Prior to roads and the horse drawn carriage the only means of travel between Superstition Mountain and the surrounding towns was by horseback or afoot. Since those long forgotten days little has changed within the boundaries of the Superstition Wilderness Area. Today one must still travel by foot or on horseback.
|Group of cowboys and their horses. Photo by H.R. Locke circa 1890. Denver Public Library, Western History Collection.|
The cowboy was a significant part of this geographical region between 1870 and 1990. Only in the last decade or so were cattle permits removed from the Superstition Wilderness Area.
A herd, including cows, calves and a couple of bulls would be cared for by one cowboy. Most of these herds numbered between a hundred and three hundred head.
Each spring and fall a rodeo (roundup) was conducted to gather the cattle from the open range. The purpose of the roundup was to brand, castrate and doctor calves. Yearling steers were generally separated from the herd and driven to the nearest point of need. A typical roundup area consisted of temporary catch-pens, but most often it was open ground-work without the benefit of a corral.
Open ground-work consisted of roping a wild range calf, taking it away from its wild mother. Then you threw the calf to the ground while keeping the irate mother cow at bay, you then branded, castrated, dehorned and completed other necessary chores.
The cattle drovers and cattle barons of the Superstition Mountain area have long since disappeared. The great herds that once grazed the region under the brand of the Clemens Cattle Company and others have also vanished. At the peak of the Clemans operation more than 12,000 head of cattle grazed the eastern fringe of the wilderness.
These huge herds overgrazed and destroyed much of the range. Through the use of careful range management techniques much of the old range is returning to its original state. There are many controversies associated with grazing and non-grazing within the wilderness. Some range managers believe grazing helps to reduce wildfires while other believed that without wildfires the soil becomes infertile. This controversy continues among range managers today.
What distinguished a cowboy from other working men during this period? Cowboy's generally dressed a bit different then other workers because they worked outdoors most of the time. Large brimmed hats were common tools of the trade, Levi trousers, and heavy denim or cotton shirts, and of course pointed toed high top boots with extended heels were popular with cowboys. Cowboys often carried a rope, folding knife, bandana, chaps, and sometimes a Winchester rifle or Colt revolver. These items would probably best identify a range rider of that era.
Life was not easy on the open range, but it did have its rewards. Those old range riders may not have frequented churches very often, but they were close to their God and the work of his mighty hand. A cowboy's sense of freedom and free spirit while on the open range was unequaled anywhere else in the country. Cowboys rode through life uninterrupted by the complexities of urban society.
Cowboys generally didn't lie awake at night listening to sirens, bells and the noise of modern traffic. Their nights were filled with silence occasionally interrupted by the lonesome call of a coyote or other sounds of night. The cowboy recognized the value of sitting astride his horse and traveling with the wind in his face.
Hollywood has immortalized the free spirit of the American cowboy, helping to preserve some of the ideals of our freedom. These old time cowboys, and their horses were true icons of freedom and they definitely have a place in the history of the Superstition Wilderness Area and Americana. Hollywood certainly captured the persona of the American cowboy and his spirit and spread it across America.
The large cattle ranches of the Superstition Wilderness have long since vanished from the Arizona scene. Conservation methods did not destroy them. The high cost of operation, limited grazing and strict controls on public grazing lands have reduced the productivity of these once large cattle empires to almost nothing.
Feeder pens are slowly replacing the range beef of the past. Today only a few isolated ranches survive, symbolic of a time forgotten by many. Today men like Billy Martin Jr., George Martin, Frank Herron, and Chuck Backus try to hang on to the tradition of cattle ranching in the Superstition Mountain region.
These cattlemen and cowboys are certainly a part of the history of the Superstition Wilderness and our American heritage.