-FOUR-The Road to Reno
EXCEPT FOR TWO weeks of holidays in the summer and a week at Christmas, Velma rose before the sun every Monday, the day she left for her other life in Reno. Getting up was always a chore; she uncoiled herself one limb at a time, waiting a minute or two to allow the ache to subside. She took care not to exert too much pressure on any single joint. Once she was up, she felt some relief.
It was a matter of pride to Velma that no one, not even Charlie, realized the full extent of her discomfort. If anyone noticed a wince or gasp she couldn’t stifle, she’d retort dismissively, “I’m middle-aged and still kicking! A little twinge here and there isn’t going to do me in yet. All I need is a tight girdle and a case of hair spray to keep me going.”
Most Mondays Charlie was still asleep and snoring heavily in his bed near the fireplace when Velma brewed a pot of strong coffee and smoked her first cigarette of the day. Then she’d slip into her tattered, fringed leather jacket, check the pocket for carrots, and stroll across the fields and down toward the river to caress Hobo’s nose and say good-bye for the week. Horses are simple animals, all stomach and fear, food and flight, but in times of calm the gut rules. The old admonition about “give ’em an inch” must have been written with a horse in mind. Charlie didn’t like her hand-feeding the horses, knowing they could become nippy and aggressive. But Hobo was a gentleman who waited patiently until the treats were offered.
Each Monday Velma left herself enough time to stop for coffee and a chat with her mother before she was due at the office. From the ranch it was only twenty-six miles to Reno, but it took close to an hour on the twisting gravel road, an interlude that allowed her to make the transition from the Double Lazy Heart to the busiest insurance company in the region. Velma drove confidently, even a bit aggressively, a cigarette spiraling smoke from the dashboard ashtray.
One spring morning in 1950 the trip passed uneventfully until she caught up with a livestock truck. Despite a postwar population boom, there were fewer than sixteen hundred licensed vehicles in the state, three-quarters of them in the Las Vegas area, so any traffic this early in the morning on a lightly traveled road in west central Nevada was unusual. The old truck with wooden slat sides and a canvas roof was obviously heavily loaded; it moved slowly, kicking up puffs of dust in its wake. As Velma pulled closer looking for an opportunity to pass, she noticed a dark fluid glistening on the bumper and dripping onto the road. Blood. She suspected it came from an injured steer or sheep.
Though accidents happened when transporting livestock, especially along rough roads in the spring with potholes formed in the frost-heaved ground, ranchers were usually careful hauling cattle or sheep because they were paid by the pound on the hoof. On long trips, stressed livestock lost weight, which meant money gone from the rancher’s pocket. It was worse if there were serious injuries, since the slaughterhouse would refuse animals that couldn’t walk off the truck. The law required livestock haulers to stop regularly to feed and water the animals at a secure facility where they could be unloaded and reloaded safely. However, it was different for animals not intended for human consumption. The Killer Rate Exemption spared truckers the time spent watering or feeding the animals en route.
The livestock in the truck might also have come from one of the so-called tax-dodge ranches, operations with absentee owners notorious for their neglect of their animals. All they were interested in was the tax write-off for ranching. Nevada had more than its share of such ranchers because the state offered generous incentives to attract and keep people on the land. After mining activity dropped off in the postwar years, ranching became the state’s lifeblood, and the Nevada tax structure was aimed at providing the best possible environment for ranchers. Free of state income taxes, ranchers could put every penny they made back into their operations. And when they died, there were no worries about crippling inheritance taxes, forcing children to sell the land their parents had worked for decades.
There were also federal government concessions and healthy subsidies for those who would grow food on the hoof or in the ground. No one wanted a repeat of the exodus that had occurred during the dust bowl years, a flight from farm and ranching communities that had never been completely reversed, despite innumerable government programs aimed at repopulating rural land. While incentives breathed some life back into ranching, they also attracted those who saw an opportunity for an easy tax credit, a hobby, or a get-rich-quick scheme. Native Nevadans dismissed the tax-write-off ranchers as carpetbagging easterners. But many of the well-to-do in Las Vegas and Reno owned ranches for the tax benefits.
As Velma followed the listing truck, the dribble of blood increased until it was a steady flow, too much for a single hurt animal. She hated the idea of animals suffering but no one, especially ranchers, liked busybodies. Still, Velma decided it was her duty to alert the driver in case he didn’t know. She followed the truck into the Sparks stockyards, four miles east of Reno’s downtown.
Velma walked over and peered through a gap in the slats, expecting to find cattle or sheep. Instead she saw a horrifying tableau of mutilated horses, some barely alive. Her eyes caught sight of a colt, or what was left of him, lying trampled, his bones crushed and coat blood-soaked. A number of horses had bloody stumps instead of legs. Others had sections of their hooves torn off and hides shredded by buckshot. A stallion stood with his head bowed, blood seeping from empty eye sockets. He had been blinded to subdue him. It was only the tight quarters that kept many of the horses upright. A penetrating stench, the combination of blood, urine, and feces, rose from the truck while flies swarmed over the brutalized animals, jammed so tightly they couldn’t flick the insects away with their tails.
“Where did these horses come from and why are they in such terrible condition?” Velma gasped.
“Oh, they were run in by plane out there,” the driver replied, indicating the hills of the Comstock Lode.
Velma was sensitive when it came to animals, but she wasn’t squeamish. She’d stood by Charlie when he’d been forced to put a calf out of its misery after a birth gone wrong, and then there were all those puppy litters. She’d hardly shed tears since her days in the polio cast. But what she saw on that truck was beyond anything she’d ever experienced.
“No point in crying your eyes out over a bunch of useless mustangs,” the driver told her. “They’ll all be dead soon anyway.”
VELMA WAS ETERMINED to do something about the atrocity she’d witnessed at the Sparks stockyards—but what? There was no wildlife protection agency to call, no advocacy group to alert. She didn’t even know if the capture and brutalization of wild horses was illegal. Velma was a right-of-center Republican who followed politics in the newspaper, but she had neither government connections nor any direct experience of the political process. Though she had a passing acquaintance with the wealthy, politically active James Slattery, who owned property near the Double Lazy Heart, she didn’t know him well enough to call on him for advice.
After a sleepless night, Velma resolved to learn as much as she could about wild horses. For the next week she arrived at work an hour ahead of schedule and left an hour early in order to spend time at the library before it closed. She found a few files of relevant newspaper clippings and a handful of magazine articles. Most were romantic pieces extolling the chase of mustangs for sport or stories of legendary wild horses like the Pacing White Mustang of the Cimarron, who eluded his frustrated pursuers for decades. There were plenty of local news stories about marauding stallions stealing mares from ranchers and later being captured or shot. She found dozens of place names throughout the West that commemorated mustangs—Wild Horse Mountain, Red Horse Creek, Red Roan River, Wild Horse Plains, Broomtail Flat, Pony Hills, Mustang Bayou, Wild Horse Gap, and Mestano Mesa—but very little information about the horses that inspired those names.
There were books by admirers and students of the wild horse, authors such as the famous Texas folklorist and mustanger Frank Dobie, who opined that there were plenty of dumb men in the world but he had never come across a dumb mustang. “No one who conceives him as only a potential servant to man can apprehend the mustang,” he observed. “The true conceiver must be a true lover of freedom—a person who yearns to extend freedom to all life. Halted in animated expectancy or running in abandoned freedom, the mustang was the most beautiful, most spirited, and most inspiring creature ever to print foot on the grasses of America.”1
Other mustangers wrote fulsome, self-aggrandizing accounts of their escapades; a few offered poignant descriptions of an era and a vocation that were receding into history by 1950. Wild horses had been pursued from Mexico to Canada for over three centuries. Most old-time mustangers had at least a grudging respect for their prey. Many were professionals whose livelihoods depended on capturing as many horses as possible, but the animals had to be in good condition or they couldn’t be sold.
A few mustangers became celebrities, their exploits and record numbers of captures admiringly reported in the popular press. Former buffalo hunter Buffalo Jones reinvented himself as a flamboyant mustang showman in the tradition of Buffalo Bill Cody, and in 1912 he staged a mustang chase through the streets of New York City.
To be a successful mustanger, a man had to know the habits and understand the instincts of wild horse herds. “We had to use our heads because the fuzztail sure used his,” wrote cowboy and novelist Will James in one of his 1930s bestsellers.2 Part of the wild horse’s canniness, according to professional horse runners, was a sort of moccasin telegraph that alerted the herds to danger. “[Horses] will gossip about these things,” wrote author Walter Goldsmith in 1944.3
There were grave consequences to underestimating mustangs. “You never knew for sure about the stud,” advised Herman Smoot, who chased wild horses in the hills outside Carson City in the 1920s. “Sometimes when he saw you coming he would lay his ears back and charge up to you, maybe fifty feet or so just to bluff you while his mares took off… He then usually turned right around and flowed after them. That was one type. I’ve seen others: they’re rare, leave their herd and trot up to you like some friendly horse wanting to have its nose rubbed. Then, when they were close enough, they’d explode in a lunge that stopped your heart. My god! You don’t know fright until you have a stud towering over you with hooves and a gaping mouth almost big enough to swallow you.”4
The most intriguing mustanger of any era was Charles “Pete” Barnum, dubbed “King of the Wild Horse Catchers” by Life magazine. Little is known of his early life other than that he grew up in the Dakotas, the son of a federal Indian agent, and attended college at some point. Barnum was in his late twenties when he arrived in Reno around 1904. He knew horses but he didn’t know mustangs, so he threw in with other horse runners to learn the craft.
Early in Barnum’s career in what he called “the truest sport and finest business in the world,” he earned a reputation as a maverick while attempting to capture a particularly elusive palomino stallion nicknamed El Rio Rey, also called the Yellow King. The stallion and his herd were chased for eighteen miles by relays of riders. First the foals dropped off, followed by the lactating mares, and finally the weaker males. Only El Rio Rey and four other horses were left by the time the final rider, Hank Connors, took up the chase.
Connors managed to rope the exhausted stallion, but the Yellow King slipped the loop and lunged away. Furious, Connors pulled out his .44 and brought the mustang down. At that moment his hard-running horse stepped in a badger hole and the two somersaulted to the ground. Barnum and the rest of his crew rode up to the two horses and Connors, all dead.
“What had we better do first?” asked the foreman.
“The first thing you will do,” answered Barnum regarding the field of triple tragedy, “is to bury that grand old horse. I wouldn’t care very much if you left that coward of a man to the coyotes.”5
Barnum concluded that even the most experienced horse runners’ methods were inefficient; 25 to 30 percent of mustangs were killed in the pursuit and capture. The chases also took a toll on the saddle horses. “To capture them [wild horses], the riders must actually outrun them, generally on the roughest mountains where loose or jagged rocks, huge boulders, dead or scrub timbers are constantly in one’s way. In making the long runs, which are necessary to exhaust a frightened bunch of wild horses, the saddle horses are generally forced to run up hill and down from five to ten miles; frequently runs of twenty miles and even more are made… Doubtless, this constitutes as hard a task as horses are called upon to perform in any part of the world; for a band once started is pursued by one man at a time, and if the run is to be successful the rider must travel at a speed equal to that of the band.”6
Barnum reasoned that if he was going to make horse running a paying proposition he had to deal in larger numbers with fewer casualties. Typically mustangers used pradas or corrals made of wood reinforced with wire to contain captured horses, but these materials were too heavy to transport into remote areas the herds frequented. And prados couldn’t be constructed on the spot because the country was virtually treeless. Moreover, corrals could agitate rather than subdue a wild animal. During one roundup, twelve of sixteen horses died when they threw themselves against the corral wire in an attempt to escape.
Barnum had noticed at rodeos that even the fiercest broncos, usually mustangs, rarely tried to jump or smash into walls they couldn’t see through or over. Such enclosures actually seemed to calm the animals. But that still left the problem of transportation. Barnum built a prototype corral out of canvas, seven feet tall and one hundred feet in diameter, strung around seventeen flexible cottonwood poles. When the poles were erect and anchored to the ground by ropes, the canvas walls would give if a horse ran into them but the structure wouldn’t collapse. Barnum also fashioned long “wings” of canvas to funnel the horses into the corral. “It was late November when all was ready,” he wrote of the first test.
We were anxious to try the corrals, so prepared for a short trip to the mountains…Saddle horses, forty-six in number, and already nearly worn out with work, were again gathered… We successfully packed corrals, poles and camp outfit on the chosen six pack horses [but] every animal lay down. Although I asked them politely, and later used persuasion of a more decided character, they refused absolutely to get up so we had to remove the packs, divide the loads among four more horses and found that they all had enough even then.
There were four men beside myself: Dicey, a full-blooded Shoshone Indian, Miguel Quiroz, Chico and Bascus, three Mexican vaqueros possessed of good judgment and plenty of experience. Before starting out the next morning I explained to them that much depended on the success of the undertaking, that I expected every man to ride through blazes if necessary to corral these horses and hinted that any lukewarm performance would be noticed by me and dealt with accordingly.
Miguel and Chico understood …both rode at breakneck speed directly down the side of the mountain, knowing that about a half a mile below was a pass that the leader was striving to use in his effort to get his band to the flat country to the east. To get there first would cause the mustangs to turn south, which would eventually lead them back to the mouth of our corrals. The movement called for quick work and hard riding but we knew that the time to outrun a wild horse is to do it down hill—for if you cannot beat him down hill, you surely cannot do it going up! Quirt and spur were not spared and we gained our point!
Miguel, Chico and myself were below these wild horses and running as fast as the leaders, and they gradually turned from us toward the mountains above. The horses carrying the Mexicans were badly distressed, having been running as fast and a little farther than the wild ones and carrying about two hundred and thirty pounds of man and rigging, so believing that I would be able to handle the band until relieved, they returned to camp for fresh horses.
The sagebrush was very thick and high, my horse jumped much of it instead of going around. This together with the fact that we had to cross many washes and ditches and were constantly climbing the mountains drew heavily on his reserve strength. Inwardly I was losing hope. The wild horses were running very strong, all staying close to the leader and only a few suckling colts being very far behind.
Just then out from behind a rocky ridge rode Dicey, the Indian, with a yell and a dash that was a credit to his race, straight for the leader. Over rocks and badger holes down the side of a mountain that would cause a man to exercise care afoot, this daredevil Indian rode at race horse speed until he was just ahead of the big bay stallion in the lead. The stud saw and heard him and turned away from him. I knew now that we had a chance to win, so closed in behind and to the right of the band.7
After Barnum’s team drove the herd into the corral, two of the men flung themselves off their horses and dragged the high canvas gate across the entrance. Just as Barnum hoped, the mustangs milled uneasily but didn’t attempt to breach the high sides of their enclosure. He later refined the canvas system to allow for easier transport and assembly.
During his fifteen years in Nevada, Barnum caught over fourteen thousand mustangs, making himself a considerable fortune by using effective and relatively humane techniques. In 1914 he left the business in disgust over the continuing mechanization of the chase.8
THE ONLY ACADEMIC WORK Velma found was The Wild Horse of the West, published in 1945 by Walker D. Wyman, a professor of history at Wisconsin State College in River Falls, Wisconsin. She plowed through its 348 pages of dry social and economic history, soaking up details of the mustang’s origins and its pivotal role in settling the West. Some of this she had already absorbed as a child, hearing her father speak of the quality and characteristics of the horses he trained.
Though diluted through the centuries, a Nevada mustang’s conformation revealed the history of the horse in the Americas, from the first landing on the mainland of New Spain in 1534 with the invading force of Hernán Cortés, to the trek north in the herds of Francisco Vásquez de Coronado as he advanced across the Rio Grande into present-day New Mexico in a quest for gold and silver riches beyond any man’s imaginings.
The conquistadores soon learned harsh lessons about their mounts—the true source of their military superiority—and the danger of allowing them to fall into native hands. The Indians of the West Indies proved exceptionally adept at stealing horses and then adapting the techniques of the Spanish horsemen. Neither death nor mutilation discouraged the thieves, so the Spanish confiscated saddles, bridles, halters, even riatas or ropes, whenever they found them in native hands and forbade the trade of anything equine to the tribes of the islands. Forced to improvise, the Indians learned to ride bareback with bitless bridles fashioned from hide. In short order they became better horsemen than the conquistadores themselves.
The first wild horses likely carried the bloodlines of those used by Juan de Oñate y Salazar, the ruthless governor of New Spain known as “the Last Conquistador.” Starting in 1598, he swept across northern Mexico toward the Rio Grande, trailed by a colonizing expedition of 400 settlers, a clutch of Franciscan priests, his army, and 7,000 head of cattle, donkeys, sheep, and goats. With them came horses: 1,007 stallions, 237 mares, and 137 colts. They were muscular and low-slung with wedge-shaped heads, smallish ears, arching necks, and a low tail set.
De Oñate’s horses were descendants of the Barb war mounts brought across the mountains of Spain by the Moors in their conquest of Iberia centuries earlier. Called jennets—a type rather than a breed—the sturdy animals were favored by the soldier class who rode à la jineta, using stirrups and a slightly bent leg in the saddle. Most of the horses then in the Spanish colony of New Spain could be traced to the breeding farms of Andalusia where the jennet body type was popular.
Less than a century after de Oñate crossed the Rio Grande, the wild horse herds had spread north through the mesquite grasslands of Texas and New Mexico and into the Great Plains, as one Spanish expedition followed another looking for gold and attempting to settle the northern lands. Most failed from ineptitude, Indian attack, or both, and all left horses behind. Desperate Spanish settlers traded some to the Indian tribes for food, others were stolen, and thousands more were lost to stampede or simply abandoned when the would-be conquerors fled their attackers. No other animal has ever occupied so much territory in such a short period of time.
The horse was pushed west and north by the Gila Apaches of western New Mexico and Arizona where they were traded to the Navajo, then to the Ute and Shoshone, then west to the Paiute and east to the Cheyenne and the Pawnee. The tribes of the Taos and Pecos regions also nudged the horse east. The Comanche and the Apache of the southern Great Plains took to the horse as if the animal were their destiny. Not content to wait for animals to be lost or traded, the newly mounted tribes aggressively raided Spanish settlements to increase their herds and in the process transformed themselves from subsistence hunter-gatherers to formidable warriors.
The Shoshone, trade-masters of the western tribes, acquired not only horses but also saddles, bridles, spurs, and blankets and took them across the Rocky Mountains as barter with the Flathead, Yakima, and Walla Walla of Idaho, Washington, and Oregon. It is likely that the Shoshone also introduced the horse to the Nez Percé in Washington and Oregon. The Nez Percé would become some of the most skilled horse handlers on the continent and the only Indian nation with a highly selective breeding program designed to produce colorful paints and Appaloosas.
As the wild herds spread, the Barb and jennet bloodlines were diluted by infusions of genes from the Hobby horses of the English, the Friesians of the Dutch, and the so-called Iron Horse of the French colonies in Canada. The Canadian horse strongly influenced the early wild Spanish horse of the West, giving it a distinction of size and type, particularly among the northern herds, that endured for hundreds of years. The long, thick, and sometimes curly manes, heavy necks, and thick legs found from Colorado to California strongly resemble the original Canadian brought to New France in the 1600s.
There’s also evidence that the famed Appaloosa of the Nez Percé may have originated with a spotted stallion given to New France, now Quebec, by King Louis XIV in the late 1600s. The king sent three shipments of horses to the colony, including a magnificent stallion whose coat was a riotous leopard pattern from nose to tail and all the way down his legs, set off by a black mane and tail. He was Breton bred, with a strong dose of Andalusian and traces of the heavier-bodied Dutch Frie-sian that showed up in the feathering on his legs. The stallion, along with nearly forty others, both stallions and mares, became the foundation stock of the Canadian horse. Oddly, the Iron Horse that evolved from those Breton and Normandy horses came to be exclusively black or darkest bay, but the spotted gene, a cipher for geneticists even today, laid color on the western mustangs as the far-ranging French fur traders took horses from New France across the continent to barter with the Nez Percé and others. Like the Spanish a century before, the voyageurs also lost horses to theft, stampede, and to a new adversary—the marauding stallions of thriving wild herds.
VELMA’S READING OF Walker Wyman’s tome also revealed why those brutalized horses came to be in the back of the truck at the Sparks stockyards. In the early 1920s the concept of a “balanced daily ration” was introduced as the preferred diet for dogs, rather than table scraps. P. M. Chappel of Rockford, Illinois, and his two brothers canned the first pet food under the Ken-L Ration brand, using the meat of aged horses destined for slaughter. When they couldn’t get enough old horses, the brothers raised their own pet food herds. Dogs gobbled up just under one hundred fifty thousand pounds of tinned meat from a variety of sources in 1923; in 1930, the amount consumed rose to nearly 23 million pounds. Increasingly, the primary ingredient was horse-meat. There was no expense involved in raising horses on the range, only in their capture, slaughter, and shipping. The early years of the Depression didn’t diminish Americans’ demand for canned pet food; the industry processed 50 million pounds in 1933–34. If only half of that meat came from wild horses—and some government reports indicate that is an accurate estimate—then thirty thousand to thirty-five thousand horses in those two years alone were killed to feed dogs in the United States.
The relentless pursuit of wild horses pushed the surviving herds, most of them in Wyoming, Colorado, Montana, Nevada, California, New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, and Oregon, deeper into mountainous areas and inaccessible valleys, making their capture difficult and expensive. But as airplanes became more common after World War I and again after World War II, air-assisted roundups made pursuit in even the most remote locations economically feasible. Though Wyman acknowledged the contribution of the mustang to western colonization, he had little sympathy for their imminent extinction. “After 1900 [the wild horse] no longer deserved the reputation his mustang ancestors made for him. Today he is headed for the cauldron.”9
It wasn’t only pampered pets that were eating the mustang into extinction. Long before the Chappel brothers sold that first can of horsemeat pet food in 1922, competition for forage played a role. Grass had been currency in the West since the early 1800s when the first large cattle ranches had been established. After the Civil War most of the land west of the Mississippi River belonged to the federal government, but those who dared to claim it, and could hold on to it, essentially owned it. In a territory where virtually every man carried a gun and what law that existed could be ignored by those who wielded the most firepower, disputes over grassland inevitably escalated into shooting wars.
The first of the western rangeland battles was sparked by the arrival of sheep herds in the 1860s. Cattlemen blamed sheep for polluting water holes, killing grass by nibbling it down to nothing and then trampling its roots with their sharp hooves. Some claimed sheep left a scent on the grass and in water holes that was repugnant to cattle. At first the cattlemen tried to get their own ranch hands to do the dirty work but they refused. “The men working for the cattle barons,” complained one Wyoming foreman at the time, “seemed to have an understanding among themselves that they were being paid so much a month for working, not fighting, and it is up to the owner or manager to do his own fighting.”10 The cattlemen turned to professional gunfighters, euphemistically called “cattle detectives” or “stock inspectors.” The most effective ones collected fees of $100 to $250 a month, about three times a U.S. marshal’s salary.
Ostensibly, the cattle detective’s job was to find cattle rustlers and gun them down. But as competition for grass intensified with settlement, the definition of “rustler” was often expanded to include not only those who stole cattle but also those who took food and water from cattle—namely sheep ranchers. “Killing men is my specialty,” explained former Colorado deputy sheriff Tom Horn, the most famous cattle detective. “I look at it as a business proposition, and I think I’ve got a corner on the market.”11 Horn, rumored to have dispatched seventeen rustlers during his four years with the Pinkerton Detective Agency, charged as much as five hundred dollars for each one he shot. The law looked the other way, and in any event witnesses to rangeland killings were rare. Horn was eventually hanged in 1901, condemned only after he drunkenly confessed to a marshal that he had mistakenly shot a fourteen-year-old boy instead of his sheep-ranching father.
Between 1869 and 1906 cattlemen attacked sheep ranchers and their herds all across the western states, slaughtering tens of thousands of sheep and murdering countless herders. One of the first recorded incidents occurred in 1869 when Charles Hanna, who introduced sheep to Brown County, Texas, went out to his corral one morning to find his 300 sheep dead, their throats cut. In 1900 Wyoming raiders slaughtered nearly 12,000 sheep in a single night and in another incident, set fire to a herd of 2,600, killing most of them. The secretary of the Crook County Sheep Shooters Association in central Oregon boasted that his organization had killed between 8,000 and 10,000 sheep in 1904 and intended to redouble its efforts the year after.
The enmity against sheep began to soften after 1910 as cattlemen, forced to diversify, started raising sheep themselves as a hedge against volatile beef prices. In the process they learned that sheep could happily coexist with cattle, actually improving the soil by aerating it with their smaller hooves and fertilizing the grass with their droppings. Moreover, sheep ate some grasses and weeds that cattle spurned.
The competition for grass wasn’t just between sheep and cattle ranchers; cattlemen had a long history of battling among themselves for supremacy over rangeland. In most of the western states, huge allotments of land were necessary to feed cattle. The fabled King Ranch in Texas, for example, encompassed six hundred thousand acres when its founder, Richard King, died in 1885. Containing cattle on such immense holdings was problematic, especially with wood in short supply in arid regions. Barbed wire, sometimes called devil’s rope, was invented in the 1860s and solved the problem for those who could afford it. The Frying Pan Ranch in the Texas Panhandle spent thirty-nine thousand dollars in 1882 on a four-wire fence to contain 250,000 acres of grazing land. Other large operators followed suit, with a propensity to annex public land, especially if it held water holes. Sometimes the fences ran across public roads, preventing neighbors from getting into town or attending church, but anyone who cut a fence was liable to be shot.
At the same time, the grass itself was becoming badly overgrazed by waves of newcomers. Many of the first homesteaders intended to farm, but when they found that the land was unsuitable for agriculture they turned to livestock. Government land grants were later doubled when it became clear that in many areas of the West, far more land was necessary to raise a herd large enough to provide a man and his family with a living. Even a section, 640 acres or a square mile, couldn’t begin to support moderate-sized herds, so land grant settlers began pasturing their herds on public land. There they ran up against the cattlemen who felt they owned the same range because they had arrived first. Hostilities—including lynchings and targeted murders by hired gunslingers—escalated between the cattle barons and the smaller operators, finally culminating in the infamous 1892 Johnson County cattle war in Wyoming, between a squad of twenty-two professional gunmen hired by the cattle barons and three hundred ranchers with smaller holdings. The U.S. Cavalry finally brought the standoff to an end.
But it was not the end of the struggle. As long as grass was the lifeblood of the ranching economy and while huge tracts of it remained, at least on paper, in public hands, there would be competition to control it and attacks against whoever or whatever trespassed over it—sheep, cattle, rustlers, or wild horses.
The first systematic elimination of wild horses occurred in California. The abundant grasslands of the California central valley, the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas, and even the sparser desert ranges of the interior offered ideal terrain to mustang herds. The palomino coloring, common in many Spanish breeds, had become well established in the far West. The “yella” horse of the later western cowboy derived from the Ysabellas brought to the Californias by the Spanish. They were named for Queen Isabella, who favored golden horses, and the color had found its way into the jennet and other regional breeds of Iberia and then to the New World. Called California Sorrels, Dorados, Claybanks, and Tar-rows, the creamy pale or deepest gold palomino, together with the Paint and Appaloosa, epitomized the wild horse of the far western frontier.
During the mission era, between 1769 and 1833, the Californios had little interest in the mustang herds. In 1790 there were only nineteen private rancheros in all of California; the rest were owned by the church and attached to the twenty-one Franciscan missions strung along the Pacific coastline from Sonoma to San Diego. But after the secularization of mission lands, the number of ranches quickly increased as the Spanish government handed out large land grants and cattle took over from agriculture. With cattle came conflict. Some of the largest wild horse herds in America were in California, and the new Spanish and Mexican ranchers wasted little time slaughtering wild horses at will. In the 1850s after nearly two years of drought in southern California, rancheros killed seven thousand horses by driving them off the cliffs at Santa Barbara. Thousands more were penned and left to starve or driven into chutes and stabbed with a vaquero’s lance.
Once American stockmen took control of California from the Mexicans in the late 1850s, after the state joined the Union, they killed as many of the Spanish-blooded horses as they could, but not only because they competed with cattle for grass. The stockmen considered the mestaños to be inferior to the larger American horses they brought with them from east of the Mississippi and they didn’t want wild horses breeding with their own stock. By 1875, most of the California wild herds had retreated into arroyos and remote deserts or up into impenetrable mountains and high plateaus where they were left alone because ranchers didn’t want that land.
In other ranching states mustang herds were eliminated wherever they interfered with cattle. Long after they were hunted out in the Dakotas, Missouri, the flatlands of Colorado, and much of Arizona, Texas, and California, mustangs still thrived in rugged, thinly populated Nevada. The eastern Sierra Nevada counties of Washoe, Douglas, Lyon, and Storey were ideal for the hardy wild horse. Mustangs also proliferated farther east, especially in Eureka, Elko, and Lander counties. These badlands of Nevada’s interior were home to as many as a hundred thousand wild horses in the early 1900s, but not for long.
After lobbying by the Nevada Live Stock Association, the state passed a law in 1900 allowing wild horses to be shot wherever they were found. Within two years ranchers and guns-for-hire killed fifteen thousand of them. Then as mechanization transformed one industry after another in the early twentieth century demand grew for horse-hides—the raw material of superior conveyer belts. Most of the hides were processed in Chicago, where prices were high enough to make the hunt and the transport worthwhile. As Nevada’s herds also withdrew into more inaccessible terrain, the mustang hunters became less particular about whether a horse in their sights was branded or not. “The farmers came to be afraid to turn out old Dobbin for a Sunday run on the plains about their ranches, lest some skulking hide-hunter pot him,” noted cowboy poet and novelist Will C. Barnes.12
Within a couple of years, the same stockmen who’d pushed for the original law grew tired of having their own horses killed by hide hunters and lobbied to rescind it. Instead they paid their wranglers, who could be trusted to recognize the cattlemen’s brands, a bounty on each pair of mustang ears they turned in. But the wranglers weren’t as motivated as the hide hunters, and by the time America entered World War I, the Nevada mustang proliferated once again.
After the war, competition for control of rangeland intensified when cattle and sheep herds grew larger in response to a buoyant economy. But as the livestock ranches expanded, forage from the Mississippi to the Pacific and from the Missouri to the Rio Grande started to disappear. In 1880, estimates placed the carrying capacity of western public land at 22.5 million head of cattle; by 1930 that number had dropped to 10 million. In just fifty years, the land had degraded, irreparably in some areas. Livestock grazed such quick-regenerating and edible native grasses as oat grass, dropseed, giant wild rye, ricegrass, and bluebunch wheatgrass virtually out of existence. In their place grew the relatively unpalatable greasewood, zucca, sand sage, and winter fat. And the new grasses didn’t bind the soil together as effectively. Dust and sand replaced topsoil over vast areas.
There was no incentive for conservation on the public land: Everybody owned it and nobody owned it. It was the classic dilemma of the commons, where no one takes responsibility for a resource that is free to all, and therefore it is ruined by all. And ruin was exactly the state of the grazing lands in the early 1930s when drought struck.
By 1934, the abuse of public rangeland had become so serious that Congress called for hearings. Underscoring the urgency, dust from a massive prairie storm made its way east and coated Washington right at the height of the debate. On June 28, 1934, Congress passed the Taylor Grazing Act, named after its sponsoring congressman, Edward Taylor of Colorado. Historian Walker Wyman called it the Magna Carta of the western range.
The Taylor Grazing Act gave the United States Grazing Service—later renamed the Bureau of Land Management—responsibility for controlling and regulating 143 million acres of public lands located primarily in the ten western states of Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Wyoming, and Nevada. The Grazing Service created a permit system for use of the land, charged nominal fees for those permits, and pursued a mandate to protect and improve grazing land.
The Grazing Service’s main customers were the roughly sixteen thousand cattle and sheep ranchers who were the principal users of public land. From the beginning, the stockmen were a powerful influence on the Service and later on the Bureau of Land Management, thanks to the introduction of eight-man advisory boards for each of the fifty-two western districts. Ranchers, elected by secret ballot by other stockmen who held permits in the area, sat on the advisory boards and appointed state representatives to lobby for their interests in Washington.
Undermanned and underfunded from its inception, the Grazing Service relied heavily on the advisory boards, which functioned more like a private company’s board of directors than advisors to a government agency. In many ways, the creation of the Grazing Service finally gave the big cattlemen their victory over the smaller operators, who didn’t have the time, resources, or connections to secure seats on the powerful advisory boards.
The Grazing Service was in an unenviable position. Charged with divvying up land that was losing its ability to feed livestock, it had no mandate to purchase more and insufficient funds to rehabilitate the range. At the same time its officials were heavily influenced by a powerful cattle lobby that essentially ran the various advisory boards. The Grazing Service did what many organizations do under pressure and cast about for a scapegoat. “A wild horse consumes forage needed by domestic livestock, brings in no return, and serves no useful purpose,” declared Archie D. Ryan, acting director, Division of Grazing, in 1939.13 Over the next eleven years, the Grazing Service and then the BLM facilitated the “range clearance” of tens of thousands of wild horses by allowing permit holders to poison water holes, shoot the horses without limit, and otherwise slaughter them. Nevada, with by far the largest population of wild horses, attracted their concerted efforts.
Aided by the airplane, a new breed of mustanger came into being. They were essentially bounty hunters who took horses off BLM-managed rangeland in return for six cents a pound, on the hoof, paid by the rendering plants. “Within a period of four years [1946 to 1950] we removed over 100,000 abandoned and unclaimed horses from Nevada ranges,” boasted a BLM officer. “Branded horses were turned over to the owners for disposition by sale. Unclaimed horses were taken by the people operating the airplanes under title from the state and sold as compensation for their work. This program was carried out without cost to the government except some assistance in building holding corrals and truck trails where needed.”14 The BLM’s campaign had been stunningly effective: Officials estimated that fewer than four thousand mustangs were left in all of Nevada by 1950.
FIVE DAYS AFTER encountering the bloodied stock truck, Velma stood nervously in front of the Bureau of Land Management’s regional district offices in downtown Reno. She concluded that all trails led to the BLM; most of the remaining wild horse herds were living on land managed by the Bureau. But she had no idea whom to ask for or what to say about her concern for the captured horses.
As Velma entered the dreary county building and made her way to the BLM’s offices she remembered one of her father’s sayings. “Act like a lady, think like a man. That way you’ll get respect and you’ll get what you want.” She introduced herself as Mrs. Charles Johnston of the Double Lazy Heart Ranch to Dante Solari, a stocky, prematurely balding young man in his late twenties. Solari was the local range manager, responsible for the area that encompassed the Double Lazy Heart, all the way up to and including Virginia City. A recent graduate of the University of Nevada in Reno, Solari spoke enthusiastically and with an assurance beyond his years. Velma needn’t have worried about confrontation. No sooner had she uttered the words “rancher’s wife” and “wild horses,” than Solari assumed she’d come to complain about her ranch being pestered by a marauding stallion or a local herd that was damaging water holes in the area.
Solari assured her that the BLM was doing everything it could to rid the range of mustangs by issuing round-up permits to private interests, most of whom used airplanes to capture as many horses as possible. He told her the horses were useless except for chicken feed and pet food and they would proliferate like vermin if they weren’t removed. He emphasized that the herds presented a threat to forage on public lands and to the livelihoods of sheep and cattle ranchers. The stallions in particular were a terrible nuisance, knocking down fences, fouling water holes, and stealing domestic mares.
Until the development of specialized western breed registries in the 1930s and 1940s, primarily for the American Quarter Horse, Paint, and Appaloosa, most ranch horses carried some degree of mustang blood. Broodmares were routinely released to winter over on the range and be bred by a wild stallion because the offspring were usually superior in vitality and endurance. In Nevada, where hay was an especially precious commodity, the ranchers also turned loose their remudas, or remounts, for the winter. Often a mare with a large cowbell belted around her neck was used to keep the domestic herd together. The clanging bell mesmerized horse, mule, and burro alike and none would stray far from the belled horse. In the spring ranchers simply had to catch the bell mare to recover their herd. But belling had one major drawback. If a wild stallion stole the belled mare, for he, too, was attracted by the sound, the rest of the rancher’s horses would follow. Retrieving them from the stallion was a far more difficult task.
Solari gave no credence to old-fashioned notions about improving bloodlines by breeding with wild stallions. He explained to Velma that the mustang of 1950 was nothing more than a mongrel, not a wild animal at all but merely feral. Ignoring the fact that many Nevada ranchers still worked livestock mounted on horses with mustang blood, Solari assured Velma that even a captured and gentled wild horse could never be fully trusted. And in any case, the BLM had determined that most of those remaining in the wild were stunted and inbred and that disease was rife among the herds. He touted the Bureau’s policy of allowing ranchers, or anyone else for that matter, to apply for a permit to take wild horses off government land, a process he referred to as culling and range clearance.
In his eagerness to demonstrate the BLM’s efficiency, Solari mentioned that there was a distribution center very close to the Double Lazy Heart where wild horses were held pending shipment to Sparks, Reno, California, and even north to Canada. Calgary, Alberta, was home to one of the largest rendering plants in the West. In fact, he added, there was a load of horses waiting for shipment as they spoke.
On Friday night of the same week, Velma rushed home to bring her news to Charlie. In short order they were on the porch, drinks in hand. Normally Charlie reported on his week first—the cow’s blocked teat or half a day of back-busting jockeying to get the mower blades out of the hay cutter—but that evening Velma blurted out the story of the truck, her hours in the library, and her conversation with the BLM man.
Charlie was appalled at the gratuitous violence suffered by the horses and sorry that Velma had to see it. But he marveled at how much information she’d pulled together. As they stirred more cocktails, their talk turned to the contrary opinions Velma had read about the quality of wild horses, a debate that dated from the earliest European explorers and military men in the West. They concluded that an appreciation of the wild horse’s beauty and utility was a function of how much contact the observer had with them and how much he needed them. They knew from their own experience that mustangs weren’t the stunted beasts Dante Solari described, and they certainly weren’t useless. And though they both felt the amount of Spanish blood was a red herring, they could see with their own eyes that Ranger had clear Iberian and Arabian signatures in his conformation, as did many mustangs in the Comstock and Virginia ranges.
As they talked and drank, Velma and Charlie became increasingly incensed at the treatment of the mustangs and at the BLM’s complicity. When she reflected on Solari’s enthusiasm for culling, Velma could not help but think that after polio struck she might have been regarded as less than useful, and certainly not very pretty; perhaps some might believe that she should have been “culled,” too.
The more emotional of the two, Velma suggested they string up or geld those responsible. “I’d like to chase them through the mountains with a plane and a shotgun, and see how they like it,” she announced. Charlie nodded in agreement, knowing that she’d calm down after she got it off her chest. Then they’d get down to business.
Finally, a well-lubricated Charlie put his arm around Velma’s slender shoulders and asked, “So what are we going to do now?” Velma smiled at his words, especially the “we.”15
© 2010 David Cruise and Alison Griffiths