Confessions of a Cowboy
An English Intellectual on a Texas Cattle Drive
By James C. Simmons, Fri., May 26, 2000
I've asked but no one can explain why three novels set in 19th-century Texas -- The Gates of the Alamo by Stephen Harrigan, The Borderland: A Novel of Texas by Bud Shrake, and A Twist at the End: A Novel of O. Henry by Steven Saylor -- have been published by major houses already this year. Perhaps the coincidence isn't that odd, given the wildly unpredictable gestation period that most books undergo before they arrive on bookshelves. Nonetheless, the dust from old Texas trails has been stirring this spring in a particularly fervid and effective way. This month, Carroll & Graf publishes Star-Spangled Eden: 19th-Century America Through the Eyes of Dickens, Wilde, Frances Trollope, Frank Harris, and Other British Travelers by historian James C. Simmons; one chapter of the book describes what it was like for a foreigner -- one quite unique foreigner, admittedly -- to work on a Texas cattle drive in the 1870s. In fact, Frank Harris is probably the only one of those intrepid British travelers whose name you don't immediately recognize, but he was a legendary newspaper editor and self-chronicler known more, perhaps, for his indiscretions than for anything else. Excerpting part of Simmons' chapter on Harris is our way of contributing to the discussion already established by Harrigan, Shrake, and Saylor, though putting it that way makes the passage below seem stiff and dry when it's anything but. It's the perfect bit of history for our Summer Fun issue. -- Clay Smith
Early in 1872 eight American cowboys crossed the Rio Grande into Texas, driving ahead of them a herd of 1,500 longhorn cattle they had rustled several days before from a large hacienda in Mexico. A few hours later a group of 20 armed Mexicans overtook them and demanded the return of their cattle. The Americans refused, and the situation quickly became tense. Threats were exchanged. Suddenly, the cowboys drew their revolvers and fired on the Mexicans. Two Mexicans fell dead to the ground and another four were wounded. The others fled back toward the border. "After the battle we all adjourned to Locker's [Saloon] and had a big drink," one cowboy wrote later. "Nobody took the fight seriously; whipping [Mexicans] was nothing to brag about. But Rossiter thought that a claim should be made against the Mexican Government for raiding United States territory; [he] said he was going to draw up the papers and send them to the state district attorney at Austin. The proposal was received with whoops and cheers. The idea of punishing the Mexicans for getting shot trying to recapture their own cattle appealed to us Americans as something intensely humorous. All the Texans gave their names solemnly as witnesses, and Rossiter swore he would draw up the document. Years afterwards [I learned] that Rossiter had got forty thousand dollars on that claim."
The observer of that scene of frontier violence was Frank Harris, an English youth who had run away from home at the age of 14 and traveled to America, where he had a series of extraordinary adventures. For a time in New York he had worked as a sandhog deep in the underwater muck of the East River, laying the foundations of the Brooklyn Bridge. Later, as a night clerk in a Chicago hotel, he met three cowboys who made a good living driving longhorn cattle out of Texas up the Chisholm Trail. Enthralled, he listened to their tales of buffalo hunts and Indian fights. He made up his mind to become a cowboy and thus spent two years on the Western frontier. He tamed wild horses, branded cattle, fought Indians, saw saloon fights, and took up the fine art of cattle rustling. Later he witnessed the great Chicago fire. His experiences were to affect him profoundly. He would return to England thoroughly Americanized.
Harris's life (1856-1931) holds a dreadful fascination. A short, dark man, pugnacious and unable to check his insults, he combined tactlessness with a commanding voice. Once in a London restaurant he was heard by all to say, "No, my dear Duke, I know nothing of the joys of homosexuality. You must speak to my friend Oscar about that." Then, in the silence that followed he added in a loud voice: "And yet, if Shakespeare had asked me I would have had to submit."
Harris counted among his acquaintances such luminaries as Thomas Carlyle, George Meredith, Robert Browning, Captain Sir Richard F. Burton, Algernon Swinburne, and Guy de Maupassant. "Frank Harris has been received in all the great houses in London -- once!" Oscar Wilde remarked wittily. (Later he dedicated An Ideal Husband to his friend and future biographer Harris.)
"Frank was a man of splendid visions, unreasonable expectations, and fierce appetites," George Bernard Shaw, his friend for 40 years, observed. "He blazed through London like a comet, leaving a trail of deeply annoyed persons behind him."
"Frank Harris is the most dynamic writer alive," the English biographer Hesketh Pearson insisted in 1923, adding that his "appeal is to the men and women who have lived, not drifted through life."
One of the great editors of his age, Harris took over the Evening News at 27 and made its circulation soar by writing about sex and brawls. Later, when he edited the Saturday Review, he took the opposite tack. By hiring Shaw, Max Beerbohm, and H.G. Wells as writers, he made its coverage of the arts the best in any English-language publication. As a writer Harris was prolific, versatile, and full of personal involvement. He published some 25 volumes in all, including one novel, a collection of short stories, and two biographies. Generally, he was a man whose ambitions exceeded his talent and energy, doomed always to remain a minor writer.
Only in My Life and Loves, his five-volume autobiography, did Harris break new ground and rise to greatness, fulfilling Shaw's prophecy in 1915: "Your most interesting book will be your autobiography." In it Harris determined to set down freely and honestly the truth about himself without fear or compromise. He had no intention of writing a discreet memoir. Mixed in with the accounts of his meetings and friendships with Walt Whitman, Karl Marx, Henry James, Richard Wagner, John Ruskin, and others, he penned the most fully detailed and frankly worded account of his sex life that any literary figure has ever written. His sexual recollections began with his peering up girls' dresses in his first school and continued through his explorations in a lifeboat on his way to America to the various kinds of affairs one might expect. But his life, and therefore his autobiography, went further. He also described, for instance, the procurement of girls at an Italian village for the joint delight of his guests and himself, and a succession of 12-year-old prostitutes in Bombay. He narrated all his encounters graphically but offered no moral judgments about them. He wrote of sensual experience as part of the human experience. He lived, he worked, he ate, he slept, and he fornicated. For Harris sex was neither dirty or self-consciously beautiful. It simply was.
(Any biographer of Harris has to deal with the persistent charges that he sometimes falsified events in his life. "As I came to maturity I found that my memory ... began to colour incidents dramatically," he freely admitted in My Life and Loves. Certainly, in recounting the events of his own life, he revealed an excellent sense of narrative drama; the events and people come alive for the reader. As with all his nonfiction, we have to ask how much of it is true.
(Professor John F. Gallagher, who edited the scholarly edition of My Life and Loves, wrote in his introduction to that book: "There is the question of whether Harris invented sex episodes in the hopes of increasing sales or heightening effect, or whether his memory played him false in recalling details. It does not seem likely that a man who could accurately quote at length, say, from Swinburne's Anactoria and from Macaulay's essay on history fifty years after reading them would find it difficult to remember the faces and anatomies of women. And those persons still alive who knew him best deny there was any necessity for invention by him.")
Harris was born James Thomas Harris, probably in 1856, in Galway on Ireland's western coast. His mother died when he was five. His father held a minor commission in the Royal Navy and was often away from home, and father and son were together only on rare occasions. Harris attended a series of schools. In all it was a restless life, rootless, with no continuity and few friends. "I often used to think that no one cared for me really," he recalled later in My Life and Loves, "and I would weep over my unloved loneliness." His chief interests were sex, sports, and books of romantic adventure. Like George Ruxton before him, he found himself ensnared by James Fenimore Cooper's tales of frontier adventures and began to dream of faraway places.
Harris's unhappiness grew after his father enrolled him at Ruabon, on the border between England and Wales. Like many British schools of that era, Ruabon had organized traditional fagging into a rigid pyramid of chiefs, monitors, and submonitors, who were with the younger boys and who presumably guided their footsteps during most hours of the day and night. Harris had to endure a claustrophobic existence of rigid discipline and stupid punishments. He was himself as a caged bird, he wrote later, and longed to be free. He became increasingly preoccupied with thoughts of America and its vast plains, herds of buffalo, wild Indians, and cowboys. In his American dreams he always saw himself as a combination of Horatio Alger and William Cody, making a great deal of money quickly and enjoying splendid Western adventures. The modest windfall of a second prize in a school composition contest suddenly gave him the means of escape. With £15 cash in his pocket he set out in 1870 for Liverpool to book passage for America. "I was trembling with excitement and delight," he recalled later. "I was going to enter the real world and live as I wished to live. I had no regrets, no sorrows. I was filled with lively hopes and happy presentiments."
Harris quickly checked the steamship offices and found a ship sailing to New York the next afternoon. He paid £4 for a steerage passage. A steward showed him a chalked circle on one deck, his place for duration of the transatlantic voyage. In his excitement Harris had neglected to bring the necessary mattress and tow blankets. A few hours later the ship's doctor, a young man with a nonchalant manner and reddish hair, questioned him at length.
"Where's your father or mother?" he asked.
"Haven't got any," Harris replied.
"Do they let children like you go to America?" the doctor persisted. "What age are you?"
Harris, lying, gave his age at 16, and asked,
"How does it matter to you? You are not responsible for me, thank God."
"I am though," the doctor said, "to a certain degree, at least. Are you really going to America on your own?"
"What to do?" the doctor persisted.
"Anything I can get."
"Hm, I must see to this."
The doctor took the young Irish boy under his wing, and Harris spent the next two hours in the doctor's cabin reading Macaulay's essays on British history. When the doctor returned, Harris recited much of Macaulay's chapter on Warren Hastings by heart. The older man was impressed and quickly arranged for a demonstration of Harris' extraordinary memory in the lounge. The amused passengers passed a hat, took up a collection, and presented Harris with a first-class ticket. An older gentleman from New York even offered to adopt him. But as Harris observed later, "I had not got rid of one father to take on another, so I kept as far away from him as I decently could."
During the voyage Harris experienced his first sexual conquest. Her name was Jessie Kerr, and she was the pretty daughter of the ship's chief engineer. Sixteen years old, she was free and easy in manner, and he lost no time in making her acquaintance. Soon the couple was meeting daily, whenever Jessie could escape from her father's watchful eye. Harris quickly set about trying to seduce her. His seduction of Jessie was little more than a commonplace exhibition of boyhood lust. Later in his life, Harris insisted that lust was as important a reality as love and we should accept it as such without trying to hide it under more poetic names.
Jessie thus became the first in Harris' long list of amours. In his lovemaking Harris was as direct and impatient as he was to be in his working life. For him there were no preliminaries, no wooing, no courtship. The simple act of desiring a woman aroused him to the act itself. The fact that most of his women proved easy conquests tells us volumes about his forceful personality.
Twelve days after departing Liverpool, Harris arrived in New York City. "What an entrance to a new world!" he recalled later. "A magnificent and safe ocean port which is also the meeting place of great water paths into the continent. No finer site could be imagined for a world capital. I was entranced with the spacious grandeur, the manifest destiny of this Queen City of Waters."
In early June 1871 Harris's life suddenly took a dramatic change. Three strangers checked into the Fremont House in Chicago, all cattlemen. They signed their names on the registry as Reece, Dell, and Ford. Reece and Dell were both British, who always dressed in brown riding boots, Bedford cord breeches, and dark tweed coats. Ford was American, six feet tall with a hatchet-thin, bronzed face. They were cattleman who made a lucrative business by buying cattle on the Rio Grande for a dollar a head and driving them to market in Kansas City, and selling them for $15 or $20 a head. "Of course, we don't always get through unscathed," Reece told Harris. "The Plains Indians -- Cherokees, Blackfeet, and Sioux -- take care of that. One herd in two gets through and that pays big."
The three cattlemen took a liking to the young Irishman, who had grown six inches during his time in America and now looked older than his years. Harris, in turn, fell under their spell as he listened to their stories of cattle punching, Indian fights, and life on the range. He determined to go on the trail with them after they left Chicago, if they would have him. Reece taught him some basic riding skills, and Ford finally gave his consent. Harris had saved $1,800 and agreed to go into partnership with the men on buying cattle.
On June 10 the four men boarded a train in Chicago and the next day disembarked at Kansas City, then the gateway to the Western frontier. They picked up three more men belonging to their outfit: Bent, a Civil War veteran; Charlie, a handsome American youth, over six feet tall, strong and lighthearted; and Bob, a short man, half Mexican and half Indian, who rarely spoke except to curse Americans in Spanish. Harris stopped at a store to purchase a Colt revolver, Winchester rifle, shotgun, and some appropriate clothes with Reece's expert advice.
At 4:00 the following morning Harris and the six cowboys rode out of Kansas City toward the southwest. By the fourth day they had left all roads and homesteads behind and were on the open prairie, riding through buffalo grass and sagebrush, averaging 30 miles a day. Ford appointed Harris the hunter after discovering he possessed a sixth sense for direction which always brought him back to the group. Harris savored his new life.
"After breakfast about five o-clock in the morning, I would ride away from the wagon till it was out of sight and then abandon myself to the joy of solitude with no boundary between plain and sky," he recalled later in My Life and Loves. "The air was brisk and dry, as exhilarating as champagne, and even when the sun reached the zenith and became blazing hot, the air remained lightsome and invigorating. ... Game was plentiful. Hardly an hour would elapse before I had got half a dozen ruffled grouse or a deer, and then I would walk my pony back to the midday camp, with perhaps a new wild flower in my hand whose name I wished to learn."
After a ten-day ride the group reached Reece's Texas ranch set in the midst of 5,000 acres of prairie, a large frame building that housed 20 men. Revolvers and rifles of a dozen different varieties along with skins of mink and beaver decorated the walls of the parlor. Buffalo and bear skin rugs covered the floor. Nearby was a great brick stable, constructed English style. A stream ran within 300 yards of the buildings.
Two days later the cowboys set out from the ranch for the Rio Grande 1,200 miles away. Two wagons, each drawn by four mules, carried all their supplies and food. Their goal was to purchase 6,000 head of cattle at a dollar head and drive them to Kansas City, the nearest railhead. With them was Harris, the bootblack sandhog desk clerk-turned-cowboy. The summer sun had already begun to brown his face and hands. Leather chaps protected his legs. A six-shot Colt revolver rode his hip.
"That first ride into the Southwest was of the essence of romance," Harris recalled later. "It was a plunge a thousand miles into the unknown. It was like an old border foray, with enough strangeness to interest and enough danger to warm the blood."
Harris quickly discovered an essential feature of trail riding: boredom. The ordinary life of the cowboy was reasonably dull. After sunset the group of ten sat around the campfire chatting reflectively. They had three subjects of primary interest: women and what to do with them; religion; and the relationship between management and labor. When the arguments finally petered out, Bent brought out his worn deck of cards and the men gambled until late in the evening.
A break in the routine came one morning while Harris was collecting dried buffalo chips for the cook's fire. As he stooped to pick up one large chip, a little prairie rattlesnake struck him suddenly on his thumb. He quickly crushed its head with his boot heel, bit out the flesh around the two tiny puncture holes, and then stuck the open wound in the red embers to cauterize it. The others did not take the injury as casually as Harris did. They knew how dangerous any rattlesnake was -- particularly a young one that hadn't yet learned to control the flow of its venom. Ford filled him with whiskey and walked him back and forth in the camp. A great urge to sleep came over him. He felt himself going numb and deaf. Ford and Reece kept him walking for two hours until the effects of the poison finally wore off.
In time Reece's party reached Texas and encountered their first towns. Each man demanded to be paid his wages, slicked himself up as much as possible, and headed for the first saloon. Within an hour they were crazy drunk and looking for Mexican prostitutes with whom to spend an hour or a night. Harris refused to accompany them to the saloon and begged the young Charlie not to play the fool. "That's what I live for," he shouted and rode off. They soon paid for their indiscretions. Charlie was the first to come down with a severe case of gonorrhea, which laid him up for a month. One by one the other cowboys fell ill with the same disease.
Reece and Ford spent their days buying cattle and within a month had assembled a herd of 6,000 animals. Harris bought 500 head with his own money. By late July they started up the trail, driving the huge herd ahead of them. Cautiously they skirted Indian Territory. "The God damned Americanos lose them all now," gloated Bob, the Mexican. "One single Indian can stampede the whole herd, pouf! Then what you got?"
A week later Harris noticed the cattle were uneasy. He mentioned the fact to Bob. "Indians," the Mexican told him. That night Harris was off duty, but he circled the uneasy herd as usual. Suddenly about midnight an Indian leaped up, shouted an ungodly yell, and waved a sheet. Harris fired his rifle wildly, and the Indian ran away. The cowboys soon quieted the cattle.
With no further close calls, Reece's men brought the herd safely to Kansas City and sold one-fourth of the cattle at $15 a head. They reached Chicago in early October and put the rest of their herd in the yards near the Michigan Street depot. Once again Harris found himself back at the Fremont House. The next day they sold another of the herd. Harris sold 300 of his animals for $4,500, and now counted himself a wealthy man.
As soon as winter broke, Reece ordered the group back to San Antonio to purchase additional cattle. However, he soon found that the price had doubled and he had enough money to buy on 3,000 head. Harris offered up $3,000 of his own money and joined Reece as an equal partner.
Harris also learned another important truth about life on the Western frontier. The line between the law-abiding citizen and the criminal was, at best, fuzzy. Many a cowboy lapsed now and then into cattle rustling. Reece ordered his cowboys across the Rio Grande and deep into Mexico, where they raided a large ranch and made off with 1,500 head of cattle. Whatever moral objections Harris might have had were quickly overcome by the prospect of easy money and the thrill of driving by night a herd of stolen cattle. Everything went according to plan until the second night. Suddenly a shot in front stampeded the cattle. Harris quickly rode out to one flank of the herd while Charlie took another, using their long whips to control the animals. The murmur of hooves became a thunder, and then they were all racing hard across the empty bush country. Harris heard another gunshot and looked behind him in time to see a man riding hard down him. He drew his revolver and got off a quick shot. The man and his horse went down. He never knew whether he had wounded or killed him. Harris hurried after the herd. The excitement, tension, and struggling mass of dark animals needed all his attention. Eventually, they made it back safely to Texas, where Harris received a lesson in the fine art of changing brands.
One of his last acts before departing America was to change his name from James Thomas to Frank. "Now for the first time, when about 19 years of age, I came to self-consciousness as Frank Harris and began to deal with life in my own way and under this name, Frank," he wrote later in My Life and Loves. The new name, with its suggestions of candor and integrity, was the most obvious external sign of a profound inward change that had come over him during his years in America. He would never again be purely European in his outlook. The vastness of the plains, the intensity of the cattle drives, the energy of Chicago and New York, all would remain with him until his death.
"My months on the trail had marked my very being," Harris wrote years later. "It made a workman of me, and above all, it taught me that tense resolution, will power, was the most important factor of success in life."