Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Emerson Hough, continued

I’m still reading Emerson Hough’s The Story of the Cowboy (1897), a book that is densely packed with information about the Old West. At first I thought much of the book was guesswork, since Hough spent so little time on the frontier, but in one way or another he seems to have done his homework. He might be wrong about some things, but much of what he writes has the ring of authenticity. It’s a great source book about the early West.

Looking for Rustlers, Illustration from the book by Charles Russell
Rustlers. Hough devotes a chapter to cattle rustlers that put a new twist on the subject for me. The term “rustler” began, he says, with a positive rather than pejorative meaning. In the early days of the open range, cowpunchers were rewarded as much as five dollars a head for finding and branding mavericks for the home ranch. Such a man “rustled” for this extra income in the way that a city dweller might “hustle” to make a better living for himself.

Many cowboys also became cattle owners in their own right, and a cowboy might well choose instead to put his own brand on a maverick to claim it for his own herd. As these “little guys” proliferated, they eventually earned the disapproval of the big cattle barons.

In Wyoming, the big ranchers formed an association to put a stop to this development, and they quit paying their cowboys for branding mavericks. Worse, they made it illegal for them to own their own brand. What they didn’t count on was the widespread resistance these new rules would ignite.

For one thing, they went dead against the code that the West had lived by until then. This code granted a man the freedom to live and thrive as he pleased – so long as he did not take unfair advantage of another man. The new rules of the range were clearly unfair and therefore unjust.

The Cattle Thieves, by F.W. Schulz, 1907

Another factor was that big ranchers were increasingly “outsiders” from the East or foreign countries. Often they were impersonal corporations and syndicates. Unlike the first cattlemen, they were faceless investors who never even came West. This made them unpopular with residents in general, and their efforts to enforce the new laws met with general lack of sympathy.

So, many folks cooperated with rustlers. A homesteader might receive the gift of a quarter of beef on one day and be asked to corral a small herd of calves or horses on another – no questions asked. A butcher in town might be a ready customer for a slaughtered cow. The large railroad crews laying track across the plains in these years provided another ready market for meat. The less known on all these occasions, the better.

The result of the association’s efforts was to greatly increase rather than decrease the loss of their stock. Their own cowpunchers, even the foreman, could look the other way as cattle disappeared. There was such a broad gray area between right and wrong during this time that a cowboy could easily be torn in either direction.

Hough is quick to distinguish honest “rustlers” from the truly bad men who infiltrated their number and were even the rule in places like Montana. These were the lawless men who had lived by thievery in remote areas from the earliest days. Or they were the buffalo hunters who had worked their trade on the plains before the arrival of the cattle herds.

Hough sides with the cowboys who still tried to live by the old rules. They may have broken the law, but they weren’t criminals. Rustlers were not outlaws, he argues, but the last holdouts of the original code of the West.

Coming up: Emerson Hough, Heart's Desire (1905) and more cowboy memoirs


  1. Tom Horn springs to mind? Working for Coble and the others.
    Its such a shame that whatever we do, there is always corruption, I do remember the vast (not personally), British investors from the 1880`s who made and lost vast fortunes from the American cattle industry.

  2. Interesting about the word rustler. even today, rustle up something to eat has positive connotations.

  3. It is amazing how language (like rustler) changes over time.

  4. Cheyenne, Tom Horn did work for the Wyoming Stock Grower's Association, but he wasn't apparently part of the Johnson County War.

    Charles and David, I was surprised to read this derivation of "rustler" in Hough and haven't come across it anywhere else. I'd want a 2nd opinion before relying on it as gospel.