Denver Public Library
A cattle round up like this one was part of everyday life for a cowboy in the early 1900s.
There's much more to being a cowboy than many of the romanticized images show.
“Perhaps the cowboy, riding his horse across an endless prairie, has become a symbol of what we used to be, or at least think we used to be, and of what we would be if we could,” John R. Erickson writes in his book The Modern Cowboy (2004).
“He doesn’t have to punch a time clock, drive through snarls of traffic every afternoon, shave or wear a tie to work, or to participate in hollow rituals in order to gain advancement. When he gets tired of the scenery, or if the boss crowds him too close, he packs his few possessions in a pickup and horse trailer and moves on to another ranch. In the American cowboy, we find qualities we deeply admire—simplicity, independence, physical strength, courage, peace of mind, and self-respect—but which, to one degree or another, we have surrendered in order to gain something else.”
In his wizened, no-nonsense account of life and work in the cattle industry during the 1960s and 1970s, Texas cowboy and author Erickson describes the sense of pride and longing that still informs this pop cultural view.
Erickson, however, is no romantic. During a phone conversation from his seven-thousand-acre ranch in the Texas Panhandle—rugged canyon country where moving cattle on horseback is essential—he suggests cowboy realities can be less inspiring than suburban mythologizing might indicate.
“When I was ten years old, I wanted to be a cowboy like my grandfather and great-grandfather,” Erickson says. “I’ve also been critical of people who write romantically about the cowboy, people who don’t ‘have the smell of the fire on them,’ you might say. There are people who have read a lot of books about cowboying, and they can talk eloquently about the honor of being a cowboy. I’ve felt that, too. But I’ve also been on the other side when it was a day like this—cold, overcast, and windy—and I didn’t feel too honored to be where I was.”
In other words, the work is physically demanding, the hours long, and the pay too often abysmal. Still, Erickson says, he’s never seriously considered another line of work.
A Negative Term
Scholars echo this ambivalence, taking pains, too, to set the historical record straight. Historians of the American West say the term “cowboy,” through much of the nineteenth century, had a distinctly pejorative cast, a word commonly associated with bands of unruly young men who were as likely to be stealing cattle as tending them.
This unromantic type of cowboy established his bad reputation in Texas, where struggles between Anglo settlers and established Mexican ranchers led to decades of political instability and lawlessness. Think Sergio Leone rather than John Ford.
In his 1947 classic, The Longhorns, J. Frank Dobie wrote that until various “wild west shows” changed perceptions in the 1880s, calling someone a cowboy was to infer dereliction, drunkenness, and thievery. Historian Paul Carlson of Texas Tech University cites evidence of this in a recent essay, quoting antebellum rancher John Clay’s less-than-laudatory assessment of cowboys. They were, Clay writes, “a devil-may-care, roistering, gambling, immoral, revolver-heeled, brazen, light-fingered lot, who usually came to no-good end.”
This is not to say all cowhands were of ill repute: Most ranch workers in Texas as elsewhere were perfectly respectable and hardworking. It’s just that these workers didn’t usually end up on cattle drives.
Magnets for Vice
Long drives were reserved for the least experienced, most-expendable workers: the young, the rootless, and the delinquent. Far from being celebrated, when these “cowboys” approached more civilized trading and transshipment centers up the trail—cities like Springfield, Kansas City, and St. Joseph—they were viewed with trepidation, if not outright hostility.
The reason isn’t hard to understand. Young men fresh from the trail, pay in hand, were magnets for vice and those who figured to profit from it.
Town trouble aside, Missouri citizens had other reasons to fear Texas cowboys and their herds, though these didn’t emerge until later. Through much of the antebellum period, the longhorns and their minders provided a welcome influx of supplemental livestock for traders buying and selling Missouri’s “native breeds.”
These herds got their start in the early 1830s as drovers from Kentucky began bringing shorthorn cattle, called at the time “Durhams” after the English county where they originated, into Missouri’s fertile and well-watered prairies. The idea was to use Durham stock to improve the less desirable breeds already prospering on Missouri’s abundant grasses. Thanks to enterprising experts in husbandry, who, beginning at the 1835 Boone County Fair, convincingly touted the advantages of selective breeding, within twenty years the state had developed a prosperous, and profitable cattle industry.
The timing of the industry’s ascent couldn’t have been better. The late 1840s saw the beginnings of the migration West, with thousands of settlers spiking demand for beef. For pioneers destined for Oregon and prospectors and merchants bound for California, Missouri was the last chance to purchase the cattle that would supply meat and milk for the months-long journey.
These were the best of times for ranchers. In the two decades leading up to the Civil War, tens of thousands of shorthorn herds from Missouri, along with longhorns driven north from central Texas, were used to outfit wagon trains departing from Independence, Westport, and Kansas City. As these settlers established themselves in the western territories, their ongoing need for beef created still more opportunities to profit. Cattle selling for ten dollars per head in Kansas City fetched more than one hundred dollars in California.
Demand in eastern cities, meanwhile, was also strong, and stockyards located near Missouri railheads did a booming business.
But the good times eventually turned sour, thanks in large part to the spread of the cattle-killing Spanish, or Texas, fever.
Over the years, longhorns had built up resistance to the often-fatal, tick-borne disease, now known as bovine babesiosis. When these Texas cattle were driven to northern markets, however, Missouri’s herds, with no protective immunity, were vulnerable. This was especially true in the summer when ticks were most active.
No one can “blame the citizens of Missouri for adopting summary measures to protect their stock from the fearful ravages of Spanish fever,” thundered the Clinton Journal in a widely reprinted story from 1859. And summary measures did become the order of the day. Herds of longhorns, sometimes starving after months on the trail, were turned back from borders and river crossings by angry local ranchers and their neighbors. Drovers were robbed, beaten, and sometimes killed along with their herds by Missouri vigilantes. In 1861, the state legislature was forced to respond, passing a law severely restricting the movement of Texas beef through the state.
But the cowboys came, braving storms and stampedes, hostile American Indians and angry settlers. Some got through; many more did not.
Virginia Sue Hutchinson, writing in the Missouri Historical Review, recounts for example how a Texas cowboy named James M. Dougherty and his herd encountered “a yelling angry mob” of Missourians about twenty miles east of Fort Scott, Kansas. “Dressed in homespun pantaloons, coarse hunting jackets of tow [woven hemp], cowhide shoes, and coonskin caps, these formidable appearing men galloped at full speed toward the herd, screeching and yelling,” Hutchinson writes. “Naturally a stampede resulted.”
The teenage Dougherty was “arrested” by the mob for “bringing ticks” to Missouri and severely whipped before eventually being freed. One of his fellow drovers, John Dobbins, was shot dead in the saddle.
Unlike some of their Western counterparts, the Derks family of King City doesn’t do any riding and roping beneath a big sky. They don’t wear chaps and spurs and don’t cook up their chuck in a wagon. When these Missouri ranchers ride through the icy mud and blowing snow to check on their herd, it’s usually in the heated cab of a Dodge 4x4.
“To tell you the truth,” Chris Derks says, “I’ve never been on a horse.”
He is instead, at the moment, mounted on the vinyl bench seat of his mud-spattered truck, intent on delivering the forage his hungry cows will need to get through another winter day. On his 2,600 acres, six hundred hungry Angus cows—some of which are almost ready to begin calving—are dependent on the second-generation cattle rancher for sustenance.
As a cluster of some forty animals looks on expectantly, Chris navigates through a rutted gateway. The truck, a diesel-powered workhorse, is equipped with a hydraulic bale lift and unroller. Chris has used the lift to deposit two massive hay-bale rolls onto the bed, a process he’ll repeat over and over before his workday is done.
“It’s great that we can do these things two at a time,” Chris says while pulling on a pair of leather and canvas utility gloves. The thirty-six-year-old is a stout guy and looks bigger in his Carhartt chore coat. “I’m gonna take the wrap off this bale of hay right quick,” he says, and in a few seconds, he’s done just that, exposing the surface of a tightly wound roll of some two thousand pounds of pliant, slightly sweet-smelling hay.
The lift jerks to life; its twin hydraulic arms slowly hoist a massive round bale toward the rear. Cows low expectantly; the truck jerks and shudders. Thirty seconds later the bale is locked into place, ready to be unwound atop the frozen field. Chris shifts the pickup into gear, and it’s soon bouncing across the pasture. He hits a button, and the hay begins to unfurl like a frayed yellow carpet on the crusty surface of the snow.
Ethics and Economics
Chris says most ranchers, like him, are determined to provide consumers with the same healthy, well-treated beef that their own families consume. The reason has to do with both ethics and economics.
“If we don’t raise the best beef, you’re not going to come back and buy from us,” he says. “We always have to be considerate of the consumer—people in St. Louis, in Kansas City, in Columbia, in Springfield. We have to produce what they want. If we don’t, they’re going to go somewhere else.”
For now there seems little danger of that. According to statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, domestic beef consumption weighed in at 28.1 billion pounds last year, an all-time high. U.S. producers in 2007 processed some 34.3 million head of cattle, a trade worth an estimated $74 billion at retail, though exports of American beef are down in both dollar value and as a percentage of production—a hangover effect from the discovery of bovine spongiform encephalopathy or “Mad-Cow Disease” in 2003.
“The cattle around here get taken care of pretty well,” Chris says. “That’s something that’s very important to us—that they have good quality feed, that there’s clean water for ’em, and that they get checked on daily. If there’s one out here that’s injured herself on the ice, we get her up and take care of what needs to be done.”
Missouri 2nd in Nation
Taking care of what needs to be done might well be the informal creed for generations of Missouri cattle ranchers, hardworking, business-savvy men and women who, like Chris and his wife, Cas, have made Missouri the second largest producer of beef cattle in the nation. They may not ride the range, but last year, according to the Columbia-based Missouri Cattlemen’s Association, ranch families in Missouri managed some 2.1 million head of beef cattle on close to 12 million acres of pasture. Total sales topped one billion dollars. Only Texas can claim a bigger share of the nation’s beef production.
Still, while the Derks say they’re more likely to spend their free time at the movies rather than the rodeo, they remain strongly influenced by the values, traditions, and most importantly, the work ethic passed down by previous generations of Missouri ranchers and cowhands.
“Some people might not look at this as a positive thing—I don’t know—but Chris and I really try to instill in our children the idea that, hey, when school is out, we work,” Cas says.
Because their three children are young—the eldest, Madeline, is nine, sons Samuel and Gabriel are still preschoolers—work and play for the kids remain almost indistinguishable. Still, the Derks say, it’s never too early to teach a lesson.
“We want them to understand that there are chores and other responsibilities that they have to take care of,” says Cas, a former elementary school teacher with an education degree from the University of Missouri at Columbia. “It’s our way of promoting that work ethic, that love for being outside, that bond to the land.”
Independence, hard work, and love of the land are principles the Derks and other ranch families strive to live by. And so the cowboy tradition lives on. Ranchers such as Chris and Cas Derks are confident cowboy culture has a healthy future, in spite of a host of new economic challenges. The Derks say rising land prices, driven in large part by wealthy “hobby ranchers” and land-hungry hunters, are making it increasingly difficult for the next generation to purchase acreage in northwest Missouri. Rising land valuations can also mean huge estate tax liabilities for ranchers looking to pass their land along.
Still, both the Derks and author John Erickson remain convinced the rancher, the cowboy, and the values they stand for will long survive.
“The cowboy culture won’t die, because the cowboys won’t let it die,” Erickson says. “The economics of it aren’t good, but they haven’t been for the last hundred years, except in a few rare times. Ranching is not a place to go to make money. It’s a great place to go to build families, to build character, to build citizens for the next generation. You can’t beat it; there are people who will sacrifice anything to maintain it.”