January 29, 2016
By Joel R Kolander
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f there is one man that better symbolizes the American West and the American Dream simultaneously than A. B. Robertson, I have yet to read about them. From rags to riches, this man learned the ways of the cowboy before blazing a trail in Texas history as one of the preeminent cattlemen of the era. Yes, “Sug” Robertson, as he is more commonly called, lead a charmed and exciting life, but it didn’t begin that way.
A.B. (Andrew Briggs) was born on January 14, 1855 as the sixth of eight children. He was known to
his friends and family as “Sug” because as an infant that had yet to cut any teeth, he allegedly bore a close resemblance to a superannuated country doctor also lacking his pearly whites known as
“Dr. Sug.” His father, also named A.B., was a doctor who moved the family frequently, leaving A. B’s birthplace of Indiana for Mississippi and eventually Arkansas just prior to the Civil War. A native Virginian, Dr. A.B. enlisted in 1863 as a Confederate surgeon in that great conflict. Arkansas in the early 1860’s saw a great deal of chaos as a slow-moving Union Army crossed the state foraging and requisitioning supplies along the way. A channel of devastation lay behind them that quickly filled with bushwackers, bandits, and citizens reeling from the total war policy implemented by the Union troops. In a time the state was already seeing a mass exodus of citizens, Dr. A. B. sent word to have his family moved to live with relatives in Texas until his return. Leaving their home yet again, the family traveled southwest in a covered spring wagon to Hood County, TX on the Brazos River.
The war would end two years later, and accounts vary on the fate of Dr. A. B. Some have him returning home and continuing his practice after the war before moving to Louisiana. However, more reliable sources (and genealogical records) point to him never returning home from the Civil War. His family had not received word from him from several years, nor did they receive any notification that he had died in service. It was some time before Dr. A. B. would surface in Louisiana with a new wife and family.
Regardless of what happened to A.B. Sr, it still leaves Sug in Texas at the tender age of 10 by the end of the Civil War. Thousands of returning and displaced soldiers flowed into Texas and brought about the birth of the cattle industry in the state. The demand for beef had increased back East thanks to a growing economy – courtesy of an Industrial boom and the beginning of a huge influx of immigrants that would continue through the turn of the century. Until it busted in the 1880s cattle was king and it gave rise to much of the romantic imagery we have today of cowboys, cattle drives, and life on the prairie. Sug was at the heart of it when it all started.
He took his first job in 1865 as a cowhand for R.K. Wylie at a wage sources cite as anywhere from $7.50 to $10/month. He was given a cow pony and learned how to operate a ranch by seeing and doing it firsthand. The boy was a natural. Sug was no stranger to learning on his own volition. With only 6 months of school under his belt, he taught himself to read using newspapers by the light of the campfires, and practiced his writing on his own boots with only the ranch’s bills of sale as models. It was a life that few grown men undertook, let alone a young man, but Sug was no ordinary boy and his life was full of adventure.
His aptitude was noticed quickly by Mr. Wylie and within a year Sug had been sent to neighboring Coleman county to assist in starting another ranch. With knowledge and skills that continued to grow, by 1873 at the age of 18, he was considered by many to be a “top hand.” This reputation afforded him an opportunity to lead his own trail drive of 1,000 head from Coleman County up the Chisholm trail to Coffeyville, KS with a crew of eight men. The drive went off without a hitch and the young man’s star continued to rise. Sources differ on the exact year, but give or take a year from his 18th birthday, Sug took his first step from cowhand to cattleman. He purchased a heard of 5,000 head of cattle from Wylie. The partnership lasted for five years before Sug would sell that ranch back to Wylie, and begin a long chain of acquisitions and sales, that by 1882 would result in the sale of the Robertson TX Ranch for $50,000. Just several years earlier he had married Emma Lenora Smith, and one can be certain that she was extremely pleased with her husband’s business savvy.
The boldness he displayed in his business dealings were matched perhaps only by his exploits on the plains. As a hand, interactions with Native Americans were frequent, though his final experiences with them date to 1875. One story states that he was out with an acquaintance hunting for bison. Now bison were an even larger problem than Native Americans for ranchers. While the Native Americans could steal horses and threaten lives, the bison could scatter an entire herd and destroy grazing lands for miles in any direction. Sug and his friend had hitched their horses in a creek bed, crept slowly up a ravine, and silently came within range of some bison grazing on a ridge. As they closed on their quarry, Sug looked back and saw five Native Americans beyond the creek bed riding on a beeline for their horses. Undetected, both the hunters rushed back to their mounts and charged the would-be horse thieves. The pursuit continued for two miles before the chased men dismounted their rides and escaped into a thicket. With that the two men took the newly riderless horses back to their ranch, found they had once belonged to their neighbors, and returned them.
Undoubtedly still stinging from their last experience, the Native Americans visited the ranch four or five days later and raided it of every last horse. In a risky and dangerous gamble, Sug and another hand set off on foot to track the band and recover their horses. It was only several miles before they encountered a pair of jaded horses that had been left behind. They snatched the unlikely opportunity, and now pursued the thieves on bare horseback. The culprits again eluded capture, but the two young men did come across five horses that had escaped and so led them back to the ranch. The bareback ride being quite uncomfortable, Sug had a mind to fix that situation as well. It wasn’t long before the men and their regained horses came across a herd of bison. Sug dismounted, “hitched” his horse by standing on the end of a rope he had tied to it, and shot a bison. Right there the two skinned and dressed the beast and used its hide to improvise a saddle and saddle blanket that the two then used to return home.
Though perhaps both of those accounts pale in comparison to the way Sug dealt with cattle rustlers. White thieves were much more prevalent than the Native Americans, so in 1874 after Sug had purchased a herd of 3,000 at Horse Head Crossing of the Pecos, he quickly set in his mind to nip the problem in the bud. He set out on his own to confront the leader of the rustling ring that was the source of a headache for many a rancher in the territory. He would wait until nightfall to approach their camp, and the story is best recounted as such,
“Soon after arriving (at the ranch) he located the headquarters of the rustlers in a secluded spot in a bend of the Pecos River. Mounting his horse and armed with a rifle and revolver he rode into the camp (where) half a dozen of the ugliest men as one would meet in a year on the frontier, sprang to their feet and threw their rifles down on him.”
He then dismounted his horse “with no haste whatsoever.”
“Robertson was not long in making known the object of his call. He sat down on his haunches before the fire and delivered himself of two sentences: ‘I’m telling you boys,’ he said, ‘that there’ll be no mavericking of calves out of my herd. Anybody that cares to try, I’ll guarantee will go to hell on a shutter, pronto.’
The astonished leader of the gang invited Robertson to stay the night and share some beef. The invitation was accepted and in the morning when Robertson rode away he had a pledge that was never broken that his animals would be as safe as babes in cribs.”
One may have questioned Sug’s wisdom in such an action, but no one ever questioned his grit. Stories such as these surround the young man. He met John S. Chisholm in 1871, founder of the legendary Chisholm Trail, and once helped him prevent a disastrous stampede, forging a lifelong friendship. He has documented correspondence with Theodore Roosevelt. By age 21 he was foreman of one of the largest ranches in Texas. In 1882 he moved to Colorado City, and by 1889 he was the President of the bank there (and also a silent partner of the local saloon). Once there he continued to conduct business with cattle and shipping, with one source stating that, “within the last ten or twelve years has bought and shipped more cattle to Northern markets than any other man, in the same time, in Texas.”
The move to Colorado City is far from the pinnacle of Robertson’s career, in fact, it could be argued as the beginning of its next level. It was in that fine city that he met Mr. Winfield Scott of Fort Worth and the two became partners in many business ventures. Scott provided much of the capitol, especially in the earliest ventures, while Sug provided the knowledge and experience. Their first venture was a ranch in New Mexico renamed by them as the Hat Ranch due to its brand of a semicircle with a bar underneath it that closely resembled a bowler hat. It was 100,000 acres, employed nearly 100 men, spanned two states, and after several expansions and acquisitions, gave the Hat Ranch brand instant recognition in every significant cattle market in the country.
After the pair sold their interest in New Mexico, Sug bought 35,000 acres from the St. Louis Cattle Company in Yellow House Canyon. Known as the RH Ranch, Robertson again set his powers of reorganization to work, just as he had done at the Hat Ranch. He renamed it the “V” and stocked it with Hereford cattle, a breed he vigorously advocated. The ranch specialized in the breed and eventually the bloodlines from his ranch were considered a premium. The ranch and his newly constructed 2-story brick house known as “Stockland” were run with the most up-to-date methods and modern conveniences.
Sug set up the V to be the land he would settle down on. After establishing it, it received almost his entire attention, though he did continue his work and lifelong friendship with Winfield Scott until Scott’s passing in 1911. The two were so close that Sug was named to head his three million dollar estate without any bond.
Sug was the face and pioneer of the West Texas cattle industry. He was leader that served on the boards of numerous organizations including banks, the Texas Cattleman’s Association, the Cattle Raisers Association of Texas, and even the National Livestock Association. He was asked numerous times to run for public office such as the state senate and governor. The man was also an interesting personality. Characterized as: honest, quick to criticism & praise, a fantastic storyteller, shrewd, and generous. His forthright nature and strong will may have turned some people off, but largely the man was respected and admired. He was not social outside of his family, but his reputation of generosity still lives.
“In one case a man bought a quarter section of land from him and could not make good on it, so instead of just reclaiming the land as was his legal right, Sug returned the man’s $600 to help him get by until he could get situated elsewhere.”
He had also donated to found a local church, donated land to developers to help build up his city of Slaton, and helped establish its first bank, literally helping found the town. The V Ranch would be the last home Sug would own. After falling ill in early 1921, doctors recommended he move to a “lower climate” so he moved to Abilene and continued to run his business. Unfortunately, one evening after dinner with his wife at one of his children’s house, he moved to the parlor to sit and read the paper when he suffered an attack of “acute indigestion.” Medical staff were summoned, but by the time they arrived the pioneering cattleman had passed.
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