Songwriter and actor Stan Jones wrote the iconic western song “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky” in 1948. There are two versions of how he came to compose this hauntingly beautiful piece about ghostly cowboys chasing a ghostly herd “across these endless skies”. In the first version, he was out riding on his birthday–June 5–when a storm came up, and was impressed by clouds scudding by that resembled men on horseback. In the second version, he’s said to have told a friend that he was inspired by memories of a ghost story he was told by an old cowboy, when Jones was only twelve years old.
First recorded by Burl Ives in February 1949, with Vaughn Monroe’s incomparable hit version following a month later, the song has become the most-recorded composed western song of all time, with versions by countless acts.
Most sources agree that the story the old cowhand told Jones must have been this one, about a spooky tableland in Crosby County, Texas known as Stampede Mesa.
In the fall of 1889 a trail boss called Sawyer was taking a herd of about a thousand head north to the railheads in Kansas. One night, he and his cowboys were looking for a place to camp when they spotted a “nester”, a homesteader–affirmatively not one of Sawyer’s crew–cutting out a few head at the back of the herd. When confronted, the man insisted that, as Sawyer’s herd passed by his little spread, some unbranded cattle from his herd had wandered over and mingled with Sawyer’s, and he was simply reclaiming his mavericks.
Sawyer was tired, dusty, and cranky, as were his crew and, more importantly, his herd. Sawyer told the importunate cowboy that he’d have to wait until morning to cut his few head out of the herd; he was ready to camp for the night, and there was a storm coming up, one of those awesome displays of lightning, thunder, wind and rain that bedevil the Texas plains sometimes.
The cowhand blustered that all Sawyer was doing was trying to steal his pitiful little steers, but gave up when Sawyer flashed a gun at him.
Sawyer and his crew bedded down the cattle atop a little mesa: sweet grass on the flat and sweet water below. The cattle settled down; Sawyer put a few hands on guard duty, and the others got some sleep; they would rise to take a turn later.
The storm did come, and in the midst of it, the herd stampeded: not toward the sweet drinking water below, but right toward the cliffs on the other side. In the melee, two of Sawyer’s men, and seven hundred head of cattle, were killed, dashed to death on the rocks below.
When they finally got the herd turned, Sawyer asked what in the hell stampeded them damn steers?
And one of the cowboys, tired and dazed and broken up over the deaths of his fellow herdsmen, said that he wouldn’t swear to it, but he thought he’d seen that rustler–that was the word he used, rustler–waving a blanket and shouting at the back of the herd, still trying, deep in the night, to cut out those few scraggly mavericks he’d claimed were from his herd.
Morning wasn’t long coming, and Sawyer and his men went after the nester/rustler.
They blindfolded him and his horse, tied the nester in the saddle, gave the terrified horse a hard slap on the rump, and drove nester and horse over the cliffs on the mesa, leaving them to die alongside Sawyer’s dead steers and cowhands.
Sawyer rounded up his remaining three hundred head and hit the trail again.
The next season, a trail boss bedded down a herd atop that mesa one night. It was the biggest mistake of his life. That night, there was no storm rolling across the skies, yet, in the wee hours, the herd stampeded. Nearly the entire herd–and a few more cowboys–were lost.
There was no explanation for this sudden deadly panic.
Word gets around. In general, thereafter, the little table with the sweet grass on top and sweet water below, now given the ominous nickname Stampede Mesa, was avoided by drovers, but there are always a few who couldn’t resist the grass and water. Each herd that bedded down there overnight stampeded and left its bones–and those of a few more cowboys–on the rocks below.
Some few cowboys who weren’t swept to their deaths reported that, just when the herd broke loose, they saw a stranger on horseback, waving a blanket over his head and shouting, riding up on the back of the herd, spooking them and causing them to rush the others.
Sometimes, too, they reported seeing other strangers on horseback, racing desperately around the panicked herd, trying to turn them back before they ran over the cliff.
They never succeeded.
Eventually, even the most skeptical trail bosses learned not to mess with the vengeful nester–and his ghostly counterparts–atop Stampede Mesa.
The days of the cattle drives were coming to an end, anyway, as railroads were built across Texas, so there was no need, anymore, to bed a herd down for the night atop the haunted mesa.
But the story of the Sawyer herd and the nester he and his cowboys lynched has never been forgotten.
Ed Syers, Ghost Stories of Texas (1981)
Richard and Judy Dockrey Young, Ghost Stories from the American Southwest (1991)
S.E. Schlosser, Spooky Southwest (2004)
In the 1994 edition of The National Directory of Haunted Places, Dennis William Hauck attributes the inspiration for “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky” to an entirely different legend. Dating to the 1870s, this one says that a trail boss driving a herd along the Neches River in Real County came across a nester who had built a farmstead that blocked his usual route. There was always tension between drovers and settled farmers, and the trail boss, annoyed beyond reason, drove the herd at a dead run straight through the farmhouse, killing the farmer and his entire family.
It seems to me that the Stampede Mesa story is by far the more likely inspiration.
By the way, the tune to which Jones set his words is a familiar one to those of us of Irish descent: slow it down just a tad and it’s recognizably “Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ye”.