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The search for an event 132 years in the past and for a man dead 87 years demands much of a writer. He must be equal parts journalist, historian, detective, and bloodhound. Above all, he must be determined, for a trail so cold can be so frustrating.
Fortunately in the case of the Big Drift and roundup superintendent Gus O’Keefe, the collections of the Haley Memorial Library and History Center offer a wealth of material found nowhere else. Indeed, much of what we know today about the Big Drift and subsequent roundup of 1884-1885 came through the efforts of library founder J. Evetts Haley.
I first learned of this remarkable cattle migration while searching the Haley Library in the early 1990s for material related to the Pecos River, my research specialty. With foresight, J. Evetts Haley set out in the 1920s to preserve the stories of actors in the 19th-century cattle industry in Texas. A by-product of these interviews was a collection of firsthand accounts about the Big Drift—the blizzard, the relentless march south by beeves, the Big Die-Up on the Pecos, and the unprecedented roundup of ’85.
Here, I realized, was drama, on a level unparalleled in the history of the range cattle business. Yet, the material was untapped, even by Haley himself. In a corner of my mind, I filed away the Big Drift until an opportunity might arise to use it.
That chance came in 1995 when a publisher contracted me to write a history of the Pecos cowhand from earliest trail drive days to the 1920s. By now I had dug deeper in the Haley and unearthed a bonanza of supporting material on the Big Drift, including unpublished statements and manuscripts by men with firsthand knowledge. The story of the Big Drift became an important chapter in my resulting book, A Cowboy of the Pecos. At the time, I believed that this chapter constituted the complete account of the events of 1884 and 1885.
However, a new project in 2005 launched me into a wider sweep of the Haley Library’s resources. Determined to write the first history of the Devils River—a sister stream to the lower Pecos—I decided to pour through every volume in the library’s extraordinary collection of books, many of which are rare and without indexes. Too, I would use the same approach with every periodical and archival file that might be pertinent. If there was Devils River material to be found in the Haley, I intended to unearth it.
For 62 weekdays, I persisted, and when I was finished, I discovered that I had amassed significant new material on the Big Drift, not only as it pertained to the Devils River, but also to the Pecos. Among the fascinating finds was J. Evetts Haley’s interview with Tom Love, one of 200 hundred-plus cowhands who drove beeves back from the Pecos drift. The interview existed only in 4-by-6-inch cards bearing Haley’s notes, which he had efficiently taken by pencil during his 1927 visit with Love.
In regard to Gus O’Keefe, who supervised the Pecos roundup, I was pleased to stumble across a rare 1936 book, Cowboy Life. Written by his brother Rufe O’Keefe, it yielded much biographical information about Gus and his role in overseeing the return of the cattle.
As remarkable as the holdings of any single institution may be, however, a thorough researcher must also supplement his investigation by checking other sources. For Gus, the most important of these was The Portal to Texas History, a website (https://texashistory.unt.edu/) that allows a comprehensive search of digitized newspapers from the 19th and 20th centuries.
In 2014, technological advances rescued even more Big Drift material from obscurity. Starting in 1945, Haley ventured out with a new dictation device, the SoundScriber, and recorded the actual voices of individuals as they related their experiences in the 19th-century Southwest. With the demise of SoundScriber machines many decades ago, these interviews on flexible vinyl discs seemed lost forever, but the Haley Library managed to locate a North Carolina firm that specializes in recovering rare recordings.
With digitization, at least five SoundScriber interviews from 1946 and 1947 revealed new information about the drifts of the 1880s, particularly that of 1884-1885. In amazement, I could now listen to Mrs. Eugene Cartledge tell of her brother pausing at her San Angelo home as he rode point alongside an unstoppable herd that swept through the city. “He had on overshoes and everything for the cold, but he was nearly frozen,” she recalled. Added Joe McKinney, “Snowstorms? We had ’em all the time. They took the britches off, riding that saddle all the time. . . . Damned cold spells, they’d just freeze your face off.”
The Big Drift seemed to be a phenomenon that refused to be forgotten. In 2011 and 2012 I had devoted 395 straight days to crafting a novel set against the backdrop of the drift to the Devils River and the ensuing roundup. Simply titled The Big Drift, the novel won the 2015 Spur Award for Western Traditional Novel from Western Writers of America, a prestigious national honor that I could never have received without the incredible material I had uncovered in the Haley Library.
Upon publication of the novel, I once again had believed that there could be no important developments yet to come in my understanding of the Big Drift of history. Then in early 2015, the most illuminating insight of all occurred when the Haley received the Scharbauer Family Collection. Among the treasures was the only known photograph relating to the Big Drift, an amazingly detailed picture of a dozen cowboys holding a portion of a herd of 20,000 cattle en route back from the Pecos.
Fittingly, the photo pays homage to Gus O’Keefe’s vital role in saving these animals. A simple handwritten note at top says it all:
“Gus O’Keef boss of this work—over 200 men working these drifting cattle—Odessa his headquarters.”
For now, my grasp of the Big Drift seems complete once again, but the collections of the Haley Memorial Library and History Center may yet reveal additional secrets about this unforgettable event and the men who were a part of it.