Harry Ballard seems to have been everything you’d expect a cowboy to be during the 1880s in the American West … except he had the accent and mannerisms of an educated English gentleman of moderate means. He came to the states seeking adventure and found plenty of it, though the excitement was mixed with many days of hard work in miserable and often very lonely conditions. We are lucky to know much about his daily life as he wrote home frequently, and his letters were saved for posterity. Before becoming an important man in Grand County, around the turn of the century, he lived a cowhand’s life that was not near as glamorous as the movies would have us believe. Though it certainly must have been a challenge, and good men like Harry thrived on that.
The following, presented just as written, is a letter he wrote to his mother back home in England, apparently over the course of three or four weeks:
My darling Mother,
I am going to write to you a few lines although I expect it will be two months before I can get this mailed. The worst of it is I can’t get any mail either and I would so like to have the letters that I know must be lying in the office for me. You see I am on the Indian side of the range of mountains, which separates the Indian country from the whites, and it is almost impossible to cross the range till spring opens up. The Indian agency is about 3 days ride from our camp but the man I am working for doesn’t want the Indian agent to know he has anybody on Indian land, so I can’t go down there to send my mail.
I left directions at Crested Butte for any letters to be forwarded to Cimarron, Colo., where a friend of mine is going to look after it so I hope it will be all right. Since I have been here I have not seen a single white man but the man who is camped with me and but a few Indians as nearly all have moved down to the valley for the winter where it is warmer and not so much snow. Time passes quickly enough however as the cattle keep us busy all the time. We have only four horses apiece and we have rode them down now to skin and bone so we have been obliged to lay off a few days to give them a chance to pick up. We happened to run into an old dugout probably built by some old trappers years ago. We have fixed it up a little and we intend to camp here for quite a little while, as it is far more comfortable than camping in the open. We have built a good stone chimney and fireplace from which we can take good solid comfort. We have lost count of the days and I did not know Christmas Day when it came. Did you try and keep it at home? I do so wonder if Hugh has been able to find any employment yet, and how is Alice getting along in her new engagement. I wrote a letter to you and a note to Alice before leaving Grand Junction to come here, about the first of December, which I hope you got about Christmas time.
It is getting rather dull here now, as we have not so much work to do as at first. We have got the cattle pretty well located so there is not so much riding to do. I tend to my traps the first thing every day and when that is done time hangs heavy on my hands. We have nothing to read. Our grub is getting very low. I expect we will have to go on meat straight pretty soon. I shall be awfully glad when spring opens up. It must now be about the beginning of February.
We have just got to the Agency where I can mail this. Please excuse this scrawl dear Mother and with tender love to you all.
So, as you can see, the average cowpoke had to have a pretty tough constitution and be a patient man. It was a good thing he could write, especially if he had nothing to read. In the fall of that same year 1889 Harry was having problems with a medical condition in his throat, so he rode down to Grand County and caught a train to Denver to see a doctor.
He wrote to his mother and sisters from a boarding house in that city exclaiming about the pleasures of writing on a table, instead of while sitting on his saddle next to a campfire. He also mentioned with much appreciation that it was the first time in three years that he had actually slept in a bed.
While in Denver he signed on with a company preparing to float the Grand River through the Grand Canyon on a surveying expedition … the first such descent of the river since John Wesley Powell’s expedition about 20 years earlier. More on that when I write Page 5 of A Page out of the Book Cliffs.
ByBy AJ Rogers