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“OGALLALY”! QUEEN OF THE COW TOWNS 

Ogallala, NE

For a brief, exciting decade in the history of the West, the tiny town of Ogallala, Nebraska, was the Mecca for trail herds of longhorn cattle, “choused” out of the Texas brush country and pointed north on the long drives. And by the time the glory days of the cattle drives had passed, Ogallala had more than earned her reputation as Nebraska’s  “Cowboy Capital,” and the “Gomorrah of the Plains.”

Cowboys and the Long Trail
Enterprising Texans had been driving cattle to potential markets – east to New Orleans, north to the farms of Ohio, Indiana, Iowa, Missouri and Illinois - as early as the 1830s and 40s, and west to the California gold camps in the early 1850s. But it was something of a cottage industry. After the end of the Civil War in 1865, however, the vast surplus of Texas cattle combined with the demand for beef in the East, to create a seemingly bottomless market. Timing is everything, and once the railroads started across the Plains, they provided a means of carrying the cattle to the Eastern buyers – provided the Texas cattlemen could get their rangy, irascible stock to the railhead. And so was born the classic “long trail” and the cattle drive of legend.

The first real cowboys – who were also referred to as “drovers” or “waddies” – were anything but glamorous. E.C. “Teddy Blue” Abbott, a veteran of the early drives to Nebraska and beyond, later recalled, “[T]hey were a wild, reckless bunch…. Their clothes and saddles were all homemade. Most of them had an army coat with cape which was slicker and blanket, too. Lay on your saddle blanket and cover up with a coat was about the only bed used on the Texas Trail at first.” With the growth of the cattle business, the cowboy took a greater sense of pride in his image, and by the early 1880s, he was spending a significant portion of his pay on his clothing and gear: rain-repellant slicker, shotgun chaps, fancy shirt, striped or checkered pants, custom boots with hand-forged silver inlaid spurs, a rig to hold his Colt, Remington, or Smith and Wesson revolver, and a colorful bandanna, all crowned by a flat-brimmed “Boss of the Plains” beaver hat with John B. Stetson’s imprimatur on the sweatband. Mounted on a frisky cow pony, he was a picture to capture the heart of any starry-eyed prairie girl.

The image of the cowboy, however, far outshone the reality of the drive. Despite the dramatic depictions in such films as “Red River” and “The Culpepper Cattle Company,” for the most part cattle drives were monotonous affairs, with the drovers creeping north at the speed of the herd, often enveloped in the dust of thousands of hooves. At night, the cowboys would sing to keep the cattle on the bed ground. “Teddy Blue” recalled how one song was created:

“After awhile you would run out of songs and start singing anything that came into your head. That was how the Ogallaly song got started…just made up as the trail went north by men singing on night guard, with a verse for every river on the trail…. When I first heard it, [the trail] only went as far as Ogallaly on the South Platte, which is why I called it the Ogallaly song.”

The monotony of the drive, however, was occasionally broken up by sudden and sometimes fatal incidents. One of the most treacherous was the stampede. Texas cattleman James H. Cook, who drove his herds to Nebraska in the 1870s and later settled in the state, lived through many stampedes, and later told of one such experience. A spooked horse bolted into the herd, “and now, as if by electric impulse – quick as lightning – the whole herd shaken with terror, plunges in one direction…. The alarm has brought every man to his feet. Stopping for nothing, caring for nothing but the one supreme object of overtaking, following, and at the first practicable moment turning and controlling the stampede, those quickest to think and act, seizing their saddled horses…. The flight is so swift that some of the riders lose the herd entirely….” Sometimes a horse would go down during a stampede, virtually guaranteeing the death of its rider.

There was no shortage of ways for a cowboy to die on the trail. He commonly perished of pneumonia, brought on by sleeping on the ground in all weathers with nothing but a wool blanket or his slicker for protection. He could also be dragged to death, struck by lightning, or killed by Indians, although this was not as common an occurrence as Hollywood would have us believe. Most Indians who approached a trail herd did so for the purpose of begging a steer. Cowboys also died of drowning. No matter which trail a crew took to get from Texas to the railhead, there were many rivers to cross. The rivers were often treacherous, especially at their flood or when concealing unsteady ground.

With its long hours and short pay, the cowboy’s life was glamorous only in memory, and in the “penny dreadfuls” written about life on the trail. In the words of one old cowboy ballad,

“A cowboy’s life is a weary, dreary life,
Tho’ some think it free from care.
It’s rounding up cattle from morning till night,
In the middle of the prairie so bare.”

It is little wonder that, after months in the saddle, the cowboys longed for the comforts offered by the city or town at end of trail.

Ogallala
Map of NebraskaAlthough a number of cattle herds were driven to the railheads in Kansas, the advent of the Union Pacific secured Nebraska’s place as a viable destination. As early as 1870, Schuyler established itself as the first Nebraska cow town, but the burgeoning population of settlers quickly pushed the cattle trade further west, first to Kearney, and then to Ogallala, which sat beside the tracks of the Union Pacific. Ogallala proved an ideal railhead for the cow herds, and for more than a decade beginning in 1874, it was touted as Nebraska’s cowboy capital and the “Gateway to the Northern Plains.”

The scrawny longhorn cattle driven to Ogallala were considerably bonier from the long drive by the time they reached the end of trail; but once in Ogallala, they were purchased by local buyers and ranchers, fattened up on Nebraska’s good grasses over the coming year, and shipped back east or sold to the local army posts and Indian agencies. Some of the trail herders who came up from Texas drove their cattle straight through to Wyoming or Montana Territory, using Ogallala as a rest and supply stop along the way. 

Close up map of NebraskaConsidering it would soon become one of the main destinations in the cattle industry, Ogallala had very inauspicious beginnings as a “tank town” for the Union Pacific. In 1867, shortly after the railroad was built, it sat on government land, and consisted of only a water tower and a section house along the tracks near the South Platte. The following year, two enterprising brothers – former railroad workers named Lonergan – and Louis Aufdengarten, a merchant and outfitter, determined to set up businesses here, catering to the needs of soldiers, trappers, buffalo hunters, and the few cattlemen of the region. By 1873, although a few rough buildings had been added, the Anglo population of the entire valley was estimated at only around 25 hearty settlers.

The next year, the Union Pacific secured Ogallala’s role as a railhead for the trail herds by building a cattle pen and loading chute just outside of town. Yet, despite its significance to the cattle industry, for its first few years Ogallala remained considerably smaller than other cattle towns, such as Dodge City and Abilene. Whatever growth it did enjoy was seasonal, and depended upon the arrival of the herds each June.

As late as 1875, Ogallala consisted mainly of a single street, running parallel to the south side of the train tracks and called, appropriately, Railroad Street. It boasted two supply houses, a shoe store, and two saloons – the Cowboy’s Rest and the Crystal Palace. At the end of the row stood the Ogallala House, a hotel that offered surprisingly good food to locals, cowhands and cattlemen alike. On the north side of the tracks stood the train station and section house, as well as the few homes of Ogallala’s permanent residents. Soon, the townsfolk would add a small school, and “the most substantial jail west of Omaha” – a 16’ by 26’ oak and iron structure that would quickly prove too small to accommodate its potential guests. When the drovers were in town, “Railroad Street was a jamboree day and night with horse races and buffalo rides and other bravado stunts and drunken cowboys roaming back and forth between the village’s two saloons and two identifiable houses of prostitution.”

Two events in 1876 gave Ogallala a tremendous boost in business. By winter, most of the Brule and Ogallala Sioux, who had been a constant threat to prospectors, settlers and ranchers alike, had been confined on reservations, serving the dual purpose of freeing up the northern ranges for grazing, and creating a new government beef market for the nearby Indian agencies. Also, a major gold strike was made in the Black Hills, where meat-starved miners and prospectors were willing to pay exorbitant prices for beef, to anyone willing to drive in the cattle. It is more than likely that James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok himself, during his brief, fatal sojourn in Deadwood, strained his jaw muscles on a steak of tough Texas beef from a longhorn steer that had been driven from Ogallala to Dakota.

For half the year, life in Ogallala was, in the words of one regional historian, “a dull, dreary existence in a drab, unpainted, and unpromising little village.” However, during the six months in which the trail herds arrived and the local ranchers rounded up their herds between the forks of the Platte, the saloons came alive with gamblers and “soiled doves.” What remnants of the drovers’ pay they did not siphon away was soon lost to the storekeepers and hotelkeepers. With the army often camped nearby, and the plains to the north carpeted with tens of thousands of cattle at a given time, there was no shortage of commerce for the small town on the South Platte. And when the drovers headed back to Texas, and the local ranchers returned to their spreads, the gamblers and ladies of the demimonde left for Cheyenne or Omaha, to return to Ogallala the following June.

Eventually, the town grew to accommodate its reputation. Cowboy Andy Adams recalled a drive made in 1882:

“[W]e finally scaled the last divide and there below us in the valley of the South Platte River nestled Ogallala, the Gomorrah of the cattle trail. From amongst its half hundred buildings, no church spire pointed upward, but instead, three fourths of its business houses were dance halls, gambling houses, and saloons.”

Adams and his fellow cowboys found the distractions they sought. “There was much to be seen,” he later wrote, “though it was a small place, for the ends of the earth’s iniquity had gathered in Ogallala.” After playing monte, they visited the Dew-Drop-In Dance Hall, one of the town’s houses of prostitution, where they found a variety of female companionship, “from girls in their teens, launching out in a life of shame, to the adventuress who had once had youth and beauty in her favor, but was now discarded and ready for the final dose of opium and the coroner’s verdict – all were there in tinsel and paint, practicing a careless exposure of their charms.”

Old West Violence
For its size, Ogallala came in for more than its share of Wild West mayhem. Generally, conflicts were resolved with fists – and the opportunities were many. Nearly all the cowboys who came up the trail were dyed-in-the-wool Southerners, many of whom had worn Rebel grey during the recent conflict. The sight of soldiers dressed in Union blue was often sufficient to strike the spark.

Horse and cattle theft was the most common form of lawbreaking - but violent death was never far away. During its heyday as the cowboy capital, Ogallala’s Boot Hill claimed at least 100 corpses – although the town had fewer than 130 permanent residents. Its first three victims were Union Pacific track workers killed by Indians just a mile from town. As with similar graveyards in Tombstone, Dodge, and dozens of other raw frontier towns, Ogallala’s Boot Hill residents – placed in canvas sacks and lowered into shallow graves - represented a mixed bag: settlers, women who died of illness or in childbirth, a four-year-old girl named Aufdengarten – no doubt the daughter of the town founder – who died of snakebite, and inevitably, victims of gunshot. On a single day in July 1879, Keith County sheriff Joseph G. “Buffalo Joe” Hughes shot and killed three of five rowdy Texas cowhands who had announced their intention to “clean out the town.” The deceased cowboys’ two “pards” managed to leave town on the run. 

Over the years, Ogallala’s reputation as a wide-open trail town grew, and spread throughout the West. According to one story, a trail boss who had earlier allowed his crew to go into Dodge for their fun forbade them from entering Ogallala, thus inadvertently giving rise to the expression that Ogallala was the “town too tough for Texans.”

During its heyday, there were, in fact, a number of deaths by gunshot, generally as a result of differences between cowboys. One such altercation occurred in August 1877, when a well-known and popular drover named Billy Campbell pushed brothers Andy and Alfred Moye into a lethal confrontation. Campbell had been drinking, and he berated the two Texans over their Southern origins. The brothers walked away, hoping to avoid trouble, but Campbell followed them into the Cowboy’s Rest Saloon. Both he and Andy Moye drew and fired. Within seconds, Campbell lay dead, and several bystanders were injured. Choosing to avoid legal complications, the Moye Brothers rode south at a gallop.

Perhaps the most notorious miscreant to afflict Ogallala with his presence was the Texas cowboy and outlaw, Sam Bass. “Teddy Blue” Abbott remembered Sam from his trail driving days as a “nice, quiet young fellow [who] did not get to drinking and raising hell.” In 1877, however, he raised some hell. At the tables in Deadwood and Ogallala, Sam’s trail boss, Joel Collins, had gambled away the proceeds from the herd he’d just delivered, and he needed a fast way to recoup his losses. He and Sam robbed several stagecoaches, which netted them a widening reputation, but little cash. September found them back in Ogallala’s Crystal Palace, hatching the plot that would earn them lasting fame in the annals of Western outlawry.

With four accomplices, they held up the Union Pacific train at Big Springs Station, 20 miles west of Ogallala. In so doing, they became the first bandits to rob the Union Pacific, and they rode away with a staggering $60,000 in newly minted gold coins – an amount worth in excess of a million dollars in today’s currency. With a $10,000 reward on their heads, the gang split up into three pairs, and rode in different directions. Three of the bandits, including Collins, were soon cornered and shot dead, but Sam managed to return to Texas with his share of the loot. He would “ride the owl-hoot trail” for another 10 months, when – on his 27th birthday – a fusillade of Texas Ranger bullets would claim his life.

The Law
Beginning in 1876, the court in Ogallala, as well as the rest of Nebraska’s vast Fifth District, was represented by Judge William Gaslin – and he was as tough as they came. He believed in stiff sentences. For a horse theft conviction, the sentence was 10 years; for first degree murder, death. According to local lore, Gaslin would frequently mount the judge’s bench armed with a Winchester repeater. At the beginning of one murder trial, Gaslin reportedly placed two Colt revolvers on the bench before him prior to opening the proceedings. Whether or not such stories are apocryphal, they convey the intensity of Gaslin’s approach to the pursuit of justice. Isaac Parker, the famous “Hanging Judge” of Fort Smith, AK, had nothing on William Gaslin.

In 1879, Martin DePriest and “Buffalo Joe” Hughes took over as Keith County sheriff and deputy. Hughes had held the post effectively on his own; but DePriest had come up the trail two years earlier, and he knew and understood cowboys. He allowed them to blow off steam, and tolerated horse races in the street and the occasional firing of sixguns – so long as they weren’t aimed at anyone. But should affairs get out of hand, he and his deputy were perfectly willing to enforce the law, with guns if necessary. Both men were competent in the use of firearms, and had occasion to draw them from time to time. But generally, as Andy Adams remembered, “The officers of Ogallala were a different crowd from what we had encountered at Dodge, and everything went. The place suited us.”

DePriest and Hughes were the best of the officers who represented the law during Ogallala’s wilder times; others were not so effective. The year before DePriest’s election, the post was held by a former stock detective and all-around low-life named Barney Gillan, and he participated in one of the most shocking outrages in Ogallala’s checkered history. In a land dispute between homesteaders and cattlemen, the brother of notorious Texas cattleman I.P. “Print” Olive was killed, and Print demanded retribution. Gillan took custody of the two homesteaders suspected of the killing, and rather than jail them for trial, he turned them over to Olive – who hanged and burned them. The sheriff then claimed a portion of the reward Olive had offered. Gillan was arrested, indicted for his involvement in the lynchings, and – along with Olive and fellow rancher W.F. Fisher – brought to trial before Judge Gaslin. So volatile was the situation that Gaslin was assigned three companies of infantry, who camped around the courthouse. Olive and Fisher were convicted of second degree murder, and sentenced to prison. Before the trial had ended, however, Gillan escaped jail, and was never heard from again.

In July 1879, the above-mentioned fatal shootings of three rowdy drovers by then-sheriff “Buffalo Joe” Hughes occasioned a town ordinance mandating that “the cowboys, as soon as they enter Ogallala, have to turn over their revolvers and guns to the officers.” The law was only marginally successful. Less than one year later, a shootout occurred in town that ultimately involved three of the Old West’s most famous figures.

William “Tuck” Tucker, one of Ogallala’s residents, was the proprietor of the Cowboy’s Rest Saloon, and he kept a sawed-off ten-gauge shotgun under the bar. On this occasion, he got into an altercation with Texas bad man William “Bully Bill” Thompson over the affections of Big Alice, a local woman of ill-fame. Without warning, a drunken Thompson fired at Tucker, shooting off a thumb and three fingers. Assuming the confrontation to be over, Thompson turned to leave, whereupon Tucker fired a load of buckshot into his back. The wounded Thompson was arrested and facing the possibility of a lynching, when word spread that his big brother, the famed pistoleer Ben Thompson, was coming to Ogallala to rescue him. Sheriff DePriest appointed extra deputies to meet the threat – which came from a totally unexpected source. William B. “Bat” Masterson – noted gambler and gunfighter, and an old friend of Ben Thompson’s – arrived in town from Dodge City. One night while the townspeople were having a dance at the schoolhouse, Bat sneaked the wounded Thompson aboard a train and spirited him to the North Platte home of his friend, William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody. Buffalo Bill gave Bat a carriage and “a big, strong Texas horse,” with which Masterson drove Thompson to the safety of Dodge.

An End to the Boom Times
Throughout the early 1880s, Ogallala continued to thrive, as more and more investors involved themselves in what they saw as the get-rich-quick cattle business. According to Texas cattleman John R. Blocker, some half a million cattle passed up the Texas Trail through Ogallala in 1883 and 1884 alone – and no one was better qualified to know. It was men like Blocker who made Ogallala the center of the cattlemen’s world. Hundreds of thousands of the cattle driven into and through Nebraska bore his brand. Blocker always had multiple herds on the trail, and in one year, he drove some 82,000 cattle north. At a 1916 convention of old-time trail drivers, one gray-mustached former drover recalled John Blocker as “the outdrivin’est man with a herd I ever did see!” Another old cowboy reminisced, “The dream of my life was to go ‘up the Trail’ with a big herd of cattle, and the dream was realized in 1883 when I went with John and Bill Blocker.”

Money from the East and from Britain bought up every available ranch site in Wyoming and Nebraska. Cattle holdings became consolidated among a few moneyed combinations, as the canny old-time cattlemen, sensing a change in the wind, sold out at high prices and left the business. Their predictions proved even more dire than they could have imagined. By mid-decade, a series of events combined to bring a swift and unglamorous end to the cattle drives – and to many of the big cattle outfits.

For years, homesteaders – or, “nesters” – had been moving onto the plains of Nebraska, as well as Kansas and Wyoming, filing claims on land where the cattlemen had always assumed the right to graze. By 1884, the numbers had swelled significantly. Pressured by these permanent voting residents, state legislatures passed laws favoring the farmers, and penalizing the cattlemen. In that same year, a widespread epidemic of Texas Fever was first detected in Ogallala, and subsequently infected cattle across the state’s ranges. Cattle died by the thousands, and many of the smaller ranchers failed. Strict quarantine laws were enacted, and except for a handful of diehard cattlemen, the trail drives became a thing of the past, and with their passing ended Ogallala’s reign as the cowboy capital.

Within the year, the emphasis changed to farming, as Ogallala’s – and Keith County’s - population soared with the influx of “sodbusters.” The town grew from slightly more than 100 residents to over 500 by the end of 1884, as two newspapers, five general stores, two butcher shops, three drugstores, three doctors, a bank, six land offices, a millinery shop, and a skating rink gave testament to the “civilizing” of Ogallala. Only three saloons remained, subject to an $800 licensing fee – that went to the school fund. 

Eighteen eighty-four also saw the incorporation of Ogallala, and in August of the same year, a fire claimed many of the buildings on the notorious south side of the tracks. A few days later – as if to put an exclamation point at the end of the old days – a gambler at the Crystal Palace shot and killed a man, making him Ogallala’s last shooting victim of the era. October saw the coming of the Congregational Church. Within two years, many of the old-timers had died or moved away. By this time, the western cattle industry itself had been dealt a crippling blow from which it never fully recovered, due to overgrazing, poor investments, usurpation of the range, and two consecutive years of the most brutal winters in memory. Ogallala would one day regain her standing as a vital part of America’s modern cattle industry, but it would be an industry much altered by time, science and necessity.

The old trail driving days were gone, but for that brief moment, Ogallala had claimed its place in the pantheon of Wild West towns. Perhaps the most fitting tribute was paid by a “saddle pard” of young Andy Adams, as they left town in the summer of 1882 to return to camp, and paused “for our last glimpse of the lights of Ogallala”:

“Boys, I’ve traveled some in my life, but that little hole back there could give Natchez-under-the-Hill cards and spades, and then outhold her as a tough town.”

—Ron Soodalter

“Ron Soodalter is an award-winning author, with degrees in American History, Education, and American Folk Culture. In addition to authoring his two current books, Hanging Captain Gordon and The Slave Next Door, he writes a regular column for America’s Civil War.  He has some 300 articles in print, in such publications as True West, American Cowboy, Wild West, Cowboys & Indian, Smithsonian, Civil War Times, and Military History. Soodalter serves as vice-president of the Board of the Abraham Lincoln Institute, and is an active member of the Western Writers of America and the Wild West Historical Association.”

 


 


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