Left out of the textbooks: The Great Cowboy Strike of 1883

June 10, 2010

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.

From University of California at Davis's  Exploring the West Project: Cowboy at work, TX, c. 1905. Library of Congress, Washington, DC. Erwin Smith photo. http://historyproject.ucdavis.edu/khapp.php?SlideNum=2721

From University of California at Davis’s Exploring the West Project: Cowboy at work, TX, c. 1905. Library of Congress, Washington, DC. Erwin Smith photo. http://historyproject.ucdavis.edu/khapp.php?SlideNum=2721

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.

Check it out at the Texas State Historical Association’s Handbook of Texas Online:

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?

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Gambling to make government work, in Cave Creek, Arizona

June 17, 2009

It helps that it happened in a small Arizona town, in the desert, with a colorful name.  You cannot imagine such a thing happening in Yonkers, New York, nor in West Bend, Wisconsin.

A deadlocked election for the Cave Creek city council came down to a draw from a deck of cards, a poker deck carefully shuffled by a robed judge.

Cave Creek, Arizona, Judge George Preston, shuffles cards to breal a deadlock between Thomas McGuire, left, and Adam Trenk.  New York Times photo by Joshua Trent

Cave Creek, Arizona, Judge George Preston, shuffles cards to breal a deadlock between Thomas McGuire, left, and Adam Trenk. New York Times photo by Joshua Trent

We get the story from The New York Times:

Adam Trenk and Thomas McGuire, both in blue jeans and open-collar shirts, strode nervously into Town Hall with their posses. There stood the town judge. He selected a deck of cards from a Stetson hat and shuffled it — having removed the jokers — six times.

Mr. McGuire, 64, a retired science teacher and two-term incumbent on the Town Council, selected a card, the six of hearts, drawing approving oos and aws from his supporters.

Mr. Trenk, 25, a law student and newcomer to town, stepped forward. He lifted a card — a king of hearts — and the crowd roared. Cave Creek had finally selected its newest Council member.

“It’s a hell of a way to win — or lose — an election,” Mr. McGuire said. Still, it was only fitting, Mr. McGuire and others here said, that a town of 5,000 that prides itself on, and sometimes fights over, preserving its horse trails, ranches and other emblems of the Old West would cut cards to decide things. A transplant of 10 years from Yorktown Heights, N.Y., north of New York City, Mr. McGuire said he knew things were different here when not long after arriving he walked into a bar and found a horse inside.

Marshall Trimble, a cowboy singer, folklorist and community college professor who serves as Arizona’s official historian, said, “We are pretty tied to our roots here, at least we like to think so.”

Hans Zinnser, in the venerable Rats, Lice and History,  relates the story of an eastern European town where such ties are broken by lice — the two candidates put their beards on a table, and a louse is placed between the men.  The man whose beard the louse chooses is the winner.

Of course, this makes it difficult for women to participate in government fully.

Cave Creek is a typical cowboy, American town.  Deadlocks in government can be resolved by a game of chance.

Government teachers, history teachers, go get this story and clip it — it’s a good bell ringer, if not a full lesson in democratic republican government.

So, as the state’s Constitution allows, a game of chance was called to break the deadlock. The two candidates agreed on a card game (alternatives from the past have included rolling dice and, on rare occasions, gunfights).

Mr. Trimble said a cutting of the cards or roll of the dice had decided ties a handful of times in Arizona local elections. Tie-breakers have also been tried in other states, including in recent years in Alaska and Minnesota, said Paul Fidalgo, a spokesman for FairVote, a Washington group that monitors and advocates for fair elections.

Mr. Fidalgo said the group objected to random chance as the decider of election outcomes.

“Definitely not a democratic ideal, to say the least,” he said, suggesting, among other ideas, that the tied candidates engage in one more runoff.

That was ruled out here as too expensive, and besides, this was much more fun, as Mayor Vincent Francia made clear, clutching a microphone and serving as M.C.

“Originally we thought of settling this with a paintball fight but that involves skill, and skill is not allowed in this,” Mr. Francia said to laughter.

Did you ever think that the ability to shuffle a deck of cards would be a job skill for a judge?  There’s a reason law students play poker in the coffee lounge, and all weekend!

There’s more.  Go read the Times. This is also why the New York Times is a great paper, and why we cannot function without “mainstream media.”  Who else could have brought us the story?

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