Robert E. Howard knew and wrote a good deal about the blood feuds of his native Texas, and the old-time range wars that had been fought even before the Civil War. They became still more bitter and intense afterwards. Howard wrote to H.P. Lovecraft in January 1931:
I hope to some day write a history of the Southwest that will seem alive and human to the readers, not the dry and musty stuff one generally finds in chronicles. To me the annals of the land pulse with blood and life, but whether I can ever transfer this life from my mind to paper, is a question. It will be years, at least. Much of the vivid history of the Southwest is lost forever and the breed growing up now looks toward, and apes, the East, caring nothing at all about the traditions and history of the land in which they live.
Lovecraft at times became almost supercilious in his attitude to the violent frontier history of the Lone Star State. Well, much of it had been shockingly bloody, but so had much of England’s history, and Lovecraft admired England and the English to the point of affecting to regret the American Revolution. I’m not one to romanticize gunfights, but the solid fact is that in the old west there were very few activities that were free of physical danger, least of all the cowboy’s. He might meet armed cow thieves or fence cutters any day of his working life. He was understandably not willing to “ride the river” with a pardner who hadn’t shown that he was ready to fight. If he encountered rustlers, Comanches, or crooked lawmen who declared they were going to cut his herd on the excuse that they believed it had been stolen – well, he was better off with a hard-drinking braggart and bully beside him than someone who was yellow.
REH expressed it this way, in the same letter quoted above:
Western feuds have generally been fought over land – cattle – sordid commercial wrangles in outward appearance, but with the underlying reasons of stubborn independent pride. More men have been killed in Texas over fences than for any other one reason. When two men own each thousands of acres, it seems foolish for them to shoot each other to death because one insisted on setting his fence forward a foot or so, doesnt it? But its the old story of ‘the principle of the thing’. And after all, a man cant be blamed for defending what he thinks is his, or taking what he thinks is his. Say you and I own adjoining ranches and I claim that the fences werent run according to the survey. I claim a strip of your land four feet wide and half a mile long. You are just as certain that it dont belong to me. I come in the night and set the fence up four feet. You are patient and not quarrelsome, so you come back the next night and set the fence back where it was. I come again and start moving that fence once more. Well, there’s nothing left for you to do but take your Winchester and start throwing lead in my direction and you’re quite right, too. A man has a right to defend his property. Its not the money value or the grazing value of the land; its the sturdy resolve of the Anglo-Saxon or the Scotch-Irish-American not to be bullied out of his natural rights. And when both contestants are of the same breed, and both absolutely certain they’re right, well, by-standers might as well start ducking, because there’s only one way to settle a row like that, and if its taken to court, it wont do any real good, but merely make feeling more bitter on each side, whichever way the decision goes.
As he observed, land and cattle were the usual cause. Not always, though, and often not the direct cause. The Texas cattle barons of the early 1870s who cursed the Kansas legislators and their quarantine rules had no idea what other problems they were soon to face. Not because of rustlers, Comanches, northern politicians or cowhand unions. Because of one man by the name of Joseph Glidden, tinkering with an apparently harmless coffee mill.
Glidden was a prairie farmer in Illinois. He didn’t invent barbed wire – that was a man named Michael Kelly – but Glidden improved it until it was truly practical. He perfected the barbs, and the means of attaching them to double-strand wire, on a small scale at first, experimenting with a coffee mill. Then he designed machines that could economically mass-produce the wire. He applied for and received a patent in 1874. Other inventors challenged his application in court, but Glidden’s design won by November – not only through his lawyer, but also through its comparative efficiency and the number of sales orders.
Barbed wire across their ranges was about as welcome to the big ranchers as infidels eating pork in Mecca to the faithful.
The clashes between cattlemen and sheepherders on the big ranges had begun at about this time. Like Glidden, the sheepherders had to fight their cases in court as part of the Sheep Wars, and cattlemen had more money. A court case being a contest to see who can afford the best lawyer, the cattlemen mostly won.
Conflict between the two was in fact less intense and violent in Texas than in Wyoming and Colorado – but Texas did have the distinction of hosting one of the earliest such clashes. Shortly before barbed wire was patented, the famous Charles Goodnight’s cowhands met with incursions of sheepmen on that part of Goodnight’s range which comprised the north fork of the Canadian River, in the Panhandle. The clashes were made worse by ethnic prejudice; the sheepherders were Mexicans, and the Texans still remembered the Alamo. In the end, Don Casimiro Romero and Goodnight came to an agreement; sheep would graze on one side of the Canadian River Valley, cattle on the other. That dispute was settled peacefully.
It was in 1875, also, that the Hoodoo War broke out. Or the Mason County War, after the locale in central Texas. That wasn’t settled peacefully.