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The Nester and His Barbed Wire Fence


In an unlikely turn of events, a poem by an Englishwoman about a soldier in the French Foreign Legion traveled to America to become a cowboy ballad. The poem, as recounted in my last essay, was “Bingen on the Rhine,” by Caroline Norton. The ballad is “The Last Longhorn.” It begins,


An ancient Longhorn bovine lay dying by the river There was lack of vegetation, and the cold wind made him shiver

Like your typical dying cowboy in folksong, the dying steer recounts his personal history and is concerned about what will become of his body.


Tell the coyotes when they come at night a-hunting for their prey They might as well go farther, for they’ll find it will not pay If they attempt to eat me, they very soon will see My bones and hide are petrified--they’ll find no meat on me


The author, or rather the adapter, of “The Last Longhorn” was an old settler of Foard County, Texas, named John Wesley. It appears he penned the stanzas in 1899--which makes sense, given the tenor of the times. 


In a scan of newspapers at the turn of the twentieth century, Texas to Montana, I find there was a public fascination with the alleged disappearance of the Longhorn. We know this was bunk, of course, as the breed remains vigorous and numerous today and occupies a continuing niche in the livestock industry.


Around 1900, though, there was this sense the frontier had passed, and things like the Longhorn would be no more. For instance, in 1907 the Bureau of Animal Industry sent a photographer out to gain photographic documentation of Geronimo, the alleged “last Longhorn” of Live Oak County, Texas--a beast with a horn spread of 9’6”.


Wesley’s ballad became known among cattlemen in Texas and was published in The Cattleman in 1916, but the song largely went underground until 1929. Then the cowboy singer Carl Sprague recorded it. The Library of Congress recording of Sprague is wonderful; Sprague has a lovely and expressive tenor voice.


On the face of it, “The Last Longhorn” seems like pure nostalgia--a poetic lament for a beloved relic of the past. A closer reading, however, reveals a more triumphal rhetoric. The song celebrates progress. In the end, the cowboy who keeps looking back at the dying Longhorn dies of a broken neck.


As I mentioned earlier, there is this fascinating take on the song published in the Kiowa County Signal, Greensburg, Kansas, on November 8, 1901, under the title, “The Lay of the Last Longhorn.” Herein the last Longhorn says (yes, he’s a talking steer),


I little dreamed what would transpire some twenty seasons hence, When the nester came with his wife, his kid, his dog, and his barbed wire fence.


In the Kansas text, which resonates with the same situation up and down the plains, it is not an improved livestock industry that has supplanted the Longhorn, it is the farmer--with his family, his dog, and his fences. 


Now, to bring this home to North Dakota: I believe the most popular poem by our unofficial first poet laureate James Foley, in his time, was “The Passing of the Prairie.” Personally, I think it is his best. I defy anyone, however, to read it alongside the cowboy ballad whose history I have here recounted and to convince me that Mr. Foley, when he penned his “The Passing of the Prairie” in 1913 or so, was not driving under the influence of Mrs. Norton, “Bingen,” and “The Last Longhorn.”

-Tom Isern

Prairie Public Broadcasting provides quality radio, television, and public media services that educate, involve, and inspire the people of the prairie region.
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