Journals of a Colorado Cowhand
By Maggie Magoffin
I recently had the pleasure of sharing breakfast with a group of extended family members and some of their extended family members, where I met and shared conversation with Lois Smith of Baggs, Wyoming. The conversation at our end of the table went to the subject of me being a writer of historical fiction, and I shared how I have this column in the Weekly Register-Call. I said I am always looking for stories about people from the area, and Lois asked if I had heard of a man by the name of Val Fitzpatrick. She said she knew he was born in Georgetown, Colorado, and he wrote stories from his journals as a cowhand. As a girl, Lois enjoyed reading his true-to-life stories and suggested I might enjoy reading them as well.
With my curiosity peaked, I searched for Val FitzPatrick, online at the Jefferson County Library website. I found collections of Fitzpatrick’s Tales compiled by Marjorie Miller, The Arbuckle Café and Red Twilight. However, Val’s original series Last Frontier and his Back Trail journals are no longer in print. He began his first journal when he was ten-years-old, and continued throughout his lifetime until he died in 1988. His published tales came from those journal entries.
Valentine Stewart Parnell FitzPatrick was born on January 4, 1886 in a log cabin at a silver mine near Georgetown, Colorado to Irish/English parents. In 1894, when Val was eight-years-old, his family moved from that homestead to a ranch about 20 miles west of the town of Craig to a community called Lay Over, Colorado. A place so remote and rugged it was often referred to as “The Last Frontier.”
The town was the crossroads of the military road from Wyoming and the wagon road west towards Utah, and a convenient place to stop for the night. Val wrote, “We were right in the mainstream of whatever traffic there might be in the region. Hardly a day passed but there came ranchers, cowpunchers, an occasional prospector or trapper, a few Indians, and now and then an outlaw. In this same year, 1894, the outlaw Teton Jackson died in a jail break in Idaho. Although Butch Cassidy and his Wild Bunch had not yet attracted much attention, they occasionally stopped for food and shelter.”
“But the main change in our lives was closer acquaintance with the most influential people in the country, the cowpunchers and their bosses. Up to this time we had known them as only an occasional rider who stopped by for a brief chat. But now, seeing cowpunchers almost every day, delivering their mail, talking to them, having them at our table, we got to know them well.”
“Most of the cowpunchers had followed the annual trail herds from Texas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico into Montana and Wyoming. But the new railroads came, making the long cattle drives a thing of the past and leaving these men without jobs. Many of the cowpunchers stayed permanently with the herds they’d helped drive up. When Ora Haley brought his Two-Bar Cattle Company herd from Wyoming into Northwest Colorado, the men who came with them were these same seasoned, cattle-wise riders, the cream of the crop. They ranged from tough young lads to graying old-timers, and from uncouth, shy, and awkward youths to men with some education, ambition and intelligence and who later themselves became big cattlemen.”
Val’s dream was to be a cowpuncher one day, and at thirteen-years-old he signed on with the K Diamond Cattle Company. When he was fourteen-years-old, he went to work for the prestigious Two-Bar, the goal of every young man in the area. Val said he got the job because the foreman, Heck Lytton, was sweet on one of his sisters.
In his tale Dogies, Dust, and the Drink Val described trail herding as an experience you’d never forget.
“Somebody’s shore goin’ to have to tell me a hull lot ‘bout this kind of cowpunchin,” Al Hurd chuckled as we rounded the south end of Cross Mountain and headed west. “How ‘bout it, Joe? You know I ain’t never done no trail heardin’ of no caows.”
Joe Sainsbury, the wagon boss, kind of grinned and told Al, “Well, myself I ain’t no Frenchy McCormick nor Ol’ Man Chisum. But I been on trail herds, hoss wrangling.”
“I heard Old Thorne and Bill Pratt arguin’ about trail herds,” Antelope Anderson told us. “Jest like a Chineyman and a Chickasha Injun arguing. Neither one understood the other.”
Antelope was right. You still hear such talks once in awhile when one of the few old-timer cowpunchers happens to get to talking cows with some fellow who runs some cattle today. The changes have been so great they don’t have a basis for comparison. What old timer knew about mechanical chutes, serums, feed pellets, or artificial insemination? How many present-day cattle handlers ever followed a heard a thousand miles, stood a night guard, or rode before a stampede?
Trail herding was an experience you’d never forget. Of course the big trail herds, such as from Texas to Montana, ceased before I was born. But after I came along in 1886 there were still some small trail herds handled. I helped a little with one of them. That is where we were headed when Al Hurd asked Joe Sainsbury about trail driving.
Following his day as a cowpuncher, Val Fitzpatrick held many careers that included geologist, civil engineer, and newspaperman. At age 98 and 100, he was made Grand Marshall of the Craig Ride ‘n’ Tie Days Rodeo.
I continue to look for tales for my column. If you have tales to share, please call me at 202-881-3321 or email me at Maggie@MaggieMPublications.com.
Also, you’ll find me slingin’ coffee at Cholua Brothers Old Time Coffee Store, in the historical barn next to Red Dolly in Black Hawk from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. every Friday. Enjoy a free sample cup of their famous coffee and chat awhile. I will also have copies of Dead Man Walking – Book 1 in my series “Misadventures of the Cholua Brothers,” and I will gladly sign a copy. Book 2, Pistols and Petticoats, is due out in late July or early August.