The Cowboys of Bannock County

Closely associated with the Indians in the minds of many people, especially in the east, are the cowboys. The prevalent idea in the eastern states about the far west is much the same today as it was fifty years ago an illusion that the moving pictures help to keep alive. And yet, prosaic as it may be compared with the stirring times of yore, there is still a charm and freedom in western life unequalled in any other part of the United States. That western people are fully alive to the romance and adventure connected with the settlement of the west is shown by the fact that moving picture representations of western life are popular to an equal extent in no other portion of the Union.

The mouth of the Portneuf canyon was a favorite wintering place for cattlemen and freighters because of the feeding ground to be found on the bottoms, the shelter afforded by the surrounding hills, and the water supplied by the Portneuf River. For similar reasons the Indians used the present site of Pocatello for their winter quarters. Just west of Pocatello, along the banks of the Snake River, lay a rich and fertile grazing ground, where was situated the head-quarters of the old War Bonnet Cattle company, a big outfit that operated in this country for several years.

Until the old ranges were broken up into ranches, which practically ended the old cowboy life, the Portneuf canyon remained a winter haven for cattle men, and many wild and thrilling exploits were enacted here. The cutting up and fencing of the ranges has been inevitable in the course of progress and development, but from the cowboy standpoint it has not been altogether desirable Cattle driven by a storm will run before the wind, and when they meet an obstacle will halt rather than turn in the face of the gale. As a result, many cattle, stopped in their course, have perished from cold and exposure in recent years.

Cowboys and sheepherders are still seen daily on the streets of Pocatello. Many of the latter are Mexicans and they are looked down upon by the cowboys as being less hardy and daring.

The two classes have never lived peaceably together because the sheep clip the grass so close to the ground that cattle can find no nourishment, after the sheep have gone. For this reason fights were so common between the sheep and cattlemen that the government finally allotted to each grazing grounds of their own.

The sheep men go out with their charges in the early spring and are on the range for several months at a stretch. So many of them went insane from monotony and loneliness that a law has been passed, requiring owners to send two men with every outfit.

Like most men living an open and free life, these men are for the most part generous and careless of money, taking little thought for the future and oftimes going to excess for the present.

Some years ago, says a resident of Pocatello, an Italian, with infinite patience and trouble, succeeded in catching a mountain lion in the hills and brought him safely to town in a large cage. A band of cowboys, bent on merry-making, surrounded the cage and danced about it, letting out their blood-curdling yells and shooting their guns. The lion, unaccustomed to such antics, at first snarled savagely. Later he became quiet. The cowboys began to thrust at him through the cage, and then to dare one another to enter it. At length one of the men took up the dare. Armed with a knife and a gun, he cautiously entered the cage. The lion crouching in a corner watched the intruder but made no movement. The cowboy grew bolder and began to probe and kick the beast. His companions encouraged him with more hoots and yells, but still the lion lay quiet. Finally the adventurer withdrew in despair of stirring up a fight. The savage animal had been so completely cowed and terrified by the noise that it was literally paralyzed and unable to move.

Mr. Herman Goldsmith, now in the employ of the Oregon Short Line, but formerly a cattleman, tells of a town that boasted but one bathtub, owned by the barber. To this shop repaired the soiled and weary of the community for ablution and refreshment. One fine night a band of cowboys shot up the town and the next day the bathtub was gone. Search was made high and low, but no tub could be found. The loss was serious, as there was no railway in those days and another tub could not be purchased in a radius of many miles. The town had little godliness, and now even its cleanliness was gone! One fine day the disconsolate barber was given a tip that his bathtub was secreted in a cowboy’s shack some miles distant. A warrant was sworn out, the tub recovered, and the culprit hied into court. Came also the barber.

“How many baths do you sell a week?” asked the judge.

“About seventy,” said the barber.

“At how much per bath?” continued the judge.

“Fifty cents,” answered the barber.

“How many weeks has your tub been gone?” the court asked.

“Three,” the barber said.

Then the court summarized: “Seventy baths at fifty cents each equals thirty-five dollars per week. Three weeks at thirty-five dollars is $105.”

So he fined the cowboy $105 and costs, and reimbursed the barber for his lost business.

The same frontier conditions that produced the cowboy have served also to make the westerner a more rugged and ever-ready man than the easterner. The westerner may lack some of the culture and finish of his New England cousin, but he is better equipped to fight the battle of life both in his training and in his inherent qualities. The west is developing a fine and unique type of manhood. Its vast distances, its noble hills and far-stretching plains make an atmosphere of bigness that alone must influence, even inspire the race that is native to them. It is said that a little girl, fresh from the western plains, was asked how she liked the east. “I don’t like it,” she said.

“I can not see anything because of the trees.” And the same cramped conditions that oppressed the child have perhaps done their part in narrowing the easterner. However that may be, the easterner is usually a man of more narrow ideas and of stronger prejudices than the westerner.

We have one other inhabitant in Bannock County who deserves notice before he vanishes in the face of civilization the coyote. No one who has not heard the yell of a coyote on a still night knows what the phrase, “blood-curdling” means. These animals are often crossed with dogs and make cowardly curs, until they are taught to fight. Having once learned the noble art, it is hard to make them keep the peace. Their pelts have a market value today, and in time to come will probably be highly prized.

Another class of men who made a winter rendezvous of the present site of Pocatello were the freighters men who drove the old freight stages from Salt Lake to Butte. These men were true pioneers, camping along the old trails until they knew them blindfold for hundreds of miles, and encountering great risk from exposure and from the Indians. Sometimes an impoverished traveler worked his way with these freighters. He was called a swamper, and to his lot fell all the chores of the camp chopping wood, carrying water and building fires. He usually paid well for his passage.

There was always bad blood between the Indians and freighters, the former resenting the intrusion of the teamsters as they passed through the reservation along the old trail. The freighters prepared for trouble as they neared the reservation limits, and frequently met it.

In August 1878, two men, Orson James, and another named James, but not related to the former, were taking a load of merchandise from Salt Lake to Butte, and were attacked by a hostile Indian on the road between Pocatello and Fort Hall. The red man opened fire unexpectedly and shot James in the back. The freighters returned the fire from behind their wagons, but in time the Indian succeeded in hitting Orson James in the neck. Then he rode off into the sagebrush, but was later captured and taken to Malad City, at that time the county seat, for trial. He was sentenced to four months’ imprisonment in the penitentiary at Boise, where he died before his term expired. Both men recovered but Orson James was lame during the rest of his life.

When the Indian just mentioned was taken to Malad City, he was accompanied by a brother. This man heard Alec Roden, a cowpuncher, remark that the Indian on trial should be hung. He attached undue importance to these words, thinking, in his ignorance of the white man’s methods of justice, that they would affect the verdict unfavorably for his brother. Roden was later sent to the Fort Hall reservation to attend to a hay contract. In talking over the trial, Joe Rainey said to Roden, “You should not have let that Indian’s brother hear you advise hanging. He is likely to seek revenge.”

Roden laughed the fear away, but that same evening, while he was working at the barn, the imprisoned Indian’s brother shot him dead.

‘Such attacks served to keep the white men on the alert. They were usually unprovoked, so far as the people who were attacked knew, but an investigation generally showed that the red man, after his fashion, was visiting a real or supposed wrong on the first member of the offending race he encountered.

Few features of the far west are more widely known, or more characteristic than the prairie schooner. In parts of South Africa the same pioneer conditions exist that prevailed in our western states until a few years ago. The climate and nature of the country are much the same. It is interesting to notice that the same conditions, ten thousand miles away, and untouched by American western influence, have produced the same prairie schooner that we see winding the dusty trails of Bannock county today. It is probably safe to say that were two bodies of men sent from Paris one five thousand miles east and the other five thousand miles west to new countries of like conditions, the two parties would be found after several generations to have evolved the same habits of dress, custom and life. Yet not the men, but Nature, the great mother of us all, would have decided these things for them.

History of Bannock County, Idaho

Source: The History of Bannock County Idaho, By Arthur C. Saunders, Pocatello, Idaho. U. S. A., The Tribune Company. Limited, 1915

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