1883, in the wild and wooly cowtown of Tascosa
on the banks of the Canadian
River, a group of cowboys got mad as hell and announced to the
owners of five big Panhandle ranches that they weren’t going to
take it anymore. They were going on strike, and they did. For a
little more than two months in that year, somewhere between 160
and 200 cowboys (estimates vary widely) went on strike in what is
generally known as the Great Cowboy Strike of 1883, though it didn’t
turn out all that great.
The strike happened at a time when both the cattle business and
the wild plains country of the Panhandle
were in transition. The buffalo
were gone and with them the Comanche, who depended on the buffalo.
drives were over and the
railroads had arrived. A lot of the old ranch owners were also
gone, their places taken by investors, usually from another state
or country. The LIT, LX, LS and Anchor-T ranches were the strikers’
life has always been romantic only to those not actively engaged
in it. Cowboys of that day labored sunup to sundown in every kind
of weather doing frequently dangerous work, eating two meals a day
and sleeping on the ground unless they were among the pampered few
who had tents. On average, they received $30 a month, or about a
dollar a day.
In the old
days before the syndicates and absentee owners took over, cowboys
might be given some calves in addition to their pay, or they could
take some mavericks (an unbranded calf or yearling) and work their
own herds out on the range; many a future Panhandle rancher got
his start that way.
The syndicates put an end to all that up-by-the-bootstraps nonsense.
They didn’t give away calves and all mavericks became property of
the ranch. This change, more than salary, was at the heart of the
cowboys asked for a raise in wages to $50 a month (though this would
have been a cut in pay for some of the top hands) and the same wage
for a “good” cook. Bosses would get $75. The strike was intended
to disrupt the spring round-up but it did not, nor were the other
ranches much affected by anything the cowboys did or did not do,
though much was made of what they might do.
Newspapers in other states especially relished the idea of a Texas
range war, and a class war to boot! “An ordinary cowboy is as explosive
as a nitroglycerin bomb, and a good deal more dangerous. We shall
watch with great interest, not caring much which side whips or gets
whipped,” the Trinidad (Colorado) Weekly Advertiser commented.
But the strike came and went without a shot being fired. It ended
with barely a whimper in early May after two-and-a-half months.
The LE and T-Anchor ranches fired striking cowboys on the spot.
The LS and LIT offered a small raise and fired anybody who didn’t
accept it. The spring round-ups continued with replacement workers,
of which there was plenty, and with cowboys who saw the handwriting
on the wall and rejoined their old outfits.
The only lingering after-effects of the strike came in the form
of some of Tascosa’s
famous gunfights, which had their origins in the lingering animosities
exposed or created by the strike. The cowboys simply ran out of
money while the work went on without them. Some might look at it
today and call the cowboys short-sighted or even foolish.