‘The Passing of the Cowboy’ by Harrison George from the International Socialist Review. Vol. 15 No. 11. May, 1915.

‘The Passing of the Cowboy’ by Harrison George from the International Socialist Review. Vol. 15 No. 11. May, 1915.

How He Is “Broken to Ride or Drive” by Industrial Evolution

NUMBERLESS books have been written about the cowboy. His position in the economic life of the west has been draped with romance by fictional authors. Though changed conditions have undermined his prominence and resulted in the prevailing notion that he is dead, yet this is not strictly true. His position indeed is robbed of importance, his craft status is broken, but his spirit is not, and will yet play its part in the industrial struggle. The romance is dead enough all right, and the subject of it is “whip-broken” to the call of the boss. The wild days when he ruled the west with the law of the “forty-four” is gone along with the open range.

The skill needed in range riding and meeting the dangers of frontier life gave the cowboy great economic power as a craft workman, and fostered a spirit of individual independence that has survived the change in production.

The power he wielded in conquering the west resulted in a corresponding exaltation of him as a social unit of the times. The stockman of the old type ate, drank, rode and. fought along with his “boys”; and a comradeship of roughing it democratized western life. With little regard for statutes the men who rode the range had rules of their own and enforced them summarily upon all violators. They held in contempt the petty officials of the time and when they took the notion to shoot up the town in the cow-country, the constable took to the saloon cellar while the pioneer parson crawled under the board sidewalk. Being a supremely necessary factor in economic development, the “buckaroo” felt the tang of power and gloried in it.

For approximately thirty years the man on horseback ruled the range from Canada to the Rio Grande. But with the building of the transcontinental railways and the steady stream of settlers, conditions swiftly altered his status.

The seeker for farm lands invaded his domain and settled the most tillable valleys. Gradually driven to the hills, the old stockman rapidly went to the wall, his place being taken by fewer and larger livestock companies, who succeeded in obtaining large areas of range land together with hay land, by means of dummy entrymen and legislative deals, etc. But even most of their land is now fenced and the need of the skilled cowboy of the old type does not exist.

These large stock companies formed an alliance in order to gain control in the days when settlement began and resorted to murder on a wholesale plan such as the famous Johnson County War of Wyoming, where three hundred settlers were slain in four years by hired killers of the cattle ring. Evidence to show that Ex-Governor Carey and U.S. Senator Warren were involved in this murder campaign was suppressed at the time their gunmen came to trial. A lone copy of this startling, sworn testimony is in possession of a Cody man known to the writer.

This conspiratory body called itself the Wyoming Stock-Growers’ Association, and in conjunction with the eastern packers and commission men blacklisted any of the small stockmen. Any cowboy starting in for himself and who sent his cattle to the east found that the money for them was sent back to the Stock Growers’ Association and he was left helpless.

When the cow-puncher became less important his pay stopped after the last fall roundup, although he was formerly paid the year round though he did no work in the winter. This enforced hunger period was avenged by him in rustling mavericks (unbranded cattle) for any small settler who would feed him and his horses over winter. This is why so many of the old timers are in the penitentiary today.

Though he yet holds the spirit of freedom begot by the wild life in the saddle, he is now compelled to do work most distasteful to him. He must make hay, dig ditches, hoe spuds, and follow a band of “woollies” over the hills AFOOT! Only one who has lived with him can appreciate how humiliating it is to him to be compelled to make hay and walk afoot over the hills. Yet he must perforce, as the railroads have brought competition in labor power and his skill is now useless.

His economic power nullified, his camp democracy is gone. While the owner is enjoying Palm Beach or the Great White Way, the foreman is speeding up the slaves to make the ranch pay. As a ranch hand the cowboy is transformed socially and is regarded as a mere working-man. The foreman even will not eat at the same table and in the ramshackle bunkhouse there are posted a set of printed rules telling him when he must get up, when he is allowed to eat, when to work, and how he must conduct himself. His old craft skill is useful now only to movie companies and at western fairs, where he is hired to edify eastern tourists.

Although numbers of frontiersmen and cow-punchers took up land, yet most of them clung too long to the saddle, and even after getting land were ill-fitted to survive in the new environment. “Buffalo Bill,” the super-hero of western life, though capable of meeting victoriously bad Indians and road-agents, is now an old man and in the clutches of the bankers and mortgage holders, against whom he can no longer use the trigger-law of the cow country or summon the cowboys to defend the ranch from its besiegers as of old.

In “chaps” and flapping Stetson the cowboy strolls the streets of small western towns, but should he venture to wear a gun or get gay, he is promptly thrown in jail in enforcement of city ordinances duly made and provided. His skill useless and himself degraded to an unskilled proletarian he must face conditions and bow his neck though his proud spirit revolts at the task and taskmaster.

More and more is he commingled with the unskilled worker fleeing from the factory hells of the east. More and more will he be imbued with the class conscious solidarity and working principles of the ONE BIG UNION.

In the camps and bunkhouses his liberty-loving soul rejoices in singing songs of revolt from the little Red-Book and he listens with interest to the pioneer I.W.W. who ventures into his western habitat. Once he understands the message he may be counted on as a militant factor in the class struggle. And he does love DIRECT ACTION.

The International Socialist Review (ISR) was published monthly in Chicago from 1900 until 1918 by Charles H. Kerr and critically loyal to the Socialist Party of America. It is one of the essential publications in U.S. left history. During the editorship of A.M. Simons it was largely theoretical and moderate. In 1908, Charles H. Kerr took over as editor with strong influence from Mary E Marcy. The magazine became the foremost proponent of the SP’s left wing growing to tens of thousands of subscribers. It remained revolutionary in outlook and anti-militarist during World War One. It liberally used photographs and images, with news, theory, arts and organizing in its pages. It articles, reports and essays are an invaluable record of the U.S. class struggle and the development of Marxism in the decades before the Soviet experience. It was closed down in government repression in 1918.

PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/isr/v15n11-may-1915-ISR-riaz-ocr.pdf

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