Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Crooked Herd Books & Old Buck

Trail Herd, engraving, E. Boyd Smith
Dear Friends.

I'm happy to say that some of you have me researching some things that I really wouldn't have thought about looking into. For example, a reader just wrote asking about an episode on the television show Bat Masterson. No kidding!

I get email asking me a lot of general questions about The Rifleman and Have Gun Will Travel because I wrote a couple of posts about those shows. But frankly, this is the first time that I've gotten a request to look into a specific episode of a particular show. As many of us know, the television Western Bat Masterson ran from 1958 to 1961. The episode that my reader is asking about, come to find out, is titled "A Grave Situation" which aired on May 12th, 1960.

In that episode of Bat Masterson, Bat's good friend and railroad tycoon Hugh Blaine is swindled in a land and cattle sale. Blaine hires Masterson to get his money back and bring the con-artists to justice. Of course Bat Masterson was played by actor Gene Barry, and Hugh Blaine was played by Howard Petrie. In the Bat Masterson episode, "A Grave Situation," the swindle entails a cattle buyer counting the same cattle over and over again.

So now, my reader wants to know, "Could that have ever really happened in real life, or is this just the imagination of a Hollywood script writer?" The short answer is yes it did really happen. Not only did it happen, but in fact it happened more than once.

Livestock record keeping today entails computer apps and spread sheets and all sorts of recording keeping. Today, ranching is more of a science than ever before. That's especially true on bigger cattle operations. Most big operations today use computers for everything from employee management and tracking crops, to hay sales and all sorts of aspects of raising cattle.

While some outfits still use books, back in the day when every ranch used books, it wasn't unheard of for a ranch to have two sets of herd books. As for falsifying herd books to show that a cattle rancher had more cattle on the books than there actually were on hand? That was something that was done in the Old West. As for a swindle where the buyer is lead to count the same cattle a few times over? That was something that was done as well.

Fact is in many cases the fraud that was taking place wasn't discovered until later. For example, by the late 1870's and early 1880's, there was a cattle boom taking place. It was a cattle boom that spanned our nation from Texas in the South to Montana in the North. It was even felt out West in California. This boom, like that of any gold or silver boom, attracted many Eastern and European investors.

Then came the winter of 1886. After a few years of a horrible drought, on November 13th, 1886, it started to snow and continued to snow for an entire month. By mid-December, a thaw turned that snow into slush. Then, by end of that December, the temperature fell to the minus 30's. It's said that change in the weather turned the slush into a solid sheet of ice. By January of 1887, temperatures became "the coldest in memory." Of course, a 72-hour blizzard didn't help things either.

It was known as the big "Die Off." It was devastating to the cattle industry. In many cases, ranchers lost everything. For many of the big ranches, they lost most of their calves and anywhere from a quarter to a third of their entire stock.

While in Wyoming years ago, I was told a story about a rancher in Cheyenne who is credited with saying, "Cheer up boys, whatever happens, the books won't freeze."

Knowing that herds were often sold by "book count" rather than the actual head count was probably a comfort to the unscrupulous. It was during that time when a number of cattle companies contended that the "herd books" had been falsified. All that meant was that the actual number of cattle did not represent what the ranch had on the books.

In some cases, partners were actually exposed as cheats. For example, it's said that John C. Coble of Tom Horn fame is believed to have kept a second set of herd books which his business partner Henry C. Bosler didn't know about.

Then there's the story of the Rocking Chair Ranch. It's said that the 200,000-acre Rocking Chair Ranch located in the Collingsworth County, Texas, was bought by Sir Dudley Coutts Marjoribanks in 1883. After his death in 1894, the ranch was turned over to his son Sir Edward Marjoribanks and his son-in-law Sir John Campbell Hamilton-Gordon who owned the Rocking Chair until 1896. John Campbell Hamilton Gordon, who was the Earl of Aberdeen Scotland, would later became the Governor General of Canada.

Archibald John Marjoribanks, the youngest son of Sir Dudley Coutts Marjoribanks, was sent to Texas to work as the assistant ranch manager and bookkeeper. Archibald was not paid by the ranch but his father gave him a living allowance of about $600 a year. In the summer of 1887, Archibald was known to be living in a one-bedroom wood frame house that he shared with the ranch manager who was a man by the name of J. John Drew.

The closest town to the Rocking Chair Ranch was renamed Aberdeen at the suggestion of Archibald Marjoribanks. It's true. The community was named for the Earl of Aberdeen. It's said a post office was established at Aberdeen in 1889, and remained in operation until 1942. By the way, the Rocking Chair Ranch foreman J. John Drew became the first postmaster.

In 1890, the year Collingworth County was organized and with that the Aberdeen Townsite Company was formed. Soon it had a hotel, a livery stable, and a blacksmith. In 1891, the first store opened which was operated by Judge Edward H. Small. It's said that in addition to his job running the store, that he was also a doctor and acted as the local banker. The Rocking Chair had a hand in trying to establish the town as it sold lots, and established a grocery store and helped to establish a school.

When Aberdeen was passed over as a county seat, the "town" is said to have reverted back to Rocking Chair ownership by June of 1891. But then the Rocking Chair Ranch became insolvent around 1900 and the land was put up for sale.

Sadly, Aberdeen didn't survive and during World War II its post office was closed. By the 1960's the community which is said to have maintained a population of 25 along with a store, a church and a school, had become a ghost town.

So about now you're asking, what does the Rocking Chair Ranch became insolvent have to do with falsified herd books? Well, the land was put up for sale. But before that, it's said that financial statements weren't matching what was actual taking place on the ranch.

It's said that Sir Edward and Lord Aberdeen decided to make an unannounced visit to the ranch. As soon as they arrived, they requested a count to see exactly how many cattle the ranch actually owned. During that count, the ranch manager kept running the same cattle past the counters and around a hill so that the cattle could be counted more than once. In actuality, the same cattle were counted a number of times. So yes, as crooked as that was, it's no wonder that the Rocking Chair Ranch went under.

Then there the story of Old Buck

What took place at the Rocking Chair Ranch in Texas also took place in Wyoming. Moreton Frewen was a member of Great Britain's Parliment. But frankly, he was said to have been better known as a rancher, cowboy, a cattle baron. In 1879, the young adventurous Moreton set sail for the United States to make his fortune.

Once here, he headed West to Wyoming and there established himself in the cattle business. He built a large house and called it "Frewen Castle." The "castle" burnt to the ground in a fire. He had huge financial problems as the result of being swindled by a cattle seller there in Wyoming.

The seller is known to have drove the cattle around a hill a number of  times. Subsequently, Moreton Frewen counted the same cattle over and over and over again. This scam enabled the con artist to sell the same herd more than once because Frewen believed the herd was twice its true size.

As for Old Buck? Well, Frewen was cheated by Chico Springs, New Mexico Territory, cattle baron Stephen Wallace Dorsey who instructed his men to drive the cattle around the hill again and again. The story goes that in the herd was a very old yellow steer which was known to be lame. That steer was known as "Old Buck."

After the herd had passed by several times, it's said that Dorsey became worried. He was worried that Frewen would realize that he was being cheated if Frewen noticed that the same old yellow steer was being counted over and over again.

Worried about Frewen finding out that he's being cheated, Dorsey told his foreman to cut Old Buck out of the herd. The problem though was that Old Buck kept making his way back into the herd. So after each time Old Buck was cut out, and separated by a further distance, Old Buck would find his way back into the herd.

The con game was successful and Moreton Frewen was cheated. As for Old Buck, he became a local legend in the area because a week later Old Buck was still circling the hill. In fact, it's said that on a certain moonlit night when everything is just right, folks will see the ghost of Old Buck limping along going around the hill just one more time.

As for Stephen Wallace Dorsey, his reputation as a con-artist became known on an even larger scale when he was part of the Star Route Mail Scandals. In the end, Dorsey went broke.

As for Moreton Frewen, he was failure in just about everything he got into. And according to his biography, after he married a New York socialite Clara Jerome in 1881, he wasn't even a good husband. In fact, it's said that he was an unfaithful husband. He even had an affair with the popular actress Lily Langtry. And that, well that sort of ties him to Judge Roy Bean who only wished to be in his shoes.

That's just the way I see it.

Tom Correa

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