Erastus “Ras” Elijah LeForce

Cow Towns
Interview with Ras LeForce, Vinita, OK
Conducted 8/20/1937 by James R. Carselowey

“My name is Ras LeForce.  I live on the LeForce cattle ranch, eight miles northwest of Vinita, on R. F. D. 1.

I first came to the Indian Territory with my father & brothers in the early 80’s & we settled in the Pheasant district, near the place where we now live.  I was never married, but one of my brothers, Sam LeForce, married a Cherokee girl, Sarah Keys, & after farming a few years we drifted into the cattle business & we are among the few cattlemen who are still in business.

Vinita a Cow Town

When we first came to the Indian Territory, Vinita was strictly a “cow town”.  That is to say, cattle raising was the principal occupation of the people & Vinita was the shipping point for all northeastern Oklahoma from the time the Katy railroad first built through the territory in 1871, until allotment, when most of the cattlemen went out of business.

In the early ‘80’s the Texas cattlemen began leasing pastures in the Cherokee Nation & grazing their cattle here instead of holding them all in Texas.  According to the Cherokee law a white man could not hold cattle here in his own name & he had to hunt up some Indian & let him hold them in his name.

This gave many of the Indians chances to get into the cattle business, & some of them did well.  Many of the white men married Indian girls & held the cattle in their own names & some of these white men became immensely rich.

Some of them, I recall, who were in the cattle business in Northeastern Oklahoma & who were termed inter-married citizens, & got rich at the business, were James O. Hall, W. C. Patton, George W. Clark, Dr. F. B. Fite, Dr. E. B. Frayser, J. C. Hogan, W. E. Little & W. E. Halsell.

William E. Halsell of Vinita was the first early day cattleman to be termed a millionaire.  His brother-in-law, Dan Waggoner, who married Halsell’s sister, was in the cattle business in a big way down in Texas, in the early days of the cattle business, & furnished Halsell cattle to start up on & by the early 90’s Halsell was rated as a millionaire.  He built the first brick residence in Vinita & it is to this day looked upon as one of the largest & best in the city.  He built several brick business houses in Vinita & then moved to Kansas City, where he purchased a lot of business houses.  He moved from there to California, where he died in 1934, & his body was brought back to Vinita for burial in the Fairview cemetery.

Ewing Halsell, of Vinita, succeeded his father in the cattle business & being the only heir to his father’s estate except his step mother, was left in a good way to succeed in the business & is doing so.  He is still in the cattle business in a big way.

Other Early Day Cattlemen

The following is a list of other early day cattlemen I remember, as being in the business, some in a large & some in smaller ways;

Governor Belew, Lavis Hill & Co., G. ?. Mayes, B. H. Mayes, LeForce Brothers, E. B. Frayser, Ed Gwartney, J. O. Hall, G. W. Clark, W. C. Patton, Dr. B. F. Fite, Nat Skinner, W. W. Miller, Bert Oskinson, George Harlan, John Franklin, J. C. Hogan, W. A. Graham, Wm. “Boog” Little, Freeman Nidiffer, Wm. Howell, J. M. Carselowey, T. M. Buffington, Dave Landrum, John Landrum, Heber Skinner, Henry Traitheart, Jim Martin, I. N. “Newt” Williams, Ben Sanders, Bill & Henry Sayers, Jim Skinner, John F. Warren, F. B. Fite & Charley Hawkins, R. R. Taylor, Lave Allen, Mat Hawkins, S. S. Cobb, Grayson Wills, A. P. Goodykoontz, Frank Skinner, J. B. Curl, G. W. Green, J. A. Foreman, B. W. Rider, J. A. Thompson, W. C. Chamberlain, J. T. McSpadden, B. W. Lipe, A. Boudinot, Jess B. Mayes, B. F. Milstead, J. W. Elliott, John Countryman, Louis Rogers, the Cherokee Orphan Asylum, Evans, Hunter & Newman & others.

Marks & Brands Advertised

Back in the days when the cattle business was flourishing in the Cherokee Nation it was not an uncommon thing for some fellow who was none too good to be a “cattle hustler” to take the brand & mark of some well known cattleman, make a branding iron like the cattleman’s & then go to driving off the other fellow’s cattle.  This practice got so bad, that the National Council passed a law that when a branch & mark was advertised in some paper of general circulation, no other man could use the brand or mark.  The stock men began to advertise their brands after that in the only available papers they could find.

“The Indian Chieftain” was the oldest paper in the Cherokee Nation in those days, having been established in 1883 by ex Senator Robert L. Owens & others.  I give below a list of marks & brands, as advertised by that paper, under date of 8/17/1883.

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Free Range

Prior to Statehood everything was free range in the Cherokee Nation, you could turn your cattle loose & let them go anywhere they wanted to go.  All the fencing the cattlemen had to do ws to built a drift fence, to keep the cattle from drifting off too far.  Sometimes a single line of fence would be built for fifteen or twenty miles, just to keep the cattle from drifting clear out of the country.

Cattle Attached

Back before Statehood the firm of LeForce Brothers went down round about Westville, in Adair County, & bought a bunch of cattle from Joe Garrett.  Joe had bought the cattle in Arkansas sometime before & had no paid the tax on them.  I think the tax was 50 cents per head for introducing the cattle into the Cherokee Nation.  Anyway, when we started to move the cattle Zeke Proctor was sheriff of that county & he attached several hundred head of cattle & held them, until Joe Garrett went to Tahlequah & purchased enough scrip to pay the tax on them.  He bought the scrip for about 50 cents on the dollar, making his tax only half price.

Annual Round-Up

Once each year, usually along in the fall about shipping time, the cattlemen had what they called an annual round-up.  A mess wagon was loaded with provisions, a cook was secured, & a hand or two from each ranch was sent along to make the rounds of all the cattle ranges in the country to gather in the cattle that had drifted here & yon during the year.  Each man was supplied with the brands he was supposed to gather, & as fast as they were gathered up they would be put into one large herd & driven along the route which they were covering.  When the last range had been covered the cattle were cut out & each man was given the cattle that belonged to his ranch & they were driven to their respective ranches.  Some were shipped to market & others were kept through the winter, until another year.

Man Shot on Round-Up

While camping on the J. O. Hall ranch, on Rock Creek, east of Adair, on one of these round-ups some cowboys got drunk one night & one of them, down in the pasture a little ways from the house, decided to shoot the light out, up at the ranch house.  He fired away at it & the bullet went through John (Red Cloud) Duncan, who was sitting on a rail fence, between him & the light.  Duncan was put in a hack & rushed to Vinita, where Dr. Oliver Bagby, one of Vinita’s first doctors, succeeded in finding the bullet in Dunan’s vest picket, after much probing.  Duncan recovered & is living in this 1937.

No More Free Range

There was no more free range in the Cherokee Nation after allotment of land & I can almost count the cattlemen who were left on the fingers of one hand.  I know what a struggle we boys (the LeForce Brothers) had to get range for our cattle.  We bought all the land we could pay for while it was cheap & leased up a lot more & we just kept on adding a little more, until at one time we had ten thousand acres that we owned & leased & we have had as high as ten thousand head of cattle at one time, since Statehood.  When at the highest peak we got people with large pastures to graze the cattle for us at so much per head.

Proof That Vinita is a Cow Town

It was in 1909 that Ewing Halsell, one of the few cattlemen to stay in business after Statehood, phoned one of his men to bring in a little bunch of cattle from one of his ranches near Vinita.  The cowboy came driving them right up main street & in making the drive into town, about ten miles, had made a two year old bull pretty mad, & by the time he got to town he was awfully mad.  He made a dive at the first fellow that appeared in the business section of town & ran him right into Bill Rains’ livery barn & they went right on out at the back end.  They turned him out the back lot & started him up the street again when he spied a man going into the Jumbo dry goods store.  He went right into the store after him, & all the clerks fell under the counter or climbed on shelves but the bull paid no attention to the frightened clerks but went right on through the store & out the back door.  He kept on playing his pranks, trying to take the town, until the officers were called on & killed him.

Buys Remnant of Cattle

When the cattlemen quit business, about allotment time, many of them sold the remnant of their cattle to other local men who were going to stay in business.  LeForce Brothers bought what cattle W. C. Patton & Co. had & L. N. (Newt) Williams bought the remnant of Wm. Little’s cattle.  Others shipped out to Kansas City & St. Louis markets.

Other Cow Towns

While Vinita was the center of trade for the early day cattle business, the M. K. & T. & Frisco Railroads which passed through the Territory in 1871 made it possible for the cattlemen to load & unload the cattle at any of their towns on the lines.  They built stock or shipping pens at every town along their lines & this saved the cattlemen many long drives.”

Bio Courtesy the University of Oklahoma Libraries Western History Collections, Indian Pioneer Collection, Volume 53, Interview ID 7342

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