from some University intellectual who has never had what it takes to be a Cowboy. 

It's a fact that both legend and lore are based on truths, and the story of the American Cowboy lends credence to the legend and the lore in spades!

So when trying to attack the credibilty that the American Cowboy was truly the tough hombre that he was, what do those nay-sayers use to back up their claim?

Well, believe it or not, they use the fact that there was once a Cowboy Labor Union!

Yes, those who attack the Cowboy of legend and lore believe that he was less an individualist because he joined a Labor Union.

I'm willing to bet that's a surprise to some.

Granted, it is a fact that a number of the cowhands joined themselves together to form Labor Unions to go on strikes. They did because they wanted better wages, and yes even better working conditions.

The first major national Union was the Knights of Labor. It was the Knights of Labor Union that a number of Texas and Kansas and even Oregon, Montana, and Wyoming cowhands joined.

The first cattle drives started in 1867, within less than 20 years there would be a beef glut. Where initially Cowboys were needed by the score, by the end of the hey day of the cattle industry fewer and fewer Cowboys were needed. By the mid to late 1880s, thousands of Cowboys were out of work.

Like today, when jobs are fewer and fewer, believe it or not, there was indeed a Cowboy strike in Texas.

It's become known as the Cowboy Strike of 1883.

In the two decades after the Civil War, the open-range cattle industry that dominated the Great Plains had died and was replaced by closed-range ranching and stock farming.

In West Texas during the 1880s, new owners, many representing investment companies from back East or even Europeans gained control of the ranching industry. Along with taking control, they brought with them ideas that threatened ranchhands.

Previously, Cowboys could take part of their pay in calves, brand "mavericks," and even run small herds on their employer's land.  The new owners put a stop to that. The new Eastern and European ranch owners, many who had never been West of London, New York, and Boston, were only interested in expanding their holdings and increasing their profits.

They insisted that the cowhands work only for wages and they claimed mavericks as company property. "Mavericks" are unbranded range cattle, especially a calf that have become separated from its mother, traditionally considered the property of the first person who brands it.

Besides making their cowhands work for wages, the work became seasonal. The work required long hours and many skills, much of it was dangerous, and paid only an average of forty dollars a month. The new ranch owners' were making changes to a system that wasn't broken.

The Easterners and the Europeans got one thing they didn't anticipate. Many it was because they were used to the class systems, maybe it was a notion that they had of being superior to those who they employed, for whatever reason it was - they incited a rise of discontent among the Cowboys in the region.

What happened?

Well, in 1883, a group of Cowboys began a 2½-month strike against five ranches, the LIT, the LX, the LS, the LE, and the T Anchor,qqv which they believed were controlled by corporations or individuals interested in ranching only as a speculative venture for quick profit.

In late February or early March of 1883 crews from the LIT, the LS, and the LX drew up an ultimatum demanding higher wages and submitted it to the ranch owners. Twenty-four men signed it and set March 31 as their strike date.

The original organizers of the strike, led by Tom Harris of the LS, established a small strike fund and attempted, with limited success, to persuade all the Cowboys in the area of the five ranches to honor the strike. Reports on the number of people involved in the strike ranged from thirty to 325.

Actually the number changed as men joined and deserted the walkout.

Its said that timing is everything, and it was the wrong time for a Cowboy Strike. With a full month remaining before the spring roundup, ranchers had plenty of time to hire out-of-work Cowboys to replace the striking Cowboys.

Some ranches put on a few more permanent instead of seasonal hands, some increased wages, some cleaned up the bunkhouses, and put on better chuck. But most of them, well, most of them just fired the strikers - and went a step or two further than that.

Since most ranches belonged to Stockman's Associations, many of these Associations kept lists of names of Cowboys who had been "Blacklisted" or "Blackballed" from working as a hand.

Many of those names were those of Cowboys who acted as organizers. Many of them had made threats to new hires, replacement Cowboys, and Ranch Managers. Many of the Cowboys listed never worked as Cowboys again and had to move on to other occupations as a result of being "Blacklisted."

The Great Cowboy Strike of 1883, as small as it was, is said to be a part of a larger story about labor organizing. It involved large corporations running the ranches. They were often foreign corporations with odd ideas of how to raise cattle and treat those people you hired.

Often times, it had absentee ownership who had bad managers. In many cases they hired accountants instead of cattlemen as managers. 

The strike of 1883 demonstrated how working people were abused in that era - yes, even the supremely independent and uniquely skilled cowboy.

But then again, this was the case with most big ranches, the same as with other big corporations, during the late 19th Century. Unions were organized, strikes flared up, but the strikers were just replaced with others wanting and waiting to work.

That was the way of things for the Unions for many years. It stayed that way for a long time, actually it was that way well into the 1930s when the government finally came to the aid of the American worker with better labor laws.

In fact, there's a bit of irony. The Unions did not find strength in numbers until the Federal government helped the American worker by establishing better Labor Laws.  The improved Labor Laws have now made the Unions almost completely unnecessary, and subsequently their numbers have been on a steady decline for years.

As for the Old West, well like in the movie The Hallelujah Trail in the scene where the Irish teamsters tell Brian Keith's character that they are going on strike.

The Irish Teamster says, "So who will drive your wagons if we strike?"

Brian Keith's character smiles and says, "They will," as he points to the Denver Miners who were there to escourt the wagons of whisky to Denver. They were willing to do so for almost nothing other than maybe a bit of a whisky ration.

It is hard to have any leverage when there are others ready to replace you. It was a lesson that even the most independant Cowboy had to learn during the 1880s.

And yes, it's still true today.

Tom Correa


  1. This is one of the stories that I have tried to research. My family owned / controlled quite a bit of land on the Sweetwater in the panhandle between 1878 and ... well, they still own some of it. I can't get a straight answer out of any one of them about which side of this cowboy strike they stood on, but my grandmother told me that it was quite a to-do back then. Ok, what does that mean in reference to her father and his ranch? It's all much deeper than that though, as we are related by blood and/or marriage to Cape Willingham, Pat Garrett, Poe, Clay Allison, the Daltons, Jim Miller, and others, and were friends with Billy the Kid. They were also friends with Charles Goodnight. And even with that I still don't know if they were for or against the strike. I would love to know much more about this subject, and what part they played in it.


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