- Historic Sites
The Long Drive
A cowboy’s own story of his experiences on the trail from Texas to Chicago
April 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 3
Our money was all gone.
When we got near Fort Smith, Fred took a cow in and sold her and got some supplies. I killed a beef. We had meat. We found good pasture for the cattle, and I went in to town with Bushnell.
When we crossed the Arkansas River at Fort Smith we sent Bushnell home. The steamer came to Fort Smith but once a week, then only when the water was high enough. I bought Bushnell’s ticket, put money in his sock, and put him aboard. He felt very bad when I bid him gopdbye. The old man was crying and couldn’t talk. He took the Pilgrim steamer at 4 P.M., July 25, for home.
There I was for the first time with all the responsibility on me. All the men that had started from the ranch with us had gone back. There was only Bartlett, Fred, Dick, and me, with what help we could get. Money was short. Everybody was blue.
Turning eastward to follow a trail through the rugged Ozark region of northern Arkansas, Perry Case pointed his herd toward the Mississippi River. He now found himself in country which had been so devastated by the late war that it had not yet begun to recover more than a year after the end of hostilities. Though the settlers here were for the most part pro-Southern, they had suffered as much from the ravages of Confederate guerrillas in their midst—bushwhackers—as from the reprisals of Union troops. Often the bushwhackers were recognized desperadoes like the infamous Quantrill who made the war an excuse for looting and killing. But the Union men were no less guilty of brutality in their efforts to destroy these lawless irregulars. In the end, it was an innocent civilian population that was victimized most.
About a day’s drive from Prairie Grove Prairie Grove, (a settlement in the northwest corner of Arkansas, was the scene of a bloody, if inconclusive, Civil War engagement in December, 1863. [Ed.]) we come out on a big spring along the White River. It was a rough country, with no feed for our cattle, but we stopped for water. They said the Union soldiers had burned up everything the year before.
We saw two little boys who said they hadn’t seen any bread for six weeks but they lived mighty well now: they had peas to eat.
“What the devil did you live on?” Bartlett asked.
“June bugs and field mice,” the boys said.
These boys were war victims. We saw hundreds of people like these, left destitute by the war. Histories of the North don’t tell this, but this is how it was and I am going to tell it.
We drove on over the mountains: there was no water, no grass, nothing but rocks. What to do? The cattle’s feet got sore on the stones, and yet we couldn’t stop. We had to drive on for feed. We gave a man $5 to help us across the Osage Creek and the Osage Mountains. In Carrollton everything had been burned but we found a field where the grass had grown up that year, and we camped a day for the cattle to eat. The boys butchered a beef and washed their shirts.
We made a big drive to Baker’s Prairie, seventeen or eighteen miles, and it began to rain, and got dark before we could make camp. I had a hard chill and a fever. The thunderstorm scared the cattle and they stampeded all over the country. It was a hard night on the boys, everybody was riding all night but me, and I lay there and wondered what we was going to do. It was three hundred miles from there to the Mississippi River. Our money was all gone, but we couldn’t sell anything. The people through there had no money. The salt for our cattle was all gone. The boys needed clothes. I thought of Bushnell and didn’t wonder he got sick.
The next day I was no better. The boys gathered up the cattle and killed a beef. Dick rode, trying to get me medicine. I had a hard shake, and lay in the wagon all day. I wasn’t any better the next day. The boys all had the blues. I lay there burning up with fever for a week. The cattle had pasture, but we had to drink from the same mudhole with the cattle, and carry that a mile.
Bartlett brought me a drink, and when he came in the wagon I said, “Where is your hat?”
He said he lost it a week ago in a stampede.
I looked down at his feet and said, “For God’s sake, are you barefoot too?”
That was enough.
I said, “Tell the boys to get ready to start in the morning. We got to get out where we can sell something.”
We started on the next day. It was better, but oh, what pitiful sights. We came to a place where three roads come together, and there was four boys. Someone called to the boys and asked them where they lived. No houses in sight. There wasn’t a house left standing. The Union soldiers had burned everything.
They said, “Over in the big cave.”
Someone said, “How many are there of you?”
“Oh, right smart.”
By this time I knew that “right smart” meant there was a whole lot. I said, “I would like to ride over with you.”
At the cave, two women came out. They had three or four kinds of material pinned around them, pinned with thorns, not pins, mind you.
I said, “You have iron kettles, haven’t you?”
“Yes,” they said.
“And I see salt.”