cantankerous cattle up the trail was no easy undertaking under the
best of circumstances, but the drive Samuel Dunn Houston made in
1888 beat anything he'd ever experienced.
Originally from San Antonio,
Houston made his first cattle
drive in 1876 and by 1886 knew the business well enough to be
trusted as a trail boss. Two years later, as foreman for the Holt
Livestock Co., he left Seven Rivers, NM with 2,500 head. His job
was to get the herd to the Pole Creek country in Wyoming, nearly
800 miles to the north.
Houston started out with a chuck wagon cook, a horse wrangler and
five drovers-four hired at Seven Rivers and one young hand from
San Antonio. Both
the cattle and the drovers he'd picked up at Seven Rivers proved
hard to handle. The foreman came close to losing more than 600 steers
in a stampede near the Pecos
River and the four Seven Rivers hands turned out to be troublemakers
he had to fire-at gunpoint.
Near Clayton, NM Houston bedded down the herd and rode into town
to hire some new men. He couldn't find any cowboys wanting work,
but a friend told him about a teenager looking to join a herd. Houston
found the youngster at the livery stable. He said his name was Willie
Matthews and that he was 19. Houston hired him on the spot.
Back at camp, the trail boss put the new man in charge of the horses
and promoted the wrangle to herder. Houston took to calling Willie,
who he judged only weighed 125 pounds, the Kid.
"The kid would get up the darkest stormy nights and stay with the
cattle until the storm was over," Houston later recalled. "He was
good natured, very modest, didn't use any cuss words or tobacco…I
was so pleased with him that I wished many times that I could find
two or three more like him."
Two hundred fifty miles and four months up the trail later, when
the herd reached Hugo, Colorado, the Kid told Houston he was homesick
and wanted to leave the outfit. Houston didn't want to lose such
a good hand, but he agreed, reluctantly, to let him go. After collecting
his pay, the Kid rode off to town. No one figured they'd be seeing
That evening, an attractive young lady in a fine dress strolled
into the cow camp as the crew sat around a campfire. Houston couldn't
understand why a woman would be paying a call.
"Mr. Houston, you don't know me, do you?"
The trail boss was speechless. "Kid," he finally said, "is it possible
that you are a lady?"
Houston told the cook to fetch a tomato box she could sit on and
asked her to explain herself. She said her father had been a trail
driver in the early 1870s and later moved from South Texas to Caldwell,
Kansas. Growing up hearing her papa tell stories about his trail
driving days, she decided she'd like to see what it would be like.
She had borrowed male clothing and a pair of boots from her brother
and ridden west to find work.
"Now, Mr. Houston," she continued, "I am glad I found you to make
the trip with, for I have enjoyed it. I am going just as straight
home as I can and that old train can't run too fast for me, when
I get on it."
Unfortunately, the "Kid" has never been positively identified. Sarah
R. Massey looked under every figurative cow patty to learn her identity
for a 2006 book on women trail drivers she compiled but had no luck.
Fortunately, more is known about Dunn. He was born in Caldwell County
in 1855, his parents having come to Texas from Tennessee and settling
on the San Marcos River. Dunn saddled up for his first cattle drive
at 17 and went on to make 27 other trips "up the trail."
As an old man, Dunn was interviewed for inclusion in a Texas classic,
"The Trail Drivers of Texas." That's where he told the story of
"the Kid." The pioneer trail driver spent his final years in San
Antonio. As a hobby, and for the modest amount of money it brought
in, Dunn carved wooden longhorn steer heads for sale.