As a member of the Allendale Zoning Board and Allendale Improvement Association, Eugene TenBrink was instrumental in securing the location for a new institution of higher education in West Michigan: Grand Valley State College (now University) (GVSU). He had always regretted not telling his mother he was going out West and so Eugene established a $10,000 scholarship in her honor. The description of that gift states that his mother, Alice, was “remembered for her strength, faith, and courage.”
The Alice TenBrink scholarship was fully paid out and deactivated in 2008. A portion of the proceeds from the sale of my book, Grandpa the Cowboy: A Young Man’s Journey through the American West, was used to establish a new scholarship to support first-generation college students at GVSU who are interested in American history. If you would like to make an additional donation to support that scholarship fund, you may do so at www.gvsu.edu/giving/tenbrink. Thank you for your generosity!
More than 70 million people worldwide claim Irish ancestry, including 45 million Irish-Americans. Using historical and archaeological case studies, Rotman explores the many contexts into which the Irish settled in the US during the second half of the 19th century–from big cities on the East Coast, like New York City; to smaller towns of the Midwest, including South Bend, Indiana; to mining communities, such as Butte, Montana. The unique communities into which the Irish settled significantly shaped their experiences as immigrants and influenced their success in their new country.
I have begun working on my next book (tentatively titled) “From Ireland to America: Irish Immigrant Experiences in the US.” Starting Saturday, October 15, I will begin a weekly blog about the many fascinating communities into which Irish Americans settled during the second half of the 19th century. Please subscribe and follow along! #books #irish #shamrocks
American bison (Bison bison) are commonly referred to as buffalo, although that name is not technically correct. Before 1800, there were an estimated 30 million buffalo and maybe as many as 70 million roaming the Trans-Mississippi West. These massive beasts are an integral part of the American story.
Bison have excellent hearing and smell, but terrible eyesight. Consequently, they are relatively easily spooked, which can result in stampedes. Cowboys report that encounters with bison while on the trail often resulted in stampedes of both bison and cattle.
Bison bulls can be 5 ½’ – 6 ½’ tall to the top of their shoulder hump and 9’ -12 ½’ long. Females are smaller at about 5’ tall and 7’-10’ long. Bison can weigh between 1,800-2,400 pounds. Calves weigh 30-70 pounds at birth. Despite their size, bison can run up to 35 mph. These impressive animals can also live up to 20 years.
In 1865, there were 360,000 Indigenous people in the Trans-Mississippi West with more than 500 culturally diverse tribes, each with own language, religion, and traditions. The most powerful tribe was the Lakota Sioux. Indigenous peoples depended on the buffalo for food, clothing, shelter, tools, jewelry and for use in their ceremonies.
The arrival of the railroads devastated the bison on the Great Plains. During migration season, herds blocked train traffic for hours at a time and occasionally even derailed locomotives. Passengers on trains reported seeing unbroken herds for 120 miles. The railroad companies offered bounties for the killing of buffalo and organized hunting parties for passengers to shoot them from open windows on moving trains. Buffalo Bill Cody got his nickname because of his excellent marksmanship and efficacy as a professional hunter. Working for the Kansas Pacific Railroad, Cody killed 4,200 bison in the 1860s. He claimed to have killed more than 20,000 throughout his career as a “buffalo hunter.” The Kansas Pacific and Union Pacific railroads sent 825,000 bison hides eastward for processing in 1872-1873 alone.
Bison were systematically slaughtered during the period of “Indian removal” and ranch development in the American West. The slaughter of the buffalo displaced Native tribes, while grazing cattle displaced bison. By the 1890s, there were fewer than one thousand buffalo remaining.
Significant conservation efforts began with President Teddy Roosevelt in 1905 and the founding of the American Bison Society. In 1992, the Inter-Tribal Buffalo Council was established, which includes 69 federally recognized Tribes in 19 states. Their mission is to not only restore buffalo to Indian Country but to preserve historical, cultural, traditional, and spiritual relationships between Indigenous peoples and bison. The Council works with the National Park Service to transfer bison from national park lands to tribal lands.
Today, there are approximately 500,000 bison in the West, but their status remains as “Near Threatened” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Some of the best places to see buffalo in the wild are our National Parks, particularly Yellowstone National Park in northwestern Wyoming, southern Montana, and eastern Idaho.
Jancer, Matt (2018) “Gun Control is as Old as the Old West: Contrary to the popular imagination, bearing arms on the frontier was a heavily regulated business. Smithsonian Magazine, February 5.
Knowlton, Christopher (2018) Cattle Kingdom: The Hidden History of the Cowboy West. HMH Books, New York.
Love, Nat. (1907) The Life and Adventures of Nat Love Better Known in the Cattle Country as Deadwood Dick by Himself. Los Angeles, California. Call number Duke 326.93 L897L. Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, Duke University Libraries, Durham, North Carolina. Available at https://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/natlove/natlove.html
Morrow, Julie (2021) “Adapting Against Assimilation: Recovering Anishanaabe Student Writings in Carlisle Indian School Periodicals, 1904-1918. Australasian Journal of American Studies 40(2, December):71-102.
History is often recorded through the lives of prominent individuals, often affluent men of Anglo-European origin. Yet those same events were almost always experienced by others—the non-affluent and poor; women, children, and others; Indigenous, Black, and other ethnic groups; young and old; and the like. This reality creates challenges for historians seeking to understand the experiences of people whose lives were rarely documented beyond vital statistics, such as birth, marriage, and death. I encountered these challenges while researching my great-grandfather Eugene J. TenBrink’s time working for the XIT Ranch in eastern Montana (1905-1910).
The XIT Ranch was a big cattle outfit out of the panhandle of Texas, which had its Montana Headquarters in Miles City. It was a huge ranch with three million acres between its two locations. At its peak, the XIT ranch in the Texas ran around 150,000 cattle annually and employed up to 150 hands. The Ranch there was so large that it eventually had over 6,000 miles of fences. Cattle were transported north by trail and train to the rich grazing lands of Montana and Wyoming. The finishing ranch north of Miles City, Montana where Eugene worked could accommodate 10,000 head a year to be fattened for sale. Its primary grazing land consisted of 400 acres in the triangle of land between the confluences of the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers in Dawson County. The XIT Cattle Ranch began closing its Montana operation in 1908, in part because of the terrible winter the year before. By 1910, cattle drives from Texas had stopped and the XIT ceased northern operations entirely in 1912.
We know quite a lot about the syndicate of wealthy Chicago businessmen who owned XIT between 1885 and 1912. There are newspaper articles, business records, journals and diaries that document their activities. Yet the hundreds of men who worked for them remain largely anonymous. Range Riders Inc. was formed in 1940 to help preserve their legacy.
More than 800 former cowhands created the organization to celebrate “the unheralded and unsung men who made range history in eastern Montana.” They wanted to ensure that the memory of their way of life did not disappear. To join the organization, charter members had to prove they had ridden on the open range before 1910. Eugene was proud of his time as a cowboy in Montana and was a member of the Range Riders Roundup.
The Range Riders have their headquarters at the confluence of the Tongue and Yellowstone rivers, near the former location of the XIT Ranch’s Montana operations in Miles City. An absolutely brilliant museum preserves and celebrates the lives and labors of these cowboys. If you are ever in eastern Montana, be sure to visit the Range Riders Museum!
Eugene’s saddle, chaps, and holsters were made by the AL. FURSTNOW Company in Miles City, Montana. The above image is of the company’s stamp on Eugene’s wooly chaps.
The company was founded by Al Furstnow in August of 1894. He had worked for his father and other saddle companies in Wyoming and Montana where he learned his craft. At the start, Al was the sole employee but he joined forces with Charlie Coggshall in December of that same year. Within a couple of years, they got a boost when they purchased the inventory of the Moran & W. J. Zimmerman Company. The saddlery was so successful that, for many years, they were the only major saddlemakers between Billings, Montana and Dickinson, North Dakota.
Furstnow and Coggshall initially made about 800 saddles a year. They also produced chaps, boots, hats, stirrups, and other products. Miles City was a well-known cattle town and the end-of-the trail for many cattle drives from Texas. Consequently, Furstnow and Coggshall had no shortage of business. As the company grew, they added workers to accommodate the demand. In 1916, they made 1,937 saddles and, between 1910-1930s, there were an estimated 40 saddlemakers in their employ.
Al Furstnow and Charlie Coggshall ended their partnership in 1899, but both continued to manufacture saddles. In 1925, Furstnow moved to California but the Furstnow Saddlery operated well beyond his death in 1925. Indeed, the AL. FURSTNOW SADDLERY was active from 1894 to 1982, nearly 88 years.
I grew up around horses and was emotionally attached to them as individuals and pets. In the West, however, horses were essential “tools” that made transportation, communication, shipping of goods, herding cattle, and other work possible. Horses were an especially critical component of the Pony Express. This express mail service operated for only 18 months—from April 3, 1860 to October 26, 1861—but its legacy remains a larger-than-life chapter in the history of the American West.
The Overland Mail Company had the $1-million-annual government contract for, you guessed it, daily overland mail as well as semi-weekly Pony Express delivery. The route extended from St. Louis, Missouri to Placerville, California, a distance of about 1,900 miles. The Overland Mail Company partnered with other entities, such as the Central Overland California and Pike’s Peak Express companies to complete the western route, particularly within California. Before the completion of the transcontinental telegraph, Pony Express riders also carried information to the areas between telegraph lines.
The service consisted of a series of stages or stations at regular intervals, often using the same routes and infrastructure as the stagecoaches or military posts. The Pony Express had 186 stations along its route, roughly 10 miles apart, depending on the terrain. The route followed portions of the Oregon, California, and Mormon trails, thoroughfares that carried many settlers and homesteaders into the West. The infrastructure to run the Pony Express required 600 horses and more hundreds of personnel to care for horses and riders as stock tenders and station keepers.
Riders traveled at a fast trot, cantor or gallop at speeds of 10-15 mph (or even as fast as 25 mph). Consequently, riders needed to stop frequently to get a fresh horse. Each rider rode 75-100 miles and the Express operated continuously, day and night. Buffalo Bill Cody rode the longest nonstop route between the Red Butte and Rocky Ridge stations in Wyoming. The journey was 322 miles, took nearly 22 hours, and required 21 horses!
Every effort was made to reduce the weight a horse carried to maximize speed. Riders could not weigh more than 125 pounds and carried no more than 40 additional pounds in mail, a revolver, water or other necessary gear. The Pony Express used Morgans, Thoroughbreds, and Mustangs, all of which averaged 14.2 hands—truly ponies! The express mail was carried in a mochila (Spanish for pouch or backpack) that was specially designed to be thrown over the saddle with the saddle horn (front) and cantle (back) protruding through. It was held in place by the rider sitting on top of it. The letters were tucked into cantinas or small leather boxes at the mochila’s four corners.
The Pony Express was an expensive way to send mail. Initially, a ½-ounce letter cost $5, which would be roughly equivalent to $150 today. Costs declined over time and, by 1861, postage was only $1 (although still a significant sum). For comparison, regular mail could be sent for 2¢, but could take months to reach its intended recipient. During its 18 months of operation, the Pony Express delivered an estimated 35,000 letters.
Pony Express riders carried verbal news as well as written correspondence. A stagecoach passenger on the Central Overland Stagecoach route recalled an exchange one November night in 1860 when the Pony Express rider dashed by: “What’s the news?” shouted the coach’s driver. “Lincoln elected! New York gives him fifty thousand majority!” was the reply from the darkness. In this way, California newspapers learned of Lincoln’s election victory in just seven days and 21 hours. Lightning speeds for the time.
The Pony Express was made obsolete by the arrival of the transcontinental telegraph, which could transmit news almost immediately. Importantly though, the Pony Express paved the way for the modern US Postal Service.
Booth, Bibi, Richard Brook, Mary Tisdale, and Elizabeth Wooster (2001) “The Wild Bunch.” Science and Children 38(8, May):21-32.
Jackson, W. Turrentine (1966) A New Look at Wells Fargo, Stage-Coaches and the Pony Express. California Historical Society Quarterly 45(4):291-324.
Mumper, Lucile Shank (1950) “The Oregon Trail.” Journal of Presbyterian History 28(1, March):21-32.
Schwantes, Carlos A. (1999) “The Steamboat and Stagecoach Era in Montana and the Northern West.” Montana: The Magazine of Western History. 49(4):2-15.
White, John H. (2013) “Down that Long and Dusty Road: Stagecoach Travel in America.” In Wet Britches and Muddy Boots: A History of Travel in Victorian America. Indiana University Press, Bloomington.
One of a Eugene’s most important tools as a cowboy was his saddle. Cowboys spent 12-15 hours/day on horseback, so a good saddle was essential. Importantly, however, a well-made saddle was needed for the comfort of the rider and his horse. A poor quality, ill-fitting saddle could make a horse sore in a short time, whereas a high-quality, well-fitting saddle meant a cowboy could ride longer and need to change his horse less frequently during his workday.
Nomadic horsemen in Central Asia were the first to use saddles; the technology of which arrived in Spain in the 8th century. The western stock saddle evolved from an early Spanish War saddle that Conquistador Hernán Cortés brought to Mexico in the 16th century.
Different saddles were designed for different uses, such as having a second cinch to firmly anchor the saddle to the horse or a heavy saddle horn to secure a lasso when roping a steer. The McClellan Saddle was developed to be lightweight, sturdy, and inexpensive—perfect for the US Cavalry and other military service men, while those used by Pony Express riders were even lighter still to facilitate a speedy journey with as little weight on the horse as possible. Although the saddletrees—the skeletons on which a saddles was built—were originally wood, modern saddles sometimes use fiberglass or even stainless steel.
Importantly, saddles were manufactured individually and could be customized to an individual cowboy’s physical and occupational needs. The cantle—the rear raised portion of the saddle—as one example, could be altered in shape, size, height, and degree of angle; all of which could make the saddle more comfortable for the rider and distribute the weight comfortably for his horse. The leather fenders on the side of the saddle could be modified in size and shape to assure that the cowboy’s legs didn’t chafe the horse whilst riding.
Because of the importance of a good saddle, a cowboy might invest a month or two of his wages into buying one. Indeed, many cowboys kept the same saddle throughout their careers and, when he retired, it was said that the cowboy “sold his saddle.”
Welcome to Cowboy Tuesday! Each week I will blog about something interesting I encountered in my cowboy research for my book, “Grandpa the Cowboy: A Young Man’s Journey through the American West,” which follows Eugene TenBrink during his time as a farm hand on a bonanza farm in North Dakota, a cowpuncher for a ranch in Montana, and a foreman for a sheep outfit in Wyoming. (Available on Amazon)
This week is all about cowboy clothing. One of the most interesting articles I read was written by Janeen Wilder called “Reins, Riggings, and Reatas: The Outfit of the Great Basin Buckaroo” that appeared in the Fall 2003 edition of the Oregon Historical Quarterly (104:366-393). In the essay, Wilder describes the distinctive clothing of cowboys and buckaroos. Wilder’s research was critically important to understanding the clothing worn by Eugene during his time out West (1904-1910).
Eugene’s cowboy gear is typical for the early 20th century. The felt crown was fashioned into peaks and had a small brim that would not catch the wind and blow off during stormy weather. This “Montana Peak” style was very common east of the Rocky Mountains.
Cowboys wore long sleeves in all kinds of weather as protection from sun or wind burn as well as prickly vegetation. The style of Eugene’s shirt – having only one pocket — was THE style of his day as shirts with two front pockets weren’t produced until World War I. His leather wrist cuffs reduced wear-and-tear on his shirt cuffs (as store-bought shirts were relatively new and quite expensive). They also safeguarded him from kicking calves during branding. The stamped pattern would have been quite a fashion statement! If you look at the inside of Eugene’s right wrist, you can see how the cuffs had buckles to secure them in place. He is not wearing a vest, a cowboy tool that had fallen into disuse by the time he arrived out west.
His bandana or neckerchief was a particularly useful part of Eugene’s ensemble. It would have shielded him from dust and wind, absorbed sweat on a hot day, could have been used as a muffler in winter or even as a tourniquet or bandage. Bandanas were usually made of inexpensive patterned cotton and frequently were the only bright-colored garment worn by a cowboy.
Eugene’s chaps appear to have been of angora wool, which would have protected his legs in ways similar to that of his leather wrist cuffs. Angora wool chaps were very highly prized as they easily shed rain or snow even during torrential downpours and blinding blizzards while keeping a cowboy’s legs dry and warm. Lighter, leather chaps were worn during the summer which repelled rain, but were much cooler in the heat. Although it is difficult to see Eugene’s boots, they appear to be consistent with the thick leather military-style boots that were common at the time. The rounded toe and smooth sole allowed the cowboy to get his boot in the stirrup easily, while the heel kept his foot from sliding all the way through. The tall boot top served as a guard against kicking horses, snake bites, and other dangers of cowboy life. The fancy spurs he wore are visible on the back of his right boot.
Cowboys wore clothing that protected them from on-the job hazards and could be used “tools” of their trade. They also made these young men look quite handsome!