Friday, July 30, 2010

An Old and Dishonorable Profession

Several years ago in Wyoming after a concert by local musicians, The Prickly Pair, we talked for a few moments with fiddler, Les Hamilton.
I mentioned how many of the cowboy/campfire tunes have such similarity to old Scottish ballads.
Les told us how his family is descended from Scots who homesteaded in South Dakota and Wyoming, bringing with them their old tunes and their fiddles.
Laughingly he reminded me that Celtic music was not the only thing the Scots brought with them to the New World.
"Cattle rustling," he commented, "was well known and practiced in the Highlands, and there were those settlers who took it up in the American West."

We've all seen the B Westerns where the "bad guys" are rounding up and "rustling" the cattle of the honest struggling ranchers and must be brought to justice by the "good guy" in the white hat.

Cattle round-ups are still part of the western scene--spring and fall we watched herds on the move, controled by experienced horsemen and women, aided by a few savvy cow-dogs.
Rustling, I supposed, was a thing of the past and not a practive we would encounter in Kentucky.

Since moving here our only "neighbors" visible to the south have been a herd of cattle. Sometimes they are just beyond the boundary fence, calves skipping, bucking and bawling behind their mothers, the bulls pacing ponderously, keeping a bullish eye on their domain.

The pasture, rented to the owner of the cattle, runs along the curving road, takes in the derelict yard of an abandoned farmhouse, with its southern-most boundary at a creeper-covered empty house and barn surrounded by overgrown weeds and uncut hay.

When the cattle have been grazing on this end of their territory they have sometimes raised bovine heads to stare at our activities in the lower garden.  They watched on Tuesday evening as I yanked out unworthy tomato plants and uprooted raddled bean bushes.

Last evening, after a short but vehement burst of rain, J. resumed bush-hogging the pasture, mowing the stretch across the road from our good neighbor, D.H.
D.H. was working in his yard and true to the code of southern manners, J. stopped the tractor and crossed the road to "be neighborly."
J. came home with the astounding news that 22 of the resident cattle had been stolen, rustled, driven away a week or so ago, and the thieves have not been apprehended!
It has been rumored that the remaining cattle from that group have been sold or moved;
tonight as we went about gathering some produce in the relative cool of the evening, we looked up to see some familiar forms moving slowly down the pasture.
Perhaps the thieves are "lying low" or perhaps someone is "riding night herd" in the traditional way.

This is the brief notice which I found in the on-line edition of the local paper:

Reward offered in case of cattle theft at Gradyville, KY

Offering a $5,000.00 cash reward for the Arrest and Conviction involving the theft of 22 Black Angus Beef Cattle in the Gradyville community. Also, along with the $5,000.00 cash reward a person(s) can pick the best cow out of the herd to keep for the Arrest and Conviction involving the theft. Any information please contact the KSP Post in Columbia, KY.

This notice was followed by the names and phone numbers of the cattle owners.

I was interested enough to Google "cattle rustling" and was amazed to find that the ancient practice has been revived in the past few years and is quite a flourishing crime, particularly in the south-western United States.
A cattle thief was nabbed recently in the nearby state of Tennessee when he attempted to sell 11 head of cattle out of his trailer in a large parking lot. The prospective buyer suspected something amiss and phoned the sheriff.

J. and D.H. speculate that the thieves here must have laid their plans well ahead.  The territory of the old barns and buildings lie in an S-curve of the creek with no neighbors over-looking the farther pastures.  A rough track leads from the road up behind a ramshackle barn.
Having had exasperating experiences with cattle who didn't wish to be rounded up, driven, penned or loaded, I can marvel at the enormity of the cunning and luck involved in moving 22 head without a chance passer-by taking note.
Perhaps they planned to do their dirty work by the light of the waxing moon.

We all hope the deed was done by outsiders, not a local group.
We hope that the "good guys" in the white hats bring justice to the hills and hollers of Kentucky.

[As a side note, if you would like to read more about Les Hamilton the fiddler and his wife, Locke,
here's the link to their website. ]


  1. Would Teasle mind terribly much if i bent down and kissed her right on her beautiful little nose? what an adorable header picture! as to the cattle rustling...that really takes some derring do! they'd have to have driven a regular stock truck down'd think people would have heard the big diesel engine on a quiet Kentucky summer night? and all the lowing and thudding of hooves and probably human hollering involved in rounding up 22 head and getting them on board the truck, especially if there's no cattle chute nearby? Also, must have been very clever and careful thieves to cull 22 Angus and only Angus from that herd, which looks like a very mixed herd indeed. Will be very interested to hear further developments in this tale!

  2. Ahem. I have to hold up my hand and say that somewhere (we have yet to find the link) in my dad's side of the family, there was a marriage with a lass of the Cranston family around the Scottish borders, where the Border Reivers rustled cattle for a hobby! I guess old habits died hard when the Scots got to the States. In this day and age, with the recession, I guess some folk see it as a way of making a quick buck, but surely they must have been cattle men to do it - your average Joe Bloggs is NOT going to be able to load one beast in a truck, let alone 22!! I hope they are brought to book by the man in the white hat . . .

  3. That is SUCH a nasty trick! Imagine losing all those cows! I hope they catch the rustlers. And I was just going to comment on how I'd love to explore the old farmhouse and barn, but now I think not. Stay safe!

  4. I may be Scots - but I'm innocent!

    nice post MM.

  5. Interesting post. I'm assuming the cattle all have some kind of tatoo, ear or lip, and that should make finding them a little easier.
    Down here "rustlers" are stealing air conditioning units from vacant houses and business's.

  6. QC; I should have made clear that there are two separate gangs of cattle. I have photos only of the mixed breed group directly across our line fence. The Angus were stolen from the group who live just around the bend in the road. It is thought the thieves knew of the old barn located on a track out of sight of the road and utilized that location for their theft.
    Still seems like a big undertaking.
    Teasel is so beautiful, isn't she! She is not a lap sitter, but likes to be picked up for a minute several times per day.
    BB; I ran across the term "Reivers" when I was reading up the statistics on current rustling activity. I love new [to me] words. I DON'T KNOW what my Scots ancestors got up to in Scotland--only know they were deported for being on the losing side at the Battle of Worcester.
    Chris J; The two old houses and barns of my story are scary looking--very delapidated and hung about with creeper. I need to take photos but don't dare to get closer than the roadway. Someone killed a copperhead somewhere in the pastures there this week.
    Al; I don't suppose all Scots lifted cattle or took up arms against the king--we only hear about the colorful ones.
    MacQue; When we farmed in Vermont, all cattle had to have ear tags. In Wyoming branding and sometimes tattoos. The means of removing any of these ID's would be brutal.
    This local story seems so bizarre that I will have my ears a-flap for more details.

  7. By the way, thank you for the introduction to Les and Locke Hamilton and their music! I've been listening to the samples of all their CDs on their site. Great music! And interesting echoes of the Appalachian bluegrass from around here, which shares similar Scots-Irish roots.

  8. I found it fascinating that rustling still went on and that rewards were still posted ...such a different world from mine

  9. Supposedly, I am the multi-great granddaughter, of Rob Roy McGregor so what can I say?! Although the Campbells did provoke them to wrath! (Grandpa Rob Roy would not like the fact I married a Campbell one little bit...hence the fact we had a Scottish wedding complete with bagpipers)

    I hope the cattle rustlers are found soon and made to pay before they make this a bad habit. When the pasture below is completely fenced, we hope to have a couple of cow/calf combinations. I almost fainted when DH told me how much they cost. I would not be a happy camper to have them stolen once we get them!