It wasn’t in the textbooks before, and after the Texas State Soviet of Education finished work on new social studies standards last month, the Great Cowboy Strike of 1883 remains a topic Texas students probably won’t learn.
Unless you and I do something about it.
In the history of labor in the U.S., the common story leaves out most of the great foment that actually drove progressive politics between, say, 1865 and 1920. Union organization attempts, and other actions by workers to get better work hours and work conditions, just get left behind.
Then there is the sheer incongruity of the idea. A cowboy union? Modern cowboys tend toward conservative politics. Conservatives like to think of cowboys as solitary entrepreneurs, and not as workers in a larger organization that is, in fact, a corporation, where workers might have a few grievances about the fit of the stirrups, the padding of the saddle, the coarseness of the rope, the chafing of the chaps, the quality of the chuck, or the very real dangers and hardships of simply doing a cowboy’s job well.
Until today, I’d not heard of the Great Cowboy Strike of 1883.
COWBOY STRIKE OF 1883. In the two decades after the Civil War the open-range cattle industry dominated the Great Plains, then died and was replaced by closed-range ranching and stock farming. In West Texas during the 1880s new owners, representing eastern and European investment companies, gained control of the ranching industry and brought with them innovations threatening to many ranchhands. Previously, cowboys could take part of their pay in calves, brand mavericks, and even run small herds on their employers’ land. New ranch owners, interested in expanding their holdings and increasing their profits, insisted that the hands work only for wages and claimed mavericks as company property. The work was seasonal. It required long hours and many skills, was dangerous, and paid only an average of forty dollars a month. The ranch owners’ innovations, along with the nature of the work, gave rise to discontent.
In 1883 a group of cowboys began a 2½-month strike against five ranches, the LIT, the LX, the LS, the LE, and the T Anchor,qqv which they believed were controlled by corporations or individuals interested in ranching only as a speculative venture for quick profit. In late February or early March of 1883 crews from the LIT, the LS, and the LX drew up an ultimatum demanding higher wages and submitted it to the ranch owners. Twenty-four men signed it and set March 31 as their strike date. The original organizers of the strike, led by Tom Harris of the LS, established a small strike fund and attempted, with limited success, to persuade all the cowboys in the area of the five ranches to honor the strike. Reports on the number of people involved in the strike ranged from thirty to 325. Actually the number changed as men joined and deserted the walkout.
It was the wrong time to strike. With a full month remaining before the spring roundup, ranchers had plenty of time to hire scabs and strikebreakers, to replace the striking cowboys. Some ranches increased wages, but most of them fired the strikers and made the strikers crawl back to beg for jobs. Santayana’s Ghost is tapping at the chalk board about the potential lessons there. (You should read the whole article at TSHA’s site.)
It didn’t help that the striking cowboys didn’t have a very large strike fund, nor that they drank a lot of the strike fund up prematurely.
The Great Cowboy Strike, unimpressive as it was, is part of a larger story about labor organizing and progressive politics especially outside the cities in that larger Progressive Era, from the Civil War to just after World War I. It involves large corporations running the ranches — often foreign corporations with odd ideas of how to raise cattle, and often with absentee ownership who hired bad managers. The strike talks about how working people were abused in that era, even the supremely independent and uniquely skilled cowboy. It offers wonderful opportunities to improve our telling the story of this nation, don’t you think?
- From Stanford University’s Exploring the West project, a one-day lesson plan on cowboys, including the cattle ranching industry, the strike of 1883, cowboy crime, and Theodore Roosevelt’s time as a cowboy at the end of the era; readings and worksheets with questions are included (this section, on cowboys, is fun and short; be sure to check out the extensive materials on urban growth; for urbanization, especially in the west, this site holds a lot of good material)
- Article on the cowboy strike by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, with a focus on Tascosa, Texas; at Cal Farley’s site for ranch therapy for girls and boys
- How to purchase The Cowboy Way, from Texas Tech University Press, featuring an article on the strike from Robert Zeigler
- A history of the Duncan Ranch on the Llano Estacado, with more information about the cowboy strike and what motivated it
- Amazon listing for Elmer Kelton’s The Day the Cowboys Quit
- From Google Books, Labor Unionism in American Agriculture by Stuart Marshall Jamieson, with a chapter on the cowboy strike