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Remembering the American Cowboy

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Recently I wrote about the movie “True Grit.” Actually, the book and the two movies it spawned. The action supposedly took place in Indian Territory around 1880, in December. More than just a story about Rooster Cogburn and Mattie Ross, the story is about the American cowboy.

His was a legend that was triggered by the unrest following the War Between the States, and the passing of more than a century has not lessened the glow his story produced. In actuality the “Old West” only lasted a little more than 35 years but for some of us those old days, and old ways, are still treasured memories. While some of the old trails have grown dim with the ravages of time, the spirit of the cowboy lives on.

Each time my wife and I travel to Northeastern New Mexico that vision of the Old West becomes very real again. En route we pass through a large part of what once was the Comancheria, the domain of the feared Comanche Indians. 

Just outside of Chillicothe is Medicine Mound, an area sacred to those Plains tribes that wandered the area. This is the same area cattle baron Charles Goodnight established his JA ranch in the Palo Duro Canyon. A little further north of there is the old town of Tascosa located close by the Canadian River. 

It was a wild and wooly watering hole for cowboys, drifters, gunfighters, outlaws, gamblers or whatever else and that made for a volatile combination in the town. Tascosa was visited at one time by the likes of Billy the Kid, Pat Garrett and Temple Houston, a lawyer, judge, gunfighter and first son of Texas revolutionary hero Sam Houston. 

Then still further north we cross the Santa Fe Trail, that ribbon of commerce linking Missouri to Santa Fe for the better part of a century until the railroad ended freighting by wagon. 

Right on the Santa Fe Trail is Springer, New Mexico, where in 1902 Sam “Black Jack” Ketchum and his gang, a notorious band of outlaws, were captured and ‘Black Jack’ was hanged in front of the courthouse. Several Springer citizens witnessed that hanging.

In Cimarron, New Mexico, we visit the St. James Hotel where such notables as Jesse James, the Earp Brothers, Clay Allison, Buffalo Bill Cody and others have stayed. Bringing into sharp focus the history of the place are the bullet holes that still remain in the ceiling of the dining room. 

Not far to the south of Cimarron is Rayado where Lucien Maxwell and Kit Carson established the first ranch in the area, actually the first settlement east of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. 

It became a major stop on the Santa Fe Trail as well as a military outpost. Not far down the Interstate is Las Vegas, New Mexico, where Doc Holliday owned half interest in a gambling establishment before cashing in his chips and heading out to Tombstone and immortality at the OK Corral. 

So, how can I not find something in that area that reminds me of the Old West? 

I believe it is the undying spirit of the frontier that calls us, allows us, through the mind’s eye to step back into time. A much simpler time when the main emphasis was on simple survival, not what’s politically correct. 

What is the appeal of the Old West of the American frontier? It has been characterized by some as a dark and bloody period in American history. Its heroes – Cody, Carson, Crockett, Bowie, Hickock, Earp, Garrett – have been reviled and criticized. Yet the Old West lives on, larger than life.

To many of us it is a symbol of freedom and liberty, when there was always another mountain to climb and another river to cross; when a dispute between two men was settled not with expensive lawyers, but with fists, knives or guns. Barbaric? Maybe. 

But some things never change. When the American cowboy rode into the pages of history he left behind a legacy that still lives within the hearts of all. Well, at least some of us.

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