COWBOY STRIKE OF 1883
From 1880 to 1883 a new corporate ownership spread throughout the Texas Panhandle. Ranch cowboys no longer knew the owners by name, had any particular trust in the new company, or saw any signs of loyalty or tradition. The cowboy lost his place as a valued member of the ranch family and became only an employee.
The country was in transition. Large urban populations needed to be fed. Cattle were cheap, grass free, and the railroads made transportation possible. But the corporations and cattle syndicates who bought their way into the Plains didn't figure on the cost of freezing winters and stifling drought. General ignorance of livestock became their biggest liability, and the only controllable cost they could find was the cowboy.
Even before the new owners came, a cowboy's job was never easy. Aside from working roundups twice a year, they rode the fence line, branded cattle, and doctored sick animals. They slept in a dank dugout, or perhaps a tent, if anything. Everything they ate came out of one pot. But a ranch hand could take part of his pay in calves, or if he was lucky, he could round up enough maverick cows to begin his own small herd. He was furnished several horses to do his work, and the longer he worked for the ranch, the better the horses he was given.
The new owners decided to claim the orphaned, unbranded cattle as their own, and they put strict limits on the use of ranch horses. No one got more than two horses, and they were to be left in the corral when the day was done. Perhaps even worse, the corporate ranches decided that their men could not carry any weapons, play cards or gamble in any other way, nor could they take a drink of alcohol while in the employment of the ranch.
In the spring of 1883 the cowboys went on strike. Wagons and men from three of the biggest ranches in the Canadian River valley came together for a meeting. The three wagon bosses were not malcontents. They were all respected top hands who had earned their positions only to see their influence diminished. They took a bold step, writing the following proclamation:
We, the undersigned cowboys of Canadian river, do by these presents agree to bind ourselves into the following obligations: First, that we will not work for less than $50 per month, and we furthermore agree no one shall work for less than $50 per month, after 31st of March.
Second, good cooks shall also receive $50 per month.
Third, anyone running an outfit shall not work for less than $75 per month. Anyone violating the above obligations shall suffer the consequences. Those not having funds to pay board after March 31st will be provided for 30 days at Tascosa.
Twenty-four men signed the proclamations. Five copies were made, and each one was delivered to a large ranch.
It was a foolish move. Many of the better cowboys already made more money than the petition called for, and the cowboys reluctantly admitted that some among their ranks were not worth the prescribed $50 a month. Also, there was no shortage of labor in the Panhandle. The cattle business in the lower part of the state was in disarray, and South Texas cowboys were willing to make the long ride for a solid job. As the "scab" crews were put together, the strikers were ordered off the ranches and told that they would never work again on the Texas Plains. In thirty days, the strike was over and the cowboys had lost. Many of them left the Panhandle; those who stayed took jobs in town.
Art Chapman Fort Worth, Texas