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How the west was really won: Ireland’s forgotten cowboys

A classic image of the American Cowboy, by famed US artist Charles Russell. The origins of the cowboy are less well known.

A classic image of the American Cowboy, by famed US artist Charles Russell. The origins of the cowboy are less well known.

Ask any dude ranch greenhorn who has seldom forked a saddle where the American cattle drive originated and he will shyly mumble something about Texas longhorns and Dodge City.

Then turn around and find the crustiest ol’ waddy who has ever chased cows for many a year. Ask that grizzled veteran of the plains when and who held the first cattle drive. He will agree with the dude, citing chapter and verse of this widely known but never disputed American myth.

The only trouble is they would both be wrong!

Cowboys came from Ireland.

The cattle drive originated in Boston, not Texas.

The cattle drive originated in Boston, not Texas.

Moreover, as much as it may grieve legions of Texans to discover, the original home of the American cattle drive was never the Lone Star state. It was Boston. But who can blame Texans for believing what every American kid is taught?

The legend of the golden age of the cattle drive runs deep. It usually starts with the story of Confederate soldiers returning home to war-ravaged Texas. Cattle rich and cash poor, the purported forefathers of the cattle drive were wondering what to do next. Then a miracle occurred. With the bloody Civil  War now behind them, rapidly industrializing northern cities were crying out for beef. A golden opportunity suddenly existed for any cash-strapped Texas cattle-men bold enough to round up a few mavericks and push them up the trail to the new rail heads at Abilene or Dodge.

That is the story, so we are told, of how the cattle drive started in America. Reinforced by countless movies and the bovine television adventures of Rowdy Yates and Gil Favor of “Rawhide” fame, the average American youth ate it up as gospel.

Of course that was only Hollywood.

The real story of America’s first cattle drive would shock many an old cowboy and bring a self-justified, sly grin to any eastern tenderfoot. It is one of the lost secrets of the cattle drive story and it could not have occurred in a more unlikely place.

 

Buccaneer beef

Not that the folks in Boston are short of bragging rights, but if they had a mind to they could teach Dodge City a thing or two about cattle drives and cow punchers. As unlikely as it seems Boston was America’s first cattle town. Cowhands were pushing cattle herds down her main streets more than two hundred years before anyone in New England ever heard of Texas.

It all came about because of the “Pirates of the Caribbean.”

The islands of the Caribbean in the early 1600s were pirate infested. These free-booters went by the name “boucanier.” The French term for smokehouse is boucan. The buccaneers were groups of vagrants and renegade galley slaves who butchered wild cattle and smoke-cured the beef into long strips called “charqui” or jerky by the English ship captains who purchased it. The buccaneers peddled this product and cured hides to trading ships in exchange for clothing, rum and other essentials. The sales trip to the ship also offered an excellent opportunity to inspect the vessel and decide whether it was worth pirating.

Some of the buccaneers were Flemish, Norman and Dutch who had grown up on farms along the North Sea. Their fathers had scoffed at the British yeoman’s conviction that “a cow kept indoors will stop giving milk and then sicken and die”. These Lowlanders routinely housed cattle in barns, fattening them over the winter with liberal rations of lucerne-grass, turnips, oats and barley.

Years later and half a world away, the renegade sons of these Lowland farmers adapted their fathers’ methods for the wild cattle of the West Indies. They substituted Indian maize and the pulpy wastes from sugar cane mills for the root crops and grains their fathers had used, achieving remarkable results.

 

The Buccaneer

The Buccaneer

Unlikely friends

The islands of Barbados, Bermuda and Jamaica were largely dependent on provisions and supplies arriving from recently formed English colonies in the New World. Pork, butter and other staples were shipped with great frequency between these friendly neighbors.

On return trips New England sea captains brought back sugar, rum and slaves. One such unfortunate passenger was Peter Swank, described on the manifest as being “a robust Negro.” He was also a keenly observant fellow and one of the forgotten fore-fathers of the American cattle drive.

As the year 1650 dawned, Swank found himself standing on the unfamiliar shores of Massachusetts. He was soon sent inland, pressed into the service of one of the wealthiest men in New England. William Pynchon was a Puritan, a respected judge, a wealthy farmer with immense land holdings in both Connecticut and Massachusetts and a person of intense religious conviction. History says he treated Peter Swank “like a friend.” Maybe that’s why Swank shared with him the knowledge of how buccaneers were fattening cattle in West Indies feed lots. Pynchon quickly saw the potential for an immediate commercial success.

Spring was the traditional “starving time”. By then the fall’s harvest of root crops, grain and fruit was consumed or had spoiled. Through February, March and April, people in New England lived on scant rations. The livestock, left out all winter to fend for themselves, became scrawny bags of bones. The prospect of driving maize-fattened cattle into the Boston market during the spring starving times was a dazzling prospect to Pynchon. With Swank’s help he began to implement the buccaneer’s technique.

But fate intervened before the unlikely partners could put their plan into action.

 

William Pynchon, father of the American cattle drive.

William Pynchon, father of the American cattle drive.

Banished from Boston

Unfortunately history had other plans for William Pynchon. He never had the chance to become the country’s first trail boss. He is remembered instead as one of the first victims of institutional censorship. During the cold, dreary winter of 1651 Pynchon had completed his book, The Meritorious Price of Our Redemption. His concern for a decay in Puritan morality had caused him to explain his convictions for all to see.

Distributed in Boston during the spring of 1652, Puritan ministers immediately denounced the book as “ungodly”. Copies were formally burned, by order of the General Court, on Boston Common. Its sale was banned in Massachusetts and Connecticut. The General Court then ordered Pynchon to resign his post as Judge of the Springfield, Connecticut Court.

The handwriting was on the wall. That summer, with heavy heart, William Pynchon bequeathed his land and holdings to his son John, then reluctantly set sail for England. America’s first cattle drive was still-born. For the next two years, the 26-year-old heir kept busy consolidating his father’s vast empire. There were farms, fur-trading enterprises and America’s first commercial meat packing operation to secure. Finally, in the fall of 1654, John Pynchon was ready to put his father’s dream of a cattle drive into action.

 

Irish cowboys and hobby horses

Young John Pynchon had inherited his father’s knack for details and organization. Furthermore he had Peter Swank’s knowledge regarding the buccaneer feed lot operation. Yet both men realized this new venture was going to call for a specialized type of labor force. Pynchon had an inspiration.

He recruited Irish cowboys.

Though often overlooked in history books, there were many Irish emigrants in New England by the mid-17th century. Some had arrived as indentured servants. Others had fled Ireland of their own free will, willing to risk life and limb in an often savage new world, rather than live under the ruthless dictatorship inflicted on their homeland by the English conqueror Oliver Cromwell.

These Irish emigrants arrived with not only an ancient equestrian history but even brought a well-known Irish word with them. Their country had already been a center for beef and dairy production for more than five hundred years. As early as 1000 AD Irish minstrels were recording songs about “the cowboy.”  Medieval poems such as “The Triads” spoke of Irish men rounding up cattle from horseback. The Irish horse was as famous as the men who rode it. These natural pacers, imported into England as early as 1350, were favored mounts of squires, merchants and other gentry. The solid little Irish horse had a gait “as comfortable as a rocking chair on the hob”. The warm, flat area in front of the fireplace known as the hob was the most restful place in the house. The legend of the gently rocking “hobby horse” thus arose from this Irish pacer.

By the fall of 1654 John Pynchon and Peter Swank knew where they could find horses and the men to ride them for America’s first roundup.

 

The Puritan roundup

Among the Irish cow punchers Pynchon recruited was John Daley. In addition he purchased an indentured Scottish prisoner of war named John Stewart who became the resident blacksmith.

Old Fort Pynchon

Old Fort Pynchon

With his cowhands lined up, John Pynchon, America’s first cattle baron, was almost ready.

Like all ranch hands, first they needed horses.

When the Puritans arrived in America, they had originally been weak horsemen.  A widespread belief was that horses were a luxury “belonging to the gentry”.  Cattle, pigs and sheep had more uses to these sturdy yeomen. Not only could these animals be eaten, they provided essential by-products such as milk, hides, butter, etc. But the horse had little value after its death. English heritage had a strong bias against using horseflesh for human food. An exception to this was the winter of 1610 when the Jamestown colonists ate their seven horses rather than starve. It is not surprising then to discover the fleet that brought the Puritans to Salem in 1628 for example carried 110 cattle but only 13 horses. But the need for pack ponies and dependable riding mounts was soon evident. By 1640 there were an estimated 200 horses in New England, with more arriving on every ship. Many of these were Irish “hobbies.”

In 1647 the number of horses in Massachusetts had increased so quickly that the General Court passed a branding law. All animals were doubly branded: first with the symbol of the township in which it was located and secondly with the registered brand of its owner.

The Puritan cowboys needed this equestrian advantage. It was routine practice to let cattle roam free on commonly owned ground. The small Devon and Durham cattle were anything but docile, maybe not longhorn-mean but tough, spooky and belligerent. Once they mounted, Pynchon, Swank, Daley and the others started America’s first cattle round up during the fall of 1654. The cattle were brought in, branded and then herded into newly built corrals.

That winter the majority of Pynchon’s neighbors’ cattle roamed through the woods and common meadows trying not to starve during the brutal New England storms. Meanwhile Pynchon’s Devon and Durham stock were being quietly tended in their corrals. Several sheds protected the cattle from the worst of the elements. Wheat straw and cornstalks strewn across the floor served as both bedding and a dietary supplement. Every day or two for the next five or six months the cowboys brought them dried corn-on-the-cob, cured hay, vegetable scraps from the family table and pulp from the cider mill.

By February the technique of the buccaneers had been proved a success. The cattle left to forage by his neighbors were rail-thin and as wild as hawks. Pynchon’s stall-fed cattle were plump, gentle and friendly.

 

“Head ‘em up – move ‘em out!”

On a crisp spring morning in 1655 John Pynchon looked at the crew of mounted men waiting before him. There were no artists present to record the rig these cowboys wore. Like the Texans who rode a cow trail hundreds of years later, they must have dressed functionally in durable work clothes. Jackets and vests stitched from moose-hide or deerskins were common Puritan garments. Homespun shirts, buckskin breeches, fur caps and leather boots shiny with bear grease would have graced many a young rider. During the three week trip ahead of them, heavy dark wool capes would keep them warm during the day and serve as blankets at night.

One other thing they shared with the cowboys yet to be born. Though they came from diverse backgrounds and different countries, though some were slaves, some indentured servants, some free men, they all shared a common love of adventure and horses. They were America’s first cowboys about to ride into history.

John Pynchon gave the signal to “head ‘em up … move ‘em out.” His cowhands swung into action and the herd of stall-fattened Devon and Durham cattle began moving down the Old Bay Path from Springfield, Connecticut towards distant Boston, Massachusetts.

At first the deep grass-covered valley where they lived presented little problem. The rocky countryside between Springfield and Boston was soon in evidence, though. The chuck wagon would not be invented by Charles Goodnight for a couple more centuries. The trail was too thin to allow wheeled traffic anyway. Pynchon probably solved the problem of feeding his cow hands by packing supplies along on a string of pack ponies.

John Pynchon's undeciphered document

John Pynchon’s undeciphered document

Once they swung into the saddle we lose track of them. They ride into the sunset like an ancient equestrian puzzle.

No-one has ever solved the mystery of their daily progress. The local Native Americans, Nipmucks, Nonotucks and Agawams left them alone. Many of the daily events encountered by America’s first cowboys may be locked away in a 300-year-old document. A series of records kept by Pynchon – in a system of shorthand he invented – has never been deciphered.

It is known that the herd arrived at Boston Common almost a month later, mostly intact, and yielded Pynchon a handsome profit. This was the first long drive on record of fat-cattle to a city market anywhere in the present boundaries of the United States.

While we may lack the daily details of what those early cowboys did on the cattle drive, we do know that things were never the same in old New England.

In 1675 John Pynchon led his horsemen into battle during King Philip’s War. Several of them made daredevil style rides, delivering messages as heroically as any Pony Express rider. By 1700 the horse trade between New England and the Caribbean was so important that sailing ships were designed with built-in deck pens to hold 150 to 200 horses. These small ships took the Scottish nickname “jockeys.”

By 1750 cattle drives of more than two thousand horses and cattle, guarded by whip-cracking cowboys, were a common sight along the cart roads connecting Baltimore, New York, Philadelphia and Boston. These drives created the first through roads linking the northern and southern colonies.

Finally, by the time of the Revolutionary War in 1776, the term “cowboy” was commonly used from Maine to Georgia to describe illiterate roughnecks herding cattle in the back country. It grew to have such a derogatory reputation that cattle herdsmen in the East adopted the English term drover instead. The word cowboy would not be popular for a hundred more years, out in some obscure little place called Texas.

 

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Comments (2)

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  1. Miriam Skipworth says:

    What a fascinating article. I’m amazed that the short-hand diary has never been deciphered.
    Thanks CuChullaine, great research:)

  2. April Merveldt says:

    Very interesting piece. Wonder what the Americans will think about it ?!!

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