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Bullwhacking Was No Snap
Occupied Lowest Rung on the Social Ladder
Hal Schindler
Published: 10/29/1995 Category: Features Page: J1

Life was reasonably relaxed in the old West of the 1850s and '60s--as relaxed, that is, as anything could be when worries included day-to-day survival. But that aside, things were loose and informal in the frontier settlements even as folks struggled to civilize their surroundings. Bankers, merchants, clerks, teachers, farmers and the hired hands who did the labor pretty much constituted the social order of the typical town--not counting gamblers and fallen women, of course.

Deep in the footnotes to history, however, are the also-rans in frontier communities, the breed of plains men known familiarly as "teamsters," who were right at ground level. In fact, in Brigham Young's day, teamsters had a lock on the lowest rung of the social ladder--a notch or so below buffalo skinners. Teamsters included bullwhackers and muleskinners, men who could curse their animals in a vile stream of profanity for ten minutes straight without repeating themselves.

General James F. Rusling said of them, they are "red-shirted, big-booted, brigand-looking ruffians, with the inseparable Bowie knife and revolver buckled around their waists; they swing and crack their great whips like fiends, and beat the poor oxen along." Poor oxen is right. This unsung beast is now virtually an extinct species in America; the castrated domesticated bull once reigned supreme by the thousands as a draft animal, but now has been effectively pushed aside by the farm tractor and pickup truck.

Bullwhackers were never in the mainstream of frontier life; as a group it was probably the least literate of frontiersmen. There were, however, exceptions. William Perkins, a young Canadian gold rusher writing in 1850, described his experience with a teamster in California this way: "I had tethered my mules, built a fire and cooked my dinner and a tin of coffee, stretched out on the grass enjoying a pipe, when I heard a loud gee-whoa! Proceeding from an ox establishment, and soon as rough a looking individual as I was myself, stopped his team under my oak tree, set his cattle loose, came up and politely asked permission to make use of the fire I had built. We camped together, and I found out he had been a professor at Yale College and had left his wife and children in Boston. He told me he made more in each trip of his ox cart than he earned in a year with his professor's chair in Boston!"

And they were tough, these bullwhackers who toiled for $25 a month and found. (Muleskinners earned $10 more.) Henry Pickering Walker in The Wagonmasters told of one Joe Shelton, a Montana freighter, who was hooked under the chin by a wild ox that carried him around the corral several times before he was able to lift himself off. He was carried for five days in a dead-axle wagon to a railroad and then by rail to Salt Lake City for medical aid. He survived his ordeal and lived for another sixteen years on ground-up food fed through a silver tube in his throat.

Another bullwhacker complained of suffering severe rheumatism. "The boys had to lift me on and off the wagon, but I could drive all right. I soaked flannel rags in kerosene and wrapped them around my legs and soon got OK." William Henry Jackson, William Chandless, T.S. Kenderdine and Julius C. Birge all had interesting stories to tell about freighters and teamsters, but because they were "one-trip" bullwhackers themselves, their experiences were sorely limited.

The sweat-soaked, vermin-infested hair and clothing of bullwhackers, according to William Lass, helped earn them their low position on the plains' society ladder. No one but buffalo skinners had as much opportunity to become physically repulsive. Captain John W. Phelps of the 4th Artillery Regiment with the Utah Expedition at Camp Floyd wrote in his journal for Oct. 9, 1858: "Witnessed unloading of an ox-train at Camp Floyd. Drivers evidently glad to get through their job. Young half-savage men, who looked as if they had not washed themselves or clothes since leaving the Missouri River."

A Tale of Oxen, Too: The story of bullwhackers is by necessity a story of oxen. Percival Lowe, a former U.S. Dragoon who took up freighting as a second profession, bemoaned the increased demand for wagons in 1857 that resulted in a poorer-quality product. To illustrate their fragility, he related an anecdote concerning a Mormon who broke several felloes (segments of rim) on a wagon wheel. "To repair it, he skinned a crippled ox for rawhide to mend the breaks."

And bullwhackers were resolute, stubborn individuals. For example, Texas historian R.D. Holt tells of one who was passing through "a big pasture and came up to a windmill and a water tank. It was so fixed that a person could not secure any water without climbing to the top of the storage tank and there was no ladder." The old freighter surveyed the situation for a few moments and, being hot and thirsty himself to say nothing of his team, drew his six-shooter and shot the bottom of the tank full of holes. He was able to satisfy his thirst and that of his oxen by drinking from the streams of water that spouted from the makeshift sieve he created.

It was no wonder they were a rough lot. Bullwhackers walked most of the time. Freight wagons had no seats; the only place to ride, sitting or standing, was on the wagon tongue. When there was mud, the bullwhacker waded. When it rained, he got drenched and then slept on the ground beneath his wagon. His clothing usually was stained with mud, dust, sweat, food grease and tobacco-juice spatters.

Whipped Into Shape: As fists were a bullwhacker's weapon, his whip was his badge. There are all sorts of stories about the infamous bullwhacker's lash. The lore of the plains generally holds that it began with a stock (handle) one and a half to three feet long of sturdy hickory or other substantial wood. The lash itself might be as short as ten feet or as long as twenty feet of heavy braided rawhide with a "popper" of thonged rawhide or buckskin on the end to make it crack.

A whip weighed a good five and a half pounds, light enough for a healthy male to carry, but it had to be wielded virtually without letup, and that, one teamster recalled, "required all the strength of a man's groins." It always required the use of both hands. Several skilled men cracking their whips together could produce sounds like an infantry picket fire, and there were legends of drivers who could flick a fly from the ear of a lead ox without touching the animal, for when it did, "you could see a mist of blood and hair start where the cruel thing had cut like a bullet," as a contemporary put it. Merely cracked overhead, a whip could inspire the dumbest ox to greater effort; the same held true for the most obstinate mule when being urged on by a muleskinner, the bullwhacker's counterpart on a mule train.

When T.S. Kenderdine tried to sign on as a teamster for Russell, Majors and Waddell's Utah Expedition supply train in 1857, he made the mistake of asking what the scenery was like along the trail. The wagon boss tore up his papers and refused to hire him. "Anyone who asks questions like that is too smart for an ox-driver!" was the only explanation he got. It was a subdued young Kenderdine who reported again the next day in the most bedraggled get-up he could muster and, asking no questions whatever, was hired.

"We spent the next few days branding cattle," he wrote in his journal. The mark was an ox-yoke burned in front of the right hip. It was the private brand of Russell, Majors and Waddell, the most extensive freighter ever to cross the plains. "We branded five hundred in one day. The groans of the struggling oxen and the smell of their burning flesh sickened me," Kenderdine confided, "but the fear of another rebuff made me hide my emotion."

He had other thoughts about being a bullwhacker: "Our sleeping quarters at Fort Leavenworth were full of vermin, but these were less disgusting than a portion of my human associates, many of whom were merely waiting for their clothing to be dealt to them, then they would run off. Some of them were jailbirds and other desperadoes, and petty thieving was common. Before we started [for Utah] each man was given a whip, with a lash 10 feet long. These were but toys to what supplanted them when they wore out. With a sort of poetic injustice, from the skins of cattle which died of hardship, lashes were cut and plaited five or six yards long, to facilitate the turning of the hides of other oxen into [future] whip material. These scourges were from an inch and a quarter to an inch and a half thick at the 'swell,' one-fourth the way from the stock, from which they tapered each way, with a buckskin 'cracker' and in the hands of an expert they did murderous work."

On the journey to Utah across Nebraska Territory, the trains averaged about eight miles a day. Over the entire march, Kenderdine recalled, the oxen were generally treated badly. "The poor beasts seemed to have a human sense of wrong, and I have seen their sorrowful eyes full of tears under abuse." Kenderdine continued: "The old drivers were skilled in the use of their whips--some with lashes over five yards long--and took delight in marking the backs of their cattle; while others, who were not so accomplished pounded and kicked them without mercy, and even more cruelly used them. To call these semblances of humanity brutes, would be a libel on the four-footed race. To make sure the exhausted oxen pull, some of these drivers would not stop short of breaking a tail, staving in a rib, or even gouging out an eye. I grew sick of their heartless doings, but was powerless to avert them. The thousands of carcasses of oxen which line our trail show how hard was their usage."

Certainly not all teamsters were inherently cruel to their animals, but during much of the freighting period when the army was supplying its outposts, the drivers thought more of delivering the cargo than for the welfare of their oxen. One of the best bullwhackers/mule skinners on the plains was a Mormon named John Riggs Murdock, who rarely lost an animal on the trail. He routinely carried mail and supplies between Great Salt Lake City and the states and back using the same teams, whether they were oxen or mules. And he did it in record time as well.

Kenderdine marveled at the bullwhackers' mastery of profanity. "To say that the ox-drivers swore like troopers would be drawing it a world too mild. The air resounded and the high rocks echoed with imprecations worthy of pirates." And it was flavored with the various dialects indigenous to the trade. On the road down Provo Canyon he was treated to "the broad-mouthed oath of the Missourian, the scientific curse of the Yankee, the guttural imprecation of the German, and the brogue of him of the Emerald Sod."

There might have been just cause for some of the language, according to William H. Jackson, for oxen could fairly exasperate a man in a hurry. During his 1866 journey to Great Salt Lake City, Jackson confided in his journal that he was getting along "much better" than he expected in driving oxen. "We each have six yoke and at first it was an awful job to get them all together. I was completely discouraged two or three times, & would have given up entirely had there been any such thing, but there was not & the only way was to go ahead. Managed to get all my oxen on the wagon after a deal of trouble and help, & after I started out got them all mixed up so fast that the boss and some others had to help me extricate them. It was enough to make the veriest saint lose his temper and indulge in profanity. I have never used profane language, but since I have commenced driving bulls I have gone somewhat astray. I shall soon get used to it and be able to keep my temper." But within a week, the young adventurer laments: "To get the oxen up these hills requires no small amount of breath and exertion. I have used up one whip already. I do so get out of patience with the lazy brutes that I can hardly contain myself."

Fear of the Fathers: Such was the concern that bullwhackers might visit a community in strength that city fathers would go to great lengths to avoid it. In 1859 the bulk of teamsters who had signed on at Fort Bridger as volunteer infantry with the Utah Expedition were ready to be discharged from duty. Brigham Young heard of it and called out extra guards to patrol the Lion House premises. So long as the "volunteers" were in the service and subject to military discipline, all was well. But once discharged, they were like untamed animals in a community.

Young contacted his successor, Governor Alfred Cumming, who, in turn, interceded with the officers in command of the four companies of Mounted Riflemen and a battalion of enlisted teamsters. The officers, Bvt. Colonel Barnard Bee (who later distinguished himself in the Civil War and was the man who gave "Stonewall" Jackson his nickname) and Captain Randolph Marcy, agreed to march the soldiers to the head of Emigration Canyon and discharge them there.

If the teamsters and discharged soldiers had gathered in the city, there surely would have been trouble. It was a favor much appreciated by Young, and he personally thanked the two commanders during a visit to his office. Jacob Forney, the Indian agent, told Mormon authorities he was more afraid of bullwhackers than he was of hostile tribes.

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