The Cowboys (Laramie Weekly Sentinel, August 20, 1881)

The trigger-happy cowboy, honorable yet ill-tempered, jovial and murderous at the same time, is no modern invention. Even people of the contemporary Wild West revered and feared wild tales of roughnecked gunslingers, as this 1881 Wyoming newspaper article demonstrates.

I love digging through old newspapers – they are neat timecapsules of an era long gone by, a window into the past where we can see what stories and issues our grandparents’ grandparents troubled and moved. So when I came across the Wyoming Newspaper Archive from the Wyoming State Library, it was like stumbing upon a real treasure trove. What I found particularly fascinating was the sheer numbers of newspapers even a small community in the very sparsely populated Wyoming Territory could produce. A town like Laramie had 2696 inhabitants according to a 1880 census, listing such professions as an “owner of silver mine,” a number of teamsters, several saloonkeepers, railroad conductors, rolling mill employees, clerks and doctors. One Lizzie Palmer was listed as “keeping a house of ill fame”, having three “employees” in her service and a male “house plasterer” living in the same house, according to the record. Another Laramie man, H. L. Halstead, 28, confidently listed his occupation as “gambler.” And even this number seems highly inflated – apparently the Laramie census taker even counted 31 members of a government pack train temporarily camped just outside town as citizens.

And yet, these barely 2700 people had quite the selection of newspapers to choose from: In the time between the early 1870s and 1891 readers in the small town could choose between the Laramie Daily Boomerang, the Weekly Boomerang, the Frontier Index, the Daily Sentinel, the Weekly Sentinel, the Daily Sun, the Daily Times, the Laramie Republican, Wyoming and its Future, Wyoming Illustrated Monthly, or the Wyoming State Journal. Now, granted, most of these papers were no more than four pages per issue, and it seemed more important to advertise local businesses than spread local news: Apparently, the main goal of these “journalistic” endeavors was to give their readers a taste of the world. As such, the front pages are usually filled with miscellany of a wide variety: One issue I came across, for example, contained poems, a few unconfirmed rumours from all over the Territory, anecdotes about clergymen and wedding mishaps, a story about a con trick pulled in Paris, a curious court-case in Cheyenne, gossip about Queen Victoria’s court, trivia about carpet-making in Kidderminster, England, in the year 1749, and the export numbers of Indian Rubber from Brazil between 1875 and 1879 (66,000,000 pounds, worth £4,400,000, in case you’re interested). Since the editorial staff of the local papers were quite small (as far as I can tell mostly consisting of just two people, if they’re named at all), most of these stories are second-sourced from other publications from all over the US – although I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them weren’t made up entirely.

Laramie weekly Sentinel August 20 1881.png
Front page of the Laramie Weekly Sentinel, August 20, 1881

As random as this collection of Miscellany may appear, there is one trend I noticed when browsing through the newspapers of Old West Wyoming: The loved to use any excuse to print stories or rumours about Cowboys and Indians – quite remarkable for a Territory with it’s fair share of cattle ranches and Indian reservations (a census stated that in 1890 about 62,555 people lived within the 253,600 km2 of the Territory – and somewhere between one million and two million heads of cattle).

One of these tales – simply titled “The Cowboys” – graced the front page of the August 20, 1881, issue of the Laramie Weekly Sentinel, though the story is sourced to the Chicago Tribune. It starts with the correspondent chancing upon a cowboy on his way to his own murder trial during a train ride. It is a fascinating read, not the least because the author himself seems both intrigued and disgusted by this “class of men who are scattered through Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and Colorado, and who are more dangerous to society than all the other criminal classes combined.” Awestruck and fearmongering at the same time he proceeds to share more and more wild tales and anecdotes, and although he drops a few names here and there in this quite long article, he is still quite sparse with actual facts – remarkably, the only case he shares that names not only the wild cowboy, but also his victim, a concise place and a time of the deed is the 1880 killing of Marshal White in Tombstone, Arizona, by Curly Bill Brocious – one of the key events that would eventually lead to the famous Gunfight at the OK Coral.

The scans of these old newspapers are quite hard to read, but I’ve transcribed the entire article in the following paragraphs, and I hope you’ll enjoy reading it just as much as I did (I’ve also left the spelling errors the original article made, but I’ve broken the entire text up into paragraphs to make it easier to parse).

The Cowboys

I met a “rara avis” on the train between Tucson and Benson, in the person of a noted Cowboy named Jerry Benton. He had killed a man two or three weeks before, and was now on his way to the scene of the murder for trial. “The law gets the best of us fellows”, said he to me as he laid a huge six-shooter on the seat in front and took a seat by my side. “I have a chance for my life if only one man is against me, but a dozen against one gives a fellow no show; but my bondsman shan’t suffer, and I’ll stand my trial like a man”. He is a big, burly fellow, with the white slouch hat, colored shirt, scarred face and desperate look so characteristic of the border ruffian, and with a form which whiskey and a wild life seemed powerless to deform.

“Jerry is a good fellow,” said his companion to me as Jerry placed his revolver in his belt and walked to the other end of the car, “but a regular devil when under the influence of liquor or angry. He has killed so many men that he now takes no chances, and thinks that every man he meets is after his life. That huge revolver he carries is a dangerous weapon, and Jerry generally knows how to get the drop on his victim; but the last young man he killed was very popular, and had a great many friends, and some strange swearing may be expected at the trial. Arizona is a frontier country, and a man must not be squeamish about shooting if he himself expects to survive; still, there is a good deal of honor among cowboys, and Jerry is not the least honorable of them all.”

Jerry Benton is only a type of a class of men who are scattered through Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and Colorado, and who are more dangerous to society than all the other criminal classes combined. The untamed cowboy generally sports a large six-shooter, a belt, a knife, a repeating rifle and a huge pair of spurs; the mustang which he rides is supplied with a Spanish bridle, and is held in check and guided by a huge Spanish bit. Herding cattle being his vocation, nothing delights him more than a wild chase after an untamed steer; and, being a splendid rider, neither Apache or Soldier can get the better of him on the plains. Sometimes he is American; sometimes a Mexican, Indian or half-breed; but, no matter what his nationality may be, he is as uncivilized as a grizzly bear and as reckless as a savage. He would be as much out of place in a Chicago parlor as a wolf in a sheep-fold, or an alligator in a bird-cage; but, properly mounted, his saddle ornamented, and his animal trained to carry out his slightest wish, he doesn’t serve as a bad subject for an artist, and his physique and horsemanship are universally praised. Quick, wiry and intrepid, often generous and humane, he is ever sui generis, and many are the stories told of his blood-thirsty career. Originally he belonged to Texas, and was generally known as the Texas ranger; but, with the increase in stock raising farther west, he has finally come upon the railroad, and he is now found on every range from Tucson to Santa Fe. He it is who has made life on the border unsafe for immigrants, who does the shooting in most of our frontier towns, and who is fast becoming a terror to the citizens of the sections when he chooses to visit. Like “The Bad Man from Bodie,” fear to him is an unknown quality, and the greater the danger the more desperate he does seem to become.

Some time ago a crowd of cowboys went to a certain restaurant in a small town north of here, and amused themselves by shooting at the plates in front of the boarders. The guests suddenly concluded that they were no longer hungry, and a general stampede was made, and the cowboys enjoyed the fun immensely. “A cowboy came into my place, near Tombstone,” said Jerry Benton to me, “and began firing at my chandelier. I began firing, too, and soon that cowboy dropped in his tracks.” In another village, not long since, I read that, after a certain congregation had assembled in the evening, a number of cowboys entered the church, and one of them exclaimed: “See how neatly I can shoot the eye out of that fool of a preacher!” The preacher stepped down and out, and the congregation quickly dispersed. Curly Bill, who killed Marshal White at Tombstone last year, with his gang entered the church at Charleston, and, ordering the minister out of the pulpit, compelled him to dance in the most approved style, before his congregation. The gang guarded the doors ad allowed no one to escape until the performance was over. That minister is now more strongly opposed to dancing than ever before. Another reverend gentleman not long since met two cowboys and, on being invited to drink, politely declined. “You drink with us, or die right here,” said one of the desperadoes, pointing a revolver at the minister’s head. And he immediately took the biggest drink in his life; and even Neal Dow, John B. Gough or Governor St. John would not have acted otherwise.

Johnny-Behind-The-Deuce, Buckskin Sam, Dare-Devil-Tom, and Lightning Bill are celebrated for their wild exploits, and sorry will be their fate if they once come within the power of the law. A few days ago Buckskin Sam bought a new gun in a store in a border town, and celebrated the event by riding through the streets and firing it off. A great excitement was the consequence, and armed men, on foot and on horseback, at once gathered and gave chase. Sam, however, eluded them, and, after having no small amount of fun, came in and gave himself up, and the next day put a handsome fine into the city treasury.

It is related of the notorious outlaw Jack Slade, who at one time haunted the region of the North, and than whom no more desperate cowboy has since appeared, that, on one occasion finding an old enemy tied to a post by some of his (Jack’s) friends, in such a position as to render him entirely helpless, he shot him twenty-three times, taking care not to kill him, and cursing all the time in a most fearful manner, and taking a big drink of whisky between every two shots. While firing the first twenty-two shots he would tell his victim just where he was going to hit him, and then send a bullet to the spot indicated. Seven of Slade’s companions witnessed the proceedings and thought it was capital fun. Unable to provoke a sign of fear from his helpless enemy, he thrust the muzzle of his pistol into his victim’s mouth and at the twenty-third shot blew his head to pieces. He then cut off the ears, which he afterwards was accustomed to exhibit in saloons, and, demanding drinks on the bloody pledges, was seldom refused.

On the frontier these cowboys are more feared than the Apaches. They shoot at a man’s hat to see the man jump, and then shoot the man if he demurs. They come in crowds to the smaller towns, brandish their weapons in view of the citizens whom they meet, and then help themselves to any goods or whiskey which they may need. They drive cattle across the Mexican border, where they sell them to their friends, the Greasers; and then steal the same cattle and drive them north, where they sell them again. Sometimes one is found who is humane, possibly generous to a fault; but a wild life on the plains is not generally adapted to bring out the better qualities of a man’s nature; and the majority of the cowboys in the south are a bloodthirsty and daring set. If the cattle stealing be not stopped, complications at any time are liable to arise between the governments of the United States and Mexico. Not long since it was recommended that a force of militia be put in the field, and the governments of Chihuahua and Sonora were requested to act with the American authorities in suppressing the outlaws. “No man is safe in the interior without a revolver,” said a citizen of Tucson to me, “either hanging from a belt or conveniently placed in an inside pocket”.

Until this dangerous class of men disappears, frontier life in New Mexico and Arizona will not possess many charms for the immigrant, and the agricultural and mining development of both territories will be seriously retarded. – Corr. Chicago Tribune



Curiously enough, the article reproduced below is what followed immediately after the fearmongering outlaw tale:


Bob Burdette explains how the weather may be predicted:

When a man gets up in the night and feels along the top pantry shelf in the dark and knocks the big square bottle without any label down to the floor and breaks it, it is a sign there is going to be a dry spell until seven or eight o’ clock in the morning.

When the cradle begins to vibrate with irregular, spasmodic motions about one o’clock in the morning, look out for squalls, and try to remember where you put the paregoric the last time you used it.

When the youngest boy of the family comes home three hours after school hours with his hair wet and his shirt wrong side out, look out for a spanking breeze.

To see the head of the family feeling in his right-hand pocket, and then in his left-hand pocket, then in all his vest pockets, then in his hip pocket, then in his coat pocket, then looking at the ceiling, indicates “no change”.

An unusually large number of spiders presages a very mild or a very open winter, as the case may be.

If the corn husks are very thick, the winter will be colder than the summer.

If the corn husks are very thin, the summer will be warmer than the winter.

If the corn husks are neither too thick nor too thin, the winter will be cold and the summer will be warm.

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