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Texas Cowboy

Sep 5, 2020


George F. Will, of Bismarck - ethnologist, archeologist, dendrochronologist, and son of the celebrated horticulturalist and seedsman, Oscar Will - was also, as disclosed in a previous essay, a songcatcher - a lover and collector of folksongs, particularly cowboy ballads. He published his folksong findings in the Journal of American Folklore in 1909 and 1913.

Happily, in his 1913 article, entitled “Four Cowboy Songs,” Will provides the names of his informants: William Sunderland, E. R. Steinbrueck, and Arthur Bivins. Perhaps we can trace the path of the songcatcher, young George Will, and see what sort of characters he got his material from.


William Sunderland gave Will two songs: “Punching Cows,” a comic lament of a tenderfoot set up to fail as a cowhand, and “The Texas Ranger,” which is a song with origins in a better-known ballad, “The Buffalo Skinners.” My old friend Ben Kubischta suggests that Sunderland was perhaps a cowhand who had come up the trail from Texas and settled in Dakota Territory. A reference in state historical society documents supports this narrative.


I don’t think so. Sunderland’s father hailed from New York, his mother from Wales, and in 1880, at age 17, he was living with them on Front Street of Bismarck, listing his occupation as farmer. In 1910 he was still single, rooming with a family on Mandan Avenue, listing his occupation as gardener, his employer as “seed store.” His obituary in 1916 explains that for twenty-five years he worked for Oscar Will’s seed company.


So there is the connection with songcatcher the Will, an association that comprised more than the exchange of folksongs. In 1908 the Bismarck Tribune reports Will setting off on a geological expedition into the Badlands accompanied by Sunderland and another older man, Otis Tye. Tye was a Bismarck resident who shortly would take up a homestead in Oliver County. Sunderland, I am beginning to suspect, was the minder dispatched by old Oscar to look after young George.


The newspaper in 1910 describes a float trip by the three men down the Missouri River from Glasgow, Montana, home to Bismarck. They paddled an 18-foot boat made “on the pattern of a Chinook canoe” built for them by Tye. It was mainly a pleasure trip, but Will also stopped to visit with reservation Indians and to scout archeological sites. And, I like to think, enjoyed the singing of his companion Sunderland.


Will’s other two song informants, Steinbrueck and Bivins, also were interesting characters. Steinbrueck offered a lumberman’s ballad called “Shanty Teamsters’ Marseillaise,” a ballad also related to “The Buffalo Skinners.” 


Ernest Rheinhold Steinbrueck was the immigrant son of a distinguished family in Düsseldorf, a German naval veteran, a former German-language newspaper, a dedicated archeologist (you can find his photographs and artifacts in the state historical society and the Smithsonian), and, according to his obituary, a man “of a genial disposition and his wide range of information on various topics made him an interesting conversationalist.” Sometime in his life he worked a few years in the timber of Ontario.


And then we have Robert Arthur Bivins, the only real cowboy in the bunch, in seems. He was born in Lampasas, Texas, home today of, and I am not making this up, the World’s Largest Spur, and came up the trail to Dakota Territory, married his wife Anna there, after which they settled on a farm near Braddock. I do not know how he was acquainted with George Will, but when Bivins sang Will the cowboy ballad, “The Texas Cowboy,” he was singing from experience.

-Tom Isern