The “Murder Steer”

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Sometimes when I can’t think of anything interesting to blog about, I search for inspiration on the Texas State Historical Association website on their Day-by-Day segments of “Today in Texas History.” Boy, was I glad that I had writer’s block! Because without it, I never would have run across this historical gem.

Cow and CalfOn January 28, 1891 – A man by the name Fine Gilliland got in a dispute with cattleman, Henry Harrison Powe during a roundup in Brewster County. Gilliland had been hired by the firm of Dubois and Wentworth to ensure none of the local ranchers absconded with their company cattle. A dispute arose regarding a single, unbranded yearling steer that had been separated from its mother. Powe believed the steer belonged to one of HHP brand cows. Gilliland disagreed.

Now, Gilliland must have been a hired gun, for the way he “disagreed” was to start a gunfight. Gilliland shot and killed Powe, then fled on horseback. Killed a man over ONE steer! Really???

Four Texas Rangers - Jim Putnam is standing, third from the left.

Four Texas Rangers – Jim Putnam is standing, third from the left.

Never fear, though. Justice in the form of the Texas Rangers tracked Gilliland down. Ranger Jim Putman and Deputy Sheriff Thalis Cook tracked Gilliland through a canyon during a January snowfall. They came across a man on horseback and when Cook asked him if he was Gilliland, the hired gun responded with two shots. One hit Cook’s kneecap, the other felled his horse. Gilliland then spurred his mount into a run, but Ranger Putman kept his cool. He dismounted, aimed his rifle, then shot Gilliland’s horse out from under him. (Anyone else feeling bad for the horses?) Putman ordered Gilliland to surrender. How did Gilliland respond? You guessed it – with gunfire. Using his fallen horse as a shield, Gilliland fired at the ranger. Putman took cover and returned fire, taking Gilliland out with a shot to the head the next time the fellow raised up to shoot.

The canyon where Gilliland dies was later named Gilliland Canyon. Seems to me, it’d be more noble to name it for Putman, but whatever.

steer branded murderNow here’s the cool part . . . Remember that unbranded steer that started this whole mess? Well, the poor thing got branded. And not just with a little HHP. Nope. They branded the word “MURDER” one one side of his hide and “JAN 28 91” on the other. Then the steer was released into the wild to roam the countryside. For years, there were sightings of the “murder steer” and it became a thing of legend. Ghost stories were told that if you saw the murder steer (or its ghost) it meant that someone would die. Others claim that the murder steer shows up whenever there is foul play. Tales carried down through history, and they even inspired an episode of the classic western TV show, Rawhide.

  • Have you ever heard tales of the murder steer?
  • Any of you remember the Rawhide episode with this story line?
  • If you’re interested in the Rawhide episode, you can watch it on You Tube here.
Karen Witemeyer
For those who love to smile as they read, bestselling author Karen Witemeyer offers warmhearted historical romance with a flair for humor, feisty heroines, and swoon-worthy Texas heroes. Karen is a firm believer in the power of happy endings. . . and ice cream. She is an avid cross-stitcher, and makes her home in Abilene, TX with her husband and three children. Learn more about Karen and her books at: www.karenwitemeyer.com.

27 Comments

  1. Karen, never heard of the “Murder” steer. That’s really interesting. I’ll have to check out that Rawhide episode. I’ll be in Texas this spring and I sure don’t want to come across that steer.

    1. Ha! I’ve been here for 25 years and haven’t seen it yet, so you should be safe, Margaret. Of course, I tend to stay within city limits most of the time. 🙂

  2. I had not heard of the murder steer. I’ll have to ask my husband he watches Rawhide & if I don’t remember it I’m betting he can refresh my memory.. Interesting story, thanks.

    1. Thanks, Deanna. Might make for some interesting dinner conversation for you and your hubby. make sure you have a big juicy steak while you discuss it. 🙂

  3. Wow, what a crazy story. I’d probably be a little confused if I saw a wild steer with “murder” branded on its side. Thanks for sharing!

    1. It would definitely give me a bad case of goosebumps if it crossed my path. Thanks for stopping by, Susan.

  4. OH MY GOSH I LOVE THE MURDER STEER LEGEND.
    Not so much all the killing over it though. It sounds like Gilliland needed killing.

    1. Yeah – I had to say that I was glad Putman got him. All this over one stinking cow. A little over-zealous.

  5. Good morning, Karen! I’ve seen the episode of Rawhide concerning the Murder Steer, but didn’t realize that it was based on an actual event. Very interesting! I’ll have to check out the story. Thanks for sharing! 🙂

    1. Hey, Angi! How fun that you remember the Rawhide episode. This is definitely one of those times that truth is stranger than fiction. Though fiction can have a field day with it. 🙂

  6. The tale is also told in J Frank Dobie’s classic The Longhorns . Pretty sure that’s where the Rawhide writers got it .

    1. Great info, JW. I bet this tale appeared in many forms over the years. Good legends usually do. 🙂

  7. Poor horses indeed, sob. This is an amazing post, Karen, and I feel your joy at finding something so cool! Hugs…

    1. Thanks, Tanya. I just knew when I stumbled across that tidbit that I had to post about it. The story was just too good to pass up. 🙂

  8. This is really interesting. I have never heard of this either.

    1. Just goes to show, you never know what gem you’ll find when you start turning over those historical rocks. 🙂

  9. Love Texas history. I went over to the video and watched a little of it am may what it all later. It brought back some of my childhood because we always watched Rawhide. My dad was big into westerns on TV and in books, I think that is why I enjoy them so much now.

    1. How fun to walk down memory lane, Quilt Lady. Hope you enjoy the episode. I was a sucker for TV westerns as a girl, too. They were all re-runs in the 70s when I watched them, but I still ate them up. I think they used to show them on Saturdays, so I could watch several different ones in a row. Bonanza, The Big Valley, Wagon Train – those were my favorites.

  10. First I see a need for anger management-dealing with a hothead can be deadly.
    Second I see a need for the animal rights activists to show up and end the senseless violence against both horses and the steer.
    Third, Do you know how that had to hurt to be branded on both sides and how useless that hide was after that?
    I am glad that you shared this with us. I had never heard about the “Murder Steer” before but it does give credence to some of those tall tales that I wonder about. 🙂

    1. All excellent points, Rosie! Though, I don’t think they cared too much about the state of the hide after the branding since they set the steer loose. makes me sad for the poor thing to have to endure such a painful process for such a long time, though.

  11. Very interesting story!!Love what I learn on this blog. I will have to watch that episode.

  12. I never heard of this murder steer. I did watch RAWHIDE but that was back in the 60’s. I do not remember the episode with the murder steer in it.

  13. I have lived in Texas all my life (56 years) and have never heard this story. It is really interesting. I may have to check out the Rawhide episode.

  14. I love these kinds of stories! I’ve seen the episode, but I didn’t realize it was based on a true story, either. Do you have any advice for a writer who wants to use a real-life historical event like this in historical fiction?

    1. Hi, Kerri.

      When using actual historic events, an author must be careful. I tend to shy away from them, myself. I would recommend handling it one of two ways – either keep it as a peripheral detail where you mention it but don’t describe it at great length OR do extensive research, so you can make it as accurate as possible. The tricky part comes in mentioning real people in your fiction. Relatives/descendents might take umbrage with you using their ancestor in your story. However, with legends like this one, you could have the murder steer show up in all its ominous glory in your story, then have your characters mention the true story behind it without getting into great detail, and you’d probably be safe.

  15. Oh, my gosh. Can’t believe I still know all the words to the Rawhide theme song. I miss the TV westerns. Will have to finish the episode when I have more time. It was great seeing the cast members again. We watched the show, but I don’t remember that episode. It has been a few years.
    An interesting post. After all the trouble surrounding the steer, it is odd they branded it the way they did and released it.

    1. How fun that you could still sing along, Patricia! 🙂 I miss the old westerns, too. I enjoyed Longmire while it was on, but we haven’t had a good historical western in some time.

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