Trials of the Trail: African-American Cowboy Will Crittendon
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Trials of the Trail: African-American Cowboy Will Crittendon

The cowboy of Western mythology rode the range during the heyday of the long cattle drives in the l860s and 1870s. Despite the individualism emphasized in myth, most cowhands were employees of Eastern and European capitalists who raised cattle as a corporate enterprise to serve a growing appetite for beef in the U.S. Cowboys were overworked hired hands who rode in freezing wind and rain or roasted in the Texas sun; searched for lost cattle; mended fences; ate monotonous and bad food; and suffered stampedes, quicksand, blizzards, floods, and drought. The work was hard, dangerous, and often lonely; pay averaged from $25 to $40 a month. Many became cowboys for lack of other job opportunities; one of every three cowboys was an African American or Mexican. Black cowboy Will Crittendon recounted his experiences as a cowboy in Texas in this interview conducted by the Federal Writers Project in the 1930s.

Do I know anything about the range? Why, man, I made a trail drive right through Fort Worth when it wasn’t even a whistle-stop and I was only nine years old! I learned to ride a hoss on my pap’s stock farm at Cedar Grove, Texas. I was born on December 12, 1868, right after Pap came to Texas from Alabama, where he was a slave of Governor Crittendon.

It was while he was a slave that he got his love of good hoss flesh from the governor. He always had a good surrey team and used Pap to drive it. When freedom came, one of the governor’s sons had already taught Pap to read and write, so he came to Texas to start a hoss ranch and to get himself a school to teach. We did all right about the school by getting one at Cedar Grove. He was the first teacher in the county at that time. He didn’t do so well about the hoss ranch. He only got around twenty to thirty head and forty to a hundred cattle critters at a time.

While he was teaching school, I learned to ride a hoss and rode herd on all his critters. I sure hankered to be a cowpuncher, and it wasn’t any trouble to get me out and working the critters. There wasn’t any fencing in those days. The critters ran everywhere just as if it was a big ranch with all the critters belonging to the same man.

The roundups were handled as if all the critters belonged to the same man. All of the ranchers gathered together in the spring, and we’d round up every critter in sight that wasn’t under fence. The different cowboy crews herded their critters to the community roundup grounds. With all of the critters together, the cowboys would go to cutting out the stuff they wanted to brand.

The regular cowboys wouldn’t let me cut out, but I’d get to run the branding iron after the critters were thrown and tied. That was my regular job at the roundups - “brand man.” I’d watch the cutters circle through the herd, chase a cow out, rope it, then throw it, and I’d be on the job with the irons before I was called. If it was the fall roundup held in the late fall, the fat I critters were herded off to themselves. I’d move them to the sale herd after using the iron so the boys could get back on the job quicker.

That’s the way it was after I was five until I was about nine. At the fall roundup when I was nine, a man from a West Texas ranch wanted to buy all the saleable stuff. The ranchers agreed to sell. Well, after the herd was cut out and worked over, he didn’t have enough men to drive the herd. I wanted to go, so after Pap agreed to let me, I signed up. The man’s name was Alfred E. Rowe, and the Wire Ranch at Paducah, Texas, was where we were headed with the trail herd. . . .

I reckon the real starting place of the trail drive was at Muddy Cedar Creek, located about halfway between Wills Point and Elmer. That’s where we burned the Turkey Track brand on the critters. It was the same brand Rowe used on his Wire Ranch. After we got started, we worked on and on and finally reached Fort Worth. On account of so much work and all, I don’t recall how many days it took us to get to Fort Worth. We drove the herd right through some of what now is the business district about where Twelfth and Fourteenth streets are now. The herd went west of the fort, which is where the Criminal Court Building is now.

When we got down to the river, I nearly lost a hoss because I’d never swum a river before. Since the Trinity River was up on a fall rise, the place where folks usually walked critters across was over a hoss’s head. The trail hoss had the chuck wagon floated across by tying logs onto the wheels up under the wagon bed and had several cowpokes on the other side pull on ropes while we got the wagon started out on this side. One of the cowpokes' hosses on the pulling end got bogged up and nearly fell, but he made it as the wagon swung out into the stream. As the wagon went downstream, the boys pulled it to shore, and after the wagon struck gravel on the other side, the boys untied the ropes, hitched it onto their hosses, and dragged the wagon right out.

The critters in the lead of the herd saw the wagon stock and hosses on the other side, and it wasn’t so hard to get them to take to the water. After the leads took to the water, we boys all hollered and slapped our hats against the critters' sides until they got to crossing. After about half of the herd was over, I decided it was time for me to go. I rode my hoss right out into the water, and he swelled his sides to go to swimming, but he couldn’t swell because I’d forgot to loosen the saddle straps. I sure like to have lost that hoss before we could get back to walking ground. One of the cowpokes came over to me and says, “Say, fellow, don’t you know to loosen your saddle straps?”

I loosened the straps, and after two or three tries I got my hoss to take to the water again and we went on across. That was a good lesson for me, because I crossed many a river after that, and after remembering how big that hoss swelled, I always loosened the straps. Did you ever watch a hoss when he starts swimming? Watch one sometime and see how big his stomach swells.

Well, we got across and drove on. After crossing several more rivers and some hills, we finally arrived at the Wire Ranch at Paducah. After seeing the critters spread out on the ranch, I got my money and started home. On the way, I just had me a good time. I wasn’t scared of Indians at all, because my folks taught me that the Indians wouldn’t bother a Negro. And that s right, too, because I dealt with them later on and they never hurt me.

I followed the trail back that we used to drive the critters up, and all the way I’d study places we passed that I didn’t have time to stop and look at. I recall how the reeds and weeds at one crossing was still the same as when we fixed the place. You see, we’d come to quicksand and make a crossing by throwing a lot of weeds and reeds into the place, and then ride the hosses back and forth until we had a solid crossing.

Another place was where it was a long way between water holes and the critters all got dry and thirsty. I don’t recollect how many miles it was, but when the critters first smelled water, they stampeded for miles to get it. There was no beef lost in this stomp because the first critters were so far in advance of the drags that they had drank and gone aside to rest in the shade while the drags also drank. . . .

When I got to be fifteen, I’d got fifty mules together and set out to make my fortune. I traded those mules around and busted hosses on the side. Among the places I busted hosses was the Tom King ranch at Greenville, Texas. Tom King had thousands of critters. Jim Harris a banker at Terrell, Texas, had a ranch in West Texas but bought his horses at Terrell and always had me bust them for him. Charlie Harris, his brother, ran the CH on the Saline river with about four thousand head. I busted hosses for him, too - the ones his boys couldn’t bust. Jim Lancey, at Wills Point, had me bust a few for him from time to time, and Anderson that ran the JIM brand at Egypt, Texas, had me bust all his hosses. he was a cattle dealer who bought and sold from one to two thousand head at a time. The Manning hoss ranch had me bust all his hosses. His place was close to Terrell, and I’d contract to bust forty at a time. Many a time I’d have the money gambled off before I’d busted half of what I’d contracted for. . . .


Interviewer/Writer:Woody Phipps. Reprinted in Jim Lanning and Judy Lanning, eds., Texas Cowboys: Memories of Early Days (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1984), 169–175.

See Also:A Cowboy's Work is Never Done: George Martin
Home on the Range: Richard Phillips