The Cowgirl Who Passed Herself Off as a Cowboy

Samuel Dunn Houston told of his experiences on the cattle trails in the latter part of the 1800s.  He had worked his way up from being a hand on the trail to being a trail boss, having previously done enough cattle drives that he felt that he had made more trips over the cow trail from Southern Texas and New Mexico than “any man in the country.”  He had been engaged by the Holt Live Stock Company of New Mexico to head up a trail drive in the spring of 1888.

The available cowboys were not very plentiful, but Houston had heard that there were four men looking for work in Seven Rivers, now a ghost town, but once the county seat of Eddy County.  Houston went to  Seven Rivers in his chuck wagon, found them, hired them and began the drive.  They got as far as Salt River, between Roswell and Clovis, where they bedded down the herd for the night.  By the time they began to awake, about half the herd had drifted away.  Houston later determined that he had inadvertently stopped on a gopher town which had spooked the herd.  He found them about six miles down river, reunited the strays with the main bunch and continued on.

Coming back with the strays, he saw a half dozen of his cowboys in a group.  When he inquired, he found out that his four new cowboys from Seven Rivers fancied themselves as gunmen and had been playing pranks on one of his good young hands by the name of Gus Votaw, the son of a friend from San Antonio.  When he reprimanded the new men about it, they just looked back and him without reply.  He told them that he would be watching them and that he was the boss of the outfit.

They proceded on to near Fort Sumner without further incident, and Houston told the cook to drive the wagon up river and to cook a big dinner.  He rode into town to write and post some letters.  When he headed back and had gotten within 200 yards from the camp, he found only one man with the herd, every other man in camp, and all but Gus Votaw with guns drawn.  The cook told Houston that he had arrived just in time.

Houston walked to the front of the church wagon, got his gun and told the cowboys to turn in their guns.  The mood was tense and he did not know if they would comply, but they did.  He took the guns, unloaded them and threw them into the chuck wagon.  Then he paid off the four Seven Rivers cowboys and left them sitting on their saddles under a cottonwood tree.  He felt good until reality set in that he was now four cowboys short.

Somehow they made it until it came time to leave the Pecos and head to the Canadian River, some fifty-two hours away.  They reached the Canadian River without further incident and made camp for three days, to let the herd and the cowboys rest.  In Clayton, only a few miles away, Houston was told that there was a young cowboy from Kansas named Willie Matthews looking for work.  Willie talked like he knew his business, though he was slightly built, weighing only about 125 pounds.  Willie rode with them for four months until they reached Hugo, Colorado.  He had made a good hand and done all that Houston asked him to do.  They made camp for a few days.  Houston was surprised when Willie came to him that evening and said he needed to go home, as he was homesick.  Though disappointed, Houston could not refuse and let him go.

Some hours later, Houston looked up and saw a woman in a long dress, walking from Hugo towards the camp.  Houston told the boys they were going to have company as she kept coming.  She reached the camp and there was silence until she said, “Mr. Houston, you don’t know me, do you?” to which Houston could not think of a reply.  They were all speechless until they realized that the woman was Willie, who had ridden trail with them for the last four months.  After the shock wore off a little, Houston asked her to explain what was going on.

Willie said she had grown up in a family that was headed up by a former trail driver now living in Caldwell, Kansas.  She had enjoyed hearing his stories about life along the trail and had just decided to try it herself.  She said that she was glad that she had ridden for Houston, and had enjoyed it, but was now ready to go home.  She added that the train to Kansas could not run fast enough.

They saw her off to the train which left at 11:20 that evening.  Houston said he had many letters from from Willie and her father afterwards, thanking him for his kindness and inviting him to come see them in Kansas.

It was not all that unusual for a woman to acquire the skills required to work alongside men in the west, regardless of whether it was out of desire or necessity.  Writers have tried to identify Willie Matthews in history and follow up on her story.  However, none of Houston’s letters from Willie or her father are known to have survived, but Houston apparently made careful notes in a series of diaries.  In the end, records of Willie Matthews can’t be found in the usual genealogical birth and death records of the period.

Samuel Dunn Houston’s life was somewhat easier to document, as he was the son of F. E. and Alice Wooldridge Houston.  Some accounts also say that he was a nephew of Sam Houston, and he did bear the first and last name of the famous Texan, but we have not been able to verify any relationship.  In his later years, Houston was a member of the Old Time Trail Drivers Association.  The story of the cattle drive with Willie Matthews is written up in The Trail Drivers of Texas, by J. Marvin Hunter.  Houston died at the age of 82 in San Antonio and is interred there at Mission Burial Park South.

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