Monday, June 13, 2011

Cowboys in the news, 1883-84

Chicago Daily News newsroom, 1915
The short-lived cowboy strike of 1883 in the Texas Panhandle got a couple mentions in the Chicago Daily Tribune. In an item on May 22, 1883, dateline Dallas, Texas, the reporter seems to have spoken only with stock owners, for he attributes the labor dispute to the cowboys' resistance to change. The coming of barb wire and the fencing of the open ranges, he explains, have reduced their role in the regular roundups on the open range. The cowboy profession, as a result, faces imminent demise.

The report fails to include any of the cowboys' grievances against the owners. Most owners now represented investors from the East and Europe and had introduced lots of new rules and regulations. Key among them was the end of the poorly paid cowboy’s traditional source of additional income, the right to claim ownership of mavericks with his own brand and thus build his own herd. The owners added insult to injury by refusing to increase wages to compensate for this loss.

Painting by Anders Zorn, 1887
The news item continues: Now that the Texas legislature has permitted fencing of public lands, tensions have escalated. Cowboys have resorted to “terrorizing measures,” cutting fences and posting threatening signs like this: “We have fought the wolves and Indians, and will now fight the stockmen.” The owners show no sign of yielding, and as the spring roundup approaches, further disturbances, even bloodshed, are expected.

An earlier item in the Tribune on May 19, 1883, dateline Austin, Texas, reported that cowboys in one Panhandle county were returning to work – and without a pay raise. The source in this case was an officer of the State troops. He reveals that the stock-owners have asked for the presence of rangers at roundups in other counties. [I’m guessing that if the cowboys had their own newspaper, coverage of the strike would have had a whole different slant.] 

Ralph W. Emerson (1803-1882)
Troubles in Arizona. In other news, a cowboy gang leader, Kid Lewis, met his end in a hail of bullets in Clifton, Arizona. A report appeared in the September 27, 1883, Chicago Daily Tribune, dateline Tucson, Arizona. Lewis is said to have pulled his gun when confronted by a posse of 25 men. Three cowboys riding with him got away, one of them shot badly and assumed to be dead.

Sheriff Stevens is credited by the grateful community for attempting to stop an outbreak of bloody feuding among rival gangs. A second Kid, wanted for horse stealing, has been apprehended. However, two other lawmen are overdue in return from a manhunt following a stage robbery. The robbers, with a gang of seven cowboys, are believed to have retreated to a “stronghold” in the Santa Catalina Mountains.

Troubles in Idaho. Finally, an item in the March 24, 1884, Tribune, dateline Ogden, Utah, reports of a cowboy-related murder trial. The alleged assailant is the “notorious outlaw cowboy,” W. T. Stokes, who “just for amusement” fatally shot a violinist at a dance in American Falls, Idaho. Previously, Stokes and his gang were known for holding up a train and forcing a group of musicians on board to perform for them.

At a preliminary hearing, court proceedings were disrupted by a contingent of heavily armed supporters attempting to intimidate the presiding justice of the peace. The sheriff and a posse were required to disarm and disperse them. Stokes was subsequently held without bail.

Further reading:
Cowboy strike of 1883
Elmer Kelton, The Day the Cowboys Quit

Image credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up:
Springfield Rifle (1952)


  1. Cowboy strike. Wow, I had never heard of this. Cool information. It never even occurred to me that it might have happened.

  2. Nice post with info most folks don't know.

  3. I had no clue either. Great stuff, Ron.