The Cowboy Class Wars

The real Wild West was the scene of state-organized displacement and mass class struggle, not rugged individualism.

On March 23, 1883, cowboys in the Texas Panhandle were rounding up and preparing “a herd of beef just about ready to start to market.” At midday, their foreman approached the ranch’s general manager and demanded he pay the cowboys as they worked rather than as a lump sum at the end of the year.

“If the request was not granted,” the manager recalled,“they would quit at once.” Perhaps feeling he lacked the authority to meet their demands, the manager rebuffed the cowboys — only to watch as the hired hands “turned their horses, gave a cowboy yell, waved their Stetsons in the air and made a bee-line for the headquarters.”

That evening the strikers discharged their revolvers and, according to the manager, let loose a flurry of threats. Intimidation continued the next morning when the cowboys returned to retrieve their personal property and stuck around for “a bit of a pow-wow.”

For nearly two weeks, 328 cowboys — equivalent to roughly three-quarters of the county’s voting population — withheld their labor from seven big ranches.

The Great Cowboy Strike of 1883 inspired similar actions across the West and enraged employers. But its significance also outlasted the nineteenth century.

Today, the strike serves as a useful counterpoint to the notion that the American West was a vast expanse that entrepreneurs and self-made men bent to their will, unimpeded by social conflict or government intervention.

Capital on the hoof created a labor system that depended on cooperation, then cloaked it in an ideology of individualism that extolled unfettered money-making and dismissed the social consequences.

Far from proving that the drive for profit provides the best mechanism for building a livable world, the development of the American West calls into question some of the basic tenets of free-market dogma.

How the West Was Made

In the beginning, there was something. The settlers just had to sweep it away.

Though they spoke of “God’s will,” Manifest Destiny, or Social Darwinism as they moved westward, their breakneck expansion reprocessed space through the application of market forces, underwritten by the power of the state.

The first task was removing the few indigenous people that remained. Before the arrival of Columbus and the devastating epidemics that attended Euro-American colonization, the American Indian population numbered between one and eighteen million.

By 1860, the US census, probably undercounting, reported it at 340,000. (Thirty years later, a likely more accurate account listed the indigenous population as 248,000.)

The years of the Civil War saw some beleaguered tribes, taking advantage of the reduced military presence, conduct raids on the Santa Fe Trail. But after the Civil War, the settlers’ military operations began in earnest. Their goal was to forcibly relocate entire populations to reservations.

In the summer of 1868, the US Army targeted the Southern Cheyenne and their Arapaho, Kiowa, Comanche, Northern Cheyenne, Brulé and Oglala Lakota, and Pawnee allies. That November George Custer and nearly six hundred soldiers attacked Black Kettle’s camp on the Washita River. (Of the 250 Cheyenne and Arapaho there, only half were likely to have been warriors.)

At the same time, steam was driving the pace of development. During Reconstruction, the government constructed a transcontinental railroad to carry the new mineral and agricultural wealth of the West to growing eastern cities.

In July 1866, Congress voted to subsidize the construction of a railroad to the Pacific with massive land grants. The line would run from Springfield, Missouri through Indian Territory.

Railroads, the supposed fruits of private labor, relied directly on government assistance — just like every major industry developed in the United States. By 1883, federal and state governments had granted railroad companies enough land to fill the state of Texas.

The courts soon gave them corporate citizenship as well, shielding companies from unwanted taxes and regulation. Every place this steam-powered subsidization touched, it transformed.

The American bison was perhaps the most visible victim: those pushing westward waged a ruthless war of extermination against what would become the country’s “national mammal.”

Estimates indicate that the sixty million buffalo that roamed the plains before 1800 had fallen to under six million by 1870. They would number less than 550 by 1890.

Although these massive beasts could provide considerable food, it was the demand for hides that drove the slaughter.

By the late 1860s, teams of armed men established camps to process the kills and gather the hides, which could weigh as much as a hundred pounds each. Hide removal required skill and practice, and it took between three and ten kills to extract a single marketable hide.

Longhorned Capital

The evisceration of the buffalo created a meat shortage that sparked a beef bonanza. In 1866, cattle sold in Texas for around four dollars a head, about ten times cheaper than in the North and East.

That year, the first cattle drive moved herds from Texas up to Baxter Springs, Kansas, using the old Shawnee trail that ran through Indian Territory.

The large cattle drives north to Kansas railheads became an annual odyssey. The trails ended at the nearest cow town, which changed as the railheads reached Abilene, Ellsworth, or any other place the entrepreneurs could get their rail yards.

By 1876, the most famous of these Wild West communities, Dodge City, had nineteen licensed liquor establishments serving a population of twelve hundred and a class structure visible in the very layout of the city.

The railroad cut its main thoroughfare in half: north of the tracks sat a Main Street worthy of a small town with a respectable, church-going population. To the south lay the brawling, gambling, uncivilized world that catered to the cowboys with saloons, dance halls, and brothels.

And like other towns, its settlement was predicated on the removal of American Indians — in this case, the Comanche, Kiowa, Southern Cheyenne, and Arapaho, who held out in the Red River Valley and the Texas Panhandle.

On June 27, 1874, a Comanche-led attack cornered a handful of settlers, who barricaded themselves into a small hunting outpost that a larger force had used to repel an assault ten years earlier.

Armed with more powerful buffalo guns, the settlers forced their assailants to break off the assault. But the following month, Kiowa attacked a Texas Ranger patrol in the Lost Valley.

The clashes shattered the Grant administration’s “peace policy,” which sought to lure the native peoples to reservations. Come September, the rhetoric of peace disappeared: federal forces converged on Palo Duro Canyon and cleared the Texas Panhandle of American Indians.

Their removal opened up the Texas Panhandle, where the northbound cattle trails crossed the Canadian River valley. In short order, ranchers began to move in. First to settle was a Mexican sheep rancher named Casimero Romero, retainers and support personnel in tow.

In the summer of 1877, a rancher named George W. Littlefield drove his cattle toward Dodge City, only to discover that the size of the herds had pulled down prices. A better option, he decided, would be to winter his cattle in the grasslands of the Panhandle.

His new ranch, which he called the LIT, sprawled twenty-five miles across the open range and boasted a complex a few miles west of Tascosa, where the trail crossed the Canadian River.

By 1880, several of the area’s mega ranchers were setting up their own political jurisdiction: Oldham County. The XIT Ranch already claimed most of the county’s land, but the headquarters of the LIT played a major role in the county’s organization.

A Leavenworth banker started the LS Ranch, a massive spread that held about thirty-five thousand acres in late 1880. And the T-Anchor brand covered extensive holdings in Indian Territory.

In a few short years, these concerns had satellite operations in New Mexico, Kansas, and Montana. (A British syndicate soon bought the LIT for $253,000.)

Boston entrepreneurs also flocked to the Panhandle, escaping the crowded Colorado range to found the LX Ranch. Between 1882 and 1884, the operation grew to cover nearly two hundred thousand acres, encompassing land from Palo Duro Canyon to the drift fence near present-day Dumas in northern Texas.

By this time, the great myth of frontier mobility — a shaky approximation of reality even at its peak — had flickered out for good. The large ranchers now realized it made economic sense to keep cattle closer to Dodge City. Fortunately for them, the land was theirs for the taking.

In a process redolent of the enclosures of precapitalist England, the state had violently converted common land into private land by dispossessing its inhabitants.

The owning class’s rhetoric of rugged individualism notwithstanding, the state had supplied the prerequisite for their “liberty” — the American Indians were gone. Now they had to protect their holdings from rebellious cowboys.

The Cowboys

Hired men on cattle drives earned “thirty and found”: thirty dollars per month, including room and board — though the room often amounted to the wide outdoors.

Cattle drives required a larger workforce than what the ranchers regularly needed, so most cowboys spent much of their lives wandering in search of employment. One of them later complained of “the winter roundup,” when he and his comrades spent the season drifting from ranch to ranch, looking for work.

Everyone working on the unfenced “open range” could graze their animals without hindrance. And unbranded cattle or horses were regarded as no more private property than wild animals: anyone with the wherewithal to bring in these “mavericks” could.

This allowed the lowly hired to eventually assemble a small herd of his own, easing into ranching. Some cowboys also took part of their pay in calves or the use of their employer’s resources.

But once the big ranchers started fencing the open range and actively discouraging even the smallest competitors, all of this changed.

Stripped of such prerogatives, cowboys were left to work grueling weeks unleavened by any realistic hopes for advancement. The first statisticians of labor in the United States describe a 108-hour workweek: sixteen hours Monday through Saturday, a leisurely twelve hours on Sunday.

At the same time, the nature of their labor demanded teamwork and solidarity. Teams had to respect and trust each other if they were going to manage the massive herds of cattle they were hired to move.

Indeed, cowboys were skilled laborers.

The job, the Las Vegas Daily Gazette wrote in 1883,

takes men who know the country, and who are trained to the ranges, to be efficient in the business. The cowboy of the Panhandle, if a good one, has received a special education and training. He must know the landmarks, mesas, patches of timber, peaks and outlines of the landscape. He must likewise be familiar with the location of water holes, springs and the course and distances of the streams. He must know how to camp in the plains with nothing but his blanket and be well up in the general lore of the ranges.

A masculine subculture predominated in this group of rootless, overworked young men. They had little concern for the political conflicts among the propertied gentlemen, little time for niceties or religion. Disconnected from the institutions that sustained westward expansion, they confronted the big ranchers’ innovations with a natural skepticism.

For a brief period, cowboys became the most volatile element in the West’s social structure. As employers fenced in the open prairies and cracked down on what they now called “rustling,” cowboys felt compelled to do something about their middling wages. They employed “slowdowns, threats, intimidating behavior, and collective defiance” — as well as strikes.

Cowboys only had real power during the spring cattle drive, that fleeting moment when employers desperately need labor, and quickly: ranches couldn’t find qualified replacements on such short notice. If the cowboys stuck together, they could impose their terms. But the longer the strike lasted, the more precarious their position would become.

As migratory workers, cowboys followed the work where it took them and carried their experience and ideas with them. From 1884 to 1886, they went on strike from New Mexico to Wyoming. Employers used everything from blacklisting to armed regulators to try to control their workforce.

Workers responded by establishing their own associations (including, at times, cooperative businesses).

Cowboy militancy faded after a few short years as the industry dissolved beneath them. The continued advance of the railroads had made the long cattle drives a thing of the past. Then several years of devastating winters wiped out most of the herds on the overstocked ranges of the West.

Yet their experience remained intimately connected to the “range wars” that bloodied the history of the region from Lincoln County, New Mexico to Johnson County, Wyoming. And these, in turn, helped detonate a massive political insurgency rooted in experiences of the West.

In the Herd

The Wild West of lore is not the American West of reality. Every step of the way — whether through violent or relatively peaceful means — the state aided the entrepreneurs and ranchers ostensibly at the heart of westward expansion. Behind the laissez faire mythology laid the reliable hand of government.

Nor was the West a space that, however rough and tumble, was permeated by a social harmony born of a common expansionist purpose. Class society brought its standards and troubles west with it.

The surviving sources, themselves a product of class interests, may downplay or deny this. Or they may present the labor struggles of the nineteenth century as monolithically urban. But workers of all sorts fought for their rights everywhere there were enough workers to make it possible.

“Conflict,” Doc Holiday is supposed to have said, “follows wrongdoing as surely as flies follow the herd.” This was as true among the sagebrush of the West as it was on the streets of Chicago.