A tintype of Ad Spaugh--his first photograph--taken in Dodge City, Kansas, July 4, 1876
Addison A. Spaugh in 1883, when he was a range detective for the Wyoming Stock Growers Association
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
During the winter of ’83 and ’84 thousands of head of cattle drifted southward from the newly opened ranges of the Montana and Powder River country. Few outfits rode line on their herds, and consequently when storms blew down from the north and west the cattle would turn their rumps to the cold winds and move in great migrations toward the south and east.
Cattle outfits already had laid squatters’ claims and range rights to most of the grassland of Wyoming Territory. In place of merely an Upper and a Lower Roundup, covering the country south of the main Platte, the all-powerful executive committee of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association now divided the whole territory into thirty-one roundups.
Of all the thirty-one prescribed roundup districts easily the most important one, from the number of cattle involved, was No. 15. It covered a great stretch of country in Eastern Wyoming, and listed as the foreman A.A. Spaugh of the O W’s.
On the morning of May fifteenth Ad led his own three wagons to the head of Sage Creek. Twenty other outfits were to participate, and these, with their own wagons and crews and the various “reps” from outside ranches, made a total of more than 200 mounted men and 2000 head of horses. In the hard six-weeks campaign that followed, this famous Roundup No. 15 handled 400,000 head of cattle. Never before had there been one to equal it, and never again would its record be touched.
These years bordering ’84 were the golden days of the open range. From the Mexican border to the Canadian line, and on into Alberta and Saskatchewan, stretched an Empire of Grass that had no equal in the world. This short and romantic period between the passing of the Indian and the buffalo, and the coming of the railroad, the nester and the barbed wire, was forever to leave its mark on a restless people and a changing continent.
It lasted a bare ten years, but it was a decade of glory. It was a vivid part of the incredible and fantastic story of American opportunity. Men rode into the High Plains of the West with little more than their ponies and pack animals, and in the twinkling of an eye became cattle barons with a thousand cattle on a thousand hills. The lure of the quick and easy profit dazzled the entire world. Scotland and England alone sent twenty million in hard money. Grass was free, cattle prices were booming.
The Converse Cattle Company boomed along with the others. By 1884, Ad reported almost 40,000 head wearing the famous O W brand. One day in the Cheyenne Club he met a ranch broker who told him the Converse Cattle Company could sell its holdings to a foreign syndicated for a million in cold cash. That afternoon Ad argued long and earnestly with his directors, but they decided it was foolish to think of selling at this time.
Ad, however, had seen disturbing signs on the horizon. For one thing, there was something suspicious about the calf crop this season. The year before he had put an O W brand on the left flanks of 7000 head. When he now added up the number of calves the foreman of his three wagons turned in, it totaled considerably less than 5000 head.
Bands of sheep were drifting in from the west and south. Surveyors had come in and were laying out the country in townships and sections. Down on the Two Bar Ranch of the Swan Land & Cattle Company they were putting up fences of this newfangled barbed wire.
“Think I will take up a pre-emption claim,” he wrote Estelle that summer, “I got the spot already picked out.
It’s on the head of Running Water and it’s pretty country. You know Running Water is “Niobrara” in Indian…I hate to think of third open country ever being cut up, but its coming as sure as death and taxes….By the way, that horse Traveler that I been breaking gentle for you was asking about you the other day. . It old him I reckon you’d forgot all about us. What’ll I tell him if he asks me again?”
Three weeks later he received a letter with a New York postmark on it. He was almost afraid to open it. But he’d felt the same way about every letter he’d received from Estelle during the past three years.
He stepped into his own room and closed the door. He read over one part of it three or four times to make sure the good news was real: “Father says we’ll be taking a trip West next summer for certain. There’s some sort of mining property near a place called Madden Ranch that he and some friends are interested in. So, my dear cowboy, I shall see my beloved foothills and mountains again, and I shall ride Traveler. And we’ll see your dream ranch, and there will be a million things for us to talk about.”
Early that next spring there was vast activity around the once quiet Madden Ranch station on the Cheyenne-Black Hills stagecoach trail. Long bull teams snaked over the rolling country hauling hundreds of tons of building material and mining machinery the 150 miles north from the railroad at Cheyenne. Where cows had grazed peacefully a few weeks before there now rose a great stamp mill duly christened Silver Cliff.
Then one night by the flickering light from the campfire Ad spelled out a letter containing the happy news that Estelle and her father would be arriving by evening stage on the first of July.
The days dragged by, and then came a magic, moonlit evening when Ad saddled Standing Elk and, leading Traveler, headed for Silver Cliff. It was eight o’clock when he pulled up in front of the unpainted pine hotel-boarding house. A wide porch across the front was its single feature of distinction. His spurs, buckled on to his new high-heeled boots, made music as he strode up the boardwalk.
From deep in the shadow at the far end of the porch arose and walked swiftly toward him. The men had gone to the mill and Estelle was waiting alone for him.
“Oh, my dear cowboy,” she said, holding out her two hands.
A strange happiness gripped Ad’s throat.
He could only murmur her name, “Estelle.”
“You are real, aren’t you?” she said.
He nodded. Then he chuckled and his voice came back. “You’re real too. Gosh, I’m glad.”
“Is that Traveler?” she asked eagerly, nodding toward the horse at the rack.
“Sure is. And he’s yours—for keeps.”
She gripped his hand and led the way down the steps. “Oh, he is beautiful.” She petted his neck and then pressed her soft cheek against his head. “Addison, you are sweet to give him to me."
“I go with the horse,” he laughed. “Love my horse, love me.”
“That’s easy, my dear…..Oh, it has been so long.”
“We’ll make up for it,” he said softly. I’ve waited a long time too. But its worth it. I’d plumb forgot how pretty you are, Estelle.”
“It’s only the moonlight, my dear,” she whispered.
“You’ll always be pretty to me… are you going to marry me, honey?”
She slipped into his arms for an answer.
The following morning they rode the nine miles on west to his claim. On a little rise of ground they pulled up their horses and Ad nodded toward the sweet grassland that lay below.
“There she is,” he remarked with a happy grin.
“What a beautiful land!....I have the name—Bel Pre`. That means Beautiful Prairie…Will you call it that, Addison?”
“Sure. I’ll call it anything you want to…. Say that again. Bel what?”
“Bel Pre`. B-e-l, capital P-r-e.”
“Say, that would make a good brand; the B backed up to the P.” With the forefinger of his right hand he made the BP in his left palm.
“Now you’ve got a real ranch, haven’t you, my dear?”
“All I need is some stock and a house—and the world will be mine.”
“You’ll get them some day,” she said confidently.
Sure enough Ad did get his cattle that following week. This summer of ’85 Texas drovers, trailing their longhorns up from the breeding grounds of the south, were finding it more and more difficult to dispose profitably of their herds. Western Kansas was being rapidly overrun by nesters and homesteaders, and for two years now all cow trails east of Dodge had been closed to northbound herds. In another year the whole of Kansas would be forbidden country. The smoke from the engines of northbound cattle trains already was overshadowing the dust from the herds plodding up the old cow trails. But before it was over, ten million longhorns and a million Texas ponies were to leave the imprint of their hoofs.
The Texas Trail from Texas to Canada ran only a few miles on east of Ad’s newly christened ranch site, and by passing the word up and down the line he soon heard of a batch of likely yearling steers that were the unsold remnants of a trail herd.
He located the outfit and after carefully looking over the “pilgrims” bought the 500 head at $18 the round. The trail outfit helped him drive the yearlings neat his claim and turn them loose on Running Water.
Ad sent word to his directors that he had bought the batch of yearlings, and since it was against the custom to permit a foreman or range manager to won cattle, he proposed to resign as soon as the fall work was ended.
His plans were now well laid. Estelle had agreed to marry him early in 1886 when he would come to New York. Her father had a certain type of work in promoting his Silver Cliff mine that Ad could do in the East. When spring came they would return to Wyoming and he would build a ranch home. Between mining and ranching, his financial future was assured.
The little cowboy from a poverty-ridden frontier home was drawing cards in a big game.
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