The earliest days of the cattle industry and open range in this country has produced a unique individual whose characteristics were emphasized by his occupation and environment. Nowhere in the world has there been developed a more efficient and self-reliant individual than the American cowboy. You might know him as a drover, cowman, rancher, cowpoke, broncobuster, or buckaroo.
Whatever you call him, he was a practical, hard-working, courageous, and loyal individual. Always polite around women and children, he left a tradition and legacy that will endure in our minds forever. He was always ready to make every sacrifice of comfort and to risk even life itself for the protection of the herd.
The Omaha Daily Bee, in an editorial on May 9, 1909, wrote: “In the American cowboy the United States has given one of the most picturesque and original characters in the world’s history. The passing of the hardy, care-free men, who were ready at any and all times to face danger and undergo any hardship without complaining, cannot be noted without a regret.
It is only too apparent, however, that the cowboy’s days are numbered. Even now in the sections where he is still supreme his movements are becoming more circumscribed and the nature of his employment so changed that the cowboy of the present day is only a reminder of the one who went before. His occupation is a tame one compared with that of his predecessor.”
For the eastern part of Lyman County near the Missouri River, 1902 was the last year that an open range roundup was organized for that area. The Oacoma Gazette Leader in May of 1903 reported “That the round-up wagon for that area has decided not to go into a round-up this spring.”
The ranchers were satisfied that having their livestock so close to home did not justify a massive roundup. They also believed that the barb wire fences and the many new homesteaders made the round-up unnecessary as well as inconvenient. They rented their tent and wagon to a real estate dealer who planned then in accommodating new settlers who he was bringing into the county.
With each successive year the advancement of the homesteader onto the open range drove the cowboy still further toward the “jumping off place.” Evidence of this was found in the celebration held in 1909 in Lyman County.
One of the most unique affairs in the history of western South Dakota took place on the first Saturday in May of 1909 on the ranch of Charles S. Brackett, situated in the western part of Lyman County. At that time, Lyman County extended from the Missouri River to what is now the western border of Jones County.
The gathering was in the nature of a farewell to the cowboys and ranchmen whose former ranges in that part of the state had been occupied by homesteaders. Every cowboy out on the never-ending prairie was present to participate in the activities. They talked about the old days when the cowman and his herds were the only occupants of that vast region which they called “home.”
An elaborate program had been prepared for the occasion. Among the features were the branding of horses, cattle and mules, wild bronco riding, and roping contests between some of the expert ropers in the northwest. Numerous cowboys related to those assembled their experiences of life on the former great range. Dr. O. H. Murray, widely known throughout the region as the “cowboy preacher,” was among the speakers.
The Omaha Daily Bee concluded their editorial with this statement: “It was a gathering typical of the evolution of the west, and, while we rejoice at the development it signalizes, let us bid a sorrowful farewell to a pioneer who blazed the way for the future, forget the evil that was in him and remember only that as a class he was big-hearted, fearless and every inch a man.”
Among the American folk heroes, the cowboy is our favorite. The cowboy established his place in history during the period of the open-range when grass was king. In discussing the popularity of the cowboy, a Montana historian wrote that the most puzzling thing about America’s fascination with the cowboy is that there has been “such an enormous feast on so little food.” The fact is that the cowboy who gave rise to the legend was part of a system of ranching that lasted for about thirty years, from 1865 to 1895.
In all the books and movies which have attempted to tell the story of the open-range cowboy, almost all have failed to point out the empathy with cows and the understanding of cattle that were the mark of the best cowboys. Jane Kramer, in her book The Last Cowboy found a West Texan who expressed it perfectly. He said:
“I’ll tell you what a cowpuncher is . . . . It ain’t roping and it ain’t riding bronc and it ain’t being smart, neither. It’s thinking enough about a dumb animal to go out in the rain or snow to try to save that cow. Not for the guy who owns the cow but for the poor old cow and her calf. It’s getting down in that bog — in the quicksand . . . . You tie up one leg, then the other. You tramp her out . . . . You see, this old cow, she don’t know but what you’re trying to kill her. But you drag her out, even if she’s fighting you, and then you ride a mile yonder and find another danged old cow bogged down the same way.”
Many of the folks working out on the prairie today have witnessed and participated in the activity that the gentleman from West Texas was talking about. No matter the time or place, nothing has changed when it comes to doing what must be done!
Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory-Times Advocate on November 24, 2021