Recollections of a Cowpuncher—How I Came to Montana
BY TEDDY BLUE ABBOTT
People who know me often talk as though I was from Texas. That is not correct. I was born in Granwich Hall, Granwich County of Norfolk, England, December 17, 1860. But I came to Montana with a herd of Texas cattle in 1883.
This is where they get the idea that I am a Texan. All this part of Montana east of the mountains was settled by Texans who came here with the cattle, and so was Wyoming, and parts of Colorado and New Mexico, and the western half of the Dakotas, and even Nebraska before the farmers run them out. A lot of farmers and businessmen came in here after the cowpunchers, and there were a few other people who got here first. But the Texas cowboy’s mode of speech and dress and actions set the style for all the range country. And his influence is not dead yet.
For a long time I have wanted to write a history of the cattle range and of the movement of the cattle as they were gradually pushed north over the Texas trail. I have read plenty of histories of the trail, written by other men who went over it, that are entirely accurate as to fact, but they are not told right. They are like these cowboys songs I have seen in books and heard over the radio, that are all fixed up and not the way we used to sing them at all. Other old timers have told all about stampedes and swimming rivers and what a terrible time we had, but they never put in any of the fun, and fun was at least half of it. Why, even in the Trail Drivers of Texas, which is a wonderful book and absolutely authentic, you have all these old fellows telling stories and you’d think they’d was a bunch of preachers, the way they talk. And yet some of them raised more hell then I did.
In 1922 Charlie Russell and I were going to make a book together. I was going to tell the stories and he was going to draw the pictures, and his name would have carried it. But he died. Now that I have decided to go ahead and tell the story of my life, with some history thrown in, I want to explain as far as it goes it is accurate. There is no fiction in it. All the people mentioned are real cow men whom I met and worked with on the cattle range that extended from southern Texas to the Bow River in Alberta, Canada. It is told entirely from my memory from 1871 to 1886, as all my papers, etc., got burnt up previous to ‘86. But I started in young and I have lived now for sixty-eight years with the people I write of. I can remember what happened 60 years ago better than I can remember what I done yesterday.
In the seventies and eighties there were a lot of Englishmen over here playing the part of amateur cowpunchers. They were remittance men mostly, younger sons living on money that was sent them by their families, and some of them got to be real cowpunchers after awhile. But I got there by a different route. In 1871 my father came out here and settled on Section 1, Denton precinct, outside of Lincoln, Nebraska. I was the second generation and I grew up with the country, which was full of Texas cattle and Texas cowpunchers at the time. By the end of the seventies, Nebraska was getting settled up, and my father went to farming. But I stayed with the cattle and went north with them. In 1889 a good woman got her rope on me, and I have stood hitched ever since. But I am still running title on the three deuce ranch in Fergus County, Montana, where I have lived for the past 50 years.
When my father got over here in ‘71 the Texas trail had only been in existence 3 or 4 years, but it was a big business already, and a steady stream of herds was moving north. I have been told that 600,000 cattle came up to eastern Kansas and southeastern Nebraska in ‘71, Lincoln, Nebraska, being then the north end of the trail, because there were no ranchers above that; only Indians and buffalo. The B&M railroad had got to Lincoln, and you could raise and ship the beef that was going to Eastern Market, but most of the cattle were being sold in small herds to stockmen and settlers. The same applies to Abilene, Kansas, and Oga-lalla, Nebraska. By 1880 Texas cattle had got as far north as Miles City, Montana, and Texas cowboys with them. The name cowpuncher came in about this time, when they got to shipping a lot of cattle on the railroad. Men would go along the train with a prod pole and punch up cattle that got down in the cars, and that was how it began. It caught on, and we were all cowpunchers on the northern range, till the close of range work.
These are familiar facts, but they tell me there are still some people who never heard them, especially in the East. There were worlds of cattle in Texas after the Civil War. They had multiplied and run wild while the men was away fighting for the Confederacy, especially down in the southern part, between the Nucces River and the Rio Grande. By the time the war was over they ran down to $4 a head—when you could find a buyer. Here was all these cheap long-horned steers over running Texas; here was the rest of the country crying for beef—and no railroads to get them out. So they trailed them out, across hundreds of miles of wild country that was thick with Indians. In 1866 the first Texas herds crossed Red River. In 1867 the town of Abilene was founded at the end of the Kansas Pacific Railroad, and that was when the trail really started. From that time on, big drives were made every year, and the cowboy was born. That Emerson Hough movie, North of 36, was supposed to show one of the early cattle drives to the railroad. It was pretty good, except that the moving picture people had Taisie Lockhard coming up the rail wearing pants. If the cowpunchers of them days had seen a woman wearing pants, they’d have stampeded to the brush.
Those first trail outfits in the seventies were sure tough. It was a new business and had to develop. Work oxen were used instead of horses to pull the wagon, and if one played out, they could rope a steer and yoke him up. They had very little grub and they usually run out of that and lived on straight beef; they had only three or four horses to the man, mostly with sore backs, because the old time saddles eat both ways, the horses back and the cowboys pistol pocket; they had no tents, no tarts, and damn few slickers. They never kicked, because those boys was raised under just the same condition as there was on the trail— cornmeal and bacon for grub, dirt floors in the houses, and no luxuries. In the early days in Texas, in the sixties, when they gathered their cattle, they use to pack what they needed on a horse and go out for weeks, on a cow-hunt, they called it then. That was before the name roundup was invented, and before they had anything so civilized as mess wagons. And as I say, that is the way those first trail hands were raised. Take her as she comes and like it. They used to brag that they could go on any place a cow could and stand anything a horse could. It was their life.
Most all of them were southerners, and they were a wild, reckless bunch. For dress they wore wide-brimmed beaver hats, black or brown with a low crown, fancy shirts, high-heeled boots, and sometimes a vest. Their clothes and towels were all homemade. Most of them had an army coat with cape which was slicker and blanket too. Lay on your saddle blanket and cover up with a coat was about the only bed used on the Texas trail at first. A few had a big buffalo robe to roll up in, but if they ever got good and wet, you never had time to dry them, so they were not popular. All had a pair of bullhide chaps, or leggings they called them then. They were good in the brush and wet weather, but in fine weather we’re left in the wagon.
As the business grew, great changes took place in their style of dress, but their boots and cigarettes have lasted nearly the same for more than 60 years. In place of the low-crowned hat of the seventies we had a high-crowned white Stetson hat, fancy shirts with pockets, and striped or checkered California pants made in Oregon City, the best pants ever made to ride in. Slickers came in to. In winter we had nice cloth overcoats with beaver collars and cuffs. The old 12 -inch-barrel Colt pistol was cut down to a six- and seven-and-a-half-inch barrel, with black rubber, ivory, or pearl handle. The old big roweled spurs with bells give place to hand forged silver inlaid spurs with droop shanks and small rowels, and with that you had the cowpuncher of the eighties when he was in his glory.
In person the cowboys were mostly medium-sized men, as a heavy man was hard on horses, quick and wiry, and as a rule very good-natured; in fact it did not pay to be anything else. In character their like never was or will be again. They were intensely loyal to the outfit they were working for and would fight to the death for it. They would follow their wagon boss through hell and never complain. I have seen them ride into camp after two days and knights on herd, lay down on their saddle blankets in the rain, and sleep like dead men, then get up laughing and joking about some good time they had in Ogalalla or Dodge City. Living that kind of a life, they were bound to be wild and brave. In fact there was only two things that the old-time cowpuncher was afraid of, a decent woman and being set afoot.
One of the first things my father did after he got over here was to go down in Texas and by a herd of cattle. I went with him though I was only 10 years old, and that was how I made my first trip up the trail. The old man never went up the trail himself—hell no, he left that to his hired hands. But I was allowed to go because I was delicate, and the idea was it would be good for my health. I was the poorest, sickliest little kid you ever saw, all eyes, no flesh on me whatever; if I hadn’t have been a cowboy puncher, I never would have grown up. The doctor told my mother before we left England to “keep him in the open air.” She kept me there, alright, or fate did. All my life.
We went down by train to New Orleans and then by boat to Texas. On the way back up the trail I helped wrangle the horses. I don’t remember much else about the trip—only that the old man was going to tie me on my horse to cross Red River, so if the horse drowned I’d be sure to drown. I kicked like a steer, as I could swim, and the rest of them talked him out of it. We received the cattle near Red River, and afterwards I think Father took the stage back to the railroad. Anyway he left us there.
Sam Bass was my father’s wagon boss. He wasn’t an outlaw then—just a nice, quiet young fellow. He was with us most of the winter, but in March, ‘72, after the winter broke, he rode into Lincoln, where he bought a new rope, having broke his, pulling bogged cattle. In order to stretch it he was roping posts and making his horse pull it so as to get the kinks out. About that time a man walked down the board sidewalk, which was about three feet above the street. Sam roped him for a joke and pulled the rope too hard, and the old fellow stumbled and kind of cut his face in the gravel. He got up hopping mad and went for the sheriff—and Sam let out for the ranch and got his money and pulled out for Texas. The sheriff was one hour too late.
None of us ever saw Sam Bass again. He was a nice fellow, always very kind to me, and different from most of the wild devils who came up the trail in the seventies. He did not get to drinking and raising hell. He never would have been an outlaw, only through loyalty to his boss Joe Collins, who had blowed in his whole herd in Deadwood and had to have money to face and pay his friends in Texas; so Sam helped him Rob that U. P. train.
Three more times after that I went down to Texas and came back up the trail with a herd of cattle—in ‘79, in ‘81, and in ‘83. On the last of those trips I went all the way up to the Yellowstone, and when I got to Montana, I stayed. But from ‘71 to ‘78 I was tending my fathers cattle around Lincoln and growing up with the men who came from Texas with them. Those years were what made a cowboy of me. Nothing could have changed me after that.
I Try To Join The Pawnees
In a way I am the third generation of Abbotts over here. I don’t remember very much of that family history stuff. It has always seemed a lot of damn bull to me. But my grandfather, Edward Abbott, came out here in 1848 as secretary to Lord Ashburton, with that outfit that made the line between Canada and the United States. My grandfather was a second son, so his older brother got everything, the way they do in England, and my grandfather wouldn’t stand for being a gentleman pensioner, or gentleman pauper as he called it. So he took his gun and his dog and 10 pounds and walked off, when he was a young fellow, and got a job as gamekeeper on somebody’s estate. A gentleman wasn’t supposed to do any work, only join the army or the church or something like that, but he got a contract for fixing up a rabbit warren and made 500 pounds. And after that he became agent for Sir Richard Sutton, and it was through him, when Lord Ashburton came out here, that he got the job as his secretary.
My grandfather went back to England with the rest of them. But he stayed here long enough to realize what a wonderful country this would be some day. The Grand Trunk Railway was building in eastern Canada then, and he invested every cent he could get and made a lot of money. Twenty years later, when my father went broke in England and decided to emigrate, my grandfather made him come to Nebraska. Father had a hard time here, and to do him credit, he never wanted to come. His heart was set on South Africa, but of course he had no show to do what he wanted to do; he had to do what his father told him. That’s the English of it, every time. They have to boss, boss until the day they die. I wish I had the command of language my father had. By God, he was educated. He ought to have been a lawyer instead of a farmer. One of his brothers was a lawyer and one went into the church. But his father wouldn’t let him. Can you beat it? My grandfather was a rebel himself when he was young—but he had no mercy on his son. And my father suffered from it as a young man, but when his turn came, he took it out on his children just the same. I tell you it’s in the English blood to dictate, dictate. They are worse than any damn Indian that ever lived.
I never got on with my father and never pretended to. He was overbearing and tyrannical—and worse with me than with the others. I remember one time the butcher wanted to buy some beef, and my father was going to cut them out of the herd for him, and he asked me to give him a horse. So I caught up little Pete, my cutting horse; you know a good cutting horse would turn on a dollar and was quick as a flash. Father had rode all his life on one of these flat English saddles and he thought he was a rider, but he didn’t know anything about cow horses. And when he rode into the heard and started to cut out a steer, and the steer dodged back, of course Pete turned right out from under him and left him on the ground. I sure laughed. But not out loud. As it was, father swore he’d shoot the horse, but I kept out of his way for a few days and he forgot about it.
After we got up to Nebraska with that trail herd in the fall of ‘71, we ran into one of the worst winters ever known on the range, and the loss was very heavy among the trail cattle. The settlers had no idea how to take care of cattle; they would put them in a pen without a shed or even a windbreak, and I believe they lost 300,000 head of them in Nebraska and Kansas that winter, just from sheer ignorance. Father hired a lot of hay put up at seventy five cents a ton out on the Prairie, but he only had a small team of Texas mules and a spring wagon to haul it, and when the snow got deep and crusted the cattle starved and froze to death in the corral. Next spring we had just 104 left out of 300. He had shipped a lot of steers and fat dry cows to Chicago that fall.
All during the summer of ‘72, when I was in my twelfth year, I helped to hold that herd. From then on I was out on the range, looking after my father’s cattle and running wild, when other boys my age was in school. In a way it was a wonderful life for a boy. My mother used to say there was gypsy blood in me, because every chance I got I would go and visit the Indians. The Pawnee Indian Reservation at that time was north of us, on Loop River, and they would go by our place every fall on the way out to Republican River on their annual buffalo hunt. There would be a couple of hundred Indians and twice that number of horses; everything they owned was packed on the horses, and they all had buffalo horses besides, that they only used in the chase. They would camp on the creek below us. Most of the boys could talk English and we had a big time running pony races. I was sure struck on their way of living, and so one fall I made up my mind to run away and go on the buffalo hunt.
I saw them start one afternoon, so I cached out my shotgun and two blankets and a little grub—and all the clothes I owned I had on—and I lit out on my horse in the night and caught up with them about 15 miles away, in the morning. But when the old chief saw me he asked me: “Where go?”
I said: “With you.”
He said: “No. Your father say we stole you, make plenty trouble for Indians.”
And he made me go back. I was awful disappointed, but he was right, as mother raised plenty of hell as it was, and they [the Pawnee] were out two months.
When they came back, they had over a hundred horses packed with dried buffalo meat, dried tongues, and robes. I went down to their camp and had a feast, and when they pulled out my heart went with them. I made up my mind that as soon as I got to be a man, I would join them. But they were moved down to Indian Territory and I never saw them anymore.
I did get to be a cowboy, though, and as Charlie Russell used to say, we were just white Indians anyway. In 1873 father bought 300 big steers from John R. Blocker, the Texas trail man, and put up lots of hay. That winter my older brother, Harry, would get up there and throw the hay down on my rope, and I would drag it out and scatter it for them, and then we would take them back to the pen. That was the winter we found the dead woman in the haystack. One morning—and oh, God, it was bitter cold—Harry stuck his fork in the hay, and he struck something hard. He uncovered it and here was this face looking up at him. He called me to come, and I got up on the haystack, and I took one look, and I lit out for home so fast I never even stopped to get on my horse. There are two hills between there and the house, and I swear I never touched but the tops of them. She had run away from the lunatic asylum—they were always doing that—with nothing on but her nightgown, and she must have crawled in the hay to get warm. The asylum was at the mouth of Elk Creek, Haines Branch, and they’d go up through the brush toward our house.
I remember at Easter that year there came and awful blizzard that all the old timers still tell of, that lasted 48 hours. Harry and me were out feeding the cattle when it struck. We were only about half a mile from the ranch, but it came so sudden we could not make it to the shed with the herd. So we let the cattle drift down to the creek where they could get a little shelter, and we huddled down in a patch of sumac brush for a time, but when it did not let up we headed for home. How we got there I never knew; I just followed my brother. When we got in, they had a rope stretched from the house to the barn, and the only way you could make it was to hold on to the rope. The snow was so thick we could hardly breathe. But I cannot remember that we was afraid at all; only that the old man would kick because we did not bring in the cattle.
Father doubled his money on those blocker steers, and that put him on his feet until the settlers came and run him out of the cattle business. But just the same we were never well off. I never had any money when I was a kid. I never had any clothes. My mother bought me a pair of boots in ‘71, and because I was in the saddle all the time and never walked, hardly, they never wore out, and she wouldn’t buy me another pair. Three or four years later I was still wearing them same boots, though I was a growing boy, and they had got so tight that my toes was all cramped up and skinned off, and if I had had to walk much they would have killed me. That was when my brother Harry and I were feeding the cattle in the winter, letting them out of the corral in the morning and taking them a couple of miles up the creek to where the hey was. At dinner time we would build a fire and cook a little bacon and corn bread on a tin plate, and I would hold my feet up to the fire to warm them, because they were so cold in those tight boots it was misery. And one day I held them in the fire on purpose till they were burned, and then she had to buy me a new pair. I just begged her to let me put them on first, so in the end she took me to town, and we made quite an event of it and, believe me, I got them big enough.
Poor mother. She did the best she could, but times were hard and she just didn’t have the money. I give her great credit. She was raised a lady, she never had to work as a girl, she was used to having all kinds of servants—a butler, nursemaid, assistant nurse maid, and all the other help they had in those big houses. And she came out of that to a cabin on the prairie, which was nothing more than the shell of a house, without even beds to lie on in the beginning. They slept on the floor. From that time she did all the cooking and all the housework for that great big family, thirteen children before she got through, and I never heard her complain.
Those were rough times, and we grew up rough along with them. I remember in the winter of ‘72—’73 old man Wade and his two sons was hanged for horse thieves. They hang them to a whistling post on the railroad, because there was no trees in the damn country, and the post was low, so their feet just cleared the ground. That winter us boys talked about nothing else. My mother had a big old turkey gobbler that used to chase us all the time; he knocked Frank down once. So we roped him and tied him to a wagon, and held a trial over him like we heard the vigilantes did. Then we hung him to the wagon wheel. Hell popped for a while, but father laughed about it all the rest of his life.
Something else that happened a little later, when I was about fourteen, will show you the kind of a company I was with and the kind of ideas I was getting. I had gotten into a row at home, as I always did—it was over those steers—and I got out old Pete, my pony, and ran away, as I always did—I was going to be a cowboy this time, for sure. I got as far as Fort Kearney on the Platte, where these fellows from Texas we’re coming in with the trail herds. And while I was visiting at one of the camps, one of their fellows got drunk in town, and got in a shooting scrape and killed somebody. Then he fogged it back to camp, ahead of the heel flies, because he knew his friends would help him. The boss of the outfit was an old-time trail man named Matt Winters, and he came and asked me to help this fellow get away. I guess he picked me because he knew a little damn fool kid would do anything you told him. You know you can see a jack rabbit for twenty miles in that country, and when the sheriff and his posse come in sight, he told me to take a good horse and ride out on top of the ridge, and let them take after me. He said to keep ahead of them as long as I could, and stop when they started shooting, and by that time the other fellow would be on his way.
So I did just what he told me. The sheriff and his posse came along, and when they saw me on my horse, they thought sure it was this other fellow stepping out for Texas. They chased me about ten miles. And when their horses played out they started shooting, like Matt said they would, and I stopped and let them come up with me. I’ll never forget the look on their faces when they found out they had run the legs off their horses just to catch me. The sheriff said: “why, it’s nothing but a God-damned tallow-faced kid!”
Charlie Russell was going to draw a picture of that for the book we was going to do together, of me standing by my horse and all those men gathered around—but he died.
The other fellow got clean away. He waited at camp until the posse went by and then let out in the other direction, which gave him as good as twenty miles start of them. I saw him in New Mexico about seven years later, and he give me a good horse and saddle for helping him. He was a killer, that fellow. He had killed a man before that, and he killed one after. At the time, though, he was a hero in my eyes. You know a kid looks at things differently. I thought a cow puncher couldn’t do wrong, and the sheriff was the enemy.
This sheriff was named Con Groner. He had it in for me for a while, but in ’78 I was out chasing Cheyenne Indians with him with a posse up on the North Platte River and he got over it. Right after I pulled the trick I’ve been telling you about, there on the Platte, I met Gus Walker, a trail boss that knew my folks. He had shipped his beef and was taking the rest of the cattle to Lincoln, and he talked me into going back there with him. He said: “Why, your mother will be crazy over you running away.”
My mad spell was about over anyway, after I had lived on two jack rabbits for three days on my way to Fort Kearney. So I wrangled his horses home, and that was the end of that run away.
By E.C. “Teddy Blue” Abbott (with Helena Huntington Smith). Published 1939. Oklahoma University Press e-book available. Reprinted with permission.
Note: On the old West Trail from San Antonio, Texas, to Miles City, Mont., through Dodge City, Kansas, and Ogalalla, Nebraska, Teddy Blue Abbott drove cattle in the 1870s and ‘80s. In his late seventies, Abbott recounted those days to Helena Huntington Smith. The Montana Cowboy Hall of Fame, now in Big Timber, Mont., inducted Abbott in 2008.