In the years following the Civil War, pioneers, freed slaves, and Longhorns flooded Texas. Entrepreneurial cattlemen responded to the demand for beef back East and put herds of free-ranging wild cattle together in South Texas for drives up the trail to railhead markets in Kansas. The youngsters who went up the trail fancied themselves as cowboys of fortune—and much like young soldiers, they left home fresh-faced and brave only to return after one season hardened and wise. Or in cowboy parlance, with “gravel in their gizzard.”

Hitting the Trail

Charles Samuel Robinson, my great, great-grandfather on my father’s side, was not prone to wanderlust. He was a modest farmer on the country’s frontier—east Texas—but hard times, drought, a sense of duty as a father and his love for his wife led him far away from home. In 1886 and 1887, Robinson forked a horse and trailed herds of cattle from Texas to Kansas. He needed the money to feed his family and faced peril and adventure on the trail after all else had failed. The lovelorn letters he and his wife sent each other during the summer and fall of 1886 and 1887 survive and are treasured heirlooms within my family. We cherish these windows into the everyday realities of a bygone time.

Charles Robinson, despite being in his teens and twenties in Texas during the height of the trail drives in the 1870s, did not, like many, leave home to become a cowboy. Instead, as the oldest of four siblings, he likely felt the responsibility of working his father’s farm in Johnson County. In 1876, Charles’ father, John Ada Robinson, packed up the family for a move further west, but before they left, Charles, 20, married Mary (a.k.a. Mollie) Cornelia Ward on Christmas Eve. She was 15. As the Robinson family was moving away, Mollie’s parents granted special permission for the union given her age. They feared the young lovebirds would never see each other again. In February of 1877, the newlyweds moved to Stephens County, near the town of Caddo.

If you go to Caddo today, you won’t find much. Decades ago, my grandfather used to take me to the Caddo convenience store/bait shop on the highway. It seemed like Polaroids of every deer ever shot in Stephens County hung on those walls, but now it’s closed. There are a handful of folks still living there, but mostly it’s crossroads that travelers whiz past on their way to Possum Kingdom—a nearby lake and resort area—to fish, boat, golf, or otherwise recreate.

[Read more: Top 5 Cattle Drive Movies]

There is, however, one abiding similarity between Stephens County then and now: the propensity for drought. Nearly a third of my family’s ranch there (on my mother’s side) burned in the Texas wildfires in 2011. My cousin married into a neighboring family that lost all their land and a quarter of their herd to the blaze.

Similar dry conditions are what prompted Charles Robinson to leave home the summer of 1886. A year earlier, his father had died and, as the eldest, he would have inherited the farm. But it was droughted-out. At 30 years old with four children, he headed west—beyond the farmland—to find work with the big Texas ranches, yet unfenced. Mollie and the children went to live with her parents back in Cleburne. No one was happy.

O I do wish I could here from you and know what you are doing. It is still dry here. It has rained all around. I hope it has rained out there. Well Charlie, I wish you could have seen the way Oscar cut up the day you left. He cride a long time after you started and he wouldnet come to me nor never sucked all day. Maude had to get him to sleep at night. My brest nerley bursted.– Mollie Robinson
Cleburne, Texas. July 26, 1886

Dear Ones
It is with a sad heart that I embrace the present opportunity of writeing you a few lines. I have got no work yet. Tandy and Tyson have both made me a kind of promise to go to Kansas but the country is overrun with hands nearly as bad down there. The herd will start by the 15 and if I don’t get work by that time, I am coming home. I don’t know how we will make out but I guess there will be some way provided.
– Charles Robinson, LIL Beef Camp.
Postmarked Haskell, Texas.
Sept. 6, 1886

Within a week of sending that letter, Charles finally received a job offer. He was part of a crew (he didn’t mention how many) that would take 1,300 2- and 3-year-old steers to Kansas to escape the drought.

The outfit Charles signed on with more or less followed the Western Trail (see sidebar) for 400 miles, which by this time was a major highway for the herds. Despite Indian and outlaw dangers, there was good water and grass that fattened cattle on the way northward. It’s estimated that about 10 million cattle went up the trail during its brief existence, and this herd among them.

Life on a Cattle Drive

Charles felt they had “a good boss here and we have got a good cook and I think a good lot of boys.” His pay was $35 a month, and he promised to send money as soon as he drew on his wages. His only expense for the trip? “I will have to get me some blankets is all that I will have to buy,” he wrote in another letter.

Other than one mention of his night guard duties (“from 12:15 to 2:30 when it don’t rain”), Charles’s letters reveal few details of life on the trail. He kept Mollie up-to-date of where he was and the business of the herd, but his children’s health and education—and longing for his wife—were his main preoccupations. This trip was no lark of youth; he was putting bread on his family’s table. Mollie’s letters, in turn, focused mostly on her pining for Charles, with updates on the children, friends, and neighbors.

Their letters often crossed in the mail, and subsequent letters reveal how each was frustrated with the other for not writing enough.

I’d like to think of my ancestor’s trip up the trail as a swashbuckling cowboy adventure, and the letters do show hardscrabble pioneer life, but, more poignantly, they lay bare a true love story.

“Charlie how much longer will it be until you come home? I want you to come so bad I can’t hardly stand it. You never shall go off any more to stay so long. I never loock up the road but what I think of you and wish I could see you coming.” – Mollie Robinson
South Prairie, Stephens Co., Texas

“Dear old girl I will try to you a few lines on horse back. I never got but one letter from you yet. I am getting tired writing the love letters and getting none, but I guess I will get them all in a pile when I get to Caldwell… I will close as we are nearly to the river. Kis the children for me and save one for me yourself. So good bye. Your husband.”
– Charles Robinson
Silver City, Indian Territory.
Oct. 5, 1886

Maybe he didn’t think what he was doing was adventurous. Maybe it was truly non-eventful. Maybe he was trying to protect his wife from worrying about his safety, but other accounts from the era, like the expansive compilation of recollections in the Trail Drivers of Texas, describe the drives as being prolonged with monotony and punctuated by episodes of intense peril.

Trail’s End

The town of Caldwell was Charles Robinson’s goal. At trail’s end, he knew he’d receive the correspondence he’d desperately been craving, not to mention his paycheck and a southbound bearing. Meanwhile, Mollie had no destination and was forced to wait. Perhaps as a result, her letters were much longer than his. In her stream-of-consciousness style, she’d ramble from subject to subject without transition or punctuation: news of someone being baptized, his parents, her loneliness, her fear for him, etc. She fretted over their infant Oscar’s health and wrote of the “dengue” and “bilious fever” that had killed many neighbors and local children. At one point, she wrote of moving the family back home after having lived with her parents. She was “tierd all most to deth living in other peoples houses.” But she was also very practical and included various costs and the status of the family’s stock, which were mostly named. She’d mention debts owed, including taxes, and other trades and transactions she’d made in his absence.

Upon reaching Caldwell, Charles wrote letters expressing relief instead of frustration. He sent money home and paid bills; cattle shipped, his duty as a husband and father were fulfilled. His younger comrades, on the other hand, likely hit Caldwell like the wild and woolly beasts they had become on the trail. The legend of liquor-fueled, devil-may-care cowboys was formed in towns like this. Caldwell fit every stereotype of a boomtown, with a saloon and red light district, shoot-outs, and hangings. For a time, when Caldwell was the nearest town with a railhead to Texas, it rivaled Dodge City and Abilene in the sheer number of cattle shipped, if not in sustaining lore.

[Read more: The Big Die-Up: The Death of the Old West?]

Charles Robinson’s thoughts and feelings toward the town are unknown, though. His letters stopped abruptly. He did go back up the trail to Caldwell again the next year, but in 1887 his letters were fewer and more business-like. Mollie’s correspondence was ever forlorn and lonesome. Much of her writings contain news of moisture. The drought was finally busted, and he could stay home the following year.

Trail driving didn’t last much longer anyway. By 1893, Oklahoma was opened to settlement, and soon barbed wire fences crisscrossed the West, making drives impossible. The hands that went up the trail left few markers to commemorate their passage. The wagon ruts and shallow graves were soon plowed under, but their legacy endures. Cowboys are America’s mythological figure—larger than life and the embodiment of the country’s ethos. These men had instant credibility back home for courage and toughness. Some became ranchers, while others remained bachelors and worked for wages as cowboys their entire lives.

For his part, Charles Robinson returned home to Stephens County to farm and continue raising his family. He and Mollie eventually had 10 children (two of which died at the age of two). My great-grandmother, their eighth child, was born in 1896, 10 years after his first trip up the trail. She died in 1977. Mollie died in 1920, she was 59 years old. Charles, who later ran a cotton gin in Trent, Texas, passed in 1932 at the age of 75. They are buried side-by-side in the Trent cemetery.

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