Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Cowboys in the news, 1881

Tribune Building, Chicago
In the 1880s, cowboys on the frontier were regarded as untamed and more than a little dangerous. A correspondent for the Chicago Daily Tribune, writing from Tucson, Arizona, in 1881, gives an illuminating account of them.

He’s interviewed one cowboy, Jerry Benton, who’s been charged with murder and is on his way by train (and still armed) to face trial. Benton, who has killed men before, expects acquittal unless the jury has too much sympathy for the victim. “The law gets the best of us fellows,” he says, but he’ll stand trial “like a man.”

He has the “scarred face and desperate look so characteristic of the border-ruffian,” says the writer. Yet a man friendly to Benton calls him “a good fellow,” who behaves badly only when he’s “angry or under the influence of liquor.”

Photo by Erwin Smith, 1909
His “huge revolver” is a weapon he carries for self-defense. In Arizona, it’s explained, you can’t be “squeamish about shooting” if you expect to stay alive. And in these few paragraphs we get the picture of an affable man of both honor and violence. It’s the seed from which the myth of the cowboy would grow.

Cowboy characteristics. Benton, we learn, is one of a type. A cattle herder originating on the plains of Texas, the cowboy has now followed the expanding cattle industry into Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado. An expert horseman, he can outride an Apache or a soldier. He may be American, Mexican, a half-breed, or Indian.

Besides a six-gun and belt, he carries a knife and repeating rifle and wears “a huge pair of spurs.” While “quick, wiry, and intrepid,” he is also “often generous and humane.” In temperament, “he is as uncivilized as a grizzly-bear and reckless as a savage.” For citizens and immigrants “he is fast becoming a terror” as he shoots up frontier towns. Stories abound of his “bloodthirsty career.”

St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Tombstone, Arizona; built 1882.
Practical jokes. There follow several stories of cowboy hi-jinks. According to report, a bunch of them cleared a restaurant by shooting at the plates in front of customers. Ministers were apparently the frequent butt of this kind of humor. In two accounts, cowboys enter churches and threaten to shoot the preacher.

Curly Bill (Brocius), who’d already shot a marshal in Tombstone, is given credit for terrorizing a congregation in Charleston, Arizona. While Curly Bill’s gang blocked the exits, the reverend was forced at gunpoint to do a dance. The writer wryly concludes: “The minister is now more strongly opposed to dancing than before.”

Other desperadoes who get a mention in the story include Johnny Behind the Deuce and Buckskin Sam. Of the latter, a story is reported that he celebrated the purchase of a new gun by firing it while riding through the streets of town. Later he turned himself in and “paid a handsome fine.”

Charleston, Arizona, 1885
Jack Slade is offered as a “specimen desperado,” and a story is told of his merciless killing of “an old enemy.” Tied to a post, the man was shot 23 times. Slade was said to be in no hurry, stopping to have a drink after every two shots. The final fatal round was discharged into the man’s mouth. Not finished, Slade cut off the dead man’s ears. (There’s yet another version of this story at legendsofamerica.com.)

Summing up, the writer portrays the majority of cowboys as a dangerous menace. They sell cattle to their “Greaser” friends in Mexico, then steal them back to sell again north of the border. As they invade towns and terrify citizens, they are no better than roaming bands of “bloodthirsty and daring” hooligans – Hell’s Angels on horseback. 

“A wild life on the plains,” the writer surmises, “is not generally adapted to bring out the better qualities of a man’s life.” There is talk of sending in Federal troops to “exterminate” this element. The writer concludes by pointing out that the spread of unchecked lawlessness has a way of discouraging agricultural and mining development – and we can’t have that.

Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Robert Alexander Wason, Friar Tuck (1912)


  1. Sounds like the model Hopalong Cassidy was built upon. Wild and wooly

  2. Loved the "scarred face and desperate look so characteristic of the border-ruffian."

  3. Based on Deadwood, I'd have to agree.

  4. It's no different now. Sensationalism has always been a big seller. Most news reports are still about the desperados instead of the majority of the people who are simply living their lives.

  5. Charles, you have to wonder how much Mulford was inspired by this kind of reporting.

    David, great journalistic use of colorful and dramatic language, indeed.

    Patti, Deadwood and many other boom towns. Bodie, California, had the real reputation then.

    Susan, ain't it the truth.

  6. "Unchecked lawlessness has a way of discouraging agricultural and mining development," amen, brother and also religious freedom as illustrated in the article, and also most other development, except the liquor industry. Just as true today.