Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Cowboys in the news, 1877-1881

I have access to the database for the San Francisco Chronicle covering the years 1865-1922. A search on the term “cowboys” turns up plenty of entertaining reading.
Union and 7th, Kansas City, c1880
Though more than a century old, the stories are all still copyrighted. Wishing to respect that, I won’t be reproducing any of them here. But “fair use” lets me talk about them and offer judiciously selected quotes. Here are a few.

The Girl With the Glass Eye. Published January 2, 1877, this story originated in the Kansas City Times. Like an irresistible piece of flash fiction, the writer begins thus:

Bellet’s girl has a glass eye, and it was that one particular piece of parti-colored glass which caused Bellet’s arrest last evening.

The incident took place on a public conveyance on which the aforementioned Bellet and his girlfriend were joined by a group of spirited Texas cowboys. The girl glances to the left for a quick look at them. But when she turns her attention away again, her glass eye remains fixed in the cowboys’ direction.

Taking this for a flirtation, one of the cowboys moves a little closer. The distressed girlfriend begs her companion to have the driver stop the car so she can get off. The situation escalates. Bellet speaks harshly to the girl and gets into a dust-up with the cowboy. The girl faints. And this is how it all ends:

Just as the car stopped, Bellet went out of the car into officer Davis’s arms, and was given in charge by the car-driver for insulting a lady.

Cattle herd, 1800s
A Cowboy’s Life. This longer story was published February 21, 1881 – the same year Billy the Kid was shot and the Earps had it out with the Clantons at the OK Corral. The breathless secondary headlines reads: “Crossing the Mountains with Four Thousand Cattle.”

The writer reports an interview with Ben Heywood, a cattle dealer and trail boss from Utah. The cow man humorously describes how cowboys will sleep through anything.

In the midst of a mountain storm, when the crashing thunder comes simultaneously with the glaring sheets of lightning, the cowboy sleeps peacefully; in a dry creek bed, with his head down grade, he slumbers sweetly; in view of tarantulas, rattlesnakes and centipedes for bedfellows, he closes his eyes, and dreams of a heaven of unlimited plug tobacco and unstinted sleep.

Riding herd during the night watch, he says, a cowboy can make several rounds of the cattle while sound asleep in the saddle. To illustrate his point further, he tells of a stampede one night that failed to wake a contingent of thirteen cowboys, whose sleep was undisturbed by it.

The account begins with observations on the suddenness of stampedes – how a herd can leap to its feet all at once. Followed by the overwhelming noise of thundering hooves and clacking horns. Then he describes the process of turning the lead cattle so the herd “mills” into a circling mass until tiring and finally being lulled by the sound of human voices – singing to them, if possible. The following morning, he goes on,

the circle where the mill had been was as devoid of vegetation as a dancing hall. The sage-brush was ground to a powder, and the ground looked exactly as though it had been prepared for a circus ring. Through the sage-brush where the stock had run, a straight, smooth swath was cut as if by a mowing machine with potato-digging attachment.

The cowboys in camp, however, had slept through it all, “as they might if in a feather bed in the Palace Hotel.”

Hunted to His Death. Published on January 13, 1881, this crime-related story has a sub-head that reads: “Lynching a Murderer in a Little Mormon Town.”

Told in chilling detail, it describes how the Mormon residents of little Logan, Utah, dispatched a murderer without benefit of trial – and without first consulting church officials. The incident occurred ten years previously and is reported by a witness, who was a prospector visiting town for supplies.

Logan River, Utah
He and his partner first learn of the killing from a terrified young cowboy afraid to enter the town alone. They learn from him that the murderer, Charley Benson, killed another man, Tom Crockett, apparently over a girl. The victim was shot in cold blood, though unarmed, and Benson promised those who saw it happen that he’d take out more of them before he was done.

While the town lies paralyzed with fear, an organized search for the killer goes on for a week. It is the dead of winter, and he is finally apprehended while attempting to flee the town on foot. He had been hiding out cold and hungry in a barn, under a pile of hay.

Taken to jail, he is put in the custody of the sheriff, who happens to be the murdered victim’s brother. An angry mob then gathers outside and demands the prisoner. The sheriff, like a scene out of a western movie, says he’ll sooner arm the man and help defend him.

The response is a threat to kill the sheriff  himself if necessary. In the confusion, the prisoner is dragged away with a rope already around his neck and taken to a large sign post. There follows this grim account of the hanging:

The rope was thrown over an arm of the post. A score of people seized it and pulled with all their strength. Benson’s body rose in the air. His neck was not being broken, but he was being slowly and fearfully choked to death. His face turned black, his mouth opened, and from it fell some bread and cheese which he had been eating in his cell. Some one gave his legs a jerk, then another. In an hour some one told me he was dead.

The rest of the story tells of how after a few days the town fell silent about the hanging and would speak no more of it. Given widespread public support for the lynching, Brigham Young himself apparently decided to do nothing by way of reprisal.

Some years afterward, on his last visit to Logan, the writer says he was guided to Benson’s grave by the only resident willing to discuss the event. And the story ends this way:

He led me to the western part of the city, and there in a clover-carpeted orchard on a sloping hillside I saw the mound of earth which covered Charley Benson’s remains. I asked why there was no headboard, and my companion answered: “It don’t need one, because nobody cares about it only its old broken-hearted mother, and she knows it so well that she has made this path a-walkin’ to it so often.”

They don’t write up news like that anymore.

Picture credits:
1) Union and 7th Streets, Kansas City, c1880, wikimedia.org
2) Cattle herd, Colorado, J. Thurlow photographer, mid-1800s, wikimedia.org
3) Logan River, U.S. Forest Service, wikimedia.org

Coming up: Emerson Hough’s The Story of the Cowboy (1897)


  1. Very good! Its hard for me, as a Brit, to look at the City of Kansas, and appreciate just how well built up, the states were at that time in that period. I suppose we have the vision that America was all dusty streets and saloons? Maybe the odd Marshal knocking about.

  2. Wow, a wealth of material here for stories. As REH once said, you could mine the past your whole life and never run out of story ideas.

  3. Interesting, the Charley Benson story especially, to me being from Utah.

  4. Cheyenne, as the song goes, "Everything's up to date in Kansas City; they've gone about as far as they can go..."

    Charles, these were the first three that came up in the search. In the original, they make great little stories.

    Oscar, I thought of you while I was writing up that one.