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 was late August, 1880, when Ad and Mr. Manville crossed their team and light spring wagon on the Platte River bridge at Fort Laramie, Wyoming Territory. It was only three or four miles above the spot where, five years before, Ad helped swim the herd of Texas longhorns bound for the Red Cloud Agency, near Fort Robinson in Northwestern Nebraska.
Many historic events had occurred in that intervening half decade. The last of the Indian barriers had been broken down, and the conquering white hordes had swept over the dams that had held them back. A hundred million acres of rich and beautiful grassland that had been pledged for eternity to the Indian and his buffalo and wild game had been taken from him. Civilization—exemplified by the hell-roaring mining camps of the Black Hills, and the cow towns and ranch cabins of the Wyoming-Montana- Dakota country—had struck the once virgin country with a vengeance.
Buffalo and Indian trails were now stage lines, and soon a wide trace, marked by the hoofs of thousands of Montana-Dakota and Alberta bound longhorns, would stretch from the Eastern Colorado border far to the north as grass grew. Already cattle and cowboys, and their Texas ponies, were pouring over the barrier made by the North Platte.
Custer’s men lay rotting in shallow, unmarked graves on the crest of the high slopes above the valley of the Little Big Horn. Their deaths, that bright afternoon of June 25, 1876, had long ago been avenged and paid for in full; for every trooper killed by Sitting Bull’s naked and desperate warriors a half million acres of grass had been taken. The peace of the white conquerors had settled over the coveted land. Its red defenders, who had been unfortunate enough not to be killed fighting for their lost cause, were cooped up on barren reservations, stripped of their ponies and shorn of their dignity. With pride crushed and hearts broken, they were being urged to worship the white man’s gods, and to realize that longhorns were vastly better for their souls, if not their stomachs, than the tender humps of their beloved buffalo.
Here above the Platte, in these rolling hills and valleys, lay the last great free empire of grass. No surveyor’ chain had yet measured its vast borders. It was as free and open as the air and bright sky. It was mans’ for the taking. For almost six hundred miles it stretched to the northward, and for four or five hundred miles it ran eastward from the mountains. Now was to come one of the most colorful and fantastic periods of the whole incredible American epic.
That first night out from Fort Laramie the two men made camp in a pretty little valley on the Niobrara, or Running Water. Ad took care of the team, built a fire and prepared the bacon and coffee.
Presently the older man spoke: “So you figure we just want to mosey around up here until we strike what we want?”
“That’s right, Mr. Manville. All we need to do is claim a range when we find what we want. Once we build a cabin and set of corrals on a creek, we can control ten miles of that stream and its watershed.”
Manville studied a little before he asked another question. “But, Ad, how can we legally hold our range, once we do pick it out?”
“It’s just the custom that makes it legal. We simply exercise squatter’s rights once we establish the buildings and the range. And it’s the unwritten law of the cow country that other outfits have to respect that right.”
“Of course we could buy out some squatter if we found just the country we wanted,” Manville mused.
“That’s one way to do it,” Ad agreed. “It’s the grass that counts. We’ll know it when we strike what we want.”
For the next few days they jogged over hundreds of square miles of country. Then one night at the sutlers store at Fort Robinson Ad was astonished and delighted to run into his old trail partner, George Ray. George obviously had been drinking a little too much, but at first he was amiable to a point of sentimentality.
“What you doing, Ad?” the Texan inquired.
“Just been made foreman of Mr. Manville’s new outfit,” Ad answered as casually as his pride would allow.
“Well, I’m your new wagon boss, ain’t I?” George leered. “Guess you owe me that much. ‘Member that time I got you the job with Bill Bland?”
Ad told him he’d do his best.
The next day Ad and Manville drove almost due west, along the north side of Pine Ridge on the old military trail between Fort Robinson and Fort Fetterman. They stopped at War Bonnet Creek for noon dinner, and early in the afternoon crossed Indian Creek. It was getting dark when they pulled in at the famous old Hat Creek stage station, on the Cheyenne-Black Hills stage line. They decided to put up there for the night.
The long single-story log house, and the low dirt-roofed stables, more than once had echoed the war whoops of Sioux raiders, and the heavy roar of double-barreled shotguns held in the steady hands of stage messengers. Four years before this summer day of 1880, when Deadwood and Black Hills mining camps were just reaching their full glory, robbers dressed as Indians had tried to hold up the stage here. The count was three robbers and two travelers killed. It was the best single day of murder that Hat Creek could boast.
The station was run by an elderly man and his immense wife, and after supper the proprietor held forth on the peculiar advantages of this Hat Creek country. “Was you gentlemen looking for a ranch location?” he finally plucked nerve to ask.
Mr. Manville nodded his head. “Yes, we’re looking for a place where we can run five or six thousand head.”
The station manager thoughtfully scratched his gray beard. “A feller named O.C. Wade got a place about eight miles on west on Old Woman’s Creek. Call it the O W."
“How big an outfit is it?”
“Reckon he’s got about 1200 head of steers, and maybe thirty or forty horses. He’s a freight contractor on the Cheyenne-Black Hills line. He uses his ranch part for keeping his bull outfits in the winter. Got the best winter grass anywhere around here.”
“We might look it over in the morning,” Manville agreed.
After the older man had turned in, Ad took a stroll in the warm moonlight. He had a good deal to think about. Things were surely moving nice and sweet for him. He had a first-class ramrod job, and he could see the time coming when he’d have is own little outfit. And most thrilling of all, some day he’d marry the lovely Estelle. He couldn’t get over this last: how a poor waddie had got the inside track with a rich and beautiful girl, who was as far removed from his humble origin as New York was distant from these rolling plains of Wyoming.
Back in the station the old man addressed him with a question. “What did you say your name was, young feller?”
“Reckon I got a letter for you.”
The letter carried a New York post mark and Ad knew that it was from Estelle.
He stepped over near a candle and opened the envelope. He spelled out the double page, and then reread the words:
“It is terribly difficult to have to write you this, my dear cowboy, but you must know the truth. I am engaged to another. You and I can never be anything but good and true friends, but I want you always to be that to me.”
Once more Ad’s house of dreams had collapsed about him.
The O W range proved to be exactly what the Milwaukee man and his young foreman had in mind, and before noon the next day the deal was completed. Manville agreed on $30 a round for the 1200 head of stock, and wrote out a sight draft on his home bank in Milwaukee for $36,000.
Things then began to move fast and furious for the young foreman. In less than two weeks he pulled in on the upper Laramie River a few miles north of old Laramie City. He’d managed to rig up a wagon and outfit, pick up a cook and a half dozen cowboys, and was not waiting for the 2000 head of Oregon steers that Manville & Peck had contracted for from Swan & Frank.
The next morning the herd showed up, and that afternoon Ad and the foreman of the outfit that had trailed the big steers from Oregon counted and tallied out the herd. The O W was already a going concern. It could count a total of 3200 head and a fair-sized calf crop. And it was only started.
That autumn Ad took out his own wagon and outfit, branded the late calves and pushed the O W cattle back on their home range. With the fall work done he told the men that those who wanted to stay and help erect a full set of ranch buildings and corrals could do so. The Pine Ridge district was famous for its spruce and pine, and Ad sent men with a team and the running gear of the roundup wagon to bring in logs. Two others in the outfit were expert with the broadax, and he set them to hewing the logs and constructing the actual buildings.
The first letter Ad wrote in his new office room was a report to his two owners. He spent a longer time spelling out the second letter. It was to the young woman with the lovely hazel eyes and the rich brown hair, with whom he had fallen so desperately in love. Even if she was pledged to another, he couldn’t quite give up trying.
By count this was the third letter that he had laboriously written to Estelle Bailey. Her first reply had been a bit formal and discouraging, but her answer to his second letter had sent his heart beating in hope and happiness. She had said that strangely enough everything in the East seemed small and constrained after the spacious and rugged hospitality which she had found in the West. Then had come the line:“And that includes the men too.”
In February Ad was called to Cheyenne and told that the O W had been pooled with the W.C. Irvine outfit and the resources of A.R. Converse, president of the First National Bank of Cheyenne, to form a $500,000 cow outfit. Ad asked that $5000 in stock be earmarked for him; he could pay $1000 down and the rest out of wages.
Ad was retained to help locate the new properties, but nothing was said about the important position of range manager of the new spread. Ad sensed that the fact that he was not yet twenty-five was a black mark against him, so he grew a heavy mustache and goatee, and dug in. That winter and spring he found and helped appraise various neighboring outfits that totaled close to 25,000 head, with the stock scattered from the Nebraska line fully two hundred miles westward up the Platte to the famous Independence Rock, near where the Sweetwater empties into the big river.
Not one square rod in any of these ranch properties had ever been surveyed and every foot was Government land, held only by the right and might of squatter sovereignty; coupled with the rifles and Colts of the fifty or sixty cowboys who served their owners with the loyalty and fervor of old cavalry troopers.
With each of the outfits had come odds and ends of wagons, harness and equipment, and possibly 400 horses and cow ponies. Quietly Ad went about the business of weeding out the good from the bad and, with the harness and horses on hand, fitted out three complete roundup wagons. Most new companies, operating on the grand scale of this period of range glamour, bought new wagons, harness and four-mule teams of grain-fed Missouri mules, representing a cash outlay of close to a thousand dollars for each wagon outfit.
Casually Ad explained to his director how he had the three wagons in shape to tackle the immense job of rounding up the 25,00 Converse cattle scattered over 20,00 square miles of country. It turned the trick. That afternoon they hired him to be range foreman of the whole great outfit at a salary of $150 a month and expenses.
When Ad walked back to the Dyer House in Cheyenne, he remembered that it was his birthday, He hadn’t done too badly for a simple cowboy who could barely read and write, and had gone to school but three months in all his life.
That night he scribbled out a single paragraph to Estelle and mailed it with his own hands on the east-bound Union Pacific passenger train.
“Dear Cowgirl: They gave me a real birthday present today. It came wrapped up in tissue paper on a silver platter. I am to be range manager of the Converse Cattle Company, at $150 a month and expenses. So you see I already got one of the two things I want. I’m still hoping I will get the other some day. Your affectionate cowboy, Ad.”
Word quickly spread over the cow country of Ad’s good luck, and soon he had scores of applications for every job from “cussy” to wagon boss. George Ray was one of the first to show up. He was nursing a hangover, but despite his surliness Ad stuck to his promise of the previous years and hired him to ramrod one of the wagons. George would comb the country from Sidney Bridge, Nebraska, back up the Platte to the head of Rawhide Creek and then on up the Rawhide Buttes to the O W home range.
Dogie Robinson was but in charge of the second wagon, and Hank Green was made boss of the third outfit, working the country west to Independence Rock.
With the three outfits operating on a carefully thought out schedule, Ad spread a dragnet over this vast country. Calf branding, of course, would not begin until late June, but his second immediate task was to claim and brand as many mavericks for his company as he possible could.
Custom held that each ten-mile square of country belonged to the outfit that had built a corral in its center. With this in mind, Ad, early in the spring, had sent men over to Lightning Creek and built three corrals, 100 feet square.
The great roundup moved nicely through late May and June. Ad kept back for himself a string of fifteen horses, and night and day he was in the he would use as many as five horses in a single day, and his daily average for the whole roundup period was somewhere between seventy and eighty miles.
It was hard, grueling work, but he was happy doing it. Only one disturbing thought kept injecting itself into his consciousness at these moments: It had to do with his old trail companion, George Ray. It was some elusive mistrust that he couldn’t quite put into words.
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