Riding for the Brand, 150 Years of Cowden Ranching, Michael Pettit, University of Oklahoma Press, (1-800-627-7377), $19.95, Paperback. 320 pages, Notes, Bibliography, Photographs, Index. Best Southwest History Book, New Mexico Book Award.
Author, rancher, researcher and historian, Michael Pettit is a Cowden family descendant who chronicles his sentimental journey about trailing his family history in this book. His ancestors began migrating toward Texas in the 1850s, seeking land and opportunities in a country where few white settlers had gone before them. From place to place, the Cowdens found fertile valleys and water thinking this was their final stop. However, drought and vagaries of Comanche wars plus uncertain boundary lines caused them to move yet again. Over the years they migrating all the way across Texas and eventually into New Mexico where some family members remain today on their 50,000 acre ranch near Santa Rosa, in the western part of the state.
Pettit follows his family trail using personal letters, oral accounts, plus newspaper stories and legal documents found in libraries and courthouses. He visited lonely graveyards, always seeking the names of relatives who passed this way. They were born, lived, fought the elements, while standing up to every conceivable difficulty that made ranching pioneers tough. Cowdens lost family members from old age, childhood plagues and ranch accidents, but still they persevered.
Life for the Cowden women going back to the old days was never easy. Early graves are scattered across Texas, showing how many of these women died young. We can only imagine the hard work and drudgery on these ranches combined with moving to new locations and setting up households yet again inside hardscrabble shacks and raising large families many miles from friends and neighbors, town and supplies, or doctors and medical attention. These ranch women put in long, hard days and learned self-sufficiency.
While discovering facts about his family, Pettit finds a wealth of information about the land, weather conditions, Indian culture, economic woes, the oil business, cattle raising and cowboy life. He delves into old time cattle drives, and the stories of cowboys who worked for the ranchers. The book explains how early ranchers eventually organized Cattle Raisers Associations to protect themselves from rustlers and other woes. Brand inspectors were hired, while new brands and symbols were registered. Ranchers shared information regarding disease, vaccinations, predators, and opportunities in the cattle market.
Meanwhile, Pettit spends time on his relative’s ranch in New Mexico, telling the history of the outfit while helping with modern day ranch work. The horses, the branding, the care of livestock and life inside the bunkhouse telling tall tales for entertainment makes reading a combination of Old West history entwined with present-day life on a large working cattle ranch.
Pettit’s storytelling is straightforward, honest, and always with an eye for accuracy. He keeps a diary which in itself is filled with important data as he makes the rounds each day. He knows his family, understands the people and tries to explain how life on these ranches is never easy. As the book evolves, it becomes apparent that modern-day Cowdens have continued their ancestral way of life. Perhaps they now have telephones, pickup trucks and other modern conveniences, but this rugged existence is never easy and certainly not for the frivolous or faint of heart. However, the Cowdens wouldn’t have it any other way.
Riding for the Brand is warmly written and gives readers a wonderful insight into modern day ranching as well as an appreciation for the old Texas cattle ranching days.
Editor’s Note: The reviewer, Phyllis Morreale-de la Garza is the author of numerous books about the Old West including Silk and Sagebrush, Women of the Old West, published by Silk Label Books, P.O. Box 700, Unionville, New York 10988 www.silklabelbooks.com
*Courtesy of Chronicle of the Old West newspaper, for more click HERE.