Friday, October 14, 2016

Cattleman David Shirk Owns Longhorns Driven from Texas [otd 10/14]

“The next day, October 14th, 1871, after all were mounted, we proceeded to divide the cattle,” rancher David L. Shirk said in his memoir.
Ridin' drag. Library of Congress.

Shirk was one of two junior partners with prominent Idaho cattleman George T. Miller. The three of them had purchased 1,500 longhorns in Bell County, Texas and driven them into Idaho.

Born in Indiana in 1844, David Shirk grew up on farms there and later in Illinois. Shortly after the end of the Civil War, he headed west, drawing wages for driving a freight wagon to Denver. From there, he traveled to Silver City, Idaho, arriving in August 1866. He started off well, but then almost died from “mountain fever.” That left him in debt for his care.

Determined to be debt-free, Shirk labored steadily for a farm-ranch operation, and was fortunate … and astute … enough to do well with some small cattle investments. Fifteen months later he found himself ahead by $1,150 – a considerable sum at a time when cow hands made $30 a month.

He spent another year herding cattle for a Silver City butcher. Then the butcher tasked him to drive a flock of sheep south to the gold camps in Nevada. Despite his limited experience, the latter drive was very successful. But Shirk commented, “After getting through with that drive, I could hear a sheep bleat for five years.”

By early 1871, Shirk had accumulated the capital to combine with Miller and the other partner. They bought horses and other equipment in Texas, and then bargained for cattle. The drive finally headed north in mid-April. Their trek was fairly typical: That is, months of punishing work and constant danger – from rustlers, Indian raiders, and the elements.

About a week out of Fort Worth, a severe nighttime storm stampeded the herd and Shirk rode off an embankment into a swollen stream. He struggled onto the dubious safety of a scant island. Still, he said, “All that saved me was the cessation of the storm, otherwise I should not now be relating the venture.”
David Shirk.
University of Oregon Library.
The herd-split noted above took place on the rugged plains south of Bruneau, Idaho. Shirk drove his band to a grazing area on the Snake River about five miles north of today’s Murphy. He eventually sold the animals for a net return of over $2,000. Considering that outcome, Shirk observed, “When one considers the risk, dangers of the drive, and the risk of losing every dollar you had in the world, not to mention life itself, the profits were not unreasonable.”

He made another successful drive from Texas in 1873. The Owyhee Avalanche in Silver City, Idaho reported (September 27, 1873) the arrival: “Two drovers, named Dill and Shirk, each with about 1,900 head of cattle, have arrived from Texas, and will hibernate in the northwestern portions of our county … Dill is at present at Salmon Falls, and Shirk has reached Bruneau valley.”

A few weeks after his arrival, Shirk made a deal for his cattle at a nice profit. Within a couple years, Shirk had established his own ranch in Oregon, having concluded that the Owyhee region in Idaho lacked room for the operation he wanted.

Ready to ease off in 1896, he bought a winter home in Berkeley, California. The family eventually moved there permanently. Shirk died there in 1928.
References: Mike Hanley, with Ellis Lucia, Owyhee Trails: The West's Forgotten Corner, Caxton Printers, Caldwell, Idaho (1973).
Byron DeLos Lusk, Golden Cattle Kingdoms of Idaho, Master’s thesis, Utah State University, Logan (1978).
David L. Shirk, Martin F. Schimdt (ed.), The Cattle Drives of David Shirk, Champoeg Press, Portland, Oregon (1956).

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