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Cowboy's Saddle

Gus Bellport's saddle

To cowboys and cattle ranchers, saddles are an essential tool, although they often are overlooked in comparison with boots, spurs, and leather chaps.

Gus Bellport didn't live long enough to see a John Wayne movie. If he had, he might have accused the screenwriters of stealing his diary.

Bellport, a Kansas cowboy and rancher, purchased this saddle in San Antonio, Texas, while on a cattle-herding trip. It is well worn, suggesting that Gus used it both on the trail and later on his ranch. In the scheme of Gus' biography, it represents an adventurous life filled with trips across the rugged trails of the West and encounters with men and events that became legendary.

Heading West

Gus went west in 1866. With three friends, he left his home in Brown County, Ohio, and headed for the gold fields of Montana to seek his fortune. The group hopped a train and rode to Leavenworth, Kansas--the end of the line. Because hiring a team and driver was too costly, they found jobs driving supply wagons for the U.S. Army, joining a wagon train going to Salt Lake City, Utah. From there, they planned to leave the unit and go to Montana.

It was the first of many jobs that put Gus in a saddle. He drove a six-mule team hitched to a wagon. The job required Gus to ride the back left mule and control the entire team with a strap attached to the bit of the back right mule. Though it was a complicated endeavor, Gus mastered the skill. At Salt Lake City, the group learned that reports of gold in Montana were exaggerated and gave up their dreams of wealth. Gus remained with the Army, eventually returning to Fort Leavenworth where he signed up with another mule team.

Gus Bellport on his wedding day, June 27, 1877

Between 1867 and 1868, Gus drove teams to the forts of central Kansas. His job often made him part of historic events. In the summer of 1867, while running supplies from the train depot in Ellsworth to nearby Fort Harker, he was quarantined at the fort during a cholera epidemic. Gus did not catch the illness, but nearly 900 soldiers did. Forty-six died. Many more area citizens were also afflicted. The following year, Gus delivered merchandise to the signing of the Medicine Lodge Peace Treaty, a pact between the U.S. government and five plains tribes. Tribal members received the goods he delivered as part of the treaty.

Gus spent two years freighting supplies across the vast, open prairie before trading mules for a horse and supplies for cattle. At first he went into the livery business, sheltering the horses of Leavenworth citizens, including those of William "Buffalo Bill" Cody. Desiring to see more of the West, he soon took a job with the Powers Company in Leavenworth. The business, owned by David Powers, contracted with the government to supply forts with goods, including beef. Gus' first assignment was at Fort Hays, where he sold beef to local settlers and soldiers, including General George Custer and his men. Gus later supervised a group of cowboys who herded cattle from present-day Oklahoma to Leavenworth.

Bellport on horseback, probably using the museum's saddle. Photo courtesy of Thomas E. Richardson

Life of a Cowboy

When the Powers Company bought the Sherman ranch near Ellsworth, Kansas, Powers named Gus the ranch foreman. The cowboys rode to San Antonio, where they picked up cattle and herded them back to the ranch at Ellsworth. The romanticized version of cowboy life found in novels and films fails to describe how difficult the job was. In his diary, Gus recounted the story of one particularly difficult herd with a mind of its own. The cowboys called it the "Out-law herd." Driven in one direction, the cattle would push the opposite way. Prone to stampede and impossible to corral, the herd forced the cowboys to constantly circle to keep them together and calm. Just when the men thought it safe to let down their guard, the cattle became restless. When they finally reached the corral at Ellsworth, Gus went to his camp to rest. The next morning he returned to an empty corral; the herd had busted through the fence and was gone.

Gus & Mary Bellport outside their LaCrosse home. Photo courtesy of Thomas E. Richardson

After five years with the Powers Company, Gus decided to start his own ranch. The company sold him 400 head of cattle and gave him 150 steers. Gus wintered them in the Walnut River Valley and bought land east of Rush Center, Kansas. He operated the ranch until the late 1880s when the cattle boom came to an end. Around the same time, Rush Center lost its battle to become county seat to La Crosse, a new town four miles north. Gus realized that his fortune no longer rested in cattle and that the best business opportunities were located in the county seat. His family left the ranch and moved to La Crosse. Though he no longer raised and sold cattle, Gus could never entirely abandon the business. The store he opened in La Crosse was a butcher shop.

Gus sold the market in 1911, but continued to operate an ice house until he retired in 1924.

Gus lived in La Crosse until his death in 1933. The same year, his wife and daughter donated his saddle to the Kansas Historical Society. It remains in the collections of the Kansas Museum of History where it can be seen on display in the main gallery.

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Entry: Cowboy's Saddle

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: December 2007

Date Modified: December 2014

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.