The Long Riders' Guild

Anything goes -

America's first Great Endurance Race, page 2

 by CuChullaine O’Reilly


The only problem was that the three hundred would-be cowboy riders had not showed up in Chadron.  There was no sign of the Sioux warrior Spotted Wolf either.  And his saddle pal He Dog was off running somewhere else, too.  Even the mysterious Emma Hutchinson had failed to appear.  There were some as nodded wise heads and said that things were bad enough in Chadron without a gal riding astride showing up in town.  And to make matters worse, some said Emma was really a he pretending to be a she.

Just when Chadron needed every red-blooded range rider to help put to rest the perfidious Yankee liars, no one could be found.

Well, almost no one.

There was always Doc Middleton.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch had written exaggerated accounts of criminal records for several of the contestants.

“They are one of the most daring and famous bands which ever threw leather on a bronco for the jaunt together, and nearly everyone on the list of riders has a reputation all through the West in the line of riding, fighting and general bravery.”

Those were find words reminiscent of Paralyzer Maher’s style of journalism.

But now in its time of civic desperation, Chadron turned to her adopted son, former outlaw, horse-thief, bootlegger, whiskey seller to the Indians, hard riding, straight shooting Doc Middleton was highlighted as “one of the boldest all-around bad men in the Black Hills district.”  That wasn’t far from the truth.

Doc Middleton “the golden-toothed lover of other folks’ cattle” had “emptied a few saddles,” as he once put it.  Men had crossed him and men had died.  But after serving a few years of “vile durance” in the Nebraska prison he was looking to settle down and raise a family.  If not exactly respectable, at least he was not getting shot at on a daily basis.  Chadron quickly threw their emotional support behind the Jesse James of Nebraska.

Local enthusiasm and excitement knew no bounds.  People were pouring into town to bet and drink and talk.  Many of them wanted to see the infamous outlaw.  Doc had received a new saddle blanket and white Stetson from local merchants.  Chadron had its favorite.  The town was abuzz with excitement.

Meanwhile the Governor of Illinois was caught in a dilemma.  He issued a carefully-worded statement in which he urged officers of the law to make sure no laws protecting animals were broken.  At the same time his dual-purpose proclamation warned the oncoming endurance riders, “We will welcome the so-called ‘cowboys’ into our state and bid them come in all their glory and have a thoroughly enjoyable time while among us, BUT we cannot permit the laws of Illinois to be trampled under foot as a matter of sport.”

That said, back in Chadron things were getting hotter by the minute.


Eight other equestrian rovers had laid down their money, making a total of nine men who would risk their lives to race to Chicago.

There were no Indians and no mysterious ladies, just nine granite-tough range riders and seventeen steel-hard horses:

Emmett Abbott riding Outlaw and Joe Bush.

Joe Campbell riding his one horse, Boom-de-aye.

Davy Douglas riding Wide Awake and Monte Cristo.

Old Joe Gillespie riding Billy Mack and Billy Schafer.

George Jones riding Romeo and George.

Charlie Smith riding Dynamite and Red Wing.

Rattlesnake Pete Stephens riding General Grant and Nick.

Doc Middleton riding Geronimo and Bay Jimmie.

John Berry riding Poison and Sandy.

Berry caused an uproar when he entered at the last minute.  He had been on the committee that laid out the secret route.  Thus he had time to thoroughly study it.  Also, it was claimed he was riding blooded horses, not western range mounts.  The Chadron Racing committee disqualified him.  Despite his official disqualification, Berry was mounted and ready to start with the other eight contestants, when the race almost ended before it began.

George T. Angell wasn’t done with Nebraska.

Paul Fontaine, secretary, and W.W. Tatro, agent of the National Humane Society, arrived in Chadron the morning of the race, determined to see it stopped.

The little prairie town had swelled beyond all expectations.  More than 4,000 people, twice the town’s population, had poured in looking for excitement.  While townspeople and visitors milled around anxiously, horses stamped impatiently and endurance riders fumed, Little Bear Iager and the town fathers cut a deal behind closed doors with the two fellows from back east.

As members of Jester’s Freak Band, a local cornet ensemble, tried to keep everyone entertained, an agreement was made allowing Fontaine and Tatro to watch the race and inspect the horses at the registering stations strung along the route.  This way they could see for themselves that the horses’ health and comfort was taken care of in every possible manner.  Plus they were given the unqualified authority to disqualify any horse they found to be unfit to continue.  Tatro, a veterinarian, then examined the endurance horses prior to the race and found all of them to be in excellent condition.

Finally, at 5:34 p.m. June 13, 1893, Fire Chief Hartzel strode to the balcony of the Blaine Hotel and looked down at the mob crowding around the nine assembled riders.

“Gentlemen, the time for the Great American Cowboy Race to start is upon us.  Be kind and take care of your horses.  Conduct yourselves as gentlemen and uphold the name of Chadron and Nebraska,” he said, then raising the gold-plated Colt revolver, he fired a shot into the air.

The Colt boomed.  The crowd roared.  Whiskey and beer flowed.  Pandemonium ruled.  Jester and the Freaks played like mad and the racers set off from Chadron, the birthplace of American endurance racing.  


Those in the know, and plenty in Chadron claimed that honor, said the winner would have to set a pace of 50 – 60 miles a day to win the race.

Old Joe Gillespie, aged 58 and weighing the heaviest at 185, wasn’t given much chance.  Little Davy Douglas was still a lad in his early teens and thought to have a slim chance too.  Doc Middleton remained the crowd’s favorite.  John Berry was denounced by many as a four-flusher.

The route ran through Nebraska, across Iowa and on into Illinois.  Though there were no mountains to cross the mileage involved made it impressive.  Despite the fears of George T. Angell about crazy cowboys misusing whip and spur, the endurance riders left Chadron at a walk.  No one even broke into a trot until the town lay in the distance.  These hardened plains riders knew something the critics back east did not.  No man could expect to win, even finish, if he pounded his mounts into the prairie dust looking for speed.  The word endurance hadn’t been coined yet.  Folks back then talked about how a hose had a “deep bottom,” referring to his staying power.  All nine riders knew that the race would be won by the team who could tough it out, not race to the finish line.

The first three days saw the riders spreading out as the long grind began to settle in.  During the heat of the Nebraska summer days the cowboys averaged four miles an hour.  During the cool hours of early morning and evening, they doubled the pace.

As Old Joe, Rattlesnake Pete, Little Davy, Doc Middleton and the others rode across sunny Nebraska, the Humane Society representatives were beginning to cautiously change their tune.  To a man, the riders always made sure their horses were taken care of before attending to their own concerns.  They would tumble into tiny towns at all hours of the day and night, half starved, burnt by the hostile sun, thirsty as Bedouins, and refuse to satisfy their needs until the horses were safely fed and bedded.  As the race progressed veterinarian Tatro found all of the horses to be in excellent condition.  The reputation of the animal rights activists in the west, however, was in tatters.

A local columnist reported:  “Their (Humane people) intentions are no doubt good, we think they are, but they have been overzealous in this instance and made themselves the laughing stock of the west.  They have but little idea of this country and underestimate the people who inhabit it.  This was clearly shown by dubbing the riders ‘semi-barbarians.’  The cowboys’ horses who rode into O’Neill were in excellent shape and showed no evidence of having been ‘ridden both night and day under whip and spur.’  Instead of the boys being received ‘with hisses and cries of Shame,’ they have been greeted by brass bands and escorted through the different towns along their route in a manner that would have flattered a Roman emperor.”

Brass bands or not, the riders were beginning to discover that saying you are going to ride 1,000 miles is a far cry from actually accomplishing it.

Before the sun had set on Nebraska, Doc’s favorite horse Geronimo went lame and was disqualified by Tatro and little Davy Douglas had come up sick and dropped out.

By the time they reached Iowa both Rattlesnake Pete and his horse Nick were in trouble.  Pete was coughing up blood.  Nick had colic.  Though many people questioned his concept of the medical arts, Rattlesnake Pete bought a bottle of whiskey and pushed on with his horse, General Grant.

As the race progressed the excitement grew.  Towns turned out in droves to watch the passing of the famous cowboy riders.  Reporters paced all night next to ferry crossings and rushed to be the first to get the news off to New York and Europe.  Fried chicken and brass bands were waiting in many villages.  But as the miles mounted and the weariness set in, the riders became more interested in snatching a few hours’ sleep than listening to another speech by some windy politician.


The broad Mississippi river lay behind them.  The Humane Society threat had been put to rest.  Only little Davy Douglas had quite.  There were still eight riders toughing it out.  Folks in Chadron were getting anxious.  This had turned out to be a real hoss race.

It was early on the morning of June 27th when Buffalo Bill Cody was informed that the winner of the Great Cowboy Race was about to reach the 1,000 mile tree outside his Wild West Show tent.  Buffalo Bill and Chicago city officials waited outside for the triumphant entry of the victor of the plains.  Instead of seeing Doc Middleton or even Old Joe Gillespie, both favorites, they were surprised to see John Berry riding up the street on his stallion Poison.

Chadron-win.JPG (83989 bytes) Old Joe Gillespie and John Berry pose with their horses, Billy Mack and Poison, in front of the thousand mile tree that marked the finish line of the Chadron to Chicago cowboy race. 
Click on picture to enlarge.

Cody stepped up and offered Berry his hand.

“You are the first man in.  You are all right, John, you are all right,” Cody said.

Many of the spectators did not agree.  Poison was mud-splattered but fine.  Berry, however, was the “sorriest, sleepiest and tiredest” man anyone had ever seen.  He had averaged seventy miles a day, covered the last 150 miles in twenty-four hours, and been in the saddle eight hours short of two weeks.

During the next 48 hours the rest of the riders struggled in.  Emmett Albright was disqualified after it was learned that he had shipped himself and his horse part way by train under an assumed name.  Ole Joe Gillespie came riding in second, waving his hat at the excited crowd.  Charlie Smith and Dynamite were fifteen minutes behind him.  Rattlesnake Pete kept spittin’ blood, but made it.  And Chadron’s favorite outlaw son, Doc Middleton, shook Buffalo Bill’s hand as well.

There was a disagreement as to who was the winner.  Cody said Berry had been the first man to reach the 1,000 mile tree, so he gave Berry the $500 first prize he had offered.  The Chadron race committee believed Old Joe was the real winner.  He got most of the town’s $1,000 prize money.  In the end, though, every contestant, except little Davy Douglas, received a portion of the prize proceeds. Berry got the Montgomery Ward saddle.  Old Joe Gillespie packed home the gold-plated Colt.

But more important than money, America’s first endurance riders had put to death the misconception of brutal Westerns and inadvertently introduced the concept of veterinarian involvement in endurance racing.

Tatro, the Humane Society veterinarian summed it up when he wrote, “It started in foolishness and was foolish business all through, but it has been an educator of the people, showing them that the so-called cowboys are not a set of horned animals, all wild brutal men, and the Humane Society discovered it was wrong in supposing that the riders would treat their horses badly.  We consider the race a big success in every way.”

Even that “Paralyzer of the Truth,” John Maher, must have been happy when he read those words.

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