Spring in McCook, 1884

Monday, May 13, 2013
Spring branding on the plains.

From H.P. Waite's collection of McCook Tribune stories

A lesson in frugality for future City Councils: May 8, 1884: At a meeting of the village board, held on this date, the estimate of municipal expenses for the ensuing year was $500 for general purposes, and $200 for sidewalks and crossings, or a total of $700.

Oh, for the Life of a Cowboy: There are two round-ups each year. The one in the fall is, for the purpose of cutting out the cattle to be sent to market. The principal purpose of the spring round-up is to brand the calves. The round-up is no hap-hazard affair. The cattlemen have an organization that holds at least two meetings a year. One is held shortly before each round-up, for which plans are carefully laid. The place and time the round-up is to begin, the part each outfit is to take and the general course to be followed are decided upon by the association. A superintendent, or captain, who has autocratic authority in the field, is chosen. The owner of each brand furnishes men and horses in numbers proportioned to the number of cattle he has on the range. Participants must have at least five or six mounts, as horses are given hard usage.

Arrangements must be made for feeding the men engaged in the work, as they will at all times be far from any settlements, where they can be provisioned, and, of course, no ranch in the vicinity of the camp is equipped to care for so many. The food is prepared at chuck wagons, in charge of cooks and as many assistants as are required. The fare is plain, but substantial. Coffee, beans, potatoes, salt pork, and bacon are staples. Of course, bread is also an essential item. This is baked in a dutch oven. Every man has, and cares for his own dishes, consisting of a tin cup, a tin plate, a spoon, a knife, and a fork. Every man's equipment includes at least one blanket and a tarpaulin, that is more or less water proof.

The borders of a stream are selected, when that is possible, as the location for the camp, for, of course, not only the horses, but the cattle, which are sometimes held in one place for several days, must have water. A camp one established is maintained, until the range, within accessible distance, has been thoroughly scoured. Then the camp is moved to a new location. Even then cattle escape the alert eyes of the riders, as they can easily be missed in rough country.

The life, while alluring, is not without its hardships. The men sleep in the open. When the weather is pleasant, as it usually is, one who has ridden or branded calves all day can roll up in his blanker and sleep soundly on the hard ground, but during the spring round-up severe electrical storms, accompanied by torrential rains and occasional downpours of a day's duration, do occur. There is no shelter, not even tents or covered wagons. There is no camp fire, and wet clothes must often be worn for hours, sometimes for a day. On such occasions the sufferers look forward with a yearning that is almost pitiful, to the returning sun. In stormy weather the cook, too has his troubles. If he is near timber he uses wood, but his fuel is wet. When he has only sodden buffalo chips, his difficulties are multiplied.

The work is full of dangers. At the start the horses are wild and untractable, and many a man is unseated. After the horse is trained by hard work, a horse may stumble or step into a hole and throw his rider. The injuries, although they may be painful, are not often severe, and the riders heal quickly, but when a spill results in a broken bone, the matter of getting the victim to the nearest doctor, who may be anywhere from 50 to 100 miles away, presents serious problems. Casualties among the cowboys...happen all too frequently. Every season at least one cowboy sustains a broken neck, and unfortunately a broken neck cannot be healed.

Cowboy R & R: May 14, 1884: A party of cow boys from the range north of here were in town last week; and imbibed sufficient "mountain dew" to make them feel funny, but they were quite harmless and no damage was done.

(Note: In the 1880s there was a great deal of interest in the discovery of fossil remains of extinct horses on the Plains, which proved that horses had once roamed the American continent. Up to that time it was thought that the first horses in the new world were brought by Spanish explorers, which horses did provide the Plains Indians with their way of life.)

May 17, 1884: The auction sale of wild horses held at the yard of a local livery stable today attracted a large crowd and was the source of endless amusement. A wild pony can go through about as many antics before submitting to its master as most any four-legged animal. Antelope and wild horses are reported as abundant on the prairies a few miles from town.

Mr. Waite writes: Fossil remains are evidence of the fact that horses roamed over North America, but these became extinct millions of years before any tribe of Indians found by the Spanish explorers inhabited this land. It is not known when man first lived in what is now the United States, though fragments of human bones have been found in Nebraska that have led anthropologists to believe the human animal may have been here as long as 200,000 years or even 2 Million years ago, according to the computations of different scientists, while the oldest civilization in this country, of which we have know, is said to be a recent as 15,000 years.

When Columbus discovered America the Indians had no beasts of burden. The Eskimos and northern races used dogs. The Southern Races, at least those who occupied the territory now within the boundaries of the United States, seemed not to have domesticated any animal except the dog, and even it had no particular use. The Eastern Indians had abodes, which were more or less fixed.

They could not readily move from place to place. For them, the only vehicle of locomotion was the canoe. In fact, the only times when migration of natives was noted were when they were driven from their habitat by other and stronger tribes.

With the Plains Indians it was different. They were nomadic. The plains were not fruitful. They did not produce without greater and more skillful husbanding than the native Americans were accustomed to bestow. The plains were covered with game, the bison, elk, deer, antelope, and different species of birds, but unmounted men found difficulty in killing them, and the problem of a dependable food supply was extremely serious.

The Spaniards brought horses to America and the vast droves of horses found running wild, and which supplied the Plains Indians with mounts and food were the descendants of horses that escaped from Coronado, DeSoto and other adventurers. These strays multiplied in astounding numbers and were captured and broken by the Plains Indians, whose lot was measured by the size of their herds. Indeed, while probably it is not definitely known, it is quite certain the plains region was sparsely inhabited until after horses had become sufficiently numerous to supply the Plains Indians with mounts. Prior to the coming of the horses, the lot of these Indians was precarious in the extreme. They were largely unable to go from place to place because of lack of water on which to float their canoes. The horse did more than place them on an equality with the eastern tribes. It gave them an advantage and made their extermination by white man a slow and hard process. The first tribe of Indians to use horses was the Comanche, who roamed over Texas, and while the eastern tribes at no time used horses, the plains tribes eventually accumulated large herds, spreading northward to the Canadian border.

When settlers first came to this region they found the Indians well supplied with horses. The fact the plains tribes did have horses made it much easier for them to live their primitive lives, and made it much more difficult for the whites to drive them from their lands. As late as the early 1880s, droves of wild horses were not infrequently found within 35 miles of McCook.

Their capture was not difficult, and in 1882, 1883 and 1884 hundreds were sold in this vicinity. In fact, aside from the oxen, wild horses that had been captured and half tamed were the principal draft animals of the pioneer.

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