Thursday, December 9, 2010

Frank Collinson, Life in the Saddle, part 3

Life in the Saddle is partly about West Texas and eastern New Mexico geography. The pictures today represent some of that terrain. The book is also a catalogue of the way men died on the frontier. And more from violence than natural causes, Collinson says. 

No Trust Here, Stanley Wood,1895
As an example, he tells of a killing he witnessed in Socorro, New Mexico.Three young trail herd cowboys were shot in the back, unprovoked, as they left town on their horses – by the sheriff and a deputy. The oldest was no more than 23, he says, and there was “no harm in any of them.” He goes on to say:

There were graves along the prairie from Texas to Montana, and no doubt some of the victims were tough hombres and deserved to be shot. But I’m convinced that the majority of them, like the three young cowboys in Socorro, were killed wantonly. (pp. 217-218)

Fort Griffin. The vigilante committee was kept busy in this wild frontier town in west Texas, where life was a tenuous commodity. Foul play was so common that when someone went missing suspicions were easily aroused.

Two brothers there, Ed and Frank Woolsey, cooked up a plot to take a ranch from a partner, James Brock. Frank left the country and Ed started a rumor that Brock had killed him. Like a scene out of The Oxbow Incident, the vigilantes swung into action. On the way to apprehend Brock, however, they were turned back by high water.

Saved from hanging, Brock was later tried but not convicted. He then searched for 13 years before finally finding Frank Woolsey in Arkansas. Somehow, instead of killing him, he returned with the man to Fort Griffin to prove his innocence.

Yellow House Canyon, near Slaton, Texas
A disappearance of another kind occurred when two gamblers shot it out in a Fort Griffin saloon over a high stakes card game. As bystanders fled, Lottie Deno, a so-called poker queen, stayed behind long enough to make off with the $1,000 the men were fighting over. She left town later and reportedly lived as a reformed woman after a conversion at a revival in Silver City, New Mexico.

Gun violence was so much the norm in Fort Griffin that a stage driver engineered some attention for himself by shooting up his own stage and claiming to have fought off a band of robbers. After receiving a medal for bravery from his fellow townsmen, he confessed to the truth during a drunk and returned the medal.

More dead. While Collinson was a foreman for a ranch in west Texas, two cowboys from different outfits were sharing a cabin at a line camp. On New Year’s night 1880,

a quarrel started over a song, and both pulled their Colt .45 six-shooters. Barbee was shot through the heart, and Harkie was shot through the hip and both kidneys. He lived for several hours. (p. 125)

Dunes, Llano Estacado, near Meadow, Texas
Some needlessly died on the harsh, arid terrain of the high plains. A company of cavalry nearly perished to the last man when they ran out of water while in pursuit of a band of Indians. The commanding officer had ignored the warnings of buffalo hunters and set out over the desert anyway. Fifteen men and many horses were lost before they were rescued.

Another cattleman, with the help of one young cowhand, was trailing a herd of beef and had his cattle stolen at gunpoint by seven rustlers. Following them to their camp, he shot them one by one over a period of days. The last one surrendered and helped cut the man’s cattle from the rustlers’ herd, after which the cattleman continued on his way.

In a chapter entitled “Prairie Funerals” Collinson recalls a long list of men – good, bad, and indifferent – who came to an early demise:

  • Frenchie, a hide-pegger for a camp of buffalo hunters, is trampled to death by a buffalo that revives after he thought it was killed.
  • A new driver for a freighter disappears in a blizzard and is found frozen to death.
  • A friend of Collinson is killed when a horse he is riding knocks him off against a tree.
  • A man is crushed to death by a falling boulder that he has camped under.
  • A man believed to be a Swiss count is found having overdosed on morphine.
  • Pursuing a small band of Indians on horseback, three cowboys are surprised by one of them who has slipped from his horse and hidden in tall grass. He shoots one of the cowboys dead as they ride by and wounds another.
  • A man kills a card dealer at a saloon and is apprehended and hanged from an upturned wagon tongue, there being no convenient tree of sufficient growth.

Jim Greathouse, whom we last heard of in connection with Billy the Kid, met a violent end as well. Stealing cattle from another rough customer, Joe Fowler, he and two companions were killed by the rancher for their trouble. Fowler later killed another man and while awaiting trial was bailed out of jail by his foreman, whom he also killed. Due process was suspended at that point, and Fowler was immediately strung up.

Pecos River, near Roswell, New Mexico
Family tragedy. Collinson devotes another chapter to the death toll in Seven Rivers, New Mexico, which figured in the Lincoln County War. In one of those stories he tells of a rancher named Beckwith who tried to remain neutral but lost his two sons to the influence of a son-in-law who had thrown in with one of the factions.

When both of Beckwith’s sons were killed, the grieving father killed his son-in-law. Shootings were so common then, Collinson says, nothing further came of it. Beckwith sold out in 1881 and moved to Texas, and the rest of his story reads like the long anti-climax of a family tragedy by Eugene O'Neill:

Several years later he sold his cattle and built a hotel in San Antonio. This venture was a failure, and he ended up in Presidio del Norte on the Rio Grande, where he operated a small store. The store was ransacked and he was killed in 1892. (p. 203)

Collinson says he doesn’t know if it was a robbery or retaliation for the killing in Seven Rivers.

Blizzard and drought. A chapter on the Blizzard of 1885 describes the winter that killed entire herds of cattle. Collinson estimates that 150,000 cattle died on the high plains between Pueblo, Colorado, and Dodge City. Many people died, as well, especially homesteaders, new to the prairie and unprepared for extremes of snow and cold.

Ocotillo, Chisos Mountains, Big Bend, Texas
In contrast, he also writes of the terrible drought years in the Big Bend region of west Texas, where herds were wiped out for lack of water. And desperate men committed suicide.

The book closes with Collinson’s last published piece, on Pancho Villa, another figure in history that he got close enough to observe. There’s no romanticizing here either as he matter-of-factly describes the toll of death and misery during those years of revolutionary upheaval in Mexico.

Wrapping up. This is one of the most historically illuminating cowboy memoirs I’ve read. The subject of cowboying takes up maybe no more than 10% of the book, though Collinson spent much of his life “in the saddle.”

We get instead much of the rest of the picture of the cowboy Old West – the buffalo hunters, fighting Indians, capturing wild horses, the hunting of predators, the arid and unforgiving terrain, the prevalence of killing and violence.

Writing fifty years later, Collinson is no longer charged with adrenalin, as he must have surely been at the time. Nor does he resort to understatement and wry humor, as some old yarn spinners are inclined to do. You have to imagine what it was like to have lived then, but he provides enough honest material for readers and storytellers today to do just that.

Picture credits:

Coming up: short stories of Eugene Manlove Rhodes


  1. Life seems hard now...until you read this. I could not take the level of violence or deprivation I am sure.

  2. I see the west really was wild and wooley. I guess we don't think about this so much when we talk about how violent our modern world is. Maybe not as bad as the one of the west.

  3. ok! You got me! I`ll order it from Amazon!!!

  4. I've read some modern-day books that claim stories of shootings, gunfights etc. in the old West are highly exaggerated and romanticised by 20th-century films and literature, but after reading this you have to wonder. I'm finishing up a book called True Stories of Old Houston and Houstonians, published around 1910 and covering the mid-to-late 1800s, and the accounts of fights, shootings, duels and feuds just in that one city are plentiful, and some even more colorful than you'd find in a Western movie.

  5. Patti, growing up in that environment, you would be a different person.

    Charles, I'm coming around to that opinion myself.

    Cheyenne, I think you'll enjoy it.

    Elisabeth, given the more violent history of Texas and the Southwest (the less tractable Indian tribes and the war with Mexico), I'm wondering if violence was more common as a result.