The first in an occasional series on the cattle barons of the old West
Just plain ornery
The story of the old West abounds with curious names. Sometimes they were nicknames, suggesting a place of origin or place of fame achieved, such as Bear River Tom Smith or Colorado Charlie, and sometimes the nicknames were adjectives suggestive of character or deeds, such as Mysterious Dave Mather or Black Jack Ketchum. But they could also be plain curious monikers. Shanghai Pierce, for example. Print Olive pops up occasionally in Western novels (such as Gene Shelton's Rawhider) though never, as far as I am aware, on the screen, but he was an interesting, if unsympathetic character, and his name sort of sticks in your memory.
Isom Prentice Olive, to give him his full name, fought with the Texas Volunteers during the Civil War and then returned to his father’s ranch in Williamson County, Texas. It was the day of the maverick: thousands of head of wild cattle, untended during the war, roamed the thickets. Many Texans considered that any unbranded steer was fair game and belonged to the man who roped it. The big ranchers did not agree, and considered these beasts ‘by right’ theirs. It is true that the word maverick (coined in 1867 after independent-minded Samuel Maverick, 1803 – 1870, a Texas cattleman who refused to brand his cattle) covered a multitude of sins: any unbranded calf of a cow clearly belonging to a rancher was often taken, and this was pretty clearly theft. But it was open range and if ranchers could not prove ownership… The Olives hated ‘rustlers’ with a passion and no one despised them more than Print.
One such ‘rustler’ was one Rod Murray, whom Olive shot off his horse, then took home and patched up his wounds. Murray went to work for Print.
Dave Fream, however, was not so lucky. He and Print shot it out and Print was wounded but Fream lost the encounter, fatally. Print went on trial for murder but was instantly acquitted by the jury.
As was the case with may Texas cattlemen after the war, Print took a herd north to Kansas. Some homesteaders were in the habit of demanding a toll for cattle to cross their land and some trail bosses were inclined to pay it, but not Print. His method was more direct: he had a proficient gunman, known (offensively to us now but quite acceptably then) as Nigger Jim or Print’s Bad Nigger. He was James (Jim) Kelly.
Kelly was a mean gunhand and, as one cowboy told it:
That big black boy with his gun would sure tell them punkin’ rollers where to head in at. He’d roll up his eyes like a duck in a thunderstorm and grit his teeth – Lord, he could play a tune with his teeth. Most of the settlers were poor Northern folks that never seen any colored people and was scared of them anyway. When they saw Kelly they would come down quick enough from $25 to $5 as the price for watering the herd.
In Ellsworth Kelly saved Print’s life when the cattleman got into a fight with gambler Jim Kennedy. Kennedy didn’t hesitate: he shot Print through the hand, groin and thigh. But it didn’t do him any good. Print’s Bad Nigger intervened, and Kennedy went down.
Dealing with rustlers
Back in Texas, the Olives put up a sign, “All cattle and horse thieves pay attention,” it read. “Anyone caught riding an Olive horse or driving an Olive cow will be shot on sight.” They meant it, though whose definition of “an Olive cow” would be adopted was a moot point.
Watching the cattle
Sympathy for the Olives was, however, now in limited supply. Even the other cattlemen, who privately agreed with Print’s stand on ‘rustlers’, were apprehensive about Print’s expansionist ambitions. Their stock seemed to be diminishing at the same rate as the Olive herds grew. Print’s use of black and Mexican hands, often gunhands, aroused nervousness among the deeply racist post-Civil War Texas population. Print was only the worst of the clan; the other (male) members were almost as arrogant, violent and heedless of law. Those who complained openly were said to have suddenly “left the country”, a euphemistic term for a disappearance of a more permanent kind.
Deets and Pea Eye
I think Larry McMurtry may have read about Print because Print’s brother Ira came across a (white) cattleman named Deets and pistol-whipped him almost to death, and told him that if he ever appeared on the range again he would be shot. Print met Deets soon after, a shooting exchange occurred, both men were hit and Deets died soon after. Print seemed to have an uncanny ability to absorb lead and survive. Then an old man called Pea-Eye appeared in court as a witness against the Olives. It was unwise: soon after, his ox-drawn wagon pulled into his farm yard with Pea-Eye lying in the wagon bed, dead from buckshot. Well, Deets, Pea-Eye, I wonder where McMurtry got his character names from?
Murder most foul
Print was also over-fond of liquor, and when he drank he became even meaner than he normally was. He was given to lording it in local saloons and shouting out drunken threats against anyone who might dare to thwart him. Print probably went too far, though, when he caught two men, Turk Turner and James H Crow, who were later found having suffered the horrible ‘death of the skins’: the men were wrapped in the fresh hides of the cattle they were said to have stolen, and tied to a tree, where the Texas sun did the rest. It drew the hides tight and hard as iron, suffocating and crushing the men.
One August night the brothers Print, Jay Thomas and Ira, along with four cowhands, were attacked by unseen gunmen, who shot and killed Jay Thomas while he was rising from his bed and, naturally, wounded Print, this time in the hip, as well as setting fire to farm buildings. No one was certain who the attackers were, though many naturally suspected Crow’s son.
They were a rough lot
Men started turning up dead, one stripped but with a blanket over him, “almost like he was ambushed in bed, like Thomas Olive.” Print found two black men on his ranch, come to ask for water, shot one dead and bullwhipped the other. He was tried for murder but it was a formality. No jury was going to convict a cattleman for the death of a Negro.
Bob, the youngest of the Print brothers, was even wilder and more reckless than Print and finally shot one black man too many. Print knew that although he and his brothers were always acquitted in such courts as they fetched up in there were other ways of getting at the Olives, as the killing of Thomas had shown. It was also getting expensive paying off lawmen and judges. Then Bob openly killed (white) Cal Nutt, whom he suspected of being one of the gang responsible for the death of his brother, and a reward was posted on his head. He lit out for Wyoming.
Print took his family north. He settled in the grasslands of Nebraska. He was far from welcome in a land already overcrowded with farmers and cattlemen. With the Indians recently pushed out of much of Wyoming and Dakota and cattlemen moving in, many wondered why the Olives didn’t push on but they stubbornly stuck in Nebraska and began to grab range.
Straight away, the supposedly ‘steadier’ brother, Ira, shot and killed one of their own ranch hands, a Mexican, for allowing a cow horn to be broken off in a scramble of cattle leaving a pen. Ira paid the widow and there was no law involved, but the news got about the country.
And back in the San Gabriel country vacated by the Olives, as settlers moved in to take over the land, in dirt tanks and reservoirs, bodies were being found, the bodies of men who had “left the country”.
Furthermore, Nebraska was not Texas. There was law and there were officials, who could be bought, obviously, but who had already been bought and would be expensive to turn. And Reb money didn’t go far. Many of the ranchers were ex-buffalo hunters, tough as nails and very good indeed at long-range marksmanship…
Still, the Olives prospered. His hands were unruly and wild, delighting to shoot up the nearest towns for sport. Smaller ranchers and settlers were warned to keep off “Olive” range. Print struck one sodbuster across the jaw with his .45 and broke his jaw. The man was too frightened to seek medical assistance and could never afterwards open his mouth more than an inch. Some settlers took the hint and left. But two, Mitchell and Ketchum, who farmed together, would not scare off. Their homesteads became a rallying center for the settlers. It could have been a scene from Shane.
Ruthless rancher vs. brave homesteader. Sound familiar?
Amazingly, Print got his uncontrollable youngest brother Bob, back from exile in Wyoming, appointed stock inspector, though there was still a $400 reward out on him. A murderous clash was inevitable. Ketchum and Mitchell were with their families in town when Bob Olive and his gunhands rode down on them, shooting. Mrs. Mitchell shoved her children down into the wagon, Ketchum opened up with a pistol and Mitchell with a Winchester. Ketchum took a bullet in the arm. Mitchell shot Bob off his horse with the rifle. The Olive party spurred away, carrying the wounded Bob. The young man died in agony. It was his twenty-fourth birthday.
Now the full fury of Print Olive was released. Mitchell and the wounded Ketchum, who dared not go to a doctor because there were so few in the country and they would all be watched, left their farm hurriedly with what they could carry in a wagon. Olive cowboys burned their empty home down. Print put a price on the head of the farmers. Nobody dared help them, not even the local judge. To save the women and children, Ketchum and Mitchell struck out alone. It didn’t take long for the two to be captured. They were taken to Kearney for trial. Olive refused to pay any reward until the two men were handed over to him. Sheriff Gillan took them over to Plum Creek by train, handcuffed together. There, the odious lawman received $700 and handed the men over to the Olives, who took the men, put lariats round their necks and hanged them from a tree. Ketchum was hanged first but Mitchell was still shackled to him and was jerked up by his arm. Print shot him, to pay back for the bullet that had killed Bob. Then the bodies were doused in coal oil and set alight.
Death on the floor of a squalid saloon
The last chapter of Print Olive’s life took place in Colorado, around Trail City. He relocated there when Nebraska became too expensive for him. Getting away with murder was a costly business, and he no longer had the wealth of a great cattleman.
No one really knows to this day why JJ Sparrow, apparently a cowboy, shot and killed Print Olive in Haynes’s saloon. Some said he had once worked for Olive and had been let go. Wilder stories said he was related to Mitchell or Ketchum and had come in from Dodge City expressly to shoot Print. Whatever the reason, Print was mean drunk in the saloon and became enraged with Sparrow. Olive reached for a gun, Sparrow drew and fired but missed – deliberately, some thought – and tried to ‘talk Olive down’, as it were. Print was having none of it and he shot at Sparrow, grazing him. Now Sparrow shot the rancher through the left breast. On the ground, Olive whimpered, “Oh, Joe, don’t shoot,” but moved to take aim again. This time Sparrow shot him through the temple. Even Print Olive could not shrug off that gunshot wound and he died on the floor of the saloon. Sparrow gave himself up quietly. Print’s body was taken to Dodge and buried with an impressive funeral ceremony organized by the Odd Fellows.
Shot to death in a mean saloon, it was in some ways an appropriate end to a life of drunkenness, violence and arrogance. Not long after his father’s death, young Bill Olive showed up at Beaver City in the Cimarron Strip. He lived by gambling and rustling, and was member of a gang of road agents. The woman he lived with complained of being brutally abused and she fled; Olive trailed her to the Cimarron station. She panicked and told a story that a barman, Henderson, had told her that Billy had left her, and was not coming back. Young Olive came roaring into the saloon. Henderson managed to get away but later lay for Olive and shot him dead with a Winchester. He walked back into his saloon and resumed serving. Only Ira remained, still running the now reduced spread in Nebraska.
The main sources for the life of Print Olive, if you want to know more, are Mari Sandoz's 1942 book The Cattlemen and a chapter in Leon Metz's 1976 work, The Shooters.
It would sure make a good movie.