A distinguished jurist in speaking of success in life said, “Some succeed by talent, some by influence of friends, some by a miracle, but the majority by commencing without a shilling.” The truth of this statement, specially the last clause, is illustrated by many of the greatest live-stock men of America, for in the majority of the cases among the pioneers the individual has been the builder of his own fortunes. Many of the men who have become acknowledged leaders in the cattle industry of the southwest began without special educational advantages and have gained knowledge on the boundless prairies under the starlit sky. In battling with obstacles of the gravest nature they have advanced through inherent force of character, unflagging diligence and strong determination and they deserve great credit for what they have accomplished.
A. B. Robertson, president of the Colorado National Bank of Colorado, Texas, and one of the most successful cattlemen of the great southwest, belongs to this interesting type of American citizens. For ten years he has been a member of the board of directors of the Cattle-Raisers’ Association of Texas and a member of the executive committee of the National Live Stock Association and has become well known throughout the United States in connection with cattle interests. He has also gained regard and won admiration by reason of his pleasing address, the ability with which he carries forward any undertaking and his upright, honorable character.
A. B. Robertson was born in Indiana, January 14, 1855, and was a son of Dr. A. B. Robertson, who removed with his family to Arkansas prior to the Civil war and at the time of hostilities joined the Confederate army. In 1863, when his son and namesake was eight years of age, the doctor sent his family in charge of a friend to the Brazos river in Texas, for the advance of the Federal troops alarmed many of the people of Arkansas and there was a considerable exodus from that state. The family at that time consisted of the mother, Mrs. Robertson, who is now living in Colorado, Texas; Richard P. and a sister, who are both now deceased; Annie Elizabeth, who did not come to Texas; W. C.; A. B.; G. J.; and J. P. Robertson. The trip was made in a covered spring wagon and the family located in what is now Hood county, where at the close of the war, they were joined by Dr. Robertson.
It was about this time that the subject o this review, who is usually known as “Sug”: Robertson, started for Western Texas and entered upon his career in the cowboy camp. For ten years the lad was almost continually in the service of R. K. Wiley, who proved to be a wise counselor and lifelong friend. He showed unusual aptitude for the range and soon was placed in charge of men of twice his age. When eighteen years of age he made his first acquaintance with the trail and took a herd of one thousand cattle belonging to his older brother, R. P., over the Chisum [Chisholm] trail from Coleman county, Texas, to Coffeyville, Kansas, one of the leading railway shipping points to eastern markets at that time. Mr. Robertson had eight men in his charge and succeeded in accomplishing his task not only with credit to himself but with good profit to his brother.
In the year 1873 the country was swept by a financial panic and many Texas cattlemen lost everything they had, but fortune favored the first important business venture of Mr. Robertson. He visited Kansas City, w here it required six days to dispose of six “loads” of cattle—a work that can be performed in as many minutes with the present facilities. In 1876 Mr. Wiley assisted him by giving him the opportunity of acquiring a half interest in a herd of cattle in Runnels county, Texas. Mr. Wiley also owned a herd of three or four thousand head of cattle of good grade on the Pecos river, which suffered greatly on account of the presence of a desperate band of cattle thieves. Men placed in charge of the herd seemed incapable of preventing the depredations and the outlook was gloomy indeed. At a time when the question of what to do was being seriously considered Mr. Robertson submitted a proposition which proved to be the basis of his fortune. He offered to sell to Mr. Wiley his interest in the herd in Runnels county and let the sum apply upon the purchase of the herd upon the Pecos river. The offer was accepted and a credit of fifteen thousand dollars was given, the balance of the purchase price being represented by a note of twenty-five thousand dollars which was promptly accepted by Mr. Wiley. This was in 1879 when Mr. Robertson was twenty-four years of age, and it stands as proof of the faith which the experienced cattleman had in his protégé.
Friends of Mr. Robertson attempted in vain to dissuade him from entering into the transaction, depicting to him the dangers to which he would be subjected from unprincipled men who infested the district and lived entirely off the cattle herds. Mr. Robertson, however, persevered in his plans and started for the Pecos with determination to win. Soon after arriving at the camp 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. “As I approached,” said Mr. Robertson, in relating the experience, “half a dozen of as ugly looking men as one would meet in a year on the frontier sprang on their feet and threw their guns down on me. I waved my hand as a friendly greeting and rode forward into camp. There I was invited to dismount. I talked to the men, saying I had paid all I had in the world for the cattle and had come out west to try to make some money. I told them I was not there to suppress cattle stealing as long as they let me alone, but I proposed to keep my cattle and if necessary would go to any length with that object in view.” At the close of the talk a beef was killed and a fine supper was served in the rustlers’ camp with the new cattle manager as the guest of honor. Many interesting subjects were discussed at the campfire and finally bed was brought out and the guest was invited to occupy it for the night. Mr. Robertson has generally accepted as true the statement that there is honor even among thieves, but in this instance he determined not to be over-confident and carried the bed thirty or forty yards out into the prairie, where he slept that night with his gun beside him. In the morning an appetizing breakfast was served and the visitors then started for his horse. The rustlers, however, would not permit him to get it, for he might see the cattle that had been carefully herded in the underbrush. So the horse was brought to him to the camp and before he left his new acquaintances assured him they would not interfere in any way with his cattle and if he experienced trouble from any other band they would assist him in obtaining redress. For three years, during which time he was in charge of the herd, the cattle were not disturbed by thieves. At the close of that time the cattle and ranch were sold, the original indebtedness was discharged and Mr. Robertson found himself in possession of fifty thousand dollars.
In 1882 Mr. Robertson settled at Colorado, where he now makes his home, and began ranching extensively in Mitchell and Nolan counties. In 1893 he bought a herd of cattle which he placed upon the range in Eddy county, New Mexico, and Gaines county, Texas. Here the Hat brand originated. In 1895 Winfield Scott, of Fort Worth, purchased an interest in the business and the firm of Scott & Robertson has for eleven years been conducting one of the great cattle ranches of the plains, covering an area of forty miles square in New Mexico and Texas. Since that time many improvements have been made on the ranch of one million acres of which Mr. Robertson has been the active manager. Several neighboring ranchmen sold their interests to the firm and fifty thousand dollars was expended in watering the range, as there was no surface water on the entire area. The outfit required the employment of forty men upon an average during the year and the use of five hundred saddle horses. The headquarters of the ranch were at Monument, New Mexico, and eight small ranch houses were erected at as many locations. The system of monthly reports was instituted and the work was soon placed upon a profitable basis. Owing to the encroachment of the small settlers the public lands included in the range are gradually being abandoned by the firm and it has been decided to lease no more land on the Texas side of the line. The firm of Scott & Robertson have established a ranch in Dawson county, Montana, one hundred miles north of Miles City, to which eight thousand cattle were shipped in the spring of 1903. It is proposed to continue shipments each season until the entire heard has been transported to the northern range.
On account of reckless management, inflated prices and an unhealthful boom in cattle in 1884-86 considerable disaster met the cattle raisers and Mr. Robertson, between the years of 1883 and 1886, lost heavily on account of going security for friends. He met the emergency, however, and has not only recovered, but has far surpassed the limits of his original holdings. For eight years, beginning with 1888, he bought and shipped range cattle on a large scale and as representative on a large commission firm he placed one million dollars, of which he never lost a dollar. His transactions in shipping range cattle amounted to at least fifty thousand head. From his Texas ranch eighty thousand cattle of various grades have been shipped to market and the famous Hat brand has become well known in Montana, the Dakotas and in fact in all the great markets of the country.
Mr. Robertson has given his aid and co-operation to many enterprises which have felt the stimulus of his activity and have profited by his sound judgment. In 1893 he became stockholder in the First National Bank of Colorado, Texas, and was elected its vice-president and a member of its board of directors and in 1899 he became president of the bank, which has a capital stock of one hundred thousand dollars and a surplus of eighty thousand dollars. In 1900 George B. Loving developed a plan for the absorption of many cattle ranches in Northwestern Texas by a New York syndicate and Mr. Robertson was selected as one of the appraisers. He visited a number of the ranches and when the plans of the rust failed to materialize Mr. Robertson purchased one of the ranches in Crosby, Lynn and Lubbock counties, comprising one hundred and twenty-five thousand acres. This is still owned by the firm of Robertson & Scott, supply range for ten thousand cattle. Mr. Robertson also had a ranch of twenty-five thousand cares in Borden county, which he recently sold. He also owned two wide-awake publications, the West Texas Stockman and the Weekly Clipper, both of which have been eminently successful.
On the 30th of May, 1877, Mr. Robertson was married to Miss Emma Lenorah Smith, of Runnels county, whose father was a stock farmer of Texas. For years she lived with her husband upon the ranch far out on the plains and she has ever been an ideal wife and mother. Four children have blessed their home: A. L. Robertson, now twenty-three years of age, who is one of the promising young cattle dealers and business men of the state; Pinkie, a daughter twenty years of age; A. B., a youth of ten years, and Poole, seven years of age.
Mr. Robertson had no opportunities for attending school in his early years and learned to read by studying newspapers in the light of the campfire when a cowboy and mastered writing by laboriously copying the bills of camp supplies made out by the merchants at his own request in order that he might have a model. He has, however, a high estimate of the value of education and his children are being provided with good facilities in this direction. Perhaps no better indication of the character and purposes of Mr. Robertson could be given than by quoting from his own words as he spoke of the cattle industry of the southwest. He said: “I have been a ranchman, not a feeder. I believe in a man sticking to the business he understands, but it is evident that the day of the great grange is passed and concentration and improvement of herds is the order of the day. The general government out to devise some plan of leasing the arid and semi-arid land fit for nothing but pasture and of benefit to no one as long as it is open to the public. Men who have foresight will not run the risk of placing large herds upon the public range with so-called settlers arriving and taking up the land. The lease laws should be so drawn up as to prevent a few men form leasing the whole country but should be drawn up on the good old democratic principle of the great good to the greatest number. I have faith that the problem will finally be worked out successfully. The time is coming when the land will in many wide districts be utilized for hay and forage crops. Water will be put upon many waste places and cattle will not be obliged to travel so far to water, thus saving flesh which is now walked off in traveling from food to water. Cattle are about as high bred for the range as they should be. The highest bred cattle are not a success on the open range, as they are not as hardy or as prolific as cattle or lower breed.
“West Texas is as yet undeveloped. We are just learning of the value of land which for many years has been regarded as a desert. In fact, the immense plains country will yet be recognized as the most valuable part of the state. Even in one of the driest seasons we have ever known good forage crops have been raised. The time is at hand when men with money to build reservoirs will recognize the opportunities presented on the staked plains and the flood waters will be utilized for irrigation. There is absolutely no soil in any country of the world that is more productive than that of West Texas if water is supplied. All varieties of timber grow readily in the region and I venture the prophecy that in years to come that staked plains will be the most densely populated districts of Texas. The country is level and unbroken and there is less waste land on the plains than in any other region of similar size I have ever seen. The climate is not too hot in summer and if wind breaks are built, as they will be, the winters will present no serious obstacles to settlements. It is a stock farming country and will take its place permanently as the richest stock farming district of America.
Mr. Robertson is a brilliant talker, a fine story teller and is always the center of a circle of admiring friends at gatherings of cattlemen. He was personally acquainted with many of the pioneer cattlemen and regarded John S. Chisum as the prince among them. He relates many interesting incidents concerning the early days. He said: “Nobody now know what a stampede is. In 1871 I was working at the Flat Top ranch in Coleman county, Texas. This ranch lay on the trail leading out of Texas to New Mexico and Arizona, striking the Pecos at Horsehead Crossing and passing through one stretch of ninety miles without a drop of water. The ranchmen for a radius of sixty or one hundred miles engaged me to watch the herds and cut out the strays. My business was practically that of cattle inspector of today. John Chisum had several herds en route to New Mexico and led the way with a herd of six thousand stock cattle and a man named Adams followed at a distance of eight miles with a herd of three thousand four or five year old steers. These cattle stampeded almost every night, for they had acquired the habit of stampeding. The first stampede was caused by a horse coming in from the second relief stepping into the opening at the top of a McClellan saddle which was lying on the ground. The horse’s foot was caught and he started to run. The strange noise made by the saddle as it struck the ground started the stampede. The provision wagon was quickly demolished and one man was knocked down and had his hip thrown out of joint. I had gone along with the herds for several days and at the eighteen mile crossing of the Concho river I decided to turn back from the large herd. Mr. Chisum, being informed of the troubles which Adams was undergoing, concluded to ride back with me. He thought he determined the cause of the stampedes. When he reached the steer herd Mr. Chisum directed Adams to bed his cattle for the night and when they got to the bed ground he would go out and look them over. I accompanied him. After riding through the herd for twenty or thirty minutes he called Adams and pointed out the cause of the stampede. It was a steer with extremely wide and crooked horns with one eye and narrow between the eyes. Mr. Chisum ordered that the steer be cut out, driven down the river and killed. The order was obeyed and there were no more stampedes on that trip.”
The filed of action into which Mr. Robertson was thrown very early in life was one of the most remarkable the world has ever known for the development of character. Surrounded by none of the luxuries of civilization, brought face to face with the stern problem of existence and obliged literally to win his way to any position he might reach, he early learned the great lesson of self-reliance. He found that perseverance wins and that the faithful performance of duty day after day will insure the attainment of every worthy ambition. Hopeful in disposition and gifted with magnetic qualities that insure leadership, he has been a source of inspiration to his associates and a leading factor in the growth of West Texas.
Source: B. B. Paddock, History and Biographical Record of North and West Texas (Chicago: Lewis Publishing Co., 1906), Vol. I, pp. 162-166.