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JF Ptak Science Books Quick Post Part of the Zoomology series
This is a quick follow-up to an earlier post on Solomon Butcher in which there two two photographic images that are clearly "manufactured"--one is created in the darkroom (simply adding trees in a tress-less landscape), while the other (below) is an unlabelled recreation of an event. This is in the lines of Timothy O'Sullivan and Matthew Brady dressing up their images a bit by posing the dead or giving them added bits (like muskets and so on) to enliven the picture. This one though is entirely theatre--as it happens there are very few 19th century photographs depicting a crime-in-progress. Butcher just decided to show his audience what the crime probably looked like. In any event if not for a little Zoomology the scene could've perhaps passed for real.
This is a detail from the full-plate glass negative, printed out so:
Without the enlargement it is difficult to tell what sort of instruments the ranchers were holding. But up close the wire cutters are simply suggestions of that too, being made of wood and all.
When Solomon Butcher laid his head down on his final pillow he evidently thought of himself as a half-failure. His work as a photographer in a life full of travel through the Great Plains lead to not-much-"success" save for one book1, and his work wasn't recognized for the impact that it would have in the decades to come. Perhaps he wondered if his ways were all worth it, hauling his family and his enormously heavy collection of full-plate glass negatives from one house to the next. Of course that would change in death--not the money part, but certainly the recognition. His photographs are outstanding glimpses into late 19th century American frontier life, and especially so for the work he did making images of families and their belongings in the long rolling landscape of pioneer Nebraska.
not sure exactly what Solomon Butcher told his subjects when he photographed them
outside of their frontier houses out there in the Great
Plains in the 1880’s. His spectacular
portraits included not only the family of the house, but in many cases, everything
that the family owned. Possessions were
encumbrance making your way across the country in the mid/19th century,
especially if you didn’t have very many to begin with. These families—the first generation in their
mostly sod-built houses—would’ve been farmers scratching out a minimum trade
and decent subsistence. City/town goods
would’ve been not-usual in these circumstances, and evidently whatever it was
they had of these things wound up outside, displayed around the house and on
the roof, when Mr. Butcher arrived in his photographer’s wagon.
was it, I wonder, who came up with the initial idea of displaying the
family’s possessions: did Butcher set
out with that idea, or did it happen spontaneously? I wonder what it was the families thought as
Butcher was packing up his equipment, his horse fed, his cameras stowed away,
climbing up onto the driver’s bench. Did
they wait until he was a spot on the horizon to put away their things? Did they gather everything up as Butcher
gathered up his own material, or did they just wait for the stranger to
disappear before pulling the family back together? Sitting their surrounded by
the things that they owned, did these families feel a quiet pride, or were they
embarrassed have their pictures made together with their frontier opulence?)
There's much to look at in these images, and the Nebraska Historical Society does a very good job at it here, espcially when they work at some digital magic, making some of the disappeared stuff that lurks in the shadows of the interiors of the cabins appear. What is of interest to me today are the sunburns--this issue was brought up yesterday in another post on the invention of the satirical photograph, where the self-portrait shows a man with heavily sunned face and hands, the marks of a working man with dark settling on light becomes a little remarkable.
This is seen in Butcher's photographs from time-to-time. In the series of photographs of homesteads, he often captured images of men without hats--seldom the case, I guess, in the normal routine of a day. The men's faces are deeply tanned except for where the hat is pulled down to the middle of their forehead, where we see a much lighter complexion:
Which makes sense, of course, since these were pioneers and farmers, and working pretty much all of the time outdoors.
I remember being surprised the first few times I noticed this, and then not so. This is much like seeing all of those non-smiling photographic portraits of the 19th century and wondering about the sombreness, when the general explanation for the seriousness was far simpler: given the length of time for an exposure, it was took simply too much effort to hold the same smile for a minute or three, and so the rigid face became a necessity. The brands of the faces of these men was there simply because they wore hats outdoors doing hard work in the High Plains sun.
There's a world going on in these photographs, but for right now I'm just looking at faces.The Library of Congress site has an excellent collection of this images online, and there's a lot of micro-photo inspection to be done.
Another example, here:
Which is a detail from: (Source: The Library of Congress, "Rev. and Mrs. E.D. Eubank on Clear Creek west of Lee Park, Custer County, Nebraska".)
I wanted to pass along these very interesting maps that appear in Allan R. Pred Urban Growth and the Circulation of Information, 1790-1840 (Harvard, 1973) because they give a quick and elegant view of how long it took to get to various parts of the country in the first part of the 19th century.
First, Rates of Travel, 1800:
and its complement, Rates of Travel 1830:
[Note: all travel time based on starting point in New York City.]
Its interesting to see with just improvements in travel excluding the introduction of railroads and (for the most part) canals that travel time was basically cut in half in about thirty years' time. For example, in 1800 it would take roughly four weeks to get to New Orleans, and then six weeks to arrive in Iowa and the Upper Peninsula. By 1830, that time was two weeks to NO, and three for the other two locations. In 1800, it was a five day trip to the northern Outer Banks in North Carolina; that would be cut to two days by 1830. The trip in 1800 to the vicinity of Savannah and the northern part of Florida was a two week ordeal; by 1830, that time had fallen to 6/7 days. The Mississippi was reachable in five weeks in 1800; in 1830, that time was cut to two weeks. This as I said would all change drastically over the next three decades, once the railroad system became slightly mature.
And here, expanded to 1857:
By 1857 one day's travel time has been blasted to a ring encompassing the southern half of Maine, partially into Ohio and south into the northern part of North Carolina. Two days of travel will get the traveller deep into Michigan and parts of Wisconsin, and half-way through North Carolina and South Carolina (excluding the mountain region in Western NC). Three days will now get us to northern Florida, halfway through Georgia and Tennessee, and into the Midwest, past the Mississippi River. Beyond the basic reach of the railroad at this point is the rest of the country, and harder going, though one week of travel will get you deep into the central part of the country, where with some difficulty you would be able to find your way to southern California in three weeks, and the Pacific regions of Washington Territory in six weeks--basically, an entirely new world of travel and the spread of goods, service and information, not the least of which was aided by the spread of the railroads, which increased from 3,000 miles of track in 1840 to more than 30,000 in 1860.
Again, I really just wanted to share this display of information because I have found them to be useful in the past, and the info doesn't seem to be all that wide-spread.
My source for the maps has been varied from web sources, but the original work seems to have been published in Charles O. Paullin and John Wright, Atlas of the Historical Geography of the U.S., published by the Carnegie Institute of Washington, D.C. (1932), pages 138a, 138b, 138c, 138d.
In the very full and ancient (Babylonian at least) history of attempts at squaring the circle it is interesting to find that victory in its pursuit came on the fields of south-central Ohio in the mid-19th century. Who would have thought that this insoluable problem of ancient geometry (and which found a voice in popular culture going back to Aristophanes The Birds) would find itself smoothed out in mid-western dirt? And it all came at the hands of a magnificently-titled state-authorized endeavor called the Circleville Squaring Company. (Honestly, isn't that a fantastic name? I'm reminded instantly of Flatland.)
It turns out that the American West pressed on through these lands in the Ohio Valley in the mid-ish 18th century, with white people coming in to colonize the place by the 1770's. What existed here, in a village/town to be called "Centerville", was an ancient Hopewell culture circular earthwork, an enclosure of some sort, a fortification, with a large mound in the center.
The settlers thought that the best thing to do was to plan their town around this design, eventually placing an octogonally-shaped structure at the center of it all, on the top of the mound.
The source noted above (and here as well) tells the whole and complete story of what would happen next, but suffice to say that after some decades the people of Circleville decided that they did not like the circular plan of their town, and in 1837 occurred some legislation to do something about it. The circles had to go, to be replaced by 90-degree angles for streets.
And thus to this end the Circleville Squaring Company was born in 1837, and over the next few decades quarters of the center city of Circleville were bought up, torn down, and replaced by a more desirable geometry. The process seems to have been completed around the time of the Civil War. Nothing remained of the original circular town plan.
In spite of the circumstances, the town remained "Circleville".
[This is another in a series of posts prompted by a re-reading of Larry McMurtry's novel, Lonesome Dove. This particular addition was prompted by McMurtry's character Capt. Angus McCrae coming to a realization that he and his partner, Capt Woodrow Call, at the pinnacle of their careers, were just another bit of landscape to be passed by; Texas Ranger/cowboy/adventurer becoming the "New Indian".]
Judge James Hall said early on (in 1835) that the frontiersman would only be clearing the way for another kind of pioneer who would settle down and farm the land properly, and make the beginnings of American civilization in the west. Thomas Jefferson saw the same future for “our semi-barbarous citizens”—the frontiersman—as did the explorer and botanist J.R.Poinsett, who said simply that “the frontiersman is doomed.”
McCrae was very well aware of his own role in the paradoxical march of civilization on the frontier. He was the first of his type to see these new lands (on the cattle drive north from Texas to Montana); opening them meant that he would make them safe for other colonizers—farmers and bankers who would have a far more acquisitive sense of land and ownership than he or his partner Call would ever have. As the concept of private property grew greater, as more capital was invested, and as the land became more irretrievably “settled,” then the two Rangers would pose as much a threat to the monied land interests as the Indians had once posed to the earliest settlers. He knew that he was the first step in making the economics of the region as frictionless as possible, and that at some point, and pretty soon, he and all those like him would represent the friction in the cost of doing business.
It didn’t take long for this to happen; in the grand scheme of the development of the West the frontiersman's shadow was almost instantly filled by that of the cowboy, with barely 75 years filling the time between the beginning of the Lewis & Clark Expedition and the end of the great cattle drives. The hungry frontier pulled the adventurers away and concentrated its efforts on its greatest foe—the worker. The Atlantic Monthly charged in 1877 that America was at risk from a new type of “Indian”—the “savage” working class. It made that statement—in an unsigned article—soon after the dangerous railroad strike of 1877, stating that these classes needed to be attacked and re-educated to understand the new culture of incorporating America. McMurtry's self-medicating character McCrae understood the theory if not the extended history of the word “savage”—that it would be passed from one class to the next of any group that threatened to disturb the orderly march of culture and economic civilization, and that each preceding class of civilizer would, in turn, become the savage. “Savage” would pass from the Indian, to the unruly cowboy, and then on to the settlers of each successive (economic) frontier, as the competition turned from space to wages.
In a book that Call and McCrae could (but were extremely unlikely to) have read, The History of the United States, by George Bancroft (1866), it was said that the Indian was killed by civilization because he could not change “his habits.” Writing at the same time and for the same readers, Francis Parkman told his readers that the Indian is savage, but that the Indian is also part of a savage environment, though “he and his forest will perish forever” because he will be unable to learn the ways of civilization. Or, in the words of Senator Thomas Hart Benton, who would let nothing get in the way of westward expansion—“civilization or extinction.”
[This is one in a series of posts prompted by my current reading of Larry McMurtry's novel, Lonesome Dove.]
The Indian of the Plains had few options in the 1860s and 1870s. The buffalo were gone and hunting lands were being taken over by white settlers. With this dissipation of their food source came displacement resulting in inadequate food supply and (in many cases) starvation. The government offered reservation systems, but these in general flawed results of flawed and hurried thinking. In one attempt to determine the efficacy of the government's response to the growing crisis in caring for the removed Indian population, a committee under the titular leadership of Senator James Rood Doolittle of Wisconsin (Republican turned Democrat, 1815-1897), created in January 1867 a report (The Condition of the Tribes, Report of the Joint Committee...) containing a wealth of information about the state of Indians on the reservations, drawing on the results of a questionnaire completed by 27 high-ranking respondents in Indian affairs, including eleven army officers, thirteen agents or superintendents, one teacher, one missionary, and one physician. It does not paint a pretty picture, even coming at the hands of a Congressional investigation.
[This post continues a series on the cowboy and the American West, prompted by a re-reading of Larry McMurtry's novel, Lonesome Dove.]
I’ve not seen this picture of the nine cowboys who starred and started the Great Cowboy Race of 18931.They gathered with a frenzy on the little town of Chadron, Nebraska (population 2,000, which doubled in size as the event’s opening grew near) determined to announce the “best “ cowboy, the first to cross the finish line near the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 and shake the hand of Buffalo Bill Cody (well on his way to becoming a shell of what used-to-be).The contest was supposed to take two weeks and average 50-75 miles a day, which is a lot to ask of a team of horses (and the riders).So there was the expected shenanigans, and the man who "won” evidently helped plan the secret route, and someone else rode a trains with his horses for a bit, and so on.
The result doesn’t matter--it seems an overall sad story, these guys winging their way to the windy City, a race to oblivion. (Some of the cowboy contestants were already about half-faded away into Limbo judging from the photo touch up that had to be done of their faces.)
Ironically these cowboys were racing to the cosmopolitan host of the World’s Fair in which the historian Frederick Jackson Turner read his paper "The Significance of the Frontier in American History," —a significant theoretical piece announcing why Americans are so different from Europeans, and also that the American frontier had clearly, absolutely, been broken and installed in the gauzy national psyche. The fate of the Cowboy had already been determined 20 years before with the introduction of refrigerator cars, railroad expansion and barbed wire--all of which cut the West into smaller and smaller parcels, until they restricted the Cowboy to its own Reservation. A crooked race to Chicago seemed to crystalize the Cowboy's tenuous grasp on existence, depicted finally by the new(ish) half-tone photo process of Stephen Henry Horgan, making a half-portrait of empty circles, the image disappearing more and more the closer we look at it..
It was just a sorry show for the cowboy all the way around, and a story that doesn’t need to be told here.I did just want to publish this picture.There’s a long and good story here http://www.thelongridersguild.com/chadron2.htm about the entire affair.
I include the list of the riders, mainly for the names of their horses:
Emmett Abbott riding Outlaw and Joe Bush.
Joe Campbell riding his one horse, Boom-de-aye.
Davy Douglas riding Wide Awake and Monte Cristo.
Old Joe Gillespie riding Billy Mack and Billy Schafer.
George Jones riding Romeo and George.
Charlie Smith riding Dynamite and Red Wing.
Rattlesnake Pete Stephens riding General Grant and Nick.
The Cowboy West, from Ned Buntline to Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett
I imagine that there have been significantly more people who have played cowboys in literature, on radio, in movies, on the stage and on television than ever cowboyed in the West. This doesn’t include children who have played at “Cowboys and Indians” over the past 150 years. The time of the classic cowboy-in-all-his-glory was short—maybe two generation. Probably less. And there weren't that many people to fill in those positions in that short period of time.
Certainly there are cowboys to this day, but the cowboy of our mind’s eye—that iconic cowboy of the expanding, post-Manifest Destiny West—was a victim of the great rush to land privatization in the 1880s-1890s: barbed wire and other fences took the cowboy's place. By 1895 there were more cowboys riding fences than herding cattle. As Faulkner wrote on the "last individual" in The Fable (page 204), “the cowboy was exterminated from the earth by a tide of men with wire-stretchers and pockets full of staples…” Of course Faulkner also saw the cowboy set among horse dung and "oxidizing cans" of sardines and tomatoes--a gemeinschaft/gesellschaft thing.
There are only 40 or 50 years that separate cowboys Texas Jack and Ned Buntline from the Chandler/Marlowe and Hammett/Spade modern detective West of San Francisco and Los Angeels, which is an extraordinary thing. There weren't cowboys stretching back forty years before Texas Jack, and there weren't forty years that they stretched into the future from him, either. The distance in time that the cowboy existed, all things considered, was short--from the Reconstruction free-roaming Texas cattle of 1866 to the appearance of barbed wire in the early 1870's to the refrigerated railroad car of just about the same time to the endless farming non-frontier of the 1890's, the cowboy enjoyed probably one full decade of not being molested by the present; the future caught up with them in a quick hurry.
JF Ptak Science Books Post 1700 [Continuing a series on notes made while reading Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove, part 5.]
The word “cowboy” (“cow-boy”, “cow boy”) was little seen in the U.S. in the decades before the great surge in cattle drives—prior to the 1870s. The word most commonly associated with America’s greatest folk heroes actually got its beginning in Ireland, and was commonly used in Britain from 1820-1850 where its meaning was quite literal, applying to the young boys tending the cows owned by a family or community. An earlier use by Jonathan Swift in 1725 also refers to nothing more than a boy tending cows.
[Source: Cowboy and a herd of cattle in Cherry County, Nebraska. Photograph by the great Solomon D. Butcher., 1889. Nebraska State Historical Society.]
Part of this blog's history of line series inevitably deals with some of our planet's most cutting lines: barbed wire. Talking about just the United States for the moment, it cut land into small, bite-sized chunks in the parceling-out and extinction of expansion in the American Westward movements, and has done pretty much the same in keeping apart the races in some areas of the country where the legal/social/cultural lines begged for steel more than paper. Such is the case in these remarkable photographs from San Francisco
And the full image:
["The Barb-Wire Barricade: From The Wave: v. 21, Jan. - July 1900: no. 21, page 7: Scenes Outside the Chinatown Quarantine Lines, San Francisco".]
The reason for this barbed wire in the streets of San Francisco was simple--it was a quarantine of Chinese people who were thought to be infested with bubonic plague. The reasons for this were simple and racist--given that the Chinese were seen from (at the very least) the 1860's to be an "inferior" and "degraded"1 race, living in close quarters and in fair squalor at times (given the wages that they were paid and the abuses they suffered from the Chinese Exclusion Acts), and given the codified racist sentiments against them, it was seen that these people were capable of spreading the diseases via their very presence and "vapors". (At least one of these "three graces" of "malarium", "small-pox" and leprosy were seen as coming directly from Chinatown in San Francisco. See notes #1 for source.)
And so up went the barbed wire, "and no Chinese American was allowed to leave the area bounded by California, Kearny, Broadway, and Stockton streets"2.This of course restricted the access of Chinese immigrants and Chinese-American citizens, and held for some three months, prohibiting access out and in, meaning that food was in short supply, prices for goods and food went very high, and many Chinese businesses suffered loss and closure. At the end of three months, the barbed wire quarantine was lifted, and of course not one case of plague was reported among the Chinese population.
There is a long history to this sort of thinking, as we find that, for example, in the 1875/6 smallpox epidemic San Francisco's father's determined that one cause might be the Chinese, and had all of the houses in Chinatown fumigated. This of course had nothing to do with the epidemic; yet, at the end of it all, "the city health officer, J. L. Meares, offered the following explanation: I unhesitatingly declare my belief that the cause is the presence in our midst of 30,000 (as a class) of unscrupulous, lying and treacherous Chinamen, who have disregarded our sanitary laws, concealed and are concealing their cases of smallpox."3
Here's another image from the 1900 quarantine: ["A Conversation Across the Ropes: From The Wave: v. 21, Jan. - July 1900: no. 21, page 7: Scenes Outside the Chinatown Quarantine Lines, San Francisco" Publisher:Wave Publishing Company.]
And another, keeping San Francisco "clean and healthy" with barbed wire and rope.
["No Admittance: From The Wave: v. 21, Jan. - July 1900: no. 21, page 7: Scenes Outside the Chinatown Quarantine Lines, San Francisco."]
Another example of the institutionalized despoilment of the Chinese is seen here in an 1880 Board of Health pronouncement on the state of Chinatown in San Francisco was an official "nuisance", and that the "Chinese cancer:" must be cut out: "The Chinese cancer must be cut out of the heart of our city, root and branch, if we have any regard for its future sanitary welfare . . . with all the vacant and health territory around this city, it is a shame that the very centre be surrendered and abandoned to this health-defying and law-defying population. We, therefore, recommend that the portion of the city here described be condemned as a nuisance; and we call upon the proper authorities to take the necessary steps for its abatement without delay."4
And of course examples can go on and on--but there is really nothing quite like seeing a racial sentiment transferred into a three-dimensional object--like a barbed wire fence going down the middle of a street in San Francsico, in 1900--to drive home a message of learned bad thinking.
1. An excellent article by Joan B. Trauner, "The Chinese as Medical Scapegoats in San Francisco, 1870-1905," California History, Vol. LVII, No. 1 (Spring 1978), pp. 70-87. Full text is available online with an academic account.
2. Source: History of Chinese Americans in California, the 1900's, blog here.
Farming and the closing of the frontier--more notes on reading Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove, part 4.
It is difficult to underestimate the impact of the technological revolution on the development of the American West. The impact of the railroad is obvious; efficient fencing material in the form of barbed wire revolutionized land distribution and control. Less obvious is the less glamorous—the plow, harrow, windmill, silo, well drilling, and harvesting machinery. All made farming less difficult and opened the way to ever more land being farmed—the cultivation and civilization of the vast tracks on the Great Plains was made possible by these innovations.
[The use of the railroad in this ad for the famous Glidden barbed wire is interesting because in the history of lines and the American West, it was the lines of the railroad tracks, telegraph wires and barbed wire that changed the face of the place more quickly than anyone could have imagined in the 1840's. Certainly if Jefferson had been able to survive to his 150th year he would have been absolutely shocked to see how fast the West had been not only explored but brought into some sort of control, a feat that he imagined would take many generations past his exploratory team of Lewis and Clark.]
All of the machines needed in the West—chilled-iron and steel plows, grain drills, reapers, disk harrows, straddle-row cultivators, and threshing machines—were in use before the Civil War. The appropriate improvements and modification needed for use on the Great Plains came about in the 10 years or so following the war.
The improvements made in farm machinery from 1870-1890 had the following effects on time, effort and money saved in the production of each acre of the following:
Crop Time Worked Labor Cost
The effects of technology were staggering—in the 1870’s, a farmer knew he could only plant seven or eight acres of wheat because he knew he could only cut a certain amount during the limited harvesting season. By 1890 the same farmer could plant 135 acres knowing that he had effective means to harvest, bind and store the wheat without spoilage. These improvements meant more production from more farmers, and changed the face of the Great Plains.
Railroads helped a great deal in bringing farmers west—sometimes covertly. The Great Northern Railroad did its fair share in structuring the land during the “Dakota Boom” of 1878-1885. It was formed in 1879 by James J. Hill, a former employee who managed to seize control of the railroad following the Panic of 1873. Its progress west was deeply planned by Hill—since the railroad had no land grants, he realized that income must come from revenue, so he brought revenue-makers with him, building communities along the railroad as he went. He advertised and brought in immigrants from Europe, established model farms, imported blooded cattle, and loaned money to farmers, homeseekers and immigrants of all persuasions. His actions were persuasive and successful.
Its a horrible thing in some ways to identify farming as a "Boring Fronter" in the history of " _____ Frontiers", but it is in some ways accurate. Not to say that all of farming is boring, not by any means, particularly in difficult places in trying times--but the presence of an easily-accessible borderland defined by a very inexpensive means of identification (as in barbed wire) meant that the property of individuals was defined, and that new property owners would have to fan out and away from existing farms and ranches, thus settling more and more territory. And this of course meant more and more land was under control. And "under control" means, well, under control.
In the Report of the Board of Indian Commissioners for 18711 I found the following report of a meeting held between General S.J. McKinney (Superintendant of Indian Affairs for Washington Territory) and Chief Napoleon at the Tulalip Reservation in Washington Territory:
“Napoleon, the Chief, came forward with much and laid before…a bunch of split sticks, saying ‘these represent the number of Indians killed by white men in the past year, all Indian chiefs, fifteen of them, and yet nothing has been done by the government to the white men who killed them. They killed them by selling them whisky. I do not speak of them because I have a bad heart, but because I want you to know what kinds of men live about us. The whites now scare all of the Indians, and we wonder when they will kill all of us.’”
After his eloquent and impassioned speech came that of his brother, Peter, who continued to explain the evils of the Indian agents:
“Every agent has done wrong. No money comes our way. I will find money to go to Washington and tell the President of these evils. McKinney (the superintendent) has gone to the woods; he knows things are bad. The young Indians want to be helped and live like white men, they are not lazy. They see the Indian agent; he works for himself and never helps the Indian. I can not tell you the many stories; the sun would go down before I was finished…”
The Indian Commissioner present at the proceedings, Mr. Felix R. Brunot, made an interesting response:
“It would take four months to go to Washington in a canoe…I have much to do and little time to do it in. I must go to two more reservations before I go home and I have little time left to spend here. I am going to stay here just half an hour longer and then I must go…
1) THIRD ANNUAL REPORT OF THE BOARD OF INDIAN COMMISSIONERS Washington DC December 12 1871, pp 128-129.
Present at this meeting were:
"August 28. A council was held with the Indians of this reservation at 10 a. m., meeting
in front of the trading-house. There were present Hon. F. R. Brunot, chairman of the
board of Indian commissioners, and his secretary ; General S. J. McKinney, superintendent of
Indian affairs for Washington Territory; Father Chirouse, superintendent; Napoleon, the
chief, and all the minor chiefs and young men ; the employes, and a large number of the
men and women of the tribe. Before the council opened, Napoleon, the chief, reminded
them that he was the only one left of the old men who took part in the treaty with Governor
Stevens ; all the others had passed away..."
Continuing a new series of posts on big, underwritten hidden segments of the history of the American West in my current reading of Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove, I come to wonder about what it meant--what was the value--for one of the cowboys to spend 50 cents. (The sum comes up here and there.) What did 50 cents mean in a working person's life at the time this novel takes place, in 1876?
One way to look at the value of a half-dollar then is to see what portion of a week's pay it represented. That, and of course to compare what things cost in general, compared to how much it cost to make the money needed to purchase the thing.
For example, a songsheet as advertised in Spirit of the Time, 1877) cost 30 cents. Coffee ("Gillies Old Plantation") cost 25 cents per pound. After enjoying the coffee, a guy could get a shave for 10-25 cents, or get a pair of shoes ("Harman's Hand Made Shoes") for $3; a decent hotel room in a modest city could cost $1-2 per night, and a half-barrel of flour would set you back $2.50. A W + C Scott & Sons double action .45 calibre revolver would put you back $20 (according to the Spirit of the Times) in 1877, while a Remington sporting rifle #1 model (30") would run $30. A simple-ish hat could cost $3 dollars, but a good hat for the trail would be considerably more, ranging from 5-25 dollars. (See more examples below.)
But what did 50 cents mean in terms of a paid salary to a cowboy? I think it is relatively safe to say that at this time the "average" cowboy made about $30 a month. Wranglers would pull down $20-$30; top hands, $50-$75, and the trail boss, say about $100. So, spending a half-dollar would be equal to about a half-day's wages.
So we can see that if you made $30 a month, spending 50 cents was something.
Most workers made more than cowboys—farm hands (with board) made $35-$45 a month; store clerks made $45-$95; “superior clerks and bookkeepers” made $100-$150 monthly; “female cooks and servants” received $25-$35; carpenters ($75 and up) and masons ($75+) made more. Railroad workers building the first Texas railroad actually received a pay decrease from $2.75 to $2.00 a day. They worked 6 days a week from 7am to 6 pm, and were allowed to fish in the Pecos and Rio Grande Rivers with dynamite, “Italians on the one side and Germans on the other.”. (More examples below.)
I'm reading Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove now, again (see yesterday's post on this, here), experiencing that brittle silence spacing the dialog of long, open, open places. That's probably because the area where we start out in the novel is fairly flat land filled with tough scrub, and not many people. The land wasn't necessarily quiet--anyone hiking in bog country or high desert knows that there is plenty of life going on around you, and its just that the sound that gets made in its living doesn't have much to bounce on, and so the sky swallows most of it. But the sound is definitely there--but in general in the country around Lonesome Dove there weren't many people, either.
This interview of L.M. Cox was conducted by Elizabeth Doyle in San Angelo (Texas), in 1937 as part of the WPA (Worker’s Project Administration) effort to record American oral history. We know only this of Mr. Cox: “L.M. Cox of Brownwood, Texas was born in Benton County, Arkansas, in 1858 and came to Brownwood in 1880. He engaged in the ranching business for a number of years before retiring.” I’ve got a feeling that this last sentence would be something like “Joe Dimaggio played baseball for several years before retiring”, perhaps intentionally droll, perhaps not.
The interview, a paper copy of which is located in the Archives section of the Library of Congress, follows: "The cowboy's life as we know it was certainly lacking in the glamor which we see on our screens today," says L. M. Cox of Brownwood, Texas.
"I have known cowboys to ride one hundred miles per day. I know this sounds unreasonable but they were off before daylight and rode hard until after dark. Their usual day's work was to be off as soon as they could see how to catch their horses, throw the round-up together around 10 o'clock then work cattle or brand until dark and often times stand guard one-third of the night after that.
The usual ride was sixteen hours per day. No Union hours for them. It was from daylight until dark with work, and hard work as that. One cowboy complained of having to eat two suppers, so he quit, packed his bed and left. In about three months he returned, carrying only a bull's-eye lantern, saying that where he had been working he needed only the lantern and had no use for the bed.
"Each cowboy had his mount, which usually consisted of ten or twelve horses and he rode four each day. Many of the horses were remarkably trained and like their owners, had their good and bad points. My own horse would tell his age by pawing on the ground and I have been criticized for saying that he could tell marks and brands but I know he could.
"There were few buffalo left, but there were antelopes in vast herds on both sides of the Pecos. I have seen hundreds of them on one drove, also black-tail deer. We could rope the deer but not the antelope. They were too swift on foot, faster than our fastest horses.
"In the late 80's and early 90's came the covered wagons and then the sheepman. We stood the covered wagons pretty well but it took a long time to get on friendly terms with the sheepman. They were sure enough trespassers in the cowman's eye. One sheepman got his flock located on some good grass and the cowmen came along and ordered him off their premises. 'I can't go now,' the sheepman complained, 'I have lost my wagon wheel.' Cowboys always had a heart and tried to be lenient but they also hated deception. One of the cowboys who had heard this gag before, looked around a bit and found the missing wheel hidden away in some mesquite bushes. The sheepman was hustled away in a hurry.
"Early days were hard on all stockman. With sheep selling at 75¢ per head, wool at .04¢ and cattle no better, a panic seemed evident.
"Neglect of herds caused lots of cattle rustling, stealing, burning of brands, etc. Many tales were told of mysterious increases in herds, one fellow had an old red cow that fruitfully produced twenty mavericks in one year. Another with a yoke of oxen reported an increase of twenty-six in a short time.
"We never heard much complaint about hard times. People thought about a lot of things more than they did money then, 'cause it didn't take so much money to live . "No cowpuncher ever talked much. Ride further and talk less, few words and fast action, were rules which they followed pretty close
"The president of a big cattle company who resided in the North, came down to the camp once and was late getting there. When he arrived the boys had all either gone to sleep or out on night guard. He had one of those new-fangled talking machines with him and he turned it on out there under the midnight skies and all the punchers stampeded. "No respectable cowman ever wore any other footwear but boots, and the spurs were never removed only when the boots were
"A stranger rode up to our camp one day and announced himself as a cow buyer. 'He's a damn liar,' whispered one old puncher, 'look at them there shoes he's a-wearin'.'
"Cowboys lay awake nights trying to think of "good ones" to play on the tenderfoot. We tied an old cowboy to a tree once and told the tenderfoot that he was a madman, had spells and was very dangerous. At the appointed time the cowboy broke loose and the new comer made it to town, five miles on foot, in a very short time.
"Boiled beef and Arbuckle Coffee was our standby. The boys used to say if old man Arbuckle ever died they'd all be ruined and if it wasn't for Pecos water gravy and Arbuckle Coffee we would starve to death.
"There were two things that the cowboys were deathly afraid of and that was the Pecos River and rattlesnakes. The river was narrow and deep, with no warning as to when you were approaching the bank and a man was liable to ride right over into the deep water at night before he knew he was near it. Time, and many cattle drives, have worn down the banks to some extent but in many places it still remains a strange phenomenon of nature, with its smooth straight banks and no warning of your approaching a stream.
"We don't have ranches any more; just windmill and pasture projects. These dipping vats, bah! We used to have to dip some of the punchers but never the cattle. I tried for awhile to fall in with the their new-fangled ways but when they got to roundin' up and herdin' in Ford cars I thought it was about time for a first class cowman to take out, so I guess I'm what you'd call retired. Just the same, the cow business ain't what it used to be to the old timers and I'm not the only one who says that, either. Everything else changes though, so guess we'll just have to get used to that like we do other things and if we can't get used to it, quit.”
L. M. Cox, Brownwood, Texas, interviewed, November 22, 1937.
Credit: Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, WPA Federal Writers' Project Collection.
Photo credit 1: cowboy, high plains, Nebraska, 1886, courtesy the Library of Congress. Photo by the great Solomon D. Butcher, who made perhaps the greatest photographic record of western American life.
Photo credit 2: courtesy the Library of Congress. Caption reads: Informal three-quarter length portrait of Frank Bering and Dick Deadwood standing in front of the Sherman Hotel, located at 106 West Randolph Street in the Loop community area of Chicago, Illinois, light exposure. Deadwood is wearing a cowboy hat and cowboy clothes and holding a pistol, and Bering is looking at the pistol.
Photo credit 3: cowboy, high plains, Nebraska, 1886, courtesy the Library of Congress. Another in the Solomon Butcher series, 1886.