Sunday, March 8, 2015

'Catch-'em-Alive' Jack Abernathy and His Free-Range Kids

By Celia Yeary

Jack Abernathy holds the distinction of being the youngest U.S. Marshal in history. He was twenty-nine years old at the time. Before this prestigious accomplishment, Jack displayed talents that seemed unlikely for the son of a Texas farmer.

He was born in 1876 in Bosque County, Texas. In 1882, his family moved to Nolan County, Texas, where his father entered the booming cattle business. At that time, little six-year-old Jack had become a music prodigy and played the piano in a Sweetwater, Texas saloon. However, when his mother learned of this, she put a stop to it even though he earned $13 a night.

When Jack turned eleven, he worked as a cowboy for the A-K-X Ranch and helped drive a large herd of cattle 500 miles to Englewood, Kansas. At age fifteen, he worked on the J-A Ranch and soon earned a salary increase as "first saddle." His job was to break the meanest, orneriest horses on the ranch so others could ride them.

Jack had become known as "Catch-'em Alive" Abernathy, named such for his unique hunting skill of capturing prairie wolves with only his hands. When President Theodore Roosevelt learned of this, he requested that Jack demonstrate this feat. Teddy was so impressed he appointed him U.S. Marshal of the Western District of Oklahoma Territory, making him the youngest U.S. Marshal in history.

With this position, Jack and his wife Jessie Pearl moved to Guthrie, Oklahoma. Through President Roosevelt, Jack met many famous men of the day--Mark Twain, Jack London, O'Henry, Frederick Remington, Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, and Andrew Carnegie.

His acquaintance with Thomas Edison helped Jack make motion picture films of the wolf hunt and of his sons, Temple and Bud, and their adventures.
And now...for the rest of the story.
Jack Abernathy's two sons, Louis and Temple, inherited their father's self-reliance.

Image result for louis and temple abernathyIn 1909 the boys rode horseback from Frederick, Oklahoma in the Southwestern corner of the state, to Santa Fe, New Mexico, andback. Louis was nine, and Temple was five.

When the boys completed this first journey, they began planning a horseback ride to New York city, again by themselves, to meet Theodore Roosevelt who had just returned from his trip to Africa and Europe. They made this trip in 1910.
While in New York, the boys supposedly purchased a small Brush Motor Car, which they drove back to Oklahoma.

In 1911, they accepted a challenge to ride horseback from New York to San Francisco in 60 days or less. They agreed not to eat or sleep indoors at any point of the journey. They would collect a $10,000 prize if they succeeded.

After a long trip, they arrived in San Francisco in 62 days, thereby losing the prize but setting a record for the time elapsed for the trip.

As adults, the boys became successful in law and oil.
Their father made this statement to a news reporter:

"Teach a boy self-reliance from the moment he tumbles out of the cradle, and make him keep his traces taut and work well forward in his collar, and 99 times out of a hundred, his independence will assert itself before he is 2 years old. That's my rule, and you don't think I've taken the right tack talk to my boys for five minutes and they'll convince you that they are men in principles even if they are babies in years. God bless 'em."
Celia Yeary-Romance...and a little bit 'o Texas
My Website
My Blog
Sweethearts of the West-Blog
My Facebook Page 
U. of Neb.-Press
Baylor University-The Texas Collection


  1. Wow. Whatta Dad. Jack sure had a colorful and adventurous life. His kids must've made him proud enough to pop his buttons!

  2. A remarkable family, Celia. I agree about self-reliance, but doubt I would have let a five-year-old ride off to Santa Fe with only his slightly older brother. Obviously they were up to the challenge.

  3. Maggie--I'm not sure what the man was thinking. But kids back then grew up faster than today...or least I think so, according to stories I used to hear from my daddy and my uncle.
    Still, I doubt it a little bit- I can see the daddy trailing behind, out of sight...just guessing. But these stories are documented.

  4. Caroline--I know some of it was disputed a little, especially the part about buying the Brush Car. I found an article that declared the Brush Car people offered the can for free as advertisement. You can never know about these things. It's fascinating, though, isn't it?
    I looked on Amazon for some of the books--the one about Jack catching the wolves barehanded was out of print. I agree, a five year old is definitely a baby. Even an aggressive five year old only has the mental capacity for decision making of...a 5 year old.

  5. How interesting about him catching the wolves barehanded. I wonder what his tactics were. I agree on what were they thinking to let those young boys travel like that. I guess I was too protective of a mom.

  6. Thanks for sharing this, Celia! What an amazing bit of history.

  7. Celia, this is probably my favorite true story ever. Loved this, and I learned more -- I had no idea that Jack was a prodigy pianist. I really didn't know much about him--but the boys I had read about and researched. Amazing people, weren't they?

  8. Paisley...that's just it. The female is the protective one. The male--our husbands...think they can do anything.
    No way would any mother allow these children to go off on their own. I don't understand why she didn't kick up a fuss. But don't we all have men in our lives who think things are easier than they really are?

  9. You're welcome, Laurel. This is the fun part of research..finding these interesting, unlikely tales.

  10. Cheryl--they were all more amazing than I can imagine. Often, real life truly is more dangerous than in any story.

  11. Celia, the mom had died not long before he let them go off and do this, from what I recollect about reading their story. They had other siblings, too, but he had promised these two that they could do this, and when they reminded him of it, he felt as if he'd given them his promise, so he had to do it. I bet if the mom had been alive that would not have happened!

  12. Cheryl--thanks for this information. This makes it more interesting and a bit more plausible. I hadn't even thought about the mother. You're right, though, I bet there would have been a big fight about letting these children go off on their own. Amazing, isn't it?

  13. Pretty astonishing for kids to be that self-reliant, regardless of the times. In today's world, I was always paranoid someone would run off with one of my kids is I didn't have an eye on them most of the time.

  14. I can only think that since Jack was so young when he began his grand accomplishments, his two apples fell very close to his tree (or something like that.) What a remarkable family. I have to admit, I would never allow my kids to do it--especially in the mean world we have today.
    My sister and I rode the bus from Charlotte, NC to Sunbury, PA with a bus exchange in Washington, DC. She was 9 and I was 8. We thought nothing of it. I wouldn't think of allowing my kids to do that either. Those were very different times I guess.
    I really enjoyed the article.

  15. JD--I was a kid in the 40s and 50s, and we were not allowed to leave the yard--all girls. Once in a great while, I might get to walk down two blocks and play with another child.
    But in our own yard, my little sister and I were allowed to build a fire in a kind of makeshift barbecue thing made from a piece of pipe. We'd go in and ask for matches, and Mother would give them to us to start our fire. Amazing, now that I think on it.
    My husband--a depression baby--was 11th of 12 kids, and they lived way out in the country. He's told me many stories about, even at age six,he'd leave the house in the mornings and go home later in the day. At first he walked, then he had an old bike and he said he would ride that thing for hours on end..from one very small town to another, and finally go home at dark. Other kids did the same thing. Strange.
    We were protective of our kids when they were little, but in junior high they had free rein much of the time.
    But a five year old? I just can't imagine that.

  16. Sarah--you'd think we might believe yesterday's world was more dangerous, but I's world is much more dangerous.
    I surely wouldn't allow mine to roam around unattended.

  17. He'd probably be thrown in jail for allowing his boys to do that today. I'm of the mind that it wasn't a safe thing, even then, and others must have thought so, too, or there wouldn't have been news articles about it. Still, the whole idea of self-reliant kids intrigues me, even if that's very unpopular today.

  18. It's just amazing that Jack let those 2 so young boys travel that far--I'm mean they didn't have cell phones for easy contact and no way to get to them even if they got word(after so many days). YIKES! I think I have to agree, since he had accomplished so much by an early age, he thought nothing of letting them go for whatever. Gives me the shivers to think of 2 youngster on their own like that. But thanks so much for sharing this info. Very enlightening.

  19. Jacquie--I have the feeling from articles I've read that the boys had people waiting for them. They had to, to have food, at least.
    The first journey they made from the SW corner of Oklahoma to Santa Fe was long enough, but it wasn't like walking or riding to Washington or the West Coast.
    Since no mention was made of any help, I can't say for sure. But I knowing driving the Brush Car across country brought fame and help. They were never completely alone. And that's what I say happened from the beginning.
    Were these boys used for some commercial effect? Don't know..but just think how long the wagon trains took to travel across country. And think of all the horrors that they faced. I just wonder. I won't completely reject these claims, but...I can think of many reasons I might.

  20. Beverly--the more I read about these stories, the more suspicious I became as to the fact they had help along the way. I don't thing the articles or newspaper stories or books indicated, but if two little kids got a new Brush Car..called "A run-around"--you know that car maker was fully engaged in where the car was going. And who was driving it.
    These stories still astound me and baffle me,too. I want to take them at face value, but I cannot completely.
    So, in a way, yes, these kids did these things..but in the way it was told? I don't know.


Thank you for visiting Sweethearts of the West! We are very sad to require comment moderation now due to the actions of a few spam comments. Thank you for your patience.