Dakota Pathways: Cowboys of the Open Range

Dakota Pathways:  Cowboys of the Open Range


– [Narrator] You’re
watching a production of South Dakota Public Broadcasting. (western music) (teacher speaking) (animal noises) (train bell) (motor/engine) (whistling) (airplane engine) – [Narrator] Starting in the
late 1870s cattle arrived on the western grasslands
of Dakota territory. They came from Texas by the thousands, but they didn’t get here on their own. Men on horses rode with the heard, guiding them to good grazing land. These men were cowboys of the open range. The open range meant miles and miles of public land for cattle
to graze, without fences. Very few women helped move
the cattle up the plains, although they built
ranches, owned cattle, and helped make western
culture popular worldwide. Here’s how a typical cowboy day started: Before sunrise in the summer,
according to Earl Nepper, a South Dakota cowboy of the 1890s. – [Earl Nepper] Well we got up real early. One of the boys on the last
guard, he comes into camp at about 3:30 in the morning
and he wakes up the cook, if the cook isn’t already up, and the cook gets breakfast and calls the boys. We had sourdough biscuits,
boy those big ‘ol biscuits. And there was always
dried fruit, prunes, and plenty of coffee. And we had bacon and ham
and sometimes fresh beef. By around 4:30, breakfast is over, the boys have their beds
all rolled and the wagons and everybody are all set to go. And any cowboy who couldn’t
get his bed rolled up in time and get everything ready
was called “a drag”. – [Narrator] A cowboys’
mornings and evenings would have been pretty sorry without
the cook and his chuckwagon. The chuckwagon meant a kind
of home for the cowboys. It carried all the supplies necessary for living with a few comforts,
a hot fresh cooked meal and a blanket or two to keep warm. The cook had everything
he needed in that wagon. He even had a table to roll
out dough for biscuits. There were plenty of
drawers in the chuckwagon, full of plates, cups, knives,
forks, coffee, cans of sugar, salt, and lots of molasses,
which the cowboys called “lick”. A water keg was hitched
to the side of the wagon. When cowboys wanted beef for
supper, they usually chose a yearling and killed it
in the late afternoon. When it was time to
eat, the cook would yell “Chuck!” or “Chuck away!” and sometimes… – [Cook] Come and get
it, or I’ll throw it out! – [Narrator] Everybody had to follow the cooks rules even the boss. – [Cowboy 1] Good ‘ol
beans and bread again. You know, I like punching
cows, but I’d sure like to work on a ranch sometime where they
gave you a steak at night. – [Cowboy 2] Boy a steak would taste good. – [Narrator] Cowboys knew
not to ride their horses near the chuckwagon while
the cook was preparing food because they might kick up dust. Anyone who made that mistake could . expect a serious tongue-lashing. (upbeat bluegrass music) Cowboys didn’t want dust
in their food, even though they themselves were
usually covered in it. (cattle mooing) They were with the herds night and day and didn’t change clothes,
since most only brought the clothes on their back. When they wanted a bath,
they found the nearest river. Cowboys often slept under the stars with their hats and boots for pillows. For entertainment, they
invented a style of music that remains popular today. (Home on the Range by Daniel E. Kelley) ♪Where the buffalo roam, ♪ ♪ where the deer and the antelope play. ♪ ♪ Where seldom is heard,
a discouraging word, ♪ ♪ and the skies are not cloudy all day. ♪ ♪Home, home on the range, ♪ ♪ where the deer and the antelope play ♪ ♪ Where seldom is heard,
a discouraging word, ♪ ♪ and the skies are not cloudy all day. ♪ ♪ How often at night…” ♪ – [Narrator] Cowboys who
drove cattle up from Texas followed the Northern
Trail which led them to Wyoming, Montana, and Dakota Territory. Why go to all the trouble
of driving thousands of cattle, hundreds of miles from Texas? Grass, water, and markets for beef. Dakota Territory had
some of the best grass in the country for grazing cattle. Short grasses, like wheat
grass and grama, were nutritious for cows,
and helped fatten them. Cattlemen, the owners of
cattle, knew they would get a better price at market
for cows that grazed for two or three years in
western Dakota Territory. The grasses here usually
survived drought and did not easily die during winter. Instead of freezing, and
drooping to the ground, the grass stems stood
up, through the snow, so that cattle could continue grazing. A cowboy looking at land for
his boss in Scotland said: – [Cowboy] My mouth waters
when I think of the feed in that region. The bottom
lands of the Bell Fourche had grass three feet high,
although it was November. – [Narrator] Cowboys
always knew where to find the nearest water. This
part of the country had streams and rivers
running into the Missouri. The Belle Fourche, Cheyenne,
Grand, Bad, White, and Moreau were all good sources of water for cattle. (cattle mooing) About markets for beef,
trains carried cattle to distant cities for slaughter.
For a while, Belle Fourche ranked as the worlds busiest
cattle-shipping railyard. And cattlemen knew there were people who wanted beef right in South Dakota. Soldiers stationed at military
posts in Dakota Territory, miners in the Black Hills,
and residents in new towns springing up across the
prairie all ate beef. American Indians on reservations
were guaranteed food as part of treaty agreements.
Some cattle owners lived far away in places like
France, Scotland, and England. Some lived in Dakota Territory. Modern South Dakotans might
recognize their names. That’s because towns were named for them. Philip, Lemmon, and Murdo. Ed Lemmon was foreman of
the Flying V Cattle Company. James “Scotty” Philip ran cattle and was also known for his
part in saving bison. Murdo MacKenzie was one
of those from far away, from Scotland. These were
bossmen to the cowboys. For bosses, as big as western Dakota was, there was a time when it
didn’t seem big enough. Cattlemen wanted more land,
so they could run even bigger herds. They
pressured the government to break up the great Sioux
Reservation and they didn’t like sharing the
land with buffalo or sheep. This time during the 1880s
was called “The Bonanza”, with many big cattle companies making profits in Dakota Territory. Something that impressed
cowboys and their bosses was how healthy cows were in
winter, as they grazed on grass sticking through the snow. Because of the snow, they
didn’t inhale much dust. (wind blowing) But then came winters
that weren’t healthy and in fact, turned into killers. Some cowboys thought
the snow would never get deep enough to prevent
cattle from grazing. The terrible winters of 1886, 1887, and 1888 proved them wrong. Blizzards and sub-zero temperatures continued for days. Cattle died, and cattlemen lost money. Many cattlemen went broke
and returned to Texas. Those who stayed knew they would have to do things differently if
they wanted their cattle and businesses to survive.
First, they would need to start cutting hay and
storing it for their cattle to help them get through tough winters. Also, herds would have to be smaller. The time of the open range was ending and the era of ranching was beginning. A ranch meant land owned by an individual, closed off by fence boundaries, instead of sleeping under the stars,
cowboys now lived in bunkhouses. Some cowboys found themselves working hard in a different way. As ranch
hands they began a great building project, fencing
the western plains. (slow guitar music) Before the invention of
barbed wire, it simply wasn’t possible to put up
much fencing on the plains. There were not enough trees
to build fences out of wood. All that changed in 1874,
when Joseph Glidden developed a machine to produce barbed wire. Now, ranchers could
enclose many square miles. Ranch cowboys strung this “devils rope”, as it was sometimes
called, along wooden posts. They used spades and post hole diggers to plant the posts securely in the ground. They worked hard, after putting
the fence up, to keep it up. Cattle often knocked
areas of the fence down. (guitar music) Ranch cowboys kept cattle
alive during winter by riding long distances
to bring them hay. Sometimes ranch cowboys had to respond to emergencies, like cows stuck in snowbanks. Cap Mossman was owner
of the Diamond A Ranch. The Diamond A was spread out
over half a million acres on the Cheyenne River reservation. Caps’ cowboys built sixty miles of fence to separate his cattle
from Murdo MacKenzie’s. But before fencing was
completed, there was one last big roundup on
the open range in 1902. Roundups were when cowboys
from different cattle companies worked together to find and
gather up several thousand head of cattle from each company. As cattle grazed on the
open range during the year, one company’s herd got mixed with another. During the roundup, cowboys
needed a way to tell who owned which cattle.
Brands were the answer. A brand was a mark buned
onto the hide of the animal. Brands could be made up in any shape. They were often letters,
numbers, crosses, diamonds, or some combination of those things. (“The Strawberry Roan” by Moe Bandy” ♪I was hanging around town,
just a spendin’ my time ♪ ♪ I was out of a job, not makin’ a dime ♪ ♪ When a stranger steps up
and he says “I suppose ♪ ♪ that you’re a bronc buster,
by the looks of your clothes” ♪ ♪ “You figured me… ♪ – [Narrator] On the
roundup, a cowboy called the “nighthawk” was responsible for taking care of the cowboys’ horses at night and a “wrangler” cared for
the horses during the day. Cowboys had to do so much
riding, that one horse wouldn’t have been strong
enough to endure it. Each cowboy had six to ten horses. The nighthawk sometimes had to
take care of over 200 horses. In fact, so many horses were necessary for running cattle companies,
that some people developed separate ranches just for
breeding and training horses. The purpose of a roundup
was to search every draw, coulie, and creek in the
area, until all cows were in. Cowboys told time by the sun, not a clock. And when the sun set low on the horizon, they rode back to camp for the night. The 1902 cowboys probably knew this was the last big roundup they would work. As the times changed, some cowboys decided to look for different jobs all together. Whatever they did, though,
the 1902 roundup cowboys never forgot who they
were. They enjoyed reunions the rest of their lives.
More than 100 years later (rodeo announcer) we haven’t forgotten them either. Or any of the other
cowboys of the open range. (soft guitar music) For additional information,
a teachers guide, games, quizzes and more, log on to: DakotaPathways.org. (happy guitar music)

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