Friday, March 8, 2013

Strong As an Ox in the American West by @JacquieRogers

You Big Ox!

Oxen played an important part in building the American West (and East), but we seldom pay much attention to them now. What exactly is an ox? It's a fully grown trained bovine, usually a steer. Why are they larger than a normal steer? Because most steers are butchered at two or three years of age, but it takes a minimum of four or five years before a steer reaches full growth.

An Ox's Early Years
A bull calf is castrated shortly after birth. The older the calf, the more likely castration can cause illness and the recovery time is much longer. Halter training can start after a week or two. In the first six months, the calf needs lots of attention so he's comfortable with his handler, and more importantly, so he doesn't mind hooftrimming and shoeing. During these months, he can learn the four basic commands:

  • Whoa (stop)
  • Giddyup (go)
  • Gee (right)
  • Haw (left)
  • Back (back up)

Most ox trainers use a stick called a goad to tap the animal as he gives the voice command. After a month or so, depending on the animal, he'll respond to voice commands only.

When he's a yearling, he can begin yoke training with a lightweight yoke, but he's not strong enough yet for the real deal, nor should he be pulling a load yet. This sort of training continues until he's fully grown (4 or 5 years old) and muscled up. By then, he's ready to pull.

The Team
Everything above should actually be in plural because it's best to have two calves the same age. Since size and breed make for a balanced pair, it's even better if the calves come from the same bull. There are differing opinions on whether you should teach an ox to switch and take either the nigh (left side) or off (right side) position, or whether they should always be positioned the same. Oxen also need to be trained not to graze when they're yoked.

Oxen Team in Training

Oxen need horns because as explains: "When people choose an animal for an ox, they choose one with horns. The horns keep the yoke on their heads when they back up. Oxen's horns grow as their bodies grow, and so they have big horns, although not all breeds have the same size of horns."

Jimmy Choo, Anyone?
Yes, oxen need to be shod and it's quite a lot more complicated than shoeing a horse.  First of all, oxen have cloven hooves so require eight shoes instead of four.  Also, an ox can't stand on three legs as can a horse, so they require an ox sling.  This is a contraption made of heavy timbers (today, usually metal) with a series of leather straps to bind and suspend the animal.  It's vital to secure him as tightly as possible because if he struggles, he could very well hurt himself.  A good resource for hoof care and shoeing is Ox Health at The Prairie Ox Drovers, where you can also see a photo of an ox sling, which they call a shoeing stock.

The Work
Oxen have been used as draft animals since before recorded history, and they're still used today in lower tech areas or where people want to use greener resources. But we're talking about the American West here. Oxen were cheaper to buy and cheaper to feed than horses or mules, and while slower, they could also pull a hefty load. They were used for everything that needed some power--farm work, freighting, towing, or to push the wheel for grinding or pumping water.  Or logging:

Oregon Trail
At least half the wagons that traveled the Oregon Trail and all the other trails to the west were pulled by oxen. Some immigrants even used their milk cows as draft animals, which gave the added benefit of fresh milk on the trail.  (This sounds like they were asking for a case of mastitis, to me!)  Oxen took longer to make the trip than mule teams, but most farmers already had oxen or could buy them for a fourth the price of a mule. Oxen generally were even-tempered unlike the often poorly bred mules, and didn't require as much food. Plus, when times were tough, they could be butchered. An added bonus was that the Indians preferred mule meat to oxen meat, so were more likely to steal mules.

Building the New West
Most of the heavy-duty freighting was done by oxen. How did those heavy steam pumps get to the mines? Oxen. Timbers, coal, cast iron pipes? Oxen. They weren't glamorous or showy, so don't play well on B-Westerns, but oxen power built a good part of our country, east and west.

Men (and a few women) who drove ox teams were called bullwhackers. There's no seat on an ox freight wagon so the bullwhackers walked. They were renowned for their creative and frequent use of swear words, and most were accomplished with the whip and bowie knife. Bullwhackers were tough--they had to deal with the animals, wagon repair, bad roads (or no roads), freezing weather, blistering hot weather, predators, and road agents. Most had no place to stow luggage, so they wore the same clothes the entire trip.  Let's just say they'd be pretty ripe by the time they got to town.  But while not always a well-respected job, we owe a big thanks for the building of our infrastructure to bullwhackers and their teams.

Oxen in Owyhee
Arthur Hart, an Idaho historian, wrote this in the Idaho Statesman:
 "The transcontinental railroad was under construction in September 1868 when the [Idaho Tri-weekly] Statesman wrote: “Passed Through. A large body of men passed through this city a few days ago from Idaho City with ox teams destined for Owyhee, where they intend working upon the new road leading to the railroad. They were under the supervision of Mr. W.R. Underwood, of Idaho City, and will do good work, as they are all hard working miners.” Washington R. “Wash” Underwood was a 36-year-old miner from Vermont who would become well-known in Boise as well as in Boise Basin."
Read more and see photos here:
Idaho History: Oxen helped open the West and delivered the goods
by Arthur Hart
Idaho Statesman

More photos:
Ox team pulling a tank to Queen of the Hills mine
Wagon train with a woman bullwhacker
Men with oxen-pulled water team

Hearts of Owyhee
What do oxen have to do with the Hearts of Owyhee series? Not one thing. Not a single ox can be found in the first three books. They might horn in on the fourth book, Much Ado About Miners, though.

See you next month!

Jacquie Rogers, author of the
Hearts of Owyhee  series
#1 Much Ado About Marshals (RttA Winner)
#2 Much Ado About Madams
#3 Much Ado About Mavericks
A short story: Willow, Wish For Me (Merlin’s Destiny #1)

Visit Jacquie:
Website * Twitter * Facebook * Romancing The West * Blog


Meg said...

Wow, Jacquie!! your info is STUNNING. I'm such a greenhorn, I figured an ox was a different animal than a steer. hahaha! And you're right, I never saw an ox in the first 3 Owyhee books, but I can't wait for Miners to come out!! When???

Lauri said...

I never knew they were shod. Very interesting article!

Gerri Bowen said...

I never knew they needed to be shod either. Learn something new everyday.

Caroline Clemmons said...

Jacquie, you always have such interesting posts. I am so dumb about oxen that I thought they were a different species of bovines, rather than an older steer. Boy, do I feel stupid! ☺ Now I know and feel I have learned my new thing for today. Thanks.

Jacquie Rogers said...

Oxen are so much larger than most steers, so I can see why you and others would think they were a different sort of bovine., I'm still writing it. I get distracted writing blog posts. LOL.

Jacquie Rogers said...

I remember seeing ox shoes when I was a kid. The Idaho State Museum had a display and so did the museum at Silver City (that's gone now). But I didn't know how they'd go about shoing an ox because their hooves are so much different than a horse's. On the farm, we used a squeeze shoot to trim the cows' hooves, but we didn't ever shoe any of them.

Jacquie Rogers said...

One of the most treacherous legs of the Oregon Trail was through southern Idaho, in the lava beds called Craters of the Moon. The oxen's shoes wore out, then their hooves wore out, and when that happened, they became dinner. Add to that the lack of water--the Snake River was in a canyon and they could see water but couldn't get any. Not a good situation.

Jacquie Rogers said...

What interested me was that dairy breeds are generally stronger than beef breeds, so Milking Shorthorns and Holsteins work better than Herefords or Angus. I'd think the exception to that would be Charolais, since they're huge. Don't know that, though--just assume.

Ellen O'Connell said...

I was reading up on Shorthorns and Herefords a while ago and interested to find out that they used to be larger than they are today. Considerably larger. That invoked a faint memory of someone telling me years ago that the beef industry was beginning to find out they preferred smaller animals that produced cuts of meat of a size customers wanted instead of too large. I think he was saying the pure Charolais was too large, which might have been a breed prejudice on my informant's part, but that was the theory.

All of which is in aid of speculation that oxen in the time period we're considering were probably larger than even full grown steers are today. And of course those mini-cattle of today would produce the equivalent of ponies. :-) Great post.

Keith Souter said...

That was a superb post, Jacquie. I knew virtually nothing about oxen before I read it. Now though, I see a lot of possibilities for future stories. This is another blog that I have filed. Thanks.

Jerry Guin said...

I really enjoyed reading about oxen, Jacquie. Very interesting post.
Jerry Guin

Jacquie Rogers said...

Maybe that's why dairy breeds are more popular for oxen today. They're bred for milk production without regard for how large the t-bones are.

Jacquie Rogers said...

Thanks, Keith. A few other tidbits: Sussex cattle are most popular breed for oxen in England; and in Australia, oxen are called bullocks.

Jacquie Rogers said...

Thanks, Jerry. I researched it because I didn't know anything about oxen, either. Since I grew up on a dairy farm, I know plenty about cows and cattle care, so it seemed like I should learn at least the basics about oxen.

Judith said...

Wow, what a fascinating article, Jacquie. Loved the video demonstrations as well. I read a ton of wagons westward stories growing up, and they always were led by wagons, but I really knew nothing about them.

Jacquie Rogers said...

Same here. They're ubiquitous but also sort of invisible. Glad you enjoyed the article, Judith!

Lyn Horner said...

Jacquie, you're a font of great information. I remember seeing ox teams on some old westerns, probably Wagon Train or something like that, but I never thought much about those animals. They're not glamorous like horses, but as you say, they sure did their share in building our country. Thanks for sharing your research!

Linda Acaster said...

Thanks, Jacquie, for a most informative article. Best of luck with your series.

Sarah J. McNeal said...

Well, there sure was a lot of information I never knew about oxen. It sounds like they were a much better choice for pulling wagons westward than horses. Who knew?
Great informative blog, Jacquie.

Alison E. Bruce said...

I always thought oxen were a different breed of bovine. What an eye-opener!

Kathleen said...

You mean beeves ain't just fer eatin'? I s'pose it's good to know them ornery critters is good fer sumthin 'sides raisin' a cloud o' dust. Just don't go tellin' me folks saddled the dang things.

Shirl Deems said...

what an informative post! I thought they were of a different species also. I didn't know about shoeing them either. I loved the video. thanks for letting us know about oxen.

Ellen O'Connell said...

The few boys of the dairy breeds that get to be oxen ought to thank their lucky stars considering their usual fate.

Jacquie Rogers said...

Thanks for stopping by, Lyn!

I don't remember many oxen on TV shows, and they're usually used to show that the owner was poor. Not so. Oxen were the draft animal of choice for any large load, plus, they don't spook and shy nearly as much as mules or horses.

Jacquie Rogers said...

Thanks, Linda! I'm glad you came by.

Jacquie Rogers said...

Better in every way except speed, and that could be pretty important because the immigrants had to get from Missouri to their destination before it snowed.

Jacquie Rogers said...

Oxen do look different than feedlot steers because they're muscled-up instead of fat, plus they're considerably larger.

Jacquie Rogers said...

Actually, I found several pictures of people riding oxen! Who knew??? Really, this had to be more of a diversion than the normal state of affairs. Also, once an oxen's working life is over, you guessed it--dinner.

Jacquie Rogers said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jacquie Rogers said...

That's for sure!

Jacquie Rogers said...

You're welcome, Shirl. (I had a typo in the first comment that I deleted. Blogger won't let you edit. Grrrr.)

I knew about the shoes but had no idea how oxen were shod. I remember wondering about that when I was a kid and visited the museum. Horses' hooves are thicker than cattle's, plus you trim their hooves differently, so it was all a mystery. I'm still fuzzy about exactly how the shoe is nailed on and the placement of the nails.