TO Ranch – The story of the American Cowboy

Where the Eagles Soar

Written by:  Bob Silva 

Part 1: The Vaquero (Spanish cowboy)

When Christopher Columbus set foot on the Caribbean Islands in 1492, what followed was one Spanish exploration ship after another was sailing to the North American continent.  As more and more ships came, so did products for farming such as seeds and livestock.

In 1598, Don Juan de Onate (the last of the Spanish Conquistadors) brought thousands of heads of livestock to New Mexico from New Spain as he settled into the San Juan Pueblo area.  San Gabriel de Yunque, located a few miles west of the San Juan Pueblo and across the Rio Grande, would go on to become the first capital in New Mexico. 

The American Cowboy is born – The criollo caballeros would turn out as the first cowboys in the Southwest; the criollos were Spanish born Americans.   A caballero was a high standard name given to a person established as a fine horseman (caballo – Spanish for horse).  Next the “Vaqueros were proverbial cowboys –rough, hard-working mestizos who were hired by the criollo caballeros to drive cattle between New Mexico and Mexico City, and later between Texas and Mexico City.”[1]

Spain and the other European countries knew that new settlements in the New World needed ways to subsist.  This meant that horses, cows, sheep, goats, chickens, pigs and other animals started their voyage across the Atlantic in the 1600s.  As days, weeks, months, and years passed the animals brought to North America increased in number and cattle adapted to a new continent.  Cattle herds grew, and in doing so they wandered the vast lands of North America becoming range cattle.  This now required a different type of skilled individual to tend to these wild four-legged range animals. 

The Vaquero is born – the birth of the Spanish cowboy quickly was in demand.  The Vaqueros quickly saw themselves herding cattle in all types of terrain.  Terrain that was flat, brushy, mountainous, rocky and heavy in vegetation.  The Vaqueros quickly learned that leather chaps were needed to protect their legs from brush.  Next, the English saddle was modified for the riding Vaqueros.  A horn cap or head was added as was the fork or swell to the front of the saddle.  The Vaquero’s saddle was redesigned for hard working Spanish/Mexican or Mestizo Vaqueros that spent hours herding cattle. 

Tending to cattle in North America became a challenge and the Vaqueros had to adapt.   The Vaqueros realized that a good lasso was needed for roping, so strong braided leather ropes were made. The Vaquero’s ropes were usually sixty-feet-long, while the European ropes were typically between 30 to 40 feet.  The Spanish Vaqueros set the standards for what the North American cowboy came to inherit, a refined caballero – a show man with a rope and a fine performing horse.

Some call them cowboys; others call them buckaroos, wranglers or just plain ranch-hands.   What followed were lessons in cattle handling, breeding, trailing, branding, bronc busting, and so much more. 

The Spanish Vaqueros (Spanish cowboy) and caballeros (Spanish horseman) set the standards for those entering into the cattle business, that included, range management changes brought on by cattle that had developed a wild persona. 

Birth of the TO Ranch – 1860s

The 1860s was a period of mass confusion, but also a period of opportunity.  Joseph “Tony” Meloche was one who had worked on the Maxwell Land Grant and recognized an opportunity on good cattle grazing lands on the southern foothills of the Rocky Mountain divide.  In 1864, Tony Meloche settled into the Una de Gato Creek (Spanish – for one cat creek). 


[1] Vaqueros: National Geographic, The first cowboys of the open range. https://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2003/08/mexico-tradition-vaquero-cowboy/

President Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act on May 20, 1862, and it provided settlers 160 acres if they lived on the land for five years; this provided an opportunity for those looking for ranching or farming opportunities.   During this period of time, the Texas Longhorns ruled the plains, but as the railroads entered the west in the late 1870s to 80s the cattle breed would change to Durham’s, Herefords and other breeds.  In the late 1870s, the Black Angus was crossed with Texas Longhorns and this cross proved positive results for improving market beef.  In the late 1900s, the Black Angus entered the cattle market with dominate results.

The 1800s demonstrated that cowboys that worked the cattle range and early pioneers were tough and hard-working men that stood their ground when the going got rough.  Tony Meloche when establishing the TO Ranch in 1864, knew what type of men and cattle would produce dividends for his ranching investment.  Tony also knew the security his ranch required as his investment would depend upon Fort Union troops providing a security buffer; the military built their first Fort Union post in 1851 located approximately 70 miles south of the ranch.  

The mid 1800s in the Southwest saw hundreds of prospectors combing the Rockies for gold and more.  The Civil War that lasted from April 1861 to April 1865 brought hundreds of other frontier families and pioneers to the Southwest after the war.  Brigadier General James Carleton had taken command of rounding up the Mescalero Apaches and Navajos in New Mexico.  Kit Carson, working under the command of General Carlton, started the round-up of the Mescalero Apache in 1862 and followed with the Navajo in 1863.   The ordeal of rounding up the Navajo became known as “The Long Walk.” 

Lucien B. Maxwell was the holder of one of the largest Mexican Land grants at 1,714,765 acres.  The grant stretched north into Las Animas County, Colorado, and sat west of the TO Ranch. 

Between 1859 to 1861, Trinidad was founded and sat in the middle of cattle country.  Trinidad was a wild western town with a gambling town reputation.  Sheriff Lewis M. Kreeger and his deputies were kept busy with all the wild west action in town, and in the surrounding territory.   Trinidad became a supply center from the 1860s to the turn of the century to early frontier settlements.   The TO Ranch had two supply centers to pull on, Trinidad across Raton Pass was some 35 miles away, but was a challenging route until 1865 when Richens Lacy “Uncle Dick” Wootton improved the road.  The other supply center was Fort Union located across the flat prairie grass lands, but twice as far away (approx. 70 miles).

TO Ranch Heifer round-up photography by: Bob Silva

History surrounds the TO Ranch – Part 2

The TO Ranch is located in Northern New Mexico a few miles east of Raton. The ranch is within a cowboy’s reach of the Colorado/New Mexico State line.  The TO Ranch is surrounded by amazing 1800 history.

  • Santa Fe Trail – In 1821, William Becknell left the Missouri with a few men and horses with trade supplies and headed west.  Becknell eventually made it to Santa Fe to trade with the Mexican government.  The Santa Fe Trail from 1821 to 1879 proved to be the trail of commerce, and the trail that moved thousands of frontier families westward.
  • Fort Union, NM – In 1851, the military built the first Fort Union in northern New Mexico, north of Las Vegas and south of Cimarron to provide safety to frontier travelers on trails, and to early settlements.  The military stationed at Fort Union participated in some Indian campaigns. The first Fort Union of 1851 was replaced by a second Fort Union in 1861, followed by the third and largest Fort Union Post in 1862.  Fort Union was abandoned in 1891.
  • The Manco Burro Pass Massacre – The massacre goes back to around 1848 when pioneers were attacked by Native American Indians crossing the east west Rocky Mountain divide between what is now Southern Colorado and New Mexico.
  • The Folsom Man – George McJunkin, (an ex-slave cowboy) a foreman at the Crawford Ranch in 1908, while riding the Dry Cimarron with a friend, discovered bison fossils in Wild Horse Arroyo.   Folsom points were found within the fossils (an artifact) that dated back to the Folsom tradition period of 8000 BC to 9000 BC.
  •  Bill Coe (a cattle rustler) – Bill Coe of the 1860s build a so-called fortress known as “Robber’s Roost” on a high ridge looking down into the Dry Cimarron.  The area at the time was known as “No Man’s Land” a strip of land that was 35 miles wide and 168 miles long – better known now as the Oklahoma Panhandle.
  • Lobo the Wolf – Lobo, (Spanish for Wolf) is a remarkable story of Lobo and his mate that included his pack of wolves that ran in the Dry Cimarron, (Corrumpaw Valley) during the 1890s preying on domestic animals of the area (sheep & cattle). 
  • Clay Allison – Clay Allison, a rancher and gunfighter, went down in history as one of the best in his profession (gunfighter).  In 1872, the James Hotel was built in Cimarron, NM and became one of wildest places in the Southwest.  Clay Allison left his mark as he took down one man after another that attempted to out-draw his quick hand with a gun.  To this day bullet holes can be seen in the ceiling of the Saint James Tavern.
  • Dry Cimarron – In the 1800s, the Dry Cimarron was home to the Jicarilla Apache, Ute, Kiowa, and others.  The Dry Cimarron was a junction to the Santa Fe Trail and to the Granada/Fort Union Military Road.
  • Goodnight Loving Trail – In 1866, Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving blazed a Texas Longhorn trail from Weatherford, TX west to the Pecos River, and north to Fort Sumner/Bosque Redondo.  From Fort Sumner the cattle that weren’t sold to the fort were trailed to Denver.  In time, Goodnight and Loving trailed longhorns on both side of the TO Ranch – west over Raton Pass, and to the east through Trinchera, NM.
  • Silva gang and his forty thieves – One of the most notorious and blood thirsty gangs of the Northern New Mexico were from Las Vegas.  Vicente Silva arrived in Las Vegas around 1875 and by the 1890s had established a 24-hour saloon.  Vicente didn’t stop there as cattle, sheep rustling, and killings terrorized the land.  Vicente became a blood thirty killer only to be killed by his own men.

The historic highlights listed are only a few of many historical events of the 1800s within this section of northern New Mexico territory.  Slave trade, the Mexican banditos, the cold-blooded killers, the outlaws, and the ladronos (thieves) were other major problems during the 1800s.   

Birth of the TO Ranch – 1860s

The 1860s was a period of mass confusion, but also a period of opportunity.  Joseph “Tony” Meloche was one who had worked on the Maxwell Land Grant and recognized an opportunity on good cattle grazing land on the southern foothills of the Rocky Mountain divide.

The Homestead Act of May 20, 1862 provided settlers 160 acres if they lived on the land for five years; this was a great opportunity for those looking for ranching or farming opportunities.   The Texas Longhorns ruled the plains, but as the railroads entered the west in the late 1870s to 80s the cattle breed changed to Durham’s, Herefords and other breeds.  In the 1900s, the Black Angus entered the cattle market.

Men of this period, that worked the cattle range or were early pioneers, were tough and hard-working men that stood their grounds, but the men knew the hazards of the time.   Tony Meloche, when establishing the TO Ranch, knew that Fort Union troops rode the prairie grasslands to the North, South, and East of Fort Union.  

The start of the cowboys on what is now the TO Ranch goes back to 1864 when Tony Meloche settled into the Una de Gato Creek. 

During the 1800s to the turn of the century, the best of the cowboys were a product of the environment that surrounded them.  The Saint James Hotel in Cimarron, New Mexico (45 miles west of the TO Ranch) has preserved the legacy & history on a wall display called, “Cimarron Cowboy Hall of Fame.”  Of the 62 cowboys on the Cowboy Hall of Fame, Lucien Maxwell, the largest landowner in the 1800s is followed on this list by who else, but the quickest gunman in this territory, Clay Allison.  One might ask, why does a gunman appear on this Hall of Fame? 

During the 1800s, there were many men that were gunfighters or simply put gunmen.  This skill they honed did not disqualify them from being ranchers, farmers, traders or from any other profession.  If anything, a cowboy with a quick gun might have been exactly what trail bosses were looking for as they prepared to move thousands of head of Texas longhorns for hundreds of miles over the plains.  This was the case with Clay Allison (gunman) who hired on as one of the cowboys to trail cattle for Charles Goodnight.

The high plain’s that included the Llano Estacado and once called the Great American Desert was no man’s land.  These wide-open plains had been home to the Comanche and Apache Indians.   The cowboy was at the mercy of wide open no man’s land, so he adapted to the land as the Texas longhorn did.  The American cowboy adapted the ways of a sly fox with eyes of a hawk.  The cowboy became quick and deadly with a firearm as he never knew when his proficiency might be his saving grace against rattlesnakes, outlaws or Indians.

TO Ranching Cowboys – Photography by: Bob Silva

TO Ranch & the Cowboys – Part 3

The TO Ranch located east of Raton, New Mexico in Colfax County has large land holdings. The TO Ranch is a prime example of what has transpired from the 1600 Vaqueros to a working ranch that dates back to 1864.  The ranch offers both mountain and prairie grass lands with mountain springs.  The cowboys that work the ranch remain flexible in their day-to-day efforts; mornings might find them working cattle in the flat plains, but evening could see them in the lower pinion or even upper mountain aspen range (all depending on the time of year and the cattle at hand).

The TO cowboys themselves are high endurance as they themselves come from quality stock, (parents that knew the meaning of hard work).  The cowboys are flexible dudes for they will bend, but not break.  A bit of southern manners always assures them another bowl of chili beans or chuck wagon stew when the ranch triangle ringer breaks the silence of the evening.  The finest of gourmet cooking never stands a chance against good Dutch-Oven cooking.  Take Dutch-Oven cooking one step beyond – prepared on a Charles Goodnight designed chuck wagon (the chuck wagon goes back to 1866 and the blazing of the Goodnight/Loving Trail).  

Old Cowboy – The reality of the early cowboy and his life on the plains – his life was far from fashionable as Hollywood has portrayed them.  A bedroll that consisted of a couple of blankets and his daily diet that came down to biscuits, beans, salted beef, coffee and dried fruit, and possibly some dried vegetables.  The introduction of the Goodnight chuck wagon in 1866 improved the daily meals on cattle trail drives, but evening still found the trailing cowboy sleeping on the ground.

The American cowboys might not equal the Spanish Vaqueros, but he will take no back door to them.  The TO American cowboy or cowgirl must earn their titles, and if the cattle they tended were asked, they surely would tell no lies.  A good cowboy or cowgirl easily stands out from the crowd when the cattle take to them. The association is eminent and truly amazing for this is the cowboy or cowgirl to learn from.

There’s no denying working a cattle ranch is hard work and takes daily commitment from all ranch hands from the first cup of range coffee at daybreak to that bucket of feed for that hard-working quarter or paint horse at the end of the day.  The chuck wagon cook was a key figure on the open range for he catered to the trailing cowboys in sickness or in health.

The cowboys can spend long days in the saddle, but at the TO Ranch all are family and all share a common bond as they soothe their aching muscles after a long day in the saddle.

The cowboys on the TO Ranch as it really is:

December – February:  The cowboys day starts before sun-up (around 5 in the morning if not before).  A cup of coffee and a quick bite to eat and he’s off to the corrals.   The cowboy greets his horse by running his hand over its mane and bringing over a bucket of grain for his 4-legged friend as he grabs his blanket, bridle and saddle.  Now the cowboy is ready to ride out to the cattle or he may load his horse in a trailer to be moved to a remote area of the ranch.

If cattle are being moved to a new pasture, or heifers are being moved closer to the ranch for calving or branding, one can expect that the cowboy will spend a long day in the saddle.  During calving season, it’s a 24-hour day for the cowboys as the young heifers are monitored around the clock.  In snow blizzard conditions or in freezing rain the young born calves and mother will be taken into the barn or other protective shelter.  Calving season is a busy time and the cowboys always stand ready to deliver a newborn calf.  A cowboy is part veterinarian for he works in conditions that are sometimes less than ideal when tending to injured cattle.

March – April:  April is branding time and again the cowboy is up before sun-up.   Out to the cattle he rides as the branding irons are being readied.  One cow after another are lassoed and taken to the ground.  Branding is a fine art, and those that have demonstrated that art will take the lead in branding.  It’s a long dusty day, but with all the action, time flies, and before long it’s time to grab a bite.  The day or days goes on until all the new calves are branded.

May – Sept:  Some cattle are moved to higher elevations while others may remain in the lower grass lands.  The TO Ranch is blessed with excellent blue grama grass along with other forages.  Cattle are closely monitored for health purposes as there are poisonous plants that arrive in spring before the grasses.   Bloating along with other symptoms in cattle, if not detected early, will kill them.

Sept – Nov:  It’s time to bring the cattle out of the high mountain range and locate them in the lower pastures and grasslands.

The life of the cowboy – The day could be young and bright, but the distant clouds can bring rain and more.  It’s the more that will earn the cowboy his money.  The evening rain is a welcome relief, but the lightning and surely the thunder is a sign of alarm as cattle become restless.  A stampede could scatter the herd over miles on the high plains.   The cowboy and his pony are in eminent danger as they attempt to turn a stampeding cattle herd.  The cowboy always stands ready for whatever the day might bring as this is his livelihood. 

In recognition to George McJunkin One of the best bronc riders, ropers and cow hands was an ex-slave by the name of George McJunkin from Folsom, NM (Folsom a few miles east of the TO Ranch).  George became known as one of finest cowboys that worked the Pitch and Crowfoot Ranch.  George went one step beyond being an amazing cowboy for he discovered a large fossil in a wash after the Folsom Flood of Aug. 27, 1908.  George discovered a large bone of a large bison that was protruding from the banks of the Dry Cimarron River while he and a friend were riding their horses on the Wild Horse Arroyo.  In 1920, excavation continued in Wild Horse Arroyo.  George McJunkin died before the amazing excavation of 1925 found Folsom Points in the excavated fossils.  The Folsom points were evidence that the Folsom Man (a nomadic hunter that dates back 10,000 years) used spears to hunt and established a new timeline as to when Native Americans arrived in North America.

Many thanks go out to Brad Long, (manager), and to his dad Roger Long of the TO Ranch for sharing the past, and present history of the ranch with me.  Thanks goes out to Jason Magill, Mark Wheeler and Tanner Sorrels (3 cowboys) of the TO Ranch that shared their working history.

Bob Silva           Author & Publisher        April 27, 2021              

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