Cowboy Strike of 1883 and the Ghost Town of Tascosa

Image credit: Boston Globe, Marcy 24, 1883

In the spring of 1883, the newspapers like the Boston Globe reported that hundreds of cowboys went on strike for higher wages. The next day, a Wyoming newspaper gave more details, repeating the $50 per month demand. This article alluded to the possible threats of danger facing cowboys who declined to participate in the strike, but gives the number of strikers to be two hundred. Both have typographical or transcription errors. “Tosasa” in the Boston Globe article is probably a misspelling of Tascosa. The Wyoming article calls the county of the strike “Lascasa” and places it near the Texas-New Mexico border. The articles begin to settle down in a few days and give the location to be Tascosa.

Tascosa, now longer in existence, was formerly a community that was located roughly forty miles northwest of the current town of Amarillo. Tascosa was once a wild and lawless town but eventually became a ghost town, failing in favor to Amarillo.

The articles mention threats of range burning and fence cutting along with possible destruction livestock if their demands were not met. Within a few weeks, ranch owners began to contact local law enforcement authorities including the Texas Rangers as well as federal military personnel to respond to the treats. It was still front page news.

The five north Texas and Panhandle ranches were said to include the LIT, LX, LS, LE and T Anchor, ranches in the Canadian River area. The complaints were directed against cattle barons, syndicates or corporate ownership by nonresident owners, entities who were not sympathetic to their workers. Additionally, dissatisfied workers added that these owners endeavored to squeeze out the small operators. April 1, 1883 was set as the beginning date for the strike.

Demands normally seen included increased wages from $25 to $30 per month to a minimum of $50 for cowboys and $75 for range bosses. A document was signed by twenty-four people. Some of the ranches responded by offering increased wages though less than the amounts demanded.

Estimates of the number of cowboys involved range from two hundred to about five hundred people. As far as has been reported, there were no major physical confrontation between strikers and owners, nor any major reports of property or livestock destruction, though there were some reports of theft of cattle. The strike ultimately failed over a period that is usually stated to be two to two and a half months.

Tascosa had once been a thriving town that catered to a wilder life, with saloons and brothels, in addition to businesses such as mercantile stores, a court house, a barber shop, hotels, at least one church and a blacksmith shop. Located only about a mile north of the Canadian River, it was at one time the largest village and a convenient stop between Springer, New Mexico to the west and Mobeetie to the east. It is believed to have gotten its name from its post office application. The legend is that “Atascosa” (a Spanish word meaning boggy) was applied for as its post office name, taken from a nearby creek, but Atascosa was denied since there was already a South Texas town and county by that name. So the leading “a” was dropped and Tascosa became its name.

People passing through Tascosa are said to have mostly been cowboys, ranchers, lawmen and outlaws including Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett. It was the location of numerous gunfights, some small, and some much larger. There is also a small cemetery of at least twenty-six graves. It is on a hill and is called Boot Hill Cemetery after the more famous cemetery in Dodge City, Kansas. The years of death on a few range from 1879 to 1886, but a majority of them are undated and only have given names or nicknames of the dead to identify them.

When Oldham County was organized in 1880, Tascosa was named as its county seat and held that distinction for over thirty years. Reasons for the failure of Tascosa to survive usually include the railroad (the Fort Worth and Denver) having completed a route in 1887 that went south of the Canadian River, cutting Tascosa off from having easy access. Then in 1908, the Rock Island Railroad came through Amarillo and bypassed Tascosa. Railroad lines choosing one community over another was a common occurrence in Texas with bypassed towns sometimes withering away. What was good for Amarillo was bad for Tascosa. As time passed, Tascosa continued to decline while other communities grew up and flourished. The county seat was moved to Vega in 1913. At the time of the vote, Tascosa was said to have between one and two dozen inhabitants.

An article in the Lubbock Morning Avalanche on Christmas Day, December 25, 1937 was one of several around that time that were written about “Frenchy” McCormick, the last resident of Tascosa. Frenchy’s past was a bit murky, perhaps by her choice, but she had lived there for many years with her husband Mickey McCormick. Mickey died in 1912 when there still a few people living in Tascosa. He was buried in another small Tascosa cemetery known as the Casimiro Romero Cemetery. Only about nineteen people are known to be buried at this location. One of the deceased was Lottie Durkin Barker, a former Kiowa captive taken in the Elm Creek Massacre. One by one the remaining residents left Tascosa until only Frenchy remained. Frenchy lived there until she was in her 80s and moved away in 1939 after calling it home for nearly sixty years. She died two years later and was buried beside her husband Mickey.

Today only two of Tascosa’s buildings remain, a frame schoolhouse and the two story stone building that once served as the court house. The original townsite of Tascosa was donated to Cal Farley’s Boy’s Ranch around 1939.

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