The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.

XIV. Travellers and Explorers, 1846–1900

§ 24. Cowboys

One of the primary causes of Indian difficulties was the rapid growth of the cattle and sheep industry on the Plains. The remarkably nutritive grasses which had fattened buffalo by the tens of thousands now fattened cattle and sheep in like numbers. As cattle and sheep will not feed on the same range, or rather cattle will not on a sheep range, there were clashes that were well-nigh battles between the sheep and the cattle men. Large tracts were bought or claimed, and fenced in—another cause of trouble. And still another was the character of the cattle herders. There were suddenly many of them in the later seventies. They lived in camps and for some reason they dropped to a lower state of degradation than any class of men, red or white, that the Far West had seen. Beside a full-fledged “cowboy” of the earlier period of their brief reign the Indian pales to a mere recalcitrant Quaker. With the further development of the country the cowboy became more civilized and later on he redeemed himself by writing poetry and books. The reason for this desirable transformation from debauchery to inspiration may be read in the lines:

  • When the last free trail is a prim fenced land,
  • And our graves grow weeds through forgetful Mays.
  • The country was becoming agricultural; the trails were being fenced in; the herds growing smaller for lack of vast, unpaidfor, free range; they were of necessity differently handled; and the cowboy’s pistol was confronted by the sheriff’s. In short, the wild cowboy was a wild cowboy no more. The quotation is from the admirable volume of poems of the West by Charles Badger Clark, Jr., Sun and Saddle Leather (1915), which contains “The Glory Trail” (known among the camps as “High Chin Bob”) and another equally rhythmical, “The Christmas Trail,” one stanza of which is:
  • The coyote’s Winter howl cuts the dusk behind the hill,
  • But the ranch’s shinin’ window I kin see:
  • And though I don’t deserve it, and I reckon never will,
  • There’ll be room beside the fire kep’ for me.
  • Skimp my plate ’cause I’m late. Let me hit the old kid gait,
  • For to-night I’m stumblin’ tired of the new,
  • And I’m ridin’ up the Christmas trail to you,
  • Old Folks,
  • I’m a-ridin’ up the Christmas trail to you.
  • The man who wrote this, we may be sure, never “shot up” a Western saloon. Another volume of this delightful verse reflecting the freedom of the Western skies is Out Where the West Begins, by Arthur Chapman, and two more are, Riders of the Stars and Songs of the Outlands, both in ink of mountain hue, from the pen of Herbert Knibbs. These are the things we expect from men who have ridden the sagebrush plain, scampered up the painted cliffs with a horizon waving in the blue, or slept in the winter white under the whispering pines.

    Besides this native poetry we have some excellent prose work in this field; Ten Years a Cowboy (1908) by C. C. Post; The Log of a Cowboy (1903) by Andy Adams, as well as The Outlet by the same author, the latter relating to the great cattle drives formerly undertaken from Texas to the North-west. Charles M. Russell, the “Cowboy Artist,” who has preserved with his brush some of the thrilling pictures of this ephemeral and showy savagery, has expressed himself in a literary manner in Studies of Western Life (1890). And it is necessary to mention in this connection the drawings of Frederick Remington, as well as Owen Wister’s later classic of cowboy life, The Virginian (1905).