D. J. O'Malley "Cowboy Poet"


Many poets have written of the cowboy. Only a few have seen their verses become a part of the folk lore that has grown up around him and the period in American frontier history that he typifies. Because Mr. D. J. O'Malley has been accorded this distinction, it is a great pleasure to be able to present here a short sketch of his life together with a selection of his poems just as he wrote them during his cowpunching days on the Yellowstone.

Westfield, N. J.,
May, 1934

DJ O'MalleyD. J. O'Malley's earliest recollections are of two frontier outposts, Fort Dodge and Fort Larned, both in Kansas. His step-father, White, served here in the 19th Infantry. White completed his enlistment with the foot soldiers at Lamed in 1875, then went to Fort Sanders, Wyoming, and joined the 2nd Cavalry, Troop E. In October, 1877, the regiment and the White family moved to Fort Keogh, near Miles City, Montana, not many miles from the scene of the Custer fight, which had taken place in the summer of the previous year.

As Indian warfare continued intermittently for the next few years, the fort at the junction of the Yellowstone and Tongue Rivers was an exciting place for a boy just entering his teens. Young O'Malley, who with his mother and sisters, lived at Keogh until 1881, naturally saw and heard many things that left lasting impressions. He knew many of the famous scouts and recalls the name of more than one young officer who has since made a reputation on other battlefields. Many a time he listened to the tales and songs of buffalo hunters and trappers who came to the post to lay in supplies and get the news of the day.

In a series of articles prepared for Montana newspapers several years ago, he tells of some of the incidents that took place in and around the fort in those days when frontier history was being made. One of the unusual events that he describes very vividly was the removal of 4,000 Indians from Koegh to reservations in Indian Territory and Dakota, an act that ended the Indian troubles of the white settlers in eastern Montana and opened up the country for cattle and sheep raising. Mr. O'Malley recalls that the transfer was accomplished by the use of the old sternwheel steamers that were a common sight on the Yellowstone in the early days.

In 1882 O'Malley went to work as horse wrangler for the Home Land & Cattle Company, a new outfit being developed by the Niedringhaus brothers. His wages were $45 a month, and he was promised at least seven months work by the foreman, John Quarrels. The Niedringhaus brothers prospered. Soon their brand, N-Bar-N, was a prominent one and their young wrangler had become an allaround cowhand. He remained with the company until the 'business was sold out 14 years later.

Mr. O'Malley is just a mite proud of the fact that while working for the N-Bar-N he served a long term as "rep", a sort of cowpuncher-at-large who often worked outside the home range keeping track of cattle and otherwise looking after the interests of the company he represented. A "rep" had to have a good character coupled with good judgment because his word was law with respect to calves branded, beef shipped and many other, matters. He had to be a good mixer. And he had to know brands. The big outfits were always buying up cattle carrying all kinds of brands and throwing them on the range where they often scattered over a wide area. A "rep" with his string of horses was sometimes away from the home ranch during the entire Summer.

Three trips over the trail with southern cattle bound for the northern ranges are among the many incidents that Mr. O'Malley recalls as he reviews his 19 years of cowboy life. The last trail drive in which he took part was in 1891. He is of the opinion that his company was still bringing trail herds up from Texas as late as 1894.

Mr. O'Malley says that when the Home Land & Cattle Company sold out in 1896 he realized that stock raising on a grand scale was about over in the northwest. But he remained in eastern$ Montana and rode for other outfits, among them the Bow-and-Arrow, the M-Diamond, the Half-Circle-L and the L-U-Bar. He also worked as deputy stock inspector for the Stock Growers' Association under Billy Smith.

In 1904 he served as special deputy sheriff at Rosebud under John Gibb, sheriff of Custer County. A few years later he was employed as guard in the State penitentiary at Deer Lodge. In 1909 he went east to Wisconsin, got married, and has lived there ever since with the exception of one other period, 1921 to 1924, as guard at Deer Lodge. He considers that he played somewhat of a practical joke on the younger of his two daughters when he allowed her to be born at the penitentiary.

It was early in his career as a cowboy that O'Malley discovered he had a knack for writing verses. And it was not long before the men riding with him found that his verses made good entertainment when sung to old tunes around the campfire after the day's work was over. With this stamp of approval on his efforts, he gained courage enough to send in a piece or two to the Stock Growers' Journal, the local weekly at Miles City. The editors, too, considered his poems worthy. As a consequence he was a fairly steady contributor for a good many years.

At least four of the O'Malley poems are well known wherever there is an interest in western range songs. These are "Sweet By-and-By Revised", "A Cowboy's Death", "After the Roundup" and "The D-2 Horse Wrangler". The last three have been located in early copies of the Stock Growers' Journal. Of the first named, there is unfortunately no record except a clipping in Mr. O'Malley's scrapbook which has no date.

Mr. O'Malley recalls that "Sweet By-arid-By Revised" was one of his earliest attempts at verse making. He believes it probably was the third or fourth poem of the forty or more that he wrote while following the cowpuncher's trade. The original, which he says appeared in the Journal during the middle 80's, is a rather crude set of verses, only five in number. These apparently furnished the foundation for the ballad often called "The Cowboy's Dream", which has been given a place in nearly every collection of American frontier songs. An interesting chapter in the history of this later ballad is related on page 10. [corrected on pamplet from "page 8."]

A photographic reproduction of "After the Roundup" as it appeared when first printed will be found among the pages that follow. This is now generally known as "When the Work is Done Next Fall". The author says that he and his friends sang it to the tune of "After the Ball", a popular new song at the time the verses were written. Like most of the O'Malley poems, this is signed D. J. White, the cowboy poet, having gone by his step-father's name at the time. Today in Montana many of his old friends still know him as Dominick or Kid White.

The poem "A Cowboy's Death" has gained a fairly wide circulation among cowboy ballad singers under the title "Charlie Rutledge". Mr. O'Malley recalls that Rutledge, a Texan, was killed in the Spring of 1891 during a general roundup on the north side of the Yellowstone in what is now Rosebud County. He was "repping" for the X-I-T and at the time of his death was riding with the N-Bar-N wagon. He was attempting to take a steer out of the general herd for his own "cut" when his horse stumbled and he was thrown. It was at once apparent that the cowboy was badly injured. One of his fellow punchers rode 60 miles to Miles City for a doctor, but Rutledge died before medical aid could reach him.

The humorous poem which Mr. O'Malley calls "D-2 Horse Wrangler" is now found in printed collections under the title "The Horse Wrangler" or "The Tenderfoot". This very lively bit of verse, which depicts the adventures of a greenhorn with ambitions to become a cowhand, is signed R. J. Stovall in the Stock Growers' Journal. Mr. O'Malley explains that he himself wrote the lines but because an acquaintance who was the subject of the yarn wished to surprise his wife in Denver by blossoming out as a poet, the latter was allowed to sign his name. There was one consideration, a $5 hat, which incidentally was the most that Mr. O'Malley ever got for a poem.

The fact that he has received little or no credit for his work from those who have been singing or publishing his poems during the past 40 years has not been resented by Mr. O'Malley. He can understand low his name could easily have become lost from his verses as they were copied by small town newspapers or handed on from one singer or another. What he does resent, and that most emphatically, are the efforts of others to claim his poems and collect royalties on them. His pet aversion is one R. 0. Mack, whose name appeared on a sheet music edition of "When the Work is Done Next Fall", issued in 1929 by a well known publishing house in New York City The real author of the poem promises that if he ever catches up with Mack the latter can expect a warm five minutes.

Mr. O'Malley is very emphatic on one other point in connection with cowboy songs and cowboy singing. He wishes to go on record as saying that during all of his long experience in the Montana cattle country he never knew a cowboy could or would yodel.

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