Actual Cowboys

(Quotes are all from “The Life and Times of William Wilson and Catherine Rankin Pace”.)

“Cowboys”, as we often use the term, belong to a rather brief phase of American history: after the completion of the transcontinental railroad but before the end of the century when railheads had spread to most parts of the west.   There was tremendous demand for cattle in the great eastern cities, but to get them there the livestock had to be delivered to the railroad, sometimes a distance of many hundreds of miles.  The first to do this drove livestock from Texas up to Missouri and sold them.  These first groups made so much money that many others imitated, and the railroad became the goal for any cattle enterprise in the west that could raise more than was needed to satisfy local demand.  These were cowboys, the men who took cattle from range to rail.

My great great granddad William Wilson Pace was a cowboy, as cowboy as any cowboy ever was.  He was also among the last to deserve the name.  William and his sweetheart Catherine Rankin married in 1879 and toughed out an austere 1880 winter managing a community cattle herd at “Blue Fly Ranch, near the rim of Bryce Canyon”.  Paces bought out the cattle later in the year and drove them, 200 head, down to the high desert at Nutrioso, Arizona.  At the time the only way across the Grand Canyon was on foot, so they drove their herd down to the water at Lee’s Ferry and then drove them across.  (According to his children, this was only the second time a herd of cattle had ever been driven across the Colorado.)  The family and their baggage were carted across by a hired ferry.  Grandma Catherine cared for an infant, great grand aunt Maud the whole way.

On the flatboat there was an event, an experience that Grandpa bragged about, saying he was the first person ever to do this thing on the Colorado River.  It is such a “cowboy” event it’s a challenge even to figure what happened.  William’s biography (a non-literary effort written by his children) contains four or five colorful and conflicting accounts, and they are laden with cowboy terminologies that make the story difficult to understand.  William’s sons told the story and if they weren’t cowboys themselves at least they talked like them.

Here’s the plain English version, near as I can tell.  After taking the herd down to the Colorado River and driving them across, William agreed to sell one of his cows to the ferry operator.  Part of the arrangement, however, was delivering the cow back to the other side of the river.  While ferrying the purchase cow back over it took fright, broke free from its rope and started careering around the flatboat, dangerous to itself and to Grandpa.  Grandpa grabbed the animal, and before it could muscle him off the boat and into the water he flipped it over on the wet and slippery deck, and tied up its legs with a rope.

So that’s clear and specific, but it’s inauthentic.  Here’s a rather more cowboy version that I cobbled together from the different accounts about the cattle drive:

Father rode the hurricane deck of cayuse and drove a herd of cows to Arizona, pepped up with thoughts of finding unsettled country with grass knee high to a tall Indian.  By time of the Colorado ferry – a crude rickety old affair – they had a lot of sore-footed calves, great, big fat fellows with their feet worn out.  Father sold a ferryman eight head of them for a dollar each and one cow for $8, and ferryed them back over for the operator.  Mid-stream the breeched steer worked off her peggin’ string and went very much on the prod.  Now began a game of tag to decide whether the rider, horse or raging critter was going into the water.  Steel-capped boot heels on wet planks hampered plenty, but Father bull-dogged the beast back aboard the platform, threw her down and hot-tied her.

If it took all that to reach their destination you would expect it to be remote, and boy Nutrioso was remote.  Getting there they passed Hopi and Navajo settlements that had scarcely any contact with the white man for the previous hundred years.  There was no mail service between May and October, and only every two months in between.  The young family was not sensible to how remote their new life would be.  Great Grandpa:

Of course there was no Winslow, neither Flagstaff, nor Holbrook, and no Atlantic or Pacific railroad.  They all came later.  There was not a place in this distance where you could have bought a pound of bacon or a package of coffee, or anything else, for that matter.

We had never taken any account that we would meet many privations and hardships that always come with the building up of a new country.

The little community also had Indian anxieties.  They built a blockhouse to guard and sleep in during uncertain times.  During one tense period gunfire awoke the group, and the menfolk grabbed their guns to head out.  The women and children were terrified until: “one woman called to her husband, ‘Don’t you dare go out there without your pants on.’  He had done just that.”

The children grew up exceedingly provincial, and for a number of years had experienced no other world than their little corner of nowhere.  Even apples were an exotic refinement!  Here’s daughter Maud talking about her little brother who had the amazing name Leonald:

The first barrel of apples will always be remembered.  Leon after eating one of them declared, “I don’t like this kind of taters”, and proceeded to get a big Irish potato instead of finishing the apple.

Leon died of Typhoid age 15.  Grandpa Joe and Uncle Nathan both carry his name as their middle names.

The high Arizona desert was never very conducive for cattle raising.  Nutrioso’s elevation is over 7500 feet and even in July you can have frosts.  “…This country was much too high and cold to raise livestock.  Father always felt like kicking himself later for wasting his time there.”

It only took him sixteen years to realize his mistake.

Compounding the depredations of Mother Nature was the lawless nature of Arizona at the time.  If your horses or livestock weren’t guarded they might be taken, and there was no effective authority to appeal to.  You and your neighbors had to go out after them if you wanted to see them again.  One time Grandpa ignored the dog’s barking and found two horses missing in the morning.  Another time 200 head were stolen from Apache County and Grandpa joined a posse of eight to go two hundred miles after them.   They were mistaken for Federal Marshals in the town of Clifton.

Their strength of their numbers made that trip more comfortable.  Other times Grandpa traveled alone and in great fear, on one occasion “he rode 17 days without seeing a white man.”

The cows had to be delivered to a railhead and taken off to slaughter somewhere far away.  For the Paces that meant herding them to Holbrook, AZ or Magdalena, NM – both more than a hundred miles on foot.  It was a job that took the help of several men you could trust, and groups would be gone for weeks, sometimes.

These good souls were trying to plant their civilization in a wasteland, and such life was very hard on women and children.  There’s a reason that, save Utah, every state and territory in the west had an enormous disparity between men and women.  This continued long after the Pioneer era ended.  In 1880 Arizona, men outnumbered women by more than two-to-one.

“Mostly [Grandma Catherine’s] life was grim cold pioneering, waiting with the children, peering out the window looking for signs of Pancho [the horse] bringing Father.

Here’s pictures of the two of them, in their 30’s or 40’s.  Who looks haunted by their bleak frontier experience?

Out on the trail things could be pretty carefree.  The herd would amble along and so long as there was water and forage the way was easygoing.  Guys behaved the way you’d expect.  One time two in the group had only one spur apiece:

The bantering went on for days until it was decided to run a race to see which one would get both spurs.  The race was run and Father was the judge.  At the finish line the rider on the fastest horse [went] to claim the two spurs, but Father awarded them to the loser, since his horse was the slowest and he needed them the most.

Of course, they had to cook for themselves which wasn’t so comfortable a task for such well-wived men.  Grandpa’s first time making rice didn’t go very well; he misjudged the amount of rice to put in the pot and after some pratfalls “a trail of rice was made from the fire to the stream.”

Reaching the railhead meant getting paid and going home, but sometimes Grandpa had to accompany the cattle to Kansas City.  That meant riding the train, the caboose in particular.  The trip was long enough that cattle would have to be taken out and watered at certain stops.

At Lawrence, they punched them up and as the train pulled out too soon, they found themselves climbing into box cars at the front of the train.  It was raining and the rain froze as it fell.  The catwalk was beyond their ability to walk with their high heeled boots, so they undertook riding the blinds, so to speak.  They soon began to hope they would fall off as they became colder and colder.  So they went to the top again and inched along the catwalk.  They “cooned” their way the length of a long train, which did not stop until they had reached Kansas City.

(You may find it interesting that our storyteller is employing hobo jargon rather than cowboy jargon here.)

Today we have automobiles, but a cowboy had rely on animals for transportation.

Much of his good fortune he attributed to his little bay horse, Pancho.  In the eleven years he carried Father, he never gave out, quit, or stumbled.

The children, as Mother related it, learned to say, “Pancho” before “Daddy”.  They knew without Pancho, there may well have been no Daddy returning.

Father never shot a gun in anger and never saw a man killed.

If you trust your gun more than you trust your horse, I don’t think you can call yourself a cowboy.

It was hard out on lonely trails worrying that the hired hand would kill him, or being chased by a cow around a flatboat on the mighty Colorado.  But surely there were many thousand bored schoolboys back East who would have given anything to trade places.  And even in 1881 as the cowboy mythos was filling minds with daydreams all over the world, cowboys themselves were going out of the world.  Only eleven years after his river adventure Grandpa William Wilson came back across, only this time looking down at the river from the comforts of a Pullman Car.

Grandpa lived until 1931 when the only cowboys were old men retelling stale stories.  Grandma Catherine lived until 1950, when the first nuclear power plants were being designed.

Here’s a poem that was read at great great Grandpa William Wilson Pace’s funeral.

O Lord, I never lived where churches grow;
I love creation better as it stood
The day you finished it so long ago,
And looked upon your work and called it good.

I know that others find you in the light
That’s sifted down through window panes,
And that I, too, find you near tonight
In this dim starlight on the plains.

I thank thee, Lord, that I am placed so well
That thou hast made my freedom so complete,
That I’m no slave to whistle, clock or bell,
Or weak-eyed prisoner in a walled-up street.

Just let me live my life as I begun.
Give me work that’s open to the sky;
Make me a partner with the wind and sun,
And I’ll ask not a place that’s soft or high.

Let me be easy on the man that’s down;
Make me free and generous with all.
I’m careless, Lord, sometimes when I’m in town,
But never let them call me mean or small.

Make me big and open as the plains on which I ride.
Honest as the horse between my knees.
Clean as the wind behind the rain;
Free as the hawk which circles down the breeze.

Forgive me, Lord, when sometimes I forget;
You know the reasons, which are hid;
You know about the reasons which gall and fret;
You know me better than my mother did.

Just keep my eye on all that’s said and done,
Just right me always when I turn aside,
And guide me on the long, distant trail ahead,
Which stretches upward, toward the great divide.


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