The Day the Cowboys Quit is the title of a western novel by the late Elmer Kelton. The story, which I read many years ago and enjoyed very much, is set against the backdrop of the Great Canadian River Cowboy Strike of 1883. Despite its name, the Canadian River is a tributary of the Arkansas River. At 906 miles long, it originates in Colorado and continues through New Mexico, across the Texas Panhandle and most of Oklahoma. The cowboy strike mainly took place in the Texas Panhandle.
For twenty years after the Civil War, open-range cattle ranching thrived on the Great Plains. The ranches were mostly family owned and operated, and everyone was on a first name basis. Then, with the inroads of progress, things began to change. Railroads made cattle more profitable and there was a never-ending demand for beef in the big cities back east. Corporations and syndicates were formed with an eye on the profits to be made from cattle ranching. They began buying up the one-horse operations and combining them into massive holdings. But when the corporations moved in, the human touch went out the window, and therein began the problem.
The cowboy’s job was hard and the small owner recognized this, so the hands were often treated as family and given extra privileges. Usually, they were allotted a whole string of horses to work with. And the longer they stayed with a particular outfit, the better the horses they received. As an extra bonus of the job, it was common practice for a cowboy to claim a few mavericks for himself and slap his brand on them. If he worked long and hard enough, he could accumulate a herd and start his own outfit. In other words, the old ways gave the cowboy plenty of room for advancement, if he was ambitious enough.
When the syndicates moved in, everything changed. In most cases, the cowhands never met their new bosses, who remained some faceless entities in an office back east. The new owners decided it was better for their bottom line to claim all unbranded cattle for themselves. They also put restrictions on the use of ranch horses and each cowhand was limited to the use of two horses, and those had to be left in the corral when the day’s work was done. To makes matters worse, the corporate owners decided that their men couldn’t carry firearms or weapons of any kind, play cards or gamble on anything, nor were they allowed to drink alcohol during the terms of their employment. Wow. Wonder what they expected the hired hands to do in their leisure time.
In the spring of 1883, the cowboys had had enough and decided to go on strike. Men from the biggest ranches along the Canadian called a meeting and put together the following proclamation:
We, the undersigned cowboys of Canadian River, do by these presents agree to bind ourselves into the following obligations, viz:
First: that we will not work for less than $50 per mo. And we furthermore agree no one shall work for less than $50 per mo. after 31st of Mch.
Second: Good cooks shall also receive $50 per month.
Third: Any one running an outfit shall not work for less than $75 per mo.
Any one violating the above obligations shall suffer the consequences. Those not having funds to pay board after March 31 will be provided for for 30 days at Tascosa.
The twenty-four who signed the proclamation were: Thos. Harris, Roy Griffin, J.W. Peacock, J.L. Howard, W.D. Gaton, B.G. Brown, W.B. Boring, D.W. Peepler, Jas. Jones, C.M. Hullett, A.F. Martin, Harry Ingerton, J.A. Marrs, Jim Miller, Henry Stoffard, Wm. T. Kerr, Bud Davis, T.D. Holliday, C.F. Goddard, E.E. Watkins, C.B. Thompson, G.F. Nickell, Juan A Gomes, J.L. Grissom.
Five copies of this declaration were made, signed, and delivered to the LIT, the LX, the LS, the LE, and the T Anchor, which were the large ranches along the river. And so the strike began. The original organizers, led by Tom Harris of the LS, established a small strike fund and attempted, with limited success, to persuade all the cowboys in the area of the five ranches to honor the strike. Reports on the number of cowhands involved at any given time ranged from thirty to three hundred and thirty-five. The number changed as men joined and deserted the walkout.
The out-of-work cowboys spent much of their time in the aforementioned Tascosa, northwest of Amarillo. At the time, it was a mecca for cowboys where any sin could be indulged. In the daytime, Tascosa was a thriving center for trade and supply. But at night, Frenchy McCormick and her husband Mickey ruled the gambling parlors and saloons. Consequently, the "fund" the cowboys had set aside to tide them over during the strike soon ran out of money. An interesting side note: during all of this, Pat Garrett was the sheriff of Tascosa.
Ranchers found an effective means of dealing with the strikers without using force. Officials at the T-Anchor and the LE fired striking employees on the spot. The LS and the LIT offered a slight increase in wages and fired workers if they refused the offer. Owners and managers continued with roundup plans by hiring replacement workers at temporarily increased wages. Many of the replacement workers were in fact strikers who asked to return to work. After two and a half months the strike was so weakened that the May roundup occurred without incident. The last press mention of the strike was in the Dodge City Times on May 10.
After the strike began, the Panhandle was plagued with an outbreak of rustling that many blamed on frustrated strikers. Other types of mischief, such as random burning of personal property, went on the rise, too.
For whatever the reasons, poor organization or lack of enthusiasm, the strike finally fizzled out of its own accord. Many of the strikers went back to their old outfits, but others drifted and found work at the less regulated outfits that still existed farther to the south. Some historians claim that the strike reflected the international labor movement. But most look on it as nothing more than an interesting incident that happened in our history. Whichever way you choose to look at it, The Great Canadian River Cowboy Strike of 1883 barely left a scratch on either the cowboys’ image or the cattle industry.
Happy reading and writing, everyone!