Guest Blogger- Andrea Downing
We think of the American cowboy as the quintessential symbol of the American West, a rugged individual, independent and hard working. It’s difficult to believe, then, that in the 1880s most of them were working for large corporations. Down in Texas, the hands had once sat down with the owner’s family to supper and been permitted to run some of their own cattle on the land. But by 1883 the large cattle companies had moved in and not only forbidden such liberties, they also put a stop to carrying weapons, gambling and drinking while in their employ, and limited the use of ranch horses. To men whose lives were in danger every day on the range, this was an unbearable situation. Work hard, play hard might have been the motto of the cowpuncher. So what do employees do when their working conditions are intolerable? They strike of course!
In the spring of 1883, 24 men signed a proclamation that asserted they would not work for less than $50 a month, good cooks would also not work for less than $50 a month, and foremen would not work for less than $75 a month. The strike at its height had some 300 men out, and lasted 2 and a half months across five ranches. Sadly, it had little effect. There was no shortage of men needing work in the Texas Panhandle, and increased wages were offered to those who would return. Others, who did not accept the increased wage, were told they would never work in Texas again. Perhaps those men went north?
Up in Wyoming, ranching had expanded at a phenomenal rate. While in 1874 there had been only 2 divisions for round-up, by 1884 there were no less than 31 divisions. In one division alone, 200 cowboys with 2,000 horses worked 400,000 cattle over the 6 week period. With such an increase in cows on the open range, no wonder that by 1885 the cattle companies faced the problem of over-production and reduced returns. Since their employees—that is the cowboys—were the one cost over which the managers had full control, it was no surprise that the hands would come under fire. In a 6 hour meeting of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association in October, 1885, the cattle barons came to the conclusion that a “fair” but reduced wage was now to be offered to the punchers. A reduction of five to ten dollars was decided upon, as well as lay-offs during the summer between the two round-ups. Previously, there had been only winter lay-offs and that was accepted as the norm, but summer lay-offs proved quite another matter. In addition, some ranches decided to charge their hands for winter meals, previously part of their wage packet.
Letters went to the newspapers proclaiming that the cowboys could not work for thirty dollars a month for five months and then support themselves for the rest of the year. Some of the ranches relented and acceded to the demands while others tried to get on with scab crews. Eventually, things went back to normal.
However, the overcrowding on the open range was already causing several ranches to look to moving their herds up to Canada, when the final nail in the coffin of open range came in the form of the winter of 1886/87. The prolonged blizzards and sub-human temperatures of that winter, which I describe in Loveland, and which plays a pivotal part in the story, made the cattle companies realize that such large herds on such widespread rangelands were not feasible.
Blurb for Loveland:
When Lady Alexandra Calthorpe returns to the Loveland, Colorado, ranch owned by her father, the Duke, she has little idea of how the experience will alter her future. Headstrong and willful, Alex tries to overcome a disastrous marriage in England and be free of the strictures of Victorian society --and become independent of men. That is, until Jesse Makepeace saunters back into her life...
Hot-tempered and hot-blooded cowpuncher Jesse Makepeace can’t seem to accept that the child he once knew is now the ravishing yet determined woman before him. Fighting rustlers proves a whole lot easier than fighting Alex when he’s got to keep more than his temper under control.
Arguments abound as Alex pursues her career as an artist and Jesse faces the prejudice of the English social order. The question is, will Loveland live up to its name?
As the round-up wound down, the Reps took their stock back to their outfits, and soon the men were back at headquarters or at the camps. Alex knew word had more or less got out and found the punchers were gentler now around her, had a sort of quiet respect for her, and she hated it. She tried to bully them a bit to show them she was still the same girl, jolly them into joshing with her as they had before. It was slow work. At the same time, she yearned to see Jesse, to speak with him, to try to get life back to the way it was before the argument at the corral, and before he saw the scars. The opportunity didn’t present itself. She would see him from a distance some days, riding with the herd, sitting his horse with that peculiar grace he had, throwing his lariat out with an ease that reminded her of people on a dock waving their hankies in farewell. Hoping to just be near him, she slid into one of the corrals one evening to practice her roping.
The light was failing and the birds were settling with their evening calls. Somewhere in the pasture a horse nickered. She sensed Jesse was there, watching, but she never turned as he stood at the fence. She heard him climb over and ease up behind her. He took the coiled rope from her in his left hand and slid his right hand over hers on the swing end, almost forcing her backward into his arms.
She thought of paintings and statues she had seen, imagining his naked arms now, how the muscles would form them into long oblique curves, how he probably had soft downy fair hair on his forearms, how his muscle would slightly bulge as he bent his arm. His voice was soft in her ear, and she could feel his breath on her neck like a whispered secret.
“Gentle-like, right to left, right to left to widen the noose, keep your eye on the post—are you watchin’ where we’re goin’?”
He made the throw and pulled in the rope to tighten the noose. Alex stood there, his hand still entwined with hers and, for a moment, she wished they could stand like that forever. Then she took her hand away and faced him. For a second he rested his chin on the top of her head, then straightened again and went to get the noose off the post while coiling in the rope. She looked up at him in the fading light and saw nothing but kindness in his face, simplicity and gentleness that was most inviting. A smile spread across her face as he handed her the coiled rope and sauntered away, turning once to look back at her before he opened the gate. Emptiness filled her like a poisoned vapor seeking every corner of her being, and she stood with the rope in her hand listening to the ring of his spurs as his footsteps retreated.