Few narratives remain as endearing to the American mythos as the frontier. The images it has given us—from the small-town saloon of drunken gunslingers to the rugged cowboy wandering a lonely, expansive landscape—symbolize the organizing principles of American capitalism: individualism and self-sufficiency, property rights, a domination of nature, and a masculine celebration of violence as a vehicle for creation (“disruption,” as it is now called in startup speak). In our increasingly borderless world of global capital, the frontier’s legacy continues to validate a conquest of land and people that falsely imagines itself without limits.
Given the timelessness of this narrative, it is easy to forget how young America is, and how rapidly it was built. Both geographically and ideologically, America was largely made between 1840 and 1890. This is not to disregard settler colonization and the intellectual tradition of the 18th and early 19th centuries, from which the frontier narrative borrows to rationalize American Exceptionalism and Manifest Destiny. But during this fifty-year period, the entire western half of the United States was established, appropriated through violent altercations and dispossession. During an even smaller window, the cowboy appeared and became the icon of a nation.
In what will hopefully become essential reading, Mark Lause retells the history of this period in The Great Cowboy Strike: Bullets, Ballots, and Class Conflicts in the American West.1 What emerges from his account of the American West feels like an alternate world, an inverted frontier populated by a different but no less heroic cowboy: a seasonal worker exploited by corporate farmers and driven to organize with others to strike for better pay. In this sense, the story remains at its core a story about capital, but from the overlooked perspective of those below rather than the interested parties who have often written the histories.
Lause begins with a remarkable account of how the American West was created, revealing just how essential racial and class divisions were to establishing its image. As Lause writes:
The American West was not won but made. Residents of the United States did not simply push a line of settlement westward across a geographical area. Rather, they radically reshaped the environment of that area and, even more radically, conjured a way of thinking about the region that ascribed mystical transformative powers to it. They cleared troublesome occupants—buffalo, wolves, and Indians—to build their own towns, railroads, and booming cattle trade, which introduce the kind of savagery they told themselves they wanted to civilize. The railroads that cut through their cow towns physically demarcated the respectable aspirants to middle-class civilization from those parts of town to which they hoped to confine the seasonal tide of savagery that drove the longhorns from the range to the rails.
Typically a symbol of American growth and prosperity, the railroad is here framed in terms of the concrete effects of its expansion into the West, above all the creation of stark class divisions. Such divisions occurred as well between races (the displacement and slaughter of Native Americans) and species (the near-extinction of buffalo, many of which were hunted for sport or for the sale of their tongues and skins), producing a radical reshaping that, as Lause writes, “conjured a way of thinking about the region that ascribed mystical transformative powers to it.” Making America was as much about constructing an idea as it was about claiming the land and drawing property lines.
Lause transforms our polished icons of the American West—the railroad, the cowboy, even the land itself—by returning them to the material history from which capitalist ideology has torn them. Much of the book narrows in on the 1880s, when Reconstruction had collapsed and the economy was still struggling from the long depression of the previous decade, largely caused by inflation and risky speculative investments in railroads. This decade was also the height of the “beef bonanza,” when companies began to gather and ship wild cattle—with the help of the railroad—and turn beef into an enormously profitable industry. In 1881, US Army General James Brisbain published The Beef Bonanza; Or, How to Get Rich on the Plains, encouraging investors to place their money in the open range.
The remarkable irony of the open range is how briefly it remained open: by the mid-1880s, large businesses overtook smaller ones and began erecting barbwire fences across the West to demarcate property, complicating the seasonal drives that saw the herding of cattle for hundreds of miles across the range and into Kansas cow towns. This work was done by cowboys—generally young men—who were grossly underpaid and “represented the most easily identifiable and volatile lowest echelons of civilized life.” They worked 16 hours a day, on average, wreaking havoc on their bodies and giving them their distinct, bow-legged gait. Contrary to the myth, they did not work alone, but rather required groups to direct and maintain the herds: “Individualism proved incapable of managing massive herds of cattle, a process that encouraged teamwork and solidarity.
This solidarity proved to have enormous political consequences. The core of The Great Cowboy Strike details, as its title suggests, the strikes that took place between 1883 and 1886 as capitalist development overtook the area and foreign investment flowed into the cattle business. Here we get a picture of the cowboy not as the rugged, lonely figure on the open range, but rather as the shrewd labor organizer unwilling to accept his ongoing exploitation. During the Texas Panhandle Strike of 1883, cowboys were uncompromising in their audacious demands. As Lause notes, “Although they were the lowest rung of society—so marginalized that they were, in some ways, hardly part of it—the most transient of cowboys insisted upon an almost unparalleled wage increase—40 percent, from $30 to $50 for most cowhands.” And it worked: the strike was successful, largely because cowboys used the element of surprise. By waiting until the spring round-up of cattle, when they knew their labor was needed most—and the bosses could not turn a profit without it—they successfully leveraged their demands.
Coverage of the strikes was mixed, with radical papers in Kansas supporting them and others repeating two popular stories told by the bosses. One story predictably “revisited the ancient morality tale of the dumb peasant forgetting his place in the world and failing to show deference to his lord and masters,” but the other mentioned a fierce battle the included the presence of strikebreakers, and is far more important to Lause’s historical retelling:
Press reports of employers’ plans to recruit enough scabs to replace the strikers quickly turned into accounts that they had done so. In fact, there exists no indication that the ranches advertised for or recruited those new hands. Certainly, “some of the better cowboys continued to work for the new ranch.” Nevertheless, as the Las Vegas Daily Gazette noted, “A new man is no good on earth and is more liable to wander estrey [sic] himself and be forever lost on the boundless plains, than to find stray cattle. Without experienced hands to teach them, the newcomers would be useless.
A “new man is no good on earth,” the paper writes, which is to say that the cowboys understood they were not so easily replaceable. Their labor required experience built up over time, and was not easily assimilated into capital’s logic of replacing workers with those in the reserve army. This is an incredible testament to the class consciousness shared by the young men on the range, and is a far cry from the images of the cowboy that have been handed down through history.
Indeed, the cowboy’s relationship to organized labor more broadly influenced these strategies, and their own experience as undervalued workers serving a corporate class resonated with the concerns of political and labor organizations of the time: Industrial Brotherhood, Knights of Labor, and Patrons of Husbandry, among others. These groups evolved in response to economic and political developments of the late 19th century, and Lause goes into great detailing their failed and successful alliances, as well as their attempts to produce results in electoral politics by promoting third-party candidates. The cowboy strikes took place amidst the energy of these political movements, but the window of opportunity rapidly closed. By the end of the decade, cowboys “faced the collapse of the beef bonanza, the end of the cattle drives, the implosions of the cowboy’s job itself, and the ruthless violence of the regulators.”
In this sense, The Great Cowboy Strike is as much about the destiny of radical politics in the 19th century as it is about the destiny of America. They are the same destiny, in fact, wedded together through violence and class conflict. Nowhere is this more apparent in the electoral politics of the late 1880s and early 1890s, which saw the open embrace of lethal violence to influence outcomes and suppress resistance. In Kansas, an explosion in Coffeyville and the murder of a local Sheriff revealed just how chaotic things became, and how unafraid those in power were of using violence as a tactic. Of course, as Lause notes, “those who killed for the power structure never needed to lose sleep over whether they would be called to account for their actions,” because those in power got to legislate the meaning of such violence.
Transparent acts of violence defined political action farther into the West as well, and was used as a means of social control. While this helped fuel interest in mass political movements that demanded economic and racial justice, it also ensured victory for those willing to use violence to secure it. To really make the West what it was “required the power and authority ruthlessly imposed by established authorities back east, who used coercion and violence to impose its interests on the entire society,” but again, much of this has remained absent from the popular narrative of the frontier, a narrative that holds many captive and inspires a nostalgia for a time that never was.
It is a truism that the victors of history are those who get to write it. Resisting the victors with its own writing, Lause’s detailed account of the American West is at once heartbreaking and inspiring. The successes and failures of laborers and popular political movements are restored over a century too late, but this does not make them less relevant. As Lause concludes: “The past is not buried simply by the sedimentation of passing time, but also by the desire to entomb a living history beneath iconic and lifeless statuary. Ultimately, though, without excavating the past, no rational or coherent future can be likely.” Thankfully, the cowboy strikes have been removed from that tomb and brought to bear on our present moment, in which the lessons of those workers remain as important as ever.
- Lause, Mark. The Great Cowboy Strike: Bullets, Ballots, and Class Conflicts in the American West. (New York: Verso, 2018).