Monday, February 8, 2021

The Great Cowboy Strike of 1883

A few years ago, I wrote an article about Labor Unions and the American Cowboy after a reader from Australia wrote to ask a curious question wanting to know if cowboys had Labor Unions in the American Old West?

As I said then, I have to be honest and say that this made me sort of laugh at first. I laughed because I figured that the last folks who would have ever want to start a Labor Union for themselves would have been cowboys back in the day. But frankly, I found out that I was wrong.

Though the era is known as the "golden age of cowboys" in the 1880s, America has always had cowboys in one way or another. The first American cowboys were those hands in Florida. They can trace their lineage to the 1500's Spanish Vaquero. The cowboys in the West, those originated from Spanish Texas and the Spanish California Vaquero traditions which were prevalent throughout the West, really didn't come about until much later.

As for ranches, the Spanish had ranches in North America long before the arrival of the Brits and other Europeans. Mexicans had cattle ranches long before the European settlers in Texas or California ever did. Fact is, American cattle ranching has only been around for a little more than 200 years.

Cattle ranching in our nation has established itself as a huge part of our American culture, A cattle rancher owns the ranch and the cattle. Ranchers hire workers. Today those workers can be anything from breeding specialists and nutritional in cow/calf operations to barn managers and mechanics to keep the machinery going.

It's true, modern cattle ranches are full-time livestock operations with a number of duties having to be performed. Our modern-day farms and ranches use permanent and seasonal hands, just as they did in the days back when the industry was new.

These days, besides the normal ranch work of branding and tagging, giving vaccinations, and being aware of calving and feeding, facilities need to be managed, fences and outbuilding need to be maintained, there are hay and grain storage that needs to be monitored and replenished, pastures have to be rotated and monitored, transport trucks and trailers need to be maintained, cow/calf programs that need to be monitored, and the list of duties goes on. 

From fixing water troughs to helping birth a calf, the jobs seem never-ending and can take place at all hours of any given day. Unlike most other industries, there are no such things as holidays and weekends. While some people have no clue what that means, it's simply this. Livestock operations are a 24/7 job. They have to be fed and tended to when other industries have weekends and holidays not having to deal with their businesses.

The only thing different about today versus the 1800s is that those days were as complex, especially with modern machinery to use and maintain. The American cowboy was a ranch hand that needed to be a Jack-of-all-trades so that he would able to maintain water troughs, fences, barns, stables, irrigation, harvesters, firebreaks, as well as ranch harnesses and saddlery, and much more. No, American cowboys didn't just work from atop a horse as some would like to think. 

I tried explaining to someone wanting to hire on at a ranch when I was there helping out during a gathering. For some odd reason, he thought ranchers hired painters to paint their barns, plumbers to fix irrigation systems, others to cut and bale hay, and others do the other things that need to get done on a working ranch. He was absolutely surprised that cowboys didn't just wake up, have breakfast, and then jump in the saddle -- and stay there all day until it was time to eat again. He had absolutely no idea how educated the American cowboy has to be to know how to do so many trades. 

I remember telling the young man during our lunch that being a cowboy took more smarts than simply being able to ride a horse. The ranch owner told him that he wouldn't need a hand that thought all there was to cowboying was roundup and riding horses. 

One of the things that have not changed over the years is that cowboys worked for ranchers then and they do today with an employee/employer relationship. Just as some bosses are not the easiest people to get along with today, including some ranch bosses, cattle ranchers were not always the easiest bosses to get along with back in the day. As is the case today, some bosses were condescending individuals who treated those working for them horribly.

Of course, some ranches were a lot better to work for than others. While most were great places to work, it's said that some ranchers treated their men no differently than slave labor with below normal wages, hard work, and little sleep. Those ranchers were known to skimp on food and even bunkhouse needs. Many of the bunkhouses were known to leak in the rain, be freezing in the winter, act as sweatboxes in the stifling heat of summer, all while the beds were lice-infested. 

Again, let me say that that wasn't the majority. And really, there were things that changed how cowboys were treated. For example, during the heyday of the cattle boom from 1867 to the winter of 1886 and the big die out, it's said a cowboy had his choice of ranches to hire on to. In those days, cowboys were pretty much able to pick and chose who they wanted to work for simply because the need for hands was great at the time. Whether he was White, Mexican, or Black, a cowboy could work for the ranch that treated him the best. 

The number one reason that cowboys in the 1880s were treated so well is that they were plentiful because so many were needed. Later when the cattle boom went bust, that changed in a lot of cattle outfits. For many, because of money restraints and cutbacks in the numbers of hands needed, things turned sour and life for a cowboy became miserable on the ranch.

While some say the romantic notion of cattle ranchers treating hired hands well is very much a storyline fabricated in Hollywood, that's not exactly the whole truth. There were several ranches that treated cowboys harshly and with very little respect. While that was typical for a lot of ranches for a number of reasons, we should understand that the majority of ranches did treat their hands very well -- more as family members than mere employees. 

So why were some ranchers great to work for while others weren't? Well, the primary reasons for that had to do with economics and in some cases who owned the ranch. In the West during that time, a large number of ranch owners became Eastern investment companies and corporations. 

Along with that, several were ranches owned by Europeans -- primarily British who saw themselves as Lords and the American cowboy as a non-essential servant instead of an integral part of a cattle operation. That caste system extended to the wealthy of the Americans East. There were wealthy Easterners who saw their employees as belonging to not merely a lower social or economic rank, but as crude uncouth ill-bred lower class people lacking culture or refinement. 

In Europe, the wealthy saw lowly peasants as a class of agricultural laborers. Today, there are those on the Left and in the entertainment industry and mainstream media who mock and ridicule, show open contempt for rural Americans in the exact same way that the wealthy upper-crust in the 1800s showed their disdain for "a country person."

What most really don't understand is that Westerners didn't have control of the cattle industry in the West at that time. And along with taking control, Eastern and foreign investment companies and corporations had an unfriendly way of treating their employees. And as far as many ranches were concerned, especially those owned by European Cattle Barons, cowboys were more like subjects, and the rancher was royalty. It's true, many of the ranches owned by Easterners and Europeans saw themselves as being superior to cowboys. They saw cowboys as a lower class of people.

Remember, the first cattle drives started in 1867. But within less than 20 years, there would be a beef glut. As I said before, initially, cowboys were needed by the score. And with the closing of open ranges and the end of cattle drives, fewer and fewer cowboys were needed. By the end of the cattle boom in the late 1880s, it's said that there were thousands of cowboys out of work. And for those working in serval ranches run by Eastern and foreign investment companies and corporations, the conditions were pretty bad in most cases.

Because of this, a number of the cowhands gathered together to form a Labor Union. They even went on strike. They did so because they wanted better wages, better working conditions, and compensation for their expenses. The first major national labor union was the Knights of Labor. It was the Knights of Labor Union that attracted a small number of Texas and Kansas and even Oregon, Montana, and Wyoming cowhands to join.

The Knights of Labor, officially known as the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor, was the largest and most important labor organization in America in the 1880s. The Knights promoted the social and cultural uplift of the workingman while rejecting Socialism and Anarchism which many other labor Unions would adopt around World War I. For me, I find it interesting that the Knights of Labor are said to have fought for an eight-hour day while promoting the ethic of Republicanism.

Today it is better known as the Cowboy Strike of 1883.

In West Texas during that time, a large number of ranch owners were investment companies and corporations from back East. And yes, a large number of ranches were also owned by Europeans. It is said that the folks from back East and those in Europe actually gained control of the ranching industry in the West at that time. Along with taking control, those companies and corporations had an unfriendly way of treating their employees. And as far as some of the Easterners were concerned, cowboys were merely employees. As for the Europeans, they saw cowboys as peasants.

Along with looking at hired hands as mere employees, many of the traditions held in place for years were then being dismissed. For example, on some ranches, bunkhouse doors were left unlocked so that an out-of-work cowboy passing through could have a place to rest and maybe grab a bite to eat. In exchange, it was said that he would perform a few odd jobs such as mending a fence or chopping wood. Well, that stopped.

Another example is that it was customary to allow a cowboy working on a ranch to have the option of taking part of his pay in calves, usually unbranded "mavericks." They were allowed to even run small herds on their employer's land.

As some folks might not know, "mavericks" are unbranded range cattle. They were usually calves that had become separated from their mothers. Traditionally, these were considered the property of the first person who brands it. And yes, for many a cowboy these cattle were seen as the foundation of a ranch of their own in the future.

Well because the mavericks were seen as company property, the cattle ranchers put a stop to that immediately. Those ranch owners were only interested in expanding their holdings and increasing their profits. And to the surprise of many at the time, another huge change that took effect was that ranchers started to insist that cowhands work only for wages and be treated no differently than any other laborer.

Where a cowboy's loyalty was to the brand, the brand's loyalty in many cases was not returned. In fact, loyalty in many cases became a thing of the past thanks to new business practices in the cattle industry at that time.

For example, besides ranches making their cowhands work for wages, the work also became seasonal. Cowboys were literally let go depending on the workload of the ranch operation. Prior to that cowboys were seen more as part of the ranch. Once cowboys became seasonal workers, they were seen as just temporary help.

Of course, as anyone who has worked on a ranch can testify, ranching requires long hours and many skills even back then. Most cowboys in the early 1880s were paid on average about $40 a month, and room and board. There were problems with that since ranching is an ongoing operation, as I mentioned earlier how it still is today.

So now, some speculate that the problems between cattle ranchers and working cowboys may have had been because of the class systems which were prevalent back East and in Europe. Some say it was a notion on the part of cattle ranchers that they were superior to those they employ. But for whatever reason, the ranchers created a great deal of discontent among the cowboys in the region. Yes, so much discontent that a large number of cowboys decided to strike.

One source states that it was six ranches. Another source states that the 2½ month-long strike was against five ranches. Some have said those ranches were the LIT, the LX, the LS, the LE, and the T Anchor. Either way, in late March of 1883, cowboys a number of ranches drew up an ultimatum demanding higher wages, better working conditions, as well as better living conditions.

They submitted their demands to the ranch owners. It's said that 24 cowhands signed the letter. Their piece of paper set March 31st as their strike date. The original organizers of the strike actually established a small "strike fund." They also spread the word to other ranches to persuade other cowboys in the area to honor the strike.

Reports on the number of people involved in the strike ranged from 30 to 328. Actually, the number changed as men joined and deserted the walkout. The number was about 24. And since it's said that timing is everything, it was the wrong time for a "Cowboy Strike."

What made it the wrong time for a labor 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. And besides having the time to hire, they could actually fire anyone they saw as having "bad attitudes." Because of the lack of work for cowboys at the time, and the horrible economy in the United States in general, the strike fizzled.

But even though that was the case, the strike did change a few things for the better. Some ranches put on a few more permanent hands instead of seasonal hands. Some increased wages. Also, some ranches cleaned up the bunkhouses and were said to have put on better chuck for their hands.

As for those two dozen strikers, most of the ranches affected by the strike simply fired them. Of course, most of the affected ranches even went a step or two further than that and created a "Blacklist" to "Blackball" some cowboys who they saw as angry, in some cases threatening, or agitators. Since most ranches belonged to various Stockman's Associations there in Texas, for many years many of those Associations kept lists of the names of those cowboys who had been "Blacklisted" or "Blackballed" from working as a hand.

Many of those "Blacklisted" were the cowboys who were the organizers. Although, some were cowboys who threatened new hires, replacement cowboys, ranch managers, and even threatened the manager's families. In a horrible move, it's said that some of the strikers threatened the children of those ranch managers and the children of the cowboys who had families living at the ranches. 

Proving that they should have simply ridden away and hired on somewhere else more to their liking instead of striking and threatening others, almost all of the cowboys blacklisted would never work as cowboys again and were forced to move on. They either found work as cowboys somewhere other than in Texas or simply found other occupations as a result of being "Blacklisted." Many were branded for the rest of their lives as bad hombre and worst.  

While they may have gotten a few things changed for the better, the strikers learned what it was to be blacklisted and labeled as "trouble makers" and "possible assassins." They were shunned in their towns and then banned from working as cowboys in Texas forever.

Tom Correa

1 comment:

  1. I didn't know that cowboys went on strike in 1883. I wonder what they protested? I have a little story I wanna tell about an event like this. It's called, "One Riot, One Ranger". And I hope to turn this into a film. So, in 1899, there was a riot going on in Texas and the state capitol was complaining about it. (This story has several variations, so bear with me). But anyway, they are complaining that the cowboys and the farmers are preparing for a range war and they need the Texas Rangers. Well, the mayor agrees to meet up with the Texas Rangers at the train depot in Austin. As the passengers get off the train, the mayor spots a man wearing a pearl-handled Colt .45, a Stetson hat, and, of course, a Texas Ranger's badge. He's obviously the only ranger who has stepped off the train so far so the mayor thinks that the other rangers will join up with him soon. But when he sees no other rangers, he says, "Captain, where are your men?" The Texas Ranger looks all surprised and tells the mayor, "Well, you don't have but one riot here, do ya?" And THAT is how you do it, folks.


Thank you for your comment.