On March 31, 1883, cowboys in Texas sort of went on strike. This was a pretty limited organized labor action and cowboys were hardly the ideal group of workers to strike, given the individualist nature of the industry, not to mention the wide open spaces in which they worked many miles from each other. But this still gives us a moment to examine changing worlds of work among cowboys, who are massively romanticized in American culture, but rarely seriously considered as workers.
Cowboy work sucked.
Seriously, this was like a very hard job. Imagine–the sheer level of isolation. The horrendous weather of the Great Plains. The rattlesnakes. The cattle, who are very large, very dangerous, and very stupid. Add to this the gratuitously terrible working conditions of the Gilded Age, which we mostly think of as factory work but extended throughout society.
Despite the lies of early westerns, where John Wayne and Gary Cooper personified the cowboys, cowboying was one of the most diverse jobs in the United States. That’s because it was a terrible job. Sure there were lots of whites. But about 25 percent of cowboys in the late 19th century were Black, probably close to that were Mexican, and there were a few Native men in there too. So perhaps a majority of cowboys were white, but it was probably more of a plurality. So like basically every other job, hard brutal work was done by people of color. Wayne is rolling over in his grave even hearing this.
The 1880s also saw a huge boom in eastern and European capitalists investing in cattle farms. This was a combination of rich guys looking to stash their money somewhere combined with the growing romanticization of the American West. Think Theodore Roosevelt here, who was one of these people, though in North Dakota, not Texas. But these were capitalists of the Gilded Age. They saw their investments like they saw their banks and railroads and factories. They existed to make money. Period.
Now, we don’t usually think of cowboys as workers in the same way as factory workers, but in fact, the impact of these investments on workers were the same as in the factories. What people often forget about 19th century unionism is that the most critical issue was not wages or hours. It was control over work and the decline of what were seen as customary worker rights. It was the same on the ranches. Cowboys were used to certain rights where they worked. That included combining their own small herds with that of the ranch owner. It also included taking pay in calves, if desired.
The new ranch owners had no interest in any of this. They would not allow their workers to run their cows with the ranches and they would not hand over any calves. That was capital investment after all. Meanwhile, the work remained incredibly dangerous, both in terms of weather and dealing with gigantic unpredictable beasts.
So, in 1883, some of the cowboys got together and decided to give the owners a list of demands and refuse to work until they granted them. Wages were the real demand here, as they had mostly given up on their traditional rights and figured they should at least get paid. Now, we don’t know very much about this strike. Cowboys were not exactly the type of worker to write a lot of stuff down. They certainly didn’t form a union. But here’s what we do know. There were five ranches involved. The strike lasted for over two months. Twenty-four men signed the demands. The strike leader was named Tom Harris and he worked on the LS Ranch, a huge operation in the Panhandle. They worked to convince others to strike. Perhaps 325 cowboys participated at some point in the action, but there wasn’t exactly a culture of solidarity here and men came and went, especially as the money got tight. The cowboys did work up a small strike fund, but it wasn’t much.
Most of what we do know about this strike came from the hyperbolic response of the ranch owners and the media. They claimed these strikers were going to use violence, were basically anarchists, and needed to be destroyed. There probably was some cattle rustling but that’s about it. The last time any newspaper mentioned the strike was on May 10. Probably some people stayed out until June. But they almost certainly lost.
That about sums up our knowledge here. But it’s an interesting moment in our labor history and a good chance to explore a history of work that we often watch in movies but don’t think about very much.
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