White Oaks was a boom town that sprang up in the 1880s after the discovery of gold. Just 40 miles west of Lincoln, New Mexico, it had been within easy roaming distance for Billy the Kid until his demise in 1881. Rapidly growing from a tent city to a respectable town, it would have been a reasonable location for a young lawyer from back East.
|Roping a Maverick, Charles Russell
Though Hough remembers White Oaks fondly, he didn’t stay long – less than two years. Returning to the Midwest, he wrote for newspapers and other publications in the years that followed. It was a long, discouraging wait, but by the age of 40, he’d finally been commissioned to write his first book, The Story of the Cowboy.
It drew the attention of Teddy Roosevelt, Hamlin Garland, and others who mattered. Then with a novel, The Girl at the Halfway House (1900), his career as a western writer finally took off.
What did Hough know about cowboys? Interesting question. Unlike other western writers, Hough was never a cowboy himself. He seems to have known them as hunting companions and may have gathered a lot of his “story” thus second-hand.
Hough was a life-long outdoorsman (in today’s sense of the word), and his chapter on “The Cowboy’s Amusements” is chiefly about hunting wildlife. Averse to going afoot, he says, cowboys loved any hunt that involved a chase on horseback.
In the days of the open range, the abundant game was typically roped to a standstill before being killed: coyotes, wolves, elk, buffalo, even grizzlies. Greyhounds were used to chase down deer and antelope. Mountain lions were treed and then shot.
|Looking for Rustlers, Charles M. Russell
Showing up as uninvited guests in bedrolls, a few varmints did their part to even the score. There were rattlesnakes, of course, but also the loathsome polecat, whose rabid bite was a sure killer. Centipedes were also dreaded. The poisonous tread of their many feet across bare skin was believed to induce insanity.
As for other amusements, Hough notes that cowboys enjoyed racing horses and betting everything on a local favorite to win. Competitive tarantula fighting was also a sport. But the real fun was to be had in town.
In the days of the Wild West cow town, cowboys were drawn there to indulge every vice available to them. He describes that early breed thus:
Each and all of powerful constitution, of superb physical health, and of all the daring and boldness inculcated by wild life amid wild surroundings, these men were ignorant of fear, ignorant of self-restraint, ignorant of life in any but the narrowest sense of the word (p. 233).
But those days, he argues, are long gone. The cowboy of 1897 is a “faithful laborer,” little different from working men anywhere.
Still, given a choice, Hough prefers the spirit of the Old West. He laments the increase of wealth and what he calls “artificiality” and "degeneration" in the urban East. Human nature is better suited, he argues, to the rugged individualism practiced among Westerners. He says,
Mankind has always loved the strong, because it is only the strong which is fit to be loved. So we go back continually, fascinated, and revel in the stories of strong times (p. 238).
It’s a telling remark. Hough advocates a doctrine that sounds a lot like survival of the fittest. It reveals assumptions about character that underlie the popularity of Western fiction in the following decades.
|Cutting Out, William L. Wells
The frontier town. The settlements of the Old West, as Hough describes them, were far from “settled.” For starters, there were virtually no women. This he considers a mixed blessing and suggests that it reduced the number of vices involving the opposite sex.
The male inhabitants, as he lists them, included: “cowboys, half-breeds, gamblers, teamsters, hunters, freighters, small storekeepers, petty officials, dissipated professional men” (p. 238). And the result of such a mix of mostly male inhabitants?
The town was simply an eddy in the troubled stream of Western immigration, and it caught the odd bits of drift wood and wreck – the flotsam and jetsam of a chaotic flood (p. 238).
In the East, he observes, a man must specialize in a specific occupation to be taken seriously, but western town dwellers had to diversify just to survive.
Besides this, he says, western towns typically had several other things in common. Marriageable women, when they arrived, were usually girls from Kansas. Among the town’s merchants, there was typically a Jew, of unknown origin. You would also find a newspaperman, no less given to drink than anyone else. Though it may lack a doctor or dentist, a town might have a druggist. And no self-respecting town existed without a barber.
Law and law enforcement. Every town would have its justice of the peace, a man who may well have served time in Leavenworth.
It was rarely that the justice knew much law, but he nearly always was acquainted with the parties to any suit and with the prisoner who happened to be at bar, and usually he had a pretty accurate idea of what he was going to do with the case before it came up for trial (p. 240).
And there was always a sheriff, of whom Hough writes a loving portrait, describing him as “quiet, courageous, just, and much respected by his fellow-men,” admired for his “strong and noble nature” (pp. 241-242).
Given his own experience as a frontier lawyer, Hough’s description of the man in that profession is a bit more detailed. A town lawyer would have no more than two or three books, and he was easy to pick out in a crowd – he’d be the only one not wearing chaps or overalls. There was little legal work, in fact, because little happened that qualified as crime.
Stealing and burglary were mostly unknown. Shootings were typically a matter of self-defense. A horse thief would make it to trial only if the sheriff got to him first, and that was a rarity. The town lawyer might be called with the aid of a surveyor to settle a boundaries dispute. Otherwise, he made a living mostly by holding a job as a public servant, such as the county assessor.
Hough's is an interesting book for its slant on the Old West, sometimes humorous with quirky details, and occasionally opinionated in a way that reflects his times and background. More about him later.
Delbert Wylder. Emerson Hough. Boston: Twayne, 1981.
1) Illustrations by William L. Wells and Charles Russell, from the 1897 edition of The Story of the Cowboy
Coming up: Emerson Hough, Heart’s Desire (1905)