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We Pointed Them North
Recollections of a Cowpuncher
By E. C. Abbott ("Teddy Blue"), Helena Huntington Smith
UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESSCopyright © 1939 Farrar & Rinehart, Inc.
All rights reserved.
How I Came to Montana–The Texas Trail– Cowboys and Cowpunchers– No Tents, No Tarps, and Damn Few Slickers– Sam Bass Skips Out–A Cowboy Forever
People who know me often talk as though I was from Texas. That is not correct. I was born at Cranwich Hall, Cranwich, County of Norfolk, England, December 17, 1860. But I came to Montana with a herd of Texas cattle in 1883.
That is where they get the idea that I am a Texan. All this part of Montana east of the mountains was settled by Texans who came here with the cattle, and so was Wyoming, and parts of Colorado and New Mexico, and the western half of the Dakotas, and even Nebraska before the farmers run them out. A lot of farmers and businessmen came in here after the cowpunchers, and there were a few other people who got here first. But the Texas cowboy's mode of speech and dress and actions set the style for all the range country. And his influence is not dead yet.
For a long time I have wanted to write a history of the cattle range and of the movement of the cattle as they were gradually pushed north over the Texas trail. I have read plenty of histories of the trail, written by other men who went over it, that are entirely accurate as to facts, but they are not told right. They are like these cowboy songs I have seen in books and heard over the radio, that are all fixed up and not the way we used to sing them at all. Other old timers have told all about stampedes and swimming rivers and what a terrible time we had, but they never put in any of the fun, and fun was at least half of it. Why, even in The Trail Drivers of Texas, which is a wonderful book and absolutely authentic, you have all these old fellows telling stories, and you'd think they was a bunch of preachers, the way they talk. And yet some of them raised more hell than I did.
In 1922 Charlie Russell and I were going to make a book together. I was going to tell the stories and he was going to draw the pictures, and his name would have carried it. But he died. Now that I have decided to go ahead and tell the story of my life, with some history thrown in, I want to explain that as far as it goes it is accurate. There is no fiction in it. All the people mentioned are real cowmen whom I met and worked with on the cattle range that extended from southern Texas to the Bow River in Alberta, Canada. It is told entirely from my memory from 1871 to 1886, as all my papers, etc., got burnt up previous to '86. But I started in young and have lived now for sixty-eight years with the people I write of. I can remember what happened sixty years ago better than I can remember what I done yesterday.
In the seventies and eighties there were a lot of Englishmen over here playing the part of amateur cowpunchers. There were remittance men mostly, younger sons living on money that was sent them by their families, and some of them got to be real cowpunchers after awhile. But I got there by a different route. In 1871 my father came out here and settled on Section 1, Denton precinct, outside of Lincoln, Nebraska. I was the second generation and I grew up with the country, which was full of Texas cattle and Texas cowpunchers at the time. By the end of the seventies, Nebraska was getting settled up, and my father went to farming. But I stayed with the cattle and went north with them. In 1889 a good woman got her rope on me, and I have stood hitched ever since. But I am still running cattle on the 3 Deuce Ranch in Fergus County, Montana, where I have lived for the past fifty years.
When my father got over here in '71 the Texas trail had only been in existence three or four years, but it was a big business already, and a steady stream of herds was moving north. I have been told that 600,000 cattle came up to eastern Kansas and southeastern Nebraska in '71, Lincoln, Nebraska, being then the north end of the trail, because there were no ranches above that point; only Indians and buffalo. The B. & M. Railroad had got to Lincoln, and you could graze and ship the beef that was going to eastern markets, but most of the cattle were being sold in small herds to stockmen and settlers. The same applied to Abilene, Kansas. About '74–'75 the trail quit both places and moved west, on account of the country getting settled up; and after that the big cowtowns were Caldwell and Ellsworth and Dodge City, Kansas, and Ogallala, Nebraska. By 1880 Texas cattle had got as far north as Miles City, Montana, and Texas cowboys with them. The name cowpuncher came in about this time, when they got to shipping a lot of cattle on the railroad. Men would go along the train with a prod pole and punch up cattle that got down in the cars, and that was how it began. It caught on, and we were all cowpunchers on the northern range, till the close of range work.
These are familiar facts, but they tell me there are still some people who never heard them, especially in the East. There were worlds of cattle in Texas after the Civil War. They had multiplied and run wild while the men was away fighting for the Confederacy, especially down in the southern part, between the Nueces River and the Río Grande. By the time the war was over they was down to four dollars a head—when you could find a buyer. Here was all these cheap long-horned steers overrunning Texas; here was the rest of the country crying for beef—and no railroads to get them out. So they trailed them out, across hundreds of miles of wild country that was thick with Indians. In 1866 the first Texas herds crossed Red River. In 1867 the town of Abilene was founded at the end of the Kansas Pacific Railroad and that was when the trail really started. From that time on, big drives were made every year, and the cowboy was born. That Emerson Hough movie, North of 36, was supposed to show one of the early cattle drives to the railroad. It was pretty good, except that the moving picture people had Taisie Lockhard coming up the trail wearing pants. If the cowpunchers of them days had ever seen a woman wearing pants, they'd have stampeded to the brush.
Those first trail outfits in the seventies were sure tough. It was a new business and had to develop. Work oxen were used instead of horses to pull the wagon, and if one played out, they could rope a steer and yoke him up. They had very little grub and they usually run out of that and lived on straight beef; they had only three or four horses to the man, mostly with sore backs, because the old time saddle eat both ways, the horse's back and the cowboy's pistol pocket; they had no tents, no tarps, and damn few slickers. They never kicked, because those boys was raised under just the same conditions as there was on the trail—corn meal and bacon for grub, dirt floors in the houses, and no luxuries. In the early days in Texas, in the sixties, when they gathered their cattle, they used to pack what they needed on a horse and go out for weeks, on a cow-hunt, they called it then. That was before the name roundup was invented, and before they had anything so civilized as mess wagons. And as I say, that is the way those first trail hands were raised. Take her as she comes and like it. They used to brag that they could go any place a cow could and stand anything a horse could. It was their life.
Most all of them were Southerners, and they were a wild, reckless bunch. For dress they wore wide-brimmed beaver hats, black or brown with a low crown, fancy shirts, high-heeled boots, and sometimes a vest. Their clothes and saddles were all homemade. Most of them had an army coat with cape which was slicker and blanket too. Lay on your saddle blanket and cover up with a coat was about the only bed used on the Texas trail at first. A few had a big buffalo robe to roll up in, but if they ever got good and wet, you never had time to dry them, so they were not popular. All had a pair of bullhide chaps, or leggins they called them then. They were good in the brush and wet weather, but in fine weather were left in the wagon.
As the business grew, great changes took place in their style of dress, but their boots and cigarettes have lasted nearly the same for more than sixty years. In place of the low-crowned hat of the seventies we had a high-crowned white Stetson hat, fancy shirts with pockets, and striped or checkered California pants made in Oregon City, the best pants ever made to ride in. Slickers came in too. In winter we had nice cloth overcoats with beaver collars and cuffs. The old twelve-inch-barrel Colt pistol was cut down to a six- and seven-and-a-half-inch barrel, with black rubber, ivory, or pearl handle. The old big roweled spurs with bells give place to hand-forged silver inlaid spurs with droop shanks and small rowels, and with that you had the cow-puncher of the eighties when he was in his glory.
In person the cowboys were mostly medium-sized men, as a heavy man was hard on horses, quick and wiry, and as a rule very good-natured; in fact it did not pay to be any thing else. In character their like never was or will be again. They were intensely loyal to the outfit they were working for and would fight to the death for it. They would follow their wagon boss through hell and never complain. I have seen them ride into camp after two days and nights on herd, lay down on their saddle blankets in the rain, and sleep like dead men, then get up laughing and joking about some good time they had had in Ogallala or Dodge City. Living that kind of a life, they were bound to be wild and brave. In fact there was only two things the old-time cowpuncher was afraid of, a decent woman and being set afoot.
One of the first things my father did after he got over here was to go down in Texas and buy a herd of cattle. I went with him though I was only ten years old, and that was how I made my first trip up the trail. The old man never went up the trail himself—hell no, he left that to his hired hands. But I was allowed to go because I was delicate, and the idea was it would be good for my health. I was the poorest, sickliest little kid you ever saw, all eyes, no flesh on me whatever; if I hadn't have been a cowpuncher, I never would have growed up. The doctor told my mother before we left England to "keep him in the open air." She kept me there, all right, or fate did. All my life.
We went down by train to New Orleans and then by boat to Texas. On the way back up the trail I helped wrangle the horses. I don't remember much else about the trip—only that the old man was going to tie me on my horse to cross Red River, so if the horse drownded I'd be sure to drown. I kicked like a steer, as I could swim, and the rest of them talked him out of it. We received the cattle near Red River, and afterwards I think Father took the stage back to the railroad. Anyway he left us there.
Sam Bass was my father's wagon boss. He wasn't an outlaw then—just a nice, quiet young fellow. He was with us most of the winter, but in March, '72, after the winter broke, he rode into Lincoln, where he bought a new rope, having broke his, pulling bogged cattle. In order to stretch it he was roping posts and making his horse pull it so as to get the kinks out. About that time a man walked down the board sidewalk, which was about three feet above the street. Sam roped him for a joke and pulled the rope too hard, and the old fellow stumbled and kind of cut his face in the gravel. He got up hopping mad and went for the sheriff—and Sam lit out for the ranch and got his money and pulled out for Texas. The sheriff was one hour too late.
None of us ever saw Sam Bass again. He was a nice fellow, always very kind to me, and different from most of the wild devils who came up the trail in the seventies. He did not get to drinking and raising hell. He never would have been an outlaw, only through loyalty to his boss Joe Collins, who had blowed in his whole herd in Deadwood and had to have money to face and pay his friends in Texas; so Sam helped him rob that U. P. train.
Three more times after that I went down to Texas and came back up the trail with a herd of cattle—in '79, in '81, and in '83. On the last of those trips I went all the way up to the Yellowstone, and when I got to Montana, I stayed. But from '71 to'78 I was tending my father's cattle around Lincoln and growing up with the men who came from Texas with them. Those years were what made a cowboy of me. Nothing could have changed me after that.CHAPTER 2
My Father—Early Days in Nebraska— I Try to Join the Pawnees– New Boots and a Six-shooter—A Damn Fool Kid
In a way I am the third generation of Abbotts over here. I don't remember very much of that family history stuff. It has always seemed a lot of damn bull to me. But my grandfather, Edward Abbott, came out here in 1848 as secretary to Lord Ashburton, with that outfit that made the line between Canada and the United States. My grandfather was a second son, so his older brother got everything, the way they do in England, and my grandfather wouldn't stand for being a gentleman pensioner, or gentleman pauper as he called it. So he took his gun and his dog and ten pounds and walked off, when he was a young fellow, and got a job as gamekeeper on somebody's estate. A gentleman wasn't supposed to do any work, only join the army or the church or something like that, but he got a contract for fixing up a rabbit warren and made five hundred pounds. And after that he became agent for a Sir Richard Sutton, and it was through him, when Lord Ashburton came out here, that he got the job as his secretary.
My grandfather went back to England with the rest of them. But he stayed here long enough to realize what a wonderful country this would be some day. The Grand Trunk Railway was building in eastern Canada then, and he invested every cent he could get and made a lot of money. Twenty years later, when my father went broke in England and decided to emigrate, my grandfather made him come to Nebraska. Father had a hard time here, and to do him credit, he never wanted to come. His heart was set on South Africa, but of course he had no show to do what he wanted to do; he had to do what his father told him. That's the English of it, every time. They have to boss, boss until the day they die.
I wish I had the command of language my father had. By God, he was educated. He ought to have been a lawyer or something like that instead of a farmer. One of his brothers was a lawyer and one went into the church. But his father wouldn't let him. Can you beat it? My grandfather was a rebel himself when he was young—but he had no mercy on his son. And my father suffered from it as a young man, but when his turn came, he took it out on his children just the same. I tell you it's in the English blood to dictate, dictate. They're worse than any damn Indian that ever lived.
I never got on with my father and never pretended to. He was overbearing and tyrannical—and worse with me than with the others. I was always the one he picked on to do the chores. I remember how in the wintertime he would tell me to "coat up, coat up" and go out and feed the cattle in below-zero weather, while the rest of them were sitting around the stove. It was always "coat up, coat up"—in that overbearing way of his. And I resented it. But I got back at him too. I remember one time the butcher wanted to buy some beef, and my father was going to cut them out of the herd for him, and he asked me to give him a horse. So I caught up little Pete, my cutting horse, for him; you know a good cutting horse would turn on a dollar and was quick as a flash. Father had rode all his life on one of these flat English saddles and he thought he was a rider, but he didn't know anything about cow horses. And when he rode into the herd and started to cut out a steer, and the steer dodged back, of course Pete turned right out from under him and left him on the ground. I sure laughed. But not out loud. As it was, Father swore he'd shoot the horse, but I kept Pete out of his way for a few days and he forgot about it.
I had a hell of a row with him another time over some big Texas steers that he was breaking to sell for work oxen to people going West. We would yoke a pair of them and tie their tails together and turn them loose in a field, where they would raise hell for two or three days. One night when I was driving the herd in to pen them for the night, one yoke got to fighting and a steer got down and could not get up. I rode to the house to get help, but his neck was broke and the old man blamed me. He picked up a small pole and run at me, and if I hadn't been on a quick little Texas pony he'd have knocked me off my horse.
That was the way I was treated. And all the time I was living with Texas cowpunchers, the most independent class of people on earth, and breathing that spirit. It it hadn't been for my mother, I never would have gone back home after I was fourteen.
I told you I wasn't much on this family history stuff. I don't remember where my father had his schooling, but I think it was Cambridge, because I remember my oldest brother had a certificate showing he had passed his examinations for Cambridge when he was fourteen, and had done very well in certain subjects. He never went to Cambridge, because my father went broke and left the country. But the old man was very proud of that certificate and kept it framed in the dining room. You know, to the English, the oldest son is everything. And when my oldest brother died, my father's last hopes went with him.
Excerpted from We Pointed Them North by E. C. Abbott ("Teddy Blue"), Helena Huntington Smith. Copyright © 1939 Farrar & Rinehart, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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