29. December 2012 · Comments Off on Frontier Trivia – From the Great Days of the Cowboys · Categories: Old West

Some ranching and cattle-trailing trivia, for your holiday weekend delectation:

The classical free-range cattle-ranching and long-trail-drive west actually only lasted for about twenty years, from the end of the Civil War to the mid-1880s when bad weather and a glutted market spelled the end of those ways. The cattle-towns depicted in western movies actually were limited to a very small time and space: Kansas, the terminus for those long drives from Texas, as the railroads crawled west. Abilene was the first of them, and Dodge City the last; in between there were others like Hayes, Ellsworth, Newton and Caldwell – some of whom only thrived for a single gaudy, raucous season as a cow-town.

Most of them were not nearly as lawless as portrayed in contemporary news accounts. Many of the towns were in economic competition with each other, and since each had a fairly freewheeling press and enthusiastic (not to say cut-throat) economic backers, any sort of ruckus in one town,was quickly magnified by detractors in another. Two cowboys indulging in a bit of (relatively) harmless gun-play outside a saloon in Newton could be magnified into small war, riot and murder by a rival towns’ newspaper.

The first thing that a typical cowboy wanted, after three or four months in the saddle, alone with the cows and his fellow cowboys was not what you think. They wanted a bath and new clothes, first. Then what you think. Cowtowns offered very nice bathing facilities. Along with the other amenities – but the bathhouse was invariably the first to be patronized by the newly arrived.

One very enterprising lady of the evening in Dodge City later went by the name of Squirrel-Tooth Alice. The name came from a gap in her teeth and a penchant for keeping a pet prairie-dog, on a little leash and collar. Her real name was Mary Elizabeth Haley. She married a part-time cowboy and full-time gambler and all around bad hat named Billy Thompson. Against most expectations, she and Billy prospered. She died of almost respectable old age, in a Los Angeles nursing home. In 1953. She had also, as a child of nine or ten, been a captive of the Comanche, until ransomed by her family. (She appears very briefly as a walk-on character in The Harvesting.)

Most murderous gunplay in cow-towns usually involved members of the professional gambling fraternity or local law enforcement professionals. On occasion, this meant the same body of personnel. These were small towns, any other time than the cattle-trailing season. People doubled up when it came to jobs.

The Cherokee tribe assessed a toll of 10 cents per head on cattle herds crossing their lands on the Shawnee Trail, which ran through eastern tracts of present-day Oklahoma, to various points in Missouri – Kansas City, Sedalia and St. Louis. A well-organized patrol called the “Cherokee Light Horse” enforced it; not for nothing were the Cherokee known as one of the Five Civilized Tribes.

One of the largest western cattle-ranch holdings were acquired in California by a hardworking cattle baron named Henry Miller, of whom it was said (with very little exaggeration) that he could travel from Oregon to the Mexican border and sleep on his own property every night. It wasn’t his real name: he was born Heinrich Kreiser. Immigrating to the United States in the 1840s, he was working as a butcher in New York, when he bought a second-hand ship passage ticket to California from an acquaintance who got the gold fever in ’49, but decided at the last minute not to go. As he was boarding the ship, Heinrich Kreiser noticed that the ticket he had bought was stamped ‘not transferrable’, and became Henry Miller. (No, not that Henry Miller . . . this Henry Miller)

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