It’s about time something is said about ninety-nine percent of all the other animals on this planet besides us human animals. We should. We could not live without them. I spoke much about my fellow creatures. That is as it should be. Nevertheless, let us not neglect cattle, horses, mules, and, especially, oxen. They all played a starring supporting role in early American life in Lake County.
The subject of oxen is important enough to deserve special treatment. In the early history of the County and America, having the means to draw heavy loads for long distances, was the difference between life and death. Donald Griner, a resident of Lake County, spoke of his deep and practical experience of oxen as he described their habits and superiority over horses on the way West in the 1800’s:
“During the westward migration to California and Lake County, the wagon trains began with horses. Ultimately, they were forced to switch to oxen. That was because Indians stole their horses. There was not much the Natives could do with the slow-moving oxen.”
“The settlers found oxen, as compared to mules and horses, enormously useful for the long journey and the heavy loads. The slower oxen could make it successfully across the continent from a start at St. Louis or Kansas City, all the way to Lake County, and make it in a single summer… provided they started early in the spring.”
“A smaller string of horses, which they needed for scouting and hunting, could be well guarded and safely corralled at night inside the large circle of wagons. The Indians could not stampede the oxen as they could with horses. Thieves were more used to better game than the tough old bulls. Turning the oxen loose at night was no problem. They were too hungry and tired to wander far from the camp. They lay down and chewed their cuds and slept.”
“Oxen got better mileage than horses or mules per pound of food they consumed. This was due to their several stomachs. Cud chewing pulled more nutrition from the feed. They traveled slower than mules or horses but it was a more economical way of moving. Since the oxen moved at a steady slow pace across the plains, they gave the children a chance to collect buffalo chips for the campfires for most of the way.”
“Oxen did have some drawbacks and liabilities. During the grueling six-month-long trek across the plains, their hooves would wear out or they could be crippled or die. The settlers always brought extra bulls. Milk cows and steers were brought for milk and meat. In a pinch old Roan Durham milk cows, could take on the yoke and take the place of a missing bull ox. Besides, the Dirhams were gentle and easily broken to the task.”
“Horses were faster and they were a flexible animal, while oxen had only three speeds; slow, very slow, and stop. They learned to lie down even when coupled to their yokes. The animals would chew their cuds or take a nap when they had their rest periods. At the Bull Wacker’s command, they would rise, stretch, and prepare, once more ready for the journey whether it was in a wagon train for a thousand miles or hauling lumber down a mountain.
On the shouted command, sometimes with a light prod with a sharp stick or the bullwhip, they would lift their own weight with a mighty pull and get rolling once more. The bulls might be chained together so that ten head of eighteen hundred pound bulls could generate a pull of enough strength to break a steel cable as thick as your thumb.”
“The natures of horses and oxen were entirely different from one another. Unlike horses, if a load did not move easily, oxen did not buck, balk, plunge, rear up or panic.
“I’ve met some bulls and cows I suspect were as smart as some horses. I’d like to think oxen do not panic or buck when it came to being between a rock and a hard place, because they have seen more of the vicissitudes and hardships of life. The nature of their work and the demands made upon them may have given them a better outlook and a calmer outlook.”
Next Episode: Learn how to drive a team of Oxen.
Lake County History. $32. (includes. Tax & Shipping)
Pal Publishing, PO Box 6, Upper Lake, Ca 95485