Thunder Butte

September 03, 2005

The Fall Roundup

From the old days, the roundup in the fall was one of those memories which brings a lot of nostalgia today. Clouds of dust from cowponies stomping their way through bawling herds of cattle, smoke from the branding iron fires and the stench of burned hair and flesh were a few of the things that are indelibly etched into my memory.

The ranchers from all of the Thunder Butte country used to pool their resources in the fall and gather at our place for branding, cutting and sorting the herds. Then they begin the trail drive to market. I don’t remember many names from those days, as I was only about five years old. As I got a little older, the roundup had an additionally significant meaning, as it meant that school would be starting shortly.

The roundup was, or it seemed to me, enjoyed by everyone. Except for a horse falling on somebody or getting run over by a steer, it went pretty smoothly. There used to be anywhere from ten to twenty men involved in this job, and my Mother cooked for all of them. I remember them sleeping on the floor, outside in the yard with their saddles for pillows, anywhere where they could crash after a long, tough day wrestling horses and steers. The next morning as the sun came, up my Mother would fire up the wood stove and start breakfast while this herd of men washed up and tried to limber up for another day in the saddle with a branding iron.

About 1933, my brothers Joe and Neal, with the cooperation of many of the neighbors, gathered several thousand head of cattle for a drive into Nebraska. Because of drought conditions, hay was non-existent in Thunder Butte country. With winter coming on, all the ranchers were faced with starvation of their cattle. Someone scouted out an area in Nebraska where the grass was alleged to be up to the cattle’s bellies, so my brothers undertook the roundup and cattle drive into Nebraska.

School was starting soon and I wanted to be a part of the trail drive, so I joined the drive for awhile. Once under way, the herd moved slowly with little grass to eat and water stops a premium. A few miles per day were all that were possible. There was the constant, ongoing problem of stray range cattle joining up with the herd or of groups of cattle breaking down fences. The biggest, almost insurmountable hurdle was the strays wandering off into the Badlands, as the herd skirted them. As we approached the Badlands, I ran out of time. School was due to start, so my brothers made me turn back.

Joe and Neal stayed with the herd into Nebraska, through a winter the likes of which most people would as soon forget. Most of the herd died. Out of several thousand cattle, only a few hundred were brought back in the spring. The grass in Nebraska, which had been so lush and plentiful, it turned out to contain very little nourishment for these range cattle.

That winter spelled the end for most of the cattle ranchers in Thunder Butte country, most never recovered. I don’t ever remember another big roundup. There were very few cattle left in the country and the ones that remained were only worth pennies on the dollar.

The cattle drives were not the only big roundups in those days. About the same time my brothers were taking the herd into Nebraska, Merle Kelly, Boyd Hall, the McGinnis brothers and several others (Kirk Hall and, I believe, Gene Ulrich made up some of the riders) gathered up most of the range horses from Thunder Butte Creek, Rabbit Creek, and other areas, and trailed them to the Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations. In case this doesn't seem like much of a job, consider that these horses were largely wild on the range. As Gene Ulrich reports, at times this herd stretched out across the prairie for four to five miles. This was, no doubt, a mind boggling adventure for these men, one that may not have ever been witnessed in history and quite probably will never be seen again.

--John Crowley
Mike Crowley Saturday, September 03, 2005


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