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How to Handle Your Oxen When You Cross the Plains

By: Ardis E. Parshall - July 22, 2008

So you’re a Mormon convert from one of the European cities or some American seaport. You’ve gathered as far as the frontier, and for the first time in your life you are faced with a team of oxen whose backs are about even with your head. You might welcome this advice from Asa G. Sheldon (1788-1870) of Massachusetts, whose 1862 autobiography Life of Asa G. Sheldon, Wilmington Farmer inspires you with confidence — he worked with oxen all his long life on enormous excavating and construction jobs: he even leveled Boston’s Pemberton Hill and carted away the earth by oxcart.

Selection and Management of Working Oxen.

A good ox should have a long, lean face, and bright hazel eye, which show capability to receive instruction and disposition to obey it. Large nostrils denote the capacity of an ox to work in a hot day. Very large horns at the base denote laziness. Full breast, straight back, wide ribs, – by which is meant ribs that round out nearly as wide as the hip bones, – and wide gambrels, denote strength. Straight knees, broad toes, pointing straight forward, show an ox can travel on hard roads or pavements. They should be well matched, especially in disposition and speed.

The farmer who has a pair of oxen, answering this description, has a good team.

The next thing is a good teamster. The better the ox, the easier he is spoiled by a man who knows not how to drive. The teamster should have judgment in loading. Some teamsters know no better than to think an ox can draw anything until he tries him. An ox should never be overloaded to begin with. He never should know how much he can draw, but always have such confidence in his driver, as to think he can draw anything he may ask him to.

A good teamster will have a name for every ox, and no two in the same team should be called by the same name; nor should he ever speak one word that has no meaning; but be sure when he calls an ox by name, to make him understand, and also to make him mind what he says.

When breaking a new team, the best way I ever found to make them know their names, is, when I call “Star,” or “Broad,” or “Bright,” or “Buck,” to just touch the one I speak to, with a spur. By that means the ox will soon know that he is meant, whenever he hears his name distinctly pronounced.

The driver should also have one particular word to start his team with. “Come boys,” I ever found the best word to start a heavy load with. Some seem to think, when they are driving a team, that they must work the whole time either with their tongue or whip. It would be a most desirable thing for such to learn, that when his team are doing just right, to keep both tongue and whip perfectly still. What would you think of an officer who when his men were marching as handsomely as possible, should keep swinging his sword and jabbering incessantly, without meaning?

All the words needed in driving, are very few. I think the following are sufficient: “Come,” “Haw,” “Gee,” “Whoa,” “Back.” These, properly used, are all that are needed. Much talk makes confusion.

I have known some men halloo and bawl all day long, and make themselves hoarse, who could not at night give any meaning to one word in ten they had said. Such would do well to first learn themselves, before they try to teach their oxen.

A good teamster will make his cattle love him. This can be done only by constant kind treatment; such as carding; stroking their faces, and occasionally breathing in their nostrils. This last, is the best method to find out the disposition of an ox. When you have breathed a few times in his nostrils, if he is kind he will hold up his nose, otherwise he will catch it away and perhaps toss a horn at you. In short, make yourself sociable with them and they will amply repay you for your attention and kindness. Never strike an ox, unless compelled by obstinacy; and by proper management that necessity will occur very, very seldom.

Asa G. Sheldon.

Wilmington, Mass., Jan. 27, 1868.

[Text from Samuel W. Cole, The New England Farmer (Boston: R.P. Eaton & Co., 1868), vol. 2, p. 236. Illustrations from mural (or pencil study for the mural) by Missouri artist Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975) in the Missouri State House, completed 1936.]



30 Comments »

  1. Fantastic excerpt. I particularly like the part about remaining still, to avoid spooking the animals.

    I wonder how well this advice would translate to raising babies and toddlers…

    Comment by Doug Hudson — July 22, 2008 @ 6:10 am

  2. Wow. That is profound – although I wonder about the hazel eyes and horns assumptions.

    Doug, teenagers might be a good discussion, as well.

    Comment by Ray — July 22, 2008 @ 7:12 am

  3. There’s a gospel leadership message here, too: “Some teamsters know no better than to think an ox can draw anything until he tries him. An ox should never be overloaded to begin with. He never should know how much he can draw, but always have such confidence in his driver, as to think he can draw anything he may ask him to.”

    For a description of the process of training oxen (and at the same time training a boy to be a good teamster) see “Farmer Boy” by Laura Ingalls Wilder, describing Almonzo and his two calves, Star and Bright, story from circa 1868.

    Love your blog, Ardis.

    Comment by Coffinberry — July 22, 2008 @ 7:48 am

  4. This advice came off the press 15 years too late to help the British saints who were outfitting in Keokuk, Iowa, in late spring of 1853 (among whom was my great-great grandfather, a bootmaker who probably hadn’t much experience with draft animals). Hannah Cornaby wrote in her Autobiography:

    The oxen were wild, and getting them yoked was the most laughable sight I had ever witnessed; everybody giving orders, and nobody knowing how to carry them out. If the men had not been saints, there would doubtless have been much profane language used; but the oxen, not understanding “English,” did just as well without it.

    (As quoted in Woods, Fred E. and Douglas Atterberg, “Mormon Migration through Keokuk,” Annals of Iowa 61:1, pp. 20-21.)

    I suspect that Sister Cornaby’s tale could have been written thousands of times over, as city and town-dwelling saints found themselves on the frontier.

    Comment by Mark B. — July 22, 2008 @ 9:15 am

  5. HELP! I left it out.

    Comment by Mark B. — July 22, 2008 @ 9:16 am

  6. (fixed it, Mark)

    You-all have convinced me yet again that Keepa has the best group of commenters in the bloggernacle. I love the way you thoughtfully draw out principles from these pieces of the past, and contribute your own related bits of history. Of course I love it too whenever anyone merely leaves word that they stopped by and enjoyed something.

    My favorite part of this report is how Sheldon treats his animals with recognition that they are more than dumb brutes. They’re working animals, not pets, but they return affection and they perform better with kindness and suitable respect. Don’t we all.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 22, 2008 @ 9:39 am

  7. IIRC Elliott West’s The Contested Plains: Indians, Goldseekers, and the Rush to Colorado, in addition to being an all-around interesting book, has a section on teamsters—erstwhile, wannabe, and otherwise. (He reaches the same conclusion as Mark B., but with more detail.)

    “When you have breathed a few times in his nostrils, if he is kind he will hold up his nose, otherwise he will catch it away and perhaps toss a horn at you.” Maybe I’m just a suburban slicker, but for me and my anatomy, standing close enough to breath into the nostrils seems to be an inconvenient location from which to confront horn tossing.

    Comment by Edje — July 22, 2008 @ 11:21 am

  8. When I was only 10 or so, I used to help with the milking at my Grandfather’s dairy farm in Southern Idaho during the summers. All 40 of those cows had names, and they knew them. They also knew if you were trying to put them in the dairy barn out of order, and would prove most uncooperative. My Grandfather and Uncle cared deeply for those cows, right up until the point when it became practical to convert them from dairy to meat.

    Then they loved them in a different way.

    Comment by kevinf — July 22, 2008 @ 12:57 pm

  9. “Then they loved them in a different way.”

    Memories light the corners of my mind. I grew up in ranch and orchard country. Raising to eat was away of life, so to speak.

    Comment by Ray — July 22, 2008 @ 4:26 pm

  10. What a useful post! I’ll try to remember carefully these things if ever I find myself driving oxen. Ardis, please find us more jewels like this!

    Comment by Tatiana — July 22, 2008 @ 8:23 pm

  11. From comment # 4:

    If the men had not been saints, there would doubtless have been much profane language used

    Somehow, I think there was still a fair amount. It is no doubt true that most cattle respond remarkably well to kind treatment (speaking as a 9 year veteran of the 4-H program and as a man who has owned his own milk cow in the past), but when a 1,200 pound beast steps on your foot, or kicks you, or kicks over the milk bucket just as it is getting full, there are only a very few Anglo-Saxon words which are appropriate to the occasion, and all of them have only four letters.

    Comment by Mark IV — July 22, 2008 @ 9:32 pm

  12. An anecdote about a slightly unusual 19th century pioneer in this regard:

    Probably the best known story about Henry T- is about his refusal to swear regardless of the provocation. After chasing a horse and trying to get it out of the garden until his patience was worn pretty thin, he remarked, as the horse finally gave up and came into the corral, “You blossom!”

    Comment by Researcher — July 23, 2008 @ 7:19 am

  13. Tatiana, I’m glad you appreciate the usefulness and immediate applicability of this post. We aim to please, here at Keepa, with the oldest and more practical information available on our little day-to-day problems!

    Some of the other comments remind me of the young man who had an idea for improving the taste of salt. “Put a juicy steak under it.”

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 23, 2008 @ 9:52 am

  14. I tried this once today, and it disappeared into the oblivion of internet crevasses, so here goes again:

    Mark IV’s comment reminds me of a statement by an ancestor who was in the militia east of SLC during the Utah War (or is that what we used to call it in the bad old days?–actually, I prefer “Buchanan’s Folly”). Speaking of the sleeping arrangements in the circular tents, he wrote:

    Here we make our beds at night with our feet to the center being pretty near a focus, after which one must necessarily be very careful coming in or going out lest he tread on some unfortunate being who instead of giving vent to a series of oaths or torrent of abuse mildly requests this tormentor to desist.

    I suspect his tongue was firmly in cheek as he wrote this–but, who knows, maybe it was just an extraordinarily saintly bunch of young militiamen, with no budding J. Goldens or church ball players among them.

    Comment by Mark B. — July 23, 2008 @ 1:11 pm

  15. Ardis,
    For the benefit of your readers who emigrated west on the U.P.R.R. after 1869, could you enlighten us as to the precise definition of what “oxen” were and how these work cattle differed from a farm’s ordinary dairy or beef cattle?

    Comment by Bill MacKinnon — July 24, 2008 @ 5:32 am

  16. An ox (plural: oxen) is not a creature of a distintive breed, but the same familiar cattle used for dairy and meat purposes — the only two differences are that an ox has been allowed to grow to its full size (beef cattle are usually slaughtered before they are fully grown, so most of us have an inadequate idea of how huge cattle can really be), and one that has been trained to pull loads. It’s usually a castrated male, because males are typically larger/stronger than females in the cattle world, too.

    Oxen have to have horns, because it’s the horns that keep the yoke in place once it has been fastened around an ox’s neck.

    They’re usually trained from calf-hood up, getting used to a wooden yoke and to the spoken commands of the driver (Coffinberry mentioned “Farmer Boy” — it’s been 35 years or more since I read it, but I remember the scene where Almonzo put the first mini-size yoke on his calves’ necks!) One of the problems for our pioneers was that sometimes untrained cattle were purchased for draft animals, and Danish shoemakers and British sailors who had never handled animals not only had to train themselves but also train their wild adult cattle to pull a load.

    I’m impressed by the diaries and reminiscences of pioneers as to how emotionally close to their oxen they tended to be. The dust from wagons ahead would blind the oxen, and numerous pioneers describe the flow of tears as seeming human. Others talk about the animals’ thirst during the day, and how tending to the animals was the first obligation in camp, before tending to themselves or families.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 24, 2008 @ 6:24 am

  17. You mentioned that oxen are usually males, which have been castrated. You didn’t mention that they are castrated to keep them from being, literally, a menace to society. But, one question (from one who has never been closer to an ox than a terrific Ochsenbrust at a restaurant in Duesseldorf several years ago): at what age is the ox castrated? And, does that reduce the size of the adult, or just keep his voice from changing at puberty? :-)

    Comment by Mark B. — July 24, 2008 @ 10:35 am

  18. I don’t want to take anything away from a discussion of castration, but I just would like to say:

    “Poor, poor oxen!”

    Comment by Ray — July 24, 2008 @ 11:45 am

  19. You’re stretching my miniscule knowledge of these things purt-t-ty darn fine, Mark. Thank goodness for google.

    I find here , in what seems to be a knowledgeable but hardly academic site, this:

    “As to domesticated animals, if the calf is considered a food animal and is destined to become beef, he is castrated before he reaches maturity and is called a steer. If he is destined to become a draught animal, he may be castrated before or after he reaches maturity and in either case is called an ox. He tends to grow bigger, however, if he is castrated while still immature.”

    I find several sites referring to the castration of newborn calves, and many, many, many warning that the procedure becomes progressively more difficult for calf and operator the older the calf gets, but nothing that specifies the upper age or the optimum age for a draft animal vs. a meat animal.

    I once had a tomcat neutered after he had gotten the signal from his glands to start his major growth, but before he got the signal that he was mature and could stop growing. He became one huge cat! I wonder if the principle is the same with cattle?

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 24, 2008 @ 12:00 pm

  20. Ray, who takes anything away from a discussion of castration? Oh, wait a minute …

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 24, 2008 @ 12:01 pm

  21. Nice to see you caught that, Ardis. :;

    Comment by Ray — July 24, 2008 @ 1:47 pm

  22. Hit the wrong keys without thinking. Obviously, meant to type a :)

    Comment by Ray — July 24, 2008 @ 1:47 pm

  23. “many, many, many warning that the procedure becomes progressively more difficult for calf and operator the older the calf gets”

    You think? I wonder if circumcision was a bit more difficult for Abraham (or his adult children) than it was for my son while still in the hospital. Hmmm . . . going to have to think about that one.

    Comment by Ray — July 24, 2008 @ 1:50 pm

  24. Hmmm, perhaps I shouldn’t have brought up this whole oxen definitional thing…but, come to think of it, aren’t LDS baptismal founts structurally as well as symbolically supported on the backs of — gasp! — oxen?

    Comment by Bill MacKinnon — July 24, 2008 @ 4:40 pm

  25. Heh! Next one to do baptisms, take a good look and see if they really *are* oxen!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 24, 2008 @ 5:17 pm

  26. Oh, Ardis, the temple will never be the same for me. Thanks a lot!!

    Comment by Ray — July 24, 2008 @ 7:16 pm

  27. Uh, I nominate Ray for Ardis’s suggested chore, although it may be one that calls for either a contortionist or an especially agile (if not dignified) person to gain the requisite vantage point. Come to think of it, Ray has been put through enough discomfort today…

    Comment by Bill MacKinnon — July 24, 2008 @ 7:18 pm

  28. Having spent some time cleaning the baptistry at the Manhattan temple, I think I can safely say that the beasts are not, repeat NOT anatomically correct.

    Talking about the increased difficulty of the procedure after the animal has reached maturity reminds me of one funny scene from one of James Herriot’s books, when he as a young veterinary assistant was assigned the task of obtaining semen from a bull for the A.I. man. It’s been too long since I read it to remember which volume it was in, or the details, but it seems that the collection tube took off rather like a model rocket, etc.

    Comment by Mark B. — July 24, 2008 @ 7:46 pm

  29. Mark B., in thinking about the barn scene in the Herriot book you may wish to review Asa G. Sheldon’s five handy-dandy, all-purpose commands for the management of oxen. I wonder which one Herriot used or misused…

    Comment by Bill MacKinnon — July 24, 2008 @ 8:28 pm

  30. [...] Don’t miss Ardis Parshall’s Pioneer Day posts at Keepapitchinin: How to Handle Your Oxen When You Cross the Plains [...]

    Pingback by Blog Segullah : Funny Pioneer Stories — July 24, 2008 @ 10:13 pm

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