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Cattle roundup in Dakota
Annals of Work in America
Theodore Roosevelt hadn’t been reared to ranch life. This son of a wealthy New York family had been expected to take his place among the gentry of the East. But a penchant for hunting carried him west on vacation in 1883, and he fell in love with the landscape and people of Dakota Territory. On a whim he purchased a ranch on the Little Missouri River, intending it as a summer getaway. But after his young wife suddenly died in 1884, the ranch and the work it required became balm for his soul.
A ranchman is kept busy most of the time, but his hardest work comes during the spring and fall round-ups, when the calves are branded or the beeves gathered for market. Our round-up district includes the Beaver and Little Beaver creeks (both of which always contain running water, and head up toward each other), and as much of the river, nearly two hundred miles in extent, as lies between their mouths.
All the ranches along the line of these two creeks and the river space between join in sending from one to three or four men to the roundup, each man taking eight ponies ; and for every six or seven men there will be a four-horse wagon to carry the blankets and mess kit. The whole, including perhaps forty or fifty cowboys, is under the head of one first-class foreman, styled the captain of the round-up.
Beginning at one end of the line the round-up works along clear to the other. Starting at the head of one creek, the wagons and the herd of spare ponies go down it ten or twelve miles, while the cowboys, divided into small parties, scour the neighboring country, covering a great extent of territory, and in the evening come into the appointed place with all the cattle they have seen. This big herd, together with the pony herd, is guarded and watched all night, and driven during the day.
At each home-ranch (where there is always a large corral fitted for the purpose) all the cattle of that brand are cut out from the rest of the herd, which is to continue its journey, and the cows and calves are driven into the corral, where the latter are roped, thrown, and branded.
In throwing the rope from horseback, the loop, held in the right hand, is swung round and round the head by a motion of the wrist; when on foot, the hand is usually held by the side, the loop dragging on the ground. It is a pretty sight to see a man who knows how, use the rope; again and again an expert will catch fifty animals by the leg without making a misthrow. But unless practice is begun very young it is hard to become really proficient.
Cutting out cattle, next to managing a stampeded herd at night, is that part of the cowboy's work needing the boldest and most skillful horsemanship. A young heifer or steer is very loath to leave the herd, always tries to break back into it, can run like a deer, and can dodge like a rabbit; but a thorough cattle pony enjoys the work as much as its rider, and follows a beast like a four-footed fate through every double and turn. The ponies for the cutting-out or afternoon work are small and quick; those used for the circle-riding in the morning have need rather to be strong and rangy.
The work on a round-up is very hard, but although the busiest it is also the pleasantest part of a cowboy's existence. His food is good, though coarse, and his sleep is sound indeed; while the work is very exciting, and is done in company, under the stress of an intense rivalry between all the men, both as to their own skill, and as to the speed and training of their horses. Clumsiness, and still more the slightest approach to timidity, expose a man to the roughest and most merciless raillery; and the unfit are weeded out by a very rapid process of natural selection.
When the work is over for the day the men gather round the fire for an hour or two to sing songs, talk, smoke, and tell stories; and he who has a good voice, or, better still, can play a fiddle or banjo, is sure to receive his meed of most sincere homage.
Though the ranchman is busiest during the round-up, yet he is far from idle at other times. He rides round among the cattle to see if any are sick, visits any outlying camp of his men, hunts up any band of ponies which may stray—and they are always straying,—superintends the haying, and, in fact, does not often find that he has too much leisure time on his hands.
Even in winter he has work which must be done. His ranch supplies milk, butter, eggs, and potatoes, and his rifle keeps him, at least intermittently, in fresh meat; but coffee, sugar, flour, and whatever else he may want, has to be hauled in, and this is generally done when the ice will bear. Then firewood must be chopped; or, if there is a good coal vein, as on my ranch, the coal must be dug out and hauled in.
From Theodore Roosevelt, Hunting Trips of a Ranchman