Book Review written by John O’Connell, Montana Historian Magazine
As a farrier I traveled all over south central Montana and beyond. From indoor arenas to dude ranches, 4-H projects to cattle ranches, I worked on a lot of different horses who belonged to all kinds of people. Good horsemen and horsewomen are rare, but I met a few. They understand how horses think. They can read body language and can train a horse to be polite, respectful and trustworthy. Those horses were a joy to work with and I have fond memories of them.
Finding an actual cowboy, however, was even more rare.
I’ll never forget the day I asked that one question that few dare ask. I was driving a nail on the foot I was shoeing, talking with one of the ranch managers who had become a friend of mine. I had thought of him as one of those rare true cowboys.
“Bob, what is a cowboy?” I asked
He looked up from chewing his sandwich and took a drink of coffee, “There is no such thing anymore. They are all dead, in a nursing home or like me. A broken down ranch foreman taking orders from a kid with a degree who is old enough to be my grandson.” Bob sighed and stared out through the dirty window. What he was looking at I couldn’t tell.
Turning back to his lunch, Bob took another bite of sandwich and flicked crumbs off his mustache. His blue eyes lit up suddenly with amusement.
“Ah hell, I suppose I should be grateful they didn’t ship me down the road last year when I broke my hip coming off that Festus horse. Did I tell you about that?”
He had but I could hear that story as many times as Bob wanted to tell it. Listening to Bob tell stories about cowboying, the surrounding countryside and the characters he met was why I loved coming to the ranch to shoe the horses. Watching him and Festus work cattle was another one. “Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.” Wyatt Earp is often credited with this quote when talking about gunfights. I don’t know if that’s true about Earp but it sure describes Bob and Festus working cows. Man and horse would put pressure on a cow and then remove it at just the right moment creating a smooth sort of dance. It was in the eyes and body language. They focused their attention and ignored the dust and bawling cows. There was never any ramming around and yelling. They all moved as one and seemed to always be in the right spot before it was needed. The movements may not be ballroom dancing by any stretch but to a cowboy it’s beautiful to behold.
After many discussions with Bob, I decided that the best way to tell if someone is a cowboy today is to send them back in time to the 1870’s. Do they have the skill set to be “a hand” back then? What would that skill set look like? The answer to that question is fully embellished in one enjoyable book.
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We Pointed Them North, Recollections Of A Cowpuncher was written by E.C. “Teddy Blue” Abbott and Helena Huntington Smith. The book was originally published in 1939. I had heard of Teddy Blue of course but never got around to reading his story. Ms. Huntington Smith was a novelist and had been researching for a novel about the West. She came across Abbott’s name and came out to his ranch near Lewistown in the summer of 1937 to visit and hear about what it was like to be a cowboy in the 1870s and ‘80s. She soon found out he was a treasure trove of information. Abbott had driven long horn cattle from Texas to Montana to stock the northern range as a teenager. He cowboyed in Montana when there were no fences but plenty of things to protect cattle and horses from: Swollen rivers, rustlers, warring Native tribes, blizzards, drought, and alkaline water holes.
When her visit ended, she was invited back by the Abbotts and she returned that winter to get more background research for her book on cowpunching in the Old West. Over the next five days she discovered that Mr. Abbott had a book of his own. He had actually started one but didn’t finish it. Ms. Smith took what he had and combined it with what she wrote down from her five days of interviews. Fortunately for her Mr. Abbott wrote exactly as he spoke so it all fit together seamlessly.
What she did next is remarkable. She realized that Abbott’s story needed to be told in such a way that the audience would feel like they were sitting around a cook fire listening to him tell stories about driving cattle and ranching. That meant she had to write the story exactly as he told it, but she didn’t know how to do dictation. So, she wrote furiously in long hand, asking questions and making him tell stories over and over to be sure she got it exactly right.
The other problem she had was that Mr. Abbott would ramble around from one session to the next with dates and places. Yet, when she pieced everything together chronologically everything fit, and he was never inconsistent.
That stuck out for me as I read the book. His ability at 78 years of age to remember names, places and dates from 50 years earlier was amazing. Ms. Huntington Smith put it down to how common it was to find what she called amateur historians amongst the Old West men. They talked endlessly to one another about people, events, and geography and it all just stuck in their heads just like my ranch manager friend, Bob.
As I read, I found that having access to maps on my computer to be of great value. There are some drawn maps in the book but the detail you get with modern technology helps paint a much better picture of the country those men worked in when combined with Mr. Abbott’s storytelling. Rivers are the main geographical feature mentioned when Mr. Abbott was describing his location and while some names have been changed, the vast majority remain the same.
Lastly, I found the descriptions of fun or humorous events to be the most “real” parts of the book. In modern times we sometimes think of the cowboy as a grim, silent type who is always looking for a fight. While those types did exist, and Mr. Abbott talks about them, in general the cowboys took pride in their work, followed the unwritten laws of the cowboy (There were many!) and loved a good song or prank. Mr. Abbott tells of a prank that happened in Douglas Wyoming when some boys were bringing a herd up to Montana for T.C. Power in ’86. The boys hit the saloon when they got to town and ended up roping the bar and dragged it out onto the prairie. The boss paid the owner for the bar so that ended that, but the boys sure thought it was funny!
Mr. Abbott tells it like it was. He teaches you things about horses and cows only an old hand from the trail driving days would know. He speaks about Indians and famous people like Calamity Jane. He gives lessons on six-shooters and making “Indian Whiskey “which made my head hurt just thinking about it.
That reminds me, there is nothing politically correct in this book. It was written in the 1930s about the 1870’s and 80’s Open Range West and one man’s experiences. Applying our modern sensibilities to this book would be pointless and, in my opinion, ignorant.
We Pointed Them North is a wonderful read and should be part of any Old West collection. Have you read it? Comment below and tell us what it meant to you.