A tintype of Ad Spaugh--his first photograph--taken in Dodge City, Kansas, July 4, 1876
Last updated: February 28, 2020
March 1, 1940
As told by Frazier Hunt, originally published in The Country Gentleman, December 1939, January, February, and March 1940
Seventy-two years ago this past spring, the first herd of longhorn steers came up over the Chisholm Trail to railhead at Abilene, Kansas. It was the forerunner of the most fabulous animal migration the world has ever seen. For twenty springs and summers, clouds of dust, stirred by the plodding hoofs of cattle, moved across the high prairies. It was a period of adventure and incredible hardship. Men died on the Chisholm Trail, and cattle perished. In two swift decades it was over, but before this strange epic reached its close, the million head of longhorns had been driven north from the wild pastures of Texas.
Lusty cow towns were spawned by the cattle trade –in Kansas, in Nebraska. They flamed briefly, then faded as the rails pushed deeper into the plains. Toward the end of the period, with the Indian menace settled and the plowmen taking over Kansas, the trails bent westward and the drives ended not at railhead but in the vast, empty rangelands of Wyoming, Montana, the Dakotas – and even Canada. Texas cattle were largely the foundation on which this newer northern country build its great herds and far-flung ranches.
Then came a second and equally fantastic phase of the epic. Grass was free and breeding stock cheap. Venturous money from the East and from abroad poured into the northern range, for investment. Cattle barons were born overnight; fortunes were made and lost in the twinkling of an eye. But the end came almost as quickly. Barbed wire and the nesters moved in, and abruptly, the days of the open range were over. The historic blizzards of 1886-1887, which killed as much as 90 percent of the stock on some of the great ranches, rang down the curtain. Nature was the most formidable enemy of the American pioneer –always.
History of the Great Plains was a surging tide. When the Civil War ended, the prairies were still a wilderness of grass, possessed by Indians and buffalo. Horizons were immense and vacant, yet so swift was the pace of events that scarcely more than a quarter century was required for the transformation. Hard young daredevils, who in their teens and early twenties had prodded beef up the Chisholm Trail, found themselves at middle life looking upon a settled land – a land of towns and railroads and wired ranches with a thousand cattle upon a thousand hills!
Men still live who rode those dangerous trails from Texas and frolicked at journey’s end in the bawdy cow towns of the Kansas frontier. They are few and old, but they have their memories. One of these is Addison A. Spaugh, of Manville, Wyoming, who traversed the trail from Texas four times before he was twenty-one and became, in his mature years, an overlord of cattle with his own sprawling range. Today he pushes hard upon his eighty-third milestone.
The story which begins in this issue, and continues through three subsequent installments, is the unadorned take of Ad Spaugh’s adventures. It is personal biography, but it is also, in a sense, the biography of an era.
Old Porcupine stepped down from his pony and shook out the kinks in his long, lean legs. The boy, Ad Spaugh, took the halter shank of the pack pony and led the tired animal toward the tent.
“Got some news for you, Ad,” the man said to the boy. “But it’ll keep till we get the packs off General Custer.”
Porcupine limped over to the campfire and kicked it into a bright blaze. Then he sat down on the edge of the buffalo robe that Ad had dragged out from the tent earlier in the evening. The old plainsman methodically scratched his sandy beard, then whittled off tobacco enough to fill his short black pipe.
He believed in taking things easy. He’d seen far too many men come out here to the West and burn themselves up with ambition and recklessness. Not Old Porcupine. For ten years he’d managed to live through Comanche wars, dance-hall fights, drinking bouts, Indian love affairs, droughts and prairie fires. Slowly he had ascended and then descended the ladder from bullwhacker, miner, buffalo hunter, Government packer and army scout, to this lonely job of range-herding 600 head of Texas longhorns, here in the valley of Cottonwood, in Central Kansas, in this fall of 1871. Ad was his assistant and general man Friday.
The boy was busy with the sad-faced bay pack pony that Porcupine had named after his old friend, General Custer.
Porcupine sure could throw a diamond hitch to suit any head packer who ever lived, Ad mused. Then he wondered what the news was that his partner was bringing him. Must be something about things at home. Nothing but bad news ever came from there.
He had to strain himself to lift down one side of the pack and hold the ropes so the other side wouldn’t crash to the ground. He didn’t want to bother Porcupine. He was used to doing hard things by himself. He was capable, even if he was a pretty small boy to be playing a man’s role in this hard and exciting Western world. He’d just turned fourteen in April, and while he was strong and wiry, he was small for his years. His tousled brown hair almost matched his wind-burned face, with its wide-set gray eyes and rather tight-lipped mouth.
Ad couldn’t remember when his poverty-stricken family hadn’t been moving from one miserable frontier home to another, dogged by ill fate and hard luck. Right now, they were living in an ungainly, one-roomed sod house squatting in the center of an eight-acre homestead. Most of the pitiful dribble of cash came from Ad and his younger brother Ollie, and the older sister, Clara, who worked in a village boardinghouse fifteen miles away. Since he’d turned eleven Ad had been out on his own, range-herding Texas steers and working around rough, sod-house ranches.
“You say there’s some news for me, Porcupine?” he finally asked.
He’d unpacked General Custer and hobbled him, and carried the bags of grub into the tent. Then he’d unsaddled Porcupine’s riding horse and turned him loose.
The old fellow tamped down the dead ashes in his pipe with a calloused finger. “Yes, son,” he nodded slowly. “Ollie’s run off.”
“Run off?” Ad repeated incredulously, “Where to?”
“Texas. He’s going south down the Chisholm Trail with one of those cattle outfits returnin’ home.”
The boys’ eyes shone with excitement. “You mean Ollie’s going to get to be a Texas cowboy?”
“Reckon that’s it.”
“Gosh!” the boy sighed, “That’s what I’d like to be too. And Ollie’s only twelve.”
“You ain’t heard all of it yet, son. When I say your sister Clara she said for you to go after Ollie and get him to come back. She said your paw couldn’t leave right now on account your maw’s going to have a baby.”
Porcupine puffed silently for a moment, then added a bit on news that brought Ad’s head up with a jerk. “And if you can’t get him to come back, Clara says you’re to go on down the trail with him.”
“You mean clean to Texas?” the boys asked excitedly.
“That’s what she told me.”
Ad stared into the fire. Dreams raced across his mind. After a long pause he solemnly said: “Say, Porcupine, tell me about the Chisholm Trail again.”
“Ain’t much to tell, son,” the old plainsman began slowly. “Lots of times me and you have seen the dust on west of us, risin’ up from the herds coming north to Abilene. Why, we ain’t more’n twenty-thirty miles east of the trail right this minute. Of course most of the herds are only going as far north as Newton these days since they got that new Atchinson Railroad build that far. It’s nearer than Abilene; and next year them Texas outfits’ll ship from that new cow town of Wichita that they’re figurin’ on openin’ up twenty-five miles on south of Newton, when the railroad stud gits that far down. Abilene, up on the Kansas Pacific Railroad is about done as a cow town. But she sure boomed from’67 on to now.”
Ad was silently making pictures of the Chisholm Trail that led north from the great cattle reservoirs in South Texas to these railheads in Middle Kansas. “What’s they ever name it Chisholm Trail for, Porcupine?” he questioned softly.
“On account of that old half-breed trader, Jesse Chisholm. See, after the war folks down in Texas was cattle poor. While the men and boys were away fightin’ us Yanks, the longhorns down there kept breedin’ and breedin’ till the whole country was full of cattle.
“When the war was over and the men came home, they started lookin’ around for somewhere to ship their cattle. They tried Missouri, but down around the Missouri-Arkansas line they ran into a lot of ruffians and that didn’t work too good. Then, in ’67 the Kansas Pacific Railroad built on west as far as Abilene, and Joe McCoy sent a man down to Texas to drum up business. Pretty soon the herds began arriving.”
That’s four years ago, ain’t it?” Ad interrupted.
“Yep, that’s right….You see, comin’ north through the Indian nations the Texas drovers struck a trail right after they crossed the North Canadian River. It was an old wagon and pack road that’s been laid out by this Jesse Chisholm, and it was good going straight north till they hit the Arkansas River in Southern Kansas. Then they broke new trail the hundred miles or so on to Abilene. After while they got to calling the whole trail, from south of San Antonio all the way to Abilene, the Chisholm Trail. But don’t forget this trail is kind of like a big piece of rope that’s frayed at both ends; there are lots of little tails down in lower Texas feeding this main one. And then she branches off to different points once she gets to Kansas.”
It was a long speech for Porcupine—maybe the longest he’d ever made in his whole life. Neither the boy nor the man spoke for a time. Then two coyote pups started talking to each other way off in the distance.
“Sounds like babies crying, don’t it?” the boy said. “Exactly…. Say, son, is your own maw dead?”
Ad nodded, “You see, soon’s the war was over and paw went broke back in Southern Indiana, we came out here to Kansas, Paw didn’t have no money, so when we found an empty house on the Kaw bottoms near Topeka we just moved in it. But,” he added darkly, “I guess there was a good reason nobody lived there.”
“Ague?” Porcupine asked cryptically
The boy looked away. “Yes,” he said shakily, “my maw and two baby sisters died.”
Porcupine threw a cottonwood log on the fire and gruffly steered the conversation to safer channels. He liked this motherless boy who couldn’t read or write, and who was always so willing and eager.
The sun was just peeping over the ridge of the Cottonwood bottom next morning when Ad tied the thin roll of extra clothes behind the cantle of his saddle. The pinto he was riding belonged to him: it had been his sole share of last year’s work. He’d turned over everything else to his father.
“Just keep headin’ south and bear a little to the west,” Porcupine advised. “Don’t be scared to pull in at any cow camp you come to; none of ‘em’ll mind a boy stepping down. Better cross the Arkansas at that new town of Wichita…And just a minute, son.”
The bearded plainsman limped into the tent. When he came out he was carrying his old blue army overcoat.
“Better take this along with you, partner.” He handed up the coat to the boy. “It’ll be getting cold pretty soon, and this’ll help keep you warm and dry……Gen. Phil Sheridan give me this overcoat himself, over on the Washita that winter we were fightin’ Cheyennes.”
The boy didn’t trust himself to speak, but his eyes spoke his gratitude. This was a rich gift, for warm coats were scarce on the frontier. Adventure and romance played their part in the settlement of the West, but always there was the somber overtone of poverty. The westward tides were, for the most part, a march of the poor.
With a final wave at Porcupine, Ad swung his pinto to the south and headed the hundred miles or so for The Nations. His thoughts turned to the days ahead.
Maybe Ollie wouldn’t want to come back home, he mused. It wouldn’t hardly be fair to make him come if he didn’t—even if Ollie was two years younger and not nearly so strong.
It was early afternoon, two days later, when Ad saw what he took to be a small herd of cattle grazing a mile or two to the southward. It wasn’t long, however, until he made out that they were horses and mules instead of steers. Off to one side he could see a man on a pony obviously on day herd.
He bore to the left of the well-marked cow trail toward the horses. When he got within three or four hundred yards he was sure of the short, chunky figure on horseback. Digging his heels into his pony’s flanks he galloped toward the ride. He wanted to ki-yi, but knew that it might frighten the herd and scatter them over the country.
It was his younger brother, sure enough, curly blond hair, laughing eyes and all. “Hello, Ollie, what you doin’?” he asked as casually as if he’d seen him that morning at breakfast.
“Day-herdin’ this bunch of cayuses and shavetails,” the boy answered. “What you doin’ down here?”
“Thought maybe you might want to come back home with me,” Ad answered.
“And not go to Texas?”
Ad nodded his head.
“What you take me for? I’m a full hand already. I’m going to help drive a herd of longhorns up the Chisholm Trail next spring.”
“So you ain’t going back home?”
“Not for nothin’,” Ollie answered flatly.
“Well, I asked you to, didn’t I?”
“I heard you—and I ain’t going to. I’m going to Texas.”
“Well, I got to go, too, then.”
“Paw say you could? Did you ask, Ad?”
Ad nodded and swallowed hard. “Paw and Clara both said I was to go along if you wouldn’t—if you didn’t want to come back home. Reckon your boss’ll take me along?”
“Raymond Cloud? Sure. He’ll be glad to have you. You can help me with the horses and mules. He’s the nicest fella you ever saw. He ain’t at all like you think Johnny Rebs were. He gave me this hat and this pair of boots.”
Suddenly Ollie’s face clouded. “But maybe we better ask Mr. Booth too. He and Raymond are partners. He’s kind of different than Raymond. They’re all back there in camp now. Got a half-dozen wagons and twenty-four Missouri mules—and the regular remuda. We’re takin’ the whole bunch back to Texas.
“But the men found out that when they crossed into The Nations they’d get into a peck of trouble if the Government found any liquor in the wagons, so we stopped on the creek down there and they’re drinkin’ it all up. There was goin’ to be a big fight an’ some shootin’ last night, but Raymond took the guns away from Mr. Booth and George Ray and kept ‘em from killing each other. Guess they’ll have everything about drunk up by tonight and then we’ll start south.”
Ollie paused thoughtfully.”Tell you what; I’ll go on in now and see how the land lays.” Boy and pony disappeared over a little rise.
It was a good thirty minutes before Ad saw the heads of two horses emerge over the brow of the slope. One of the riders was Ollie and the other was a man in his latter twenties, who rode deep in his saddle with his long slender body forming almost a straight line from his feet to his head. His hat was a flat-crowned, broad brimmed gray sombrero, with a braided chin strap that ended in a leather rosette. His shirt was mauve-colored and made of some soft rich material. In place of buttons there were Mexican coins run together with a silver chain. His belt was broad and heavily studded, and his high boots bore silver-embossed spurs with large rowels. His bone-handled Colt was encased in an elaborate holster. His saddle and bridle were in keeping with the rest of his outfit.
As he led the way toward Ad, he seemed to the excited boy to be a more wonderful figure than he had ever dared dream existed. Only his palomino horse seemed to move; the rider sat erect and motionless, a part of his living animal. The bright sun turned the light lemon color of the pony into a shimmering bright gold, and the creamy mane and tail were like plumes on the headgear of an armored knight.
The horseman flashed a broad grim and waved his hand in friendly welcome. “Well, son, howdy. So you’re Ollie’s older brother?” Ad gulped an affirmative. Ollie helped him out. “And he’s worked around stock longer’n I have, Raymond.”
The boss smiled and nodded. “So you want to go to Texas with us?”
“Yes, sir,” Ad managed to say.
“Sure it’s all right with your folks?”
“Well, they told me if Ollie didn’t want to go back home I—I was to go along. “
The man threw back his head and his white teeth flashed when he laughed. Then he sobered. “What do you think would happen if they got the law on me? I might have to go to prison for twenty years for kidnappin’ you boys. How’d you feel then?”
“Paw wouldn’t do that,” Ollie cut in. “And we’re just going along. You ain’t takin’ us. We’re follerin’. You tried, but you just couldn’t drive us away.”
The man played with his blond mustache, and his eyes twinkled. “Reckon that’s right,” he agreed solemnly, He gathered up the long braided reins that ended in a quirt, and turned his palomino back toward the camp. Then he pulled him up for a moment.
“Got any idea what you all are getting’ into?” he questioned in a kindly voice.
The two boys looked at each other, but before either could reply the trail boss went on: “This heah drivin’ Texas longhorns up the trail is just about the hardest kind of work in the world. It’s dangerous too. Lots of times boys like you never get home. They get drowned, or a horse falls with ‘em; or maybe they get killed in some kind of argument, maybe with hoss thieves. And every once in a while the Indians do ‘em in. And there’s boys that get tromped to death in stampedes. And there’s days and night when it’s cold and stormy, and no sleep and nothing to eat…..Think you still want to go, boys?”
The pair, whose combined ages made up only twenty-six, nodded owlishly. “All right,” Raymond concluded. He turned to Ad.
“You help Ollie with these horses and mules, and when he comes in you come along.” Then he added: “And don’t mind what anybody says. I’m head wrangler of you two buttons.”
In a minute he was out of sight. And if Ollie hadn’t made a lucky grab for the old jug handle on his saddle, Ad’s back-slap of joy might have knocked him off his pony.
Ad was going along! He was going to Texas!
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