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Texas Ranch House -- 1867: Places, People & Events
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The Open Range by Byron Price
Cows in the range
Read trail rider E. C. "Teddy Blue" Abbott's memoirs.
Trail Outfits and Roundups

Despite low pay, long hours, difficult working conditions, and expanding demand for labor between 1865 and 1885, cowboys were rarely in short supply. One New Mexico cowman advised another that he could hire plenty of hands if he would "just soak a stake rope in molasses and tie it behind [his] mess wagon and drive through town dragging it."

No one has accurately estimated the number of cowhands actually employed in cattle ranching during its economic peak in the 1870s and 1880s. One reliable source, however, calculated the number of cattle drovers who trailed six to ten million head of cattle and a million horses from Texas to northern markets between the end of the Civil War and the turn of the century at between 25,000 and 35,000 men. According to the TEXAS LIVE STOCK, drives conducted during a single six-month period in 1882 involved approximately 1,400 men, 10,000 horses and 200 chuck wagons.

Professional trail outfits, typically consisting of 11 or 12 men, including the boss, eight drovers, a horse wrangler, cook, chuck wagon, and 60 horses, handled some 85 to 90 percent of all trail traffic. Most ranchers found it cheaper and more convenient to engage a contractor to deliver their herd for a set fee than to assign the duty to their regular cowhands.

In contrast to cattle drovers who made their living taking one herd after another to market, ranch hands spent most of their waking hours systematically gathering, sorting, and marking vast herds of cattle from many outfits that intermingled on the open range. The popular image of cowpunchers as self-reliant loners belied the communal nature of most cow work. By the 1880s regional organizations of stock raisers had divided the range into districts and were conducting cooperative annual gatherings.

Depending upon the size of their herds, large ranches fielded one or more roundup crews. At the height of its tenure on the open range, for example, the Block Ranch in New Mexico utilized four chuck wagons, 40 to 50 men and a remuda of 500 horses, representing 8 to 10 horses per man. Smaller outfits sometimes combined their resources to equip and operate to a single "pool" wagon.

A typical wagon boss directed the work of from 10 to 15 riders, a cook and horse wrangler. One or more representatives of distant outfits served on local ranch crews. Each of these "outside" or "stray men," as they were sometimes known, carried their own string of saddle horses and looked out for the interests of their employer. The more than 300 cowboys who gathered at Tascosa for the spring roundup in 1885, for example, included "reps" from Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, and Indian Territory. A hand who worked for the Waggoner Ranch during the 1880s claimed that it was not unusual to see 25 to 30 chuck wagons and crews at a single roundup. Such camps might extend for four or five miles making it sometimes difficult for men to locate their outfits.

Thirty days prior to the start of work cowpunchers began to assemble at headquarters, wranglers gathered and shod the remuda, and the chuck wagon outfitted. Most roundups got underway at predetermined times under the direction of a general superintendent or roundup captain familiar with the terrain and possessing the confidence of the participating parties. In some cases, when several outfits worked together, overall command of the roundup devolved on the wagon boss whose home range was being gathered at the time. Regardless of the overall roundup organization, each outfit maintained a separate camp, remuda and wagon.

A typical open-range roundup of the late nineteenth century might cover an area of 100 square miles and require several weeks or even months to complete, depending upon the weather and the difficulty of the terrain and vegetation. Broken and brush-infested range, which restricted visibility and took its toll on horseflesh, presented special challenges to roundup crews. So did an especially prolonged winter drift of livestock, which forced ranchers to expand the scope of the gathering. When severe Northers depopulated northwestern Texas of cattle during the winter of 1883-84, for example, ranchers in the region abandoned their traditional small-scale regional gatherings in favor of a single huge sweep of the dry reaches of the Pecos River, some 300 to 400 miles to the south. Working seven days a week from sunup to sundown, the busy cowboys gathered as many as 8,000 survivors a day. By the time the last head was collected several weeks later, cattle were strung out on the trail homeward in a continuous body stretching for 40 miles.

By the 1870s, Texas ranchers had begun establishing finishing ranges for their cattle on the northern Great Plains and had exported their cowboys and working methods to the region. Buckaroo outfits from Oregon and California, whose gear, terminology and range practices differed from that of the Texans were not far behind. Although at least some cultural borrowing was inevitable, each group clung tightly to its own traditions.

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TEXAS RANCH HOUSE