Western Trips

Western Trips

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Frontier Ranch / Vigilantes and Range Detectives



 Rustlers, Financial Panics and Indian Attacks

The history books are filled with stories regarding the tough job of the late 1800's cattle drives. In fact, there was no other industry during the latter 1800's that was romanticized as much as the ranching business. The frontier ranch was an industry like none other in this era. Much of the romanticizing had more to do with the cowboy as opposed to the rancher himself. The dime novelists of the era chose the cowboy as the hero of the west. It wasn't enough that a rancher and his hired cowboys had to contend with nasty weather, difficult terrain, national financial panics, Indian attacks and theft, and the Texas Longhorn cattle quarantines. In addition to all that, the ranchers had to put up with rustlers. Cattle rustling in the 1800's was big business. Ranchers and rustlers were the subjects of many frontier ranch literature. The frontier ranch was also the subject of vigilante justice and summary hangings. Law on the frontier western plains was often a private matter.

Excellent Trip Stops to Learn About the Historic Western Ranches

cattle branding photos
Cattle branding, 1888
When you travel on a western road trip through some of the country's most scenic locales, you'll have many opportunities to visit historic ranch sites, museums and monuments.

Your trip through he western U.S. offers you many of these fun and educational stops, not to mention the guest or dude ranches where lodging and horseback riding is offered. Learning more about the western cattle industry is learning more about how the U.S. expanded westward. Some of the finest museums depicting the western ranchers and the cattle drives include the Red River Museum located in Vernon Texas. Vernon is about 50 miles west of Wichita Falls Texas on US Hwy 287 and is in the area of the famous Great Western Trail which eventually extended from the Rio Grande northward to the Canadian border. Another is located in the old historic town of Tascosa Texas. Tascosa at one time was headquarters for the enormous XIT Ranch which covered some 3 million acres in the Texas Panhandle. This was an old west town visited by such people as Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett. Tascosa was once known as the "Cowboy Capital of the Panhandle. The Julian Bivens Museum is housed in the old two-story courthouse which is now situated on the Cal Farley's Boys Ranch. Tascosa Texas is about a 42 mile drive northwest of Amarillo. Another excellent venue is the Cattle Raisers Museum located in Fort Worth Texas. This museum is located inside the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History.


Many of the larger ranches such as the XIT in Texas employed what was referred to as the "range detective". The range detective had various definitions depending upon who you asked. The range detective was a hybrid between a quasi-lawman and outright vigilante. The range detective did not have official law enforcement authority from anyone except his employer. During the cattle driving days of the western plains, official law enforcement manpower was sparse to say the least. Lawmen could not keep a ranchers cattle from being rustled. It was physically impossible. Only the rancher himself and his employees were capable of doing that.

Range Detectives and Vigilance Committees

frontier barbed wire fence
Barbed wire which helped close the open plains
In Cattle Kings by author Lewis Atherton, there is a lot of insight as to how ranchers tried to stem the rustling problem. The first obvious method was through courts of law. Atherton points out that local juries tended to come in with not guilty verdicts. Some of this had to do with the idea that it was the wealthy rancher against the poor individual. It was a proven fact that convicting rustlers in court was quite difficult. Another approach used was the forming of vigilance committees. This method was pretty widespread in Wyoming and Montana in the 1880's. The vigilance committee's were secretive in as much as leaders in one sector were unknown to leaders in other sectors. Probably the most written about example of the vigilance method was the Johnson County War in Wyoming in the early 1890's. This was a short war between cattlemen and their hired Texas gunmen against farmers and other settlers outside of Buffalo Wyoming. There was a lot of bloodshed, a few lynchings and the U.S. Army was called in to essentially save the cattlemen invaders from the heavily armed settlers. It was a loss for the cattlemen although no one was ultimately convicted in court.

The range detective employed by the cattlemen were often not identified as such. A range detective might be a hired gun but was listed on the ranch payroll as perhaps a wrangler. The range detective rode the open range and looked for rustlers. If one suspected rustler was caught, the justice meted out could be anything. Many time it was summary justice. The farmers and settlers who often fenced in their land in most cases thought of the range detective as nothing more than a hired gun of the rancher. The most historically noted "range detective' was a man named Tom Horn. Tom Horn's career included scout, lawman, soldier, outlaw and detective. Tom Horn became infamous. he exemplified everything the homesteader thought was a range detective. Horn at one time worked for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency.

The Story of Tom Horn

tom horn photo
Tom Horn
Tom Horn was involved in killings and eventually lost his job. The story is that he was fired not for the killings but because Pinkerton didn't want someone in his employ going to prison. Tom Horn's downfall was set in motion in 1901. It was this year that he allegedly killed a fourteen year old boy. The boy's father had been in some kind of dispute about his sheep grazing on the land of a man named Jim Miller. The boy apparently got caught up in gunfire. Tom Horn was placed at the site at the time and he allegedly confessed to Miller while intoxicated. Tom Horn stood trial in Cheyenne Wyoming, was convicted and hanged there in 1903. Some controversy still remains until this day as to whether horn was guilty. It's still debated by some historians. What the unfortunate episode does tell us is that ranchers were prone to hire violent personalities for the job as range detective. The range detective was not a cowboy. The range detective's job was to try to catch rustlers. As far as many ranchers were concerned, how the range detective carried out those duties was not the concern of many ranchers. Two movies were produced about Tom Horn. One was made in 1979 and starred David Carradine. The other, Tom Horn, produced in 1980 starred Steve McQueen.

There is no question that both innocent and guilt people lost their lives during the range wars. Emotions often took the place of facts. Again, the Johnson County War in Wyoming stands out in this regard. What eventually ebbed the flow of cattle rustling in the American west was the increased fencing in of the open range. Cattle rustling even goes on today in the 21st century. The major difference today is that it typically occurs at night and in fewer numbers. The term used today is "suburban rustling". The stolen cattle is simply knocked out and taken directly to auction.

Modern Day Methods

The Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association currently employs hired rangers who are actually deputized by the Texas Rangers. National economic hard times coupled with high cattle prices have caused an increase in cattle theft. To give you a perspective of the problem, the Texas Department of Public Safety-commissioned special rangers in 2010 recovered some 43.6 million of stolen livestock and equipment. According to the Southwestern Cattle raisers Association, when a person brings cattle in for sale, its markings, whether it has a brand or earmark, and the seller’s license plate number all are recorded. This information is put into a large database.

cattle id tag
Today's cattle ID Tag in place of branding
That database is can be searched in Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana. Today, it's much harder to sell stolen cattle on the open market as opposed to the days of range detectives and vigilance committees. I suppose that as long as there is something to steal, whether it be livestock or ranch equipment, somebody will try. The new identification system along with the database will no doubt help catch a good number of the thieves.

Modern Cattle ID Tags

Cattle identification methods have also made great strides. Today, many cattlemen use the identification tag affixed to the ears of their livestock. There are several types of tags available. The ID tags work with readers. Cattlemen can create a history of each animal in their operations, gather data for breeding and culling, document illnesses and treatments, and analyze data to improve herd management. These are used in the USDA's National Animal Identification System. Several different companies now manufacture tag readers. Putting the ID tag on a steers ear is very similar to ear piercing. A tool punches a round hole through the ear and the tag is affixed with a metal clip. The tags are made from aluminum or steel. There's a lot more to learn about the new methods of cattle identification and the Cattle Raisers Museum in Fort Worth Texas has the latest information. If your travels take you to the Fort Worth area, a trip to this museum makes an interesting addition to your Texas trip planner.

(Photos from the public domain. Modern Cattle Tag photo from author's private collection)

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