Abbott, E. C. "Teddy Blue"
Abbott, E. C. "Teddy Blue"
Excerpt from We Pointed Them North: Recollections of a Cowpuncher
Originally published in 1939
By E. C. "Teddy Blue" Abbott and Helena Huntington Smith
E.C. "Teddy Blue" Abbott was by all accounts a regular cowboy who had worked on the range in the 1870s and 1880s. Abbott was "discovered" by a journalist named Helena Huntington Smith, who had read an interview with Abbott in a Montana newspaper. She began to meet with him and soon became convinced that his stories needed to be documented. Working with the aging cowboy in 1937 and 1938, Smith wrote as quickly as Abbott talked, preserving the tone and excitement of his stories.
On December 17, 1860, Abbott was born in Norfolk, England. His family moved to the United States when he was a baby and settled near Lincoln, Nebraska, where his father became a farmer. Abbott's father, who he described as "overbearing and tyrannical," wanted Abbott to join him in working the farm, but the young man had other ideas. He was enthralled with the cowboys who passed through Lincoln and by the age of twelve had left school to look after his father's herd of cattle. Though he was not yet living the life of a cowboy, he knew that someday he would. The excerpt from Abbott's autobiography begins when he was fourteen and just about to start his career as a cowboy.
Things to remember while reading the excerpt from We Pointed Them North:
- Teddy Blue Abbott drove cattle on the Western Trail, which stretched from San Antonio, Texas, to Miles City, Montana, with important stops at Dodge City, Kansas, and Ogallala, Nebraska.
- Teddy Blue Abbott told his stories to Helena Huntington Smith when he was in his late seventies. Smith swore that he never mixed up his stories and that every fact she checked on turned out to be true.
- Like Nat Love, Abbott became a cowboy in his mid-teens.
Excerpt from We Pointed Them North
From 1874 to 1877 I was taking care of my father's cattle, and after awhile the neighbors began putting cattle with me, paying me a dollar fifty a head for six months. I herded them in the daytime and penned them at night, and for the first time in my life I could rustle a little cash. In 1875 I made twenty-nine dollars that way, and my brother Harry and I had one hell of a time. We bought a bottle of whisky, shot out the lights on the street corners, and run our horses through the streets of Lincoln whooping and yelling like Cheyenne Indians on the warpath. We'd have gone to jail sure if some of Gus Walker's trail men had not been with us. They got the blame, as everything was laid to the Texas men, but they left next day for Texas and so it all blew over. This was my first experience standing up to the bar buying drinks for the boys, and I sure felt big.
That summer, I remember, Ace Harmon, who was one of John T. Lytle's trail bosses and a god to me, said: "In a year or two Teddy will be a real cowboy." And I growed three inches and gained ten pounds that night....
From the time I was fourteen and staying out with the cattle most all the time, I got to be more and more independent. The boys took turns staying out there with me, but Lincoln was only twelve miles from camp, and when we had a little money, one of us would slip off to town on his pony, leaving the other one on herd. We'dhang around the saloons, listening to those men and getting filled up with talk about gunfights and killings. One time I remember I was in a saloon, and I heard a fellow talking about the Yankees. He said: "I was coming down the road and I met a damn blue-belliedabolitionist, and Ipaunched him. And he laid there in the brush and belched like a beef for three days, and then he died in fits. The bastard!"
He told that before a whole crowd of men. I don't know that he ever done it. But that was the way he talked to get a fight. Those early-day Texans was full of that stuff. Most of them that came up with the trail herds, being from Texas and Southerners to start with, wason the side of the South, and oh, butthey were bitter. That was how a lot of them got killed, because they were filled full of the old dope about the war and they wouldn't let an abolitionist arrest them. The marshals in those cow towns on the trail were usually Northern men, and the Southerners wouldn't go back to Texas and hear people say: "He's a hell of a fellow. He let a Yankee lock him up." Down home one Texas Ranger could arrest the lot of them, but up North you'd have to kill them first.
I couldn't even guess how many was killed that way on the trail. There was several killed at every one of those shipping points in Kansas, but you get different people telling the same story over and over again and the number is bound to be exaggerated. Besides, not all that were killed were cowboys; a lot of saloon men and tinhorn gamblers bit the dust. While I saw several shooting scrapes in saloons and sporting houses, I never saw a man shot dead, though some died afterwards.
But in theseventies they were a hard bunch, and I believe it was partly on account of what they came from. Down in Texas in the early days every man had to have his six-shooter always ready, every house kept a shotgun loaded with buckshot, because they were always looking for a raid by Mexicans or Comanche Indians. What is more, I guess half the people in Texas in the seventies had moved out there on the frontier from the Southern states and from the rebel armies, and was the type that did not want any restraints.
Abolitionist: A supporter of freeing enslaved African Americans.
Paunched: Shot him in the stomach.
On the side of the South
They were bitter
They were bitter: The Southerners were bitter because they lost the Civil War.
But there is one thing I would like to get straight. I punched cows from '71 on, and I never yet saw a cowboy with two guns. I mean two six-shooters. Wild Bill carried two guns and so did some of those other city marshals, like Bat Masterson, but they were professional gunmen themselves, not cowpunchers. The others that carried two guns were Wes Hardin and Bill Longley and Clay Allison and them desperadoes. But a cowboy with two guns is all movie stuff,and so is this business of a gun on each hip. The kind of fellows that did carry two would carry one in thescabbard and a hide-out gun down under their arm.
There was other people besides cowboys in Nebraska in the seventies, but they was not the kind that could influence a boy. The settlers were very religious and narrow-minded. I remember once, me and Harry went fishing on Sunday and caught a big catfish. One of the neighbors saw it and had us arrested, and Father had to pay a five-dollar fine. Most of the settlers had been Union soldiers and did not like Texas people,and their love was returned plenty.
About this time, 1876, when I had that picture taken, the one with the cigar in my mouth. I had a bottle of whisky in the other hand, but it doesn't show, because I had a fight with the other fellow in the picture and tore off his half of it. I was drunk when the picture was made, and I guess I wanted the world to know it. I was sixteen then and dead tough. Oh, God, I was tough. I had a terrible reputation, and I was sure proud of it. I'll never forget the time I walked home with a nice girl. Her people were English, some of those cart-horse-bred English that my father looked down on, and she had walked up to our house to visit with the girls and stayed to supper. I took her home afterwards. It was only about half a mile. Her family just tore her to pieces. They saw to it she never went out with me again.
And I was really dangerous. A kid is more dangerous than a man because he's so sensitive about his personal courage. He's just itching to shoot somebody in order to prove himself. I did shoot a man once. I was only sixteen, and drunk. A bunch of us left town on a dead run, shooting at the gas lamps. I was in the lead and the town marshal was right in front of me with his gun in his hand calling, "Halt! Halt! Throw'em up!" And I throwed 'em up all right, right in his face. I always had that idea in my head—"Shoot your way out." I did not go to town for a long time afterwards, but he never knew who shot him, because it was dark enough so he could not see. He was a saloon man's marshal anyway and they wanted our trade, so did not do much about it. That was how us cowboys got away with a lot of such stunts. Besides, the bullet went through his shoulder and he was only sick a few days and then back on the job. But they say he never tried to get in front of running horses again....
Scabbard: A sheath; a side holster.
And their love was returned plenty
And their love was returned plenty: The Texans didn't like the settlers from the North either.
But I was worse than ever afterwards. I remember about this time there was a big banker in this Nebraska country who had been a gambler, and he had straightened out and wanted to marry a decent girl. So he began courting one of my sisters and one day hecame to take her buggy riding. I wouldn't see anything wrong with it now. But I came up and told them both to get out of that buggy or I'd shoot them out of it, and I would have. I was insulted because my sister was going around with a gambler. I wasn't going to have my sister talked about—and all that kind of thing.
To show you what kids can be, I had a fight with my brother Harry when I was twelve years old and he was fourteen. We tried tocut each other with knives and we made a pretty good job of it too. He had rode one of my ponies. I thought I was a cowpuncher, and it's a deadly insult to a cowpuncher to ride one of his horses without his permission. We got out our jackknives and flew at each other like a pair of little tigers. He cut me all over the hands, and I cut his chin—I was aiming at his throat. Little damned fools. And that night we slept together as though nothing had happened....
[Harry's] death was what made aninfidel of me. I asked my mother if God could have kept him from dying, and she said, yes, God was all-powerful and could have prevented it if he had wished. So I said: "I'll never go in one of your damn churches again." And I never have. That family stuffed me full of all that religious bull when I was a kid, but I never had any more use for it after I was growed, and in that I was like the rest of the cowpunchers. Ninety per cent of them was infidels. The life they led had a lot to do with that. After you come in contact with nature, you get all that stuff knocked out of you—praying to God for aid, divineProvidence, and so on—because it don't work. You could pray all you damn pleased, but it wouldn't get you water where there wasn't water. Talk about trusting in Providence, hell, if I'd trusted in Providence I'd have starved to death.
But the settlers would all get in their churches Sundays, and thatexhorter would be hollering hell-fire and brimstone so you could hear him a mile. We'd all go to hell, the way they looked at it. If they were right there was no hope for me. You know you ride around alone at night, looking at the stars, and you get to thinking of those things.
Most of southeastern Nebraska and the whole state west of Lincoln was open range when we got there in '71, but about 1876 a flock of settlers took the country, and after that there was only a few places where you could hold cattle. Father was lucky. There was a lot of rough country adjoininghim that did not get settled till '79 or '80, and he run cattle until then, but afterwards he went to farming with the rest of them. That was how I came to leave home for good when I was eighteen. I was back for visits afterwards, because I wanted to see my mother, but except for those visits my family and I went separate ways, and they stayed separate forever after. My father was all for farming by that time, and all my brothers turned out farmers except one, and he ended up the worst of the lot—a sheepman and a Republican.
Infidel: Person with no religious beliefs.
Providence: Guidance from God.
Him: Abbott's father's land.
But I stayed with the cattle and went north with them. You see, environment—that's a big word for me, but I got onto it—does everything for a boy. I was with Texas cowpunchers from the time Iwas eleven years old. And then my father expected to make a farmer of me after that! It couldn't be done.
The summer of 1878 I ran a herd of beef for some men in Lincoln, and I took them up on Cheese Creek—that was the last open range in that country. They limited me to 500 head so the cattle would do well, but they paid me twenty-five cents a head a month, and for four months I got $125 a month out of it. That was big money for a boy in those days, when the usual wages ran as low as $10, and believe me I thought I was smart. In the fall these fellows sold their cattle to feeders in the eastern part of the state and I took them down there, driving them right through the streets of Lincoln. Then I went home. After I got home my father said to me one night: "You can take old Morgan and Kit and Charlie and plow the west ridge tomorrow."
Like hell I'd plow the west ridge. And when he woke up next morning, Teddy was gone....
[The] trip up the trail in '79 was my second, but in a way it was the first that counted, because I was only a button the other time. Iwasn't nineteen years old when I come up the trail with the Olive herd, but don't let that fool you. I was a man in my own estimation and a man in fact. I was no kid with the outfit but a top cowhand, doing a top hand's work, and there is nothing so wonderful about that. All I'd ever thought about was being a good cowhand. I'd been listening to these Texas men and watching them and studying the disposition of cattle ever since I was eleven years old.
Even in years I was no younger than a lot of them. The average age of cowboys then, I suppose, was twenty-three or four. Except for some of the bosses there was very few thirty-year-old men on the trail. I heard a story once about a school teacher who asked one of these old Texas cow dogs to tell her all about how he punched cows on the trail. She said: "Oh, Mister So-and-So, didn't the boys used to have a lot of fun riding their ponies?"
He said: "Madam, there wasn't any boys or ponies. They was all horses and men."
Well, they had to be, to stand the life they led. Look at the chances they took and the kind of riding they done, all the time, over rough country. Even in the daytime those deepcoulees could open up all at once in front of you, before you had a chance to see where you were going, and at night it was something awful if you'd stop to think about it, which none of them ever did. If a storm come and the cattle started running—you'd hear that low rumbling noise along the ground and the men on herd wouldn't need to come in and tell you, you'd know—then you'd jump for your horse and get out there in the lead, trying to head them and get them into amill before they scattered to hell and gone. It was riding at a dead run in the dark, with cut banks and prairie dog holes all around you, not knowing if the next jump would land you in a shallow grave....
One day a man walked in the saloon carrying a big glass jar with a live rattlesnake in it. He wanted to sell it. Frank says: "Hell, no, they see snakes soon enough."
But the man kept arguing with him. He says: "It's big money for you if you'll buy it. Now I'll bet the drinks for the house there ain't a man here that can hold his finger on that glass and keep it there when the snake strikes."
Coulees: Deep gulches or ravines.
Mill: To move in a circle.
To show you what a bonehead I was, I took him up. It was thick glass and I knew damn well the snake couldn't bite me, so I put my finger on it. The snake struck, and away come my finger. Igot mad and made up my mind I would hold my finger on that glass or bust. It cost me seventeen dollars before I quit, but since then I've never bucked the other fellow's game and it has saved me a lot of money.
Frank bought the snake and he sure made money on it. It was lots of fun to get some sucker that thought he was long on nerve to go against it; no one ever could. But one night a bunch of cowboys came in and I knew some of them. They all tried the snake and failed, and one of them got mad and busted the glass with his sixshooter, and the snake got out and they had to kill it.
That was a big night in more ways than one. We all got well lit up and went to a hot show on Blake Street. The play I think was called "Poor Nell"; anyway, a burglar beats his wife to death on the stage. After he had knocked her down he taken hold of her hair and beat her head on the floor, and every time he struck her head he would stamp his foot. It sounded like her head hitting the floor, but it wasn't her head at all. I was sober enough to know that. Butsome of them weren't. Bill Roden, one of the cowboys, had went to sleep but the noise woke him up, and the first thing he saw was the man beating the woman's head on the floor. We sat right in front, and he gave one jump onto the stage and busted the fellow on the head with his six-gun before he remembered where he was. The woman got up and began to cuss him, all hell broke loose, somebody pulled Bill off the stage, they called for the police, the boys shot out the lights, and everybody broke their necks getting away from there. They all run to Bailey's corral where the horses were and got away before the police knew who to arrest. I made a sneak down an alley to Frank's place, got what few dollars I had, and left town on foot....
Lots of cowpunchers were killed by lightning, and that is history. I was knocked off my horse by it twice. The first time I saw a ball of fire coming toward me and felt something strike me on the head. When I came to, I was lying under old Pete and the rain was pouring down on my face. The second time I was trying to get under a railroad bridge when it hit me, and I came to in the ditch. The cattle were always restless when there was a storm at night, even if it was a long way off, and that was when any little thing would start arun.
Lots of times I have ridden around the herd, with lightning playing and thunder muttering in the distance, when the air was so full of electricity that I would see it flashing on the horns of the cattle, and there would be balls of it on the horse's ears and even on my mustache, little balls about the size of a pea. I suppose it was static electricity, the same as when you shake a blanket on a winter night in a dark room.
But when you add it all up, I believe the worst hardship we had on the trail was loss of sleep. There was never enough sleep. Our day wouldn't end till about nine o'clock, when we grazed the herd onto the bed ground. And after that every man in the outfit except the boss and horse wrangler and cook would have to stand two hours' night guard. Suppose my guard was twelve to two. I would stake my night horse, unroll my bed, pull off my boots, and crawl in at nine, get about three hours' sleep, and then ride two hours. Then I would come off guard and get to sleep another hour and a half, till the cook yelled, "Roll out," at half past three. So I would get maybe five hours' sleep when the weather was nice and everything smooth and pretty, with cowboys singing under the stars. If it wasn't so nice, you'd be lucky to sleep an hour. But the wagon rolled on in themorning just the same. [Abbott and Smith, pp. 22–3, 26–30, 35–6, 45–7, 66–7]
What happened next . . .
Teddy Blue Abbott's entire life wasn't as wild as his early years as a cowboy. By the 1880s, in fact, few cowboys were finding work on cattle drives. Rail lines had stretched into cattle country, so cattle drives simply weren't necessary any longer. More and more cattle were being raised in fenced pastures, putting cowboys out of work. Abbott moved to Montana, where cattle were still tended on the open range. In the late 1880s the love of a woman led him to settle down. Abbott married Mary Stuart in 1889.
"I took a homestead," wrote Abbott, "kept milk cows and raised a garden, though I still rode and kept cattle, and the truth is that after I was married, I rode much harder and longer hours than I ever done for forty dollars a month." Abbott was like many cowboys who settled down, took advantage of the opportunity to buy cheap land, and built small farms. Abbott became something of a legend in Montana for his fascinating stories of the cowboy era, and Helena Huntington Smith helped him record his memories in 1939. Abbott died just a few days after We Pointed Them North was published.
Did you know . . .
- Most cowboys were from the South, and many still nursed a grudge against all Northerners for the South's defeat in the Civil War.
- The life of a cowboy was hard and dangerous. Battles with Indians, prairie fires, breakneck chases across unfamiliar territory, and drunken fights in cowboy towns—all took their toll on the cowboy.
- On the open range, the cattle of many different ranchers mixed together. Cowboys identified their cattle by brands, distinctive marks burned into the hide when the animals were young.
- The cattle boom lasted only twenty-five years, from about 1866 to 1890. During that time some thirty-five thousand cowboys rode the range.
Consider the following . . .
- How does this excerpt support or challenge your views about cowboys?
- Can you trust that this author is telling the truth? Why, or why not?
For More Information
Abbott, E. C. ("Teddy Blue"), and Helena Huntington Smith. We Pointed Them North: Recollections of a Cowpuncher. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1939.
Dary, David. Seeking Pleasure in the Old West. New York: Knopf, 1995.
Dykstra, Robert R. The Cattle Towns. New York: Knopf, 1968.
Granfield, Linda. Cowboy: An Album. New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1994.
Landau, Elaine. Cowboys. New York: Franklin Watts, 1990.
Monaghan, Jay. The Book of the American West. New York: Bonanza Books, 1963.
Place, Marian T. American Cattle Trails East & West. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1967.
Rosa, Joseph G. The Taming of the West: Age of the Gunfighter, Men and Weapons on the Frontier, 1840–1900. New York: Smithmark, 1993.
Seidman, Laurence I. Once in the Saddle: The Cowboy's Frontier, 1866–1896. New York: Facts on File, 1990.
Steckmesser, Kent Ladd. The Western Hero in History and Legend. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1965.