Charles A. Siringo
The True American Cowboy
The town of Matagorda, established in 1827, once sat on the protected waters of Matagorda Bay but that was before a river flood created a land bridge that now supports River Road or FM 2031. The lush flora, abundant fauna and the mild winters combined to invite Texians and wild cattle to this area. As early as 1829 the wild cattle called “mossy horns” were rounded up and shipped to New Orleans at a tidy profit for the men brave enough to take on such a risk.
These early days of the cattle industry were not for the lighthearted or mild-mannered; Texas borders were not defined well but the first Anglo settlements were clearly bounded on all sides by hostile inhabitants or cruel terrain with the exception of beautiful Matagorda Bay. To the east were 500 miles of swamps, gators and Indians. The lands west were called “No horse land” because there wasn’t enough vegetation or water to support horses, much less people. The north, although barely explored, was inhabited by some of the most organized and most warlike Indians on the continent – the Comanche. Although the clash between the early Texians and the Karankawas posed problems, the lands between the Brazos and the Colorado rivers were the most inviting and most promising lands to be found for Austin’s first 300 people. Only the toughest of men survived. The cattle that flourished here, which had gone feral from unsuccessful Spanish and Mexican settlements, were wild and cagey enough to outwit and out breed the gators, bears, panthers and vicious terrain. One could not call this era of the cattle industry “ranching” – it would better be called “Extreme Survivor”. Rounding these wild “beeves” and loading them onto merchant ships meant first finding, roping and breaking wild Spanish ponies from the same environment that had shaped the men and cattle of Matagorda.
Thus, the very first cowboys, as we know them, were the men that could domesticate the wild horses; and chase the wild cattle through cane breaks that grew 30 feet tall and virgin hardwood forests without falling victim to gators, mosquitoes or the very healthy snake population. Here, nothing was easy – abundant – but not easy. The first cattle rounded-up elsewhere and shipped to market came from Matagorda County.
Original Austin Colonists, like John Duncan and W. B. Grimes, made fortunes from cotton and cattle. They developed the first canned beef, slaughter houses and tanning industries. They prospered through the Texas Revolutionary War, the ten years as a republic and becoming a state. Then, the Civil War halted the prosperity – not only did the normal strains of war reduce commerce and individual fortunes, but the Union’s victory made the owning of slaves illegal forever changing the Southern traditional income from cotton to something else. In Texas, the something else was cattle.
Men like Shanghai Pierce and Charles Siringo forged the Chisholm Trail and branded wild Mavericks. Shanghai Pierce and his relatives managed over a million acres in and around Matagorda County while Siringo, a hired cowboy, became the model that real cowboys, movie star cowboys and Saturday night cowboys everywhere would forever after try to emulate.
Charles Angelo Siringo was born on the Matagorda Peninsula and dreamed of being a cowboy. He spent his first six years imagining he was on a horse romping up and down the Matagorda Beaches. He spent his next fifteen years being a cowboy. By age seven he was able to ride a horse at a full gallop while standing on the horse’s back. Siringo recorded the first and almost only record of the Chisholm Trail, and he later became a Pinkerton detective. In his final years, after writing seven books on his adventures of “cowboying” and sleuthing, he wrote screenplays and even acted in some of the early silent movies. William S. Hart and Roy Rogers were good friends with Siringo and referred to his first book, “Fifteen Years on the Hurricane Deck of a Spanish Pony” or “A Texas Cowboy” as the Cowboy Bible. The cool, unruffleable, fighting for the underdog images of our cowboy heroes come directly from tales of Siringo and his books that were in reality, his thinly veiled autobiographies.
Today, many local ranchers own the lands that have been in their families for over a century. Names like McNabb, Huebner and Runnells-Pierce still raise cattle. They could sell their lands and endeavor at much more lucrative businesses but they are tied to a noble tradition and reverence, for their land that has provided so much for so many for so long.by Susan Mitchell
President, Matagorda Area Chamber Of Commerce
The tradition continues. Even today, if you visit Matagorda in the spring or fall your travels are likely to be delayed by the cattle herds that are still driven to or from rich winter pasture lands across the Colorado River by men on horseback. If you look around you will see the occasional “Day Cowboy”, not because he is on his way to a rodeo but because he has been hired in much the same fashion as Charles A. Siringo was almost a century and a half ago.