Walter A. Holford. “Fifty Years in the Saddle” would be an appropriate title for any message to the world, emanating from the life and experiences of Walter A. Holford, of Madill, Oklahoma. Fifty years he was a cattleman. Fifty years the feet of his horses trod a range wider than the boundaries of the Chickasaw and Choctaw nations, a range that extended from Fort Smith, Arkansas, to the Panhandle of Texas. And out of that ranee the feet of his horses beat trails to the pioneer market places of Kansas City, St. Louis, Sedalia, Baxter Springs and Shreveport.
Mr. Holford was the first white man to establish a cattle ranch in the Chickasaw Nation. That was in 1865, after he had returned from four years at the front with the Confederate army. In a stretch of country as wide north-south as the latitudinal measurement of the Chickasaw and Choctaw nations, he was the first white man to make permanent settlement between Atoka, Indian Territory, and the Rocky Mountains; the first man to risk his life and fortune in combating the wild tribes of the Comanche and Kiowa reservations against theft, murder and depredations: the first man to announce to the Indians of the Civilized Tribes that the world offered them a market for their livestock. It may be said truthfully that he established the livestock industry of the Chickasaw and Choctaw nations, and in developing it for half a century the Indians of these nations remained his friends.
The ranch house that he built fifty years ago, six miles west of Madill, remains intact as one of the monuments to an almost unexampled career. The only other early-day improvements made were horse pastures and lots which required the splitting of 30,000 rails. Permission of the United States Government was obtained, through officials of the Indian Agency at Muskogee, for the establishment of the ranch, and the horizon was the only line that marked its territorial boundary. That was before the days of leases on Indian lands, but Holford was welcomed by both the officials of the Government and by the Indians, for they were looking for a man with the business acumen and the courage to occupy the plains and create what for half a century was the most important industry of the Indian Territory.
The first herd of cattle driven to market from the Chickasaw -Nation was rounded up by cowboys in Holford ’s employ on the site occupied by the Town of Madill. These cattle had been purchased by Holford from the Indians and they were driven to Shreveport. Louisiana, to be there transported by boat down the Mississippi River to New Orleans. This trip netted Holford about $2,000. His wagons, drawn by ox teams, accompanied the herd, and returned loaded with clothing, provisions and other necessities, which were traded to the Indians for more cattle. With a medium of exchange established through the finding of a market on the Gulf Coast, the business entered upon a profitable era. The next important drive was made to Sedalia, Missouri, where feeding pens were established and the cattle fattened before placed on the market. This trip and its crowning activities required six months to accomplish, and it netted Holford about $17,000.
Meanwhile, the Katy railroad began pushing southwest out of St. Louis, and the cattle market was brought nearer to the Indian country, Hunnewell, Kansas, and later Baxter Springs, that state, became important points. This road was finally extended to Denison, Texas, and thereafter there were no long drives. Trails of historic interest today had been established, however, and prior to the completion of the railroad they became avenues of commerce for a large part of the southwestern country.
Of still more interest to the history of the Southwest were the activities of Matthew Holford, father of the subject of this story, who established a cattle ranch in Grayson County, Texas, with headquarters on the site of the present Town of Gordonville, in 1850. Matthew Holford. who was a native of Carrolton, Arkansas, and a Presbyterian minister, was among the earliest of all livestock dealers to conceive of the coming importance of the Indian country, and he established himself near to its border. The cattle industry of Texas really had its inception in the Holford ranch. Here Walter A. Holford got his first experience as a cowboy. From this ranch he went on the first long cattle drives from Texas. St. Louis was then the chief market, and herds of from 750 to 2.000 head were driven there. Until the breaking out of the Civil war two drives were made every three years from this ranch to St. Louis. From this ranch the junior Holford enlisted as a soldier in the Confederate army as a member of the Eleventh Texas Cavalry, his company’s first captain being Bill Cloud, an interesting pioneer of Cooke County. Holford served through the war, taking part in the battles of Shiloh, Pea Ridge fin which he was wounded in the. knee and crippled for life, and Corinth. Mississippi. His regiment was with General Morgan on his celebrated raid into Ohio. After the war closed Mr. Holford returned to his wife, whom he had married during the war. and whom he had left in Grayson County. Later in the year he established his ranch in the Chickasaw Nation and called it the Cross J Ranch.
Westward from the Cross J Ranch lay a stretch of prairie land that merged itself into the Great Plains country, and over this country in that day the Kiowas and Comanches were practically the sole inhabitants. They made raids into Texas and stole thousands of horses and cattle. The opening of the ranch in this territory soon became known to them, and their marauding lines were extended eastward. During a period of twelve years Holford and his little colony of cowboys constituted themselves into an army of defense and they fought many battles with the bold redskins from the west. Altogether these Indians made away with 800 horses from the Cross J Ranch.
One of their principal fights with the Indians took place on the site of the present Town of McMillan, a few miles west of the ranch. Holford and eleven of his men engaged twelve Indians who were armed with guns and bows and arrows. Five Indians and one cowboy were killed while the Indians lost fifteen horses and the whites one man and one horse. The remnant of the band of Indians was chased by the cowboys to the site of the present City of Ardmore, where another fight took place. In this engagement Mr. Holford was slightly wounded in the shoulder, which robbed the cowboys of some of their courage and the white men retired. The Indians retreated without further show of resistance.
Mr. Holford had moved his family to Indian Territory, but for many years had never dared to take them to the ranch to live. He built a magnificent colonial-style home a few miles from the Red River, near to the Burney Institute of Lebanon, which was one of the first Indian schools founded in the Chickasaw Nation. Frequently the marauding Indians came so near this home that the family was precipitately moved over the river to the Gordonsville ranch. For weeks at a time the white men stayed away from the ranch except in daytime, spending their nights in the Holford mansion near the river. At odd times the men fortified the place by setting firmly in the ground long slabs of oak. These were set close and were of such a height that it was impossible to scale them. At intervals portholes were cut and at these men stood guard at night when the Indians were near. Through these holes Mr. Holford and his men watched the redskins, which resulted each time in the retirement of the latter. Finally the Indians learned to fear the leader of the cowboys, and one time he tongue-lashed a party of them into a retreat without the firing of a single shot.
There was established, probably sometime during the ’50s, a United States military post in Indian Territory, known as Fort Cobb, which was built on the site of the present town of the same name, in the western part of the state. On the eve of the declaration of war in 1860, Bill Young led a force of some 300 or 400 adventure seeking young men of the cattle plains of North Texas to Fort Cobb to demand its release to the Confederacy. This undisciplined and uninformed army, not yet a part of the organized Confederate forces, marched upon the post early one spring morning. Captain Young in the name of the South demanded the surrender of the fort. At his elbow, muskets in hand, stood Walter Holford and Sam Murrell, the latter a picturesque pioneer of Cooke County, Texas. The commanding officer offered no resistance. He called his troops in parade form before him and announced that as war was about to be declared, he was going to abandon the post. He said that as some of the men probably were southern sympathizers, he would give them honorable discharges if they desired to join the southern forces. Only fifteen of them left the ranks. Captain Young took possession of all the property of the post save enough ammunition, provisions, and wagons and teams to enable the troops to make their way safely to Jefferson Barracks, St. Louis.
Fort Cobb was established for the protection of the frontier settlements against the Indians. The new command had fought Indians in their own country, but never before had been camped high and dry in the heart of the wild Indian country. When dark came they were apprehensive, and among the most apprehensive was Sam Murrell. He was nervous and uneasy–in such a state of mind that when lightning bugs made star sparkles in the firmament of the bushes he leaped to his feet and began peppering them with lead from his musket. Then and during several succeeding hours of the night he was confident that the lights in the bushes were sparks from the flintlocks of the Indians. Other intrepid volunteers of this band of conquering heroes shared in this opinion, so that the establishing of outposts proceeded with fear and trembling. Every man on outpost duty many times during the night made murderous onslaught into the ranks of the fireflies. Slowly, as morning dawned, the deception silently exposed itself throughout the ranks, but during the rest of his life Sam Murrell was known as the hero of the Battle with the Lightning Bugs.
There was a time when Mr. Holford knew every man, woman and child over ten years of ago in the Chickasaw and Choctaw nations. He has been personally acquainted with every governor of these nations, and some of them have frequently been guests for days at a time on his ranch, or in his fine home. He was a friend of Quanah Parker, an early chief of the Comanches, and of Lone Wolf of the Kiowas. He knew more or less intimately Santa Ana and Big Tree, who were among the most intrepid of Comanche leaders when the Indians were in their marauding period. He was the friend of the Indian and the foe of the outlaw and cattle thief. Many times a cattle deal amounted to $100,000, an amount larger than was involved in any other transaction in cattle in the Southwest in the ’60s, and he recalls that once he wrote a check for $60,000 on a bank in Gainesville, in which he had not a dollar on deposit at the time. But it was honored, for the honor of Walter Holford was never questioned. One of the first teachers in Burney Institute, in 1854, was Miss Sallie Holford, his sister, who rode to the school from Grayson County on horseback. She is now Mrs. Richard Litzey of Denton, Texas, and is eighty years old.
Matthew Holford, father of the subject, was for many years a resident of Tennessee, and for four years he was a colonel in the National Guard of the state. His father, John Holford, was a hero of the American Revolution, as was also Walter Alley, Walter Holford’s maternal grandfather. Walter Alley Holford was married at Burney’s Institute, in 1862, to Miss Amanda Babb, a step-daughter of George D. James, who was of Choctaw descent. Mrs. Holford was the first white child born in Paris, Texas, and she was born on property that had been willed to her by her father before her birth. She became the mother of eleven children, six of whom are living now. Mrs. Jesse Wharton, the eldest child, is the wife of a stockman at Lexington, Oklahoma. Mrs. Amanda Pidcock married a hardware dealer at Vancouver, Washington. Mrs. Arthur Creel is the wife of a hardware merchant of Carnegie, Oklahoma. George M. D. Holford is a land owner and ranchman of Madill, Oklahoma. Matt Holford is engaged in the oil business at Beggs, Oklahoma. W. D. Holford is a traveling salesman and lives in Oklanoma City.
In 1910 Mr. Holford retired from active work, that year marking the completion of his fiftieth year in the saddle. He has his home with his son, George M. D. Holford, in Madill, Oklahoma. He is a member of the Presbyterian Church, and is a Mason.