Friday, September 14, 2012

Edgar Beecher Bronson, Reminiscences of a Ranchman, 1908

1910 edition
Edgar Beecher Bronson (1856-1917) was one of those larger than life writers and adventurers of the 19th and early 20th century. Born in Pennsylvania, he began as a youthful newspaper reporter for The New York Tribune. At nineteen, he was already a model of nerve and persistence. Covering the 1875 Henry Ward Beecher adultery trial in Brooklyn, he crossed the ice-covered East River on foot with his report when there was no boat to ferry him over.

Bronson was a member of that “strenuous” generation praised by Theodore Roosevelt. He anticipated TR’s interest in the West by giving up his reporter’s job and going west to cowboy and then take up ranching. This book is his memoir of that frontier adventure.

The new outfit
Cowboy to rancher. Through a connection with field geologist Clarence King, he found his way to a horse ranch in Wyoming where he endured several months as a tenderfoot among seasoned punchers. His accounts of rising to the challenge show him remarkable for his tenacity, eventually winning the respect of the other men and his employer.

Before long, he is in Texas, buying up cattle to drive north, with the intention of ranching on the plains. Still in his early twenties, he is out of his depth dealing with dishonest traders and trying to boss trail hands who resent his lack of experience and his Yankee origins.

Holding his herd in Wyoming, he is one of the first cattlemen to venture north of the North Platte River. He winters there with several of his men in a dugout near Fort Laramie. The structure is 18-feet square, with rawhide mattresses in the bed frames, a fireplace, a mountain lion skin on the floor, and tomato can cases nailed to the walls for shelves.

"Shet y'r yawp."
He has problems in Wyoming with rustlers, who take 70 or more of his cattle to Deadwood. In that wild mining camp, over 200 miles away, meat on the hoof is worth a small fortune. Catching a night coach, he is able to track down his cows and, after some hard bargaining, buy them back from a shady and threatening butcher.

By 1877, he has settled in the Nebraska panhandle, just south of Fort Robinson, hundreds of miles from any duly constituted authority. He is on his own, with 8-10 ranch hands, to keep cattle and horses on his range and out of the hands of rustlers and the Sioux.

Chief Dull Knife
Indians. With the Sioux resisting efforts to move them off their traditional lands, and Custer's recent encounter with them at the Little Big Horn, there is also the risk of retaliation. Bronson has several moments in tight spots with them when he’s fully aware that he may be breathing his last.

His understanding of the dilemma faced by the Indians makes him largely sympathetic with them. He admires their courage and ingenuity and gives a long account of Dull Knife’s breakout from Indian Territory. The tribe’s amazing trek northward defied multiple efforts of the U.S. government to intercept them. Fighting valiantly to the last in bitter winter cold, starved and scarcely clothed, they win Bronson’s unreserved respect.

Two chapters are devoted to what Bronson believes are the last Sundance ceremonies by Sioux tribes gathering at the agency near Fort Robinson. There in the spring of 1880 or 1881, he and several other whites observe days of rituals and dancing by an assembly of 10,000 Ogallala Sioux and 2,000 Brules.

Moving on. In 1882, at the age of 26, Bronson saw the writing on the wall. The range was getting overstocked, and homesteaders were arriving in droves. He’d had five good years and knew that staying on he chanced being wiped out by a killing winter. Against the wishes of his loyal cowhands, who were ready to take up their guns and drive the nesters out, he sells the ranch and returns east.

His last summer on the prairie finds him in Ogallala, Nebraska, at the height of its rip-roaring bad old days. There, with one hotel, 20 saloons, dancehalls, and gambling joints, all in a single row facing the railroad tracks, the town is surrounded by the herds of 12 or more trail outfits. He estimates that there are 20-30,000 cattle fresh from Texas.

The fierce, triple-digit heat gives way to a sudden storm front, which sends the temperature down 40-50 degrees F. After torrents of rain, the river floods, driving residents in the hotel to the second floor, raising fears that the whole town will be swept away. A tornado is sighted in the flashes of lightning, but it misses the town.

Style. Writing up his experiences 25 years later, he has a newspaperman’s gift for storytelling and precise detail. As one example, he lists the items purchased in Cheyenne for his entry-level job as a wrangler: bridle, 40-pound saddle, 40-foot rawhide lariat, California spurs with two-inch rowels, leather chaps, tarpaulin, buffalo robe, two blankets, boots, and a big hat.

Though told mostly straight, Bronson’s stories also take some wryly-humorous turns. His description of the carry-on in Ogallala includes this brief episode when a tinhorn, Bill Thompson, takes a shot at the proprietor of a saloon, Jim Tucker, blowing away three of the man's fingers:

Jim sprang up, seized a sawed-off ten-gauge shotgun, ran to the door, leveled the gun across the stump of his maimed left hand, and emptied into Bill’s back at about six paces, a trifle more No. 4 duck-shot than his system could assimilate.

Perhaps altogether ten minutes were wasted on this incident and the time taken to tourniquet and tie up Jim’s wound and to pack Bill inside and stow him in a corner behind the faro lookout’s chair, and then Jim’s understudy called, “Pardners fo’ th’ next dance!” the fiddlers bravely tackled but soon got hopelessly beyond their depth in “The Blue Danube,” and dancing and frolic were resumed.

Concho Curly at the opera
With a story he must have told many times, Bronson tells of passing a cold night on an overland stage with a very drunk fellow passenger, who challenges him to a singing competition—of Sunday school songs. The next morning the man has no clear memory of who won, and they settle the wager by each buying the other a gallon of whiskey.

An enjoyable and possibly far-fetched character study comes in the account of Texas cowboy Concho Curly, who accompanies a herd of Bronson’s cattle to market in Chicago. There he takes a room at the Palmer House, where he orders a dozen lobsters for dinner, expecting them to be small, like oysters. Another diner shows the amazed cowboy how to eat them when they arrive.

For entertainment, he pays $25 for a box seat at the opera, where he is stunned by how little women wear in public. He stops the performance by drawing a gun on the villain, and leaves before the show is over.

Edgar Beecher Bronson, 1917
Wrapping up. In later years, Bronson traveled in Africa as a big-game hunter, also before TR got the same idea. He wrote of this adventure in his book In Closed Territory (1910).  Reminiscences of a Ranchman was republished in 1910 as Cowboy Life on the Western Plains, with illustrations by Maynard Dixon and others.

That same year, Bronson gathered a number of his short stories about the West and the Dark Continent and published the collection under the title The Red-Blooded, which will be reviewed here in the weeks to come.

His book about Texas ranchmen, Loving’s Bend, was published in 1908. A novel, The Vanguard (1914), is a fictional account of the winning of the West, based on the notes of frontiersman Clark B. Stocking (1839-1934). Bronson had met Stocking while the fearless scout, soldier, and lawman was riding shotgun on the Deadwood Stage.

Reminiscences of a Ranchman is currently available at amazon and online at google books, Internet Archive, and for kindle and the nook.

Biography, “Foreword,” Edgar Beecher Bronson, The Love of Loot and Women, 1917

Image credits: 
Bronson photo, Wikimedia Commons
Illustrations from the 1910 edition by Maynard Dixon, W. Herbert Dunton, and W. T. Benda

Coming up: Saturday music, Bill Monroe


  1. Wish I was a model of nerve and perseverance.

  2. Bronson's memoir should've been included in the Bison Books' Pioneer Heritage Series of the late '60s --if it wasn't. (I only know of the first five in that lineup.) A remarkable man and a stunning review, Ron. Thanks for the introduction. I'll be searching for this one.

  3. I agree with Richard Prosch: this is, indeed, a terrific review, Ron. It almost negates the need for me to read Edgar Beecher Bronson's memoir. He was quite a character.

  4. I have just been traveling through those parts with the family this summer. Sounds like a must-read book to me. Thanks for your brilliant reviews, as always Ron.

  5. Thanks for this. You have a remarkable way of discovering forgotten books. I am always more absorbed by real accounts of a real West than I am by its mythology and fiction.

  6. Edgar Beecher Bronson must have had a personal interest in the Henry Ward Beecher trial. Just going by his name. I will add his book to my small library of non-fiction. Thanks for the review, Ron.