From north to south |

From north to south

Nathan Sanderson
for Tri-State Livestock News
Edward Lemmon at the McLaughlin, South Dakota, Fair and Rodeo, circa 1927. Photo courtesy State Historical Society of North Dakota

The South Dakota Historical Society Press released Controlled Recklessness: Ed Lemmon and the Open Range at the South Dakota Festival of Books Sept. 25, 2015. Below is a summary author Nathan Sanderson shared with Tri-State Livestock News.

On the Southern Great Plains, few cattlemen were as well-known as Charles Goodnight. Born in 1836, the “Father of the Texas Panhandle” operated one of the largest ranches in Texas and is the namesake for the infamous Goodnight-Loving Trail, along with partner Oliver Loving. This duo may also have served as inspiration for Woodrow Call and Augustus McCray, the fictional mainstays of Larry McMurtry’s epic novel and movie, Lonesome Dove. Goodnight was a pioneer in the cattle industry and helped develop many of the techniques utilized in the glory days of Texas trail drives after the Civil War.

On the Northern Great Plains, cattleman Ed Lemmon refined many of the techniques implemented by Goodnight and adapted them to the climate and geography of the north. Born in 1857, Lemmon was a central figure in the northern plains cattle industry. He operated an 865,000-acre lease on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation; bossed the country’s largest cattle roundup, with more than 50,000 head; and was recognized for having saddle-handled more cattle than any other man who ever lived—over one million head.

Goodnight and Lemmon provide a unique opportunity to compare the differences in early cattle handling techniques between the southern and northern Great Plains. These differences and Lemmon’s remarkable activities as a cowboy and cattleman are covered in Controlled Recklessness: Ed Lemmon and the Open Range, published by the South Dakota Historical Society Press (

In the days following the Civil War, bosses on Texas trail drives tended to use one cowboy for every hundred head of longhorn cattle because the animals were wild and difficult to handle. Goodnight even selected a man to kill any calves born on the trail because they disrupted the herd’s progress and were not worth the trouble. As more docile crossbred cattle increased in numbers in the 1880s and 1890s, the ratio increased to 300 head per cowboy.

Lemmon’s crews usually consisted of eleven men: a trail boss, a cook, a horse wrangler and eight cowboys. Two cowboys, known as point men, rode in front of the herd and were usually the most experienced hands deemed best to hold the cattle together when crossing rivers or corralling stock. About one-third of the way back from the pointers rode two swing men, one on each side of the herd. Two flankers rode one-third of the way behind the swing men and were followed by two drag riders bringing up the rear. The cowboys “handling the drags,” or the slowest animals in the herd, were given specific instructions for how to keep the cattle moving.

As Lemmon noted, “The drag drivers were to weave back and forth, rounding the corners and…keeping the hind center full, and in a manner always moving forward and never under any circumstances crowding an animal or your horse up into the herd, which causes the cattle to tromp on one another’s heels, making bruises or cracked and chafed heels.” Riding the drags was dusty and unpleasant, so the most inexperienced cowboys usually drew this assignment.

Lemmon wanted a trail herd of 2,500 head to spread out for three-quarters of a mile and average between thirteen and fifteen miles per day. Each day the cowboys would push the herd off at about 6 a.m., traveling perhaps eight miles before breaking for lunch. In ideal conditions this left a shorter drive for the afternoon, when warmer temperatures caused greater weight loss. The trail boss tried to select a night camp near water, if possible, and bed the cattle on high ground where evening breezes would keep insects off the cattle and cowboys would be less apt to encounter a river or stream if the herd stampeded.

Lemmon liked to bed the cattle with plenty of space, so a steer could rise and turn over without disturbing the animal next to it, in order to prevent stampedes. The eight cowboys divided the night guard into four, two-hour shifts, with the first pair beginning at 8 p.m. The night guards rode around the herds in opposite directions, singing or humming a lullaby to calm the herd. Lemmon’s chuck wagon carried a dozen lanterns, one of which was always hung (lighted) inside the wagon at night to act as a beacon to guide the cowboys to camp in case of a stampede.

The night guards each carried a lantern as they rode around the herd. During a stampede they used them as signals to other cowboys and to slow or stop the rushing cattle, which became used to the lights and looked on them as a familiar sight. Lemmon’s system extended to every aspect of the trail drive, from the design and staking of the rope horse corral (which held the remuda of sixty-three horses) to a detailed list of the utensils and tools carried in the chuck wagon. His methods brought results. As he later wrote, “If herds are handled as described, either by drifting or slow trailing, over good grass and watered regions…they should land at destination with a gain in flesh, and very few sore footed ones.”

Goodnight and Lemmon differed in their opinions on how best to conduct certain aspects of cattle handling, largely due to geography and personal preference. For instance, on his trail drives Goodnight advocated sending stampeding cattle “into the mill” by having a cowboy race to the front of the herd and turn the animals to the right. When the leaders circled in this way they eventually reached the tail end of the herd and formed the mill, which ended the stampede.

Ed viewed turning a stampeding herd into the mill as a last resort because this technique could injure cattle and endanger cowboys. Lemmon’s disciplined cowboy crews avoided the hazards of these nighttime dashes by working together and following his techniques. Ed’s approach proved a success. Although he participated in innumerable stampedes during his half-century on the range, he never had a cowboy or horse seriously injured during one.

The seasoned cowboys also differed on the relative quality of their gear. Lemmon believed that “Texas trail equipment was so inferior to our northern equipment,” including their chuck wagons (which Goodnight had invented) and the sourdough keg they usually carried. In the mid-1890s after Lemmon’s outfit purchased a ranch in Texas, one of Ed’s hands, Othe Arndt, ridiculed an adjacent outfit’s cowboys about their sourdough keg, which had a tight hinged cover with felt around the edges to make it dust- and air-proof. The design was faulty and with the wagon’s shaking and jostling the dough would ferment and gather gas until it was “known to blow up and cast off the lid with a loud roar and it always smelled near as strong as a skunk.”

One night Arndt and a Texas cowboy were on night guard together when a herd of 3,500 yearling cattle stampeded for no apparent reason. After the cattle had quieted down and been returned to the bed grounds the Texas cowboy asked Arndt, “Now what the hell do you suppose stampeded them yearlings?”

“Be damned if I know,” Arndt replied, “unless it was the lid blowed off that sourdough keg!” The actual differences in quality between northern and southern equipment was largely a matter of opinion, but the cowboys enjoyed ribbing each other about the perceived deficiencies of their respective outfits.

Lemmon and Goodnight probably never met, but they would have enjoyed arguing over different methods of cattle handling and likely would have shared a feeling of mutual respect. Goodnight’s reputation for producing quality cattle was well-known and Lemmon raved about his skill as a cattleman, calling him the “greatest builder up of stocks of breeding cattle the world ever knew.” During the 1890s Lemmon demonstrated this belief by purchasing thousands of JA-branded cattle with genetics developed by Goodnight. Without question, they would have agreed on one element crucial to successful cattle handling: it was essential to have a plan. Goodnight and Lemmon both used their systems to great effect and owed a portion of their success to the utilization of their techniques.

Sanderson’s book, Controlled Recklessness: Ed Lemmon and the Open Range, is published by the South Dakota Historical Society Press. Orders are available online at:

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