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The Not So Great
Cowboy Strike of 1883

by Clay Coppedge

In 1883, in the wild and wooly cowtown of Tascosa on the banks of the Canadian River, a group of cowboys got mad as hell and announced to the owners of five big Panhandle ranches that they weren’t going to take it anymore. They were going on strike, and they did. For a little more than two months in that year, somewhere between 160 and 200 cowboys (estimates vary widely) went on strike in what is generally known as the Great Cowboy Strike of 1883, though it didn’t turn out all that great.

The strike happened at a time when both the cattle business and the wild plains country of the Panhandle were in transition. The buffalo were gone and with them the Comanche, who depended on the buffalo. The cattle drives were over and the railroads had arrived. A lot of the old ranch owners were also gone, their places taken by investors, usually from another state or country. The LIT, LX, LS and Anchor-T ranches were the strikers’ target.

The cowboy life has always been romantic only to those not actively engaged in it. Cowboys of that day labored sunup to sundown in every kind of weather doing frequently dangerous work, eating two meals a day and sleeping on the ground unless they were among the pampered few who had tents. On average, they received $30 a month, or about a dollar a day.

In the old days before the syndicates and absentee owners took over, cowboys might be given some calves in addition to their pay, or they could take some mavericks (an unbranded calf or yearling) and work their own herds out on the range; many a future Panhandle rancher got his start that way.

The syndicates put an end to all that up-by-the-bootstraps nonsense. They didn’t give away calves and all mavericks became property of the ranch. This change, more than salary, was at the heart of the cowboys’ discontent.

The cowboys asked for a raise in wages to $50 a month (though this would have been a cut in pay for some of the top hands) and the same wage for a “good” cook. Bosses would get $75. The strike was intended to disrupt the spring round-up but it did not, nor were the other ranches much affected by anything the cowboys did or did not do, though much was made of what they might do.

Newspapers in other states especially relished the idea of a Texas range war, and a class war to boot! “An ordinary cowboy is as explosive as a nitroglycerin bomb, and a good deal more dangerous. We shall watch with great interest, not caring much which side whips or gets whipped,” the Trinidad (Colorado) Weekly Advertiser commented.

But the strike came and went without a shot being fired. It ended with barely a whimper in early May after two-and-a-half months. The LE and T-Anchor ranches fired striking cowboys on the spot. The LS and LIT offered a small raise and fired anybody who didn’t accept it. The spring round-ups continued with replacement workers, of which there was plenty, and with cowboys who saw the handwriting on the wall and rejoined their old outfits.

The only lingering after-effects of the strike came in the form of some of Tascosa’s famous gunfights, which had their origins in the lingering animosities exposed or created by the strike. The cowboys simply ran out of money while the work went on without them. Some might look at it today and call the cowboys short-sighted or even foolish.

Novelist Elmer Kelton based his novel “The Day the Cowboys Quit” on the 1883 strike. He wrote, “There came a time that some men decided independence too costly when the wrong people had it, so they tried to mold others to a pattern of their own cutting. And when you crowd a man too far, he may do something in self defense that is not sensible, either.”

The strike has been identified by some scholars as a significant part of a wider international labor movement but historians generally view it today as an interesting but isolated incident that didn’t amount to much.
© Clay Coppedge December 5, 2014 Column
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