Tuesday, August 1, 2017

The Cattle Town Myth

Dear Friends,

I recently had someone write to tell me that I should be ashamed to call myself a "Cowboy." As he put it, "Cowboys were criminals and killers in Old West cattle towns like Tombstone." He also told me that "Cowboys were responsible for all of the gun violence in the Old West."

So before we talk about cowboys and cattle towns, let me just remind him that Tombstone was not a cattle town. No, it was not a cow town at all. It was a boom town because of a silver strike there. It was a silver mining town. 

As for Arizona cattle ranchers and their cowboys, they fed the folks in Tombstone the exact same way they fed the U.S. Army and other towns in Arizona. All fed with needed beef. 

As for the outlaw gang known as the "cowboys" in Tombstone, Arizona, at the time of the shootout in the lot near the OK Corral? Well, those guys were not "cowboys." Those were gunman, outlaws, cattle rustlers, horse and mule thieves, bandits, stage robbers, killers, and such.  

Those were not "cowboys" in that they did not work cattle, they did not rotate pastures, gather, sort, breed, mark, cut, or brand cattle other then with a "running iron" which is used by rustlers. They did not fix fences, make sure a herd had water, cull the bad ones, look after the sick or the ones that had a hard time calving, keep track of the numbers of head they have, or prevent Mexicans from coming across the border to steal them, Indians from stealing them, people like themselves from stealing them. They did not do what "cowboys" do for a living.

They were called "cowboys," yet the closest thing to being cowboys that they did was ride horses and herd cattle every now and then. For them, they herded other people's cattle because they stole them. Whether it was from Mexico or a neighbor, the "cowboy" gang in Tombstone were rustlers and a gang of outlaws. 

As for cattle towns, also known as "cow towns," they were towns that were formed because cowboys brought cattle to them to ship. Those towns were build to cater to the cattle industry, and subsequently those who work in the cattle industry and any supporting industry like the railroad or stores and such. The economies of cattle towns, those communities, were established and dependent on the seasonal cattle drives from Texas. They survived because of the cowboys and the cattle.

Fairly recently I received a letter from a man who said that he read one of my articles on Cowboys. He wrote to tell me that it was his belief that "Old West towns, especially those in Kansas, would have been fine if it were not for cowboys and cattle." He went on to tell me how "cattle ruin the land and are still doing so today, only buffalo should be allowed to graze because they are historically correct."

I wrote him back asking him what's the difference between bovine in the millions before we got here, and bovine here today? Yes, bison and cattle. Both are bovine hoofed animals. Bison had thousands of years to destroy the American prairie but they didn't. Plains bison eat grass and wildflowers and weeds and step on plants and fertilize the soil as they go. Cattle do the same. Both are bovine hoofed animals. They do the same thing to the land and nature didn't mind it for thousands of years when mainly only bison did it. 

I also asked him if he understood that cattle towns were found at the junctions of railroads and cattle trails where they sold stuff to cowboys, railroad workers, and other industry connected with the cattle industry? The towns were the destination of the cattle drives. They were the place where the cattle were bought to and shipped from. There were towns that dried up and blew away after the gold and silver booms went bust, but many of the cattle towns in Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado, Montana, and North Dakota have survived because of cattle and farming.  

The Abilene Trail was a cattle trail leading from Texas to Abilene, Kansas. That was the first cattle town. The trail is believed to have crossed the Red River just east of Henrietta, Texas, and continued north across what was known as Indian Territory, modern day Oklahoma, to Caldwell, Kansas and on past Wichita and Newton, then finally ending in Abilene. 

It is believed that the first herds to have been driven over the Abilene Trail were in 1866. It was called something else at the time, and I couldn't find what it was called. It wasn't named the "Abilene Trail" until later when the town of Abilene was actually established in 1867. 

It was a major market for Texas cattle in 1867. The town of Abilene was a prosperous cattle town, that is until farmers and local ranchers took over all of its ranges that were used for free grazing. But Abilene didn't dry up and blow away, the reason they didn't is because farmers and local ranchers were there for the long haul and not just there for a quick buck as was the case with most mining boom towns. 

Some say Dime Novels made cattle towns famous by writing about rowdy cowboys, outlaws, gamblers, and the steadfast lawmen who kept everything under control. Those depictions were very much an exaggeration. But along with a bunch of dead outlaws in every Dime Novel, the myth has endured.  

As for violence, the cow towns were certainly known as being pretty rough. And yes, some saw some violent deaths during the cattle boom from 1866 to 1887. But while a great number of people imagine the Old West was just a free-for-all when it came to guns and killings in cattle towns, fact is many cow towns like Abilene had extremely strict rules regarding the carrying of firearms when in town. Most all of the towns hired lawmen to enforce city ordinances against the carrying of guns. Some lawmen enforced the law fairly and included everyone. Other lawmen enforced them against the cowboys coming into town, but looked the other way for some townsfolk or their friends. 

Drovers came there looking for work or simply stayed after a long drive. Some of them had been successful cowboys, hard working, and legitimate as the day is long. Some were drovers who signed on for that drive or only a season. And of course there were the others who most knew were somehow on the run, or simply drifters. They didn't talk about their past, and really no one pressed them for information.

Somehow, maybe a little too conveniently, a great number of writers and folks in Hollywood today have forgotten other aspects of what happened at the end of cattle drives. What I'm talking about are things like hiking prices 100% when the cattle drive is spotted a few miles out of town. And let's not forget the merchants with two different prices for the same article of clothing, or the same saddle, or the same pair of boots, or the same hat, or the same meal, one for townsfolk and one for cowboys. Most of the time that was done unbeknownst to the cowboys, but the townies knew.

So no, make no mistake about it, in many cases the town's people were not innocent little lambs. For example, how about those cattle towns where the saloons, restaurants, mercantiles, and other businesses wouldn't allow Black and Mexican cowboys to come into their establishment, nevertheless serve them. Since one out of every four cowboys were said to have been Black or Mexican, that's a whole lot of drovers that were having the doors slammed in their faces by those nice townsfolk.

Some cowboys were gun toters, there's no doubt about that. Just as there were those who set bad examples and encouraged other hands to do the stupid and break a local law. And yes, because most were just teenagers, some cowboys enjoyed games like "Harass the Citizen" or "Shoot Up The Town."

But frankly, contrary to popular myth, while some of these rowdies were from Texas, they were also from other places as well. No, not all Texas cowboys were rowdies. And certainly, it wasn't only the cowboys who were the rowdies in cow towns. Fact is, they had locals who liked stirring the pot and getting things going. For example, while people demonize the working cowboy who wanted a drink and dance with a pretty dance hall lady, no one talks about how the town's local toughs would beat a cowboy senseless. All it would take was for one of them to catch a young cowboy just looking at a local gal in town. And no, not a whole lot of people talk about how most lawmen would look the other way when things like that happened to drovers.

As for the gambling halls using marked decks, weighted roulette wheels, and crooked dealers, that was not out of the ordinary. Crooked gambling joints were rigged with the latest in how to steal from unsuspecting cowboys known as "suckers." Many a "sucker" was distracted by saloon girls who would get their cut of the action, just so a sneaky dealer could palm a card. And of course, let's not forget the local law who in many cases were getting a percentage of the house. They had a vested interest in the making sure losers didn't act up.

As for the cowboy, he didn't stand a chance of keeping his hard earned money. And if a cowboy actually won, he stood a good chance of getting rolled in a back alley by employees of the same joint that he was just in.

And please, let's not forget cattle towns where cowboys were buffaloed, pistol whipped, by local lawmen just to make a statement. Many did it just to make an example as a message so that the rest of a crew would think twice about getting out of line.

And by the way, it is amazing how many more arrests you can get from a local police officer when you make quotas and set bounties. The bounties that I'm talking about are the ones that lawmen got for making more arrests. It was when the mayor or sheriff raises the amount of money that a deputy will be paid per arrest, whether a cowboy had broken the law or not. And yes, it is even more amazing how many towns used arrests for violating city ordinances that only pertained to cowboys. Ordinances that were posted but taked down after the drovers left. Fact is, some towns used court fines from cowboys to fill their town's coffers.

While not all towns, or their administrations were like that, people don't mention just how unfriendly some of those towns really were. Fact is, there were towns that cattle drives purposely tried to avoid because they were just too unfriendly. At first that was tough, but after Ellsworth and Wichita replaced Abilene as being important to the cattle drives in 1872, Trail Bosses had a choice.

These two towns found themselves on rival railroads and competed for the cattle trade. In 1875, both Ellsworth and Wichita lost access to the cattle trails because of more farmers and local ranchers staking claims around the towns. Then in 1876, Dodge City became the major cattle town and jump off point. Caldwell was also a railhead in 1880. Both towns were closed to the cattle drives when Kansas outlawed the importation of Texan cattle in 1885.

It is said that shipping price gouging made Texas cattlemen angry with the Kansas Pacific Railroad. So instead of using them, those same cattlemen found lower prices with the Union Pacific in Nebraska a lot easier to swallow. Soon what used to be the cattle trails into Kansas and Nebraska were being flooded with settlers, farmers and local cattle ranchers. The first cattle town in Nebraska was Schuyler in 1870, but settlers flooded into that area so fast that it forced cattlemen to find another town to ship from. That town was Kearney. But after the same thing happened there as what took place in Schuyler, Ogallala became Nebraska's cowboy capital n 1873. Denver, Colorado was known as the "cow town of the Rockies". In Wyoming there was Cheyenne, and in Montana there was Miles City. In South Dakota there was Belle Fourche, and in North Dakota there was Medora. All were cattle towns.

So yes, there were towns that Trail Bosses avoided because those towns were seen as unfriendly and dangerous places where cowboys were treated like second class citizens, ripped off, cheated, beat up, and made to feel less than others around them.

When the towns grew and drew settlers, many who lived within the surrounding area opposed the cattle drives. The two groups who wanted the cattlemen gone were the farmers who feared the trampling of their crops as well as an influx of Texas fever which is a disease spread by ticks that live on the Texas Longhorn cattle. While Texas Longhorns have a natural immunity to it, it's nearly 100% fatal among other breeds of cattle. So their concerns were understandable. But the second group were townsfolk who were against the number of saloons going up, the gambling, and of course the prostitution. This group is usually referred to as the "respectful" people in town.

It is said that those "respectful" people "had to endure the rowdiness of the cowboys because they wanted the town to survive until they could find an economic alternative to the money that the cowboys brought in." But isn't that what soiled doves did? You know the gal in the brothels. That's what they were doing. They were just taking money and enduring it until a better offer comes along.

I read where some writer said that "cattle towns are remembered today as some of the most dangerous places on earth." That they were filled with outlaws and cowboys, and that both outlaws and cowboys were one and the same. That shootouts took place daily and bodies were stacked at the Undertaker's like cordwood.  

In fact this was not the case at all. Probably because of the increase presence of the law, cattle towns actually had lower homicide rates than non-cattle towns and cities in the East. While they may have been rowdier than some other towns, except for mining boom towns, they were not the breeding ground of crime and violence that many claim.

So yes, I had a man write me recently to tell me that I should be ashamed to call myself a "Cowboy", and another write me to say that cattle were the problem with cow towns. Imagine that.

Cowboys were usually positive thinking, good spirited, young men with "can do" attitudes who were usually looked down upon by townsfolk who wanted their money after months on the trail. Fact is, being a cowboy in the 1800s was a thankless grueling job. And yes, it took a special person to do what they did. Those young men were rawhide tough. It was not a job for a dude from the city. 

Tom Correa


  1. This person is a MORON!! I usually try to ignore that blathering, nonsensical, illogical stupidity from the mentally unstable. They refuse to learn - they refuse to use logic or see facts. I think I would have belly laughed as I erased their message. You go Tom, keep up the great stories and history lessons. And we're proud to be cowboys (and cowgirls)!!!

  2. My grandfather was born in 1877 in MO and left home when he was 11 years old to work as a cowboy on herds being trailed from MO and NE into Montana. He was a quiet, gentle man that worked every day of his life in all kinds of weather and the first thing he taught me was to care for your livestock before you cared for yourself. Despite only finishing the 3rd grade, he loved to read and he and I were the two people in our family that always received books as Christmas gifts. People who

  3. Most all of what you said in this article is verified by my great grandfather in his autobiography "The Life and Times of William Green Wear -American Cowboy- 1856 - 1927". He was born in San Saba, Texas and did his first cattle drive at age 19. He was a stellar man in whom honor ran deep. He kept moving west in front of the fence lines, was an open range rancher and raised 10 kids in the meantime. He created a legacy that still lives on in his bloodline.

  4. It does tend to amaze a body (if you're inclined to be amazed) how many people will watch a western 'movie' and come away thinking that what they just saw was the 'truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth'. Those people are rightfully and collectively known by their scientific name ~ 'idiots'. TOMBSTONE may well be one of the best western films in the last quarter century. But it still a far cry from the reality of what actually happened there between the Earp clan and The Cowboys. Same goes for Costner's effort to make an epic film named WYATT EARP. Any reasonable lover of the west 'base on a true story' films and books, knows that research (and lots of it) still doesn't really tell anyone the 'real, true and irrefutable' story of what happened there. But a bit of studious effort on the part of those who genuinely want to know does help.

  5. Very good piece. Its too bad that lots of people base their knowledge of the old west on movies. The trail drivers were very young because older fellows could not endure the rigors of the trail. As such they probably did some childish things. As for Abilene being the first trail town in Kansas I would suggest looking at Baxter Springs.

  6. Movies are based on facts but are all too often embellished by directors and producers and are meant to entertain and quite possibly give a spark of interest to learn more from the internet if that is your choice or by actually pi

    cking up a book. What a unique idea. I myself have a fairly good collection of both cowboy and indian books and each has different opinions but each has given me something that was not in the last one that I read. I do not consider myself anywhere near an expert on the subject but I do know that I have enough to wand to keep reading more on this subject and to keep collecting many more books. Please get a LITTLE education before you render an opinion.

  7. Love this, as I have all your work Tom!


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