The Great Stampede
by Hazel E. Johnson,
originally published on July 5, 1959, in '”Out of the Past”,
a supplement to The Greeley Journal
Weld County, in the beginning, was one vast cattle-grazing area.
Cowboys abounded too. Frank Benton was one of them, said to have come here from Omaha. Those who remember him say he was quite a flamboyant character – noted for “putting on the dog” with his ten gallon hats and fancy cowboy regalia.
At one time, Benton operated the 70 Ranch near Hardin. Quoting those in the know, the 70 Ranch is said to have taken its name from the fact that it was just seventy miles from three cattle markets, Cheyenne, Denver and Sterling. In early days, Buffalo Bill is reported as having pastured his horses on this ranch.
In 1903, Benton wrote a book entitled “ Cowboy Life On The Sidetrack.” Albert Luther, 910 6th Street, called this book to the attention to the attention of the writer. It contains a whale of a good description of a cattle stampede.
Benton wrote he had purchased 15,000 steers in Southern Arizona, shipped them to Denver, divided them into herds of about 3,500 head each and started to trail them to Wyoming. 4,000 head of these longhorns were from four to ten years old and were known “outlaws.” They were so hard to handle that Benton himself accompanied this heard.
He wrote they kept their best and swiftest horses saddled all night, ready to spring onto them in case the herd got started. They always bedded the herd down a full mile north of the mess wagon camp. “Cattle on the trail never stampede but one way, and that is back the way they came from. If you can succeed in turning them in some other direction, you can gradually bring them to a stop” wrote Benton.
Four men guarded the herd at all times during the night. One gang was on from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m.; the next from 11 p.m. to 2 a.m. and the last guard stoop from 2 a.m. till daylight and then started the herd traveling north again.
Grass was fine, they had covered about one hundred miles nearing the Wyoming line – without mishap. Bright moonlight nights prevailed. Then, one night, one of the night herders forgot and scratched a parlor match on his saddle horn. We’ll let Benton take over from here.
“When that match popped, there was a roar like an earthquake and the herd was gone in the wink of an eyelid; just two minutes from the time Curley scratched his match, that wild, crazy avalanche of cattle was running over that camp outfit, two and three deep. But at that first roar, I was out of my blankets, running for my hoss and hollering ‘Come on, Boys!’ with a rising inflection on ‘boys’. The old hands knew what was coming and were on their horses as I was, but the tenderfeet stampeded their own hosses trying to get onto them…the men who lost their hosses crawled under the front end of the big heavy roundup wagon, and for a wonder the herd didn’t overturn the wagon, although lots of them broke their horns on it and some broke their legs.
“When I lit in the saddle, and looked around, five of my cowboys were lined up side of me, their hosses jumping and snorting, for them old cow hosses scented the danger and I only had time to say, ‘keep cool; hold your hosses heads high, boys, and keep two hundred yards ahead of the cattle for at least five miles. If your hoss gives out, try to get off to one side’ and then that earthquake was at our heels, and we were riding for our own lives as well as to stop the cattle, because if a hoss stumbled or stepped in a badger hole there wouldn’t even be a semblance of his rider left after those thousands of hoofs had got through pounding him. I was riding a Blackhawk Morgan hoss with wonderful speed and endurance and very sure footed, which was the main thing…
“I had been in stampedes before but nothing like this. The cattle were running their best, all the cripples and drags in the lead their sore feet forgotten. Every steer had his long tail in the air, and those 4,000 waving tails made me think of a sudden whirlwind in a forest of young timber. Once in a while I could see a little ripple in the sea of shining backs, and I knew a steer had stumbled and fond how and his fellows had trampled him into mincemeat.
“We had gone about ten or twelve miles and had left a smooth, rolling prairie behind us and were thundering down the divide on to the broken country along Crow Creek. Now cattle on a stampede all follow leaders, and after I and my half dozen cowboys had ridden in the lead of that heard for twelve or fifteen miles, gradually letting the cattle get close to us, but none by use, why we were the leaders, and when we began to strike that rough ground, my cowboys gradually veered to the left, so as to lead the heard away from the creek and onto the divide again.
“As the herd swung out on the divide they split in two, part of them turning left, making a circle about two miles, myself and two cowboys heading this part of the heard and keeping them running in a smaller circle all the time till they stopped. The other part of the herd kept on for about five miles further, then they split in two, and the cowboys divided and finally got both bunches stopped; not, however, until one bunch had gone about ten miles beyond where I had got the first herd quieted.
“we were three days getting the cattle back to where they had started and two hundred of them werew dead or had to be shot, and hundreds had their horns broken off and hanging by slivers. It had cost in dead cattle and damage to the living at least $10,000…”
(Notes: My thanks to all Journal readers who pointed out that the J.M. Freeman home featured no longer stands. It was torn down to make way for the Greeley Coca Cola Bottling Company – hej)