Thursday, May 1, 2014

Cattle Drives in Western Canada Part 3: Changing, Growing and Blending

            Earlier I mentioned the sources of the cattle that made their way to British Columbia and the Canadian Prairies or the North West Territories as they where called at the time. Also mentioned earlier, was that during the first fifteen years the beef business was growing in British Columbia the NWT didn’t have cattle because the Prairies were full of Buffalo though in the north these herds were already diminishing rapidly.
          Along the west coast of North America the cattle business had been building for more than two hundred years. Black Spanish cattle had been brought to California from both Mexico and by ship from Spain. North of there the heavier cattle or Shorthorns brought west from the mid-west and eastern States primarily during the 1840s and 50s where well established. These two west coast communities where relatively close to each other in relation to other established communities and as a result they each imported characteristics of each other’s cattle, horses and tack.
         In the beginning there was a great difference between the horses found in the two areas. Down in California the vaquero rode a long legged animal of a thousand or 1200 pounds which had developed from the military horses of the conquistadors. Up in Oregon the vast majority of horses were draft animals of around 2000 pounds which had been used along with teams of oxen to haul a family’s worldly possessions across the plains to a new home. The “light” riding horses started at a weight of about 1200 which was of  a size where the California horses where turned to cart or wagon work.
       To avoid breeding his cattle with close relatives the Californiahidalgo” might buy or trade for a bull from Oregon. This deal or several like it would bring the weight of California’s Spanish cattle up by two or three hundred pounds and in rare cases as much as 500 pounds.
       In Oregon a rancher or several of them may want a smaller bull for their heifers (young cows that have not yet had a calf) so that their initial births would be easier. A deal is made for one of the Spanish bulls which they hope will bring the weight of a heifer’s calf down from 80 or 90 pounds to 50 or 60 pounds. In practice the calves are slightly smaller and easier on the heifers but the blood line of the larger parent wins out. There is a decrease in the size of the resultant mature animals but not by a great deal. As a result the Oregon cattle were still larger than the California cattle despite the insertion of a few smaller animals into the herds.
        With a few years of ranching the desired characteristics of the breeds of cattle are strengthened and enhanced. The Oregon cattle tend to be larger with both more beef and flavor enhancing fat than their California parents. From the Spanish/California animals they inherit toughness and fighting ability (in many cases including enhanced horns) to contend with northern weather, mountain lions and wolves. These new Oregon animals also seem to survive and grow on far worse feed than the earlier Shorthorns and milk cows from Illinois and Kentucky.
         Along with the blood of the Spanish cattle Oregon pioneers also imported some drovers from the south. At least that is what they had called them back in Illinois and Kentucky when they trailed cattle on foot down the Mississippi to New Orleans. Out here in Oregon these drovers insisted on being called vaqueros which, as with many Spanish words twisted by an English speaking tongue soon became “buckaroo.”
         There are professions throughout history in which participants have not learned and practiced their professions solely for – and in some cases in spite of – the expected monetary remuneration. The buckaroo west of the mountains and the cowboy out on the prairies are prime examples as are a few contemporary professions. They all do it for the contribution they can make to society, to support an honorable or moral lifestyle, to maintain a measure of pride and/or to make a flashy or memorable mark as they go through life.
            The buckaroos took pride in their equipment and their ability to use it productively. From the vaquero they inherited the long (sometimes 60 feet) braided catch rope or lariat. In Oregon some learned from the mid-west and Mississippi drovers the use of a leather or rawhide, swivel handled “bull” whip to handle cattle. Ornate saddles with wide forks, large horns, intricate leather tooling and tapaderos hooding the stirrups.
            The equipment on the horse’s head was also unique in many respects and served to make the buckaroo stand out. The younger horses would be controlled or directed with a rawhide “bosal” around the nose and with the appropriate headstall creating a hackamore. Mounts of more than six years might still wear a hackamore or have any of several dozen styles of bit in their mouth. Whatever bit was chosen it would probably be very fancy if the buckaroo could afford it. They trained their mounts differently than the cowboys over the mountains, generally started them earlier and expected more of them.
            The buckaroo needed his equipment to operate as he had been taught. He had a single cinch saddle to save weight so used a long rope and a big, leather wrapped horn so he could wrap the rope around the horn (take a “dally”) and play it out until he could trip the steer he had caught or another rider could put a loop on it. Had he ‘tied fast’ to the horn he was likely to break his rope or have the saddle pulled from his mount.
            The equipment also served an important part in expressing the pride he felt in his profession and the image he presented. The ability to cast a loop a long way and actually catch something was a source of pride. Catching a steer as heavy as your mount and downing him without breaking any equipment was a large part of who the vaquero was. This also extended to the wide sombrero, fancy spurs, silver mountings on tack and personnel dress as well as the fancy leather work. Some of this was just for show but most of it also had a practical use.
            The drovers who brought cattle up from Texas and were eventually known as cowboys developed in somewhat similar ways from somewhat different forces. When the Texan came back from the Civil War he found the numbers of men between 15 and 35 had been drastically reduced by the recent conflict. With Northern “Reconstruction” forces controlling the whole state there was little work for anyone who had supported the Confederacy. The lack of work was doubly serious for those who had spent as many as four years marching at an age when they would normally be learning a trade.
            One thing that Texas did have in abundance was cattle that no one wanted. For several years before the war there had been little sale for the animals except for hide and tallow which didn’t bring much money and did not supply a reason to turn away from raising such crops as cotton. Thus, for at least ten years (and perhaps, depending on the country as many as 50 years) the Spanish cattle mixed with a few animals from Kentucky and Louisiana had developed into the Texas Longhorn.
            Up in the Industrial North manufacturing was growing as was the population. A railroad that had been started and halted due to the war was continuing on toward the west coast. All these people up there needed meat and Texas beef would do just fine, even if some of it was more than 10 years old. Thus began the many trail drives from Texas and Arizona Territory north to meet the railroad.
            There was thought to be tens of thousands of cattle out there in the brush. When they eventually began rounding them up and trailing them north there proved to be far more than expected. There was more than enough product but there just wasn’t enough equipment.
            The first problem was horses to drive the cattle. There were thousands of them as well, some in the bush but most on the plains since a horse’s defense from predators is speed. Most of them were fairly small animals, eight hundred to a thousand pounds and some even smaller. They were very fast and tougher than most animals twice their size. Once captured and broken well enough to carry a man they were known as “cow ponies” or “cayuses” and proved to be the best mount for working the Longhorn.
            The next problem was the tack to be mounted on the wild horse if enough could be caught and trained well enough to make a drive. There were saddles around but many of them in poor repair. Offsetting that was the large supplies of available leather from hides that had not managed a sale during the War. A large supply of metal items such as used horse shoes also existed and could be turned into cinch rings, bits, and re-enforcement for weak saddle trees.
            Following more than a year of training for both men and horses large herds where headed north to the rails. They drove to camps at the end of rail that grew overnight into towns and as the construction moved on disappeared completely. Some of those towns hung on and as the years passed grew into cities. Places like Hays City, Abilene, and Dodge City in Kansas. Later it was Cheyenne, Laramie and Saratoga in what is now Wyoming.
            When the east and the stock yards in Chicago had enough beef the price began to drop. There was still beef hiding in the thickets of Texas and young men who needed work and knew how to do little else than herd cattle. Now the cows were driven to ranges in Dakota, Wyoming and Montana Territories.
            Of course, these cattle on northern ranges needed a few men to treat them when injured or carrying parasites or to move them to better range when grass or water is in short supply. Caring for the herd on a specific range requires far fewer men than it takes to drive it but some of those Texas men stayed with the cattle, perhaps to have steady work, perhaps to avoid a problem in the south, or perhaps because they simply enjoyed the coutnry.
            In the late 1870s there developed a need for beef in the land north of the 49th parallel which, up until the late ‘60s had been British. Now it was a new country called Canada and they had 300 men up there called Mounted Police looking after it (also interpreted as interfering with free trade) and they needed to be fed. Every summer small herds of cattle were trailed up from Fort Benton to Fort Macleod, Fort Walsh and Fort Saskatchewan.
            Starting in 1881 that land to the north needed far more than a few hundred steers and a few milk cows. The Canadian railroad was across the prairies and their federal government began issuing large tracts of land to companies from Central Canada, the United States and Europe. These leases were cheap and tens of thousands of acres in size. They required thousands of cattle and dozens of cowboys to make them pay.
            In the early years it was easy to see the difference. For twenty years starting in 1860 the buckaroo west of the Rocky Mountains was likely to be mounted on a single rigged saddle cinched to a 1200 or 1500 pound horse, controlled with a hackamore, have tapaderos on his stirrups, two or three inch rowels on his fancy spurs and a sash around his middle that held his pistol. The “rieta” on his saddle might be of manila but it could be of hand braided leather or actually be a whip. His “chaparejos” or chaps may have been of ¾ length (mid-calf) and his boot tops reaching to just beneath the knee. All his gear, from hat to boots to bridle would be as fancy as he could afford.
            Over on the east slope the cowboy’s equipment and appearance was more utilitarian. In the late ‘70s and in real numbers starting in 1880 the cowboy on the east side of the Rockies would have been mounted on a cow pony of 800 to 1000 pounds. His saddle would have been double rigged and plain leather as were his chaps. His “lasso” would have been manila or hemp and his spurs no larger than required to do the job, not because he didn’t like fancy spurs but because he couldn’t afford them. His chaps would be of full length, reaching down to his ankle. His revolver might be behind a belt on his waist but more likely to be in a holster on his saddle, depending on the danger presented by the animals he was herding or the one he was sitting on.
            All these men were strong on individualism so there might be items that did not follow the general pattern. Perhaps the buckaroo did not have the money to dress as fancy as he would like or perhaps he traded his pistol and sash for fancy spurs. There where many native buckaroos (particularly of the Chilcotin and Similkameen peoples) and they often sent a great deal of their pay to family members and didn’t have enough to get too fancy in their dress. Over on the east slope a cowboy might spend all his pay on fancy dress and tack thus standing out from his contemporaries who spent their money on gambling, liquor (which was very expensive since the Mounties made the country dry), land and building their own ranches.
            Similar exceptions occurred in the animals. The horses that the Mounted Police brought with them had been chosen as the best suited for cavalry and artillery duty. A better choice would have been the “cayuses” favored by the Métis but some of the military horses survived and resulted in some larger horses in the Territories.
            As years passed the drovers on each side of the mountains drifted together and their differences disappeared.
            It started with the need for larger cattle. Those buying beef in the east wanted more fat on the animals for better flavor. Since beef was (and is) sold by the pound those raising cattle wanted more money per animal and for the animal to put that weight on as fast as possible. It was also discovered that though the Longhorn was tough and could handle winter weather and periods of drought the larger animals with some Shorthorn in their ancestry handled it well enough but recovered faster.
            Thousands of cattle where trailed in from both British Columbia and Oregon to the North West Territories. By 1890 the Longhorn had almost disappeared in the north and when the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan were formed out of the NW Territories in 1905 many people thought a “longhorn” was “that Hereford bull out there that needs to be de-horned.”
            Larger cattle meant a need for larger horses. As time and distance separated the buckaroo from the vaquero and brush country demanded a small loop and close work there were fewer who knew how to use the long braided rope and dally. Nineteen times out of twenty the stiff fiber lariat was tied to the horn of a double rigged saddle. The tough, quick little cow pony could still be found but more often than not the horse used to herd cattle or ride a fence line was between a thousand and fifteen hundred pounds.
            Over the years the preferences for tack and dress have blended until differences are difficult to detect. Riders on both sides of the mountains might prefer smooth, slick fork saddles with relatively high cantles. Likewise fancy spurs with big rowels and hat-bands with silver conchos will be seen on working dress in the Pincher Creek area of Alberta or in the Chilcotin Country of BC.

The information presented in the articles concerning the cattle business in Western Canada comes from a variety of sources.
“The West Beyond the West: a history of British Columbia” --- Jean Barman
“Frontier Days in British Columbia” --- Edited by Garnet Basque
“Frontier Cowboys and the Great Divide” - - - Ken Mather
“Buckaroos and Mud Pups” --- Ken Mather
“Cariboo-Chilcotin” --- Irene Stangoe
From interviews and conversations with old-time cattlemen, horsemen and a blacksmith from Southern Alberta; René Dhenin, George McLaughlin, Jim Cuelley, and Harold Baker.


  1. I think it looks amazing. I'm not sure I would have had the patience that you had though! dave burke

    1. Its all just research; the kind of thing I read when I'm not writing another novel

  2. A lot of good background on the development of the cattle industry in the West. I also did not know that the vaquero/buckaroo traditions extended into Canada.

    1. Most of the buckaroo/vaquero info comes from old pictures, diary and newspaper articles. There are pics in one of Ken Mather's books, for example, from the mid-1860s on the streets of Barkerville showing saddles with big horns and tapaderos.
      By the time I came along there was nothing left but a few stories from the old hands.

  3. Most of the buckaroo/vaquero info comes from old pictures, diary and newspaper articles. There are pics in one of Ken Mather's books, for example, from the mid-1860s on the streets of Barkerville showing saddles with big horns and tapaderos.
    By the time I came along there was nothing left but a few stories from the old hands.