Wild West Podcast

From Prairie Chickens to J-Hawkers: Unraveling the Adventures of 19th Century Cowboys

November 16, 2022 Michael King/Brad Smalley
Wild West Podcast
From Prairie Chickens to J-Hawkers: Unraveling the Adventures of 19th Century Cowboys
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As much as we like to romanticize cattle drives, they were more complicated than we imagined. Hours were long, food was monotonous, horses were bad, cattle were worse, and sleep was hard to come by. Yet, despite the hardships, many young men answered the call for trial hands during the second half of the 19th century. The allure of trailing thousands of cattle over wild lands and visiting far-off cattle towns like Abilene, Dodge City, and Ellsworth was too much to resist. Like most adventures, the extended drive had a mix of hot sun, dust storms, thunderous rain, treacherous river crossings, and merriment and peril. While these cowboy experiences cannot give us a complete look at every threat the cowboy faces, they should paint a general picture that will help us understand the known hazards. Regardless of the direction the drives took, they all faced roughly the same perils: stampedes, river crossings, and Indian attacks. 

Ever wondered about the hazards cowboys faced during cattle drives in the 19th century? Brace yourself as we journey back in time, to when long dusty hours, unpredictable storms, and stampedes were part of a cowboy's daily life. We dive into the perils of stampedes, triggered by strange noises and smells, the risks of prairie chickens and buffalo hair, and the tales of men crushed beneath their horses. Experience firsthand the dread of picking bedding grounds, the soothing rhythm of night riders' lullabies, and the chaos of reassembling the herd post-stampede.

When you think you've heard it all, we'll recount an unforgettable encounter with J-hawkers that took a routine cattle drive into a harrowing adventure, resulting in a terrifying stampede and the tragic death of a cowboy. Feel the adrenaline rush, the heated arguments, and the final sigh of relief as the cowboys and cattle are eventually released. As we reach the cow towns, share in the exhilaration of arrival and the resonating melodies of cowboy songs. This episode is your ticket to an exhilarating ride through the wild world of the cattle drives! Buckle up and let's hit the trail!

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Speaker 1:

As much as we liked to romanticize cattle drives, they were more complicated than we imagine. Hours were long, food was monotonous, hours were bad, cattle were worse and sleep was hard to come by. Yet, despite the hardships, many young men during the second half of the 19th century answered the call for trail hands. The allure of trailing thousands of cattle over wild land and visiting far-off cattle towns like Abilene, dodge City and Ellsworth was too much to resist. Like most adventures, the extended drive had a mix of hot sun, dust, storms, thunderous rain, treacherous river crossings and merriment and peril. While these cowboy experiences cannot give us a complete look at every threat the cowboy faces, they should paint a general picture that will help us understand the known hazards. Regardless of the direction the drives took, they all faced roughly the same perils Stampede, river crossings and Indian attacks. Follow us now as we look at some cowboy tales describing the hazards of a cattle drive. Part 2 Stampede, j-hawkers and Indian Troubles. As hazardous as the river crossings were, the stampede, no matter how trail broke in the herd had become anything that startled one or more of the longhorns, could panic the whole herd into one of those wild and unpredictable rushes. A stampede could be set off by any unusual sound or smell. It might be the crackling of a dead stick, the snort of a horse or the sudden howl of a wolf. Marauding Indians might burn a stack of buffalo hair on the windward side of a herd to start the cattle running. In Texas, stampedes were the first danger. Wild cattle thrown together from the thickets were not yet trail broke, and a cowboy's nighttime cough or an unfamiliar scent on the wind could send 2,000 cattle running blind through pitch black darkness. The best accounts of these adventures come in the 1920 publication of the Trail Drivers of Texas by J Marvin Hunter. That night came up an awful storm. It took all four of us to hold the cattle and we didn't hold them. And when morning came 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 were scraped bare of hide and all the rest of the 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 thank the lightning hit him and that's what we wrote his folks down in Henrietta, texas, but we couldn't really believe it ourselves. I'm afraid it wasn't the lightning. I'm afraid his horse stepped into one of them holes and they both went down. Before the stampede, stampedes were much more common at night. Therefore, the trail boss tried to choose a bedding ground with no nearby cliff over which the cattle might tumble. In the darkness, those trail hands on night duty often hummed or sang lullabies to keep the cattle asleep. A frightening thunderclap might instantly have them up and off, despite every precaution. Ea Barry Roebuck provides a description of what it was like to face a storm when herding cattle up the trail. At another time I was on the Smoky Hill River in Kansas when 2,800 head of beaves stampeded. I found myself in the middle of a herd when a cyclone and hail storm made the frightened brutes run pale mill. The lightning played all over the horns of the cattle and the ears of my horse, and the hail almost pounded the brim of my hat off. I stuck to the cattle all night alone and was out only 100 head in the next morning. Another time I ran all night, lost my hat in the stampede and went through the rain bareheaded. When a stampede happened, every man in the outfit dashed for his horse and started after the rushing brutes Riding alongside the leaders. The horseman often tried to turn the cattle into a circle and thus put the herd into a mill. Yet they dared not push them into too compact a mass, lest those in the center be trampled or suffocated. They ended the mill as soon as possible to keep the cattle from losing weight. Sometimes it would be several days before the whole herd could be reassembled, even if all the bunches could be found. Lb Anderson, a trail jover on his way to Abilene, explained a stampede as a common occurrence. Stampedes were very common occurrences. Sometimes they were just tame affairs, but at other times they afforded all the excitement anyone could want. It was hard to tell sometimes the cause of a stampede. Often during a clear, still night, when the cattle were contentedly bedded and the night riders were dozing in their saddles, a sudden run would take place and the remainder of the night would be spent in trying to keep the herd together. One of the worst stampedes I ever witnessed was at Kilgores Ranch near Hondo. Tom Lay was having some fun with a Negro boy and the cattle became frightened at the noise the boys made, and the stampede that followed cost us several days' hard work and some money to get them together again. Another bad stampede in which I had to do some tall riding occurred while I was taking a big head of the milletbeaves to Paul's Valley. When we reached the Devil's Backbone between Cache Creek and Washetall River, we found the country had been burned off, except for a small scope of ground between the creeks where fire could not get to the grass, and on that ground I camped at the edge of a strip of timber. I think every prairie chicken in that whole country came there to roost. They were there by the thousands. Next morning when these chickens began to leave. The noise they made frightened the cattle and caused them to stampede. The three thousand beavers ran over that rough country in every direction and they went several miles before we were able to check them. Several were killed and about a hundred got away. In any stampede the trail hands had to be careful not to be caught in front of the Russian cattle. That might mean quick death from trampling, although if the stampeding longhorn saw a horse or a fallen rider in time they might split ranks and go around. Mark Reeves had some advice for a fellow who was unhorsed in front of a crazed herd. All the fallen puncher needed to do, said Reeves, was to bend over facing the oncoming cattle, holding his hat between his teeth, and shake his coat tails over his back. But most cowboys were less eager to test that advice, especially at night. Only an old time cowboy, now living in comfort and ease with wife and children around him, can recall the exciting scenes of a stampede when he helped to chase the flying herd in a whirlwind of suffocating dust across the open prairie far out on the northwest range of Texas, and he no doubt leaves a long sigh as he remembers. The cattle had been bedded for the night and the tired cowboys gathered round the chuck wagon for the evening meal. Two of the boys were left on guard and around the herd to be relieved after the others had satisfied their hunger. It was a warm, sultry evening in the middle of August. The sun had gone down in a flood of glory and the twilight shadows settled gently down over the prairie. One by one the stars came forth and took their place in the firmament, and a peaceful, quiet soothed man and beast. The two boys on guard were singing in that soft, low tone that goes a long way toward pacifying cattle when held under close guard. But something happened to alarm the cattle. There was a snort followed by a loud bellow and in a second the whole herd was on its feet, bellowing in unison as they made a mad rush for the open prairie Say part. Did you ever see an onrush of frightened cattle racing for dear life in a frenzied stampede? Well, it's certainly worth seeing, and if you happen to be in the saddle trying to check the progress, you'll never forget it so long as you live, said Luke McCabe. They're off for tall timber, said McCabe to his companion, mark Gentry, as he drove his spurs into his Bronco and attempted to gain the flank of the frightened herd. All right, said Gentry, as they raced down the valley, bear in on the leaders and see if we can't get them to mellow. That's our only chance to prevent them from breaking away unscattering. By this time every cowboy in the camp, led by the boss Jeffries, joined in the chase after the runaways. It did not take long for the wiry little ponies to come abreast of the frenzied leaders and turn them in on the flying herd. More and more the pressure was tightened until the cattle began to run around in a circle and soon formed in a whirling mass of uplifted heads and clashing horns frantic with fear, as they whirled over the ground like a cyclone, enveloped in a cloud of dust that obscured the whole scene. The mill had now formed and all danger of a runaway was at an end, but the bellowing circle on the outside pressed closer and closer upon the inner circle, like the winding of a rope upon a reel, until from sheer exhaustion, the herd became an inert mass of smokin' steam and cattle. And now the expert knowledge of the cowboys was displayed in the careful way they went to work to break the mill. Led by Phil Reynolds, the boys rode slowly to the edge of the circle and, formin' a wedge, started in and gradually unwound the mill by movin' the outside animals off on a tangent, reversing the process that wound them together and the great mass became a peaceful herd once more. Following a stampeded herd at night is a position of great danger. The chances of being caught in the mill are very great, and to be caught in the whirling mass was almost sure death to both horse and rider. A dozen had a. Cattle were knocked down and trampled to death in this mad-on-rush a stampeded cattle that swept down the valley of California Creek that starlit night in August. An equally dreaded hazard was Indian raids. Sometimes there were white rustlers along the trail, but they were vastly outnumbered by the red-skinned marauders, especially during the early days of the trail. Almost every major cattle trail ran through Indian territory, or what we now know as modern-day Oklahoma. The likelihood was each drive would see Indians of one tribe nation or another. So as they came to the border of Indian territory it was expected that the trail boss would negotiate to secure safe passage. He paid an agreed-upon price, whether he gave up a few head of cattle or he paid a small dollar amount per head. If the negotiations went well and all agreed to the price, the herd was allowed to pass without incident. But if the negotiations faltered in any way, there could be trouble, anything from attacks, rustling, stampeds, even the men murdered in their sleep or while-on-night watch. It paid to have a savvy trail boss with lots of negotiation skills. Although the Indians preferred buffalo meat, hunting was less straightforward than stampeding a passing herd of Texas cattle and making off with some of the steers. W F Q of San Antonio, texas, in his memoirs of trail driving in Texas, tells of an Indian encounter while near Ellsworth, kansas. We drove to Kansas and stopped our herd about 15 miles west of Ellsworth near the Kansas Pacific Railroad. Everything went well except when we got into Kansas, bluff Creek being the line, we lay over a day to rest and clean up. Next morning, just about sun up, I heard a gunshot down the creek and in a few minutes we saw two Indians running two mules as fast as they could go. They had shot a white man with a gun and arrows. He came dragging up to our camp with one arrow still sticking in him and one of the boys pulled it out and we carried him to a tent not far away. The trail drivers had many narrow escapes and were exposed to many storms, cyclones, hail and all kinds of weather stampeds of cattle running over ditches and bluffs at night. Some few never came back but were buried along the lonely trail among the wild roses, wrapped only in their bed blankets. No human being living near, just the coyote roaming there. In the latter years of trail driving the Indians raided less than begging and blackmailing. Usually the trail boss could satisfy them with two or three steers. When he could, he gave them strays from another herd of lame animals that had trouble keeping up with the drive. Some tribes imposed fees for allowing herds to cross their reservations, but the drovers often evaded such taxes. One cowboy wrote about an experience encountering Indians demanding a cattle fee. Their chief did the talking to our boss. He demanded 100 of our best beef cattle, cut from the lead of the herd. Indians were not fooled when considering beef. The boss told him no but said that he could have some from the drags of our herd which were cripples and the ones that were getting foot sore. And as our boss stayed with this, the Indians got mad. We threw our bedrolls on the ground and everything that we thought would stop a bullet or an arrow or protect every part of our bodies. When the chief got within about a hundred yards of us, he stopped his outfit and raised a white flag on a stick which was to show us he had accepted our terms. As early as 1866, james M Daughtry, a Texas youth of 16, was one who felt the sting of vigilantes. Driving his slow-moving herd northward along the Shawnee Trail, dottry crossed the Red River and picked his way through the Arkansas Mountains to Fort Smith to avoid paying the exorbitant taxes assessed by the Indians upon herds passing through their territory. This part of the trip was accomplished safely and the southern Kansas-Missouri border was reached, but he and the other drovers were far from safe. As Dottry approached Baxter Springs, kansas, he was attacked by a band of J-hawkers dressed as hunters. The mobsters stampeded the herd and killed one of the trailhands. Some sources say they tied Dottry to a tree with his own picket rope, then whipped him with hickory switches. After being freed and burying the dead cowboy, dottry recovered about 350 of the cattle. He continued at night in a roundabout way and sold his steers in Fort Scott at a profit. Jim Dottry tells the following in his own words Upon arriving at Baxter Springs, I found that there had been several herds ahead of me that had been disturbed by what we called Kansas J-hawkers, and in one instance the J-hawkers had killed the owner, taken the herd and ran the rest of the cowboys off. This herd belonged to Canard and was gathered in the southern part of the Choctaw Nation in Indian Territory. I rode as far as Fort Scott, kansas, and there I met a man by the name of Ben Keyes, whom I told I had a herd on the neutral strip I would like to sell. He agreed to buy them if I would make deliverance at Fort Scott, kansas. I returned to the neutral strip and we started driving the herd north along the Kansas-Missouri line, sometimes in the state of Kansas and sometimes in Missouri. From the information that I had received regarding the big risk we were taking by trying to drive through, we were always on the lookout for trouble. Some 20 miles south of Fort Scott, kansas, and about 4 o'clock one afternoon, a bunch of 15 or 20 J-hawkers came upon us. One of my cowboys, john Dobbins by name, was leading the herd and I was riding close to the leader. On the approach of the J-hawkers, john attempted to draw his gun and the J-hawkers shot him dead in the saddle. This caused the cattle to stampede and at the same time they covered me with their guns and I was forced to surrender. The rest of the cowboys stayed with the herd losing part of their cattle in the stampede. The J-hawkers took me to Cow Creek, which was nearby, and there tried me for driving cattle into their country, which they claimed were infested with ticks that would kill their cattle. I was found guilty without any evidence. They did not even have one of my cattle for evidence. Then they began to argue among themselves about what to do with me. Some wanted to hang me, while others wanted to whip me to death. I, being a young man in my teens, and my sympathetic talk about being ignorant to a ticky cattle of the south, diseaseing any of the cattle in their country, caused one of the big J-hawkers to take my part. The balance was strong for hanging me on the spot but through his arguments they finally let me go. After I was freed and had joined the herd, two of my cowboys and I slipped back and buried John Dobbins where he fell. After we had buried him, we cut down a small tree, hewed out a head and footboard and marked his grave. Then we slipped back to the herd. Soon after the Civil War's close, the J-hawkers were said to be soldiers mustered out of the Anki Army. They were nothing more than a bunch of cattle rustlers and were not interested in fever ticks coming into their country, but used this just as a pretense to kill them in with the herds and steal the cattle or stampede the herds. After rejoining the herd I found that during the stampede I lost about 150 head of cattle, which was a total loss to me. I drove the balance of the herd back to the neutral strip and after resting a day or two, I went back to Fort Scott and reported to Mr Keyes what had happened. Mr Keyes sent a man back to the herd with me to guide us to Fort Scott. On my return to the herd with the guide, we started the drive to Fort Scott the second time. The guide knew the country well, which was very thinly settled. We would drive the herd at night and would lay up at some secluded spot during the day. After driving in this manner for five days and five nights, we reached Fort Scott to about the daybreak of the fifth night and pinned the cattle in a high-board corral adjoining a livery stable which completely hid them from the public view. As soon as the cattle were pinned, mr Keyes paid me for them. Then we ate our breakfast and slept all day. When darkness fell we saddled our horses and started back over the trail to Texas. When trail drivers reached their destination, a semblance of the famous cowboy image frequently surfaced. After grueling months on the trail, it was not uncommon for pistol shots to ring out in saloons and gambling halls in cow towns such as Fort Worth or Abilene, kansas. In 1870, the Junction City Weekly Union reported these herdsmen toil for tedious months behind their slow herds, seeing scarcely a house, garden, woman or child for near 1,000 miles and, like a cargo of seaworn sailors coming into port, they must have, when released, some kind of entertainment. In the absence of something better, they at once fall into liquor and gambling saloons at hand. Before the cowboy, the trail was a road to high adventure. It carried him to new scenes and often to exciting encounters. For years afterward he would sing Come along, boys, and listen to my tale.

Speaker 2:

I tell you about my troubles on the old chism trail. Come a tie-ye yippie-yippie-yippie-yay. Come a tie-ye yippie-yippie-yay. Started up the trail off October 23rd. Started up the trail with the Eminem herd. Come a tie-ye yippie-yippie-yippie-yay. Come a tie-ye yippie-yippie-yay Lay-y-y-y-y-y-y-y-y-y-y-y-y-y-y-y Lay-y-y-y-y-y-y-y-y-y-y-y-y-y-y-y. Rally in the west and looking like rain and left my slicker in the wagon. Again, come a tie-ye yippie-yippie-yippie-yay. Come a tie-ye yippie-yippie-yay. No shafts, no slickers, and it's pouring down rain. Ain't never gonna ride, not heard. Again, come a tie-ye yippie-yippie-yippie-yay. Come a tie-ye yippie-yippie-yay, lay-y-y-y-y-y-y-y-y-y.

Speaker 1:

That's it for now. Remember to check out our Wild West Podcast shows on iTunes Podcast or at WildWestPodcastBuzzsproutcom. You can also catch us on Facebook at Facebookcom slash Wild West Podcast or on our YouTube channel at Whiskey and Westerns on Wednesday. So make sure you subscribe to our shows listed at the end of the description text of this podcast to receive notifications on all new episodes. Thanks for listening to our podcast. If you have any comments or would like to add to this series on cattle drives, cowboys and cattle towns, you can write us at Wild West Podcast at gmailcom and we will share your thoughts as they apply to future episodes. Join us next time as we explore the Chuck Wagon as an essential piece of equipment in the cattle industry.

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