THE PASSING OF THE FRONTIER
A CHRONICLE OF THE OLD WEST
By Emerson Hough
New Haven: Yale University Press
Toronto: Glasgow, Brook & Co.
London: Humphrey Milford
Oxford University Press
I. THE FRONTIER IN HISTORY II. THE RANGE III. THE CATTLE TRAILS IV. THE COWBOY V. THE MINES VI. PATHWAYS OF THE WEST VII. THE INDIAN WARS VIII. THE CATTLE KINGS IX. THE HOMESTEADER
THE PASSING OF THE FRONTIER
Chapter I. The Frontier In History
The frontier! There is no word in the English language more stirring, more intimate, or more beloved. It has in it all the elan of the old French phrase, En avant! It carries all of the old Saxon command, Forward!! It means all that America ever meant. It means the old hope of a real personal liberty, and yet a real human advance in character and achievement. To a genuine American it is the dearest word in all the world.
What is, or was, the frontier? Where was it? Under what stars did it lie? Because, as the vague Iliads of ancient heroes or the nebulous records of the savage gentlemen of the Middle Ages make small specific impingement on our consciousness today, so also even now begin the tales of our own old frontier to assume a haziness, an unreality, which makes them seem less history than folklore. Now the truth is that the American frontier of history has many a local habitation and many a name. And this is why it lies somewhat indefinite under the blue haze of the years, all the more alluring for its lack of definition, like some old mountain range, the softer and more beautiful for its own shadows.
The fascination of the frontier is and has ever been an undying thing. Adventure is the meat of the strong men who have built the world for those more timid. Adventure and the frontier are one and inseparable. They suggest strength, courage, hardihood—qualities beloved in men since the world began—qualities which are the very soul of the United States, itself an experiment, an adventure, a risk accepted. Take away all our history of political regimes, the story of the rise and fall of this or that partisan aggregation in our government; take away our somewhat inglorious military past; but leave us forever the tradition of the American frontier! There lies our comfort and our pride. There we never have failed. There, indeed, we always realized our ambitions. There, indeed, we were efficient, before that hateful phrase was known. There we were a melting-pot for character, before we came to know that odious appellation which classifies us as the melting-pot of the nations.
The frontier was the place and the time of the strong man, of the self-sufficient but restless individual. It was the home of the rebel, the protestant, the unreconciled, the intolerant, the ardent—and the resolute. It was not the conservative and tender man who made our history; it was the man sometimes illiterate, oftentimes uncultured, the man of coarse garb and rude weapons. But the frontiersmen were the true dreamers of the nation. They really were the possessors of a national vision. Not statesmen but riflemen and riders made America. The noblest conclusions of American history still rest upon premises which they laid.
But, in its broadest significance, the frontier knows no country. It lies also in other lands and in other times than our own. When and what was the Great Frontier? We need go back only to the time of Drake and the sea-dogs, the Elizabethan Age, when all North America was a frontier, almost wholly unknown, compellingly alluring to all bold men. That was the day of new stirrings in the human heart. Some strange impulse seemed to act upon the soul of the braver and bolder Europeans; and they moved westward, nor could have helped that had they tried. They lived largely and blithely, and died handsomely, those old Elizabethan adventurers, and they lie today in thousands of unrecorded graves upon two continents, each having found out that any place is good enough for a man to die upon, provided that he be a man.
The American frontier was Elizabethan in its quality—childlike, simple, and savage. It has not entirely passed; for both Elizabethan folk and Elizabethan customs are yet to be found in the United States. While the half-savage civilization of the farther West was roaring on its way across the continent—while the day of the keelboatman and the plainsman, of the Indian-fighter and the miner, even the day of the cowboy, was dawning and setting—there still was a frontier left far behind in the East, near the top of the mountain range which made the first great barrier across our pathway to the West. That frontier, the frontier of Boone and Kenton, of Robertson and Sevier, still exists and may be seen in the Cumberland—the only remaining part of America which is all American. There we may find trace of the Elizabethan Age—idioms lost from English literature and American speech long ago. There we may see the American home life as it went on more than a hundred years ago. We may see hanging on the wall the long muzzle-loading rifle of an earlier day. We may see the spinning-wheel and the loom. The women still make in part the clothing for their families, and the men still make their own household furniture, their own farming implements, their own boots.
This overhanging frontier of America is a true survival of the days of Drake as well as of the days of Boone. The people are at once godly and savage. They breed freely; they love their homes; they are ever ready for adventure; they are frugal, abstemious, but violent and strong. They carry on still the half-religious blood feuds of the old Scotch Highlands or the North of Ireland, whence they came. They reverence good women. They care little for material accumulations. They believe in personal ease and personal independence. With them life goes on not in the slow monotony of reiterated performance, but in ragged profile, with large exertions followed by large repose. Now that has been the fashion of the frontier in every age and every land of all the world. And so, by studying these people, we may even yet arrive at a just and comprehensive notion of what we might call the "feel" of the old frontier.
There exists, too, yet another Saxon frontier in a far-off portion of the world. In that strange country, Australia, tremendous unknown regions still remain, and the wild pastoral life of such regions bids fair to exist yet for many years. A cattle king of Queensland held at one time sixty thousand square miles of land. It is said that the average size of pastoral holdings in the northern territory of Australia is two hundred and seventy-five thousand acres. Does this not recall the old times of free range in the American West?
This strange antipodal civilization also retains a curious flavor of Elizabethan ideas. It does not plan for inordinate fortunes, the continual amassing of money, but it does deliberately plan for the use by the individual of his individual life. Australian business hours are shorter than American. Routine is less general. The individual takes upon himself a smaller load of effort. He is restive under monotony. He sets aside a great part of his life for sport. He lives in a large and young day of the world. Here we may see a remote picture of our own American West—better, as it seems to me, than that reflected in the rapid and wholly commercialized development of Western Canada, which is not flavored by any age but this.
But much of the frontier of Australia is occupied by men of means who had behind them government aid and a semi-paternal encouragement in their adventures. The same is true in part of the government-fostered settlement of Western Canada. It was not so with the American West. Here was not the place of the rich man but of the poor man, and he had no one to aid him or encourage him. Perhaps no man ever understood the American West who did not himself go there and make his living in that country, as did the men who found it and held it first. Each life on our old frontier was a personal adventure. The individual had no government behind him and he lacked even the protection of any law.
Our frontier crawled west from the first seaport settlements, afoot, on horseback, in barges, or with slow wagon-trains. It crawled across the Alleghanies, down the great river valleys and up them yet again; and at last, in days of new transportation, it leaped across divides, from one river valley to another. Its history, at first so halting, came to be very swift—so swift that it worked great elisions in its own story.
In our own day, however, the Old West generally means the old cow country of the West—the high plains and the lower foothills running from the Rio Grande to the northern boundary. The still more ancient cattle-range of the lower Pacific Slope will never come into acceptance as the Old West. Always, when we use these words, we think of buffalo plains and of Indians, and of their passing before the footmen and riders who carried the phantom flag of Drake and the Virgin Queen from the Appalachians to the Rockies—before the men who eventually made good that glorious and vaunting vision of the Virginia cavaliers, whose party turned back from the Rockfish Gap after laying claim in the name of King George on all the country lying west of them, as far as the South Sea!
The American cow country may with very good logic arrogate to itself the title of the real and typical frontier of all the world. We call the spirit of the frontier Elizabethan, and so it was; but even as the Elizabethan Age was marked by its contact with the Spanish civilization in Europe, on the high seas, and in both the Americas, so the last frontier of the American West also was affected, and largely, deeply, by Spanish influence and Spanish customs. The very phraseology of range work bears proof of this. Scores of Spanish words are written indelibly in the language of the Plains. The frontier of the cow-range never was Saxon alone.
It is a curious fact also, seldom if ever noted, that this Old West of the Plains was very largely Southern and not Northern on its Saxon side. No States so much as Kentucky and Tennessee and, later, Missouri—daughters of Old Virginia in her glory—contributed to the forces of the frontiersmen. Texas, farther to the south, put her stamp indelibly upon the entire cattle industry of the West. Visionary, impractical, restless, adventurous, these later Elizabethan heroes—bowing to no yoke, insisting on their own rights and scorning often the laws of others, yet careful to retain the best and most advantageous customs of any conquered country—naturally came from those nearest Elizabethan countries which lay abandoned behind them.
If the atmosphere of the Elizabethan Age still may be found in the forgotten Cumberlands, let us lay claim to kinship with yonder roystering heroes of a gallant day; for this was ever the atmosphere of our own frontier. To feel again the following breezes of the Golden Hind, or see again, floating high in the cloudless skies, the sails of the Great Armada, was the privilege of Americans for a double decade within the memory of men yet living, in that country, so unfailingly beloved, which we call the Old West of America.
Chapter II. The Range
When, in 1803, those two immortal youths, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, were about to go forth on their great journey across the continent, they were admonished by Thomas Jefferson that they would in all likelihood encounter in their travels, living and stalking about, the mammoth or the mastodon, whose bones had been found in the great salt-licks of Kentucky. We smile now at such a supposition; yet it was not unreasonable then. No man knew that tremendous country that lay beyond the mouth of the Missouri.
The explorers crossed one portion of a vast land which was like to nothing they had ever seen—the region later to become the great cattle-range of America. It reached, although they could know nothing of that, from the Spanish possessions on the south across a thousand miles of short grass lands to the present Canadian boundary line which certain obdurate American souls still say ought to have been at 54 degrees 40 minutes, and not where it is! From the Rio Grande to "Fifty-four forty," indeed, would have made nice measurements for the Saxon cattle-range.
Little, however, was the value of this land understood by the explorers; and, for more than half a century afterwards, it commonly was supposed to be useless for the occupation of white men and suitable only as a hunting-ground for savage tribes. Most of us can remember the school maps of our own youth, showing a vast region marked, vaguely, "The Great American Desert," which was considered hopeless for any human industry, but much of which has since proved as rich as any land anywhere on the globe.
Perhaps it was the treeless nature of the vast Plains which carried the first idea of their infertility. When the first settlers of Illinois and Indiana came up from south of the Ohio River they had their choice of timber and prairie lands. Thinking the prairies worthless—since land which could not raise a tree certainly could not raise crops—these first occupants of the Middle West spent a generation or more, axe in hand, along the heavily timbered river-bottoms. The prairies were long in settling. No one then could have predicted that farm lands in that region would be worth three hundred dollars an acre or better, and that these prairies of the Mississippi Valley would, in a few generations, be studded with great towns and would form a part of the granary of the world.
But, if our early explorers, passing beyond the valley of the Missouri, found valueless the region of the Plains and the foothills, not so the wild creatures or the savage men who had lived there longer than science records. The buffalo then ranged from the Rio Grande to the Athabaska, from the Missouri to the Rockies, and beyond. No one seems to have concluded in those days that there was after all slight difference between the buffalo and the domestic ox. The native cattle, however, in untold thousands and millions, had even then proved beyond peradventure the sustaining and strengthening nature of the grasses of the Plains.
Now, each creature, even of human species, must adjust itself to its environment. Having done so, commonly it is disposed to love that environment. The Eskimo and the Zulu each thinks that he has the best land in the world: So with the American Indian, who, supported by the vast herds of buffalo, ranged all over that tremendous country which was later to be given over to the white man with his domestic cattle. No freer life ever was lived by any savages than by the Horse Indians of the Plains in the buffalo days; and never has the world known a physically higher type of savage.
On the buffalo-range—that is to say, on the cattle-range which was to be—Lewis and Clark met several bands of the Sioux—the Mandans and the Assiniboines, the Blackfeet, the Shoshones. Farther south were the Pawnees, the Kaws, the Otoes, the Osages, most of whom depended in part upon the buffalo for their living, though the Otoes, the Pawnees, the Mandans, and certain others now and then raised a little corn or a few squashes to help out their bill of fare. Still farther south dwelt the Kiowas, the Comanches, and others. The Arapahoes, the Cheyennes, the Crows, and the Utes, all hunters, were soon to come into the ken of the white man. Of such of these tribes as they met, the youthful captains made accounting, gravely and with extraordinary accuracy, but without discovering in this region much future for Americans. They were explorers and not industrial investigators.
It was nearly half a century after the journey of Lewis and Clark that the Forty-Niners were crossing the Plains, whither, meanwhile, the Mormons had trekked in search of a country where they might live as they liked. Still the wealth of the Plains remained untouched. California was in the eyes of the world. The great cow-range was overleaped. But, in the early fifties, when the placer fields of California began to be less numerous and less rich, the half-savage population of the mines roared on northward, even across our northern line. Soon it was to roll back. Next it worked east and southeast and northeast over the great dry plains of Washington and Oregon, so that, as readily may be seen, the cow-range proper was not settled as most of the West was, by a directly westbound thrust of an eastern population; but, on the contrary, it was approached from several different angles—from the north, from the east, from the west and northwest, and finally from the south.
The early, turbulent population of miners and adventurers was crude, lawless, and aggressive. It cared nothing whatever for the Indian tribes. War, instant and merciless, where it meant murder for the most part, was set on foot as soon as white touched red in that far western region.
All these new white men who had crowded into the unknown country of the Plains, the Rockies, the Sierras, and the Cascades, had to be fed. They could not employ and remain content with the means by which the red man there had always fed himself. Hence a new industry sprang up in the United States, which of itself made certain history in that land. The business of freighting supplies to the West, whether by bull-train or by pack-train, was an industry sui generic, very highly specialized, and pursued by men of great business ability as well as by men of great hardihood and daring.
Each of these freight trains which went West carried hanging on its flank more and more of the white men. As the trains returned, more and more was learned in the States of the new country which lay between the Missouri and the Rockies, which ran no man knew how far north, and no man could guess how far south. Now appears in history Fort Benton, on the Missouri, the great northern supply post—just as at an earlier date there had appeared Fort Hall, one of the old fur-trading posts beyond the Rockies, Bent's Fort on the Arkansas, and many other outposts of the new Saxon civilization in the West.
Later came the pony express and the stage coach which made history and romance for a generation. Feverishly, boisterously, a strong, rugged, womanless population crowded westward and formed the wavering, now advancing, now receding line of the great frontier of American story.
But for long there was no sign of permanent settlement on the Plains, and no one thought of this region as the frontier. The men there who were prospecting and exploiting were classified as no more than adventurers. No one seems to have taken a lesson from the Indian and the buffalo. The reports of Fremont long since had called attention to the nourishing quality of those grasses of the high country, but the day of the cowboy had not yet dawned. There is a somewhat feeble story which runs to the effect that in 1866 one of the great wagon-trains, caught by the early snows of winter, was obliged to abandon its oxen on the range. It was supposed that, of course, the oxen must perish during the winter. But next spring the owners were surprised to find that the oxen, so far from perishing, had flourished very much—indeed, were fat and in good condition. So runs the story which is often repeated. It may be true, but to accredit to this incident the beginnings of the cattle industry in the Indian country would surely be going too far. The truth is that the cow industry was not a Saxon discovery. It was a Latin enterprise, flourishing in Mexico long before the first of these miners and adventurers came on the range.
Something was known of the Spanish lands to the south through the explorations of Pike, but more through the commerce of the prairies—the old wagon trade from the Missouri River to the Spanish cities of Sante Fe and Chihuahua. Now the cow business, south of the Rio Grande, was already well differentiated and developed at the time the first adventurers from the United States went into Texas and began to crowd their Latin neighbors for more room. There it was that our Saxon frontiersmen first discovered the cattle industry. But these southern and northern riflemen—ruthless and savage, yet strangely statesmanlike—though they might betimes drive away the owners of the herds, troubled little about the herds themselves. There was a certain fascination to these rude strangers in the slow and easeful civilization of Old Spain which they encountered in the land below them. Little by little, and then largely and yet more largely, the warriors of San Jacinto reached out and began to claim lands for themselves—leagues and uncounted leagues of land, which had, however, no market value. Well within the memory of the present generation large tracts of good land were bought in Texas for six cents an acre; some was bought for half that price in a time not much earlier. Today much of that land is producing wealth; but land then was worthless—and so were cows.
This civilization of the Southwest, of the new Republic of Texas, may be regarded as the first enduring American result of contact with the Spanish industry. The men who won Texas came mostly from Kentucky and Tennessee or southern Ohio, and the first colonizer of Texas was a Virginian, Stephen Fuller Austin. They came along the old Natchez Trace from Nashville to the Mississippi River—that highway which has so much history of its own. Down this old winding trail into the greatest valley of all the world, and beyond that valley out into the Spanish country, moved steadily the adventurers whose fathers had but recently crossed the Appalachians. One of the strongest thrusts of the American civilization thus entered the cattle-range at its lower end, between the Rio Grande and the Red River.
In all the several activities, mining, freighting, scouting, soldiering, riding pony express, or even sheer adventuring for what might come, there was ever a trading back and forth between home-staying men and adventuring men. Thus there was an interchange of knowledge and of customs between East and West, between our old country and our new. There was an interchange, too, at the south, where our Saxon civilization came in touch with that of Mexico.
We have now to note some fundamental facts and principles of the cattle industry which our American cattlemen took over ready-made from the hands of Mexico.
The Mexicans in Texas had an abundance of small, hardy horses of African and Spanish breed, which Spain had brought into the New World—the same horses that the Moors had brought into Spain—a breed naturally hardy and able to subsist upon dry food. Without such horses there could have been no cattle industry. These horses, running wild in herds, had crossed to the upper Plains. La Verendrye, and later Lewis and Clark, had found the Indians using horses in the north. The Indians, as we have seen, had learned to manage the horse. Formerly they had used dogs to drag the travois, but now they used the "elk-dog," as they first called the horse.
In the original cow country, that is, in Mexico and Texas, countless herds of cattle were held in a loose sort of ownership over wide and unknown plains. Like all wild animals in that warm country, they bred in extraordinary numbers. The southern range, indeed, has always been called the breeding range. The cattle had little value. He who wanted beef killed beef. He who wanted leather killed cattle for their hides. But beyond these scant and infrequent uses cattle had no definite value.
The Mexican, however, knew how to handle cows. He could ride a horse, and he could rope cattle and brand them. Most of the cattle of a wide range would go to certain water-holes more or less regularly, where they might be roughly collected or estimated. This coming of the cattle to the watering-places made it unnecessary for owners of cattle to acquire ranch land. It was enough to secure the water-front where the cows must go to drink. That gave the owner all the title he needed. His right to the increase he could prove by another phenomenon of nature, just as inevitable and invariable as that of thirst. The maternal instinct of a cow and the dependence of the calf upon its mother gave the old rancher of immemorial times sufficient proof of ownership in the increase of his herd. The calf would run with its own mother and with no other cow through its first season. So that if an old Mexican ranchero saw a certain number of cows at his watering-places, and with them calves, he knew that all before him were his property—or, at least, he claimed them as such and used them.
Still, this was loose-footed property. It might stray away after all, or it might be driven away. Hence, in some forgotten time, our shrewd Spaniard invented a system of proof of ownership which has always lain at the very bottom of the organized cow industry; he invented the method of branding. This meant his sign, his name, his trade-mark, his proof of ownership. The animal could not shake it off. It would not burn off in the sun or wash off in the rain. It went with the animal and could not be eradicated from the animal's hide. Wherever the bearer was seen, the brand upon its hide provided certain identification of the owner.
Now, all these basic ideas of the cow industry were old on the lower range in Texas when our white men first drifted thither. The cattle industry, although in its infancy, and although supposed to have no great future, was developed long before Texas became a republic. It never, indeed, changed very much from that time until the end of its own career.
One great principle was accepted religiously even in those early and crude days. A man's cow was HIS cow. A man's brand was HIS brand. There must be no interference with his ownership. Hence certain other phases of the industry followed inevitably. These cattle, these calves, each branded by the iron of the owner, in spite of all precautions, began to mingle as settlers became more numerous; hence came the idea of the round-up. The country was warm and lazy. If a hundred or a thousand cows were not collected, very well. If a calf were separated from its mother, very well. The old ranchers never quarreled among themselves. They never would have made in the South anything like a cattle association; it was left for the Yankees to do that at a time when cows had come to have far greater values. There were few arguments in the first rodeos of the lower range. One rancher would vie with his neighbor in generosity in the matter of unbranded calves. Haggling would have been held contemptible. On the lower range in the old times no one cared much about a cow. Why should one do so? There was no market for cows—no one who wished to buy them. If one tendered a Mexican cinquo pesos for a yearling or a two-year-old, the owner might perhaps offer the animal as a gift, or he might smile and say "Con mucho gusto" as he was handed a few pieces of silver. There were plenty of cows everywhere in the world!
Let us, therefore, give the old Spaniard full credit alike in picturesque romance and in the organized industry of the cow. The westbound thrust which came upon the upper part of the range in the days of more shrewd and exacting business methods was simply the best-known and most published phase of frontier life in the cow country; hence we have usually accepted it as typical. It would not be accurate to say that the cattle industry was basically much influenced or governed by northern or eastern men. In practically all of its great phenomena the frontier of the old cow-range was southern by birth and growth.
There lay, then, so long unused, that vast and splendid land so soon to write romantic history of its own, so soon to come into the admiration or the wonder of a great portion of the earth—a land of fascinating interest to the youth of every country, and a region whose story holds a charm for young and old alike even today. It was a region royal in its dimensions. Far on the west it was hedged by the gray-sided and white-topped mountains, the Rockies. Where the buffalo once lived, the cattle were to live, high up in the foothills of this great mountain range which ran from the Rio Grande to Canada. On the east, where lay the Prairies rather than the Plains, it was a country waving with high native grasses, with many brilliant flowers hiding among them, the sweet-William, the wild rose, and often great masses of the yellow sunflower.
From the Rio Grande to the Athabaska, for the greater part, the frontier sky was blue and cloudless during most of the year. The rainfall was not great. The atmosphere was dry. It was a cheerful country, one of optimism and not of gloom. In the extreme south, along the Rio Grande, the climate was moister, warmer, more enervating; but on the high steppes of the middle range in Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, western Nebraska, there lay the finest out-of-doors country, man's country the finest of the earth.
But for the time, busy with more accustomed things, mining and freighting and fighting and hunting and trading and trapping, we Americans who had arrived upon the range cared little for cows. The upper thrust of the great herds from the south into the north had not begun. It was after the Civil War that the first great drives of cattle from the south toward the north began, and after men had learned in the State of Texas that cattle moved from the Rio Grande to the upper portions of the State and fed on the mesquite grass would attain greater stature than in the hot coast country. Then swiftly, somewhat luridly, there leaped into our comprehension and our interest that strange country long loosely held under our flag, the region of the Plains, the region which we now call the Old West.
In great bands, in long lines, slowly, towheaded, sore-footed, the vast gatherings of the prolific lower range moved north, each cow with its title indelibly marked upon its hide. These cattle were now going to take the place of those on which the Indians had depended for their living these many years. A new day in American history had dawned.
Chapter III. The Cattle Trails
The customary method of studying history by means of a series of events and dates is not the method which we have chosen to employ in this study of the Old West. Speaking generally, our minds are unable to assimilate a condensed mass of events and dates; and that is precisely what would be required of us if we should attempt here to follow the ways of conventional history. Dates are at best no more than milestones on the pathway of time; and in the present instance it is not the milestones but the road itself with which we are concerned. Where does the road begin? Why comes it hither? Whither does it lead? These are the real questions.
Under all the exuberance of the life of the range there lay a steady business of tremendous size and enormous values. The "uproarious iniquity" of the West, its picturesqueness, its vividness—these were but froth on the stream. The stream itself was a steady and somber flood. Beyond this picturesqueness of environment very few have cared to go, and therefore sometimes have had little realization of the vastness of the cowboy's kingdom, the "magnitude of the interests in his care, or the fortitude, resolution, and instant readiness essential to his daily life." The American cowboy is the most modern representative of a human industry that is second to very few in antiquity.
Julius Caesar struck the note of real history: Quorum pars magna fui—"Of which I was a great part." If we are to seek the actual truth, we ought most to value contemporary records, representations made by men who were themselves a part of the scenes which they describe. In that way we shall arrive not merely upon lurid events, not alone upon the stereotyped characters of the "Wild West," but upon causes which are much more interesting and immensely more valuable than any merely titillating stories from the weirdly illustrated Apocrypha of the West. We must go below such things if we would gain a just and lasting estimate of the times. We ought to look on the old range neither as a playground of idle men nor as a scene of hysterical and contorted human activities. We ought to look upon it from the point of view of its uses to mankind. The explorers found it a wilderness, the home of the red man and the buffalo. What were the underlying causes of its settlement and development?
There is in history no agency so wondrous in events, no working instrumentality so great as transportation. The great seeking of all human life is to find its level. Perhaps the first men traveled by hollowed logs down stream. Then possibly the idea of a sail was conceived. Early in the story of the United States men made commercial journeys from the head of the Ohio to the mouth of the Mississippi by flatboats, and came back by keelboats. The pole, the cordelle, the paddle, and the sail, in turn helped them to navigate the great streams which led out into the West. And presently there was to come that tremendous upheaval wrought by the advent of the iron trails which, scorning alike waterways and mountain ranges, flung themselves almost directly westward across the continent.
The iron trails, crossing the northern range soon after the Civil War, brought a market to the cattle country. Inevitably the men of the lower range would seek to reach the railroads with what they had to sell—their greatest natural product, cattle on the hoof. This was the primary cause of the great northbound drives already mentioned, the greatest pastoral phenomena in the story of the world.
The southern herds at that time had no market at their doors. They had to go to the market, and they had to go on foot. That meant that they must be driven northward by cattle handlers who had passed their days in the wild life of the lower range. These cowmen of course took their character and their customs northward with them, and so they were discovered by those enthusiastic observers, newly arrived by rail, whom the cowmen were wont to call "pilgrims."
Now the trail of the great cattle drives—the Long Trail-was a thing of tremendous importance of itself and it is still full of interest. As it may not easily be possible for the author to better a description of it that was written some twenty years ago, that description is here again set down. *
* "The Story of the Cowboy," by E. Hough. Appleton. 1897. Reprinted by permission.
The braiding of a hundred minor pathways, the Long Trail lay like a vast rope connecting the cattle country of the South with that of the North. Lying loose or coiling, it ran for more than two thousand miles along the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains, sometimes close in at their feet, again hundreds of miles away across the hard tablelands or the well-flowered prairies. It traversed in a fair line the vast land of Texas, curled over the Indian Nations, over Kansas, Colorado, Nebraska, Wyoming, and Montana, and bent in wide overlapping circles as far west as Utah and Nevada; as far east as Missouri, Iowa, even Illinois; and as far north as the British possessions. Even today you may trace plainly its former course, from its faint beginnings in the lazy land of Mexico, the Ararat of the cattle-range. It is distinct across Texas, and multifold still in the Indian lands. Its many intermingling paths still scar the iron surface of the Neutral Strip, and the plows have not buried all the old furrows in the plains of Kansas. Parts of the path still remain visible in the mountain lands of the far North. You may see the ribbons banding the hillsides today along the valley of the Stillwater, and along the Yellowstone and toward the source of the Missouri. The hoof marks are beyond the Musselshell, over the Bad Lands and the coulees and the flat prairies; and far up into the land of the long cold you may see, even today if you like, the shadow of that unparalleled pathway, the Long Trail of the cattle-range. History has no other like it.
The Long Trail was surveyed and constructed in a century and a day. Over the Red River of the South, a stream even today perhaps known but vaguely in the minds of many inhabitants of the country, there appeared, almost without warning, vast processions of strange horned kine—processions of enormous wealth, owned by kings who paid no tribute, and guarded by men who never knew a master. Whither these were bound, what had conjured them forth, whence they came, were questions in the minds of the majority of the population of the North and East to whom the phenomenon appeared as the product of a day. The answer to these questions lay deep in the laws of civilization, and extended far back into that civilization's history. The Long Trail was finished in a day. It was begun more than a century before that day, and came forward along the very appointed ways of time.... Thus, far down in the vague Southwest, at some distant time, in some distant portion of old, mysterious Mexico, there fell into line the hoof prints which made the first faint beginnings of the Long Trail, merely the path of a half nomadic movement along the line of the least resistance.
The Long Trail began to deepen and extend. It received then, as it did later, a baptism of human blood such as no other pathway of the continent has known. The nomadic and the warlike days passed, and there ensued a more quiet and pastoral time. It was the beginning of a feudalism of the range, a barony rude enough, but a glorious one, albeit it began, like all feudalism, in large-handed theft and generous murdering. The flocks of these strong men, carelessly interlapping, increased and multiplied amazingly. They were hardly looked upon as wealth. The people could not eat a tithe of the beef; they could not use a hundredth of the leather. Over hundreds and hundreds of miles of ownerless grass lands, by the rapid waters of the mountains, by the slow streams of the plains or the long and dark lagoons of the low coast country the herds of tens grew into droves of hundreds and thousands and hundreds of thousands. This was really the dawning of the American cattle industry.
Chips and flakes of the great Southwestern herd began to be seen in the Northern States. As early as 1857 Texas cattle were driven to Illinois. In 1861 Louisiana was, without success, tried as an outlet. In 1867 a venturous drover took a herd across the Indian Nations, bound for California, and only abandoned the project because the Plains Indians were then very bad in the country to the north. In 1869 several herds were driven from Texas to Nevada. These were side trails of the main cattle road. It seemed clear that a great population in the North needed the cheap beef of Texas, and the main question appeared to be one of transportation. No proper means for this offered. The Civil War stopped almost all plans to market the range cattle, and the close of that war found the vast grazing lands of Texas covered fairly with millions of cattle which had no actual or determinate value. They were sorted and branded and herded after a fashion, but neither they nor their increase could be converted into anything but more cattle. The cry for a market became imperative.
Meantime the Anglo-Saxon civilization was rolling swiftly toward the upper West. The Indians were being driven from the Plains. A solid army was pressing behind the vanguard of soldier, scout, and plainsman. The railroads were pushing out into a new and untracked empire. They carried the market with them. The market halted, much nearer, though still some hundred of miles to the north of the great herd. The Long Trail tapped no more at the door of Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas, but leaped north again definitely, this time springing across the Red River and up to the railroads, along sharp and well-defined channels deepened in the year of 1866 alone by the hoofs of more than a quarter of a million cattle.
In 1871, only five years later, over six hundred thousand cattle crossed the Red River for the Northern markets. Abilene, Newton, Wichita, Ellsworth, Great Bend, Dodge, flared out into a swift and sometime evil blossoming. Thus the men of the North first came to hear of the Long Trail and the men who made it, although really it had begun long ago and had been foreordained to grow.
By this time, 1867 and 1868, the northern portions of the region immediately to the east of the Rocky Mountains had been sufficiently cleared of their wild inhabitants to admit a gradual though precarious settlement. It had been learned yet again that the buffalo grass and the sweet waters of the far North would fatten a range broadhorn to a stature far beyond any it could attain on the southern range. The Long Trail pushed rapidly even farther to the north where there still remained "free grass" and a new market. The territorial ranges needed many thousands of cattle for their stocking, and this demand took a large part of the Texas drive which came to Abilene, Great Bend, and Fort Dodge. Moreover, the Government was now feeding thousands of its new red wards, and these Indians needed thousands of beeves for rations, which were driven from the southern range to the upper army posts and reservations. Between this Government demand and that of the territorial stock ranges there was occupation for the men who made the saddle their home.
The Long Trail, which had previously found the black corn lands of Illinois and Missouri, now crowded to the West, until it had reached Utah and Nevada, and penetrated every open park and mesa and valley of Colorado, and found all the high plains of Wyoming. Cheyenne and Laramie became common words now, and drovers spoke as wisely of the dangers of the Platte as a year before they had mentioned those of the Red River or the Arkansas. Nor did the Trail pause in its irresistible push to the north until it had found the last of the five great transcontinental lines, far in the British provinces. Here in spite of a long season of ice and snow the uttermost edges of the great herd might survive, in a certain percentage at least, each year in an almost unassisted struggle for existence, under conditions different enough, it would seem, from those obtaining at the opposite extreme of the wild roadway over which they came.
The Long Trail of the cattle-range was done! By magic the cattle industry had spread over the entire West. Today many men think of that industry as belonging only to the Southwest, and many would consider that it was transferred to the North. Really it was not transferred but extended, and the trail of the old drive marks the line of that extension.
Today the Long Trail is replaced by other trails, product of the swift development of the West, and it remains as the connection, now for the most part historical only, between two phases of an industry which, in spite of differences of climate and condition, retain a similarity in all essential features. When the last steer of the first herd was driven into the corral at the Ultima Thule of the range, it was the pony of the American cowboy which squatted and wheeled under the spur and burst down the straggling street of the little frontier town. Before that time, and since that time, it was and has been the same pony and the same man who have traveled the range, guarding and guiding the wild herds, from the romantic to the commonplace days of the West.
Chapter IV. The Cowboy
The Great West, vast and rude, brought forth men also vast and rude. We pass today over parts of that matchless region, and we see the red hills and ragged mountain-fronts cut and crushed into huge indefinite shapes, to which even a small imagination may give a human or more than human form. It would almost seem that the same great hand which chiseled out these monumental forms had also laid its fingers upon the people of this region and fashioned them rude and ironlike, in harmony with the stern faces set about them.
Of all the babes of that primeval mother, the West, the cowboy was perhaps her dearest because he was her last. Some of her children lived for centuries; this one for not a triple decade before he began to be old. What was really the life of this child of the wild region of America, and what were the conditions of the experience that bore him, can never be fully known by those who have not seen the West with wide eyes—for the cowboy was simply a part of the West. He who does not understand the one can never understand the other.
If we care truly to see the cowboy as he was and seek to give our wish the dignity of a real purpose, we should study him in connection with his surroundings and in relation to his work. Then we shall see him not as a curiosity but as a product—not as an eccentric driver of horned cattle but as a man suited to his times.
Large tracts of that domain where once the cowboy reigned supreme have been turned into farms by the irrigator's ditch or by the dry-farmer's plan. The farmer in overalls is in many instances his own stockman today. On the ranges of Arizona, Wyoming, and Texas and parts of Nevada we may find the cowboy, it is true, even today: but he is no longer the Homeric figure that once dominated the plains. In what we say as to his trade, therefore, or his fashion in the practice of it, we speak in terms of thirty or forty years ago, when wire was unknown, when the round-up still was necessary, and the cowboy's life was indeed that of the open.
By the costume we may often know the man. The cowboy's costume was harmonious with its surroundings. It was planned upon lines of such stern utility as to leave no possible thing which we may call dispensable. The typical cowboy costume could hardly be said to contain a coat and waistcoat. The heavy woolen shirt, loose and open at the neck, was the common wear at all seasons of the year excepting winter, and one has often seen cowboys in the winter-time engaged in work about the yard or corral of the ranch wearing no other cover for the upper part of the body but one or more of these heavy shirts. If the cowboy wore a coat he would wear it open and loose as much as possible. If he wore a "vest" he would wear it slouchily, hanging open or partly unbuttoned most of the time. There was a reason for this slouchy habit. The cowboy would say that the vest closely buttoned about the body would cause perspiration, so that the wearer would quickly chill upon ceasing exercise. If the wind were blowing keenly when the cowboy dismounted to sit upon the ground for dinner, he would button up his waistcoat and be warm. If it were very cold he would button up his coat also.
The cowboy's boots were of fine leather and fitted tightly, with light narrow soles, extremely small and high heels. Surely a more irrational foot-covering never was invented; yet these tight, peaked cowboy boots had a great significance and may indeed be called the insignia of a calling. There was no prouder soul on earth than the cowboy. He was proud of being a horseman and had a contempt for all human beings who walked. On foot in his tight-toed boots he was lost; but he wished it to be understood that he never was on foot. If we rode beside him and watched his seat in the big cow saddle we found that his high and narrow heels prevented the slipping forward of the foot in the stirrup, into which he jammed his feet nearly full length. If there was a fall, the cowboy's foot never hung in the stirrup. In the corral roping, afoot, his heels anchored him. So he found his little boots not so unserviceable and retained them as a matter of pride. Boots made for the cowboy trade sometimes had fancy tops of bright-colored leather. The Lone Star of Texas was not infrequent in their ornamentation.
The curious pride of the horseman extended also to his gloves. The cowboy was very careful in the selection of his gloves. They were made of the finest buckskin, which could not be injured by wetting. Generally they were tanned white and cut with a deep cuff or gauntlet from which hung a little fringe to flutter in the wind when he rode at full speed on horseback.
The cowboy's hat was one of the typical and striking features of his costumes. It was a heavy, wide, white felt hat with a heavy leather band buckled about it. There has been no other head covering devised so suitable as the Stetson for the uses of the Plains, although high and heavy black hats have in part supplanted it today among stockmen. The boardlike felt was practically indestructible. The brim flapped a little and, in time, was turned up and perhaps held fast to the crown by a thong. The wearer might sometimes stiffen the brim by passing a thong through a series of holes pierced through the outer edge. He could depend upon his hat in all weathers. In the rain it was an umbrella; in the sun a shield; in the winter he could tie it down about his ears with his handkerchief.
Loosely thrown about the cowboy's shirt collar was a silk kerchief. It was tied in a hard knot in front, and though it could scarcely be said to be devoted to the uses of a neck scarf, yet it was a great comfort to the back of the neck when one was riding in a hot wind. It was sure to be of some bright color, usually red. Modern would-be cowpunchers do not willingly let this old kerchief die, and right often they over-play it. For the cowboy of the "movies," however, let us register an unqualified contempt. The real range would never have been safe for him.
A peculiar and distinctive feature of the cowboy's costume was his "chaps" (chaparejos). The chaps were two very wide and full-length trouser-legs made of heavy calfskin and connected by a narrow belt or strap. They were cut away entirely at front and back so that they covered only the thigh and lower legs and did not heat the body as a complete leather garment would. They were intended solely as a protection against branches, thorns, briers, and the like, but they were prized in cold or wet weather. Sometimes there was seen, more often on the southern range, a cowboy wearing chaps made of skins tanned with the hair on; for the cowboy of the Southwest early learned that goatskin left with the hair on would turn the cactus thorns better than any other material. Later, the chaps became a sort of affectation on the part of new men on the range; but the old-time cowboy wore them for use, not as a uniform. In hot weather he laid them off.
In the times when some men needed guns and all men carried them, no pistol of less than 44-caliber was tolerated on the range, the solid framed 45-caliber being the one almost universally used. The barrel was eight inches long, and it shot a rifle cartridge of forty grains of powder and a blunt-ended bullet that made a terrible missile. This weapon depended from a belt worn loose resting upon the left hip and hanging low down on the right hip so that none of the weight came upon the abdomen. This was typical, for the cowboy was neither fancy gunman nor army officer. The latter carries the revolver on the left, the butt pointing forward.
An essential part of the cow-puncher's outfit was his "rope." This was carried in a close coil at the side of the saddle-horn, fastened by one of the many thongs scattered over the saddle. In the Spanish country it was called reata and even today is sometimes seen in the Southwest made of rawhide. In the South it was called a lariat. The modern rope is a well-made three-quarter-inch hemp rope about thirty feet in length, with a leather or rawhide eye. The cowboy's quirt was a short heavy whip, the stock being of wood or iron covered with braided leather and carrying a lash made of two or three heavy loose thongs. The spur in the old days had a very large rowel with blunt teeth an inch long. It was often ornamented with little bells or oblongs of metal, the tinkling of which appealed to the childlike nature of the Plains rider. Their use was to lock the rowel.
His bridle—for, since the cowboy and his mount are inseparable, we may as well speak of his horse's dress also—was noticeable for its tremendously heavy and cruel curbed bit, known as the "Spanish bit." But in the ordinary riding and even in the exciting work of the old round-up and in "cutting out," the cowboy used the bit very little, nor exerted any pressure on the reins. He laid the reins against the neck of the pony opposite to the direction in which he wished it to go, merely turning his hand in the direction and inclining his body in the same way. He rode with the pressure of the knee and the inclination of the body and the light side-shifting of both reins. The saddle was the most important part of the outfit. It was a curious thing, this saddle developed by the cattle trade, and the world has no other like it. Its great weight—from thirty to forty pounds—was readily excusable when one remembers that it was not only seat but workbench for the cowman. A light saddle would be torn to pieces at the first rush of a maddened steer, but the sturdy frame of a cow-saddle would throw the heaviest bull on the range. The high cantle would give a firmness to the cowboy's seat when he snubbed a steer with a sternness sufficient to send it rolling heels over head. The high pommel, or "horn," steel-forged and covered with cross braids of leather, served as anchor post for this same steer, a turn of the rope about it accomplishing that purpose at once. The saddle-tree forked low down over the pony's back so that the saddle sat firmly and could not readily be pulled off. The great broad cinches bound the saddle fast till horse and saddle were practically one fabric. The strong wooden house of the old heavy stirrup protected the foot from being crushed by the impact of the herd. The form of the cow-saddle has changed but little, although today one sees a shorter seat and smaller horn, a "swell front" or roll, and a stirrup of open "ox-bow" pattern.
The round-up was the harvest of the range. The time of the calf round-up was in the spring after the grass had become good and after the calves had grown large enough for the branding. The State Cattle Association divided the entire State range into a number of round-up districts. Under an elected round-up captain were all the bosses in charge of the different ranch outfits sent by men having cattle in the round-up. Let us briefly draw a picture of this scene as it was.
Each cowboy would have eight or ten horses for his own use, for he had now before him the hardest riding of the year. When the cow-puncher went into the herd to cut out calves he mounted a fresh horse, and every few hours he again changed horses, for there was no horse which could long endure the fatigue of the rapid and intense work of cutting. Before the rider stretched a sea of interwoven horns, waving and whirling as the densely packed ranks of cattle closed in or swayed apart. It was no prospect for a weakling, but into it went the cow-puncher on his determined little horse, heeding not the plunging, crushing, and thrusting of the excited cattle. Down under the bulks of the herd, half hid in the whirl of dust, he would spy a little curly calf running, dodging, and twisting, always at the heels of its mother; and he would dart in after, following the two through the thick of surging and plunging beasts. The sharp-eyed pony would see almost as soon as his rider which cow was wanted and he needed small guidance from that time on. He would follow hard at her heels, edging her constantly toward the flank of the herd, at times nipping her hide as a reminder of his own superiority. In spite of herself the cow would gradually turn out toward the edge, and at last would be swept clear of the crush, the calf following close behind her. There was a whirl of the rope and the calf was laid by the heels and dragged to the fire where the branding irons were heated and ready.
Meanwhile other cow-punchers are rushing calves to the branding. The hubbub and turmoil increase. Taut ropes cross the ground in many directions. The cutting ponies pant and sweat, rear and plunge. The garb of the cowboy is now one of white alkali which hangs gray in his eyebrows and moustache. Steers bellow as they surge to and fro. Cows charge on their persecutors. Fleet yearlings break and run for the open, pursued by men who care not how or where they ride.
We have spoken in terms of the past. There is no calf round-up of the open range today. The last of the roundups was held in Routt County, Colorado, several years ago, so far as the writer knows, and it had only to do with shifting cattle from the summer to the winter range.
After the calf round-up came the beef round-up, the cowman's final harvest. This began in July or August. Only the mature or fatted animals were cut out from the herd. This "beef cut" was held apart and driven on ahead from place to place as the round-up progressed. It was then driven in by easy stages to the shipping point on the railroad, whence the long trainloads of cattle went to the great markets.
In the heyday of the cowboy it was natural that his chief amusements should be those of the outdoor air and those more or less in line with his employment. He was accustomed to the sight of big game, and so had the edge of his appetite for its pursuit worn off. Yet he was a hunter, just as every Western man was a hunter in the times of the Western game. His weapons were the rifle, revolver, and rope; the latter two were always with him. With the rope at times he captured the coyote, and under special conditions he has taken deer and even antelope in this way, though this was of course most unusual and only possible under chance conditions of ground and cover. Elk have been roped by cowboys many times, and it is known that even the mountain sheep has been so taken, almost incredible as that may seem. The young buffalo were easy prey for the cowboy and these he often roped and made captive. In fact the beginnings of all the herds of buffalo now in captivity in this country were the calves roped and secured by cowboys; and these few scattered individuals of a grand race of animals remain as melancholy reminders alike of a national shiftlessness and an individual skill and daring.
The grizzly was at times seen by the cowboys on the range, and if it chanced that several cowboys were together it was not unusual to give him chase. They did not always rope him, for it was rarely that the nature of the country made this possible. Sometimes they roped him and wished they could let him go, for a grizzly bear is uncommonly active and straightforward in his habits at close quarters. The extreme difficulty of such a combat, however, gave it its chief fascination for the cowboy. Of course, no one horse could hold the bear after it was roped, but, as one after another came up, the bear was caught by neck and foot and body, until at last he was tangled and tripped and hauled about till he was helpless, strangled, and nearly dead. It is said that cowboys have so brought into camp a grizzly bear, forcing him to half walk and half slide at the end of the ropes. No feat better than this could show the courage of the plainsman and of the horse which he so perfectly controlled.
Of such wild and dangerous exploits were the cowboy's amusements on the range. It may be imagined what were his amusements when he visited the "settlements." The cow-punchers, reared in the free life of the open air, under circumstances of the utmost freedom of individual action, perhaps came off the drive or round-up after weeks or months of unusual restraint or hardship, and felt that the time had arrived for them to "celebrate." Merely great rude children, as wild and untamed and untaught as the herds they led, they regarded their first look at the "settlements" of the railroads as a glimpse of a wider world. They pursued to the uttermost such avenues of new experience as lay before them, almost without exception avenues of vice. It is strange that the records of those days should be chosen by the public to be held as the measure of the American cowboy. Those days were brief, and they are long since gone. The American cowboy atoned for them by a quarter of a century of faithful labor.
The amusements of the cowboy were like the features of his daily surroundings and occupation—they were intense, large, Homeric. Yet, judged at his work, no higher type of employee ever existed, nor one more dependable. He was the soul of honor in all the ways of his calling. The very blue of the sky, bending evenly over all men alike, seemed to symbolize his instinct for justice. Faithfulness and manliness were his chief traits; his standard—to be a "square man."
Not all the open range will ever be farmed, but very much that was long thought to be irreclaimable has gone under irrigation or is being more or less successfully "dryfarmed." The man who brought water upon the arid lands of the West changed the entire complexion of a vast country and with it the industries of that country. Acres redeemed from the desert and added to the realm of the American farmer were taken from the realm of the American cowboy.
The West has changed. The curtain has dropped between us and its wild and stirring scenes. The old days are gone. The house dog sits on the hill where yesterday the coyote sang. There are fenced fields and in them stand sleek round beasts, deep in crops such as their ancestors never saw. In a little town nearby is the hurry and bustle of modern life. This town is far out upon what was called the frontier, long after the frontier has really gone. Guarding its ghost here stood a little army post, once one of the pillars, now one of the monuments of the West.
Out from the tiny settlement in the dusk of evening, always facing toward where the sun is sinking, might be seen riding, not so long ago, a figure we should know. He would thread the little lane among the fences, following the guidance of hands other than his own, a thing he would once have scorned to do. He would ride as lightly and as easily as ever, sitting erect and jaunty in the saddle, his reins held high and loose in the hand whose fingers turn up gracefully, his whole body free yet firm in the saddle with the seat of the perfect horseman. At the boom of the cannon, when the flag dropped fluttering down to sleep, he would rise in his stirrups and wave his hat to the flag. Then, toward the edge, out into the evening, he would ride on. The dust of his riding would mingle with the dusk of night. We could not see which was the one or the other. We could only hear the hoofbeats passing, boldly and steadily still, but growing fainter, fainter, and more faint. *
* For permission to use in this chapter material from the author's "The Story of the Cowboy," acknowledgment is made to D. Appleton & Co.
Chapter V. The Mines
If the influence of the cattle industry was paramount in the development of the frontier region found by the first railways, it should not be concluded that this upthrust of the southern cattle constituted the only contribution to the West of that day. There were indeed earlier influences, the chief of which was the advent of the wild population of the placer mines. The riches of the gold-fields hastened the building of the first transcontinental railroads and the men of the mines set their mark also indelibly upon the range.
It is no part of our business here to follow the great discoveries of 1849 in California. * Neither shall we chronicle the once-famous rushes from California north into the Fraser River Valley of British Columbia; neither is it necessary to mention in much detail the great camps of Nevada; nor yet the short-lived stampede of 1859 to the Pike's Peak country in Colorado. The rich placer fields of Idaho and Montana, from which enormous amounts were taken, offer typical examples of the mining communities of the Rockies.
* See Stewart Edward White: "The Forty-Niners" ("Chronicles of America").
We may never know how much history remains forever unwritten. Of the beginnings of the Idaho camps there have trickled back into record only brief, inconsequent, and partial stories. The miners who surged this way and that all through the Sierras, the upper Cascades, north into the Selkirks, and thence back again into the Rockies were a turbulent mob. Having overrun all our mountain ranges, following the earlier trails of the traders and trappers, they now recoiled upon themselves and rolled back eastward to meet the advancing civilization of the westbound rails, caring nothing for history and less for the civilized society in which they formerly had lived. This story of bedlam broken loose, of men gone crazed, by the sudden subversion of all known values and all standards of life, was at first something which had no historian and can be recorded only by way of hearsay stories which do not always tally as to the truth.
The mad treasure-hunters of the California mines, restless, insubordinate, incapable of restraint, possessed of the belief that there might be gold elsewhere than in California, and having heard reports of strikes to the north, went hurrying out into the mountains of Oregon and Washington, in a wild stampede, all eager again to engage in the glorious gamble where by one lucky stroke of the pick a man might be set free of the old limitations of human existence.
So the flood of gold-seekers—passing north into the Fraser River country, south again into Oregon and Washington, and across the great desert plains into Nevada and Idaho—made new centers of lurid activity, such as Oro Fino, Florence, and Carson. Then it was that Walla Walla and Lewiston, outfitting points on the western side of the range, found place upon the maps of the land, such as they were.
Before these adventurers, now eastbound and no longer facing west, there arose the vast and formidable mountain ranges which in their time had daunted even the calm minds of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. But the prospectors and the pack-trains alike penetrated the Salmon River Range. Oro Fino, in Idaho, was old in 1861. The next great strikes were to be made around Florence. Here the indomitable packer from the West, conquering unheard-of difficulties, brought in whiskey, women, pianos, food, mining tools. Naturally all these commanded fabulous prices. The price for each and all lay underfoot. Man, grown superman, could overleap time itself by a stroke of the pick! What wonder delirium reigned!
These events became known in the Mississippi Valley and farther eastward. And now there came hurrying out from the older regions many more hundreds and thousands eager to reach a land not so far as California, but reputed to be quite as rich. It was then, as the bull-trains came in from the East, from the head of navigation on the Missouri River, that the western outfitting points of Walla Walla and Lewiston lost their importance.
Southward of the Idaho camps the same sort of story was repeating itself. Nevada had drawn to herself a portion of the wild men of the stampedes. Carson for its day (1859-60) was a capital not unlike the others. Some of its men had come down from the upper fields, some had arrived from the East over the old Santa Fe Trail, and yet others had drifted in from California.
All the camps were very much alike. A straggling row of log cabins or huts of motley construction; a few stores so-called, sometimes of logs, or, if a saw-mill was at hand, of rude sawn boards; a number of saloons, each of which customarily also supported a dance-hall; a series of cabins or huts where dwelt individual men, each doing his own cooking and washing; and outside these huts the uptorn earth—such were the camps which dotted the trails of the stampedes across inhospitable deserts and mountain ranges. Church and school were unknown. Law there was none, for of organized society there was none. The women who lived there were unworthy of the name of woman. The men strode about in the loose dress of the camp, sometimes without waistcoat, sometimes coatless, shod with heavy boots, always armed.
If we look for causes contributory to the history of the mining-camp, we shall find one which ordinarily is overlooked—the invention of Colt's revolving pistol. At the time of the Civil War, though this weapon was not old, yet it had attained very general use throughout the frontier. That was before the day of modern ammunition. The six-shooter of the placer days was of the old cap-and-ball type, heavy, long-barreled, and usually wooden-handled. It was the general ownership of these deadly weapons which caused so much bloodshed in the camps. The revolver in the hands of a tyro is not especially serviceable, but it attained great deadliness in the hands of an expert user. Such a man, naturally of quick nerve reflexes, skillful and accurate in the use of the weapon through long practice, became a dangerous, and for a time an unconquerable, antagonist.
It is a curious fact that the great Montana fields were doubly discovered, in part by men coming east from California, and in part by men passing west in search of new gold-fields. The first discovery of gold in Montana was made on Gold Creek by a half-breed trapper named Francois, better known as Be-net-see. This was in 1852, but the news seems to have lain dormant for a time—naturally enough, for there was small ingress or egress for that wild and unknown country. In 1857, however, a party of miners who had wandered down the Big Hole River on their way back east from California decided to look into the Gold Creek discovery, of which they had heard. This party was led by James and Granville Stuart, and among others in the party were Jake Meeks, Robert Hereford, Robert Dempsey, John W. Powell, John M. Jacobs, Thomas Adams, and some others. These men did some work on Gold Creek in 1858, but seem not to have struck it very rich, and to have withdrawn to Fort Bridger in Utah until the autumn of 1860. Then a prospector by the name of Tom Golddigger turned up at Bridger with additional stories of creeks to the north, so that there was a gradual straggling back toward Gold Creek and other gulches. This prospector had been all over the Alder Gulch, which was ere long to prove fabulously rich.
It was not, however, until 1863 that the Montana camps sprang into fame. It was not Gold Creek or Alder Gulch, but Florence and other Idaho camps, that, in the summer and autumn of 1862, brought into the mountains no less than five parties of gold-seekers, who remained in Montana because they could not penetrate the mountain barrier which lay between them and the Salmon River camps in Idaho.
The first of these parties arrived at Gold Creek by wagon-train from Fort Benton and the second hailed from Salt Lake. An election was held for the purpose of forming a sort of community organization, the first election ever known in Montana. The men from the East had brought with them some idea of law and organization. There were now in the Montana fields many good men such as the Stuart Brothers, Samuel T. Hauser, Walter Dance, and others later well known in the State. These men were prominent in the organization of the first miners' court, which had occasion to try—and promptly to hang—Stillman and Jernigan, two ruffians who had been in from the Salmon River mines only about four days when they thus met retribution for their early crimes. An associate of theirs, Arnett, had been killed while resisting arrest. The reputation of Florence for lawlessness and bloodshed was well known; and, as the outrages of the well-organized band of desperadoes operating in Idaho might be expected to begin at any time in Montana, a certain uneasiness existed among the newcomers from the States.
Two more parties, likewise bound for Idaho and likewise baffled by the Salmon River range, arrived at the Montana camps in the same summer. Both these were from the Pike's Peak country in Colorado. And in the autumn came a fifth—this one under military protection, Captain James L. Fisk commanding, and having in the party a number of settlers bound for Oregon as well as miners for Idaho. This expedition arrived in the Prickly Pear Valley in Montana on September 21, 1862, having left St. Paul on the 16th of June, traveling by steamboat and wagon-train. While Captain Fisk and his expedition pushed on to Walla Walla, nearly half of the immigrants stayed to try their luck at placer-mining. But the yield was not great and the distant Salmon River mines, their original destination, still awaited them. Winter was approaching. It was now too late in the season to reach the Salmon River mines, five hundred miles across the mountains, and it was four hundred miles to Salt Lake, the nearest supply post; therefore, most of the men joined this little army of prospectors in Montana. Some of them drifted to the Grasshopper diggings, soon to be known under the name of Bannack—one of the wildest mining-camps of its day.
These different origins of the population of the first Montana camps are interesting because of the fact that they indicate a difference in the two currents of population which now met here in the new placer fields. In general the wildest and most desperate of the old-time adventurers, those coming from the West, had located in the Idaho camps, and might be expected in Montana at any time. In contrast to these, the men lately out from the States were of a different type, many of them sober, most of them law-abiding, men who had come out to better their fortunes and not merely to drop into the wild and licentious life of a placercamp. Law and order always did prevail eventually in any mining community. In the case of Montana, law and order arrived almost synchronously with lawlessness and desperadoism.
Law and order had not long to wait before the arrival of the notorious Henry Plummer and his band from Florence. Plummer was already known as a bad man, but was not yet recognized as the leader of that secret association of robbers and murderers which had terrorized the Idaho camps. He celebrated his arrival in Bannack by killing a man named Cleveland. He was acquitted in the miners' court that tried him, on the usual plea of self-defense. He was a man of considerable personal address.
The same tribunal soon assembled once more to try three other murderers, Moore, Reeves, and Mitchell, with the agreement that the men should have a jury and should be provided with counsel. They were all practically freed; and after that the roughs grew bolder than ever. The Plummer band swore to kill every man who had served in that court, whether as juryman or officer. So well did they make good their threat that out of the twenty-seven men thus engaged all but seven were either killed or driven out of the country, nine being murdered outright. The man who had acted as sheriff of this miners' court, Hank Crawford, was unceasingly hounded by Plummer, who sought time and again to fix a quarrel on him. Plummer was the best shot in the mountains at that time, and he thought it would be easy for him to kill his man and enter the usual plea of self-defense. By good fortune, however, Crawford caught Plummer off his guard and fired upon him with a rifle, breaking his right arm. Plummer's friends called in Dr. Glick, the best physician in Bannack, to treat the wounded man, warning him that if he told anything about the visit he would be shot down. Glick held his peace, and later was obliged to attend many of the wounded outlaws, who were always engaged in affairs with firearms.
Of all these wild affrays, of the savage life which they denoted, and of the stern ways in which retribution overtook the desperadoes of the mines, there is no better historian than Nathaniel P. Langford, a prominent citizen of the West, who accompanied the overland expedition of 1862 and took part in the earliest life of Montana. His work, "Vigilante Days and Ways," is an invaluable contemporary record.
It is mentally difficult for us now fully to restore these scenes, although the events occurred no earlier than the Civil War. "Life in Bannack at this time," says Langford, "was perfect isolation from the rest of the world. Napoleon was not more of an exile on St. Helena than a newly arrived immigrant from the States in this region of lakes and mountains. All the great battles of the season of 1862—Antietam, Fredericksburg, Second Bull Run—all the exciting debates of Congress, and the more exciting combats at sea, first became known to us on the arrival of newspapers and letters in the spring of 1863."
The Territory of Idaho, which included Montana and nearly all Wyoming, was organized March 3, 1863. Previous to that time western Montana and Idaho formed a part of Washington Territory, of which Olympia was the capital, and Montana, east of the mountains, belonged to the Territory of Dakota, of which the capital was Yankton, on the Missouri. Langford makes clear the political uncertainties of the time, the difficulty of enforcing the laws, and narrates the circumstances which led to the erection in 1864 of the new Territory of Montana, comprising the limits of the present State. *
* The Acts of Congress organizing Territories and admitting States are milestones in the occupation of this last West. On the eve of the Civil War, Kansas was admitted into the Union; during the war, the Territories of Colorado, Nevada, Dakota, Arizona, Idaho, and Montana were organized, and Nevada was admitted as a State. Immediately after the war, Nebraska was admitted and Wyoming was organized as a Territory. In the Centennial Year (1876) Colorado became a State. In 1889 and 1890 North and South Dakota, Montana, Washington, Idaho, and Wyoming were admitted as States. In the latter year Oklahoma was carved out of the Indian Territory. Utah with its Mormon population was kept waiting at the doors of the Union until 1896. Oklahoma became a State in 1907; Arizona and New Mexico were admitted in 1912.
In Montana as elsewhere in these days of great sectional bitterness, there was much political strife; and this no doubt accounts for an astonishing political event that now took place. Henry Plummer, the most active outlaw of his day, was elected sheriff and entrusted with the enforcement of the laws! He made indeed a great show of enforcing the laws. He married, settled down, and for a time was thought by some of the ill-advised to have reformed his ways, although in truth he could not have reformed.
By June, 1863, the extraordinarily rich strike in Alder Gulch had been made. The news of this spread like wildfire to Bannack and to the Salmon River mines in Idaho as well, and the result was one of the fiercest of all the stampedes, and the rise, almost overnight, of Virginia City. Meanwhile some Indian fighting had taken place and in a pitched battle on the Bear River General Connor had beaten decisively the Bannack Indians, who for years had preyed on the emigrant trains. This made travel on the mountain trails safer than it had been; and the rich Last Chance Gulch on which the city of Helena now stands attracted a tremendous population almost at once. The historian above cited lived there. Let him tell of the life.
"One long stream of active life filled the little creek on its auriferous course from Bald Mountain, through a canyon of wild and picturesque character, until it emerged into the large and fertile valley of the Pas-sam-a-ri... the mountain stream called by Lewis and Clark in their journal 'Philanthropy River.' Lateral streams of great beauty pour down the sides of the mountain chain bounding the valley.... Gold placers were found upon these streams and occupied soon after the settlement at Virginia City was commenced.... This human hive, numbering at least ten thousand people, was the product of ninety days. Into it were crowded all the elements of a rough and active civilization. Thousands of cabins and tents and brush wakiups... were seen on every hand. Every foot of the gulch... was undergoing displacement, and it was already disfigured by huge heaps of gravel which had been passed through the sluices and rifled of their glittering contents.... Gold was abundant, and every possible device was employed by the gamblers, the traders, the vile men and women that had come in with the miners into the locality, to obtain it. Nearly every third cabin was a saloon where vile whiskey was peddled out for fifty cents a drink in gold dust. Many of these places were filled with gambling tables and gamblers.... Hurdy-gurdy dance-houses were numerous.... Not a day or night passed which did not yield its full fruition of vice, quarrels, wounds, or murders. The crack of the revolver was often heard above the merry notes of the violin. Street fights were frequent, and as no one knew when or where they would occur, every one was on his guard against a random shot.
"Sunday was always a gala day.... The stores were all open.... Thousands of people crowded the thoroughfares ready to rush in the direction of any promised excitement. Horse-racing was among the most favored amusements. Prize rings were formed, and brawny men engaged in fisticuffs until their sight was lost and their bodies pommelled to a jelly, while hundreds of onlookers cheered the victor.... Pistols flashed, bowie knives flourished, and braggart oaths filled the air, as often as men's passions triumphed over their reason. This was indeed the reign of unbridled license, and men who at first regarded it with disgust and terror, by constant exposure soon learned to become a part of it and forget that they had ever been aught else. All classes of society were represented at this general exhibition. Judges, lawyers, doctors, even clergymen, could not claim exemption. Culture and religion afforded feeble protection, where allurement and indulgence ruled the hour."
Imagine, therefore, a fabulously rich mountain valley twelve miles in extent, occupied by more than ten thousand men and producing more than ten millions of dollars before the close of the first year! It is a stupendous demand on any imagination. How might all this gold be sent out in safe-keeping? We are told that the only stage route extended from Virginia City no farther than Bannack. Between Virginia City and Salt Lake City there was an absolute wilderness, wholly unsettled, four hundred and seventy-five miles in width. "There was no post office in the Territory. Letters were brought from Salt Lake first at a cost of two dollars and a half each, and later in the season at one dollar each. All money at infinite risk was sent to the nearest express office at Salt Lake City by private hands."
Practically every man in the new gold-fields was aware of the existence of a secret band of well-organized ruffians and robbers. The general feeling was one of extreme uneasiness. There were plenty of men who had taken out of the ground considerable quantities of gold, and who would have been glad to get back to the East with their little fortunes, but they dared not start. Time after time the express coach, the solitary rider, the unguarded wagon-train, were held up and robbed, usually with the concomitant of murder. When the miners did start out from one camp to another they took all manner of precautions to conceal their gold dust. We are told that on one occasion one party bored a hole in the end of the wagon tongue with an auger and filled it full of gold dust, thus escaping observation! The robbers learned to know the express agents, and always had advice of every large shipment of gold. It was almost useless to undertake to conceal anything from them; and resistance was met with death. Such a reign of terror, such an organized system of highway robbery, such a light valuing of human life, has been seldom found in any other time or place.
There were, as we have seen, good men in these camps—although the best of them probably let down the standards of living somewhat after their arrival there; but the trouble was that the good men did not know one another, had no organization, and scarcely dared at first to attempt one. On the other hand, the robbers' organization was complete and kept its secrets as the grave; indeed, many and many a lonesome grave held secrets none ever was to know. How many men went out from Eastern States and disappeared, their fate always to remain a mystery, is a part of the untold story of the mining frontier.
There are known to have been a hundred and two men killed by Plummer and his gang; how many were murdered without their fate ever being discovered can not be told. Plummer was the leader of the band, but, arch-hypocrite that he was, he managed to keep his own connection with it a secret. His position as sheriff gave him many advantages. He posed as being a silver-mine expert, among other things, and often would be called out to "expert" some new mine. That usually meant that he left town in order to commit some desperate robbery. The boldest outrages always required Plummer as the leader. Sometimes he would go away on the pretense of following some fugitive from justice. His horse, the fleetest in the country, often was found, laboring and sweating, at the rear of his house. That meant that Plummer had been away on some secret errand of his own. He was suspected many times, but nothing could be fastened upon him; or there lacked sufficient boldness and sufficient organization on the part of the law-and-order men to undertake his punishment.
We are not concerned with repeating thrilling tales, bloody almost beyond belief, and indicative of an incomprehensible depravity in human nature, so much as we are with the causes and effects of this wild civilization which raged here quite alone in the midst of one of the wildest of the western mountain regions. It will best serve our purpose to retain in mind the twofold character of this population, and to remember that the frontier caught to itself not only ruffians and desperadoes, men undaunted by any risk, but also men possessed of a yet steadier personal courage and hardihood. There were men rough, coarse, brutal, murderous; but against them were other men self-reliant, stern, just, and resolved upon fair play.
That was indeed the touchstone of the entire civilization which followed upon the heels of these scenes of violence. It was fair play which really animated the great Montana Vigilante movement and which eventually cleaned up the merciless gang of Henry Plummer and his associates. The centers of civilization were far removed. The courts were powerless. In some cases even the machinery of the law was in the hands of these ruffians. But so violent were their deeds, so brutal, so murderous, so unfair, that slowly the indignation of the good men arose to the white-hot point of open resentment and of swift retribution. What the good men of the frontier loved most of all was justice. They now enforced justice in the only way left open to them. They did this as California earlier had done; and they did it so well that there was small need to repeat the lesson.
The actual extermination of the Henry Plummer band occurred rather promptly when the Vigilantes once got under way. One of the band by the name of Red Yager, in company with yet another by the name of Brown, had been concerned in the murder of Lloyd Magruder, a merchant of the Territory. The capture of these two followed closely upon the hanging of George Ives, also accused of more than one murder. Ives was an example of the degrading influence of the mines. He was a decent young man until he left his home in Wisconsin. He was in California from 1857 to 1858. When he appeared in Idaho he seemed to have thrown off all restraint and to have become a common rowdy and desperado. It is said of him that "few men of his age ever had been guilty of so many fiendish crimes."
Yager and Brown, knowing the fate which Ives had met, gave up hope when they fell into the hands of the newly organized Vigilantes. Brown was hanged; so was Yager; but Yager, before his death, made a full confession which put the Vigilantes in possession of information they had never yet been able to secure. *
* Langford gives these names disclosed by Yager as follows: "Henry Plummer was chief of the band; Bill Bunton, stool pigeon and second in command; George Brown, secretary; Sam Bunton, roadster; Cyrus Skinner, fence, spy, and roadster; George Shears, horse thief and roadster; Frank Parish, horse thief and roadster; Hayes Lyons, telegraph man and roadster; Bill Hunter, telegraph man and roadster; Ned Ray, council-room keeper at Bannack City; George Ives, Stephen Marshland, Dutch John (Wagner), Alex Carter, Whiskey Bill (Graves), Johnny Cooper, Buck Stinson, Mexican Franks Bob Zachary, Boone Helm, Clubfoot George (Lane), Billy Terwiliger, Gad Moore were roadsters." Practically all these were executed by the Vigilantes, with many others, and eventually the band of outlaws was entirely broken up.
Much has been written and much romanced about the conduct of these desperadoes when they met their fate. Some of them were brave and some proved cowards at the last. For a time, Plummer begged abjectly, his eyes streaming with tears. Suddenly he was smitten with remorse as the whole picture of his past life appeared before him. He promised everything, begged everything, if only life might be spared him—asked his captors to cut off his ears, to cut out his tongue, then strip him naked and banish him. At the very last, however, he seems to have become composed. Stinson and Ray went to their fate alternately swearing and whining. Some of the ruffians faced death boldly. More than one himself jumped from the ladder or kicked from under him the box which was the only foothold between him and eternity. Boone Helm was as hardened as any of them. This man was a cannibal and murderer. He seems to have had no better nature whatever. His last words as he sprang off were "Hurrah for Jeff Davis! Let her rip!" Another man remarked calmly that he cared no more for hanging than for drinking a glass of water. But each after his own fashion met the end foreordained for him by his own lack of compassion; and of compassion he received none at the hands of the men who had resolved that the law should be established and should remain forever.
There was an instant improvement in the social life of Virginia City, Bannack, and the adjoining camps as soon as it was understood that the Vigilantes were afoot. Langford, who undoubtedly knew intimately of the activities of this organization, makes no apology for the acts of the Vigilantes, although they did not have back of them the color of the actual law. He says:
"The retribution dispensed to these daring freebooters in no respect exceeded the demands of absolute justice.... There was no other remedy. Practically the citizens had no law, but if law had existed it could not have afforded adequate redress. This was proven by the feeling of security consequent upon the destruction of the band. When the robbers were dead the people felt safe, not for themselves alone but for their pursuits and their property. They could travel without fear. They had reasonable assurance of safety in the transmission of money to the States and in the arrival of property over the unguarded route from Salt Lake. The crack of pistols had ceased, and they could walk the streets without constant exposure to danger. There was an omnipresent spirit of protection, akin to that omnipresent spirit of law which pervaded older and more civilized communities.... Young men who had learned to believe that the roughs were destined to rule and who, under the influence of that faith, were fast drifting into crime shrunk appalled before the thorough work of the Vigilantes. Fear, more potent than conscience, forced even the worst of men to observe the requirements of society, and a feeling of comparative security among all classes was the result."
Naturally it was not the case that all the bad men were thus exterminated. From time to time there appeared vividly in the midst of these surroundings additional figures of solitary desperadoes, each to have his list of victims, and each himself to fall before the weapons of his enemies or to meet the justice of the law or the sterner meed of the Vigilantes. It would not be wholly pleasant to read even the names of a long list of these; perhaps it will be sufficient to select one, the notorious Joseph Slade, one of the "picturesque" characters of whom a great deal of inaccurate and puerile history has been written. The truth about Slade is that he was a good man at first, faithful in the discharge of his duties as an agent of the stage company. Needing at times to use violence lawfully, he then began to use it unlawfully. He drank and soon went from bad to worse. At length his outrages became so numerous that the men of the community took him out and hanged him. His fate taught many others the risk of going too far in defiance of law and decency.