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. In the late 1930s writers employed by the Federal Writers Project in Texas interviewed more than 400 cowboys, providing some of the only firsthand sources about late 19th-century cowboys. In this interview, cowboy Richard Phillips offered a firsthand glimpse of the hard life that awaited the men who trailed cattle to market.
Well now, to begin with, I was born on my dad’s XX Ranch near Bandera, Texas, on December 17, 1884. Reckon as how that’d make me sixty-three, wouldn’t it? You asked if I ever worked on the range, and I’ll answer by saying that I rode hosses when I wasn’t but four years old. You see, my dad’s spread wasn’t much shakes, and he couldn’t hire much help because he didn’t have so much money, and so he started me out to learning to ride just as soon’s he figured I was able to sit in a saddle.
And the tough part about it was, he died just after I’d learned to ride pretty good and could climb up by myself. After he died, that left nobody but me and my mother, so I had to learn to tend to the hundred-odd head of stuff we had. She’d talk to me and try to make me feel my responsibility so’s I’d go out there and do my dead level best to take my dad’s place. I’d never have made it, though, if it hadn’t have been for the good neighbors we all had around there. They done a marvelous lot for us and took the load in the roundups. I went on the roundups, all right, and slept out away from home during them roundups. Come branding time, and I was right in the big middle of it, tending to the irons and everything else a stripling could shake. One thing about it, though, and that was there wasn’t a lazy bone in my body, and I learnt to rope and brand on my own account. I reckon I could pull it all off by the time I was eight years old. That’s pretty young, but in them days a kid wasn’t always hanging out in some ice cream parlor. Instead, he went about his business and tried to be some account in the world. Another thing, people weren’t always yapping baby talk at him, but gave him jobs to do, and if he didn’t, he wanted to the next time he was given something to do.
I was left a dogie when my mother died, and I wasn’t but twelve at the time. You know, even though we had tried to get along, we didn’t have much stuff when she died, and I sold out for a hundred dollars and lit out for the west. I wanted to get away from the place where I’d had so much trouble.
A couple of months later, I lit in Fort Stockton and met Tom Bailey. He was ramrodding for the Western Union Beef Company and was in town right then, looking for cowpunchers. I told him I could ride and rope, and he gave me a chance. I was told to beat it out to the ranch, and when he came out, he’d see what I could do.
When he got out there, he put me through my paces and hired me. I got fifteen dollars a month and chuck. Now the Western Union Beef outfit was a big spread, going from Fort Stockton to the mouth of the Pecos River. It was a big outfit and had ranches from below Uvalde to clean up in Montana. A couple of bankers, R. T. and N. T. Wilson, were the ones that owned the company. They ran the Alamo National Bank in San Antonio, and that’s where all our checks come from.
Now, naturally, since the ranch was such a big one, and even ran two brands at the same time right on the same range, there was a lot of cowpunchers working the spread. There were a number of Negroes, too, and don’t you ever believe them Negroes couldn’t ride and rope to beat the band. There was old George Adams, and he could ride and rope with the best. Then too there was Tom Ganning, a younger Negro that was good. Negroes weren’t allowed a gun on that spread. I said Ganning was young—well, old George was an ex-slave. He’d been a slave down near San Antonio on a plantation that had been in the Wilson family for years and years. There was one more Negro that I recall, and his name was Snow Ball. That was because he was the blackest Negro anybody ever saw. And yet, he was sure a mighty good cowhand. . . .
About the cattle, well, have you seen any longhorn critters? That’s what the Western Union Beef Company run. Whole herds of them. Why, they branded ten thousand dogies a year when the spread was going great guns. The two irons they run was the 7D and the Double Half Moon. . . .
Now I’ve told you about the men on the spread, I’ll spin a couple of yarns about some of the work. They might sound to you like they was yarns, but if you’re on the spot at one of these things, it is not so funny. Not by a darn sight! Now, you take a stampede, and they’re one of the most dangerous things ever was, and yet they happen all the time on any ranch where a bunch of cow critters are rounded up into a herd. Anything will cause them, too.
There was one when I went north with about fifteen hundred head of four-year-olds, steers they was, and we was trying to hold them at Canyon City. Them ornery rascals would stampede every night, and one time they run plumb to Amarillo! Button Clark, who was in charge of the herd, trailed them there himself. After we rounded the critters all up again, the tally showed twenty-three steers gone.
Then another night they run towards Amarillo again and veered a little east just enough to run right smack into Joe Nation’s herd, which put the whole kit and b’iling to running. Now that was the worst mess ever I got into, because after stopping the run, we had to cut the whole herd to get the two of them separated. Work, work, work. That’s about all that trip amounted to.
The reason the 7D put that herd up there in the first place was because there was so much dry weather, and we had to get the critters to water. In one year, 7Ds had three herds around Amarillo, and Joe Nation had six.
Another reason the 7Ds put so many cattle in Amarillo was because Amarillo was our shipping point to the Montana ranges. We shipped on the Fort Worth and Denver City road to Brush, Wyoming, where they were unloaded and drove to the range the W.U B. Company had in mind. That’s the way they done business. When conditions in Texas were unfavorable for cattle, they tried to put their beef into a country that was favorable, and they owned ranches everywhere like I showed you before. . . .
What I’m trying to picture to you is that in them days a man had to be a man every day without no layoffs. Every day! You take in a stampede, now, and I’ve seen a hundred or more. The boys that are out with a herd must be real good riders willing to take chances with their lives. When a herd starts to running, it goes hell-bent-for-election and will run over anything it can unless its too big, then the herd will run until it runs up against something it can’t run over, then it will split and go around but keep running. That’s the way them ornery critters will do every time. Well, when a herd gets to running, it’ll run until it runs down or gets so tired it can’t run any more. The thing a cowhand has to do is to get that herd to milling, and then they’ll run in a circle until they get run down. If they’re not put into a mill, they’ll run over some bank of a creek, or a cut, or even a canyon if there’s one in the way. Then there’ll be a lot of beef killed and lost, which can run up into the thousands of dollars.
Now, then, I want you to picture a herd on the stomp and realize that any human or hoss that gets in the way, that the herd will run over them and stomp them into the very ground if it possibly can. Get that picture, then realize that the only possible way to turn a herd into a mill is to get right out in front and beat the lead steer until he starts turning and trying to get away from you. That away, the rest of the herd will follow him, and the herd will then go into a mill. When you get that picture, then you’ll see and understand why men had to be he-men in them days. Not now, because these fine cattle are hard to put into a stomp, and when they are, they don’t run long because they’re not grown for strength but for fat. They didn’t grow them in the old days for strength, but, them old longhorns just naturally growed like a hoss without help from man.
They’d hide out in the brakes, and when we were on the roundup, they’d come abusting out and try their dead level best to kill the cowhand. That was the old mossyhorns, of course, that got so testy, and there were mighty few so mean, thanks be. Others were real wild and flighty and would run away from the cowhand as hard as they could go. That was expected, though, and the cowhands would rope them and then drive them to what they had rounded up, where another hand would stay with them and keep them corralled. After a little persuasion, most of them critters would stay together in a herd.
Now, what I’m telling is what actually happened to me, and not something I’ve read. Truth of the matter is that I can’t read nor write, the reason being because I was raised a dogie and had to hustle for my bread and meat all my life. I just want to tell about one of them stomps we had on one of the last trail drives to Amarillo with 7Ds, while it was still owned by the W. U. B. Company. I’d been standing night herd, and it’d been raining pretty hard. Whenever it goes to raining, a herd will stand up and go to shifting around, trying to get their tails and backs to the wind and rain. That’s their nature, but they’re also ready to run in case anything makes the least little old bobbie. Well, sir, instead of the rain getting harder, it began to lighten, and the night itself got lighter. We could see a heap better than when it was raining, and all of a sudden, we heard a shot from the camp where the rest of the boys had gone to sleep.
The herd heard it, too, and were off like a shot, running right towards me and the other night rider. We’d stopped for a bit of talk and a cigarette but was in the wrong spot at the right time. If it hadn’t been that the night was pretty light, and we were able to see the leaders, we would have been stomped right into the ground. Instead, we could see the leaders, and we turned that herd into a mill in less than five minutes after it got started. Five minutes! I’ll bet that’d have made some kind of a record if records had been kept, because five minutes is a wonderful time.
We had a lot of good times there on the 7D, what with our contests we had every time we weren’t pushed with the work and all, but along came the thing that spoiled it all when John T. McElroy of Pecos City made a deal with the W.U.B. Company and bought the ranch. I don’t know just what kind of a deal was made, but I do know that the cowhands were given the order to round up every head on the ranch and bring it to the chutes at the headquarters for a tally. Well, on the day we were to have the herd there, there was a stranger there with McElroy. Nobody paid no attention to him, because we were all busy with the herd.
Finally came the order to shoot the chutes, and we started the cattle through. Hugh Boles made the count for the W.U.B. Company, and John T. made his own count in the middle of the chutes as the critters passed him by. The stranger made the count at the end of the chutes as the critters all passed out and into the new herd. Twenty-eight thousand head passed through the chutes in that one day, and this stranger was Segal Saunders of the Kansas City Saunders Cattle Commission Company. He bought every head that came through and paid John T. four dollars a head for every one of them twenty-eight thousand critters. Figure it yourself.
Then the real work started. Segal Saunders gave the order to have the critters road-branded, and I myself put a seven on thirteen thousand of them critters. Thirteen thousand! You see, all I had to do was put on the iron as the other boys downed them, and there were three crews working with me. It certainly kept us all busy. After the cattle were all branded, then they were roaded to Amarillo and shipped to different points. I myself left Amarillo with a trainload for Terre Haute, Indiana, to be fed out.
When I returned from working with that herd, I quit the range for good and never went back. A man could really save his money and be healthy in it, but it just didn’t appeal to me no more after I got back from that year in Indiana, so I quit. I’m now living on my farm out near Springtown, Texas. Just doing nothing all summer but wait for winter, then when winter gets here, I wait for the good old summertime.
Source: Interviewer/Writer: Woody Phipps. Reprinted in Jim Lanning and Judy Lanning, eds., Texas Cowboys: Memories of the Early Days (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1984), 33–39.
See Also:A Cowboy's Work is Never Done: George Martin
Trials of the Trail: African-American Cowboy Will Crittendon