Cowboys and Cattle Barons: Status and Hierarchy on Alberta's Early Corporate Ranches

By Benson, Kristi | Alberta History, Autumn 2000 | Go to article overview

Cowboys and Cattle Barons: Status and Hierarchy on Alberta's Early Corporate Ranches


Benson, Kristi, Alberta History


The image of the Stetson-wearing cowboy singing softly to his herd at night is a romantic yet somewhat unrealistic picture of the glorious past of south-western Alberta's cattlemen. For example, several years ago Calgary celebrated "The Year of the Cowboy" -- a commemoration of that tough, free-spirited, yet fair-to-a-fault breed who helped to shape western society as we know it. Calgarians participated heartily in these affairs, and went to some length to associate themselves with this image of frontier spirit, freedom, and industriousness.

However, the cowboy of Alberta's early large corporate ranches does not fit so easily into this present-day mold. These men were part of the staff of huge ranches with holdings of hundreds of thousands of acres, owned by groups of wealthy elites and businessmen who themselves resided in eastern Canada or Britain. Quite separate from a popular conception of rangeland equality, social inequity of some degree structured the lives of these men, as well as the other people living on ranches. This research is an attempt to understand this hierarchy and its manifestation in the day-to-day activities and living arrangements of the people who populated the large, early corporate south-western Alberta ranches.

Four early ranches -- Cochrane, Oxley, Walrond, and Bar U -- demonstrate the range of staff existing on early corporate Alberta ranches; these include cowboys, cook, foremen, mid-level management, and the manager of the ranch. The relationships between these different groups resulted from a variety of factors, including education, nationality, economic circumstances, religion, and other background differences. Equality and inequality structured the daily life on the ranch for these groups. The nature of this hierarchy and its ultimate consequences on daily ranch life can be demonstrated by an examination of salaries, residence, task allocation, and business relationships of each of these groups.

Owners generally did not reside upon their ranches; in fact, several individuals or corporations were usually joint owners/investors. Their decisions and the reality of their ownership obviously played a role in the running of the ranches, as did their occasional visits, but as they were not physically present, they are not included in this study.(1) As a result, it is the manager (occasionally an investor) who was the apex of authority present. He dealt with every aspect of ranch life. There was a general tendency for senior management to be eastern Canadian or British whereas the cowboys were to a greater proportion, American.(2) By the standards of the day, most managers were well paid. Fred Stimson, manager of the Bar U Ranch, received $3,000 per annum.(3) When John Kerfoot became the manager of the Bow River Ranch, his salary was $2,500 plus a house.(4) This was an increase from when he was a secondary manager for the Cochrane Ranche, earning $2,000 a year.(5) As treasurer and senior field officer of the Cochrane Ranche, Frank White appears to have been paid about $1,300 a year.(6) When he came West he travelled in a Pullman car.(7)

Foremen were paid less than managers, and acted as supervisors of the cowboys. For example, the nephew of Senator Matthew Cochrane, William F. Cochrane, was the foreman of the Cochrane Ranche and earned only $813 per annum.(8) The duties of foremen included remaining with the cowhands on a daily basis while at the same time holding a position of authority -- a go-between of sorts.

The relationship between the cook and the rest of the ranch population was complex. On the round-ups, the cook could wield considerable power, permitting some cowboys to sleep by the stove and some not, as well as supplying a very important necessity -- food. However, on the home front at the ranch the situation could be quite different, and the cook might not enjoy the same status. Some cooks were of Chinese or African-Canadian background, and these racial and ethnic differences inevitably added to the complexity of status relations. …

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