Before the introduction of barbed wire in the late 1870’s and early 1880’s, ranchers would allow their steers to range freely, grazing as the mood took them and mingling with beasts from other ranches. While rustling – the act of actually taking another man’s cattle – was treated severely, there was a very relaxed attitude towards whose animals wandered where. Ownership only really mattered at round-up when all the cattle were brought together for sorting and claiming.

There were two round-ups a year – in Spring and in Autumn – with the first being the main one because it gathered together the animals which were to be sold as well as establishing the parentage of calves ready for branding. Two other things happened at this point – male calves were castrated using a burdizzo and dogies (calves whose mother couldn’t be located) were allocated.

Tampering with brands or claiming animals as dogies when they weren’t – these were very serious offences and were punished severely. In reality, such things didn’t occur very often, partly as a result of an unwritten cowboy code of honour and partly down to neighbouring ranches working together at the time of the round-up so that they’d be on hand to see fair play.

Round-ups were great social occasions – a chance to celebrate the ‘harvest’ and to let off steam. Families, who didn’t see much of each other for months at a time, got together to generally eat, drink and be merry.

The romantic notion of cowboys persists but the reality was that it was hard and lonely work
The romantic notion of cowboys persists but the reality was that it was hard and lonely work

The cowboys from as many as a dozen ranches would come together at the round-up and would spread out to a radius of typically about twenty miles and then make camps. The next morning, the cowhands would ride over a predetermined section of the range encompassed by the giant circle, gradually rounding up the cattle and driving them towards the circle’s centre.

When they’d finally got all the cattle together, they would carefully identify the calves from the brands of their mothers. They then roped those calves that belonged to their own ranch and two cowboys called flankers would flip the frightened animal on its side while the ranch’s ironman would apply the hot brand to the animals hide. The procedure was clearly painful for the animal but it could be made considerably worse by an inexperienced ironman trying to apply a brand to wet fur. The superheated steam would scald the animal and the subsequent pain might easily be sufficient to make the beast writhe to the point where the flankers were thrown off.

The success of the round-up was its own instrument of destruction. Ranges became overstocked to the point where the best and most nutritious plains’ grasses – buffalo and grama grass – had been consumed as a result of the massive growth in cattle numbers. As a consequence of this, in the space of just one decade – from 1870 to 1880 – the per head of cattle grazing land requirement went from 1 acre to a massive 50 acres.

Fences and over-grazing spelt the end of the great era of trail-driving
Fences and over-grazing spelt the end of the great era of trail-driving

With fenced-in enclosures and the railroad now having been driven south, cowboys were no longer needed to the same extent and neighbours became viewed as competitors and objects of suspicion. Even the cowboys’ job title changed to match their new roles – they were now called ‘ranch hands’ and paid less for the privilege. In the mid-1880’s a cowboy could expect to be paid around $500 a year but, twenty years later, this had dropped to about $350.

The Autumn round-up was more for the purposes of counting and to bring the remaining stock together. It was a much lower-key affair yet was still vital to the efficient running of the ranch.

The great era of the round-up began in the mid 1840s and lasted less than half a century yet it is indelibly etched in the history of the West. It is remembered for the romance of trail life and also for the daily struggles against Indian ambushes, land-owners fencing off their spreads, rustlers trying to help themselves and, of course, pestilence and disease.

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