February 15, 2006: Perspective
By Michael Pettit ’72
Michael Pettit ’72 is author of Riding for the Brand, published by the University of Oklahoma Press this month.
When I began research for a new book of nonfiction about ranching in the American Southwest, I was living in rural New England, 2,000 miles distant from my subject matter. Around me were hills and forests, little villages settled by Puritan stock, university towns. As it is with every unwritten book, my direction was uncertain. I was suddenly faced with a world whose breadth and depth were staggering, arrayed before me in the actual landscape and in countless stacks of libraries. Outside and inside were millions of acres, millions of words. I knew the book would take me to New Mexico and Texas, where my mother’s family had been raising cattle for 150 years. I had no clue it would take me back to Princeton.
Riding for the Brand follows a family well known in Southwestern ranching history, the Cowdens, who ran a fabled open-range ranch in New Mexico and west Texas. I knew the Cowdens best in the persons of my grandparents, who always had seemed to embody the West, sprung directly from the bare, wind-swept plains. I soon discovered, however, that the family had originally emigrated from Northern Ireland to Massachusetts, not an hour from my home. My research into Southwestern ranching — Longhorn cattle, quarter horses, cowboys, and Indians — would begin, improbably, in the Northeast, at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Mass. There, a History of the Town of Princeton (Mass.) would put me on the long trail of the Cowdens, which led down the Atlantic seaboard and included stops for me at the Robert Frost Library at Amherst College, the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale, and the Western Americana Collection at Princeton.
Alfred Bush, who retired in 2002 after 40 years as curator of the Western Americana Collection, responded enthusiastically to my early inquiry about available resources. “Any time we can encourage study of the West at Princeton,” he wrote in an e-mail, “we are delighted to help.” So I traveled to Princeton, met Mr. Bush, and spent days in Firestone Library, sitting in the little cathedral that is the Dulles Reading Room — a hexagon of vaulted ceilings, leaded-glass windows, and rich wood furnishings — and handling with great care rare books, maps, and photographs assembled over the years into one of the most distinguished Western Americana collections in the country. Knowledgeable librarians brought me items like Joseph Carroll McConnell’s The West Texas Frontier, or a Descriptive History of Early Times in Western Texas Containing an Accurate Account of Much Hitherto Unpublished History, Presenting for the First Time in Historic Form a Detailed Description of Old Forts, Indian Fights and Depredations, Indian Reservations, French and Spanish Activities, and Many Other Interesting Things. I set such treasures into cradles that kept their spines from cracking and held pages open with weighted strands that resembled rosaries. The contrast between settings was striking: In the quiet, refined atmosphere of Firestone, I plunged into a frontier world of adventure and harsh subsistence. Down in the stacks below urbane Princeton, I devoured J.W. Wilbarger’s Indian Depredations in Texas, Reliable Accounts of Battles, Wars, Adventures, Forays, Murders, Massacres, etc. etc. Together with Biographical Sketches of Many of the Most Noted Indian Fighters and Frontiersmen of Texas. I strolled through the little county history that is Mary Whatley Clarke’s The Palo Pinto Story. With imagination — and the generosity and vision of collectors and curators — I was able to bridge daunting time and space, following the Cowdens’ dusty trail.
Much of Princeton’s Western Americana Collection is the result of Alfred Bush’s efforts. He dramatically expanded the collection’s American Indian holdings, which serve as a complement to the seminal Philip Ashton Rollins (Class of 1889) Collection. Texas historian J. Frank Dobie reports in his Guide to Life and Literature of the Southwest that Rollins, a New York lawyer as well as Western traveler and scholar, “went into Charlie Everitt’s bookstore in New York one day and said, ‘I want every book with the word cowboy printed in it.’” Thus began his collection of cattle trade, overland narrative, and other manuscripts that mark Rollins’ enduring importance to Princeton. Presented to the University in 1947, a year before the new Firestone Library opened, the collection includes Rollins’ own books, most importantly, The Cowboy, An Unconventional History of Civilization on the Old-Time Cattle Range.
“Unconventional” is apt, and “civilization” suspect when considering the “old-time cattle range,” particularly from the perspective of the Ivy League. What leads a place like Princeton or Yale — where George Miles of the Beinecke Library and pre-eminent Western Americana dealer William Reese also offered me early direction — to assemble such collections? Gifts by iconoclastic collectors like Rollins or J. Monroe Thorington ’15 must be matched by institutional vision. I recently asked Alfred Bush, who now divides his time between Princeton and Chiapas, Mexico, about the source of his own fascination with the West, and discovered that he comes by it naturally — he was born in Colorado, as were his parents. With modesty but evident pleasure he told me that his great-grandparents had lived in Maxwell, N.M., and in 1846, his great-great-grandmother had celebrated her birthday in Santa Fe — now my home — while passing through with the Mormon Battalion going to fight in the Mexican War. My great-great-grandfather, William Hamby Cowden, fought in that war, prompting his move west to raise cattle on the Texas and New Mexico frontiers. “Our Western-border settlers ... continue to move farther and farther west as the settlements encroach upon them,” wrote Colonel Richard Marcy in his 1859 Thirty Years of Army Life on the Border, “preferring a life of dangerous adventure and solitude to personal security and the comforts and enjoyments of society, and what was at first necessity to them becomes in time a source of excitement and pleasure.”
Adventure, solitude, excitement, pleasure were experiences I found both in books and on the range. I grew up in New Orleans, but summers meant journeys to ranches in west Texas and New Mexico, where landscapes and cultures were almost as exotic as they appeared in dime novels during the days of cattle drives, buffalo hunts, and Indian wars of the 19th century. I was surrounded by bawling cattle and creaking windmills, the lilt of Spanish voices and silence of ancient petroglyphs, coyotes yipping at night while I memorized Indian sign language demonstrated in photographs of Iron Eyes Cody. Elemental wonders — cactus, jackrabbits, rattlesnakes, ruins of rock houses — were everyday fare.
All of this placed me outside the typical Princeton provenance. I was acutely aware at college of being an outsider, Western and Southern by birth and residence, not even boarding school to break the Eastern ice. I listened for the telling accent: the student from Lampasas, Texas, or Yazoo City, Miss. For all the accounts of Midwesterners heading “back East” to make their marks — Fitzgerald most notable among them — there are few of Westerners. Is that because they returned to the comparative isolation and neglect of the West, rather than assimilating into East Coast culture? After college I went back to New Orleans and Mississippi, where our family had a cattle farm, stuck my A.B. in a drawer, and took to building fences, baling hay, and delivering calves — familial ground. Alfred Bush, mentor over the years to many American Indian students at Princeton, remarks that “the most impressive thing about them is that they went back home,” rather than abandon their often-difficult heritage for the privileges of their education. The same might be said of the Lasaters — Tom ’33, Dale ’65, Lane ’68, and others — Texas and Colorado ranchers who developed the foundation herd of Beefmaster cattle, only the second recognized American breed. And let’s not overlook Channing F. Sweet ’21, author of A Princeton Cowboy and son of Colorado governor William E. Sweet. Or forget Regis Pecos ’77, Princeton’s first Native American trustee, now back home in Cochiti Pueblo. What drew them away could not keep them.
These days, every spring and fall, I help my cousin Sam Cowden with his cattle work — gathering and sorting cattle, branding or shipping calves — here in New Mexico. The tables have turned: Northeastern studies are memories; now I have Southwestern mesas rising into clear, wide skies.