Abel Head Pierce is better known as ‘Shanghai’ Pierce because, as a lad, he was reckoned to look like a Shanghai Rooster with his extraordinary height (6 feet 4 inches) and trousers that were too short for him. He had a bellowing voice that carried, this being the principal characteristic for which he was remembered. He dressed in later years in a manner bordering on the theatrical and he commissioned a statue of himself to tower over his grave before he died. He was born on Rhode Island – which he joked was too short for him – and went on to become a famous millionaire stockman in Texas.
His career involved adventures, vicissitudes, and great shrewdness. He was one of ten children and was sent at an early age to live with his uncle in Virginia, but when he was 19 he ran off and stowed away on a schooner bound for Texas. There, arriving with 75 cents in his pocket, he worked on a farm run by Bing Grimes.
Shanghai worked his first year on the farm not for wages, but for $200 worth of cattle. He was eventually given worthless cattle, all of whom died by the end of their first winter. Bing claimed he was toughening the Yankee up. Shanghai endured this and other snubs and gradually learnt the cattle business. He was so good at ‘finding’ cattle that in the Civil War he was assigned the rank of Regimental Butcher in charge of acquiring meat.
Shanghai went into business with his prudent brother Jonathan, who had joined him a while back from Rhode Island. Jonathan stayed home at the ranch and did the books, while Shanghai handled round-ups and went on the trail, driving cattle north to Kansas railheads. The brothers bought both cattle and land.
There are many stories about Shanghai Pierce both on and off the trail. One was that when cattle herds were backed up waiting to cross a swollen Red River and in danger of creating a tragedy as herds arrived and pressed from behind, he succeeded in persuading the trail bosses to move their herds back from the crossing. No doubt he made use of his prodigious voice and his authoritative persona.
Shanghai came across some cattle thieves who had been stealing cattle and slaughtering them for the tallow and hides. 400 of the cattle had his brand. He appears to have been behind the lynching of some of the thieves and was called on to testify. At this point he packed up and moved to Kansas with his young daughter – but this was also the moment at which his wife and infant son died, so his motivation is unclear. He later returned to Texas.
Shanghai was concerned about the cause of Texas fever. He noticed that cattle that had blood from a breed called Brahman were not susceptible to having ticks and were also not suffering from the fever, so he concluded that the scourge of the cattle industry was caused by ticks. He bought two sacred Indian cows from a travelling circus, and then 51 head of Brahman cattle from India. The ones from India were quarantined and found to have a disease carried by the tsetse fly which meant the whole herd was condemned to destruction. On appeal, 33 of the cattle were discovered to be disease-free and were allowed to be introduced to Texas where they formed the foundation stock for the Brahman breed throughout the United States.
This was one of Shanghai’s main achievements, apart from becoming a millionaire and the undisputed king of the Texas Cattle Barons. His wealth didn’t change him, however. One of his epitaphs said:
“He was as uncouth as the cattle he drove, but with all his blustering ways, there was no harm in him. He was, at heart, one of the best men in this or any other land.”