1922: Cattleman Murdo Mackenzie


1) A man who needs a gun is no man
2) No effort is ever wasted, even if unpaid
3) Knowledge can be spent repeatedly, money just once
4) Circumstances can be better than any “life plan”
(For numbers two and four, also see: 1922: General Manager Edward M. Skinner)

From a 1922 issue of The American Magazine:



Do You Use Fair Play or “Gun Play” to Gain Your Ends?

In the heyday of Western “bad men” Murdo Mackenzie refused to carry a gun. The pistol toters killed themselves off; but Mackenzie, by straight thinking and fair dealing, lived to become one of the world’s cattle kings

by Neil M. Clark

The very name, Murdo Mackenzie, carries a hint of something interesting. No one needs to be told that the name comes from Scotland. It is as Scotch as the heather in the Highlands, where Murdo Mackenzie was born.

That was in 1850; and in the seventy-two years which have passed since that time Mackenzie has lived an extraordinary life.

He has been a de facto ruler over millions of acres in this country and in South America. More than once he has looked down the barrel of a six-shooter — and the gun wasn’t in his hands! Another man’s finger was on the trigger and the muzzle was pointing at Mackenzie. But in spite of threats from his enemies and of pleadings from his friends, he himself never carried a weapon of that sort.

Fortunately mighty few of us have to decide whether we ought to carry a six-shooter. But all of us do have to decide whether we are going to depend on some kind of a figurative gun to get what we want.

The man who tries to intimidate his employees by raking them over the coals is a man who, in that sense, carries a gun. So is the man who depends on browbeating his associates, the one who depends on cussing out his workmen, the employee who makes threats, the woman who resorts to tears to win an argument, the one who depends on nagging to get her own way.

To every single one of us the temptation comes to “carry a gun” of some sort. We think we must, because the other fellow does. But the big thing in Murdo Mackenzie’s story is the fact that he not only refused to carry a weapon when everybody else did, but that he declared, and proved, that he was safer without one.

The gunmen killed themselves off, while he survived. And that is pretty certain to be what happens with the figurative gun-carriers just mentioned.

Born in a rugged country and of sturdy stock, Murdo Mackenzie was a rugged and sturdy boy. His father was a farmer, and the lad attended the parish school until he was fourteen. Then, for four years, he went to an academy in a town seven miles from his home. Most of this time he walked the whole distance of fourteen miles every school day, getting up long before six o’clock in the morning, and not reaching home until after six in the evening.

When he finished, at eighteen, he planned to become a lawyer. But two years in a law office convinced him, and everybody else concerned, that the bar was no place for him. So he decided to become a banker.

His salary in the law office had been nothing per week. And that was exactly what he received in the bank for the next three years! He put in long hours of hard work at these two jobs for five years without a penny in salary. By finding outside work that he could do at night, he earned enough money to pay for his meager living. But even this became pretty difficult after a time, when, because of his willingness and energy, the bank manager gave him the work of two clerks to do. This often kept the young man at his desk until midnight.

“But I never have regretted those years of unpaid labor,” he said to me not long ago. “The knowledge and experience I gained then have been invaluable to me ever since. Not a day passes, even now, that I do not use in some way the details I learned in those five years. The money a young man receives from his early work is, or should be, the very least of the benefits he gains from it.”

Among the bank’s customers was the manager, or factor, of the estate of Sir Charles Ross, of Balnagown, the very estate on which Mackenzie was born. The factor got to know the young bank clerk well; and when the opportunity came he asked Mackenzie to become his assistant, at one hundred pounds — about five hundred dollars — a year.

One hundred pounds was the annual salary of the bank accountant and cashier! And Mackenzie knew that if he stayed on in banking he couldn’t reach that position for a long, long time. So he accepted the factor’s offer, received a gratuity of ten pounds in recognition of his services to the bank, and went back to the land. That step decided his whole future career.

The Ross estate comprised something like five hundred thousand acres. There were about five hundred tenants on it, about twelve thousand sheep on a sheep farm held in the proprietor’s hands, and several thousand acres of game preserves. Mackenzie’s experience in handling the countless details of this job taught him to manage large affairs and to think in terms of thousands.

When he was twenty-six he married. And in order to take care of his increased expenses he became joint agent of a local bank, squeezing in the new duties along with the rest of his work. But when he reached the age of thirty-five he still was earning only what would have amounted, in our money, to about twelve hundred dollars a year.

Thirty-five years old! And with a job, or, rather, two jobs, that brought him twelve hundred a year! It doesn’t look as if he had accomplished very much. But he had made something besides money. He had made a record of inviolable honesty and of unfaltering purpose.

You can understand this, when you look at him to-day. He ie is heavy-set. Physically, he is a man whom it would be hard to move. And when he looks straight at you out of his gray eyes, you cannot doubt that it would be still harder to move him from a course of action which he had decided was right. On his record of integrity and of accomplishment he took the next step in his career.

One day a lawyer, who had done business with and through Mackenzie and who had been impressed by his force and character, asked him how he would like to go to the United States and manage the finances of a great cattle ranch in Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas. The property was owned in Scotland. It had been more or less mismanaged, and the owners wanted someone on the spot whom they could trust. So at thirty-five, Mackenzie came to a new country, among a people strange to him, and undertook a new and big job.

The only part of the world of which he knew anything by experience was the small section of the Scottish Highlands, inhabited by a law-abiding people who lived according to ancient custom and tradition. In the West, in 1885, he found himself a pioneer, in a country where men made their own customs and were laws unto themselves.

Among these customs was the universal one of carrying a gun. Those who did not carry one to enforce their demands, or their whims, carried one to protect themselves against the others. In fact, a man without a gun was either a dead man or a curiosity.

“I thought the matter over,” says Mackenzie, “and decided that if I did carry a gun, I wouldn’t last long. If anyone picked a fight with me and it came to shooting, he would get me first. For me to tote a six-shooter would be a provocation and an excuse to others. I didn’t believe it was necessary, anyway. So I didn’t buy any pistols.”

Instead of trying to become a good marksman, he devoted himself to becoming a good manager. He went out there to look after the finances of the company; but within three years he was put in sole charge of the whole enterprise. After a few years he became manager and part owner of the Matador Land and Cattle Company, which now owns nearly a million acres of land and around seventy thousand head of cattle.

It wasn’t all easy sailing in those early days. Mackenzie got along with most men. But he had some personal encounters with the toughest element in a tough new country.

There was Dan Barger — although that wasn’t his real name — who enjoyed a well-deserved reputation for his ability to “get” his man. The time came, as it did with most of the gunmen, when the other fellow got Dan! As Mackenzie says, “they killed themselves off.” They always do.

However, Dan was at the height of his quick-on-the-trigger career when he first met Mackenzie. In those days in Texas many of the pastures owned by cattlemen included sections of school lands not yet homesteaded; but, notwithstanding the fact that the Matador Land and Cattle Company had leased from the State all the school sections within its fences, settlers would insist upon squatting on some of these sections. These squatters had no right whatever to this land, but efforts to remove them caused bad blood and the interlopers resorted to any means to gain their ends.

For one thing, they tried to introduce tick-infested cattle among Mackenzie’s herds. In the south of Texas the tick was not a serious menace to cattle; but in the sections farther north, where Mackenzie was, it infected them with a fever and killed them in great numbers. Barger was one of the men detailed to protect the cattle against this plan of the rival ranchers. And Barger was a man who not only met trouble with a gun, but who hunted for it with the same weapon.

A good many men who read this story know that they, too, have employees of the Barger type: department heads, or superintendents, or foremen, who pride themselves on running things with a high hand, on “taking the nonsense out of” their subordinates, on putting “the fear of God” — by which they do not mean the fear of God, but the fear of themselves — into the people who work under them. They use the very phrases of the man with a gun and talk of making a killing, of getting the drop on somebody, or of laying out somebody else.

Men of this type are a problem to every employer, just as Barger was to Mackenzie. But the Scotchman did not waste time solving his problem. When he found that Barger was depending on his six-shooter, he sent for him and discharged him. Dan seemed to be more sorry for Mackenzie than for himself.

“You’ll see!” he said. “Those fellows will run you out of Texas. The only way of talking that will get around them is the way a gun talks!”

“Maybe you’re right,” said Mackenzie; “But I think I’ll be trying my own way first.”

That disposed of Dan for the time being. But he still had his gun! And as he didn’t have anybody else just then to threaten with it, he began to nurse a grouch against his ex-employer. Before long he was promising to shoot Mackenzie on sight. It was about the time of the annual round-up and Mackenzie planned to be there.

“Don’t go!” his friends advised him. “Dan will shoot you as sure as he sets eyes on you. He’s been boasting all over the country that he’s going to do it.”

“Then he won’t,” said Mackenzie. “The man who talks most about what he is going to do does the least when the time for action comes.”

“It’ll mean your death!” they warned him.

“If I stay away because I’m scared,” said Mackenzie, “I can count on being dead before long, anyway. The life of a scared man isn’t worth much anywhere. If I don’t go now, I’ll never be able to go again.”

So the man who depended on himself went out to meet the man who depended on a gun. When he reached the scene of the round-up,’ he said to his foreman: “Tell Dan Barger to come here, will you?”

The foreman shook his head ominously, but went off with the message. He came back a little later, alone. Dan had sent word that if Mackenzie wanted to see him he could do the coming himself.

“Go back and tell Dan that if he wants the boys to hear what I’ve got to say to him, all right. But I think he’d rather hear it up here.”

This message brought Dan. He was on horseback; and the first thing Mackenzie did was to tell the man who had threatened to shoot him on sight to get off his horse and come and sit in the buggy with him. He knew that if they had trouble he could handle Barger at close grips, for he himself was a powerful man physically.

“Dan,” he said, “you’ve been telling around that you were going to shoot me on sight. Well, here I am, and you haven’t shot me yet.”

Barger was silent.

“That was fool talk,” Mackenzie went on. “If you stop it, you can settle down in this country and live peaceably and prosperously. But as sure as you keep it up, I’ll make things so hot for you that you won’t be able to stay.”

Straight from the shoulder, Mackenzie talked to his man. And at the end of fifteen minutes, Dan Barger shook hands with him and went away, his friend for life. He didn’t stop carrying his gun, however. And when the inevitable time came that another man’s hand was quicker on the trigger Dan Barger sent from his deathbed for the one human being he trusted and respected more than anyone else — Murdo Mackenzie. Braggadocio and bulldozing brought Dan Barger to his grave. But moral force, honesty, straight talking, and fair dealing brought Mackenzie and men of his stamp honor, prosperity, and length of days.

“There was one kind of gun-fighting that was necessary at that time,” Mackenzie admits. “That was the fighting against cattle thieves. In the early days, in some parts of the West, there was as much thievery as honest trading, if not more; and the Texas panhandle was a nest for the worst of this. A man would start in the southern part of the state with a small herd and gradually work north, stealing more and more cattle as he went. By the time he got to the northern part of the state, or to Colorado or Kansas, he would have accumulated a large herd. Later, he might turn up as a well-to-do rancher in Wyoming, or Montana — if he wasn’t shot first!

“No court would convict these men. It was the unwritten law of the land, therefore, that they were to be killed without resorting to any other law, if they were caught at their thieving. The better elements in each section had to preserve the country out there from lawlessness, even though they took the law into their own hands to do it. I never happened to be personally involved in anything of that sort. But I countenanced it. That, however, was an organized struggle against disorder. It was not the unnecessary truculence of one man.”

Under this surface veneer of hectic living, there moved steadily forward a marvelous development of a great country. And in this development Mackenzie was invariably a leader, a man with the vision of an empire builder, who saw the possibilities of our wonderful Southwest and helped to lay the foundations of its present greatness.

In those days, it was the policy of the railroads to charge all that the traffic would bear. The cattle ranchers of Texas suffered especially from the high rates; and Mackenzie, as spokesman for the rest, waged a hard fight for rate regulation. It took him to Washington on various occasions and led later to a lasting friendship with Theodore Roosevelt.

Mackenzie told me about the first time he met Roosevelt. He went to the White House with Judge Cowan, the lawyer who represented the cattlemen’s association. They had been granted a twenty-minute interview. President McKinley bad been dead only a short time and neither of the men had met his young successor.

Their purpose was to state the case of the cattle men in favor of giving the Interstate Commerce Commission the authority to regulate rates on the railroads. Up to that time, the commission had only the power of investigation. Twenty minutes was none too much time to state the case.

The President received the two men standing. When their mission was mentioned, he launched immediately into a vigorous discussion of his plan for accomplishing the same object; he wanted to put the regulation of the railroads into the hands of the Department of Commerce and Labor.

“Then, gentlemen,” he said, “if I don’t whip the railroads, you can blame me!”

“But, Mr. President,” Mackenzie protested, “we don’t want to whip the railroads. They are necessary to us in the conduct of our business. We only want to regulate them, so that we won’t be entirely at their mercy.”

The President looked at Mackenzie for a moment, and then he said briefly and emphatically:

‘Good morning, gentlemen!”

It was an abrupt dismissal.

But if Murdo Mackenzie could look down a pistol without flinching when he knew he was right, he could also look straight into the menace of Presidential displeasure.

“Mr. President,” he said, “we were granted twenty minutes to state our case to you. We’ve had about four minutes of the twenty, and you have done most of the talking. You are the President of the United States and you can dismiss us like this if you want to. But all we are asking is a chance to tell our story.”

Theodore Roosevelt was not one to deny any honest man the right of being heard.

“In that interview,” said Mackenzie, “I learned that Roosevelt was a great enough man to change his mind, when he found he had been mistaken. We became very good friends later; but I never would have thought of going to him with anything that was not right.”

Roosevelt, in one of his books, called Mackenzie “the most powerful supporter of the Government in the fight for the conservation of our natural resources .. . for the honest treatment of everybody, and for the shaping of governmental policy in the interest of the small settler, the home-maker.”

That was the tribute of one of America’s great leaders to the man who chose to win his way by courage, honesty, and fair dealing, rather than by carrying a gun. One can’t help thinking of the lonely and forgotten graves of Dan Barger and his like. Somehow, picking quarrels and counting the men you have “got” doesn’t appear to be a very profitable pastime, in the long run.

Mackenzie found other things to do that seemed worth while to him. One was improvement of the cattle, the old “long horns” that were raised in Texas when he went there. By a careful process of breeding upward, the native stock was developed into excellent beef cattle. They grew faster and larger; and this meant more meat for the country and more money for the ranchers.

For two years Mackenzie was on the executive committee of the Cattle Raisers’ Association of Texas; for several years he was president of the American National Live Stock Association.

As he told his story, there seemed in it two things that accounted for his achievements: One was that he had an almost passionate wish to build for the future. This vision of things dreamed of is often enough the determining factor in greatness. It is the man who sees what he wants to accomplish that goes most surely toward his goal.

Murdo Mackenzie not only had a vision of a great possible achievement but he had served a long apprenticeship at hard work; and it was this capacity for hard work which is the second thing to account for what he accomplished. Those early days in Texas were days of hard riding and hard working. Distances were great. Often he was away from home for weeks and even months at a time. His son was a small boy then; and the father’s absence on one occasion was so prolonged that the youngster did not recognize him when he finally returned. He put up with the supposed stranger’s presence until sundown. Then he thought it was time to protest.

“Mother,” he demanded, “is that man going to stay here all night?”

And so, with dreams of the future, and with hard work that built those dreams into reality, the years rolled by until 1911 came. Murdo Mackenzie was sixty-one years old. Since boyhood he had been continuously and strenuously on one job after another. He had won success for himself and had helped to make a whole nation richer. The time had come when he could retire in honor and in comfort.

Probably most men would have done just that. But at an age which most people call “old,” Mackenzie tackled a new job of a size that would have made a man of half his years hesitate. In 1911 he became the manager of the Brazil Land, Cattle and Packing Company; and he went to South America to establish and direct a huge cattle ranch and packing industry.

He did not take over an enterprise already organized and running smoothly. A thousand miles west of Sao Paulo, in virgin country, he opened up ranches with a total extent of nine million acres and pasturing a quarter of a million head of cattle. Talk about the energy and the audacity of youth! A man like Mackenzie makes you wonder whether there are such things as age limitations.

As if he were twenty-one, instead of sixty-one, he began in South America, as he had begun a generation earlier in Texas, to build for the future. He brought in blooded bulls, and slowly but surely created a better grade of cattle. He did not have to deal with gun-toting “bad men,” as he had in Texas. But he encountered in part a race of shy, timber-dwelling Indians who did not threaten to kill him, but who did sometimes kill his cattle.

Mackenzie got hold of their priests. These were missionaries, mostly Portuguese, who lived with the Indians, moving about with them wherever they went. The priests claimed that the Indians meant no harm, that they scarcely knew the meaning of private property.

“You know the meaning of it,” he told them. “You see that they stop killing my cattle, or I’ll have to take the law into my own hands.”

The killing ceased!

For six years Mackenzie did not leave Brazil. At the end of that time he came back to this country.

“Well,” you say, “I guess he was entitled to quit then. Sixty-seven years old! Almost three-score and ten! It was time for him to take it easy.”

But if you say that, you don’t know Murdo Mackenzie. He came for only a very brief stay — then he went back to his job! He stayed there until 1919, when he was sixty-nine years old, before he resigned and came home — to take another job! He is now one of the executive managers and part owner of still another new big cattle company! Still working, still building for the future — more than thirty years after he sat by the deathbed of the gunman who had threatened to kill him on sight. It is the Murdo Mackenzies, not the Dan Bargers, that write the long and honorable records on the pages of human progress.

Just one more story about this man who wouldn’t carry a gun. Back in the early days in Colorado, Mackenzie found that an ex-employee had taken something belonging to the company, and he decided that the fellow must bring it back. So he sent for him. .

“He came,” Mackenzie told me; “he and his gun. I knew that once before, in an argument, he had killed a man. And rather early in our conversation, when I had told him what I expected him to do about restoring our property, he began to play with his pistol, getting angrier and angrier all the time.

“‘I’m not afraid of your gun,’ I finally said to him.

“I looked him straight in the eye; but at the same time I was careful not to make any move that he could interpret as hostile and therefore an excuse for him to shoot.

“‘I’m not afraid of your gun,’ I repeated. ‘But you’re in no condition to talk business to-day. Go home. Come back to-morrow. And don’t bring your gun.’

“He took my advice,” said Mackenzie.

“But what about the property he had taken?” I asked.

“He returned it,” was the brief answer. Then he added thoughtfully: “In those days, a man who let it be known that he could not be budged from decency and honesty had the surest formula for keeping out of trouble. The men who went more than halfway to meet trouble found it waiting for them, and plenty of it; just as they do to-day, anywhere and in any occupation.”

* * *


Wikipedia: Murdo MacKenzie
Tain Through Time: Murdo Mackenzie, “Cattle King”
Texas State Historical Association: Mackenzie, Murdo
History of Murdo, South Dakota

Original page images (final three are modified), click to enlarge:





Leave a comment

Filed under Business

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.