Monday, November 5, 2001

Cattle History of the Superstitions

November 5, 2001 © Thomas J. Kollenborn. All Rights Reserved. 

Prior to the building of roads for horse drawn carriages, 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 still must travel by foot or on horseback.

In 1939, the Department of Agriculture set aside approximately 124,040 acres of public land within the Tonto National Forest to insure a particular way of life and preserve the natural wonders of the Sonoran Desert. Today a flow of hikers and horseback riders continue to travel these ancient Indian and early cattle trails.

Since the time the first settlers arrived in this region it has been known as the most hostile and rugged cattle range in the American Southwest. The first cattlemen fought Indians, drought, heat, famine, disease, and winter storms to graze their cattle in the deep canyons and towering ridges of the Superstition Wilderness. A very rugged breed of cowman evolved from this hostile environment.

These cattle drovers first arrived here from New Mexico, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, and Texas shortly after the discovery of rich mining properties in the central mountains of the Arizona Territory. Copper and silver were first discovered around Globe just prior to the American Civil War. The first cattle herds arrived around 1870-1871. The small valley flats between the towering ridges and cliffs of the Superstition Wilderness served as grazing range for the cattle brought in by drovers. The discovery of the Silver King Mine in 1875 opened the region to cattle raising because of the tremendous demand for beef on the hoof.

The sharp spines of desert flora, the summer heat, the long droughts, predators and the winter cold were nothing new to these early cowmen. Many of the cattlemen came here to reap the profits associated with providing beef to the early mining camps that dotted the landscape of central Arizona. The miners purchased tons of beef, making cattle raising a very lucrative industry in the area. The somewhat mild climate, good grazing and the market convinced many of the cattlemen to stay on permanently, and as the mining industry grew so did the cattle business. The cowboy was soon a common sight in the isolated canyons of the Superstition Mountain region.

Hardships were very common on the early cattle spreads. There were no permanent shelters or medical facilities. If a cowboy broke an arm or leg his only doctor was his partner or himself. If he picked up a stray bullet he prayed that he could make it back to headquarters before infection set in. Infection was the greatest enemy of man and beast in those days. Survival was for the strongest because the weak often perished.

The early cowboy’s diet consisted of dried beef, pinto beans, chili and hardtack, and his revolver or rifle was his constant companion. Either weapon was used against his many enemies. Survival could be dependent on a lariat, bandana, hat, slicker, or chaps.

A cowboy’s horse was his main means for working cattle. A solid and sound horse often meant the difference between life and death in the wilds of the Superstition Mountains, and the care of the cowboy’s horses was the most important chore of his daily routine.

Most of these cowboys had a string of eight or ten horses and rotated between them when working cattle. Providing care for these animals required a considerable amount of time and energy. There was always an animal to doctor, shoe, or train. A cowboy’s work was truly from ‘sun till sun and was never done.’ There were always fences to mend, water holes to repair, windmills to work on, stock to check, tact to care for and every other job associated with cattle raising. The advent of barbwire changed the early cowboy’s way of life and forever ended the open range.

[Part II – November 12, 2001]

A herd of mother-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 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 market. 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, and throwing it to the ground without the benefit of a corral or catch pen to keep the irate mother cow at bay.

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 vanished. At the peak of the Clemens 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[s] believe that without wildfires the soil becomes infertile.

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 by any other job in the country.

Cowboys rode through life uninterrupted by the complexities of life. They didn’t lay awake at night listening to sirens, bells and the noise of traffic. Their nights were filled with silence, occasionally disturbed by the lonesome call of a coyote. The cowboy recognized the value of sitting astride his horse and traveling with the wind in his face.

The colorful and romantic life of the cowboy so often portrayed by western writers was more fantasy than reality. The silver screen heroes of the 1950s portrayed by Hollywood were the cowboys most Americans recognized. They were the so-called ‘images’ of the West. Hollywood has immortalized the free spirit of the American cowboy, therefore helping preserve 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.

The large cattle ranches of the Superstition Wilderness have long since vanished from the Arizona scene, but it wasn’t conservation methods that destroyed 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. 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 and unknown to most. These cattlemen and cowboys are certainly a part of the history of the Superstition Wilderness and our American heritage.