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AmericAN WEStern Code of the West Cowboy Spurs


Nothing but Indians and Rattlesnakes: The truth was that farming the plains was indeed more difficult than back east.

By Fred Ward


A

fter the Civil War, many from the East Coast and Europe ere lured west by reports from relatives and by extensive advertising campaigns promising “the Best Prairie Lands”, “Low Prices”, “Large Discounts For Cash”, and “Better Terms Than Ever!”. The new railroads provided the opportunity for migrants to go out and take a look, with special “land exploring tickets”, the cost of which could be applied to land purchases offered by the railroads. As one farm wife stated, “There’s nothing up there but Indians and rattlesnakes and blue northers and prairie fires” The truth was that farming the plains was indeed more difficult than back east. Water management was more critical, lightning fires were more prevalent, the weather was more extreme, rainfall was less predictable.


Most migrants, however, put those concerns aside. Their chief motivation to move west was to find a better economic life than the one they had. Farmers sought larger and more fertile areas; merchants and tradesman new customers and less competitive markets; laborers higher paying work and better conditions. The major exception was the Mormons, who sought a religious and economic Utopia, free of persecution, which would allow their entire community to thrive. In many cases, migrants sank their roots in communities of similar religious and ethnic backgrounds. For example, many Finns went to Minnesota and Michigan, Swedes to South Dakota, Norwegians to North Dakota, Irish to Montana, Chinese to San Francisco, German Mennonites in Kansas, and German Jews to Portland, Oregon. The California Gold Rush set off large migrations of Hispanic and Asian people which continued after the Civil War. Chinese migrants, many of whom were impoverished peasants, provided the major part of the workforce for the building of Central Pacific portion of the transcontinental railroad. They also worked in mining, agriculture, and small businesses, and many lived in San Francisco. Significant numbers of Japanese also arrived in California. Some migrants intended to make their fortune and return home and others sought to stay and start a new life.

Many Hispanics who had been living in the former territories of New Spain, lost their land rights to fraud and governmental action when Texas, New Mexico, and California were formed. In some cases, Hispanics were simply driven off their land. In Texas, the situation was most acute, as the “Tejanos”, who made up about 75% of the population, ended up as laborers employed by the large white ranches which took over their land. In New Mexico, only six percent of all claims by Hispanics were confirmed by the Claims Court. As a result, many Hispanics became permanently migrating workers, seeking seasonal employment in farming, mining, ranching, and on the railroads. Border towns sprang up with barrios of intense poverty. In response, some Hispanics joined labor unions, and in a few cases, led revolts. The California “Robin Hood”, Joaquin Murieta, led a gang in the 1850s which burned houses, killed miners, and robbed stagecoaches. In Texas, Juan Cortina led a 20-year campaign against Texas land grabbers and the Texas Rangers, starting around 1859. Instead of the reality of Hispanic life, in the United States the public’s image became one of quaint peasants happy with their lot.


Code of the West A new code of behavior was becoming acceptable in the West. People no longer had a duty to retreat when threatened. This was a departure from British common law that said you must have your back to the wall before you could protect yourself with deadly force. In 1876 an Ohio court held if attacked you were not “obligated to fly”. The Indiana Supreme Court upheld the legality of ‘no duty to retreat”. The code of the West dictated that a man did not have to back away from a fight. He could also pursue an adversary even if it resulted in death. He needed to retreat no further than “the air at his back”. In reality, the main activity of law enforcement in cattle towns was knocking down drunks and hauling them away before they hurt themselves or others, somewhat akin to naval military police controlling shore leave. They also disarmed cowboys who violated gun control edicts, tried to prevent dueling, and dealt with flagrant breaches of gambling and prostitution ordinances.When the cattle were not in town, Wyatt Earp and other lawmen might be heading up street repair projects or doing other civic chores, or tending to their own business interests. Usually, justices of the peace were poorly schooled in law, politically corrupt, and depended on assessing fees and fines to make a living. The better ones ruled by common sense and experience, but could be inconsistent as they did not resort to statutes to guide their rulings. Federal judges to have better quality and followed written law. Honest jurors were hard to find and most jurors were biased by their personal relationships and acquaintances.Some of the banditry of the West was carried out by Mexicans and Indians against Anglo-American targets of opportunity along the U.S. – Mexico border, particularly in Texas, Arizona, and California. Pancho Villa, after leaving his father’s employ, took up the life of banditry in Durango and later in the state of Chihuahua. He was caught several times for crimes ranging from banditry to horse thievery and cattle rustling but, through influential connections, was always able to secure his release. Villa later became a

controversial revolutionary folk hero, leading a band of Mexican raiders in attacks against various regimes and was sought after by the U.S. government. The second major type of banditry was conducted by the infamous outlaws of the West, including Jesse James, Billy the Kid, the Dalton Gang, Black Bart, Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch and hundreds of others who preyed on banks, trains, and stagecoaches. Some of the outlaws, such as Jesse James, were products of the violence of the Civil War (James had ridden with Quantrill’s Raiders) and others became outlaws during hard times in the cattle industry. Many were misfits and drifters who roamed the West avoiding the law. When outlaw gangs were near, towns would raise a posse (like in the movies) to attempt to drive them away or capture them. Seeing that the need to combat the gunslingers was a growing business opportunity, Allan Pinkerton ordered his detective agency to open branches out West, and they got into the business of pursuing and capturing outlaws, like the James Gang, Butch Cassidy, Sam Bass, and dozens of others. Pinkerton devised the “rogues gallery” and employed a systematic method for identifying bodies of criminals. Central to the myth and the reality of the West is the American cowboy. His real life was a hard one and revolved around two annual roundups, spring and fall, the subsequent drives to market, and the time off in the cattle towns spending his hard earned money on food, clothing, gambling, and prostitution. During winter, many cowboys hired themselves out to ranches near the cattle towns, where they repaired and maintained equipment and buildings. On a long drive, there was usually one cowboy for each 250 head of cattle.


Cowboy spurs

Before a drive, a cowboy’s duties included riding out on the range and bringing together

the scattered cattle. The best cattle would be selected, roped, and branded, and most male cattle were castrated. The cattle also needed to be dehorned and examined and treated for infections. On the long drives, the cowboys had to keep the cattle moving and in line. The cattle had to be watched day and night as they were prone to stampedes and straying. The work days often lasted fourteen hours, with just six hours of sleep. It was grueling, dusty work, with just a few minutes of relaxation before and at the end of a long day. Cowboy vv Cowboy spurs Before a drive, a cowboy’s duties included riding out on the range and bringing together the scattered cattle. The best cattle would be selected, roped, and branded, and most male cattle were castrated. The cattle also needed to be dehorned and examined and treated for infections. On the long drives, the cowboys had to keep the cattle moving and in line. The cattle had to be watched day and night as they were prone to stampedes and straying. The work days often lasted fourteen hours, with just six hours of sleep. It was grueling, dusty work, with just a few minutes of relaxation before and at the end of a long day. On the trail,


drinking, gambling, brawling, and even cursing was often prohibited and fined. It was often monotonous and boring work. Food was barely adequate and consisted mostly of bacon, beans, bread, coffee, dried fruit, and potatoes. On average, cowboys earned $30 to $40 per month. Because of the heavy physical and emotional toll, it was unusual for a cowboy to spend more than seven years on the range. As open range ranching and the long drives gave way to fenced in ranches in the 1880s, the glory days of the cowboy came to an end, and the myths about the “free living� cowboy began to emerge.


American Western