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Turkey Track Tells of Trailing


North Dakota lost one of her great old-time cowboys on this date in 1942. Turkey Track Bill – alias William Molash – was a cowpoke who helped trail vast herds of cattle in the 1890s. He got his nickname from working for the Turkey Track Ranch, which brought cattle up from Texas during the summers. Molash once helped move a herd of 7,000 cattle over the Rocky Mountains from Salt Lake City.

Turkey Track was scrappy and skinny, with a long nose, full mustache, and a long gray goatee. His eyes were droopy, but his grin was mischievous – he was famous for his good humor and for playing practical jokes. The last things he took off before bed were his hat and his six-shooter, which he slept with.

Molash lived for a long time in the Fort Yates area and often worked on the ranch owned by Ott Black and Mustache Maude.

Photographer and journalist, Frank Fiske, wrote about “Turk” a few weeks before his death. “Turkey Track always gets a laugh,” Fiske wrote, “when he tells of the time trouble started at a dance in the old town of Forest City, South Dakota. ‘We were dancing in a hall above a store when someone started shooting,’ said Turk. ‘The women started for the door and in about a minute the steps that led down to the ground on the outside of the building was packed with women and kids. It was a dark night so I go out on the railing and started shooting down alongside of the steps. My idea was to give the women light so’s they wouldn’t crowd too much, but it made them worse for some reason. Nobody was hurt, but the dance was over. We couldn’t get the women back...They couldn’t see it our way at all.’”

Fiske also remembered a different side of his friend. “One evening Turk and I were sitting on our back steps,” Fiske wrote. “The sun was setting in a blaze of red across the foothills. Indian tents were visible on the flat. Horses were grazing there. Dust was rising...on the roads out there...”

“A trail herd of 7,000 head of cattle makes a pretty picture,” Turk said. “They are strung out for, maybe, 10 miles, curving this way and that, and up and down over the raises. Seven men can handle ‘em. Two at the head called, ‘pointers,’ two at the middle one on each side called, ‘the swing,’ two at the back, the same way, called, ‘the flankers,’ and one behind at center, called, ‘the drag.’

“The herd starts out in the morning,” said Molash, “and is let graze along until the fill-up. The pointers let ‘em spread out and take their time. When they get fed the pointers begin to head them into the trail, closing ‘em in until they’re not more than six abreast. A pointer has to use judgment for he can’t crowd ‘em too much or get ahead of ‘em. That might start the wild ones to milling. The swingers take care of the middle and keep the cattle following on the trail. And the flankers hold ‘em in line. The feller on the drag has a hard job as he has to keep the lame and tired ones up.

“Along about noon,” Turk said, “they aim to reach water, and the chuck wagon gets there first and the cook goes to work on the dinner. The cattle trail better when the wind is against them – when it’s the other way the boys have to work harder. But when they smell the water they sure go for it on the run. As soon as the pointers and swings get to camp they lay off for dinner. It might be an hour or more until the cook is ready, but they wait. The flankers and the drag are still out there coming up with the cattle, and when they get in they lay off and eat. During the afternoon the trailing is done the same until evening.”

Source: Fiske, Frank. “Turkey Track Bill was Tops in Dakota.” Selfridge Journal. 16 July 1942.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm