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Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Golden Age of the Cowboy

by: Andrea Downing 

     A short ride down the road from me in Montauk, New York is Deep Hollow Ranch. At 350 years old, it is the oldest ranch in the country and the purported birthplace of the American cowboy.  But we rarely think of cowboys as creatures of the east.  Say ‘cowboy’ to someone and they invariably envisage the heroic male kitted out with Stetson, chaps and Colt, riding across the plains.  Strange to think, then, that the cowboy whom that picture presents did not truly come into existence until after the end of the Civil War.
When the war ended in 1865, thousands of men were returning to homes destroyed, land ravaged and family and friends dead or gone.  There was little prospect of making a living, especially in the war-torn south.  West in Texas, meanwhile, longhorn cattle had been driven to markets in Missouri and Louisiana to try to feed the Confederate Army.  But as these routes had been closed, a surplus of cattle ensued while new markets in the east and California opened.  The Homestead Act was signed into being in 1862 and a transcontinental railway was being built.  The life of a cowboy out in the newly opened west showed promise.
Cattle drives started from Texas to MO and KS railheads in order to get the beef to Chicago where Armour’s meat packing plant opened in 1865.  As the railways expanded, cow towns sprang up in Kansas and later in Nebraska, Wyoming and Montana.  At the same time, investors saw the chance to take advantage of the open range and start huge ranches as beef prices increased.  To give you an idea of how the industry was expanding and numbers of cowboys increasing, up in Wyoming in 1874 the round-up only required two divisions.  A division is how the range is partitioned for the sake of branding so that each ranch may cut out its own cattle.  Reps will go from one division to another to get their own strays.  By 1884, however, Wyoming required thirty-one divisions.  In a single division two hundred cowboys with approximately two thousand horses worked four hundred thousand head of cattle over a period of six weeks.  Down in Colorado in 1885 over 12,000 brands were registered.  So what ended this prospering business, this ‘golden age?’  Well, the answer is several things converged on the industry at once. 

First of all, in the summer of 1885, President Cleveland gave notice that all stock must be removed from Indian Reservations in Indian Territory.  This took over nine million acres out of use, and threw about nine hundred thousand head of cattle onto already overcrowded northern ranges. And those ranges were constantly depleting.  The Homestead Act and land sales by the railways were inviting increasing numbers of emigrants.  Where once cowboys had signed up for homesteads and then signed over their land to their ranches, parcels going to farmers and others were taking chunks out of the open range, reducing it and causing problems such as the Johnson County War.
 Beef prices in 1885 were already low due to overproduction so some ranchers were  keeping cattle over winter in the hope prices would go up.  Unfortunately, added to this was a plague of grasshoppers, lower than normal rainfall and a number of range fires, all reducing winter forage.   Finally, total disaster struck.  In late 1885, the winter came early and particularly harsh.  Losses were great.  But that winter was nothing compared to the winter of  ‘86/’87, which plays a pivotal role in my book, Loveland. That year, temperatures dropped as low as -47 in some parts of the high plains.  With losses at 60-75% of their stock, many ranches went under and the ‘golden age’ of the cowboy came to an end.

About Andrea Downing 

Andrea Downing likes to say that, when she decided to leave New York, the city of her birth, she made a wrong turn and went east instead of west.   She ended up spending most of her life in the UK where she received an M.A. from the University of Keele in Staffordshire.  She married and raised a beautiful daughter and  stayed on to teach and write, living in the Derbyshire Peak District, the English Lake District, Wales and the Chiltern Hills before finally moving into London. During this time, family vacations were often on guest ranches in the American West, where she and her daughter have clocked up some 17 ranches to date. In addition, she has traveled widely throughout Europe, South America, and Africa, living briefly in Nigeria. In 2008 she returned to the city of her birth, NYC, but frequently exchanges the canyons of city streets for the wide open spaces of the West.  Her love of horses, ranches, rodeo and just about anything else western is reflected in her writing.  Loveland, a western historical romance published by The Wild Rose Press, was her first book and is a finalist for the RONE Award of Best American Historical to be announced in August, 2013.  Lawless Love, a story, comes out as part of The Wild Rose Press Lawmen and Outlaws’ series on Sept. 4.  Andrea is a member of Romance Writers of America and Women Writing the West.

From her book 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?

From the back cover:
The two men looked over at Jesse who was leading his own horse into the stable, anger etched in every muscle of his face. Joe nodded toward the chuck house and they followed the others in to leave Alex alone when Jesse came out.
She was starting back to the main house when Jesse grabbed her arm and turned her around. “You ever do that again,” he said in a voice she had never heard, intense in its anger, rage just below its surface, “I swear to God, Alex, I’ll...I’ll take you over my knee and give you a lickin’ once and for all.”
“How dare you!” She shook him off. “How dare you talk to me like that! How dare you! Who the hell do you think you are?”
Jesse jabbed his finger at her to emphasize he meant what he was saying. “Who do I think I am?”he snarled back. “Who do I think I am? You ever, ever take a gun off me again and point it at someone, you’ll find out who the hell I think I am. You know that coulda gone off? You know you coulda killed someone? I told you—out there yonder—I told you, you never point that thing at anyone less’n you mean bus’ness.”
“I did bloody well mean business! They were destroying that horse. Furthermore, I knew, and you knew, and they both knew, there wasn’t a shot under the hammer. You taught me that, didn’t you? So there was no chance of an accident!”
“That don’t matter none. You coulda pulled the hammer back twice. Way you was, you were nothin’ better’n a loose cannon, Alex. You ever do a thing like that again—”
“You’ll what?” She shook with her rage as tears pooled against her will. “I apologized to them both and they accepted my apologies. It’s none of your concern—”
“None of my concern! You pulled my gun! You ever do that again— Don’t you walk away when I’m talkin’ to you!”
She turned back to him after a few steps. “You’ll what? You’ll what, Jesse? What will you do? I want to hear it! Say it again. What will you do?” And she stood there in the evening darkness, facing him down, wearing him out like she’d faced down the stallion.
 Buy the book here:


  1. Your comments on the American Cowboy were fascinating, Andrea. My husband had a great interest in the Goodnight-Loving trail and, and not far from where I live today, is a town that took its name from a Texas cattleman who used the valley and creek there to 'feed up' his stock after a long drive, before he took them on in to the rail head nearby. Barb Bettis

    1. Glad you enjoyed it, Barbara. I'm wondering where exactly you live? Goodnight was certainly an important figure in the early west. He is even attributed with inventing the chuck wagon.:-)

  2. Lots of information in this post I did not know. Ranches in Montauk? Here in Southern Arizona, the ranching life took a huge hit during an extended drought in the 1890s -- just no rain, no grass, and no pumps to bring up ground water either. It must have been devastating.

    1. I used to go down to Tucson quite frequently and I never understood how they could ranch at all down there, never mind in an actual drought. Thanks for your comment!

  3. Cowboys in New York? How interesting, Andrea. The constant worry about beef prices, drought, government regulations certainly goes way back. Anyone in the business today struggles with the same problems.

    1. Well, Karen, there is countryside in New York--and good grass too! :-) I'm sure ranching is as difficult a profession as it ever was, and a full time job to boot. No closing the office door at 5pm!

  4. My thanks to Janet for having me here. I really enjoyed the visit!

  5. Fascinating - the transcontinental railway was the one element that made the long trail drives from Texas possible. Texas cattle had been driven in a limited way before the Civil War, and to supply Confederate troops during it - but a tick-born disease called Texas fever made Texas cattle extremely unwelcome along the established Texas to Sedelia Trail. Their presence spread the disease to northern cattle - and the first couple of drives after the war ended disastrously. It wasn't until one Joseph McCoy had the bright idea of setting up a stockyard at a point (Abilene, KS) where the transcontinental had reached far enough into Kansas that Texas cattle couldn't spread tick fever.
    In the year after the war, a Texas cow was worth about $4 per - hardly enough worth shooting them. There were a lot of desperate and near-to-impoverished Texans who just had to make money somehow, by putting together the $4 cow and the $40 dollar market for it. (I touched on this in my own Adelsverein Trilogy.)