The Tender Biography of a Black Cowboy
There were many black cowboys who joined the great cattle drives during the two decades that droving flourished. One out of three cowboys, in fact, was either black or Mexican and they distinguished themselves well. But they were treated poorly and were mocked and cursed at continually by white drovers. Black men jumped at the job mostly to escape the yoke of slavery that was abolished after the Civil War but still widely practiced. It became the best and most adventuresome way to achieve real freedom. The lonesome trail provided them with a perfect answer.
The Negro, though, had a singular advantage. Almost all of them knew how to cook. In the slave quarters all children were taught at the outset how to do all things and do them well. Cooking was one of them. This culturally ingrained asset stood them in good stead with the trail drive hiring hands when they were brave enough to call themselves cowboys.
The trail cook was able to sit atop the chuckwagon with a great amount of personal pride knowing that he was totally responsible for the well being of a dozen or so tired, hungry drovers. They in turn protected him like he was gold bullion, because he fed and cared for them. He was their conscience and confessor, doctor and doting parent.
One of these dynamos was a slight, bow-legged Mississippian named Simon Sempleman, though everyone who knew him called him Sweetbread. He was the color of a fawn and had an artistically chiseled face like a Michelangelo sculpture.
He migrated west by design, not by accident. When the Civil War ended many slaves continued to work for their former masters mostly because they already had lodging, food, and were treated well. Though there was no upward ladder for them.
But Sweetbread was different. He knew in his bones that there was something better than picking cotton from sun-up until sundown for slave wages. So, one sweltering day in July, he kissed his mother goodbye, threw his full bag of cotton in a furrow and kept walking west until he got to Texas.
All he had was the tattered clothes on his back, a twinkle in his eye and a head full of recipes that his mother taught him when they lived as slaves on a Mississippi cotton plantation.
Sweetbread encountered a big problem when he first applied for a job as a trail cook. His trump card in the kitchen was cooking chicken. Fried, baked, boiled, grilled, or stewed. But at that time chicken was an unknown commodity in the trail drive chuckwagon menu. Drovers ate nothing but beans, sow belly, a little beef and all its vile innards if a calf was slaughtered, predictably foul coffee, predictably foul sourdough biscuits, but not much else.
Somehow Sweetbread decided he had to introduce chicken into the harmony of trail drive cuisine to become a success. And, he did just that. He spent a week in seclusion in the back of a livery that a liberal blacksmith let him use. He began making chicken coops. And with the stipend the smithy gave him for cleaning up his daily mess, Sweetbread bought two dozen laying hens from a money-strapped farmer and promptly housed them in his newly made coops.
The toughest job lay ahead. He had to convince a trail boss, first to hire him as a cook, then to let him spearhead a new wave of trailside entrees, chicken. By promising virtually the world to the trail boss Sweetbread finally got a job as cook on a drive to Sedalia. He packed his precious cargo in the back of the chuckwagon and enough feed to keep them clucking for a thousand miles even though their trip was only four hundred miles long. Together with more recognized fare like bacon, flour and beans his plan worked like a charm.
Sweetbread soon became crown prince of a clucking crusade that he had begun so humbly in the back of a livery in Bandera, Texas. And he took full advantage of the honors that went with his title. In the off season, he raised plump, young pullets and sold them to cooks ready to drive north with a herd of hungry cattle and a bunch of hungrier drovers.
He bought the livery stable from the smithy who had graciously staked him at the beginning of his new venture and began to manufacture chicken coops. In no time he had cleverly converted the stable into a chicken house and raised hearty hens that he sold along with the coops. Plus! there was another exciting benefit to his enterprise: eggs.
Hens laid eggs that Sweetbread sold door-to-door to townspeople who thought he was God reincarnated. But he allowed almost half of his egg inventory to hatch. His hen house was full. So were his pockets. His circle was complete. He was doing so well that he was able to hire young, reliable boys to tend to his clucking dynasty when he went on the trail because he was always in demand with good, fair-minded trail bosses.
Sweetbread made at least 12 trips to the railheads at Dodge City and other important stockyard centers along the railroad line. And the cowboys that he fed so fondly and lavishly always managed to have time to compliment Sweetbread for his culinary ingenuity, friendship and caring parental attitude, a rare commodity among tight-lipped drovers.
Sweetbread himself rarely bragged but knew that he had created a new and rewarding industry and took full advantage of it. He promised to fatten every drover that came up to his chow line by fifteen pounds or more at the end of a drive or he would give them his wages and part ownership in his little corporation. He had no worries because he never lost.
His program was working with clock-like precision much to his delight. But suddenly a small glitch reared its ugly head. A bizarre event occurred on a huge drive during the spring of 1878. It started out smoothly because many of the drovers were trail drive veterans who had been nourished by Sweetbread and were familiar with his style of fare. And the herd that numbered over 5,000 head, was moving northward at an unhurried pace.
Sweetbread had loaded up the chuckwagon with all the necessary stores, including five large coops full of plump, noisy hens. Their constant clucking was music to Sweetbread's ears as the migration north began. He and the drovers had a mutual respect for each other and most drives like this one were no more than routine.
The nightly menu consisted mostly of tender, spit-roasted chicken with a fine, tangy sauce, fresh vegetables that Sweetbread grew in his garden next to the livery. Breakfasts turned out to be heaven on earth for the young, constantly hungry cowboys. It always consisted of bacon and eggs, fried, poached scrambled or baked, hash brown potatoes seasoned with delicate herbs and, of course, grits. Sweetbread said that the human body could not exist without a daily dose of grits. So they got grits. And, of course, coffee. It was not the syrupy kind that the drovers were used to but coffee flavored with eggshells that Sweetbread threw into the kettle.
That was a secret Sweetbread had learned from his old Nanny when he was just a lad living in the slave quarters. She told him that eggshells imparted a special, spiritual flavor to coffee but only if they were fondled by black hands. The drovers agreed because Sweetbread almost ran out of coffee before the drive was completed, they were drinking so much of it. All this thanks to Sweetbread's genius and the generosity of the traveling menagerie of clucking hens in the back of the chuckwagon. It certainly was a cowboy's dream come true.
That was, until about a week and a half into the journey. The herd was acting strangely even though the sun was glowing brightly under a cloudless, crystal clear sky. Large groups of locoed cows shot off into different directions for no reason at all. They would stampede away from the main line and had to be taken under control by the swingmen and forced back into line.
Then mysteriously, another group, mostly cows chasing vagrant calves, committed the same aggression all to the dismay of the frustrated drovers who had to spend extra time scrambling, tiring out their horses, trying to keep the herd at a steady, normal pace.
This phenomenon went on for days and reached a tragic climax when twenty or thirty stampeding steers headed straight for Sweetbread's chuckwagon that was traveling alongside the herd at a leisurely pace. Quickly the steers had the chuckwagon surrounded and had frightened the mules into a maniacal gallop which they were definitely not accustomed to. Sweetbread tried vainly to steer the chuckwagon clear of danger. But the wild-eyed creatures were just as adamant to keep it in their midst as they galloped crazily away from the bulk of the herd.
As the chuckwagon bounced along the rough, rocky terrain, nearly out of control, one of the mules, an old trail veteran, stumbled in a chuckhole. Then a front wheel snapped off the axle. Sweetbread and everything in the chuckwagon, including the chicken coops, went flying into the air. All five chicken coops splintered when they hit the rock hard ground. Its force scattered the screeching hens all over the barren landscape.
Now the drovers not only had the stampeding cows to contend with, but now they had to corral a barn-full of fear-crazed chickens. Slowly, patiently, each hysterical little clucker was captured and brought back to hastily repaired coops by a distraught Sweetbread.
All but one!
This one, an enormous, barrel-chested, angry looking brute had discovered that it could fly if it flapped its wings hard and long enough. And, in its effort to remain uncaged, it lighted on the crown of the lead steer and refused any attempt to be removed and imprisoned.
A miracle occurred when that huge white bird lit where it did. It seemed to be a preordained divine action and one of great magnitude. The proud bird instantly became the herd's weather vane, its navigator.
The herd became strangely civil. And, if there was so much as the start of an antisocial action on the herd's part, the chicken began jumping up and down on the lead steer's head, trumpeting at the tops of its very large lungs.
Another miracle occurred. Every morning just before sun-up the chicken began to crow. Everyone, including Sweetbread, soon learned that it wasn't a hen after all. It was a bona fide cock. That's why Sweetbread explained later to the drovers why all the hens were in such a good mood. Every few days Sweetbread would put the cock in another cage. The hens were in ecstasy. They were laying eggs at a phenomenal rate. He even gave his pet cock a name: Magellan, named for the famous navigator of old.
Once the herd was brought to the feeding pens waiting their turn to become some Milwaukee beer baron's T-bone, the cock winged itself promptly and without fear to Sweetbread and roosted on his shoulder like a tame parrot. It certainly appeared ready for another drive just as soon as Sweetbread could make it back to Texas to join one. It was well fed by Sweetbread and grew alarmingly fast to proportions resembling a wild tom turkey. But it was loved and tenderly cared for nonetheless by a doting Sweetbread who called it his late-in-life offspring.
Along the trip back to Texas in the chuckwagon, Sweetbread hit as many cantinas as he could find on the way back to Bandera. And he bet every cowhand that rested his foot on a bar rail that Simon Sweetbread Sempleman had the biggest cock in the west. It was a bet, though, that few dared to take because of the supposed genetic legacy that followed the Negro wherever he went was legend. It was only after Sweetbread went out to the chuckwagon to fetch his pet cock that all the patrons got a big laugh. It also got Sweetbread free drinks all the way to Texas.
Sweetbread and his pet cock, now given the dubious title of Commodore, made eleven trips north together, all amazingly routine voyages. As long as the cock stood atop the lead steer the drovers had nothing more to do than follow along leisurely and enjoy the best food along the lonesome trail. And the thousands of steers also making the trip remained docile as lambs all the way to the slaughterhouses fearing reprisal from their appointed coxswain.
Sweetbread finally retired as a drover cook, happy to stay in Bandera together with his big cock to raise hens, eggs, and vegetables for other cooks to toil over.
He passed on to his great reward in 1892 at the tender age of 103 or thereabouts. No one, including himself, knew how old he really was. And he was buried with fit and proper ceremony in a small cemetery under a large, wandering Mesquite tree in the company of deceased drovers he loved and served so well. His was the most well attended funeral ever in Bandera's Southern Baptist Church. It was standing room only. Tall Mike McCall was proud to eulogize his dear and loyal friend, Sweetbread. And he took a long and prayerful time doing it. Chicken, of course, was served following the ceremony, courtesy of Simon Sweetbread Sempleman.
An eloquent epitaph was written and published in the Bandera newspaper about the saga of Sweetbread and his cock, both of whom had achieved superstar status on the drover circuit.
His gravestone testified to his prowess. It read:
SIMON SWEETBREAD SEMPLEMAN. HE HAD
THE BIGGEST COCK
IN THE WEST.