My husband, Mr. William Franklin Burks, and I lived on a ranch at Banquette, Nueces County, Texas, during the days that Texas cattle could be marketed only by driving them over the old Kansas Trail. At this time, in this section of the country, good steers could be bought for fifteen dollars and were often killed for the hides and tallow. The meat was fed to the hogs.
In the early spring of 1871, Mr. Burks rounded up his cattle and topped out a thousand head of the best to take to market. Jasper Clark was going along at the same time and planned to keep his herd near ours. They started in April with about ten cowboys each, mostly Mexicans and the cooks. They were only a day out when Marcus Burks, my brother-in-law, came back with a note to me from Mr. Burks asking me to get ready as soon as possible and join them. He also suggested that I bring Nick (black boy) to look after my comfort.
Nick and I started in my little buggy drawn by two good ponies and overtook the herd in a days time. Nick, being more skilled than the camp cook, prepared my meals. He also put up my tent evenings and took it down when we broke up camp. It was intended that he should drive my horses when I was tired, but that was not necessary for the horses often had no need of anyone driving them. They would follow the slow moving herd unguided and I could find a comfortable position, fasten the lines, and take a little nap.
The cattle were driven only about ten miles a day, or less, so that they would have plenty of time to graze and fatten along the way. They were in good condition when they reached Kansas.
Except when I was lost, I left the herd only once after starting. On this occasion, I went to Concrete, where my sister lived, to have a tent made for the trip.
The night before our herd reached Beeville, Tx., the Clark herd stampeded and we never caught sight of them until we were way upstate.
All went pretty well with us until we neared Lockhart, Tx., and here we lost thirty cows in the timber. They were never recovered. Whenever we came to timber, we had to rush the cattle through, sometimes driving all day without stopping, for if they were scattered, it was almost impossible to gather them again in the thick undergrowth.
Since it was spring, the weather was delightful until we reached Central Texas. Some of the worst electrical and hail storms I have ever witnessed were in this part and also in North Texas. The lightening seemed to settle on the ground and creep along like something alive. In Roscue County (M-I can’t read the print of her letter), late one evening, a storm overtook us, and Mr. Burks drove me off into a more sheltered part of the timber. He unfastened the traces from the buggy and gave me the lines, but told me if the horses tried to run to let them go. Hail had begun to fall by this time, and he had to hurry back to help the men hold the frightened cattle. Harder and heavier fell the hail, and rain was pouring down in torrents. The horses worked their way around to one side of the buggy, seeking protection, and it seemed that it would be only a few seconds until they pulled away from me entirely. Determined not to let the horses go, I left the shelter of my buggy- top and tied the horses with a rope I always carried. I returned to the buggy and sat there cold, wet, hungry–and all alone in the dark. Homesick!! This was the only time in all the months of the trip that I wished I were back on the old ranch in Banquette.
After what seemed ages to me, I could hear the rumble of wagon wheels on the trail, and later still, the sound of the beat of a horse’s hoofs going > the same way, but no one seemed to notice me. Later, I learned that it was the cook driving the wagon, not knowing which way to go, after being lost in the dark woods, and that Mr. Burks rode after him to cook supper for the hungry men who had not eaten since morning. After I heard the return of the wagon, the woods rang with the sound of Mr. Burks’ voice calling me, and I lost no time in answering. It was one o’clock in the morning when I reached camp.
Mr. Burks and several of the others had big blood blisters on their hands caused by the hail. One of the boys said, “The beat of the hail on my head made me crazy. I would have run, but I didn’t know which way to go.”
There were few people living along the trail, but when going through Ellis County, we saw an old woman sitting in the doorway of a small house, stringing beans. We remarked to her that we saw very few women in that part of the country. She answered, “Yes, sir, I’m the first woman who made the track in Dallas County, and I would be back in Tennessee now, only I would have to go through Arkansas to get there. I guess I’ll stay right here.”
We camped a long time at Fort Worth waiting for the Trinity River to fall low enough to enable us to cross with our cattle. I counted fifteen herds waiting to cross the river.
After we had crossed the Red River, we seemed to have left all civilization behind us. There were no more fresh fields, green meadows and timber lands. The sun was so blistering that we hung a cloth inside the top of the buggy to break the heat that came through. Evenings and mornings were so cool that we were uncomfortable.
We had heard of the treacherous Indians and the cattle rustlers of the Territory (Oklahoma), and were always on the look-out for them. The cattle and horses were kept well guarded. One day, a Mexican cowboy who was on guard duty fell asleep. Mr. Burks could not permit such negligence and told the man that he would have to go. The other Mexicans notified Mr. Burks that if he fired that man, they would all go. Of course, there was no one else to be employed in this un-inhabited Territory, so we kept the man who needed his afternoon nap.
We had no unpleasant experiences with the Indians, although they came to camp and tried to trade with the men. We narrowly escaped trouble with rustlers. While I was alone in camp one afternoon, two men came up and were throwing rocks among the grazing cattle. I called to them to stop and said, “Don’t you know you will stampede these cattle?” And they answered, “That’s what we are trying to do.” Just in time, some of our men rode up and the rustlers left hurriedly.
Mr. Burks always kept his horses saddled at night so that he would be ready to go at a word from the boys. As he often helped the men watch the cattle when they were restless, I was sometimes alone in my tent until late at night. On these occasions, I sat up fully dressed for any emergency. One of these nights, it was thought that Indians were near, so a guard was left at my tent, but he was soon called to help with the cattle. A man from the other camp begged me to come over to his camp and stay until the trouble was over, but I told him I preferred my own tent. The men thought me very brave to stay alone at such a time.
Clark’s herd and our herd were stampeded one day, supposedly by Indians. It was a horrible yet fascinating sight. Frantic cowboys did all in their power to stop the wild flight, but only exhaustion checked the stamped. By working almost constantly, the men gathered the cattle in a week?s time. They were all grouped into one big herd, and the roar of hoof-beats of two thousand milling cattle was almost deafening. The herd was divided into two groups, then worked back and forth until every cow was in the correct herd.
We seemed to be pursued by fire during our entire trip. The first night we were in the Territory, Mr. Burks and I went to sleep leaving a candle burning, and before we were awakened, a box of trinkets and small articles, including my comb were in a blaze.
On one occasion a prairie fire ran us out of camp before breakfast. We escaped by fleeing to a part of the plains which had been burned previously, called “a burn” by people of that section.
Two days later, my ignorance caused an immense prairie fire. I tried to build a fire in a gulley while the cook had gone for water. In a flash, after striking the match, grass all around me was in a blaze. It spread so quickly that the men could not stop it. In the beginning, they succeeded
in beating out the flanks of the fire so that it did not spread out at the sides. The fire blazed higher than a house and went straight ahead for fifty miles or more. Investigators came the next day to find out who the culprit was, and when they learned that it was a woman, nothing was said. One of the men said he was glad he didn’t strike that match!!
Once, when we were camped on Emmet Creek, a fire crept upon us so quickly that the men barely had time to break up camp and get the cattle to safety. There was not enough time to harness the horses to my buggy, so the men tied ropes to it, told me to jump in, and we again fled to “a burn”. Birds and animals fled with us before the flames.
Many of the prairie fires were started by squatters who wanted to keep strangers away. They would plough a safety boundary around their stake, and then set fire to the grass outside.
Fuel was very scarce and the cook often had to go miles to get enough wood to prepare a meal.
When we came to the Canadian River, the red, blue and yellow plums were so tempting, I had one of the Mexicans stop with me to gather some. We wandered farther away from the buggy then I realized, and when we had gone back a short way, I thought the horses had run away and left us. I was panic stricken, but the Mexican insisted that we go farther upstream, and
we soon found the horses, standing just as they were left. I forgot my fright when the cook served delicious plum pie made from the fruit.
Because I was the only woman in camp, the men rivaled each other in attentiveness to me. They were always on the lookout for something to please me, a surprise of some delicacy of wild fruit, or a prairie chicken or antelope tongue.
In the northern part of the Territory we left the trail to graze the cattle and I drove on ahead of the group to a stream. “Jap” Clark motioned to me to stop, but I misunderstood him and thought he meant, “go on”, and plunged my horses in the swollen creek. One of the horses stumbled and fell, but was on his feet in a moment, and somehow I was jolted across to the other side. I was the subject of much chaffing because of this alleged attempt to break my neck. The crossing was so bad that the banks had to be chopped down to make it safe for the cattle.
On the banks of the Arkansas River we saw two Yankees who called themselves farmers. When we asked to see their farms they showed us two plots about the size of a small home garden. They said they had never farmed before and we easily believed them. Vegetables were a great treat to us so we bought some from the “farmers” and enjoyed them immensely.
We were three months on the trail when we arrived at Emmet Creek, twenty-two miles from Newton, Kansas. We summered here, as did several other Texas ranchmen. The market had broken, and everyone who could do so, held his cattle hoping for a rise in price.
When cold weather came the market was still low. Mr. Burks decided to winter his cattle, with others he had bought, on Smoky River. He wanted me to stay in town at Ellsmore, but after being there a few days, and witnessing another fire in which a hotel and several residences were burned, I preferred camp.
A man who lived some distance from camp was paid to feed the horses through the winter, but soon we heard that he was starving them. A boy was sent to get them, and as he was returning, the first severe snowstorm of the season overtook him at nightfall. He took refuge for himself and the horses in a wayside stable. Next morning he was awakened by a commotion among the horses, and found the owner of the stable trying to punch out the horses’ eyes with a pitch fork. Such was the hatred felt for strangers in this region.
Nine horses were lost in this snowstorm. Many of the young cattle lost their horns from the cold. Blocks of ice had to be chopped out of the streams in order that the cattle could drink.
The first taste of early winter in Kansas caused Mr. Burks to decide to sell his cattle and leave for sunny Texas as soon as possible. He met with no discouragement of his plans from me, for never had I endured such cold. So in December we left Kansas, dressed as if we were Eskimos and carrying a bucket of frozen buffalo tongues as a souvenir for my friends in Texas. Our homeward journey was made by rail to New Orleans, via St. Louis, and by water from New Orleans to Corpus Christi, via Galveston and Indianola. I arrived home in much better health than when I left, nine months before.
Please don’t think, now that I have finished telling the few stories of my trip over the Old Kansas Trail, that the journey was one of trials and hardships. These incidents served to break the monotony of sameness on such a trip.
One day, Mr. Von said, as we were resting along the way, “In the heat of the day when I am riding behind my cattle I think of you and feel sorry for you” and added, as I hope you will “but when I see your smile of happiness and contentment, I know all my sympathy is wasted.”
What Mr. Von said is true. For what woman, youthful and full of spirit and love of living, needs sympathy because of availing herself of the opportunity of being with her husband while at his chosen work in the great out-of-door world?
(From Marilyn: Mrs. Burk’s granddaughter, Jane Burks Artusy, is 83 (2003). She lives in Boulder and is a close friend of my mother. Jane told me that Mrs. Burks was the first woman to take her cattle to market in Kansas, driving them herself after the death of Mr. Burks. There was no one else, so she gathered her cowboys, cook and set off. She is in the Cowboy Hall of Fame and there are numerous books about her.)