Review of “Cattle Kingdom: The Hidden History of the Cowboy West” by Christopher Knowlton

This is one heck of a good book, so full of interesting historical facts and vignettes that you will be driving everyone around you crazy as you read by calling out repeatedly, “Listen to THIS!”

It tells the story of the open-range cattle era and the rise of the cowboy from the perspective of its economic origins. But if that sounds dry, don’t be deceived. Knowlton, a former magazine writer, understands how to hold your interest. As far as the story he wants to tell, it is one with contemporary relevance. He writes:

“One goal here is to shine light on the psychology and greed that drive an investment mania, and on the financial and human catastrophes that result from the bursting of a commodity bubble.”

He sees this history not only as a morality tale about those who devote all their dreams (not to mention money) on speculative financial bubbles, but as an opportunity to study the environmental disasters that were both caused by the cattle boom, and which contributed to its demise.

He also wants you to know the real story of the American cowboy, and how different the reality was from the iconic and heroic myth that has grown up around cowboys and that is portrayed in books and movies. He explains:

“The work was hard, dirty, and monotonous – hardly the exciting version depicted in the dime novels and the eastern press. . . .”

As one cowboy noted in his memoirs, it was “a continual round of drudgery, exposure and hard work which beggar description.” In addition, “the job of a cowboy entailed an astonishing number of ways to get hurt or killed: “You could fall from your horse, you could be kicked in the head while roping a steer; you could be gored by a horn, you could drown while crossing a river, you could be caught in quicksand,” etc. And there were many less-than-fatal perils of the job, such as the torment of insects, sunstroke, sun blindness, infections, lack of medical care, grueling hours, and the long winters with no work at all.

Rancher and trail boss Charles Goodnight is credited for inventing the chuck wagon in 1866 to serve men on the cattle drives; they became ubiquitous across the open range.

Furthermore, the stories about “cowboys and Indians” were exaggerated as well. Relatively few skirmishes took place between these two groups. In fact, by the time the cowboy movement began out West after the Civil War, the numbers of Native Americans had been drastically reduced by disease and starvation, and in any event most had been moved to reservations.

How and why did it get portrayed otherwise?

As it happens, the story of the cattle era is also a story of fake news; news manufactured to spur immigration to aspiring new states, to drive profits, to justify killing Native Americans and lynching rivals, and to build up the careers of those wanting to capitalize on this particular definition of the American character. Knowlton argues that the cowboy myth, so appealing to Americans, has even influenced America’s foreign policy.

Finally, this book focuses on three young men in particular who were drawn to participate in the cattle boom: a rich Englishman, a rich Frenchman, and a rich American, Theodore Roosevelt, who of course went on not only to become the U.S. President, but also to be one of the leading conservationists in American history.

Theodore Roosevelt in the Badlands

When the Civil War was over, the Confederate economy was devastated, and the impoverished young men of the South had no way to make a living. It was in Texas, the author reports, that the era of the Cattle Kingdom was born. Thus, as the author reports, at the peak of the cattle boom a majority of cowboys were white southerners, many former Confederate cavalrymen.

In Texas, there was an abundance of cattle, although before the Civil War, cattle were not valued for meat, but rather for their hides and tallow. Americans ate more pork than beef, because pork was easier to preserve. But that was about to change, thanks to the incentives and innovations of the cattle ranchers.

At the peak of the migration, “the largest forced migration of animals in human history,” some ten million cattle would be driven north out of Texas, accompanied by half a million horses and some 50,000 cowboys.” (Knowlton also devotes space to the rise of prostitution out West. It was in fact in Dodge City, one of the cowboy towns that sprang up, that the term “red-light district” was first coined, derived from the name of the red glass panels in one of the brothels.)

Dodge City in 1874, from Ford County Historical Society

And here’s a question for “Outlander” fans: What did the Highland Clearances after the Battle of Culloden have to do with developments of the American cowboy movement? The answer is surprisingly relevant, because the British were very big investors in the American West. But I’ll let readers discover the answer to that one by reading the book.

Some of the most interesting information in the book has to do with all the innovations and changes that the cowboy era brought, such as the rise of the meatpacking industry, and the influence of its automation innovations. In fact, as the author reports, meatpackers developed the first assembly lines, and it was from studying the process at Chicago slaughterhouses that Henry Ford came up with the idea of using a similar method to produce cars. The meatpackers also radically changed the American system of business procedures and management practices. Even the story about how Chicago got to be the epicenter of the meat business is fascinating.

Swift and Company
Packers, Union Stock Yards, Chicago, 1893

And as refrigeration was developed to get all this beef to eastern markets, Americans began to switch their eating habits. A trio of restaurants in New York known as Delmonico’s helped popularize eating steak. Delmonico’s is also credited with being the first American restaurant to allow patrons to order from a menu à la carte, as opposed to featuring fixed menus. Who knew?

Delmonico’s, Beaver and Williams Streets, 1893

Then there was barbed wire, which, invented to help solve the problem of wandering cattle, totally changed the husbandry of cattle. And, as the author points out, it would also come to play a significant role in the incarceration of people as well as livestock.

As for environmental disasters, perhaps the biggest one was the killing off of the bison. As Knowlton stated, “if the cattle were to come, the competing buffalo would have to go.” He declared:

“. . . nothing could match in numbers, poundage, and sheer waste the slaughter of the bison, or the speed with which this animal approached extinction. …in a stunningly short period of time, less than twenty years, the bison were forced to the edge of extinction, with no more than 325 surviving south of Canada.”

Bison skulls to be used for fertilizer, 1870

There were a number of contributing factors to the bison slaughter, not unrelated to the cattle boom. One was the expansion of railroads and telegraph lines, especially in response to the needs of the cattle business. Advances in firearms made killing these generally docile animals “the big-game equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel.” The U.S. military also abetted the slaughter in their efforts to deprive Native Americans of food so as to facilitate their “herding” into reservations. Even the fact that female bison hides were preferred by hunters led to the animals’ rapid extinction.

And what about the demise of the cattle era and the bursting of its economic bubble? Overgrazing, drought, corruption, greed, incompetence, growing conflicts between cattle barons and cowboys, and absentee management all played a role. But the nail in the coffin came from the brutal winter of 1886-1887, later known as “the Big Die-up.” Temperatures in the Great Plains went as low as sixty degrees below zero in places, accompanied by high winds and deep snows. It was the coldest winter on record. When it was over, nearly a million head of cattle were dead, some 50 to 80 percent of the herds across the northernmost ranges. Knowlton describes it as “the greatest loss of animal life in pastoral history” – at least, from environmental, rather than human causes.

Train stopped during Blizzard 1886. Ford County, Ks. Image courtesy Kansas Historical Society

Evaluation: I can’t begin to tell you all the fascinating things you will learn in this book. It’s a book I never thought would interest me, and yet it is one of the most absorbing and even exciting books on history I have ever encountered. I can’t sing its praises enough. Jim loved it as well, even though I spoiled much of it for him by reading many interesting parts to him while I read it first. Highly recommended!

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017

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7 Responses to Review of “Cattle Kingdom: The Hidden History of the Cowboy West” by Christopher Knowlton

  1. You have definitely piqued (peeked? peaked?) my interest.

  2. Randall says:

    Sounds like a spectacular book! It’s going on my wish list.

  3. BermudaOnion says:

    And I’m guessing the Delmonico steak was created at Delmonico’s. This sounds wonderful!

    • According to Wikipedia:

      Delmonico Potatoes were invented at Delmonico’s restaurant, and possibly Chicken à la King, but it was most famous for Delmonico steak. Eggs Benedict were also said to have originated at Delmonico’s, although others claim that dish as well.

      It is often claimed that the Baked Alaska’s name was coined at Delmonico’s as well, in 1867, by cook Charles Ranhofer. However, no contemporary account exists of this occurrence and Ranhofer himself referred to the dish, in 1894, as “Alaska Florida”, apparently referring to the contrast between extremes of heat and cold. Manhattan clam chowder also first appeared in New York at Delmonico’s. It is also claimed that Lobster Newberg was invented at the restaurant.

      Under Oscar Tucci’s ownership of Delmonico’s, he created the Wedge Salad. After a trip to a Bridgeport, Connecticut farm, Oscar picked the ingredients that became the salad as we know it to be. Tucci added bacon to the dish shortly after. The salad became an instant favorite, though some notable restaurateurs criticized the salad saying it was drenched in dressing. Today the Wedge Salad is served internationally and recognized as one of the most famous salads of the 20th century.

  4. Beth F says:

    Hahahahahhahaa You got an Outlander reference in there! Love it. But seriously, this book is SOOOO me. I must find a copy NOW.

  5. I’ll be requesting this from my library today. I’m something of a western fan, few of promote the cowboy myth in my experience but that’s a topic for another post. I’m struck by the idea of how the cowboy myth affects foriegn policy today. I can totally see that. I’m also a reader of California history and the history of the American west, so this book is for me. Thanks for pointing it out.

  6. litandlife says:

    I think my hubby would really enjoy this but I think I’ll have to read it first so he doesn’t drive me crazy with the “listen to this” stuff. Although, he’ll probably still do that.

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