Cowhands and Cattle Drives

Cowboys driving longhorns across the Great Plains to cattle towns during the mid-1800s encountered many adventures. Cattle drives were physically demanding, and working cattle trails could be dangerous, with threats from rustlers, or cattle thieves, and stampedes. The following excerpts describe life in the Cattle Kingdom.

I wasn't nineteen when I come up the trail. The average age of cowboys then was twenty-three. Except for the bosses there was very few thirty-year-old men on the trail. Look at the chances they took and the kind of riding they done over rough country. Even in the daytime those deep coulees could open up all at once, before you had a chance to see where you were going, and at night it was something awful if you'd stop to think about it, which none of them ever did. If a storm come and the cattle started running, you'd hear that low rumbling noise along the ground and the men on the herd wouldn't need to come in and tell you, you'd know, then you'd jump for your horse and get out there in the lead, trying to head them and get them into a circle before they scattered. It was riding at a dead run in the dark, with cut banks and prairie dog holes all around you, not knowing if the next jump would land you in a shallow grave. We were camped close to Blue River. That night it come up a storm. It took all four of us to hold the cattle and we didn't hold them, and when morning come there was one man missing. We went back to look for him, and we found him among the prairie dog holes, beside his horse. The horse's ribs was scraped bare of hide, and all the rest of horse and man was mashed into the ground as flat as a pancake. The only thing you could recognize was the handle of his six-shooter. We tried to think the lightning hit him, and that was what we wrote his folks down in Henrietta, Texas. But we couldn't really believe it ourselves. I'm afraid his horse stepped into one of them holes and they both went down before the stampede. But the awful part of it was that we had milled them cattle over him all night, not knowing he was there. That was what we couldn't get out of our minds. And after that, orders were given to sing when you were running with a stampede, so the others would know where you were. After awhile this grew to be a custom on the range. Rustlers would follow you up for days with a packhorse; waiting for their chance and keeping out of sight a dark night was what they were looking for, especially if it was raining hard, because the rain would wash out the tracks. They would watch you as you rode around the herd on night guard then they would slip up to the other side of the herd and pop a blanket. And the whole herd would get up like one animal and light out. These rustlers had very good horses, and they would cut in ahead of you as you tried to get up in front of the herd, and would cut off anywhere from fifty to two hundred head of steers. The Red River looked to be a mile wide, but it was not swimming deep except for a short distance. When I reached the river the cattle were going in nicely, and the only trouble we had was when some of the cattle bogged and we had to pull them out. A day or two after this Richter and Kees had a fight in which Kees was shot.

We were going across a very dry country and the herd had no water for two days. There was just a small breeze from the west, but the cattle smelled water and as I looked ahead I could see the men working diligently and fast with the lead cattle, but with little success. The men from further down the line ran as fast as they could to help, but about a thousand head of big long-horn cattle had smelled the water that the breeze had wafted toward them. They were bawling, switching their tails and clashing their horns together and were gradually gaining ground on the men. -James C. Shaw

  1. According to the first passage, what was the average age of cowhands on the trail?
  2. What were some of the dangers cowhands faced on cattle drives?
  3. Why did cowhands begin the custom of singing when they were running with a stampede?
  4. How would cattle rustlers go about stealing a herd from the cowhands?
  5. What do you think would be the most difficult part of being a cowhand? What would be the most rewarding part?
Any questions can be E-mailed to Glenn Watson. I will get back to you as soon as possible.