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  Columnist: Loretta Ross

Echoes: Ghost riders in the sky

Posted on Monday, 20 February, 2006 | 0 comments
Columnist: Loretta Ross

"Their brands were still on fire and their hooves were made of steel . . . . " It is a well-known law of physics that matter can neither be created nor destroyed, but merely transformed. Perhaps the same might also be said of more ephemeral things -- of belief, and faith, and hope. And fear. On a stormy day in 1926, on the famed Slaughter Ranch in Cochise County, Arizona, an old hermit named Cap Watts and an impressionable twelve-year-old boy named Stan Jones paused to watch the lightning play over the banked black thunderclouds. As they watched the storm build, Watts told Stan Jones the story of the phantom cowboys who are doomed to ride the sky forever in pursuit of the devil's herd. Twenty-two years later Jones would weave the story into the song "Ghost Riders in the Sky". When it was released it was an instant hit, and over the years it has been recorded dozens of times by a variety of artists including Burl Ives, Johnny Cash, and The Sons of the Pioneers.

"Ghost Riders in the Sky" is subtitled "a cowboy legend", but the truth is that the legend is much older than the culture of the American West. When it began, no one can say -- its origins are lost in the beginning of time itself. Certainly it has existed since at least the fifth century BC, when the Greek goddess Hecate rode at its head. Probably there has been a phantom band of riders since mankind first learned to ride. For as long, indeed, as there has been the hunt.

As the Wild Hunt spread across the Old World, the stories adapted to the local legends and landscapes. In northern Europe The Hunt became known as Odin's Ride, or Asgardreia. Odin, god of the winds, rode through on the storm front gathering up the souls of the dead and pursuing a variety of prey, from wild boar to untamed stallion, to magic maidens. During the Middle Ages legends arose placing such men as Charlemagne, King Arthur, and Frederick Barbarossa before the hounds. Regardless of who led the hunt, there were two constants to the story: The Wild Hunt always rode through on a violent thunderstorm and it always presaged death or disaster.

As Christianity spread and displaced older Pagan beliefs the story of the Wild Hunt took on Demonic trappings. Now the prey was the souls of the evil dead. In England the hunt was associated with Windsor Forest and was believed to ride after Herne, a giant of a man with the horns of a stag growing from his head. Herne is variously associated with the reigns of Richard II, Henry VII, and Elizabeth I and is often identified with a royal huntsman named Horne who is said to have suffered some misfortune -- accounts vary -- and hanged himself from the Herne's Oak in Windsor Forest. In fact, Herne is more likely to be a folk memory of yet another pagan god, Cernunnos, a human figure with a stag's horns.

In other parts of Great Britain the Wild Hunt is made up of fairies or of demons, and sometimes the spectral hounds that always accompany these Old World Rides are white instead of black. In the Old West of the nineteenth century the Wild Hunt took on a distinctly American persona, shaped by the cattle industry and the lives of the men who worked it. The spectral dogs that are such a part of the Old World legend were replaced by a herd of fiery steers.

For the first seven decades of the 1800s the American West was a broad, open range. Cattle were branded to identify them, and then left to graze on common ground. During the growing season all the animals in the community were driven off to summer grazing so that crops could be raised and harvested without their interference. After the harvest was safely in they were driven back to their winter fields. Finally, when the cattle were ready to sell, they had to be driven to market.

In the 1870s the face of the west changed. The first cost-effective barbed wire was produced, enabling ranchers to finally set boundaries that their animals couldn't cross. Growing fields could be protected from wandering cattle and property lines could be delineated so that the grazing and water on a man's ranch went only to his own stock. Cattlemen who depended on public grazing saw their way of life coming to an end, and great bitterness stained the changing landscape with violence. The Texas Fence-Cutters' War and a number of range wars arose from settlers blocking access to grazing, water, and cattle trails. From this troubled time comes the first entirely American embodiment of the Wild Hunt.

The story is told of a clash between a cattleman named Sawyer and a homesteader, or "nester", that is supposed to have taken place in Crosby County, Texas. According to legend, Sawyer rode in late one evening, driving a massive herd of cattle to market. As he crossed the nester's land, the nester's cattle became mixed with his and he drove them all off. The nester rode out to challenge him, and demanded that they stop and cut his cattle out of their herd. Sawyer was driving short-handed and his men were tired. In addition, his cattle were thin and he didn't want them run any more than necessary. He told the nester to go to hell. The nester warned that if they didn't cut his cattle out by dark he would stampede the herd. At this threat Sawyer pulled a gun and told the man to "vamoose".

That night Sawyer pulled his herd out onto a mesa, or outcropping of land. The steep drop off on the southern side formed a natural barrier for predators and he and his herders settled the cattle down with only half the normal number of guard and went to sleep. During the night the nester caught up with them, slipped past the guard and made good on his threat. By waving a blanket and firing a gun in the air he stampeded the steers. A stampede was a terrible and awesome thing. Thousands of cattle, each weighing hundreds of pounds, thundered along in blind terror. When cattle stampeded they would trample anything in their path and run headlong into any danger that was before them. That night all but about three hundred head of Sawyer's cattle charged to their death from the south side of the mesa, taking two of the herders with them.

The next morning Sawyer exacted a terrible vengeance. The nester was captured and brought in alive with his horse. Sawyer tied him to the horse with a rawhide lariat, blindfolded the horse and drove it over the same cliff the cattle had plunged over the night before.

Since that night, cattlemen say that cows always stampede there, even when there's no obvious cause for their panic. And some say that, when it storms over Stampede Mesa, you can see the ghost of the murdered nester, tied to his blindfolded horse and chasing the phantom herd across the sky.

This story, or some variation of it, reached the ears of young Stan Jones and was transformed yet again. Re-told and set to music, it enriches our shared culture as it keeps our ancestors' beliefs and fears alive in song.

"They have to ride forever on that range up in the sky, on horses breathing fire, as they ride I hear them cry. . . ."


Berkshire History: Herne the Hunter

Chronicles of Oklahoma;

Nancy Cassidy; Kids' Music;

Orkneyjar: The Wild Hunt;

Slaughter Ranch: History:

Western Music Association Hall of Fame

Edit; fixed links.

Article Copyright© Loretta Ross - reproduced with permission.

  Other articles by Loretta Ross

Birth of an urban legend
Columnist: Loretta Ross | Posted on 2-20-2006 | 0 comments
Some stories are too good not to tell -- even if you don't exactly remember them. It's always easy to fill in any forgotten details. After all, as long as the...

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