They even played nice for a man without vice.
John Bratt didn’t drink, smoke, chew tobacco, play cards or cuss —which would have been fine had he been a clergyman like his father. Instead, it made him one of the few Western bullwhackers to shun those vices. Born in Leeds, England, on August 8, 1842, John was full of mischief as a boy, and his father decided he was not suited to be a clergyman. Apprenticed to a London merchant, John put to sea and landed in the United States just in time to see Abraham Lincoln’s funeral. He was working on the levee in St. Louis when someone offered him a chance to drive oxen. John Bratt’s practical education was about to begin.
From antebellum days through the 1870s, multiple teams of oxen drove most wagon trains and almost all heavy freight wagons out West. The three major freight companies bought 150,000 steers per year, bovine draft animals used largely to pull wagons. Oxen were slower than horses, often pulling at 2 mph, walking speed for a human; this relegated them to freight haulage, while horses and mules pulled passenger and mail coaches. The price was right for freighters. A yoke of two oxen cost about $25 in 1846 and $40 to $60 during the California Gold Rush. Horses might cost $100 to $150 and mules $75 during the peak freighting years from 1848 to the arrival of the railroads in the 1870s.
“When the march is to extend 1,500 or 2,000 miles, or over rough, sandy or muddy road, I believe young oxen will endure better than mules,” wrote Captain Randolph B. Marcy in The Prairie Traveler. Added Oregon Trail emigrant Peter Burnett: “The ox is a most noble animal, patient, thrifty, durable, gentle and does not run off. Those who come to this country will be in love with their oxen.The ox will plunge through the mud, swim over streams, dive into thickets, and he will eat almost anything.”
Freighting companies charged $8 to $10 to ship 100 pounds of merchandise over the Oregon or Santa Fe trails. Freight wagons carried loads of up to 3 tons, so the profits, even after food and fodder, were considerable. The firm of Russell, Majors and Waddell made $300,000 on one trip carrying Army supplies in the 1850s. The various companies paid good wages for the 1850s and 1860s. A wagon master could earn $150 a month, and teamsters were paid $70 to $75, at a time when common laborers were usually paid $2 a day and private soldiers earned $13 a month. Alexander Majors, knowing he paid top dollar, asked his bullwhackers to sign pledges that they would not beat their oxen, use profane language or drink liquor. They signed on, but it’s questionable how well any of them lived up to their pledges. As clean-living John Bratt later said of bullwhackers, “They did not know what fear was and were always ready to fight Indians day or night. …[But] I came across only one who did not drink, chew tobacco and swear.”
Bullwhackers tended to be bold-looking men with round hats, flannel shirts, heavy boots and revolvers and knives thrust into their belt. When Bratt became one himself in 1866, he did not fit in with the others: “I began to get acquainted with my fellow bullwhackers. A few were good, some medium and others very bad. Lack of enforcement of law and order seemed to add to their meanness. The men ranged in years from 20 to 45, and as I seemed to be the only one in this crowd of about 33 men who did not drink, swear, play cards, smoke or chew tobacco, I was soon put down for a ‘goody-goody’ or a fool.”
Bratt soon learned that bullwhackers chose their teams more carefully than the freight companies chose their bullwhackers. The lead yoke, if possible, would be a pair of Longhorns, as they went across rivers and elsewhere barnyard bovines hesitated to tread. The yoke of wheel oxen, those on either side of the singletree, or “tongue,” that pivoted on the front end of the freight wagon, were often heavy, domesticated Durham oxen, to help stabilize the load.The two or three yoke of oxen between the lead Longhorns and the big Durhams at the singletree might be of any type.
Bratt was with a group of freighters that left St. Louis for Dakota Territory on May 15, 1866. Each of the 22 wagons hauled 3 tons of flour, bacon, coffee, sugar and canned goods for Army forts along the Bozeman Trail. The first day out, the freighters covered exactly one mile—the unbroken oxen had yet to learn the routine. The freighters drove them with stiff-shanked bullwhips but steered through verbal commands. Oxen didn’t resist like mules, but it took some time for their bovine brains to register commands of ghee! (“turn right”), haw! (“turn left”) and whoa! (“stop”). Bratt also learned some new words. Sixty miles out, he had a chance to exercise his new vocabulary. One of the oxen stepped on his foot, and Bratt shouted “Damn you!” at the clumsy beast. The other bullwhackers and the leader of the outfit, a Captain Bass, all cheered—and then shook their heads when Bratt prayed for forgiveness.
Near Fort Caspar on the North Platte River, Bratt got his first look at “wild” Indians. Northern Cheyenne Chief Dull Knife showed up at the freighters’ camp to trade, and Bratt offered him an extra plate of food. Suddenly, Dull Knife threw down his plate, claiming someone had stolen a buckskin. Tensions flared until the captain finally gave the Cheyennes all they could eat out of the government rations entrusted to him. Dull Knife shook hands with Bratt—not with Bass—and warned the polite young Englishman to beware of the Arapahos. The bullwhackers later managed to stand off the Arapahos with a show of force.
Many bullwhackers spent their scant downtime drinking. When Bratt was foolish enough to boast of his temperance, he got a taste of their rough medicine: “Half a dozen bullwhackers seized me…threw me down and forced down my throat between a pint and a quart of the worst old road ranch whiskey that I ever smelled. The result was that I had to be hauled in the wagon for over a week.” A few of the bullwhackers seemed genuinely sorry, and Bratt forgave them.
Near the Powder River (in what would become Wyoming), Bratt and the other bullwhackers had to split their long train to permit 5,000 buffalo to pass. Once the bull train arrived at Fort Phil Kearny in mid-September, it took three days to unload the freight. With two fellow drivers, Bratt started building a winter shelter, until nightmares prompted him to leave: “To my Guardian Angel alone I attribute this timely warning,” he said later. He was safely back in Nebraska when Red Cloud’s War broke out in earnest. His friends were killed.
Bratt became a cattleman. He introduced Longhorns to Nebraska and once employed young William F. Cody, noting that Cody’s flamboyant horsemanship frightened the cattle. Later, he became mayor of North Platte, Neb., as the railroads were putting the bull trains out of business. Bratt died on June 15, 1918. He never forgot his bullwhacker days but never revealed the identity of that other bullwhacker who abstained from drinking, chewing tobacco and swearing.
John Koster doesn’t chew tobacco (one out of three ain’t bad). Neither do Koster’s researchers Suzy Koster and Minjae Kim.
Originally published in the October 2010 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.