Thursday, January 27, 2011

Jack Thorp, Along the Rio Grande

This book, published in 1988, is an edition of the writings of N. Howard “Jack” Thorp (1867-1940), New Mexico resident and early cowboy song collector. His 1908 Songs of the Cowboys was among the first collections of traditional western lyrics and ballads to be recorded in print. He was also author of one of the most widely known cowboy songs, “Little Joe the Wrangler.”

In the 1930s, as a writer for the Federal Writers Project of the WPA, he wrote most of a book on New Mexico that never saw publication. A half century after his death, editors Peter White and Mary Ann White put together this edition of his material. Drawn directly from his personal experience, it makes an informative and entertaining addition to any library of frontier history.

The wild bunch. The most colorful chapters of the book concern the era before 1900 when New Mexico was still wild and woolly. Rustlers, robbers, and corrupt politicians held sway. Killing was common and law enforcement undependable. As Thorp osbserves,

The country was overrun with cow and horse thieves and other desperate characters, who for good and sufficient reasons had to leave the states to the east, and seek oblivion in the wild – and then little-known – mountains of New Mexico. (p. 118)

Under these conditions, a man was judged by his grit no matter which side of the law he took up residence. While Thorp disparages Billy the Kid as a two-bit troublemaker, he reserves respect for bad men like Black Jack Ketchum, who went to his end bravely. Ketchum refused anesthetic when his arm had to be amputated following gunshot wounds sustained in an attempted robbery. When the doctor was done, he gamely said, “Let me know if I can do the same for you some day, Doc.”

Black Jack Ketchum
His hanging in 1901 in Clayton, New Mexico, is described by Thorp in detail. It drew a crowd of spectators, who filled a public area and watched from windows and rooftops. Photos of that day were taken and can be seen here, along with an account of the man’s career.

Another outlaw who wins Thorp’s respect is Bill McGinnis. Though shot four times, he escaped capture after a train robbery with members of Butch Cassidy’s gang. He’d been on the run for over a month when he unwittingly walked into a trap set by a sheriff’s posse for a suspected horse thief. He fired off the one round left in his gun and then fought with his fists until subdued. Reflecting his respect for the man, Thorp makes this observation:

Mac had ridden over three hundred miles with four bullet holes in his body, and been unable to change his bloody shirt for over a month, had no bandages or medicine and little to eat, and still fought the posse like a tiger, until by main force they overpowered him. Whether right or wrong, Mac, as the posse had to admit, was a brave and nervy man. (p. 150)

Even more absorbing is Thorp’s account of the De Autremont brothers, whose life of crime as train bandits was brief and unsuccessful. Following the killings of four members of a train crew, they were pursued for over three years by the Feds.

Despite considerable forensic evidence worked out by a University of California professor, authorities made 500 false arrests before finding them. One turned up in the Philippines, in the U.S. Army, and two in Steubenville, Ohio. This all took place in the 1920s, and you can’t read it without thinking it would make a great movie.

Another chapter is devoted to interesting characters who were not outlaws (apparently a smaller number). Among them is Elfego Baca, a deputy sheriff from Socorro, New Mexico, who runs afoul of a settlement full of Mexican-averse cowpunchers from Texas. After trying unsuccessfully to arrest a drunken cowboy firing his gun in the street, Baca became himself the intended subject of arrest by local lawmen.

For much of two days, he held off what turned into a mob-scene siege by 80 citizens, surviving a barrage of gunfire and the dynamiting of the house he was holed up in. He was eventually rescued when an Anglo deputy arrived from Soccoro to safely escort him into custody.

Group of cowboys, New Mexico

Cowboys. Some of the book is devoted to the world of working cowboys. The first chapter is a carefully explained account of roundups during the days of the open range. For readers wondering how free-roaming cattle get sorted out and correctly branded each year, he spares no detail.

While a crew of ten cowboys may go out to do the actual work, as many as 15 mounted “reps” from other ranches may go along with them to identify and lay claim to their employers’ stock. Since they get free grub as long as they’re with the outfit, Thorp notes, reps may kill one of their own calves to help feed everyone.

Chuck wagon and cowboys
Another chapter is devoted to the chuck wagon and the preparing of meals, plus expected behavior during meal time. A new detail for me was that the chuck wagon was typically stopped with its tongue pointing into the wind so that smoke from the fire would drift away from the cook at his work.

Riders on horseback would approach from downwind so their dust would not interfere with the cooking. (A detail sometimes overlooked in westerns.) According to Thorp, chuck wagons with tarp canopies extending over the back were regarded by seasoned men as the pampering of cowboys with more tender sensibilities.

Cattle roundup, near Las Cruces, New Mexico
Wrapping up. Though Thorp is remembered as a great storyteller, his writing is uneven. Much but not all of the book makes for absorbing reading. When he’s talking about incidents that reveal the true character of the people he writes about, the pages spring to life. Other times you get a cataloguing of names, places, and facts that let your interest drift.

The editors have included many Library of Congress photos dating from around 1940 (an example is on the cover, see above). There are pictures of rodeos and working cowboys. And not to forget Thorp’s truly invaluable work as a collector of  early cowboy songs and lyrics, the book ends with three ballads found in the manuscripts for his book.

Copies are available at AbeBooks.  

Photo credits:

Coming up: Charles Lummis, A Tramp Across the Continent (1892)


  1. Bill McGinnis sounds like a Robert E. Howard character. I"m gonna have to look him up.

  2. The bungling hangmen in Clayton managed to separate Black Jack from his head.

  3. Hello Ron. This week's edition of Friday's Forgotten Books is now up at MYSTERIES in PARADISE. Thanks for participating.

  4. A nice find. "Little Joe the Wrangler" is a great song!