Writing The “Real” Old West

Inspired by poorly written accounts of life on the range, an authentic cowhand takes up the pen to set the record straight

The “real” life of an 1880’s cowpuncher was a lot different than what was being published at the time. Thankfully, Andy Adams picked up his pen and dispelled many a myth.

The “real” life of an 1880’s cowpuncher was a lot different than what was being published at the time. Thankfully, Andy Adams picked up his pen and dispelled many a myth.

By: Bert Entwistle

In 1903, Andy Adams published a book called The Log of a Cowboy. Although sold as a fiction novel, it was really Adams’ first person account of his years as a working cowboy. The book tells of one of his trail drives, a five-month trip moving a 3,000 head mixed herd from Brownsville, Texas, to the Blackfoot Indian Agency in northwest Montana. The outfit left Brownsville on April 1, 1882 and arrived at the Indian Agency on September 8th, a journey of more than 2,100 miles.

Born in 1859 to an Indiana pioneer family, Adams’ father, a Confederate soldier, moved to San Antonio about 1880 looking for a fresh start among his old comrades. Always fascinated by horses and the cattle business, the fifteen year-old Andy Adams left home to make a life as a cowboy.

“My worst trouble was getting away from home on the morning of starting,” he recounts in the book. “Mother and my sisters, of course, shed a few tears; but my father, stern and unbending in his manner, gave me his benediction in these words: “Thomas Moore, you’re the third son to leave our roof, but your father’s blessing goes with you. I left my own home beyond the sea before I was your age.” And as they all stood at the gate, I climbed into my saddle and rode away, with a lump in my throat which left me speechless to reply.”

By 1882, he was working as a hired hand helping to put together a herd from many different sources, including Texas and Mexican cattle. Before heading north, they planted the circle-dot brand on the herd’s left hip. For more than ten years Adams worked as a cowboy and helped to move cattle from Texas to the end of the next trail. In the early ‘90s he decided to try his hand at business and gold mining in places like Nevada and Cripple Creek, Colorado. Both ventures failed.

By 1894, he had settled in Colorado Springs, with no gold and very little else to show for his thirty-five years of life. Adams was always frustrated with what he read in the books and magazines of the period, often complaining to anyone who would listen about how inaccurate the accounts were. It was easy to see the authors had never been up close to horses and cattle.

After some encouragement from friends he began to sell articles to various publications in Colorado and eventually to the east coast magazines. In time, he realized that the public had an appetite for western stories and began his first and most successful book, The Log of a Cowboy, published in 1903. The book was really a way for Adams to respond to the bad western writing of the time, and it cemented his career as a novelist. Today, a hundred and eleven years later, it is still in print and considered by most western historians to be the finest account of the late nineteenth century working cowboy ever put into words.

In 1935 Andy Adams was laid to rest here, in the Evergreen Cemetery in El Paso County, Colorado.

In 1935 Andy Adams was laid to rest here, in the Evergreen Cemetery in El Paso County, Colorado.

The book puts the reader in the saddle with the cowboy as he eats the dust of 3,000 cattle seven days a week for more than five months. Adams learned the craft from the punchy old timers as they trailed the herd north.

“On April 1, 1882, our Circle Dot herd started on its long tramp to the Blackfoot Agency in Montana. With six men on each side, and the herd strung out for three quarters of a mile, it could only be compared to some mythical serpent or Chinese dragon, as it moved forward on its sinuous, snail like course.”

At the start of the drive, his boss gave everyone the advice that all cowboys learn fast on the trail, “Boys, the secret of trailing cattle is never to let your herd know that they are under restraint. Let everything that is done be done voluntarily by the cattle. From the moment you let them off the bed in the morning until they are bedded at night, never let a cow take a step, except in the direction of its destination.”

Adams wrote about choosing his remuda of six to eight horses, and described the saddles and tack of the period in great detail. The writing often contradicted what was being printed at the time, but his readers came to realize his articles and books were a result of real life experiences and a sharp eye for detail.

Stories of swimming the herd across rivers and dry drives and lightening-induced runs (stampedes) filled the pages with the harsh reality of the trail. Encounters with bears, wild cattle and lost cows from other herds were common. The importance of camaraderie and humor between the cowboys was also a large part of the story. He wrote of one of the hands named Ash Borrowstone getting disturbed at night by a couple of coyotes.

“There was no more danger of attack from these cowards than from field mice, but their presence annoyed Ash, and as he dared not shoot, he threw his boots at the varmints. Imagine to his chagrin the next morning to find that one boot had landed among the banked embers of the camp-fire and was burned to a crisp.”

On final delivery to the Blackfoot Agency, he encountered several local Indians. “The next morning, before we reached the agency, a number of gaudily bedecked bucks and squaws rode out to meet us. Physically, they were fine specimens of the aborigines.” The stories of the Indians were like icing on the cake for fans of Adams’ work.

From his Colorado Springs home, he produced another six books after Log of a Cowboy and many more articles. He wrote for a wide variety of audiences including young readers and those who loved short stories. As he got older he was known for encouraging and sponsoring young western writers in authentic western fiction. Adams ran, unsuccessfully, three times for El Paso County (Colorado) sheriff and lived quietly as a bachelor until his death on September 26, 1935.

For lovers of Western history, a night with Andy Adams on the long trail drive north will make you feel like you’re in the saddle riding night herd under a starlit sky to the music of the coyotes.

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