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A New Mexico Federal Writers' Project Book
By Ann Lacy and Anne Valley-Fox, compilers and editors

Stories from New Mexico field workers in the Federal Writers’ Project in New Mexico between 1935 and 1939.


Was life on the range in the 1880s and 1890s anything like the hard riding, hard working, hard drinking shoot ‘em up images that moviegoers saw in old Westerns? Yes—and then some, the authentic documents in this collection tell us. Cowboys, sheepherders, ranchers and all those around them in Territorial New Mexico were engaged in constant life-and-death struggles. They battled with each other and with Indians. They endured blizzards, fires, drought, floods, disease and stampeding cattle. In one account, on the morning after Comanche Indians stole all their cattle, James Chisum told his daughter, “Cheer up, Sallie, the worst is yet to come.”

Also included in this collection are reports of cooperation and glimpses of daily happiness: the simple pleasure of riding the range; camaraderie during roundups; hot meals dished out from the chuck wagon; cow camp entertainments; trips to town for fandangos; a sheepherder resting beneath the constellations and his breakfast of burrañiates. There are also high-spirited narratives describing the taming of a good steer, adventures along the cattle trails, the retrieval of mavericks and the roundup of mustangs.

If the stories in this collection seem familiar, they are also surprisingly fresh. Luckily for the rest of us, field workers in the Federal Writers’ Project (a branch of the government-funded Works Progress Administration, or WPA, later called the Work Projects Administration), loved to listen and record as much as their subjects liked to talk. The resulting stories from 1935 to 1939 are rich in detail and human spirit. This collection also includes local newspaper articles, reports from New Mexico governors on the state of the livestock industry, cowboy poems, square dance calls, descriptions and drawings of cattle brands, glossaries of cowboy terms and the names of ranches in Colfax County.

Cowboys, Ranching & Cattle Trails is the fifth volume in the New Mexico Federal Writers’ Project book series. Previous titles are Outlaws & Desperados, Frontier Stories, Lost Treasures & Old Mines and Stories from Hispano New Mexico.

Ann Lacy, an artist and researcher/writer, has lived in New Mexico since 1979. She works on projects related to New Mexico history, culture and environment issues. She is the recipient of a City of Santa Fe Heritage Preservation Award.

Anne Valley-Fox, writer, poet and researcher, is co-editor of the New Mexico Federal Writers’ Project Book series. Her fourth volume of poetry is How Shadows Are Bundled (University of New Mexico Press, 2009).

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