A tintype of Ad Spaugh--his first photograph--taken in Dodge City, Kansas, July 4, 1876
Last updated: March 3, 2020
Niobrara County Historical Society / Stagecoach Museum
March 1, 1940
As told by Frazier Hunt, originally published in The Country Gentleman, December 1939, January, February, and March 1940
It took Ad four days to reach Wyoming Territory. Two or three times he’d stopped and chatted with lone cowboys riding the outer edge of the circle of a roundup.
They told him to keep right on up the creek and he’d strike a big outfit at a cattle-shipping point on the Union Pacific called Pine Bluffs. The foreman of this roundup was John Snodgrass and maybe Ad could locate a job with one of the outfits there.
And so it worked out. Toward evening of the fourth day he made out a considerable herd of cattle being held near several covered wagons. Off a ways to the right he could see a little town. He was sure that this was Pine Bluffs and the big roundup outfit. He rode straight into camp and within a half hour Ed Ordway, foreman of the JHD, had hired him at forty dollars a month to take the place of a man who was quitting.
It was Ad’s first experience in a real open-range roundup, but by noon the next day he understood how it worked and the general lay of the land.
Stretching in a great triangle, made by the forks of the Platte River, and running from Ogallala, Nebraska, west to the Rockies, was a cattle heaven of free grass and open range. Since the coming of the Union Pacific in ’68 it had slowly been filling up with Texas longhorns. The rich grass country above the North Fork in Wyoming Territory had been forbidden Indian and buffalo country, but now the Sioux war was rapidly being brought to a close, and the Indians herded onto their Nebraska and Dakota reservations. By this year of 1877 adventurous cattlemen were preparing to invade the north country and plant their ranches on its free open ranges.
Up to this time the two forks of the Platte had served as natural barriers and borders for the old range that comprised this triangle; its base running roughly north some 250 miles from Greeley, Colorado, to what is now the city of Casper, Wyoming, on the North Fork of the Platte. The apex of this triangle rested some 200 miles to the east where the forks of the river joined together in Nebraska.
In the spring and fall the recently formed Laramie County Stock Association—in ’79 to become the powerful Wyoming Stock Growers Association—roughly divided the range into two great roundup districts, and the various ranches would send their “reps” to each of these roundups to help gather their cattle and bring them back to their home range. In the entire country there was not a single rod of fence, and when winter storms hit the herds they would drift with the high winds until some natural barrier, such as a river or mountain range, stopped them.
Each morning as soon as breakfast was over and the men had saddled their fresh mounts, they gathered on horseback and the foreman laid out their work. John Snodgrass, foreman of this Lower Roundup, was a Texan, and in a pleasant drawl he’d name the various men who were to make the several circles. One group would work up this particular draw, the men riding out in single file, combing the rolling country and pushing all cattle to a central and prearranged gathering spot. At noon several cattle catches would be brought together. If it was still early enough in the day, the men would get fresh mounts and make a second circle.
Every day or two the herd would be worked over and the cattle belonging to this particular range thrown back. The various brands would be cut out, and when there were enough critters to make it worth while, a pair of “reps” hailing from neighboring ranches, would start across country with their throwback. The process continued until the prescribed district had been thoroughly combed and the various outfits had obtained their cattle and started home with them.
Ad had never dreamed of such a string of horses as Ordway cut out for him that first morning he’d joined up with the outfit. One pony was a stout, short-coupled black named Sitting Bull, and in all his life Ad was never to ride a better rope horse. The young cowboy would dab his rope on a big twelve-hundred-pound steer, and when the critter busted himself Sitting Bull would sit back on the rope until his rump was actually touching the ground. Sitting Bull knew exactly how to keep the rope taut and the steer down.
“Doc Middleton stole old Sitting Bull once and he’d been sold down in Kansas when the boss located him,” one of the cowboys explained to Ad. “Doc swears he’ll get him again, if he has to shoot the feller that’s ridin’ him.”
“Who’s Doc Middleton?” Ad asked.
The cowboy looked at him in complete disgust. “He’s the biggest and shootin’est horse thief that ever lived. Better not let him work on you.”
The roundup slowly worked its way back toward the mountains north of Cheyenne, then down Horse Creek to the Goshen Hole country. They were now combing the country on Charley Coffey’s home ranch, on Lone Tree Creek on the west side of Goshen Hole. The custom was that any maverick, or unbranded yearling, belonged to the outfit on whose home range the animal was found. This particular day a big long-yearling was located in the roundup and immediately there arose a dispute as to whether the animal had been picked up on Coffey’s range, and had come in with one of the drives from the JJ range on Lower Horse Creek, was from the SG range on Fox Creek, or possibly even from the Half Circle Block or the CD range.
Coffey was a whole-souled Texan, and while he might have put up an argument that the maverick rightly belonged to him, he made a sporting proposition to John Snodgrass, the roundup foreman. A roper from each range that might put in a claim for the yearling would line up, the maverick would be given a hundred yards start, and then the first man who roped the critter could claim it.
Ad’s JHD outfit had their range miles away and were not concerned in the play, but Coffey, figuring that since Ad had just come up from the Texas brush he could be right handy with a rope, chose the boy to represent his outfit in the contest. The five cowboys, with their ropes down and their loops made, lined up, and the big maverick was cut out of the herd and sent high-tailing across the prairie. With a good hundred-yard start, Snodgrass shouted the word “GO!”
Ad was riding Sitting Bull. While he was building his loop and waiting for the start, he figured out that the first man to reach the maverick would probably miss his throw and the yearling would dodge back from the rest of the ropers. If he hung back, he would have a good chance at a fair throw after the others had overrun the maverick or missed their throws. His guess was correct. The first man failed to catch, and the next three riding hard just behind him lost their chance when the yearling dodged and then straightened out at right angles. Ad, coming up the rear, made a clean neckcatch.
Ed Ordway, Ad’s boss, was as proud as if the boy had been roping for him. Ad was set now. He belonged to the JHD’s.
In October, when the roundup of the Horse Creek country was over and the beef had been shipped from Pine Bluffs, the JHD wagon and outfit returned to the home ranch, thirty miles on north of the busy little Cowtown capital of Wyoming Territory. Most of the hands were paid off and discharged.
“You can stay on,” Ordway quietly said to Ad that first night home. “I’m going to send you and Boots to the horse ranch six miles on down the creek. You’ll have about a hundred head of horses to look after, and I’ll hold you two boys responsible for any head you’re shy in the spring.”
Neither Ad nor Boots needed any elaborate instructions. Boots was a chunky, good-natured boy, who’d been born in a sod-house homestead in Eastern Nebraska. He let Ad do most of the riding, while he took care of the cooking. It was the kind of work that fitted Ad like a new pair of gloves.
Twice that winter the boys denned up while storms blew themselves out. Then for three days they’d ride hard to round up and bring back the drifting pony herd. But these blizzards were merely dress rehearsals for the historic one that came sweeping down from the north on March 7, 1878. For three days and nights blinding snow, driven by forty- and fifty-mile wind, tore across the country, piling up drifts and freezing to death every living thing that stood in its path.
That morning Ad had started out to ride the south line, that ran alongside Lodge Pole Creek. He was five miles away from the cabin when the storm hit. He turned back at once but before he had gone ten minutes the blinding snow made it impossible for him to see a yard in any direction. He knew that the only thing to do was to give Crazy Horse his head. It was black as the darkest night and the snow hit like tiny shot.
With head close to the ground the brave little pony felt his way toward home. Ad, half unconscious from the cold, knew that when Crazy Horse stopped, he had reached the log barn. He slipped out of the saddle and managed to make his way around the pony’s head and located the barn door. The pony followed him inside, and somehow or other Ad got off the saddle and bridle. His fingers were stiff and he thought he’d never be able to loosen the frozen latigo of his saddle.
Some inner voice warned him not to try to make the cabin, although it was not more than twenty-five feet away. But her had to get where there was a fire. And he knew Boots would be frantic with worry.
He turned back into the barn and in the darkness located his saddle. His stiff fingers undid the buckle that held his rope. He remembered a heavy tie-ring that was nailed outside to a log, just to the left of the barn door. Feeling cautiously for this, he slipped the end of the rope through the ring and tied it fast.
Fighting to think clearly, he put his back to the door. He knew that ahead, and a little to the right, stood the cabin. He could feel the powerful wind shove him back against the barn. He was sure he could not stand up and face it.
He slipped the noose of his lasso over his left arm and pulled it tight. Then he took fresh directions and dropped on his knees in the snow. The flakes bit into his face. He was chilled to the marrow.
Stubbornly he crawled on.
My god! He was at the end of his rope—and he had missed the cabin.
He pulled the rope taut and made out the direction of the barn. He figured that the blast of wind had swept him to the left of the building. Half frozen and struggling to keep his wits, he decided to crawl to his right in a semicircle, keeping the rope taut. Surely he would strike the cabin in time. He didn’t see how he could last much longer. The cold was getting the best of him.
Then his face hit something. His hands reached up and touched the rough cottonwood logs. If he could work his way around to the right he’d come to the corner, and then he might make the door. . .
Boots wasn’t certain whether he’d heard anything or not, but he hurried to the door. There, lying in a heap in the snow, was his pardner. He reached down and dragged him inside. He had to slip the frozen rope off Ad’s arm before he could close the door. Tears were streaming down Boots’ face when he pulled him over to the fire.
Ad was luckier than most of the men caught in that great March blizzard. A little to the north on the new Cheyenne and Black Hills stagecoach line, men and hobbled mule teams and bull trains were frozen to death. The range was far from overstocked; cattle had gone into the winter fat and there was plenty of standing hay for them. They drifted south before the storm until they found the shelter of cottonwood clumps or friendly cutbanks. And once the blizzard blew itself out, the stock was able to find hilltops and cleaned slopes where the wind swept away the snow and left exposed the cured buffalo grass.
For days after the storm, Ad rode around great drifts where the snow had piled up to incredible depths. That spring he ran into a sight that made him pull up sharp and rub his eyes. In the fork of a big cottonwood, fully thirty feet from the ground, hung the decaying body of a cow. The unfortunate animal, walking off from a bluff straight onto a deep drift had got herself tangled up in the fork of the tree and died there. When the snow melted, she was left in her perch, as high above the ground as if she were an Indian corpse buried with tribal honors.
Late in March word was sent the two boys to round up the horses and drive them to the main camp, six miles up the creek, in preparation for spring work. A few mornings later they circled northeast to bring in a herd of forty or fifty ponies that had been running together a few miles from the cabin. They located about half the bunch, but the others were not in sight. The boys combed the country methodically and finally found a fresh, well-marked trail leading straight to the east. Unquestionably it had been made by the missing JHD horses, and tracks showed that they were being driven—driven fast.
Doc Middleton! It all checked out. The notorious outlaw’s hideout was over east in the Nebraska sandhills, and he had boasted that some day he would steal back Sitting Bull, Ad’s roping horse. Sitting Bull was in the missing herd.
The two boys had followed the trail about twenty miles when Boots’ horse showed signs of giving out. Ad sent his pardner over to the Half Circle Block range, a dozen miles to the north, to catch a fresh mount, and he trotted on alone. About sundown he rode through a draw into a sweet little valley, and there were the JHD horses. Doc Middleton and his gang must be eating supper over in a nearby creek bottom. Ad could see no guard and figured this was his best chance.
Quickly he spurred his tired pony to the right of the herd, until he got in ahead of them. Then, whistling softly, he urged them back down the draw. Five minutes later he was out in the open and trotting them toward home. He nearly threw his neck out of joint peering backwards, but curiously enough no one followed. The outlaws, discovering their loss, probably figured they had a formidable posse to deal with and were more interested in their own escape than in recapturing the horses. By noon the next day Ad had the herd back in the home corral, and Boots rode in about dusk. As long as Boots lived, Ad was to remain a hero in his eyes.
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