He rode with Charles Russell and inspired Lonesome Dove. But E.C. "Teddy Blue" Abbott's life dream was to write a true tale of life on the trail.
It was Larry McMurtry who connected me to a book called We Pointed Them North: Recollections of a Cowpuncher by E.C. “Teddy Blue” Abbott. I was writing a history of nomads in North America, from Plains Indians to full-time RVers, and I’d asked him to recommend some books about the trail cowboys of the 1870s and ’80s — nomadic horsemen who drove herds of longhorns from Texas to the northern ranges and railheads, and then rode back south to do it again. I knew McMurtry had researched them thoroughly for his masterpiece Lonesome Dove.
“There are several cowboy memoirs from that era that you might find useful, and to my mind the best one is We Pointed Them North: Recollections of a Cowpuncher,” he replied by letter. The author of more than 40 books and 30 screenplays, McMurtry is also an avid bookseller, headquartered at the time in a sprawling complex of bookstores in his tiny Texas hometown of Archer City. He happened to have an old, used copy of Abbott’s recollections in stock, and it arrived a few days later in my mailbox.
First published in 1939, the book was ghostwritten by a freelance writer and Western history buff named Helena Huntington Smith. As she explains in the introduction, she hunted down Mr. Abbott because she wanted background material for a novel she was writing about the old cowpunching days. She found the 78-year-old living with his wife on a ranch outside Lewistown, Montana, “tough as whipcord, diamond-clear as to memory, and boiling with energy” — and trying to write a book of his own.
Abbott had gotten down a few chapters of his life story and was having trouble with the rest. But his motivation was clear: He wanted to set the record straight about those old days on the trail. He’d read all the other accounts, and even the few that were factually accurate were “not told right,” he insisted. Other old-timers had set down awful stories about stampedes and swimming rivers, “but they never put in any of the fun, and fun was at least half of it.”
As far as J. Marvin Hunter’s classic account The Trail Drivers of Texas was concerned, Abbott credited it as “a wonderful book and absolutely authentic,” but he objected to the false politeness of its language: “[Y]ou have all these old fellows telling stories, and you’d think they was a bunch of preachers, the way they talk. And yet some of them raised more hell than I did.”
Abbott had talked with artist Charles Russell, his good friend, about making a book together — “I was going to tell the stories and he was going to draw the pictures, and his name would have carried it” — but then Russell died in 1926, and Abbott’s plan to put the color back in the trail languished.
That is, until Huntington Smith showed up on his doorstep. Inspired to put aside her own novel, Huntington Smith started recording Abbott’s stories, scribbling furiously with a pencil and assembling them chronologically into a book. Early on, she sensed that her task was to capture the material in his voice and “not mess it up by being literary.” So what we get is Teddy Blue in all his ribald, irreverent, ungrammatical glory, stripping away the varnish and mythology and telling it like it was.
The tale starts in 1870, when Abbott came up the trail for the first time at the age of 10. He was a pale, weak, sickly child, “all eyes, no flesh on me whatever,” and he spoke at that time with a British accent. His father had just moved the family from Norfolk, England, to the Nebraska frontier, whereupon he immediately went down to Texas to buy a herd of cattle. During the Civil War, as Abbott reminds us in the book, longhorn cattle had multiplied exponentially in South Texas and could be bought for a mere $4 a head. But there were no railroads to ship out all of this cheap beef to a hungry nation, so the cattle had to be trailed north by a new emerging breed of horsemen.
“Those first trail outfits in the seventies were sure tough,” Abbott says. “They had very little grub and they usually run out of that and lived on straight beef; they had only three or four horses to the man, mostly with sore backs, because the old time saddle eat both ways, the horse’s back and the cowboy’s pistol pocket; they had no tents, no tarps, and damn few slickers.... They used to brag that they could go any place a cow could and stand anything a horse could.”
These were the hired hands that young Teddy Blue rode with as they trailed his father’s cattle north. They were medium-size men as a rule, quick and wiry, because a big man was too hard on the horses. Most of them were ex-Confederate soldiers from Texas, inured to hardship and violence, often bitterly racist toward blacks and Mexicans, but usually very good-natured with each other. They were only afraid of two things, says Abbott, “a decent woman and being set afoot.”
Abbott spent most of his teenage years tending his father’s cattle around Lincoln, Nebraska, living out on the range with the Texas cowpunchers, soaking up their mannerisms, attitudes, and stories, but his dream was to become an Indian and follow the buffalo herds. Whenever they came through, he would ride off to visit the Loup River Pawnees. When he tried to join them, they turned him away, and then they were shunted off to Oklahoma and Abbott decided to become a cowboy instead.
Hollywood has trained us to think of cowboys and Indians as natural enemies, but Abbott reminds us that this wasn’t necessarily the case. Quoting his friend Charles Russell, the cowboy-turned-artist, he says that most cowboys were just white Indians anyway. Both groups relished the freedom of riding on the unfenced plains, following meat on the hoof, and both groups saw this freedom destroyed by farmers who started fencing off the open range and water holes, plowing up the grass, and claiming private property rights. Abbott hated these settlers, whom he called “nesters,” with the same contempt that nomads have always felt toward sedentary farmers.
When his father and brothers gave up on cattle, Abbott drifted down to Texas. In 1879, at the age of 19, he was leaning against a bar in Austin when a trail boss asked him if he wanted to go up the trail with a herd. “What outfit?” Abbott asked. “Olive outfit,” came the reply. The Olive brothers — Ira, Marion, and I.P. “Print” — were known as a tough, violent, murderous bunch, and young Abbott, who was itching to be a badass, hoped to bolster his reputation by riding with them. Print had murdered nine blacks and various Mexicans with impunity and was known as “The Manburner” after he hung two nesters in Nebraska and allegedly set them on fire.
They drove the cattle roughly 800 miles that summer to the Loup River in Nebraska, averaging 10 to 15 miles a day. They endured the usual dangers and hardships: swollen rivers, 40-mile drives between water, the blind terror of galloping full-tilt in pitch darkness trying to turn a herd that had stampeded during a lightning storm. The herd was run off by rustlers in Indian Territory, but the outfit managed to recover it without bloodshed.
The worst of it, Abbott says, was the lack of sleep. On a good night, with the weather calm and the cowboys singing lullabies to settle the herd, you might get five hours, but they often went two or three days with no sleep at all and rubbed tobacco juice into their eyes to keep them open.
It’s these little details that make the book so vivid and compelling. That and ribald accounts of whiskey drinking and whoring. After two months on the trail, we can well imagine how ready the cowboys were to cut the wolf loose. Abbott provides some great stories about satisfying appetites of all types, including fierce cravings for oysters, celery, and eggs upon the cowboys’ arrival in Dodge City, Kansas, and Ogallala, Nebraska.
Abbott headed up the Texas trail two more times, in 1881 and 1883, before deciding to settle in Montana. Along the way, he became friends with Calamity Jane, offering her a shoulder to cry on when she was mooning over Wild Bill Hickok, and acquired his nickname at a theater in Miles City. Catching his spur on a carpet backstage, Abbott crashed through a partition onto the stage. He figured the audience needed entertaining, so he straddled a chair backward and bucked it over the stage, yelling, “Whoa, Blue!” He was “Blue” or “Teddy Blue” for the rest of his life.
The long trail drives came to an end in the mid- to late 1880s, as the open range was divided up with barbed wire fences. Abbott started working for the pioneer Montana rancher Granville Stuart and married his half-Shoshone daughter Mary, having quit drinking, chewing tobacco, gambling, and fighting to win her favor. She was only the fourth “good woman” he had spoken to since leaving his family.
Over the years, they built up a ranch and raised eight children together, and by the time Abbott dictated his memoirs to Huntington Smith, they had 14 grandchildren and one great-granddaughter. But as much as he enjoyed them, there was nothing he liked more than running into another trail cowboy and reminiscing about the old days. Amid all the ranch cowboys in Montana and Wyoming, they could always spot one another — “I believe I would know an old cowboy in hell with his hide burned off,” Abbott said.
Perhaps surprisingly, he wasn’t a religious man. Abbott was a proud atheist who mocked and scorned the church, and he says most cowboys of his generation were the same: “Ninety per cent of them was infidels.” He puts it down to the life they led out on the wild unfenced plains. “After you come in contact with nature, you get all that stuff knocked out of you — praying to God for aid, divine Providence, and so on — because it don’t work. You could pray all you damn pleased, but it wouldn’t get you water where there wasn’t water. Talk about trusting in Providence, hell, if I’d trusted in Providence, I’d have starved to death.”
He certainly didn’t starve, at least not to death. But he did have the unmistakable droop to his spine and shoulders that resulted from riding that long, long trail on three joints of his backbone. They called it the “Texas droop.”
By the end of his life there were very few men left that had it, and they were scattered between Texas and Alberta, Canada. The rest of them had crossed the big divide, and whether they were in heaven or hell, or some other range that the Bible doesn’t mention, that was where Teddy Blue Abbott wanted to go.
From the November/December 2013 issue.