We’ve all read countless westerns, as well as seeing them on the big and little screens, in which the rotten predatory cattle rancher who claims the entire range, with a legion of hired guns (or just one really fast one), gets tough on the little people he sees as standing in his way. The classic novel and then movie of the type was Shane. But the hackneyed plot had been played out often enough in the real world, in Colorado, Wyoming, and of course Texas. Robert E. Howard knew the history of those sanguinary feuds and range wars, and he referred to them often in his letters.
In December 1930 he wrote to H.P. Lovecraft:
The fiercest fights were between sheepmen and cattlemen and later between the small farmer and the ranchmen. That last was a bitter war, carried on with neither honor, mercy or human consideration. Ranchmen cut the squatter’s fences, burned his buildings, and frequently wiped out whole families, men, women and children with no more hesitation than Comanche Indians would have shown. In return the squatter stole the ranchman’s cattle and killed them on the sly, fouled the springs, dammed up the streams, dynamited dams on ranchmen’s property, ambushed cowboys and shot them out of their saddles – and made laws. Thats the way they licked the cattlemen – by legislation. They simply swarmed in and took the country, swamping the original settlers just as they, in turn, had swamped the Indians in an earlier age.”
I’d nitpick just one part of that. It doesn’t appear to me that the sheep and cattlemen conflicts, in Texas especially, came much before the big ranchers’ and little farmers’ bloody disputes. The sheep wars principally took place between 1870 and 1900. The famous clashes between Charles Goodnight’s cowboys, and the sheep herders driving their flocks onto his range along the New Mexico-Texas border, took place in the mid-1870s. The small farmers started encroaching on the big cattlemen’s ranges at about the same time, the 1870s, after the Civil War.
In fact the Texas cattle business was started by the Mexicans, with its roots set as early as 1540. The Spaniards had established cattle spreads in Mexico and then pushed their herds northward, looking for good pasture. The first cowboys were Spanish and Mexican “gauchos,” later known as “vaqueros.” They had brought cattle as far north as Texas by 1690. Their commercial value was limited then, and they were left to roam those wide open spaces and breed to their heart’s content. They did, and these feral Mexican cattle between the Neuces and the Rio Grande crossbred with the eastern cattle of the early Anglo settlers in Texas. The result was what some would describe as a hellish bastard animal with horns spanning seven feet or more, an untamed nature, and a frequent infestation of Texas ticks that made it unpopular outside its home state.
As you’d expect of a Texan critter, they were tough. They could survive on the open range where grazing was often marginal or worse. They could come through droughts and blue norther storms still feisty. They were long-lived – if they survived – and their calves could stand and walk sooner after being born than other cattle breeds.
By the early 1800s there were hundreds of thousands of wild longhorns in the region. They weren’t much of a commercial proposition in those days. Beef wasn’t the meat of first choice in the U.S.A. during the early nineteenth century; pork was more popular. Cattle were slaughtered mainly for their hides and tallow. Texas longhorns gave good lean beef from their carcasses but not an immense amount of fat.
The huge spreads that were effectively kingdoms began to appear about that time, in the days when Texas was really wide open and lately freed from Mexican rule, after Sam Houston’s army had thrashed General Santa Ana at San Jacinto in 1836. The biggest ranch ever known, even in the Lone Star State, was founded by Richard King, who had taken a significant part in Texian affairs before he came to own vast tracts of land. Born into a poor Irish family in New York in mid-1824, King was apprenticed to a jeweler as a child, and hated it. The jeweler was a slave-driver and exploiter straight out of a Dickens novel. He (Richard King) scarpered, stowed away on a ship and was welcomed into the crew when they discovered him. From that beginning he became a steamboat pilot by the time he was sixteen. He served in the Second Seminole War in 1842, and after it ended, he operated steamboats in Florida and Georgia for five years.
When the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) broke out over the U.S. annexation of Texas, King and his partner Mifflin Kennedy ferried army supplies on the Rio Grande. King invested his riverboat profits in land in Texas, and from then on continued acquiring it hand over fist. As REH wrote to Lovecraft in January 1931:
How many know of Captain King, who owned the biggest ranch the world has ever seen? It stretched from inland rivers to the Gulf of Mexico and when the country was settled up, it was divided into whole counties. I have seen the old ranch house which cost nearly a million dollars to build, and it looks more like a castle than an ordinary house. How old it is I cannot say, but the great stone stable has a date of 1856 carved over the door, and once cannons were mounted about the building to resist Indian attacks and Mexican raids. It lies adjacent to the little town of Kingsville, a most beautiful town – the prettiest I have yet seen in Texas. The worthy ranch-man was an old sea-captain and I have heard it hinted that, if he followed the same tactics on sea that he did on land, he must have been a pirate.
Years and years ago he was killed by a Mexican vaquero who worked for him, and who, it is said, carried out his orders regarding various men who owned ranches the captain desired. Be that as it may, they died and their ranches were engulfed in the ever growing boundaries of the great ranch. Giant fortunes are not built without intrigue and bloodshed, whether those fortunes be land or gold, or both.
The King Ranch is a legend in Texas. It still exists, is one of the largest in the world, and was officially made a National Historic Landmark in 1961. REH declared that he could not say how old it was, but King apparently saw the land that would become the nucleus of his immense ranch in 1852, when he came to the waters of Santa Gertrudis (Saint Gertrude) Creek, after riding a long way through arid country. He was travelling to the Lone Star Fair at Corpus Christi at the time, and at the fair over drinks, he and a friend of his, Texas Ranger Captain Gideon Lewis (nicknamed “Legs”) agreed to acquire and ranch it. In July 1853 King bought the Rincón de Santa Gertrudis grant for 300 dollars and sold Lewis a half interest in it for 2,000. He was a genuine nineteenth-century entrepreneur and no mistake. Or as one of the Sackett boys observes in a Louis L’Amour western novel, “If a man can buy cheap and sell dear, he naturally ain’t liable to starve.”
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