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Trail Fever: The Life of a Texas Cowboy


By D.J. Lightfoot

Illustrated by
John Bobbish


ISBN 0-9728768-0-4

The Texas cowboys who took 10 million cattle north on the trail in the late 1800s, through wild country to Kansas, really were cow "boys," mostly in their teens. One of the best-known was George W. Saunders of San Antonio.

At 10, George rode in his first stampede. During the Civil War, he and a 13-year-old brother ran the family ranch while their father fought for the South. At 17, George took his first trail herd north. The trip had all the adventure he hoped for—storms, floods, Indian raids, and midnight stampedes.

Quitting the trail at 32, George began a roundup to collect his fellow drovers' tales of adventure. "It would be the father of all mistakes to let their daring and valuable efforts be forgotten," he said. He had their stories published in The Trail Drivers of Texas (1925), a 1000-page book said to be the best single historical record of the trail-driving era. George Saunders' grandson told me it was the bible for Hollywood scriptwriters in the 1930s and '40s, who relied on it for cowboy vernacular and scene-setting.

My 15,000-word biography Trail Fever for the 9–12 reader focuses on Saunders' boyhood and life as a young drover. It is based solidly upon fact, including George's firsthand accounts of his experiences published 80 years ago in such magazines as The Cattleman and Pioneer Magazine of Texas.

The book in unfinished manuscript was a winner in the Texas-Wide Writers' Competition for both adult and juvenile works. Post-publication, Trail Fever earned a citation from the San Antonio Conservation Society for "outstanding contribution toward the preservation of the history of Texas and all that is admirably distinctive of our state."

This biography fills a need librarians have expressed for historically accurate, unglamorized yet entertaining cowboy books, the kind kids can read for pleasure or the classroom. The book is a fast-paced, real-life adventure tale that offers the young reader insight into the birth of the American cowboy legend.

Every child knows something about the hard-riding, slow-talking cowboy. Fewer understand the basis of the cowboy's lasting fame, or think of old-time trail drivers as real teenagers who tackled big jobs and succeeded by doing the best they could.


Reviews

“Lightfoot depicts in clear, simple language the highlights of Texas trail driver George Saunders’ life . . . based on Saunders’ papers and interviews with his grandchildren. As a young man, Saunders made his mark both as a leader of several difficult trail drives and as an advocate for justice for all frontier residents, regardless of race. A fascinating look at one man’s life during an important era of American history.”
—Kay Weisman, Booklist

“George Saunders participated in many great cattle drives from 1871 to 1886; later, he spent years collecting and setting down his aging comrades’ reminiscences. His career makes a thrilling tale, full of danger and hardship, stampedes, hostile Native Americans, rough country, and bad weather. Lightfoot also depicts Saunders’s life between drives as a rancher and businessman, a solid citizen who rode with a vigilante group but also stepped forward to prevent a local massacre of Mexicans, at a time when racial tensions ran high. . . . [R]eaders will get a clear idea of a cowhand’s work, and of Saunders’s important role in preserving the lore of a vanished era.”
—Kirkus Reviews

“Working from the subject’s own writings, Lightfoot includes interesting details, dialogue, and lore from the man’s childhood on a ranch during the Civil War to his teenage experience on his first real cattle drive north on the newly established Chisholm Trail. The hard life of riding and herding comes through, as does a love for challenges. An easy biography that Texas libraries especially will welcome, as will cowboy fans everywhere.”
—Ruth M. McConnell, San Antonio Public Library, School Library Journal


Trail Fever Is Recommended Reading

Trail Fever is on these Recommended Reading lists:

Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills in Social Studies Annotated Bibliography of Literature, Grade 4

Houghton Mifflin's Bibliography for Level 4, Unit 4: The Civil War and the Closing of the Frontier

The University of Nebraska's Children's Literature of the Great Plains

The University of Utah's UnRequired Reading: Marriott Library/Marriott Picks

Willowbrook School Library (Glenview, Illinois) Easy Chapter Books: History/Biography

Wolfner Library's Cowboys, Gold Diggers and Railroad Builders: Books for Readers in the Middle Grades (RC 37902, on cassette for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, available through the National Library Service [NLS] of the Library of Congress)

The English Toolbox's Fun Books to Read: History—Junior High