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Chronicles of Oklahoma
Volume 20, No. 4
December, 1942

By Victor Murdock

Page 372

From an admirable biography of General Bennet Riley, eminent military figure among the prairie pioneers, written by Carolyn Thomas Foreman in The Chronicles of Oklahoma,1 I found the fact that Riley was the first man out here to make use of oxen to carry army supplies. It was a one way trip for a great many of the beasts as it turned out, but still not all of them.

The life of the man for whom Ft. Riley (first called Camp Center) was named, Bennet Riley, contained a vivid Kansas chapter. Born either in Maryland or Virginia, his birthplace being in doubt, in 1787, Riley, a small man physically with a hairlip who spoke with a lisp, went into military service when very young. His valor was already known in the war of 1812. In 1813 he was on the Mississippi near Ft. Madison. In 1828 he was at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri, already with an exceptional experience on the farthest frontiers. Once in descending the Mississippi in keel boats with their troops Captain Bennet Riley and Captain Thomas F. Smith, visiting on deck, saw a dead tree with its roots imbedded in the river bottom. Smith said it was a sawyer. Riley said it was a snag. The argument waged strong, Smith declaring that no man could cross him like that, ordered: "Round the boat to, sergeant. No man shall dispute my word." The two captains went ashore and, in the presence of the enlisted men under their command, took a shot at each other without result.

Bennet Riley was at Jefferson Barracks, a major, in 1828 when a young lieutenant, Jefferson Davis by name, arrayed in full regimentals called at headquarters to pay his respects to the commandant. The only officer he found present was Major Riley, "alone, seated at a table with a pack of cards before him intently occupied with a game of solitaire."

It was in 1828 that those engaged in trade from Missouri to Santa Fe petitioned the government at Washington for troop escort on the next annual caravan. On May 4, 1829 Riley set out for Cantonment Leavenworth with his riflemen and in ten days was there. A week or two later they had marched west to a place agreed upon as a rendevous with the traders and where Riley found 79 men with 38 wagons. Riley's soldiers were mostly foot soldiers; some were mounted on army horses; some on horses privately owned. The oxen for the army transport Riley had requisitioned were a novelty. Reporting afterward to General Leavenworth about the start of the expedition Riley wrote: "We had little or no trouble except with the oxen, they being of different ages, some old and some young, and not used to being put together, and the drivers not accustomed to drive them, but after five or six days we had no trouble."

Page 373

Riley's orders did not permit him to leave United States at Chouteau's island in the Arkansas—a point now in Western Kansas—and go into Mexico. The very night of the day he parted with the traders they "sent an express" back to Riley for rescue from an attack of Comanches, Kiowas and Arapahoes. As has been often told in the stories of the early West, Riley went quickly across the Arkansas River from Kansas into Mexico and sent the caravan on its way, returning his command back into the United States.

Here four soldiers whose enlistments had expired decided to go back to "settlement." Riley warned against this. But the men started. Three of them were soon back into camp to report the killing of one of their number. In the attempt of the troops to recover this man's body battles between the troops and the Indians were brought on, a frontier episode which has been frequently described. At one point of the conflict the number of Indians was given at 300. These were mounted and armed with guns, bows and spears. Riley in his brush with them when they menaced his camp had a force of one hundred and thirty or forty. His cattle and horses had taken fright at the first onset, but a portion of them had been stopped by the company in the rear. At the end of this clash Riley counted the enemy loss of eight killed and one wounded, adding: "Our loss one man wounded, who died a few hours after, fifty-four oxen, ten public horses, ten private horses and a few public mules."

It does not appear why the loss of the oxen was so heavy. Not so long before, over on the Mexican side, Riley had found it necessary to have the oxen unyoked and herded in good grass and later, on the American side, he had to encamp a spell to give the cattle a chance to regain strength and spirits "there being good grass and wood there." I do not find in the report how many oxen Bennet Riley had actually when he got back to Leavenworth on November 8 which he had sent out from the previous June 3, but in 1853 at the close of his valiant career (it included a Mexican war chapter and a California chapter), Bennet Riley occasionally must have remembered with gratification that he had brought beasts enough back to the Missouri River to prove the entire feasibility of his frontier experiment in making a martial place for the docile ox.2

Reading an article in The Chronicles of Oklahoma,3 I found myself, through an article by Ralph H. Records of Norman, confronted with a pioneer figure curiously much faded long since from my memory. This was the figure of the Texas cattle trail cowboy once so familiar in Wichita. Through the years the original cowboy figure, in pictorial presentation, passed away largely through changes in attire. I do not know what part commercial dramatization of

Page 374

the cowboy, in romance, whether in book, in film or on the stage, played in this evolution in dress. It must have had some part. The first cowboys I saw here in Wichita, so far as numerous and varying individuals could be reduced to a type, had only two bits of color about him (1) a bright neckerchief (2) a star in a red or yellow patch of leather in the fore part of his boot-top. The brilliant shirt of this latter day, the fancifully tooled boot-tops and the elaborately studded chaps to become so prominent in a cowboy's theatric wardrobe were not to be seen on Wichita's streets when men from the Texas cattle trail thronged the down-town section here with the music of their spurs on the wooden sidewalks an incessant note in the local overture.

Perhaps the most striking of the changes in cowboy fashion from the early day was in the hat. Until I came upon a reference to it in Mr. Record's article I did not realize how marked a change really had overcome the cow-hand's head-gear. I merely sensed that the hat the cowboy of this generation wears was not somehow like the hat that graced the head of his ancestor. The early-day brim was wide and given to flapping, so much so that many an old-time cowboy, in a high wind, tucked under the brim on either side, giving his head covering a scoop-shovel effect. And the crown of the old-time hat was low, not the impressive peaked affair which has become the vogue since.

This fact is brought out in the article mentioned in pressing extracts from a manuscript. The manuscript carries the personal recollections of L. S. Records, a cowboy who rode the range in Oklahoma and southern Kansas from 1878 until 1884. In the early days L. S. Records' hats had low crowns and wide brims. Ralph Records adds these other details of attire:

"From 1880 onward he wore John B. Stetson's hats. His first one was dove-colored or dark-gray and cost nine dollars. His high-heeled boots were always the best in quality. The heels gave the rider a brace when the horse came to a sudden stop; there was no danger of the foot going through the stirrup. He wore a soft leather belt, two-and-a-half inches wide, drab yellow in color. A webbed cartridge-bandolier was attached to the belt. A silk handkerchief, costing a dollar, was tied around his neck. When dust flew thick and fast it was brought up under the nose."

From the manuscript Mr. Records quotes the pioneer cowboy as saying of the cold winter of 1880-1881: "I dressed so heavy I could lie on the ground and sleep with comfort." He wore woolen breeches and overalls outside. Fleece-lined underwear, a woolen shirt and a knit woolen blouse further added to his protection.

Ralph Records writes:

"Of winters he wound a red, knit woolen comforter around his waist and stuffed the ends of the garment under his belt. Most men preferred to wear this garment around the neck. His hands were protected by soft-ribbed gloves and by a pair of wool-lined mittens over them. When adjusting anything about the saddle he removed only the mittens. The overcoat was long and heavy. A skeleton cap with made-in eyelets covered the face. He wore only thick nickel socks, made of cotton, and arctics over his boots."

Page 375

Anybody with experience of a blizzard on the open prairies will realize how appealing these precautions in protective clothing were. The cowboy furnished his own clothing, as he did his saddle, bridle and blankets. The company provided the rope and the mounts, usually four. It is interesting to note in Mr. Records' article that the length of rope preferred customarily was fifty feet, although L. S. Records' rope was only thirty feet. He did not like the added weight of the longer rope on his saddle.

What an interesting encounter it would be if the old-time cowboy could meet his successor; the high-heeled boots still would show, but with a change; the silk neckerchief also would still show, but displaying a rainbow splendor now it never knew in auld lang syne.4

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