Chapter 08: The Cowboys

THE cowboys of the West have been this long time objects of interest to Americans of the other points of the compass, and recent events have made the English public familiar with them under certain aspects, but there is one aspect under which this class of men seem little known to their fellow- countrymen, and are almost wholly unknown to other people's,--that is, in their capacity as proletarians.

To most people, until lately, the cowboy was a " bold, bad man," as reckless of the lives of others as of his own, with vague ideas as to morals, and especially as to the rights of property; generally full of whiskey, and always handy with a revolver. If the spectators of the "shows" in which he has been exhibited on both sides of the Atlantic have modified their ideas upon this human subject, the modification has been, 89 a rule, in the direction of a recognition of the fact that he is not much worse or better morally than his more civilised fellows, and in his manners, as in his physique, he is for the most part considerably the superior of these.

In the present chapter we desire to show the reader that which the cowboys themselves have made plain to us, that they are distinctly members of the non-possessing and yet producing and distributing class, that they are as much at the mercy of the capitalist as a New or Old England cotton-operative, that their supposed "freedom" is no more of a reality than his. Further, evidence will be given that the cowboys, as a class, are beginning to recognise these facts, are becoming anxious that the general public should know them, and, best of all, are desirous, through the medium of either the Knights of Labour, or some other working-class organisation, to connect themselves with the mass of the labouring class and with the general movement of that class against the tyranny of their employers.

Our first acquaintance with these facts was made at Cincinnati, and in a sufficiently odd way. Some delightful German-American friends, in their anxiety to show us all the sights of the city, had lured us into a dime museum. The chief attraction at this show, pending the arrival of Sir Roger Tichborne, who came the next week, was not seen and did not conquer, was a group of cowboys. They were sitting in twos and threes on various little raised platforms, clad in their picturesque garb, and looking terribly bored. Presently, a spruce gentleman, in ordinary, commonplace garments, began to make stereotyped speeches about them in a voice metallic enough for stereotyping. But, at one platform, he mercifully stopped short, and told us that Mr. John Sullivan, alias Broncho John, would take up the parable.

Thereupon, a cowboy of singularly handsome face and figure, with the frankest of blue eyes, rose and spoke a piece. To our great astonishment he plunged at once into a denunciation of capitalists in general and of the ranch-owners in particular. We were struck both by the manner and the matter of this man's talk. It had the first and second and third qualifications for oratorical success-earnestness, Broncho John evidently knew what he was talking about, and felt what he said. the gist of his speech is embodied in the last paragraph but one. To that need only be added John's appeal to the newspapers of the East that they should do what the Western ones were afraid or unwilling to do, and state clearly the case of the cowboys, their complaints, and their demands.

As Broncho John invited any interested in the question to communicate with him, we answered his invitation, and on the following day had a long talk privately with him. The main points of the many we learned from him through the medium of that conversation and of a little pamphlet he gave us, will now be noted. There are some 8,000 to 10,000 cowboys (this is Broncho John's estimate, and is considerably below the actual number), and "no class is harder worked,.. none so poorly paid for their services." The reason why they are so poorly paid and hard worked is simple enough.--"They have no organisation back of them," while their employers have "one of the strongest and most systematic and, at the same time, despotic unions that was ever formed to awe and dictate to labour."...The conditions under which the cowboys work are such that organisation is immensely difficult, in many cases well-nigh impossible. They are dispersed over miles upon miles of huge plains and desolate wastes, a few here and a few there, so that concerted action seems almost out of the question. Yet so many are, it appears, "awakened to the necessity of having a league of their own" that a Cowboy Assembly of the K. of L. or a Cowboy Union is sure to be started in the near future. Meanwhile, the fact that such a league is desired by the cowboys is significant enough, and even more significant is their employers' fear of any such combination. One means by which the bosses hope to ward it off is by issuing orders that the men "must not read books or newspapers." Small wonder the cowboys regard such an "order" as "tyrannical in the extreme." A pathetic example of the belief of the cowboys in a movement of some sort we found in Bronco John's conviction that a return of Blaine (as president) would mean that "all the thieving would go on," while the election of Henry George would "make a change."

As to the actual work and wages of the cowboy. The work is necessarily extremely arduous and dangerous. For some six to eight months in the year--i.e., the working time on the plains--he has not only to be in the saddle from morn to night, but often the whole night through as well. To look after these huge Western herds of cattle, to keep a cool head during stampedes and "milling" is no small matter. "I have been with a party," says John Sullivan, "when we were obliged to ride 200 miles before we got the cattle under, in all that time not one of us took a moment's rest or a bit to eat." In getting the cattle across streams milling often occurs, i.e., the beasts take fright and swim round and round and in every direction but that of the shore. As a consequence " many a good cowboy has been drowned," and it is not "uncommon for a party to spend three weeks or a month in getting a herd of 4,000 cattle across a stream." Further, there are the innumerable dangers from bands of marauders, Indians, and prairie fires to face; and, into the bargain, the herd must not only be delivered safe and all told, bat they must have increased in weight since leaving the ranch. "The rule is, the cowboy must fatten the cattle on the trail, no matter how thin he may grow himself."

And for such work as this the ranchers, who expect their employes to risk their very lives in looking after the stock, pay the best paid of the cowboys--25 dollars a month. Moreover, the cowboy has himself to find his outfit, except his horses, which belong to the ranchers, and cowboy's outfit is a heavy item of expense. He must have a heavy fur hat, Mexican "chafferals" (leggings), a "slicker" (oilskin coat), a good saddle, a "quirt" (a heavy whip some three feet long), spurs, revolver, specially made boots, etc., etc. In all, this costs him about 145 dollars. But the cowboys who cannot afford such an outlay at the start are supplied by the ranchers, and supplied with goods of a kind that barely last through a season. For these the rancher charges 15 dollars a month out of the wages; so inferior is the outfit, that it has constantly to be renewed, and thus the cowboy remains constantly in debt.

From climatic and other conditions it is wellnigh impossible for cowboys to obtain any employment during the "off-time," and these men must therefore keep themselves and their families on the 120 to 150 dollars that can be earned in the year. Nor is this the only difficulty with which the cowboys have to contend. Black-listing is apparently not peculiar to the East of America. It seems to flourish even in the Wild West, and the cowboy is as much its victim as the cotton-operative, "It may easily be seen then," says Broncho John, " that the cowboys have a serious struggle against actual want, and such is the system of the Ranchers' Society they dare not protest. Experience has taught them that to ask for an increase in wages means immediate discharge from the service. But that is not the worst. The moment a man is discharged by any member of the Ranchers' Society his name is sent to every other member, the name is turned to in the hooks of each ranch and a black mark placed opposite it. This is called 'black-listing' the cowboy. He might as well leave the country at once."

But perhaps the greatest injustice, the most flagrant piece of robbery, perpetrated by these large ranch owners, and one which affects both settlers and cowboys, is that of "repleving" cattle. To "repleve" is wild-western for seizing all unbranded cattle, and of late the right to do this has been claimed by the Association of Ranchers under the Maverick Law. A settler or cowboy gets a few head of cattle; in time these increase, and a few years ago he could sell them to the Association or other traders at "fair market price." But this did not suit the ranchers. Just as they--to use Broncho John's words--are "grinding out" the settlers from the land which they have opened up; just as the " road agent" is ousting the settler from the little homestead he has raised, so the ranchers want all the cattle--and take it. Any unbranded animal is claimed by them. Against this iniquitous proceeding two men--settlers we believe--named Cooper and Leineberger, tried to protest. They refused to give up the cattle that was their property. Hereupon the Association (The Wyoming Stock Growers) instituted an action against them (in 1884) for infringement of the Maverick Law. The defendant's counsel pleaded as a demurrer that while the law was in force in that State, it was against the constitution of the United States. Judge Parks would give no decision at all, and Judge Corn gave his decision in favour of the Association. Thereupon Cooper and Leineberger appealed to the Supreme Court, with what result we have been, so far, unable to learn. For such cases as this never get into Eastern papers, and the Western ones mostly fear to touch upon them. The press, like everything else, is under the terrorist regime of the ranchers. Meantime, "repleving" goes on merrily, and the small settlers, robbed of their little stock, become cowboys and the wage-slaves of the ranchers, who are all staunch upholders of the sacred rights of property.